The Power of Inessential Things


Flight into Egypt, Book of Hours, French, 15th c.

A few years ago, I read one of the more illuminating articles I have ever come across regarding the internecine struggles within the Catholic Church over its liturgy.  It was entitled, “All Your Church Are Belong to Us,” and was written by a self-proclaimed Catholic traditionalist named John Zmirak.  You can access the article here.  The whole article is very much worth one’s time.  In it, Zmirak tries to explain why he, as a traditionalist, takes so seriously certain aspects of the liturgy which he admits are “inessential” and not of absolute, dogmatic importance.  According to Zmirak, what traditionalist Catholics have realized that their merely “conservative” brethren have not is that “inessential things have power.”  Zmirak is thinking here of the attitude that many Catholics, even if they adhere to the Church’s moral teachings in full, treat items such as sacramental and other devotions as negotiable elements of faith that are dispensable rather than as important elements of the faith, if they give them any thought at all.  But Zmirak takes an opposite and interesting view of the matter.  Describing his childhood as a Catholic in the 1970s, he talks about how all of the liturgical changes to “inessential” things led to an atmosphere in which it became easy to question essential Church teachings; by altering the trappings of the liturgy so quickly and so comprehensively, Zmirak argues, it conditioned people to think of all of the Church’s teachings as basically mutable and therefore up for discussion.   He makes reference to the practice of the Nazis and Soviets of hanging their “satanic” banners in every public place, in order to change the mindset of the people’s, by “changing the flag” as he puts it.  (Which make me suspect there is a by-law somewhere in the official rule book of Catholic traditionalists, which requires one to scourge the “commies” in your articles, or else you will be thrown out of the brotherhood of Catholic traditionalists. But I digress.)  He explains it better when he asks what one would think if you woke up tomorrow and saw the Mexican national flag flying over the White House.  The answer is obvious:  you would likely be appalled, but in any case, you would notice the change, and wonder what changes would come next.   Thus he defends his traditionalist obsession with inessential things like Latin, which he says he does not think is essential at all, on the grounds that by taking such items seriously, traditionalists seek to defend the integrity of the church’s core teachings–to use those powerful but inessential things (like the rosary, Latin, holy water, etc.) to defend the Church against those who would alter its basic teachings by attacking those very same “inessential things.”

Zmirak’s article is about divisions within the Latin Church as it stands at this moment in history, and I think he evinces a somewhat conspiratorial mindset in that article, but his main point hits upon what I take to be an important, and largely neglected, perennial truth.  Most people do know the teachings of church or government, or what you will, through adiaphora, and not through a firm grasp of those principles or doctrines in the abstract.  This emphasis on the power and importance of “inessentials” in the life of faith–particular prayers, devotional practices, and the like–admits of both a positive and negative aspects, but it is the second which I want to look at in this post; I will discuss the positive aspect of inessentials in a later blog post, one which I hope will be a bit more encouraging to read.  But in this post I would like connect this idea of the power of inessential things to a concrete historical situation:  the Reformation as it occurred in England, as depicted by a very excellent modern historian.  I hope this will shed some light on the concerns that people like Zmirak, and myself, seem to share.


Attacking Traditional Religion:  The Stripping of the Altars

The Stripping of the Altars:  Traditional Religion in England, 1400-1580, was one of the landmark works of historical revisionism published in the past thirty years within academic study of the Reformation.  It was one of those books you have to read if your field of study is early modern England, though for various reasons I was never assigned it in my course work, and have only recently found time to read this very weighty tome (very literally, weighty: it checks in at almost 600 pages not counting its bibliography and index).  Its author, Eamon Duffy, is an esteemed Cambridge historian of religion in early modern England who has also written about Catholicism for a popular audience as well, something I will return to at the end of my little essay.  The argument for Stripping of the Altars which made it such a groundbreaking work was this:  that the religion of the vast majority of people in late medieval England was neither superstitious (mostly), nor were people apathetic about it (mostly), but was on the contrary widely popular, and practiced with a good amount devotion by a wide cross section of English society prior to the Reformation.  Far from being either a superstitious corruption of a more sophisticated set of beliefs espoused by the clergy, the “traditional religion” of late medieval England was, on Duffy’s account, a fairly coherent and rationally defensible set of practices, many of which represented not the oppression of the uneducated masses by the clergy but rather the appropriation of clerical and official liturgical ideals of the medieval church by increasingly literate lay men and women, in increasingly sophisticated ways.

