USCC Watch — Deculturation: A Clash of Symbols

While flipping through one of the many Christmas catalogs on the coffee table the other day, I noticed an attractive silver cross pendant and read, “The cross represents the four winds in Native American culture . . . ($39.95).” A couple of catalogs later I ran across this description of a medieval “Tree of Life” broach reproduced from a cross in a 7th century church in Northumbria: “The idea of a tree symbolizing life-force was common to a number of ancient cultures. For the Saxons the special powers attributed to natural forms was not at odds with their Christianity which taught that the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden bestowed the fruit of immortality ($57.50).” The same catalog features angels on its first four pages, explaining that the figures range from “stern archangel Michael” to “chubby classical portraits of Cupid.”

Naturally, one does not expect writers of merchandizing copy for secular catalogs to be theologically well-informed, but this “deculturation” of Christian symbols is not without significance. That classy catalog merchants list such items indicates the potent appeal of Christian symbols; yet the blurbs indicate deliberate secularization — or frank paganization. Precisely because the symbols are so perennially powerful they have appeal; but their true meaning must be rendered ambiguous — or systematically stripped and reinvested with politically correct meanings.

We see this deculturation process within the Church, as well. For example, southern California’s earthquake-damaged churches are now undergoing “renovations” according to Environmental Art in Catholic Worship, the 1978 statement of the US Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy (see “Cry Sanctuary!”, October). EACW urged removal of traditional images from Catholic churches, removing the Blessed Sacrament from the Sanctuary (or deleting the Sanctuary itself) and refocusing attention on the “assembly.” Why? Because the assembly is the primary symbol. “Among the symbols with which liturgy deals none is more important than this assembly of believers” (EACW ¶28).

As this “stripping of the altars” continues unabated, there is a parallel trend of deculturation of all Christian symbol systems. I give two examples below.

Visual: A “Planetary Mass” was celebrated by former Dominican Matthew Fox in San Francisco’s Grace Episcopal Cathedral a few weeks ago. Visual images of spiraling galaxies were projected on walls; and television monitors beamed out images of environmental destruction, an oil-refinery and a red sports car to illustrate the “sin of lust,” and a televangelist to illustrate the “sin of sorcery.”

This use of “video” images is in perfect accord with EACW ¶105: “There seems to be a parallel between the new visual media and the traditional function of stained glass. Now that the easily-printed word has lost its grip on popular communications, the neglect of audio-visual possibilities is a serious fault. Skill in using these media in ways which will not reduce the congregation to an audience or passive state can be gained only by experience.”

Musical: As everyone knows, a recording of Gregorian chant hit the top of the pop charts this year. Obviously, the ancient chant of the Catholic Church has undiminished evocative power despite decades of neglect by the institution that brought it into being (although the Second Vatican Council urged that Gregorian chant “be given pride of place” in the liturgy (Sacrosanctum concilium 50). A few years ago the penitential phrase “Kyrie Eleison” became an MTV hit; and a jazzy rendition of “Salve Festa Dies,” even with its sobering lyrics like “freed from the darkness of hell,” has appeared in discos.

What is going on? One hopes, of course, that the truth symbolized by Catholic music will somehow penetrate the hearts of its listeners (as it has for many converts). However, there is reason to suspect the motives of “progressive” liturgical experts, now weary of the skimpy musical harvest they themselves sowed and conscious of the symbolic power of historic Catholic music. According to an account of the “Planetary Mass” in the National Catholic Reporter, “Music ranged from the ancient Gregorian Sanctus to original chants created by the liturgists . . . put to flowing Tai Chi movements” (NCR, November 11). In order to detach the music from its Catholic roots an alien mythology must supplant its authentic meaning, its symbolism must be suborned and replaced by a changeling.

Archbishop Rembert Weakland has said that the idea of chant “goes back to Plato.” Perhaps, but not Catholic chant — the “heritage of sacred music” of which Vatican II speaks. Has Catholic liturgical music gone directly from pre-Christian to post-Christian — and missed the Mystery in between? What happens when we empty old wineskins and fill them with kool-aid? Liturgical innovators seem confident that most Catholics will not notice.

Much theological confusion and liturgical cacophony results from such clashing of symbols. The din makes it difficult to hear the “still, small voice.” Yet, we are assured that “the Holy Spirit intercedes for us with sighs which words cannot express.”


Helen Hull Hitchcock is founding director of Women for Faith & Family and editor of its quarterly journal, Voices. She is also editor of the Adoremus Bulletin, a monthly publication of Adoremus - Society for the Renewal of the Sacred Liturgy, of which she is a co-founder. She is married to James Hitchcock, professor of history at St. Louis University. The Hitchcocks have four daughters and six grandchildren, and live in St. Louis.

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