This book review at the always-able-to-get-up-my-dander Praytell blog offers an interesting critique of traditionalism, traditional liturgy, and the traditional “aesthetic.” It makes a distinction between so-called “performatism” and “authentic” liturgical/aesthetic experience as defined by von Balthasar. The former is a philosophy of reaction against postmodernist subjectivity in aesthetic expression, wherein the accurate performance of ritual, rubrics, and rules are elevated as the chief experience of aesthetic. She argues that Tridentine Catholicism elevates a certain style of Catholic worship as part of its performatism – a high church, lace-and-damask, incense-filled, cappa magna-flaunting style that seems to fit into one category of aesthetics, which rejects any aesthetic outside of that cookie cutter model, and which emphasizes following rules and high church “style” over genuine religious feeling. A proper understanding, she argues, comes somewhere in between the extremes of performatism and the excesses of post-Vatican II, postmodern liturgical experimentation.
As an analytical framework, I think the concept of performatism being the opposite of raw relativism has some merit, and I think there is some good that can be gleaned from von Balthasar’s view of aesthetics and the liturgy. Nevertheless, I think the chief flaw of this piece is the oversimplification of the “aesthetic” of Tridentine Catholicism, making it seem much more homogeneous and rules-oriented than it genuinely is. Further, I think she fails to appreciate the value of rubrics and rules for establishing a genuine form, a genuine objectivity.
The chief oversimplification comes at the beginning of the article:
What is curious about the various critiques, however, is the point at which many of them converge — that is in the specific style of liturgical aesthetics — despite the wide-range of approaches used to critique the reform. The style upheld is one of grandeur and ornate details, often inspired by gothic architecture from the high Medieval Ages to early Renaissance, along with the period’s elaborate rituals, processions, unutterable words and polyphony. The flaunting of the cappa magna, a surge of interest in Gregorian chant and renaissance polyphony, and the return of elaborate gothic chasubles are just three visible trends among many that reflect a growing adherence to such ideas of liturgical reform.
This is a gross oversimplification. Renaissance polyphony, gothic churches and vestments, Gregorian Chant, the cappa magna, “grandeur” and “ornate details” are not all part of a single aesthetic. They are characteristics of various kinds of liturgico/aesthetic expressions that all are capable of taking place within the context of the Missal of Pius V OR the Missal of Paul VI. In 1950, a Mass in an Austrian cathedral would be different from a Mass in an Irish-American parish, which would be different from Mass in a Benedictine Monastery, which would be different from a Mass at St. Peter’s. Choral music offers a different aesthetic experience from chant, which gives something different from orchestral music, which gives something different from a Low Mass. Even the differences between super-Gothic Benedictine vestments and heavily Baroque Italian vestments can lead to widely differing aesthetic experience.
I think the reaction from the author comes from a lack of perspective. The Novus Ordo (as discussed in Martin Mosebach’s book, The Heresy of Formlessness) lacks a kind of objective content that gives it a shape, character, reality; it is largely the fruit of the desires of the priest/people celebrating it, who can shape it into almost anything they wish. It can be in Latin, ad orientem, with Gregorian chant; it can be in English, versus populum, with the proper chants replaced with hymns, with a million and one options for customization at the priest or parish’s disposal. In effect, the raw relativism that has resulted since the Council is the unfortunate result of the lack of structure in the Novus Ordo.
In contrast, the Tridentine Rite (along with essentially every other Catholic and Orthodox rite) has of necessity a certain shape, content, and character that defines it as Roman, Latin, Tridentine, Western. It has an stable musical structure of proper and ordinary chants that one MUST employ: introit, kyrie, gloria, gradual, alleluia, credo, offertory, sanctus, agnus dei, communion chant. It has certain places for the celebrant and ministers to stand, specific words for them to speak or chant (without options!), a separate language to employ, and requires (through more specific rubrics of posture, tone of voice, direction of the priest’s eyes, the manner in which he holds his hands) a certain kind of bearing and manner of celebration.
I think the author perceives this central structure as an over-fixation on ritual, an elevation of a certain aesthetic as the norm rather than as something beautiful. I would argue that a liturgical rite is hardly a liturgical rite without a central core structure, and that these structures are essential for avoiding the extremes of postmodern liturgical experimentation. Many of these same accusations of performatism could be made against every Eastern Rite and every Orthodox Liturgy: homogeneity, emphasis on elaborate ritual, a fixation on certain styles of architecture, music, and vesture, etc.
I think her critique views certain stereotypes about early 20th Century American Tridentine Catholicism as normative for all of Tridentine Catholicism. If her critique had been limited to American 1950′s Catholicism, I might agree with her more, to some extent. There were genuine problems of priests being overly fixated on rubrics at the expense of a genuine Christian experience–how extensive is hard to say. I also think that the presence of sappy, commercialized Christian art deriving from the French l’Art Saint-Sulpice contributed to a kind of homogeneity in American Catholic art. Daniel Mitsui has a wonderful article about this on his blog.
Furthermore, the fact that the American Catholic experience was overwhelmingly Irish contributed to a kind of liturgical homogeneity. Neo-Gothic and neo-Classical architectural styles like those popular in 19th Century Ireland found a wide acceptance with the born-in-19th-century-Ireland clergy. They liked French-style chasubles with lacey albs and surplices, and this particular aesthetic came to be seen as the universal norm in America.
Nevertheless, I think the author is not solely criticizing this American aesthetic, one that I think is less-than-great and in some cases still enduring in the United States among traditionalist communities today. For this reason, I can’t really agree with her critique. I think, though, that her analytic framework is an interesting one.