Saturday, October 31, 2015

Doctors of the Law and the Spirit of Trent

The Holy Father and the Superior General of the Society of Jesus, Fr Adolfo Nicolas SJ

Thinking about the Holy Father's use of the phrase, 'Doctors of the Law', I have been wondering who they are. It is not unrelated to the growing thought that one of the most significant changes post Vatican II is the disenfranchisement of parents or the broader family in teaching the faith to children. It goes back to an experience I had over thirty years ago, when as a young deacon I was given the task of preparing for Holy a group of Irish traveller children.

The children did occasionally attend school but it tended to be a dozen or so different schools within a year, their parents were more or less illiterate, and of the children the girls tended to read better than the boys, who as soon as they were strong enough ended up working with their fathers. Religion seemed to be a matriarchal, there was family Rosary, which men joined in but it was led by the grandmother. Grandmother too was the chief catechist, she had taught herself to read, but had committed most of the Penny Catechism to memory. The children she catechised, knew or rather had committed to memory most of the catechism. Her catechetical method was simply, the children sat around her and were interrogated. 'Who made you?' the right answer, the child got a sweet from the bowl on her lap, the wrong answer a not very heavy tap on the arm from the wooden spoon also in her lap.

My role was not so much to teach the faith but to teach them how to behave in church. Though they understood the importance of attending Mass, it was boring and their itinerant lifestyle made weekly attendance difficult and prejudice made them feel unwelcomed. They were good at praying but pretty bad at sitting still and listening. I have occasionally come across this family since, the last time was a few months ago when some of them turned to Mass on the twentieth anniversary of their grandfathers death. There was a different matriarch, the earlier grandmother had I presumed died, the new one came with a gang of sons and a few daughters, none received Holy Communion, all lit candles at Communion time, and after Mass all were waiting outside the confessional.

The way they lived they lived and understood the faith, seemed to be how Catholics had passed on the faith for centuries. It was part of an oral tradition handed down in a matriarchal non-literate society. Church buildings were important as places to pray, priests were important as givers of grace but it was the family that was the most important factor in both worship and catechesis. Somehow I think that they were spared much by not being literate, by having little contact with schools or churches.

The interesting phenomena of American academics complaining in a letter to the New York Times about Ross Douthat writing on theological or ecclesiological issues seems emblematic of an ecclesial life that has become, and seems to be coming increasingly top down, It is faith which is handed down by experts or specialists rather than bubbles up, which I would suggest is profoundly un-Catholic. It is as far from St Vincent of Lerrins' understanding of the Catholic faith as having 'been believed everywhere, always, by all'. It is elitist, not at all like the inverted pyramid that the Pope has described.

Just as we each have a guardian angel and perhaps a guardian devil, so each Council seems to have one. Vatican Two the spirit of Relativism, Vatican One the spirit of Ultramontanism, perhaps Trent had the spirit of Didacticism. Some have suggested that Councils do more damage than good, it certainly seems that a Council attempts to clear up the house and expel the demon that occupied it only to discover that the demon returns with seven more.

Jesuit general congregation at the Vatican
Is it noteworthy that the anti-Douthat letter was signed by a significant number of Jesuits? Was it not the Jesuits who changed the Church from a place of worship into a schoolroom? I would never argue that Catholics should not know the faith but the encounter with God, though it involves the whole person, is chiefly about a heart to heart encounter, an experience of Grace, where God himself is the foremost teacher. Trent was a response to the polemicism of the Protestant Reformers, and the Reformation itself was about faith being taken out of the home or the parish church and taken into the hands of the specialists, the Doctors of the Law such as Luther, Calvin, Zwingli and Cranmer. It moved from the heart to the printed page, from, something gained from books rather than something past on within the culture itself.
I wonder when the definition of a theologian moved from the patristic 'one who prays is a theologian, a theologian is one who prays', to a theologian is one with a degree in theology. with a certificate on his wall. It marks a radical change, a movement from theology as the fruit of a relationship to one in which God becomes something to be spoken about rather than spoken with, a mere phenonemon, an academic discipline cut free of  a personal relationship. Jesuitism has always had poor regard for liturgy from it foundation, the first order not to celebrate the Office in choir. The great influence of the Jesuits on the liturgy was to remove choir stalls from our churches and replace them with pulpits. The focus becoming not the prayer of the brethren but the words of the specialist, the trained preacher. As necessary as this might of been it was a disenfranchisement of ordinary Catholics.