In short, Duffy was saying that all of the bigoted canards about the religion of the late medieval period–that the clergy didn’t teach people anything, didn’t preach, espoused or allowed idolatry, to flourish–were largely unfounded.  I won’t burden my readers with the details of Duffy’s argument, but sufficed to say, many of these misconceptions about medieval Catholicism originated with late medieval reformers themselves, and have been passed on quite uncritically by academic historians who ought to have known better for a very long time.  And this was the great effect of Duffy’s and other historians’ work–most notably, that of Christopher Haigh, J.J. Scarisbrick, and Margaret Aston–to overturn much of the received wisdom about the Reformation in England.  Along with the writings of historians of Protestantism, such as Diarmaid McCulloch, who have emphasized that the Reformation in England was very much a Protestant one from the very beginning, have largely succeeded in altering the academic consensus concerning late medieval religion, though I do not think this has penetrated that far outside of the academy (alas!).

Restored rood screen at Houghton St. Giles, Walsingham

Restored rood screen at Houghton St. Giles, Walsingham

Duffy contributed to this by doing what good historians do:  taking a long, hard look at the evidence for what people actually believed.  Of the 593 pages of text in the book, 376 of it is dedicated to a detailed discussion–sometimes, a rather tediously extensive discussion–of the various types of evidence for the belief of ordinary English men and women on the eve the Reformation.  This included items like prayer books (official and unofficial), primers (works designed to teach the basics of the faith), church wardens’ accounts (records of items bought and kept by the parish), in addition to architectural and visual evidence, such as that of rood screens and icons.   The first part of the book examined what Duffy calls “traditional religion,” and started in the first section with the structures of belief (“The Structures of Belief”), dealing mostly with the liturgy, which he contended was the main point of contact for people’s religion, moved through a section on how people actually practiced within the structure of their beliefs (“Encountering the Holy”), followed by a chapter on how they appropriated elements of the liturgy for their own use (“Charms and Spells”) and finally a section on how they dealt with death (“Now, and at the Hour of Our Death”).  While noting that there were much evidence by lay people of an atropopaic kind (meaning to use the liturgical items as charms to ward off evil) which stretched and often crossed the boundaries of orthodoxy in the eyes of late medieval clerics, Duffy contended that, for the most part, the sacramental uses to which people put things such as holy water, blessed bread, and various other religious items, were structured by ideas drawn from the official liturgy and teaching of the medieval Church.  Moreover, as his ample documentation amply demonstrates, this was often done with a fair amount of sophistication, belying the notion that people were passively receiving their religion from priests in a sort of stupor of indifference, as historians in the past had sometimes claimed about late medieval England.


The Wracks of Walsingham

Duffy’s examination of late medieval religion was both thorough but also moving, as it lovingly described the practices that often brought the local community together in late medieval England.  But the first part of the book was also the context needed for the second part, which describes the process by which much of this traditional religion was dismantled by Henry VIII’s government and its successors.  Duffy examined the process by which Henry VIII and his councilors, and then later the Duke of Somerset and the more thoroughly Protestant advisors around Edward VI, went about dismantling the “traditional religion” of England.  What he found was that precisely all of those “inessential things”–holy water, the rosary, the Lenten fast, many of the medieval saint’s days, even stained glass windows–which he had described in the first part of his book, were precisely those things which Henry and his successors attacked, at first tentatively in Henry’s reign, then more openly later under Edward VI.  The fact that it was the long standing devotional practices that people like Cranmer attacked as having blinded the people of England “through ignorance…with the goodly show and appearance of those things, that they thought the keeping of them to be a more holiness…than the keeping of God’s commandments”  was not a coincidence (449)  Proceeding slowly, by changing those devotional practices that were not taken to be “essential,” the reformers over time hoped to changes to “essential things” as well, by softening them up for the removal of more “essential” practices and doctrines, such as the sacrifice of the mass.  This was not lost on the councilors who came along with Queen Mary after Edward VI died; her main advisor, Cardinal Reginald Pole, said in a sermon during her reign that

