Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi: Many Young Catholics Find Liturgy Incomprehensible and Irrelevant. Is It?

I have a rather large button collection (political, religious, sports and the like). If asked which among all of them is my favorite, I would probably have to say the one which reads, “My karma ran over my dogma.” My original intent, when I began this collection, was to capture, in buttons, something of the flavor of the age in which we live, and this particular button is not only wonderfully clever, but also captures, in a quite striking fashion, an attitude which runs very deep in American society today, indeed even among a great many Catholics. How many Catholics have we heard in recent years discuss how their lives, their experiences, have brought them to the point of believing that the dogmatic faith of their youth is not relevant to the world we now live in?

Today, both our liturgy and our belief confront almost insurmountable difficulties in twentieth-century America. The difficulties are, in each instance, the same, and have produced for the Church here in the United States one of those many crises which are the subject of so much discussion today.

The ancient formula, “lex orandi lex credendi,” or “the law of praying is the law of believing,” takes its origin from the Indiculus de gratis Dei, a fifth-century compilation of statements by Roman Pontiffs on the question of grace. That document counsels us in the following manner:

Let us consider also the sacraments of the prayers which the bishops offer, which, handed down by the Apostles, in the whole world and in every Catholic Church are recited in the same way, in order that the obligatory manner of praying may determine the obligatory manner of believing (ut legem credendi lex statuat supplicandi).

The immediate context for this statement was the controversy centering on the issue of grace and whether or not grace is required by everyone for salvation. In his Theological Dimensions of the Liturgy Cyprian Vagaggini writes:

In the immediate sense of the author the formula means simply: in order that from the obligation which the Apostle lays on us (I Timothy 2:1-4) and which the bishops satisfy in the liturgy, of praying for all that grace may be given to all (lex orandi), the obligation may appear clear also of believing against the Pelagians and the semi-Pelagians, that grace is necessary for all (lex credendi).

Two obvious implications regarding the relationship of liturgy to belief flow from this example. First, the liturgy contains within itself, albeit often in an implicit sense, the Catholic faith, in this instance that no one can be saved without grace. Second, the liturgy therefore operates as an important source of what our faith really is in those situations where the magisterium is called upon, because of controversy, to define it in an explicit sense, in this case the explicit teaching that no one can be saved apart from the saving grace of Christ. Liturgy, therefore, even though first and foremost an act of worship, is also a vehicle by which the revelation of Christ, the truth made known in Christ, is lived out and passed on within the Church.

This means three things. First, liturgy is inextricably linked to tradition as mediator of revelation. The liturgy, as the primary and central act of the Church, is also the primary and central means by which the revelation comes to each generation, handed on from one age to another. As Vagaggini points out, “The liturgy, as a matter of fact, is nothing else than a certain phase of revelation, a certain way in which the meaning of revelation is realized in us.”

Second, if liturgy is indissociable from tradition, it is also, as Pius XI said, indissociable from the ordinary magisterium. “The liturgy… is the most important organ of the ordinary magisterium of the Church…. The liturgy is not the didascalia [teaching] of this or that individual, but the didascalia of the Church,” comments Vagaggini. In other words, the liturgy is the primary ordinary means by which we learn our faith, because it is the primary ordinary means by which we live it.

Third, and for this reason, liturgy is also the primary source of the sensus Catholicus or sensus fidei. Vagaggini says:

The liturgy appears as the principal means of the church for causing her view of the world to penetrate vitally into the minds of the faithful, even if, in its complexus, it is a means of communication of doctrine less direct, less conceptually precise, and less intellectual than the other means which the magisterium habitually uses. It is the principal means in the sense that it is more vitally effective, more continual, more intuitive and penetrating, more popular and universal.

This “sense of the faith” is not that explicit, discursive knowledge acquired by formal education, but that implicit, intuitive, connatural knowledge acquired by affinity, by contact, by a life formed and informed by prayer, especially the public prayer of the Church. This implicit knowledge is more fundamental than formally acquired knowledge, for it provides the foundation upon which formal education builds. And once acquired, it provides us with an almost infallible guide as to what is and what is not Catholic, even when we cannot explain very clearly why one thing is, while another is not.

