Liturgical wars, again.

American Catholic liturgies tend to extremes, and so our disagreements about the liturgy are correspondingly extreme. There are historical and cultural causes for this: Tocqueville explained why an American Catholic sees the only alternative to his faith as atheism and moral chaos, which makes any feature of the faith the hill to die on. Again, though the Traditional Latin Mass (TLM) prioritizes silence and austerity, due to English suppression the Mass in Ireland was pushed toward being even more silent and austere, and Irish missionaries played a dominant role in the formation of American Catholicism. So a group of people prone to extreme stances about everything in the faith was habituated to an already extreme version of the liturgical action at the center of that faith. This is not a recipe for moderation or a detached liturgical stance.

That last paragraph was not an introduction to my thesis, but a general tag I’d like to place over anything I try to say about American liturgical disputes. The dispute I have in mind today is between the TLM and the Novus Ordo (NO), but it also occurs in the intramural disagreements within the NO itself between more and less traditional celebrations of the liturgy.

The TLM criticism of the NO is fine as far as it goes but fails to appreciate incommensurable and incompossible liturgical goods. The usual critique often starts with an appeal to self-evidence: it’s just obvious to anyone who attends the TLM that it is more appropriate to divine worship, and this greater appropriateness consists in its greater reverence, mystery, transcendence, and theocentrism. One makes the same critique negatively by pointing to the many ways in which the NO lends itself to casualness, to highlighting the character of the celebrant and congregation, and and to an aw-shucks populism that might be uncharitably described as banal. The list of TLM predicates seem a whole lot more appropriate to liturgy and worship, making it self-evidently better, QED.

Again, the critique of the NO is good as far as it goes, and one does lose reverence, mystery, and transcendence in the liturgical reform. This is decisively fatal, right?  Not exactly. The reverence in question is in the symbolic and aesthetic order. This order is essential to the liturgy, but less symbolic reverence is not greater symbolic irreverence or blasphemy. The NO is explicitly and consciously symbolizing the liturgy as an act of the Church, and the Church as the ekklesia or assembly of the people of God. The liturgical action is seen as God’s stretching throughout time and space to gather a people to himself, so that from the rising of the sun to its setting, a perfect sacrifice* might be made. There is unavoidably a populism to this, but it is a populism that must be understood as expressing God’s initiative to (i) gather a people to himself, (ii) speak to them and teach them, and (iii) to form a covenant with them. These three elements have been present in the liturgy from the beginning and are obviously present even in the TLM, but I think it’s fair to say that they had become garbled in the TLM, though this does nothing to diminish the aesthetic attributes we praised in it.

Aesthetic and symbolic descriptions of reality differ from scientific or forensic ones in that they can give incompossible descriptions of the same thing. To symbolize God’s gathering of all persons as a people of God requires a highlighting an interconnectedness and unity of the assembly that is incompossible with symbolizing the separation of its clerical and lay members, or the separation of the liturgical action and the assembly of the people. Of course all the arguments for why the priesthood of all believers and of the clerics is essentially different are the same as they ever were, just as it remains self-evident that the ekklesia or Church is the assembly of the people of God, but the first truth is symbolically more clear in the TLM and the second in the NO. These symbolisms cannot be read as refutations or denials of an incompossible symbol: it is just as uncharitable and nonsensical to argue that the NO denies the difference between the lay and clerical priesthood as to argue that the TLM denies that the Church is the people of God. We are dealing with the inherent limitations of symbols, not a difference between asserting and denying a doctrine.