The wise Fr Mark Kirby gives an illustration of the development of this didacticism in this article about the Rosary facing the people. I was bemused recently by a layman showing a fragment of a Saxon altar who said something about a saint 'preaching from that altar'. The truth is that at that period preaching would have taken place rarely and probably less likely in the liturgy than the chapter house or the back of church  or the market square but never from the altar, The phrase shows what we have come to, no-one can be trusted to pray without the intervention of a 'Doctor of the Law', the liturgy itself is not of value for its real purpose, to worship but as a setting for teaching.


gracem said...

Thank you Father Blake!!!!!

Don said...

Dear Father Blake
I think the article is very good.
For me there is an obvious anchor in olden times, and the reason of troubles in our current times.

The Liturgy kept is the Anchor...The Liturgy abandoned is the problem.
From the meanest understanding to the wisest theologian: Public Worship of God, speaks to the heart of the matter.
Teaches all; young, and old. Dumb or Wise. Speaks to the Heart as well as the Mind.
In the Latin Church (western world) The reverence, and body language with solemnity and orientation teaches the faithful Who, and what God is.
The Traditional Latin Mass Has always been the bond that keeps mankind in his proper orientation to his Creator.

The Novus Ordo lacks a great many of those safeguards, and instructions.

Pater Raphael said...

You have really hit the nail on the head there, Father! Bravo. And as a preacher myself, I often feel that it not only interupts the "liturgical flow", so to speak, but 99% of the congregation is not remotely interessted - either in a positive or a negative kind of way. "Preachy" or "teachy" Sermons turn People off more than on and even if you want to explain some Point of faith that perhaps was put Forward in the Gospel of the day, - oh, I don't know, perhaps that if someone should put away his wife and take another he is comminting adultery, maybe, - the time just does not allow an half way decent Exposition.
My answer is Just scrap them!

Barbara Jensen said...

The distinction you make between 'experts teaching' and humble lay persons praying--encountering the Someone who is Truth--is most salient for the remedy needed now at this time of crisis in the Church. It has come to the place in this evolving mess within the Church that the liberals are exposing themselves for the prideful ones they are. Your article is spot on. Thank you for it;

Unknown said...

It has seemed to me that Pope Benedict's homilies (as distinct from his catechesis') reflected his love of God and brought me nearer to doing so.

James said...

It's so depressing with this Pope. The nagging, the negativity, the judgment, the subtle and not so subtle modernism, the pandering to and from the liberal oligarchy and the media. It feels like we don't even really have a Pope.

Jacobi said...


I have so much sympathy with your Irish itinerants.

I grew up in the 40s/50s and so recognise that Catholicism. We absorbed our Faith. We actually had the Penny Catechism. We went to Mass and occasionally to Communion, certainly at Easter or thereabouts. We didn't take it all too seriously. After all there were other things, aeroplanes and the cadets and then girls and so on.

Later on it was different.

That is one reason I have reservations about all being called to Sanctity. Catholicism is for all. Ruffians and the well brought up.

But one thing we did learn at our soundly Catholic school was Religious Knowledge and Apologetics and the need to know our Faith, and the necessity to go to Confession if we slipped away

That latter point has been lost now by the creeping heresy of Relativist Kasperism.

Pastor in Monte said...

In my view, Father, the best thing you have ever written. And you write a lot of good stuff. But as you know I am Irish, and that is the way we always passed the faith down. Preaching and posh liturgy are great (I love them) but nothing does as well as a pious granny or dad.

Mary Kay said...

I'm a second-generation American of an Irish Mom and grandparents. (the other side were newly-arrived Finnish Lutherans, but my Dad converted). I loved the 'passing on' of the Faith. I have a terrible time with resentment about my newly-protestant brothers who insist there was no religion in our family. From where in the world did they get the origination of faith? I insist that it was passed on, and if they missed it that is their fault, not that of my dear departed parents. (May they RIP.)