This sensus Catholicus, as Vagaggini points out, exercises a powerful influence on the development of doctrine, inasmuch as “the total proper efficacy of the liturgy, even as teaching, derives from the fact that, rather than ‘teaching,’ it causes doctrine to be lived.” To return to the example of the role of grace in our lives, we had for centuries lived out, in the liturgy, our total dependence on the grace of Christ long before we formulated the doctrine which declared our total dependence on that grace.

To sum up, liturgy embodies faith, first, as the primary means by which the faith is handed on in a living way from one generation to another, second, as the primary organ of the ordinary magisterium of the Church, and, third, as the source of that sense of the faith which guides our lives and influences our doctrinal formulations. In all of these ways, liturgy precedes the explicit definitions of our faith and informs them.

Liturgy as Dogma

But the link between liturgy and faith is a two-way, not a one-way street. For liturgy is also formed and informed by the explicit dogmas of our faith. Pope Pius XII made this abundantly clear in Mediator Dei. First, he noted that the liturgy has a certain priority with regard to explicit magisterial formulations of the faith, inasmuch as

…the whole liturgy contains the Catholic faith, inasmuch as it is a public profession of the faith of the Church. This is why, whenever some divinely revealed truth has to be defined, Popes and Councils have frequently used the liturgy as a theological source of arguments…. This is the origin of the well-known and time-honoured principle: “Let the law of prayer establish the law of belief” (Legem credendi lex statuat supplicandi).

But, the pope hastens to add, this is only part of the story. The sacred liturgy, as he puts it, “does not absolutely or of itself designate or constitute the Catholic faith.” Because it is not just worship but also contains a profession of the truth within it, it is subject to the teaching authority of the Church. Hence, the Pope concludes that “the law of our faith must establish the law of our prayer.”

Just as liturgy has served in the past and continues to serve as a source for magisterial definitions of our faith, so those definitions also have served and continue to serve as a source and control in liturgical practice. Thus, as Vagaggini points out, sometimes the liturgy precedes and contributes to the explicit formulation of our faith, while at other times it “expresses the divine and Catholic faith, already made explicit, makes it lived, and strengthens it in the believers.”

What I would like to focus on here is liturgy as the bearer of revelation, especially by means of imbuing us with the sensus Catholicus, because my experience as a teacher convinces me that nothing is more jeopardized today by American culture than this sense of the faith, especially among our young people. For this reason, I would like to consider some basic characteristics of the Church’s liturgy as they relate to our faith.

Liturgy is the public worship of the Church. It does not replace private prayer, but provides the framework within which such prayer should take place. The liturgy is the central act of the Church. As Vatican II noted, “the liturgy is the summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed; at the same time it is the fountain from which all her power flows.” Because it is the act of the Church, it can never be regarded as the preserve of any one individual or group of individuals within the Church. As Cardinal Ratzinger has pointed out, “Liturgy is not the private hobby of a particular group; it is about the bond which holds heaven and earth together, it is about the human race and the entire created world.”

There are three characteristics of liturgy which, for our purposes here, I would like to underscore. First, the liturgy is sacramental or mediational in character. Vagaggini remarks:

From the great and original sacramentum which is Christ, is derived the general sacramentum which is the Church; and this finds expression chiefly in the sacramenta which constitute the liturgy; first of all in its seven major rites, the seven sacraments properly so called, and in a very special way in the most holy sacrament par excellence, the Eucharistic mystery. In all these phases the transmission of the divine life to men and the return of men to God takes place by an incarnate route in a regime of signs, in sacramentis, where “one thing is seen and another understood.”

Liturgy, therefore, involves us with sign and symbol, not as peripheral to our lives as Catholics, but as central to and formative of our lives. Furthermore, liturgy, because grounded in the concrete, material mediation of Christ and his grace, places each of us firmly on a path to God through Christ which is incarnational from start to finish.

Flesh and Spirit

The sacramental life of the Church teaches us that there is no purely spiritual realm. Even the God to Whom we go is, because of His incarnation, resurrection and ascension, eternally united to the material realm by virtue of the hypostatic union of the Son to human nature. Therefore, God Himself does not exist apart from the material world He has created.