We can push this further to even a discussion of the more controversial thematic differences of the TLM and NO. It is clear, for example, that the TLM has for more references to the sacrificial and propitiatory nature of the Mass, while the NO has far fewer. But isn’t the Mass essentially the sacrifice on Calvary? What else do we need to say? While we are stepping outside the level of symbols to real themes in texts, nevertheless the same problem of incompossible perfections arises. To stress sacrifice and propitiation stresses one’s separation or distance from God and God’s rejection and judgment while to stress God’s gathering of all people to himself and his renewal of the new and everlasting covenant stresses God’s reaching out to us in love and mercy. The difficulty is that the Mass is essentially both, for it is an everlasting covenant of sacrificial blood poured out for sins;  Christ’s bloody propitiation as an act of merciful love toward all persons individually. When I am raised up (as a bloody sacrifice) I will draw all persons to myself (in an everlasting covenant.) One simply can’t foreground both of these, but has to make a choice about which essential theme will be dominant and the other subordinate. The backgrounding of something essential, alas, is essential. If you tasked me to pick which to foreground I don’t know what I would do: on the one hand stressing negatives gets far better practical results, and so the liturgy would probably be more effective if we stressed sin, guilt, and propitiatory sacrifice; on the other hand God’s mercy is more definitive and central to his revelation of himself. In this sense, the NO has a certain claim to being more theocentric, even while we spoke of a sense in which it clearly isn’t, and the very rubrics of the NO explicitly say it is anthropocentric in opposition to the way the TLM is theocentric.

All this points to a fallacy in the usual appeal made to lex orandi lex credendi. True, how one prays effects what he believes, but it is the fallacy of the consequent to think that if something is not mentioned or not foregrounded in prayer that it ceases to be believed or that it is somehow denied. All prayers leave infinite truths of the faith out, but this does not mean that all prayers deny infinite truths, or even that they dispose one to denying them.

The NO is literally a reform or return-to-form, but the form it sees as obscured in the TLM is not the form so beloved in the TLM by those of us who love it, but rather the form of the Mass as described in (i-iii) above. This reform, like all reforms, came at a cost of real goods, though (to return to the opening paragraph) one of the great faults of the American mind is our sense that reforms can make things better in every possible way with no loss of real goods. What we lost in the TLM was great and venerable, and it deserves to be kept around as an extraordinary form of the liturgy that could suggest elements of mutual enrichment (my own parish church, for example, is built in the round but has an altar rail, which is a small but mutual enrichment of symbols appropriate to different liturgies.) The biggest impediment to this mutual enrichment is the one that so vexes Pope Francis: almost all American public voices speaking in support the TLM are dead-set against mutual enrichment, and they present the difference between the liturgies as simply between the reverent and appropriate TLM vs. the banal, inappropriate, irreverent NO. Even if I think they’re wrong, it’s also clear that the movement has been wronged and unduly marginalized. You’re not crazy or paranoid if someone has been out to get you for a long time. Any mutual enrichment of the two rites the the US would require forgiveness for many real slights. If only there were something that empowered one to be charitable even to those who wronged you.


*The Latin is oblatio munda. A comparison of the translation in the second and present editions of the Roman missal is a case in miniature for many of the things mentioned in this post, with the second edition opting for pure offering and the present translation being a perfect sacrifice. Both are acceptable literal translations (even if the first is a bit more literal) but speaking of a perfect sacrifice compares Christ’s blood to the blood offered of old, whereas a pure offering draws a mental picture of an offering already perfect.

The Second Commandment

You shall not take the name of the Lord in vain

Ex. 20 : 7

Notice the verb: take. The original is nāsā and Jerome used adsumere. The commandment therefore is on a more general level than speech. Blasphemy is certainly condemned here, but there are more ways to take up the divine name than by speaking it. Nasa is often translated as to bear, and so we have recognize the the commandment describes us as bearing the name of the Lord. 

The name of the Lord can of course be a proper name (like YHWH, Jesus, or just “God”), but scripture uses the phrase more expansively to speak about the glory or honor of the Lord, as in 1 Chronicles 22 where David says that the temple was to be built for the name of the Lord (cf. also 1 Kings c. 3, 5, and 8.) In this sense the Second Commandment speaks of us bearing the glory of God in ourselves. The glory or honor of God can be understood by reading the Second Commandment as following upon the first, so that Exodus 20 :7 is interpreted by Exodus 20 :6 [I, the Lord] show mercy [hesed] unto thousands of them that love me. On this reading, we take up the name of the Lord by taking his hesed, and it is this that we should not take up in vain. This hesed is first of all the act of creation by which we exist at all (cf. Ps. 136) but it is paradigmatically the act of redemption and salvation from sin. The first two commandments are thus to recognize, worship and give glory to God as he is in himself, and then to be sure that our own existence or redemption – both of which are ways we take up the glory of God’s mercy – was not for nothing. The second commandment recognizes that we can take the hesed of the Lord in such a manner that it is all for nothing, and avoiding this is the second most important thing to be concerned about.

