The Effects of a Hermeneutic of Crisis on the Liturgy

There has been a lot of talk for the past forty years about the fact that the Catholic Church finds itself in crisis. Various phenomena, such as decreasing Mass attendance, Baptisms and Christian marriages, have led many to posit that there is a profound crisis gripping the faith in our time. Observation of these worrisome phenomena has led many Catholics to ask why we are in such a crisis, and they have come to interpret everything in the Church’s life under the rubric of crisis.

But there are also two different ways in which the rubric of crisis has been interpreted in our time. The first is the Reform Hermeneutic of Crisis. According to this theory, the Church is in dire straits because she has refused to engage in a real dialogue with the contemporary world and change her doctrine and practice to be relevant to modern persons. The second is the Counter-Reform Hermeneutic of Crisis. This theory posits that the Church has sacrificed her doctrine and practice at the altar of relevance to modern man who has denied God. As a result, a Church no longer distinguishable from the world has rendered herself meaningless to modern man.

There are other interpretations as well, and these are admittedly gross-oversimplifications of two trends in what I call crisis theology. These two very different hermeneutics, however, share a common theological basis. For them, the True Church is in the heart of believers who know their way out of the crisis, and the Visible, Institutional Church of today is at variance with that True Church. As Catholics, they know that there has to be some kind of relationship between that True Church and the Visible, Institutional Church, and for the two to become one again, the crisis can be overcome only by structural reform (or Counter-Reform) of the Church.

In reality, many of the phenomena that people indicate as being evidence of the crisis in the Church are very real. The Reform crowd can point to innumerable instances of misuse and abuse of authority by the hierarchy, and to the virtual absence of the Church’s presence in many spheres of culture, science and intellectual life. The Counter-Reform crowd can point to gross deviations in doctrinal orthodoxy and morality as well as widespread disobedience throughout the Church.

But is the Church really in crisis? Can structural reforms help the Church out of the crisis? First of all, I would like to affirm the fact that both camps have accurately observed that many people in the Church have done things which are not in consonance with the message of the Church, and the scandal caused by these errors has caused many to question or abandon the practice of the faith. But there are deeper theological and philosophical considerations we can make about the Church in crisis.

First of all, the hermeneutic of crisis is not unrelated to a very real phenomenon in contemporary philosophy. According to certain currents in philosophy, the nature of being is change. There is no real essence or nature to anything. The Church, then, cannot be anything other than a mutable, essentially human thing. Appeals to unchanging doctrinal or moral norms are meaningless, because they do not reflect the truth that there is no objective truth. Human activity, inside or outside of the Church, is a constant process of actions and reactions making and unmaking reality in a creative and destructive procession without an end. Crisis, then, or chaos, is what life is all about. For the Church to be in crisis, then, is a sign of inner vitality; for it to be always questioning and re-inventing itself is a the fundamental mark of its own authenticity.

This current of philosophy is rejected by the Counter-Reform school, as being inconsistent with their vision of reality in which there is objective truth, which can be known by man by reason and the living authority of the Church. But even as they reject the tenets of this current, Counter-Reform partisans often grant the basic premise, that the Church is, like all of modern society, in crisis. And so they too view every phenomenon in the Church under the rubric of crisis.

How does this understanding of crisis affect the liturgy? For the Reform school, the liturgy, if it is to be an authentic expression of man’s religious sentiment, must be creative, always changing, and acting and reacting. Liturgical crisis is actually desirable. For the Church to find its way out of becoming irrelevant to modern persons, the crisis must be revealed, produced, or even engineered. If people are not going to Church, we must change the life of the Church so that they will come. If notions of hierarchy, immutable dogma, moral norms, and liturgical rites detract from the fundamental evolutionary process of humanity in perpetual crisis, they must be challenged, destroyed, and their memory annihilated.

For the Counter-Reform school, the phenomena of the crisis have their origin in a cause: the liturgical reform as the incarnation in the life of the Church of a crisis of faith. Liturgical crisis is the effect and the cause of crisis in the Church’s life. If people are not going to Church, we must then return to a situation before the crisis. If notions of hierarchy, immutable dogma, moral norms, and liturgical rites are challenged by man, lost as he is in crisis and chaos, the Church must impose all those notions, as found before the crisis, in whatever way possible.

Both schools propose structural reform as a way out of what seems to be the lessening of Catholic practice in our age. The liturgy, because it is the way in which most Catholics experience and practice that faith, must correspondingly be altered, either by changing it radically to look unlike anything ever seen before, or by imposing it as experienced by previous generations and excising what has come during the crisis.

But is the Church really in crisis? We raised that question before. Many optimists have continued to tell us that there is a New Springtime in the Church, that, contrary indications aside, the Church is very much alive and renewing herself. Yet the hermeneutic of optimism cannot, or does not wish, to explain the phenomena accurately observed by both the Reform and Counter-Reform schools. So how are we to think of these numerous indications that Catholic life in many parts of the world seem to be terribly fractured and fractious?

Sound Catholic theology has always rejected the idea of change as the nature of reality. From this point of view, there is no constant existential crisis in which man or the Church finds itself. But, there is another sense in which, yes, the Church can be said to be in crisis. From the moment that the Church was born from the side of Christ on the Cross, until the Second Coming of Christ, the Church is, has been, and will be in crisis and scandal.

