Our Exaggerated Concern for “Community”

The Church today is suffering from a false prioritization of “community” and “relationships” above institutions and laws, leading to a vilification of devout Catholics and an undermining of sexual morality.

By now it may seem that almost everything which might be said about the two major points of controversy during Pope Francis’ pontificate—liturgy and sexual morality—has been said, resaid, and said again. Yet I am unaware of any article, lecture, or book dealing with one core error behind restrictions on the Tridentine Mass, attempts to all but impose concelebration upon priests, and tolerance of sexual immorality.

The error at issue is quite straightforward: lack of due regard for the institutional nature of the Church and of marriage combined with exaggerated concern for “community” and “relationships.”

Both the Church and marriage have an essential institutional nature, as does, for example, a rod and gun club. Being a member requires some formal act of admission, fulfilling such membership requirements as paying a regular fee and so forth. Membership also brings with it certain privileges, such as use of club property. But membership does not require any “community of life” beyond those meager institutional requirements. In one club, the members may be the best of friends. In another, they may barely know each other’s names, interested only in pooling material resources. Groups of friends, of course, need not be joined by membership in a common institution.

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Overemphasis on “community” was exemplified by the pastor of the parish I lived in when Pope Benedict XVI promulgated Summorum Pontificum. This pastor announced his intention to use the Tridentine Mass one or two Sundays a month in place of one of the Masses celebrated in English using the Missal of Paul VI. He also expressed hoped those attending it would attend the Masses said in English at the same time on other Sundays because “it is important to worship as part of a community.” Presumably, he expected parishioners who preferred Mass in English to remain there on “Tridentine Sundays.”

I suggested it would be best to have the Tridentine Mass once a month but at a different time than the existing Masses. That would allow the Tridentine Mass to be used and not interfere with the spiritual lives of those attending the existing English Masses. My advice was ignored, but the laity showed good sense. On “Tridentine Sundays,” people who preferred English went to other churches while those who usually went to Mass elsewhere flooded in.

Such behavior is consistent with the wisdom displayed throughout most of Church history. For century after century, priority was given to how each individual can best focus on God while at Mass. Concern for “praying in community”—when it existed—was emphatically subordinate.

Now that long-standing wisdom has been replaced by endless bawling out of the fatuous refrain: “Even if people don’t pray as well at this form of Mass, with this music, and so on and so forth, they should just accept it because it’s more important to pray as a community and conform to the group.” In plain English that translates to: “Prioritize being part of a community over uniting oneself to God.” Requiring clergyman who believe such stark nonsense to choose between a year in a hermitage and being defrocked might be a useful step toward restoring sanity.

Restricting the Tridentine Mass and pressuring priests to concelebrate reflects this mentality. For century after century, the Church favored priests individually celebrating Mass (even sine populo) daily in order to maximize the number of acts of worship and atonement (the number of Masses). Today there is a desire to reduce the number of such acts of worship (to reduce the number of Masses celebrated) merely so those that occur are more communal.

Hostility to the Tridentine Mass is often based on the fact that Catholics who attend it often prefer to pray “individualistically” (silently reading missals, praying the Rosary) rather than “communally.” Such hostility directly contradicts the teaching of Pope Pius XII in Mediator Dei that: 

So varied and diverse are men’s talents and characters that it is impossible for all to be moved and attracted to the same extent by community prayers, hymns and liturgical services…Who, then, would say…that all these Christians cannot participate in the Mass nor share its fruits? On the contrary, they can adopt some other method which proves easier.

Claims of traditionalist “divisiveness” can be similarly ill-founded. Priests who fulfill all canonical requirements for full membership in the Church and for good standing as priests are condemned when they refuse to take part in “communal acts” which canon law explicitly states cannot be required of them. Concelebration of the Chrism Mass is the obvious example.

Similar criticism is made of traditionalist laity who in no way consider themselves superior to other Catholics, fulfill canonical requirements for Church unity, and are perfectly content to attend and receive communion at Masses celebrated using the Missal of Paul VI when the Tridentine Mass is unavailable (often doing so on weekdays) or for particular occasions (weddings, funerals).

What “divisiveness” are these traditionalists guilty of? Some of simply attending a different form of liturgy. Some because they have no more interest in interacting with Catholics who go to other Masses than many other Catholics have in interacting with Catholics from parishes other than their own. Critics of such traditionalists do not consider “divisiveness” to be hostility or confrontation or debate or canonical separation from the Church. To them, simple disinterest in “joining the group”—something in no way morally or canonically necessary—is “divisive.”

Treatment of such traditionalists is truly bizarre when compared with treatment commonly accorded to Eastern Orthodox Christians, Protestants, Jews, and others. Willingness to join with Catholics in ecumenical or interfaith “communal groups” assures a warm embrace for people who are not in full institutional unity with the Church. Traditionalist Catholics who are in full institutional unity are castigated if their “community of life” with other members of the Church is limited to the bare minimum required by doctrine and canon law.

Flawed prioritization of the “communal” and “relational” is even more blatant in errors concerning sexual morality. Sexual acts are only permissible within a valid “institutional” marriage. The existence of a “relationship”—no matter how exemplary in most of its aspects—between sexual partners who are not joined in marriage can in no way make their sexual acts permissible or “tolerable.”

At the same time, for spouses to have a “relationship” is not a necessary prerequisite for morally legitimate sexual acts. Provided spouses had the intentions requisite for a valid marriage at the time they took their vows, subsequent estrangement does not preclude morally licit sex. For otherwise estranged spouses to meet periodically for “casual sex” aimed at some good end—such as avoiding adultery—is morally legitimate. If the only intention was physical pleasure, sin would only be venial.

Other factors can make sex under such conditions gravely sinful. Such factors may (or may not) be present in most such cases. Such factors may (or may not) frequently result from the lack of a relationship. The simple fact that a relationship no longer exists is irrelevant.

It’s past time to be blunt: the Church today is suffering from a false prioritization of “community” and “relationships” above institutions and laws.

  • James Baresel

    James Baresel is a freelance writer. Publications for which he has written include Tudor Life, Catholic World Report, American History, Fine Art Connoisseur, Military History, Catholic Herald, Claremont Review of Books, Adoremus Bulletin, New Eastern Europe and America’s Civil War.

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