The Political component in science

Does science merely follow the evidence wherever it goes? Sure. It can even do this entirely, but there is an interesting hedge on this. Contemporary science has for at least seventy years been defined by a scholarly consensus or community, making a political component essential to it. There is an increasing tendency to make this the rule of other fields as well.

Assume you watch Neil DeGrasse Tyson argue that Pluto is not a planet. His account of the evidence is so clear and forceful, his account of the other side so careful and sympathetic but so decisively refuting. Great! Science at its best! Now assume per impossibile that the status of Pluto as a planet was inextricably linked to a question of deep importance to us: perhaps something to do with sexuality or the revenue stream of large corporation. At this point, we can imagine Degrasse Tyson either making the same argument or not, but the cost of him continuing to make it would be that he’d never have gotten his large public platform. He might still write a book on Pluto, but now it would be in the “religion” section or maybe the “politics” section or sold at fringe websites and not in the science section of mainstream venues. Tyson would have known as well as everyone else that his “controversial views” keep him “out of the mainstream” and that he never had a chance to be a pop science media influencer, a job which would now go to the guy with mainstream tastes. If, on the other hand, we imagine the real heart of Degrasse Tyson is to be popular and mainstream, then he would have never bothered to look into those Pluto arguments, except perhaps to dismiss them when cranks and weirdos brought them up during open-mike Q+As after his talks. The arguments would be just as true as they ever were, and no doubt all the scientific arguments Tyson would give in their stead would also be just as scientific, true, and engaging.

Note I insist that scientific claims are true and objective even in the counterfactual world I described. There is no relativity of truth or intrinsic construction of it by systems of power. Nevertheless, the system of power does exercise extrinsic control which arguments count as scientific by where it draws the lines of the scientific community. What can’t be part of the scientific community is at best fringe and controversial, and the community includes not just an unbiased and objective scientist but the large corporations that pay for research, the administrators that enforce political policies even in science departments, the HR departments that hire scientists who are a good fit for the institution, the people who see popular science influencers and buy their books, go to their lectures, etc.

I don’t have any problem with this arrangement. Scientific communities are fine and perhaps even ideal. There are benefits to being in the mainstream and benefits to being on the fringe, and different temperaments are suited to each. As someone who does philosophy or perhaps even Anglophone “philosophy of religion” I have no interest in the mainstream of either subject, and if the things I’m now interested in were in fact mainstream I perhaps would have never become interested in them.

Historically, this probably traces back to the attempts after the wars of religion to define the rational as whatever Protestants and Catholics could agree about, and like any concretely existing political system it had any number of glories and fatal flaws. Human society is probably an endless negotiation about the line between mainstream and fringe, a determination which does not determine any premise in an argument, but only whether it gets called “rational/scientific/mainstream” or “philosophical/religious/controversial/extremist.”

Per se ordered to an end

The point of playing chess is to checkmate one’s opponent, i.e. playing chess as a per se and intrinsic order to checkmating. Players, however, can have lots of different relations to that end.

1.) Playing while not thinking about checkmating. One could be distracted, acting according to rote moves, blindly following directions, or even executing a program.

2.) Playing while knowing one has no chance of checkmating. One can set the skill level of a chess opponent on a computer, and beyond a very low level I would be astonished to win. Nevertheless, there are all sorts of reasons for playing a game one knows he can’t win.

3.) Playing while purposely trying to lose.  Here one is trying to throw the game. While there can be all sorts of motives for throwing games, this sort of activity is fundamentally dishonest in a way that (1) and (2) are not, since one is merely appearing to engage in chess while not actually doing so. Even if purposefully losing gives the opponent some good (like letting your kid win at arm wrestling) it is a good that is spoiled for being seen for what it is – a kid who knew you let him win wouldn’t want the victory on that condition. In fact, he would rightly see it as no victory at all.