Mrs. Mary Jones

Anonymous said...

Wonderful response by Ross Douthat to the American Academics who complained about him to the New York Times:

Paul Hellyer said...

Thank you Fr for a brilliant account. The Mass has become amenable to middle class Anglican types. Where are the working class? They are lost to the Church. Where are the priests to bring them back in? They don't exist anymore. .

Pelerin said...

Is not the problem with the loss of the handing down of the Faith to the next generation due to families no longer living with members of the older generation or even living nearby?

The closeness for one reason or another has gone. Adult children often live far away and their own children are too busy to visit old granny. Their parents may be divorced and the children are consequently divided into two homes. Granny does not wish to intrude on their busy lives and consequently an annual visit at Christmas is not enough to form a rapport in which to talk about the Faith.

I have two adult grandchildren who long ago abandoned the Faith in which they were raised. My third grandchild is still small but he is not being brought up in the Faith or indeed any faith at all. The Church has lost two generations of my family. All granny can do now is continue to pray for them.

Nicolas Bellord said...

Picking up someone from a local housing estate this morning she told us that yesterday evening the streets were full of people celebrating Hallowe'en. Deplorable yes but why? Is it not some communal celebration which people want? And what has happened to the communal celebrations that the Church used to lead? The Corpus Christi processions, the holy days of obligation etc etc. Well they are regarded by our liberal clergy as merely superstitious religiosity and to be suppressed as the Protestants did at the time of the Reformation. In our Parish in Portugal there is a solemn procession to the cemetery to-day and to-morrow. Here in England we had Mass but nothing more. To-morrow we have All Souls day. Our Parish Priest is taking a week off so there will no masses on that day or any other day till Saturday. I expect his holiday is well deserved but this is what a shortage of priests leads to say some. Well actually we have an assistant priest, a heretic maybe, but quite capable of saying Mass. He returned last week from a holiday in the Canaries so why is he not stepping up to the plate? Too idle or what? No explanation is forthcoming. Monday is a non-day for Mass here whether it be the Immaculate Conception, Candlemas or whatever. I wonder what will happen when Christmas falls on a Monday.

Sadie Vacantist said...

It's one thing for the Church to decline if not collapse outright in some areas. We all makes mistakes. I am 56 and the abiding memory of my lifetime is being told by clerics and the clericalised laity that this collapse is good, moral and necessary. How can anyone enter into a dialogue with people who think like that?

Stephen Turton said...

Very very interesting. I think there is a sort of condensed wisdom in the outlook on life of some of those from the sort of backgrounds you describe, (very rough as some from that background really are)
I have been reading 'The Mystery Hidden in God for Ages' by Paul Quay SJ, his major work, it criticises a theology "too heavily drawn from philosphical sources", seeks to regain the spiritual sense of Scripture as per Patristic times, and recast theology in terms of it's universal subordination to revelation and the spiritual life of Christians. In short, put a personal relationship with Christ back at the centre. a religion engaging the heart, not just the head as he says.

Jacobi said...


looked up your ref. Very impressed with Douthat's response although unable to comment on his site. His call to battle is most welcome because battle has been joined. No doubt about that. And what is more there are more battles in the offing for all Good Catholics and True

Physiocrat said...

I picked up the Faith by accident one Sunday morning, pretty much entire and at one go. It was the last thing I expected or was looking for. I could not understand a word of it because the Mass was in Latin and the readings and sermon were in Italian. I don't know whether there is anything to be concluded from this.

Stephen Turton said...

You mention Christian learning apart from a relationship with Christ. Not having a relationship with Christ is a form of not having Christ, and without Christ we can do nothing.......mmaybe when their are enough praying Christians again things will change

Anonymous said...

@ Jacobi, yes, I was 'edified' to read Douthat's response. The battle has indeed begun.

Our Lady of Good Success-pray for us. said...

Vicar of Christ would, could, never misguid Grandmother of Faith. And these days, with instant media, 'Chinese whispers' are no excuse.

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