Euphemisms are de rigeur for revolutionaries. Communist states call themselves “people’s republics.” When they instigate conflicts, they are called “wars of liberation.” Abortionists call their abattoirs “pregnancy centers” and their executions “terminations.” Most currently, surgeons call sexual mutilation “gender reassignment.” All of this a clever strategy to stave off natural human revulsion so that after a sufficient passage of time the moral sense is deadened. And it works. George Orwell dramatized it in 1984 when he minted the word “newspeak” to name the manipulative devices of the Ubiquitous State and that very brutalizing State itself the anodyne “big brother.” Orwell was only dramatizing a parlous trend in Western culture, namely, plying junk sentimentality masquerading as Progress. It served to clog human language, prompting Graham Greene to quip: “When I hear about the brotherhood of man, I think of Cain and Abel.”
A deeper intellectual rot goes beyond euphemism to neologisms. Such novel constructions are yanked from the ether of a dreamy Gnostic redesign. These odd-sounding constructions are the bricks of a kind of Magic Kingdom far removed from the world of ordinary men. They are Gnostic because they leap from the inventive imaginations of intellectuals frustrated by the humdrum landscape of reality. T.S. Eliot wrote well in Burnt Norton: “Human kind/cannot bear very much reality.” The twentieth century boasted of many intellectual tribes who excelled in the manufacture of neologisms, not least in the Catholic Church. Hers were called the New Theologians (the Nouvelle Théologie). Spawned in the ferment of early twentieth-century Modernism, they devotedly went about the business of refashioning the Catholic Church. Once they had finished their labors of “reimagining” the doctrinal pillars of Catholicism, they turned their attention to the principal engine used to propagate the Church’s dogmatic teaching: the Sacred Liturgy.
These Imaginers of New Things left no stone unturned. One ironclad rule controlled their thinking: all that existed before 1970 must be held in the highest suspicion. In this regard, they were absolutists of the highest order. To these theological pioneers the Sacred Liturgy was to be their private tabula rasa. Untethered from ancient liturgical tradition, their creativity knew no limits. For each jarring novelty, an even more jarring neologism appeared. One of them was the idiosyncratic “worship space.” It suggested a protean world of insertions and subtractions wide enough to accommodate the most fanciful ideas of man and God. It was sufficiently ambiguous, amorphous, and malleable—like a soft clay—into which a New Theologian could knead any theological whim.
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Simple Catholics treated such open-ended argot like nails scratching on a black board—or should have. All of it poured out from that bottomless cornucopia: “the spirit of Vatican II.” As G.K. Chesterton warned: “Beware of those who speak of the ‘spirit of Christianity’; they mean the ‘ghost of Christianity.’” Apply the same logic to those who utilize the capacious “spirit of Vatican II”; it means in translation: “be anything you want to be.” In other words, Gnosticism.
Theologians anchored in the normative tradition of the Church speak of “sanctuary,” “nave,” “clerestory,” “narthex,” transept,” and “altar.” Unmoored from this criterion, whimsical interpretations such as “worship space” suddenly materialize. Under this unforgiving regime, Catholics have suffered architectural and artistic anomalies that strain credulity.
Without wasting a moment, the New Theologians rolled out edict after edict, all treated as solemnly as the Nicene Creed. One of their diktats was that every church in Christendom required retooling. Never has such a fashionable lie taken such firm hold of the global population of Roman Catholics. Truth to be told, there has never existed a duty to renovate any Church. Similarly, no mandate has ever been issued by the Holy See commanding the appalling designs of not a few newly constructed churches. Just as the Supreme Court discovered a right to privacy in the Constitution and called it a penumbra, i.e., a shadow, so The New Theological Knowledge class did the same.
To them, the penumbrae were the parts of text that might remotely suggest a meaning compatible with a highly specific (usually anti-traditional) agenda. No one can divine these penumbrae except the elite group that displays the proper academic credentials. Philosophers call this “privileged meaning.” Sound strange? It is. Stranger still are the vast numbers of people who eagerly swallowed this fantasy whole. Since these liturgists obsessively invoke the Second Vatican Council, intelligent Catholics should know what this 1962-1965 ecumenical council taught. Vatican II devoted exactly nine paragraphs to the topic of Sacred Art and Sacred Furnishings (Sacrosanctum Concilium, December 4, 1963 # 122-130). From the universal sacking of churches accomplished in its name, it might be assumed that it was volumes.
Under the umbrella of “worship space,” they stretched terms used by the Church beyond comprehension. Take “simplicity,” for instance. Of all the terms that have served these liturgists best, “simplicity” holds pride of place. They splashed thousands of gallons of white paint over sacred images and precious ornamentation under the banner of “simplicity.” Many a trash dumpster was stuffed with magnificent vestments while modernist vandals intoned “simplicity.” A former age called this Iconoclasm. Tabernacles, ciboria, chalices and candelabra found their way into display windows of antique shops, and other odd places, for not conforming to the new sacred norm of “simplicity.” And where is the justification for this term and its scorched-earth policy? Paragraph 124 of Sacrosanctum Concilium: “Ordinaries are to take care that in encouraging and favoring truly sacred art, they should seek for noble beauty rather than sumptuous display. This same principle applies also to sacred vestments and ornaments.”
Not even the most fevered imagination could find in that paragraph a justification for “simplicity” and its trail of unrelieved chaos. “Noble beauty” is what every Church has striven after these 2,000 years. The Council changed nothing. It called for more of what former centuries have shown will elevate the faithful. What it did caution the bishops against is precisely what has befallen our churches today: “Bishops should be careful to ensure that works of art which are repugnant to faith, morals, and Christian piety and which offend true religious sense … be removed.” How many penumbrae can survive those words?
There is a bible of liturgical penumbrae, issued by the USCCB in 1978, entitled Environment and Art in Catholic Worship (its successor is the 2000 document Built of Living Stones: Art, Architecture and Worship). Read it and stare down the circles of liturgical hell. Every conceivable distortion that has appeared in churches is given “theological” justification there, and it is chock-full of Gnostic neologisms. Chancery offices have quoted it as reverently and (probably) more frequently than Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. But they are hiding a dirty little secret—though never admitted: Environment and Art in Catholic Worship enjoys absolutely no binding force. Never underestimate the legerdemain of a liturgist. Whatever logic these Imaginers followed, it is not a logic flowing from the perennial teaching of the Catholic Church.
Catholics irked by the din of theological “newspeak” ought not feel disenfranchised. While many a Catholic has come to feel right at home with the nouveau jargon, Catholics of the Old Faith must endure in the world of Catholic reality. Boycott all such newspeak. Again, Orwell writes: “We have now sunk to a depth at which the restatement of the obvious is the first duty of intelligent men.” Let Catholics be about the task of restating obvious things. In God’s good time, the claws of the Gnostic netherworld will loosen.
Editor’s note: Pictured above is the modern Cathedral of Saint Mary of the Assumption in San Francisco. Construction began in 1967 and was completed in 1971. The 1891 landmark cathedral it replaced was destroyed by arson in 1962. (Photo credit: Wikicommons)