Second, and closely related to the first point, the liturgy mediates to us not some purely eternal realm, but historical events, those definitive historical events by which the Son and the Holy Spirit entered and, from within, transform the whole of creation. Hence, for example, the Eucharist represents to us the crucifixion, the one sacrifice by which salvation is made available to everyone. Baptism, symbolizing both death and life, is the means by which we are able to die with Christ in order that we might also rise with Him. Confirmation makes the event of Pentecost available to the whole Church. Thus, by means of the liturgy, we are invited to enter into history itself.

Third, and finally, the historical event most central to the liturgy is the crucifixion. As Vagaggini points out:

All of Christ’s redemptive actions in his mortal life tended… to the Cross as their fulfillment, took their meaning from the Cross; and only on the Cross did Christian worship in its integrity, as a complete thing, begin.

This is not to say that the resurrection is less important, but that the resurrection cannot be separated from the Crucifixion. Indeed, the resurrection, or rising up of Christ, is, as the Gospel of John insists, already present in Christ’s being raised up on the Cross. Thus, as Cardinal Ratzinger notes in The Feast of Faith:

Christ died praying; his consent to his Father took precedence over political advantage, thus he was brought to the Cross. On the Cross, therefore, he held aloft his Yes to the Father, glorifying the Father in the Cross, and it was this manner of his dying which led, by an inner logic, to the Resurrection. This means that worship is the context in which we can discover joy, the liberating, victorious Yes to life. The Cross is worship, “exaltation”; Resurrection is made present in it.

Liturgy should imbue each and every one of us with a sense, first, of the enormous value of the material, created realm in which we live and of the central role which material symbols play in our world and our lives as created by God and saved by Christ. Second, the liturgy should imbue us with a sense of the importance of history and of the definitive character of those historical events by which the Son and the Holy Spirit enter our world, and by which we are invited to enter that sacred history, joining our actions to theirs. And finally, the liturgy should imbue us with a strong sense of the price at which our salvation was won, and of the indispensable need to recognize the reality of sin and Satan in this world and of hell and purgatory in the next. The liturgy should remind us daily, weekly, monthly, of the need for continual conversion in our own lives and of the disastrous consequences which must surely flow if we divorce ourselves from the cross, from the crucified Christ. These are definitive elements of our liturgy, and hence of our faith, and yet they are, I find, only very imperfectly or not at all understood by most Catholics today.

The Crisis Today

The notion that ours is an age of crisis can be found everywhere today. That “we are cursed to live in interesting times” is one proverb now frequently uttered. Yeats’ words about the center no longer holding seem more applicable with each passing year. And this crisis which we sense all around us, and within us, is within the Church as well. That it is a crisis of faith is undeniable. Everywhere about us we see either “cultural” Catholics, who deny the sacramental realism of the Church, or “cafeteria” Catholics, who pick and choose what it is they shall believe.

At the same time, we also clearly face a crisis with regard to liturgy. Cardinal Ratzinger has addressed the crisis confronting us there:

The crisis in liturgy (and hence in the Church) in which we find ourselves has very little to do with the change from the old to the new liturgical books. More and more clearly we can see that, behind all the conflicting views, there is a profound disagreement about the very nature of the liturgical celebration, its antecedents, its proper form, and about those who are responsible for it. The issue concerns the basic structure of all liturgy, and, whether we are aware of it or not, two fundamentally different views are involved. The basic concepts of the new view are creativity, freedom, celebration and community. It sees things like rite, obligation, interiority and church order as negative factors, belonging to the “old” liturgy which is to be superseded.

If we look more closely, we can see that this “new” approach toward liturgy bears an uncanny resemblance to the new approach toward faith, where notions such as freedom and creativity provide the framework for that “cafeteria” or “do-it-yourself” Catholicism so prevalent today. Of course, it could not really be otherwise. If we are intent on putting together our own faith, we will find equally attractive the notion of putting together our own liturgical forms for expressing that faith. If our faith is no longer that common or public faith of the Church, our worship can hardly continue to be the common or public liturgy of the Church. The so-called “Womanchurch” of the feminists is but one extreme example of where departures from the faith of the Church can take us.

None of this is really new either. Both the orthodox and the heterodox have sought to embody in liturgy the faith they profess. As Ratzinger points out:

Behind the various ways of understanding liturgy there are, almost always, different ways of understanding the Church and consequently God and Man’s relation to Him. The question of liturgy is not peripheral: the Council itself reminded us that we are dealing here with the very core of the Christian faith.

