Quick Post: Why Greg Sheridan’s argument about Catholic mass makes no sense

Acts of the Apostles, 15:36

After these many days, Adam said to Mark: ‘You should check out this article by Greg Sheridan in The Australian for I agree with it. Ping Rachel Baxendale.’  And Mark, who was called Mark, agreed that he should check it out but disagreed with the argument.  Adam thought Mark’s disagreement was unwise and told him to be a grown up.  And there arose a paroxysmos between them, so they decided to duel blogs on the issue.  [Source]

It’s hard work being a right wing columnist in Australia.  Day after day, you need to pump out your column inches just to fend off all the bright young things aspiring to topple you off your tree.  Although Greg Sheridan is already out of his tree, following his argument regarding the Catholic mass proves to be quite difficult.

The article was hardly off to a flying start:

Tony Abbott remarked recently that the great silence about our indigenous inheritance has been blessedly banished, but that substituting for it now is a new silence about our inheritance from Western civilisation.

‘Remarked recently’.  ‘Indigenous inheritance’.  ‘Blessedly banished’.  ‘Substituting… now … new … silence’.  The author of this ugly, barbaric sentence is about to lecture us in aesthetics.  Hold on tight.

Sheridan is a great fan of the culture wars.  Don’t let me deceive you — I think Greg Sheridan and I share a number of views on the importance of understanding ‘our inheritance from Western civilisation’.  Unlike Sheridan, I don’t think this is a zero sum game.  I don’t think that there is something to regret from affirming other cultural histories.  I don’t think all the other cultures are desperately trying to tear down my history.

Having expressed the concern that we are becoming disconnected from our cultural past, Sheridan focuses the conversation on ‘suburban Catholic mass’.  The new Pope, he claims, is pushing for an ‘evangelising church’.  Sheridan suspects this arises from the Pope’s contact with protestant missionaries in Latin America.

The religious message these movements preach is similar to Catholicism, but the style is much more vigorous. After attending a range of suburban masses in recent years, I am struck by their evangelical timidity, mid-register blandness and cultural confusion.

I didn’t edit a part out there.  Sheridan has jumped straight from discussion about the ‘style’ of missionaries in Latin America into a comment on the evangelical timidity, mid-register blandness and cultural confusion of suburban churches.  Remember, this guy is about to get fiery about aesthetics…

Until the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, Catholic worship was austere but deeply beautiful. It was conducted in Latin (the English translation was printed in the missals). It created a spirit of awe and reverence; its musical tradition was sublime.

So Sheridan has created three quite distinct archetypes: the evangelical vigor of the Latin American protestants, the mid-register blandness of suburbian Catholicism, and the austere but deeply beautiful worship of 1960s Catholics.  Now watch the cups spin ’round.

In purely cultural terms, few human creations are more beautiful than Gregorian chant – plain, melodious, rich, serene.

In purely cultural terms.  Purely cultural.   What does that even mean here?  Further, which people back in the 1960s were singing Gregorian chants?  The congregation?  I can still sing a mean Kyrie but does Sheridan really think this is a skill shared by the faithful?

So Sheridan has created this pseudo-history convenient to his argument.  Back in the past, there was this austere but deeply beautiful worship of 1960s Catholics, but:

 But in the effort to be culturally hip and contemporary, the mass, in Western countries at least, adopted a kind of folk informality that militates against the sublime, the reverential, the transcendent. The worst mistake was to adopt the folk music idiom of the 60s and 70s for church hymns. This idiom is deeply unmusical and has produced nothing lasting. Folk hymns now are mournful, wholly unmemorable, frequently banal in their lyrics. In desperation, parish priests flee to other styles of music, but this is sometimes even worse, muzak recordings, pop-easy listening hits with a vaguely religious sentiment.

And here we have the problem.  Sheridan has seen a shift away from his archetype as an attack on his beloved archetype.  We saw this argument structure earlier: a shift towards other cultures was an attack against his own.  In Sheridan’s world, the Church was given a menu of options and caved to left wing pressures to select the option which most obliterated the connexion between history and the present.

This is like the Dan Brown of liturgical commentary.

But Sheridan doesn’t stick here.  Remember, we have three archetypes in play.

Recently I attended an evangelical Protestant service and the contrast was stunning. The evangelicals don’t aim for the sublime and reverent but rather the energetic and uplifting. They approach the music as a central part of their church service, while the preacher speaks with passionate commitment, drawing freely on their own inner life. This may not be typical, but it was culturally coherent, the aesthetics and sensuous aspects of the worship supporting the religious sentiment. The middle-ground blandness of many parishes now seems exactly the wrong compromise.