Note that (2) and (3) share in common that one knows he can’t win the game, or that he would be astonished to win it.

How pleasure is good in itself

1.) Assuming the pleasure is intense enough, it is nonsensical to wonder why someone pursues it.

2.) We don’t seek pleasure as a means to something else.

3.) Every reward is good in itself, and the broadest class of rewards are immediate pleasures: throwing a fish to the seal, giving the kid candy or video games, etc.

Nevertheless…

1.) To know that someone was pleased by something does not give enough information to know if the action was good simpliciter. To be pleased at committing an evil, or even to be overly pleased in something not evil in itself (like lying around all afternoon) is evil.

2.) Actions are not justified simpliciter by noting that one enjoyed doing them.

3.) By experience, the more we take pleasure in doing things that don’t promote or strengthen some underlying good the more the intensity of the pleasure lessens even while the need to satisfy it becomes more habitual and controlling, i.e. addiction, akrasia, weakness of will, etc.

Inerrancy as revealed

Scriptural inerrancy is a revealed doctrine. Any reading according to inerrancy is only required to be rational in the sense of free of contradiction, but among all readings free of contradiction it’s doubtful that the one consistent with inerrancy is the most rational in what normally counts as rational, e.g. the most parsimonious, the most consistent with our knowledge at the moment, etc. It is unlikely that there will be a perfect coincidence of what is rational given inerrancy and what is rational apart from that supposition. “to read the Bible like any other ancient text” is incompatible with reading it as inerrant and therefore as inspired.

That said, the errors that inerrancy rules out are any errors in authorial intent in the text he originally wrote. It requires that the author succeeded at whatever he was trying to do when he wrote the original text. Success in this manner does not rule out the possibility of any error whatsoever, it simply means whatever standard applied that judges the text defective cannot be a standard that the author was trying to measure up to.

That the Church is the ultimate interpreter of scripture often makes it seem like they are a sort of holy critic weighing calling winners and losers. Some amount of this is necessary but it’s a relatively small way in which the Church is interpreter. The more extensive sense is that scripture gets its meaning first of all from the reading given to it by the people of God, principally the saints. It’s not so much that we need a divine umpire to announce that Chapter 3 of Nahum means X as opposed to ~X (though this is occasionally necessary) but that we should be modeling our readings on the readings of the saints and doctors as opposed to mere scholars. The question of what to do with the mere scholars who define themselves against the saints is probably nuanced but on balance unfavorable.

Augustinian/ Boëthian theodicy

1.) Moral evil consists formally in falling away from the order of reason.

2.) The order of reason is either secundum quid or simpliciter, namely evil for the (reasoning) sinner or the order of reason absolutely, i.e. divine providence and the eternal law.

3.) Moral evil exists in the first sense but not in the second, and so brings about a good in the second sense but not the first.


1.) Moral evil seeks to exempt one’s action from the divine law.

2.) Our attempts to exempt ourselves from the divine law simply achieve it in a manner we did not intend.

3.) Moral evil achieves the very thing it seeks to avoid. One drinks sea water to avoid dehydration, but is only bringing it about. One digs a pit all the while thinking to himself “I’ll capture all my enemies in this, and then live in total freedom!” When he finally feels he’s dug deeply enough, he looks around only to see he’s dug himself deeper than he can get out.


Objection: Moral evil in itself might be explained this way, but what about moral evil that is implicated with causing trauma and pain to others?

Trauma and pain can either be considered as physical evils or as pre-moral, depending on whether they are occurring to a moral agent or not. In the first sense they belong to a different consideration; in the second sense they belong to this one. Pain and trauma are material we can either treat as somehow exempt from the divine law or as included in it, and to take them in the first way is to add another evil on top of the pain or trauma itself.

Catholic Traditionalism in America

Many including Pope Francis have noted that traditional Catholicism has had its greatest success in the United States. This is prima facie so remarkable as to almost seem like a joke: the Western regime with the least historical attachment to the Ancien Régime, and that most defined itself by the rejection of monarchy, titles and pomp, monkish medieval culture, etc ends up with the largest group of its defenders. What gives?