Liturgical struggles usually signal the presence of doctrinal struggle. This being the case, it would behoove us to take a closer look at our situation here in the United States to see what our struggle is all about.

Most of us have heard, and uttered, a good many complaints about the liturgy, and several seem to stand out as shared by a great many people, i.e., the abandonment of Latin, the loss of transcendence, the abominable music, the poor sermons, the emphasis on God’s love to the exclusion of His judgment, and the ubiquity of “community.”

Many of us may have sympathy, to one degree or another, with these complaints, but I would like to suggest that, no matter how valid any of them might be, none of them really goes to the heart of the problem we face today in America. Nor was Vatican II the problem, as some people have suggested, though Vatican II contributed to the problem as it unfolded.

If there was any real mistake made at Vatican II, it was, in my judgment, a too optimistic view of the modern world, expressed in the notion that, by opening the windows of the Church, we would be letting in nothing more than a little fresh air. What was not sufficiently anticipated was the fact that, by 1961, modern air had gotten very polluted.

In 1961, the year the Council opened, an important book was written in America, designed to clear the air in this country, at least, of the mental and moral mists the author thought to prevail everywhere about us. The book was called The Image: What Happened to the American Dream? and its author was Daniel J. Boorstin, former Librarian of Congress. American Catholics, and especially those caught up in the enthusiasm during and after Vatican II, would have been, and still are, well-advised to read this book.

Boorstin tells us, in the foreword, that his book “is about our arts of self-deception, how we hide reality from ourselves.” In the introduction, he characterizes the American people as living in a world of illusions, and not because they are foisted upon us, but because we demand them.

We want and we believe these illusions because we suffer from extravagant expectations. We expect too much of the world. Our expectations are extravagant in the precise dictionary sense of the word—”going beyond the limits of reason or moderation.” They are excessive.

Boorstin details the sort of expectations we have, and they are worth citing at some length.

When we pick up our newspaper at breakfast, we expect—we even demand—that it bring us momentous events since the night before. We turn on the car radio as we drive to work and expect “news” to have occurred since the morning newspaper went to press…. We expect our two-week vacation to be romantic, exotic, cheap and effortless. We expect a faraway atmosphere if we go to a nearby place; and we expect everything to be relaxing, sanitary, and Americanized if we go to a faraway place. We expect new heroes every season, a literary masterpiece every month, a dramatic spectacular every week, a rare sensation every night…. We expect anything and everything. We expect the contradictory and the impossible. We expect compact cars which are spacious; luxurious cars which are economical. We expect to be rich and charitable, powerful and merciful, active and reflective, kind and competitive…. We expect to eat and stay thin, to be constantly on the move and yet ever more neighborly, to go to a “church of our choice” and yet feel its guiding power over us, to revere God and to be God.

By way of illustrating the illusory world we live in, Boorstin considers, among other topics, what has happened to the news and what has happened to heroes. The news, as he points out, is now filled with “synthetic novelty” or “pseudo-events.” Pseudo-events, as distinguished from such real events as earthquakes, wars, and famine, are created by us and usually for no other reason than that they get reported in the news. Public opinion polls, news releases, press conferences, interviews, feature stories, public demonstrations, ABC’s Person of the Week, are all examples of this type of news. They are deliberately planned and carried out solely with an eye to their being reported by the media.

If news can be called “pseudo-events,” then modern “celebrities” are the human equivalent of the pseudo-event. Defining a celebrity as “a person who is known for his well-knownness,” Boorstin notes that these human pseudo-events have come into vogue to feed our extravagant desires for heroes. Unlike the heroes of the past, however, our celebrities exhibit no outstanding qualities, virtues, abilities, or deeds apart from their well-knownness. “The hero was distinguished by his achievement; the celebrity by his image or trademark. The hero created himself; the celebrity is created by the media. The hero was a big man; the celebrity is a big name.” Although he did not have her at his disposal when writing the book, surely Boorstin could have found no better example than Vanna White, a celebrity whose autobiography reveals her only identifiable achievement to date to be her ability to turn the letters on “Wheel of Fortune” without breaking her fingernails.