the heretics maketh this the first point of their schism and heresies, to destroy the unity of the church by contempt or change of ceremonies; which seemeth at the beginning nothing.  As it seemed nothing here amongst you to take away holy water, holy bread, candles, ashes, and palm; but what it came to, you saw, and all felt it.  (531)

Even with the coming of Elizabeth, and a restoration (more or less) of the church structure concocted by Henry VIII, it still took many decades for the traditional ceremonies and devotions of the middle ages to die out:  until 1570s, the Corpus Christi plays were still performed in many areas, in some even into the 1580s.  (581-2)   As late at the 1570s, episcopal visitations and other ecclesiastical proceedings were still dominated by efforts to root out “popish superstitions” as they were now called; Duffy produces evidence of questionnaires which focused on items like mass books, holy water, and other popular devotions. (572)  By the end of 1570s, however, a new ethos was emerging, centered on the bible and the Prayer Book, though it was often tinged with virulent hatred of things “popish,” encouraged as it was by endless homilies and sermons, to say nothing of the new popular culture emerging at the time.   The fact is, which Duffy more or less admits, is that despite their attachment to the old religion, most people in England were content to obey authority, and once the king had triumphed over the pope definitively with Elizabeth, people, in one contemporary’s view, thought that “it is safer to do in religion as most do.”  (591)  Duffy proved, beyond a doubt, that it was the accident of the health of monarchs that made for lasting religious change in the Reformation, and not the desires of the people, but nonetheless it did change by the end of the 16th century.  Had Mary lived longer, things might have been different, but it was not to be.

The ruins of the medieval abbey at Walsingham

The ruins of the medieval abbey at Walsingham

All of this makes for pretty depressing reading if you are a papist, which I happen to be.  There are of course even modern Anglicans who regret the manner in which the Reformation played out in England, though not necessarily with the aims of the Reformers, but  in the end what strikes me about it is the similarity to what has happened within the Latin Rite Church since Vatican II.


Signs of the Times

Of course, by making the comparison with the contemporary divide over liturgy, I don’t mean to suggest the council was the cause of it.  Far from it.  There were plenty of problems with the way that the liturgy was celebrated before the council (which is why there was a liturgical reform movement afoot before the council, initiated in large part by St. Pius X–who ironically made greater changes to the Divine Office than had ever been made in the history of the Latin rite, something that still rankles many who care about the Office of the Church.  My point is only to draw attention to the importance of “inessential” things with regard to the liturgical and devotional life of the church, and the power they have to shape the way people understand the faith.  And, if you haven’t yet guessed where I’m going with this, given that the intellectual aptitude of most people isn’t that great, I’d have to say “inessential” things are decisive in the religious experience of the vast majority of Catholics.  Yes, there may be some who can quote catechism and scripture (and occasionally a papal encyclical) chapter and verse, but this is quite rare.  Most people simply don’t have the drive or the patience to learn and be able to articulate the basic doctrines of Christian faith in the abstract, and certainly not the often very complex form which it takes in Catholic Christianity.