Tocqueville was puzzled by the success of Catholicism in America as well, but settled on this explanation:

Men living in democratic ages are therefore very prone to shake off all religious authority; but if they consent to subject themselves to any authority of this kind, they choose at least that it should be single and uniform. Religious powers not radiating from a common centre are naturally repugnant to their minds; and they almost as readily conceive that there should be no religion, as that there should be several.

Traditionalism in the US applies this line of reasoning to the unity of the Church throughout time, where prima facie break between a Pre and Post Vatican II Church is experienced immediately as an existential threat in a way that it would not be experienced elsewhere. The American’s need for uniformity draws and fixes his attention on threats to it far more strongly than someone with different cultural priors. This predicts both that Americans will be the first to notice any bona fide break with the uniformity of Catholic tradition and the most likely to exaggerate any merely apparent break and convince their countrymen of its existence.

Science’s controversy excluder

Though I wish I could tell you I researched the topic, all that happened was that I binged-watched YouTube videos of scientists and philosophers explaining religion. I italicize the term because even though I am presumably one of the persons they are trying to explain, the term as they are using it lumps my action together with persons with whom I recognize no kinship. Presumably when “the scientist” sees me at Mass he thinks the most interesting description of the action takes it as identical to an Evangelical praise and worship service/ an Indian rain dance/ a Druid walking around Stonehenge. There is a way in which it is true, I guess, but why does it seem to leave out everything I actually love in my religion, along with everything the druid loves in his?

I think all that has happened is that science has a controversy excluder that goes unnoticed, but getting to that takes three paragraphs of set-up.

The scientific categorizing of religion lends itself to a religion of a certain kind. If all the behaviors of religious persons really are just religious, then if “religion” is good, then right religion is a syncretistic pantheon a la the COEXIST bumper sticker; if bad, we burn down the pantheon. So why am I and billions of other “religious” persons neither atheist or syncretist? Simple: anyone in a religion possesses some norm for his religion. I’d agree that there is a universal and natural religious natural to recognize one’s submission to God, but I’d be just as quick to point out that all natural desires are pervertible and so have normative criteria.  Religious desire is as natural as a desire to eat, and there are scientific criteria identifying bulimia and muscle dysmorphia as eating disorders.

The heart of the problem of a scientific account of religion it’s insistence that (a) religious desire is a natural phenomenon and (b) science allows no normative criteria for religious natural desire. Criterion (a) has broad agreement and it’s hard to see how this is avoidable. We can all see that religion is ancient, universal, spontaneously arising, etc. Any account of religion will have to appeal to principles that are at least as broad as homo sapiens. This would not be a problem if not for the puzzling insistence on (b,) which presents us with a scientific doctrine of a natural desire with neither a healthy nor disordered expression.

This problem is not unique to religion, in fact, it looks like the nutritive power is unique in being the only natural desire for which scientists allow normative criteria. Science also allows no norms for human sexual desire, and insofar as Ed Schools represent the scientific approach to education, the natural desire to learn and know the truth doesn’t have any norms about which truths should make it into curricula. Ed Schools have methods, but no canon.

What we now call science presents itself as an account of nature simpliciter, but it’s clear that there is a (here it comes) controversy excluder inherent in its structure, so that any controversy past a relatively low point renders a topic no longer considered scientific. This makes sense: certitude in practical terms is what we can achieve widespread consensus about, and what we now call science is whatever can admit of a broad consensus. But the contrary of broad acceptance is widespread controversy, and so what we now call science has to set an excluder at a relatively low level of controversy. This would not be a problem if recognized: the problem is that scientists seem to think that they are looking at nature simpliciter when they refuse to recognize norms in religion when in fact all they’ve done is internalize a controversy-excluding criterion. Science recognizes no norms in religion or sexuality or politics or truth in curricula because part of how it is defining objectivity makes any norms contrary to the broad consensus that it has defined as essential to its project.