Even heroes of the past are today cut down to the size of celebrities. “Jesus, we are told from the pulpit, was ‘no sissy, but a regular fellow.’ ” The Bible, too, is reduced to celebrity status, today peddled as the “biggest best seller” of all times, that is, the book known more than any other book for its well-knownness. Its best-seller status seems, as often as not, to be the only quality for which it is known. As Boorstin notes, “it has come to be more and more difficult to say whether we think it is a best seller because it is great, or vice versa.”

If the fabrication of events, of celebrities, is disturbing, even more alarming is the fact that, as Boorstin details at some length, we prefer the fabrications to the facts. Indeed, as Boorstin points out, our language betrays the fact that the fabricated, the artificial, now takes precedence over the factual, the real.

This is the age of contrivance. The artificial has become so commonplace that the natural begins to seem contrived. The natural is the “un-” and the “non-.” It is the age of the “unfiltered” cigarette (the filter comes to seem more natural than the tobacco), of the “unabridged” novel (abridgement is the norm), of the “uncut” version of a movie. We begin to look on wood as a “non-synthetic” cellulose. All nature then is the world of the “non-artificial.” Fact itself has become “nonfiction.”

As Boorstin notes, “a world we can shape to our will—or to our extravagant expectations—is a shapeless world.” And the language we use to describe that world moves from direct to indirect, from concrete to abstract, words. “In this age everybody uses the monstrous cliche, ‘in team of this or that. But not without reason. For in our time the old direct statement has become inaccurate, untrue to our experience.” So have the old direct words. Pornography is now “adult fare”; strippers are “exotic dancers”; fornication is “free love”; homosexuality is a “lifestyle”; killing someone is “assisted suicide”; nuclear weapons are “peace-keepers”; fathering and mothering are “parenting”; spouses, boyfriends, girlfriends, and live-in lovers are “significant others”; abortion is “terminating a pregnancy”; families are anything from single-parent households to “three men and a baby.” All about us the shadows and images of reality have replaced reality; indirection and abstraction have replaced facts. Signs and symbols are manipulated at will to accommodate the fabrications which make up our world.

Religion as Casualty

What does all of this have to do with liturgy? It is almost impossible to calculate the devastating effects it has on the public prayer of the Church, because of the effects it has on those who come to worship—priests, nuns, and laity. Let us look at those three characteristics of liturgy earlier discussed, and see what happens to them.

First, liturgy is sacramental, mediational. This means that liturgy is concerned with material symbols and their reality as mediators of grace. Today, among Catholics themselves, great doubts exist as to whether or not anything really “happens” in a sacrament. Those who call themselves “cultural Catholics” see the sacraments as little more than rituals of the sort supplied by any culture. Even those who administer the sacraments do not always believe anything real actually happens. A priest conducting an instruction class on baptism in my hometown a few years ago said that original sin is a myth, and, even if there were such a thing, we all know that mere water could not wash it away.

The issue of women’s ordination exemplifies, perhaps better than any other single matter, the ignorance and confusion, if not outright lack of belief, regarding Catholic sacramentality. This was borne in upon me in a most striking fashion recently when I was interviewed by a local television reporter for a series she was doing on women in the pulpit. I waxed eloquent, and at length, on the sacramental character of Catholicism, on the enormous importance of symbol and of the relationship of symbol to sexuality, by way of trying to explain why it is we don’t ordain women. Her response to all of this? Why, she asked, is all of this so important, since in the final analysis what you are talking about is just symbol? This same attitude lies behind the movement to conduct liturgy entirely in non-sexist language. Sex is reduced to mere symbol, and mere symbol then becomes manipulable in the service of whatever notions of sexuality we might like to embrace.

The second characteristic of liturgy, that it mediates historical events to us, is equally jeopardized by modern thinking. Although much ink is spilt today over our “historical consciousness,” historical consciousness generally means little more than that the past is historically—and culturally—conditioned in such a fashion and to such a degree that we need no longer consider ourselves bound to it. History is the arena of contingent, human creations, which need no longer be regarded as having either any sacred or any enduring character. John W. O’Malley, in an article on Vatican II published in Theological Studies, summarized this view by saying that, because persons, events, and documents of the past are “contained within very definite historical limits,” they can no longer be regarded as linked with divine providence. Hence, “we deprive them of all absolute character. We relativize them.”