So this is probably where you would expect me to bitch and complain about the liturgy, but I’m not going to do that.  (Besides, it has been done, and that on a regular basis, for quite some time.)  It’s true that I’m not terribly fond of the liturgical sensibilities that prevail in most of the Latin rite world, to say the least.  But nor do I think much of those traditionalists who blame the council for all of the ills that have beset the Catholic Church since the 60s.  My point is larger than the liturgy, or the council itself:   what many Catholics don’t seem to recognize, is the importance of those inessential devotional practices which mediate to us the essential truths of the faith, and allow us to experience them intimately.  Of course, not everyone experiences the faith in the same way; our experiences are largely subjective, and that is part of the reason we fight about things like music, and liturgical dress, precisely because their value is debatable.  But just because there is a subjective element involved in those “inessential” aspects of worship and devotional practice does not mean that just anything will do for the sacred liturgy, or that any devotional practice is fine, as long as it has ecclesiastical approval.   And visible continuity with the past, with those have died and gone before us, one would think would be a no-brainer as a criteria for the Church’s ritual and devotional life.  Those traditionalists (such as this one) who blame the council for all the ills that followed in its wake are mistaken, but they have a point when they note that the “hermeneutic of continuity” has been mostly an intellectual construct, and has had little effect on the practical, devotional life of the Catholic Church.  The council sought to renovate the teachings of the church in the abstract, as a matter of officially declared doctrines, and indeed in this sense it may be said to have succeeded.  But the council Fathers did not seem to think much more was required, and seemingly made no provision for how these renovated teachings were to be squared at a practical level with what preceded them.   I suspect this is because they seem not to understand the power of “inessential” things, as Zmirak rightly pointed out.

What is more, I think the failure to appreciate this point indicates something more deeply ingrained in Catholic life.  This is that the Catholic belief in the infallible authority of the church is so strong, it is sometimes seems as if most Catholics believe that this authority is all that is necessary for the preservation of the faith.  We don’t need any particular type of devotional practice as long as it is approved by church authorities and isn’t obviously heretical, as long as it draws people into the faith; insisting on this or that type of devotion  (because it connects us with the past, because it is more objectively in keeping with Church teaching) is, on this view, not necessary, and perhaps divisive as well.  The only thing necessary is that people in the present like it well enough to make it to mass on Sunday.  The sort of legalistic thinking that lies behind this tendency is not hard to spot, but it is probably in some ways unavoidable, given what Catholics are supposed to believe, at least for the foreseeable future.

However, as Duffy’s book proves, things weren’t always this way.  And Duffy himself, as I have hinted at the beginning of this essay, has written a book on the subject of Catholic ritual and devotion, called Faith of Our Fathers.  In that book, Duffy criticized the decision to release people from the discipline of abstinence from meat on Fridays, arguing for its value in creating a widely shared sense of being Catholic, one that connected it with solidarity to the poor.  Duffy has written elsewhere of what he takes to be the excessive emphasis on the authority of the pope amongst modern Catholics, and though it was the papacy above all that made me enter the Church’s communion, I tend to think he is correct.*   A healthy, vibrant communal, ritual and devotional life–one that is not in flagrantly visible discontinuity with the past ages of its existence–is necessary for the Church to flourish.  It can exist on authority alone, it is true, but that is not optimal, and probably not even healthy.  No doubt, the Church will always have a need to call on the Rock of the faith to secure its moorings directly, but it should not be a normal state of affairs to have the pope being the only thing that seemingly unites all Catholics at a practical level.  But how could this be done in the present moment, when Catholics are so seemingly divided on precisely these questions of liturgy, and devotional practice?  That is a question to which I will return in my next post, where I will take a look at the positive role that “inessential things” could play in the life of the Church today, and in particular–with no little sense of irony, given what I have just written–what Catholics might learn from the Anglican tradition on this score.




Alypius Minor




* I am aware that Duffy has been, to say the least, critical of recent popes, especially St. John Paul II, for having censured academic theologians.  I certainly disagree with Professor Duffy on this point, as on others, but I do not think it detracts from his general point about the excessive focus on the papacy in the modern world.  Some of this is the result no doubt of modern media, but it is also not unrelated to the concerns Duffy and others have raised about the devotional and ritual life of the Church.

~ by Alypius on July 15, 2014.

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