The crisis is that those who have been baptized into Christ, and hence are the Church, are always short of their full potential as Christians. There is always in the Church a tension between the contingency of the new and the fulfillment of the not yet. This is why the Church does not have as her fundamental orientation this world, the present. She has her eyes firmly fixed on the East, whence will come the Rising Son; hers is a fundamentally eschatological orientation, not towards a future that will come, but to an eternity which irrupts into the daily and which will one day be our complete reality. The scandal is that we often do not use the gift of free will to choose Eternity over the present in every moment of this earthly life. And so crisis and scandal are a part of the Church’s life in this world because they are inseparable from our own individual human lives until the consummation of all things in Christ at the creation of a new heaven and a new earth.

The crisis and scandal, which mark life in the Church in this present world, point to the fact that no human structural reform of the Church’s life can preclude the ongoing immersion of the individual Christian in crisis and scandal. The way out of the crisis and scandal, therefore, cannot be had by such human attempts at changing the way people pray or believe.

The Second Vatican Council will always be known as the Council of the Church. In so many ways, the Council provided a rich theology of the Church. It clarified the sacramental and spiritual as well as the visible and institutional nature of the Church. It gave a missionary mandate to the universal common priesthood of the baptized and gave an indication of how that mandate could be lived in communion with the ministerial priesthood within the Church. There has been a lot of talk about the Church.

Unfortunately, however, all of this talk about the Church has eclipsed an even greater truth of the faith. Jesus Christ. Many people have come to feel that, to be faithful to Jesus Christ, they must challenge or contradict the Church. The Church is no longer the Mystical Body of Christ lived as a communion of believers, but a People who can change their message to be in accord with what they think Jesus wants of it. The words of Alfred Loisy, the Modernist, Jesus came to preach the Kingdom and it is the Church that has come, have convinced Reform and Counter-Reform alike that the True Church must regain its visibility by imposing structural change.

Even as this Modernist dictum has seeped into the deepest roots of Christian civilization, many in the Church have lost sight of what I feel is the greatest achievement of Vatican II: the solemn recognition of the universal call to holiness.

As long as Christians are focused on the Church, the crisis in the Church, the scandals in the Church, and how to change the Church, they lose sight of Jesus Christ. True Reform, or Counter Reform, or Renewal, or Restoration, or whatever you want to call it, can never come from us. It has to come from a life of holiness, the life of grace of God lived in us. Each individual baptized Christian’s free response to conform his life to Jesus Christ, a life lived in communion with the Church which is True where it is visible and institutional, is the way in which the tension of the already and not yet of the Church’s life is resolved.

This call to holiness is more than just the minimal observance of moral norms, for Jesus Christ is more than just a moral examplar. The life of holiness involves a complete self-giving to God and to one’s fellow man. And such a life of holiness if not dependent on structural reform of the Church. It is a grace which comes from God, and, as such, it ushers in the Kingdom of God inasmuch as every single soul is conformed to Jesus Christ.

The liturgy, which is the reflection of heaven on the earth, in which the fruits of the Redemption are received in sacramental form, cannot be seen from the point of view of crisis and rupture. It cannot be manipulated and changed as a mere human construct on the way to producing an ideal Church for an ideal human person and society. The liturgy must be humbly accepted for what it is, and celebrated by each member of the Church according to his own role in it, for the purpose of conforming his life, and thus the Church’s, ever closer to that of Jesus Christ. We have no need to invoke a hermeneutic of crisis and seek ways out of the crisis to explain the varying phenomenon of the way our contemporaries practice the faith. We do have need of becoming holy as our Father in heaven is holy.

5 Replies to “The Effects of a Hermeneutic of Crisis on the Liturgy”

  1. Two Thumbs Way Up!

    It's not "old versus new." It's always "what's eternal."

    Bravo! to Father Smith.

  2. Thank you Father for the beautiful article. While living in such fast and busy daily schedules, it seems that most of the modern Catholics lost the sense of the liturgy as the font of our faith and the center of life. In addition, without the presnece of the tradition in the liturgy, which was caused by the misunderstanding of Vatican II, Catholics, both clergy and laity, forgot how to celebrate the Mass properly. The center of modern culture is "self," and the humility to God is almost foreign to modern men, and I think this concept has deeply influenced on how to celebrate the Holy Mass, where we are to experience His Holiness, which flows to the world through us. These are the challenges to modern Catholics to renew our faith daily and restore the church through the life of holiness.


  3. Fr. Smith continues to lay the theological groundwork that will allow liberals and progressives to find their way into the new liturgical culture. I love his writing, and I love that it's the Chant Cafe that's hosting him.

    Sing a new church, indeed.

  4. This is another excellent case for making the liturgy a narcotic, a sedative for the times. Meanwhile, for more people, the institutional Church continues to descend into the abyss of irrelevancy. With a hierarchy rapidly becoming of negligible value in the spiritual lives of Christians. This is going to continue irrespective of the eternal verities to which the liturgy attests and proclaims to the people, or one's view as to whether the liturgy should change to meet the needs of our time or not.

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