The seduction of modern historical consciousness lies in the liberation it seems to offer us from history. The events of the past are seen to be empty of enduring reality, just like the pseudo-events of today. As a result, we are “free to try to create the future,” O’Malley says, to fabricate the pseudo-events which will constitute the world we live in tomorrow.

As Allan Bloom noted in his recent book on American education, young men and women barely cognizant of basic skills, such as writing and mathematics, much less of the great religious, philosophical, and literary traditions of their culture, are nevertheless convinced of one thing—that nothing which has happened anywhere, under any circumstances, can be taken as having universal significance. I’ve had many of these students in my own classrooms, Catholic youngsters from Catholic families in a Catholic university, who tell me, their theology professor, as one who apparently is not expected to be in touch with modern thinking, that what Jesus said 2000 years ago cannot be taken all that seriously today because he was conditioned by his age, or that the Church’s teachings cannot be binding on us today because they arose out of specific situations which no longer exist.

Since the faith handed down to us is, in this view of things, a fabrication of past ages, we are free to fabricate a new faith for ourselves today. Hence, whereas men of the past believed, with Giles of Viterbo, that “Men must be changed by religion, not religion by men,” we are today freed from such confining notions. To cite O’Malley again, “What Vatican II’s aggiornamento called for was precisely the opposite. It determined that religion should be changed by men, in order to meet the needs of men.”

Liturgically, such views are disastrous, for they leave us with a de-historicized worship. The liturgy has nowhere to go but in the direction of a solely contemporary event, cut off from its sources and with little to celebrate but itself, i.e., the community present for the celebration. It becomes, in Boorstin’s terminology, a pseudo-event, people gathering to celebrate the fact that they have gathered.

The third characteristic of liturgy, that it is centered on the cross, has been, I think, the element most obviously lost to sight today. Everywhere we experience the absence of any serious concern about sin, Satan, penance, purgatory, and hell. The doctrine of the Fall seems to many to be one of the most embarrassing encumbrances of our faith. Scientists talk of evolution in terms which rule out any possibility of there having been such an event. Phil Donahue counsels us, in a Life interview, to get rid of original sin, because it harms our self-esteem. Psychologists work to eliminate guilt from our lives—not sin, just guilt. Even AIDS has not given us pause to reevaluate our lives, but has become instead the vehicle for promoting gay rights, safe sex, and assisted suicide.

When this type of thinking enters Catholicism, as it clearly has, we are put in the untenable position of celebrating the good news of salvation in the absence of any need for salvation. Hence, we hear little of sin, but much of God’s love. We hear of the Eucharist as a meal, a celebration, but not as a sacrifice. We go to communion, without thinking we have any cause to go to confession. We ignore Lent. We disavow belief in Satan and hell, regarding the former as a myth and the latter as unthinkable for an all-loving God. Crucifixes disappear from our churches.

For a people resolved to live in worlds of illusion, the hard edges of the faith must be removed. They are incompatible with life as we would like it to be, as we would like to believe we can make it be. Hence, as Lord Acton notes with regard to liturgy, “There are no dark nights, desert years of despair. There is no Golgotha. The bloody tears of Gethsemane are no more. No tormented souls suffer in Hell. Purgatory has been forgot.” In the final analysis, as the same writer points out, the new liturgy’s “springs are affluence, not brokenness. The enemy it seeks to stymie is boredom, and the method it employs is distraction from the brokenness of life. That is, finally, why it is a leaky cistern, offering so little water to the soul.”

Christ without the cross is just another guy, pleasant and affable, easy for everyone to like and admire, and, more importantly, easily able to like and admire everyone else. As one of my students said, when asked what she would do were she to meet Jesus Christ, she would chat with him, they would exchange points of view, and he would respect her views just as she would respect his.

Problems and Solutions

Lex orandi, lex credendi applies as much to every other religion, every other faith, every other view of reality, as it does to the Catholic faith. For lex orandi, regarded broadly as a way of living, can never be dissociated from a way of believing which corresponds to it. In America today, there is a secular lex orandi which corresponds to our secular lex credendi. And the vast majority of Catholics, whether we like it or not, are surrounded on all sides by this secular way of living and of believing. Through its influence on us, this view has filtered into all areas of Catholic life in this country.