One suspects that we could define both consensus and controversy with almost perfect scientific precision: it is whatever point of controversy at which one can no longer get funding to research a claim, or the point at which sufficient research dollars to investigate finding X at the set of research-money-giving-institutions falls below a probability of N, where N is probably a percentage in the low single-digits. Note I’m speaking of finding X, since research money isn’t just keyed to topics of research but to findings. This is ironic to the point of contradiction, since the whole point of science is that the finding can’t be known in advance. This is fine when all possible findings are non-controversial, but as soon as one of them isn’t, it is no longer science but at best random noise or a call for “further research.” If one insists on a finding in spite of this, it either vanishes or, if it can’t vanish, is seen as sheer quackery.

What we call science therefore can only give us objectivity, or absence of prejudiced findings, when either of two possible findings is non-controversial. Beyond that point we aren’t capable of having what we now call science, as much as we would like to pretend we can.

The fundamental difference between science and religion is that science is limited to certitudes and objectivity about findings that that don’t matter to us enough to be controversial whereas much of religion – like sexuality and education and politics – deals right out of the gate with things that matter. This is fine as long as no one starts thinking he can give a scientific account of religion or sex or education or politics that is worth much. Sure, science can catch some low-grade truths about religion (“It gives us friends! I gives some answer to the contingency of the world!) but it can’t speak to what matters in any of these things as this would involve losing the community consensus it has made essential to its project.

Feminism as equality

Feminism is often defined as fighting for female equality or equal rights (I’ll cite the IWDA and Britannica  as more or less randomly chosen examples.)

Insofar as we’re talking about women qua persons, and persons as a single group (say, if we’re considering persons as opposed to animals) then it’s self-evident that women deserve equal rights. If, for example, persons qua persons can’t be farmed and eaten, women and men will have equal rights against being farmed and eaten – in fact, they have exactly the same right. The problem is that one is only speaking about women per accidens here, as there is not a woman’s right to not be farmed any more than a man’s right or a right held by blond Portuguese children of more than average height.

In one sense, of course, this is exactly feminism’s argument, namely that for a long time we treated human rights as if they were exclusive to men, which is certainly unjust. But even after we agree about all the times we’ve done this and fix the problem, we still haven’t addressed the question of justice for women as women. We haven’t even taken the first step toward answering that question.

In fact, the danger is not that we will overlook women as women but that we will do them positive harm. If a feminism of equality wants to speak about women as such it threatens to collapse into treating women as irrelevant or committing violence against them. We’ve already noted the possibility for irrelevance, sc. while it’s good and necessary to advance human rights, this advance is only a greater realization of what is implicit in the concept of humanity prescinding from any division one makes in it. The more interesting problem is equality’s potential to inflict violence on women, which I’d summarize loosely like this:

1.) Violence is any action against one’s desires, and most of all against one’s fundamental desires;

2.) Rights ensure our access to goods, i.e. to things we desire.

3.) A regime of equal rights therefore presupposes we desire the same things.

4.) Suppose, arguendo, men and women have different desires about at least some fundamental and important things.

5.) But then the enforcement of equal rights will be contrary to at least someone’s desire for something fundamental and important, i.e. it will be a violence of a particularly offensive kind.

6.) Given that, ex hypothesi, it’s men’s desires that are historically privileged, a “new and improved equal rights regime” is either violence against men or (what’s infinitely more likely) simply a new manner of violence against women. Meet the new boss.

Feminism clearly got co-opted by some amount of this. One could take Dworkin as arguing a version of this as early as the 70s in seeing sexual liberation as anti-woman, despite the claims of many of its promoters to the contrary (cf. Hugh Hefner) and the claim is made about the sexual revolution more broadly by Louise Perry and Christine Emba, with some version of it being inseparable from the now-mainstream acceptance of the #MeToo movement. Giving women equal rights meant defending their access to goods they typically didn’t want or which were at least antecedently undesirable (the ability to have lots of anonymous, uncommitted sexual activity and to live in a world where men could demand it, to raise their children alone, to be seen as bearing the whole moral responsibility for birth control or abortion decisions, etc.)

Despite the fact that every one of us is fascinated by the difference between men and women, we still understand very little about it, and even less about how to respect this difference in justice. Despite our fascination with the mystery of sexual difference – and I use that word without exaggeration – it’s hard to rule out that our history of dealing with the differences has been more a history of blunders than successes.

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