The students who come into my classroom are steeped in it. They know very little about their faith, and they do not, by and large, practice it much. Most of them have not been to confession in years, attend Sunday Mass irregularly (though usually receiving communion when they go), and could not pray a rosary or the stations of the cross if their lives depended on it.

The fact that they do not know their faith is disturbing, but not an insurmountable problem. They can be taught the doctrine of the Trinity or how to pray the rosary. The fact that they do not practice their faith is much more disturbing. For that means that they do not have that sensus Catholicus which comes primarily by way of practicing the faith.

They are filled, if I may put it this way, with a sensus Americanus which colors all of their thinking. They don’t know whether things going on in American society are Catholic or not, but they can recognize, instantly, in a “Teaching of the Catholic Church” course, that what they are learning there runs counter to what they have accepted from the culture around them.

They do not understand why the Church opposes contraception, surrogate motherhood, homosexual activity, or indeed why the Church takes any interest in our sexual lives at all, because they are saturated with modern notions that all materiality, including the human body, is fundamentally shapeless and therefore at our disposal to manipulate as we choose. Marriage especially causes them great problems, for they view it as a human creation, having whatever value the couple wishes it to have and capable of being broken or ended at will.

They do not understand why anything which has happened in the past should bind us in the present or the future, for they cannot comprehend that anything which takes place in time and space has any more enduring value than the pseudo-events which surround them and shape their fabricated lives today. Even they, for all their lack of education, have heard that history is nothing but the record of the victors, bearing no ultimate meaning and no relationship to God or truth.

They do not understand why the crucifix is the central symbol of love, or why guilt is the appropriate response to sin, or indeed that sin is something to be taken seriously. Original sin and the Fall are nothing more than myths, i.e., ways people in the past tried to understand the world before science and psychology came along to set us straight.

They do not understand because they have not been steeped in a liturgy which makes these things clear to them. Indeed, most of them have only a passing acquaintance with any liturgy, for they have never been told that this central act of the Church should be the central act of their lives. It should not, therefore, surprise us that their karmas (i.e., their lived experience as Americans) run over whatever dogmas they may have learned. For they are deeply committed to the illusions of this culture. Those illusions are far more pleasant, more convenient, and less demanding than either the Catholic faith or the Catholic worship. For their culture convinces them, that, in a world without shape, they can have, as one TV commercial puts it, a “life without boundaries.”

The Graphic Revolution, which has produced our fabricated world of radio, stereo, photography, movies, TV, MTV, VCRs, VCR cameras, computers, and the like, has also created a very special problem for us. For, as Boorstin points out, “We risk being the first people in history to have been able to make their illusions so vivid, so persuasive, so ‘realistic,’ that they can live in them.” Yet, as Boorstin also points out, the solution lies in finding ways to get outside these images and shadows. “We should seek new ways of letting messages reach us; from our own past, from God, from the world which we may hate or think we hate.”

Liturgy is, or should be, the means by which a message not of our own creation reaches us. That message is the “good news” of our salvation—good news not only because we have been saved, but also because we have been saved not despite our materiality and temporality, but in and through them. The good news does not require us to flee this material and historical reality, as our culture seems bent on doing, but to convert it. But converting it requires that we ourselves first be converted, back to the importance of materiality and of history, back to the bad news of sin and Satan, of fall and judgment, back to real guilt and real repentance, back to the crucifixion of Christ and to His command that we take up the cross in our own lives.

We can learn what the Church teaches in these matters, but we cannot really understand and live what is at stake here apart from participating in the liturgy. For, as the very issue which gave rise to the formulation of “lex orandi, lex credendi” reminds us, the Catholic credendi requires not only that we be formed by the living faith of our liturgy, but also that we be empowered by the grace it makes available to us. Yes, we must let the message of the liturgy reach us, through all of our illusions, but we must also allow the liturgy to empower us. For it is not enough, as Boorstin suggests, that we “penetrate the unknown jungle of images in which we live our daily lives.” We must also find the “Way, the Truth, and the Light” Who can lead us out of that jungle and into reality.


At the time this article was published, Joyce A. Little was assistant professor of theology at the University of St. Thomas, Houston.

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