So Sheridan’s answer to the conundrum he has baked is to opt, in lieu of the sublime and beautiful, for the entertaining.  ‘Energetic and uplifting’ is the aesthetic supporting the religious sentiment.

Theology and atheology in popular culture is suffering from painful vacuity.  We are not a culture that can grapple with the big issues and really nut them out.  My recent reviews of films and whatnot which analyse my reception has been criticised by a few friends because I should, in their words, ‘switch off’.  We have entertainment not to heighten our experience of the world, not to enrich our understanding of our world, but to dull our senses.  Opiate of the masses, indeed.

Why, then, would you want this same kind of entertainment to infiltrate religious services?  Why should the emphasis of a religious service be on entertaining the congregation rather than trying to reconnect them to the sense of the divine?

If unfunny comedians are the cancer killing pop-atheism, energetic music is the cancer killing protestant church services.  It is just so unspeakably awful.

A bit of personal background: I used to play the organ and keyboard for the local mass.  I was the only atheist who ever did so.  When I moved to an Anglican school, I was the only atheist on the chapel committee.  The music might be more bland at the Catholic mass, but it’s a damn sight better than the ‘Pop song with one key word changed to “God”‘ approach.  The latter is more energetic and uplifting, but it does not provide the intellectual space for reflexion on the divine.

Or, in my case, the opportunity to reflect on what it meant to be an atheist.

Ignore the rest of Sheridan’s waffly garbage.  Let’s get to the heart of what Sheridan got wrong: the purpose of sacred music.

For some background, we can turn to the documents of the Second Vatican Council, particularly the Sacrosanctum Concilium.

112. The musical tradition of the universal Church is a treasure of inestimable value, greater even than that of any other art. The main reason for this pre-eminence is that, as sacred song united to the words, it forms a necessary or integral part of the solemn liturgy.

Holy Scripture, indeed, has bestowed praise upon sacred song, and the same may be said of the fathers of the Church and of the Roman pontiffs who in recent times, led by St. Pius X, have explained more precisely the ministerial function supplied by sacred music in the service of the Lord.

Therefore sacred music is to be considered the more holy in proportion as it is more closely connected with the liturgical action, whether it adds delight to prayer, fosters unity of minds, or confers greater solemnity upon the sacred rites. But the Church approves of all forms of true art having the needed qualities, and admits them into divine worship.

It’s hard to see protestant ‘energetic and uplifting’ songs meet the measure of ‘greater solemnity’.  There’s nothing solemn about the soft rock hymn ‘I’ve been forgiven, I’ve been set free, restored and sanctified, my God has set me free…’.  The ‘hymn’ is flatly ridiculous.  Or that other hymn which stole the music from the Pet Shop Boys’ Go West.  That was funny, not solemn.

Sheridan doesn’t demonstrate an understanding of what sacred music is about.  While pining for the good old days when everybody’d gather around the pipe organ for a rattling out of some Gregorian chanting, he forgets the reason why we had to shift.  Again, from Sac.Conc.:

114. The treasure of sacred music is to be preserved and fostered with great care. Choirs must be diligently promoted, especially in cathedral churches; but bishops and other pastors of souls must be at pains to ensure that, whenever the sacred action is to be celebrated with song, the whole body of the faithful may be able to contribute that active participation which is rightly theirs, as laid down in Art. 28 and 30.

So there are two main requirements for sacred music: that it is solemn and that the whole body of the faithful may be able to contribute.  Gregorian Chant fails the latter; protestant Christian rock fails the former.

But let’s scroll back to Sheridan’s earliest comments about the Pope being from Latin America.  Again, Sac.Conc. has Sheridan’s puzzle solved long before Sheridan started navel gazing:

119. In certain parts of the world, especially mission lands, there are peoples who have their own musical traditions, and these play a great part in their religious and social life. For this reason due importance is to be attached to their music, and a suitable place is to be given to it, not only in forming their attitude toward religion, but also in adapting worship to their native genius, as indicated in Art. 39 and 40.

Therefore, when missionaries are being given training in music, every effort should be made to see that they become competent in promoting the traditional music of these peoples, both in schools and in sacred services, as far as may be practicable.

The problem with modern hymns is not that they are boring, but that they do not celebrate our musical traditions.  The solution is not to go down the fancy path of ‘energetic and uplifting’ songs, but to go down the path of rediscovering our musical heritage as it is understood in the modern context.  We should have the most beautiful English language hymns which reflect the solemnity of the Catholic mass and which allow the whole body of the faithful to contribute.

‘I’m Greg Sheridan and I am bored’ is not a helpful piece of commentary on the aesthetics of religious worship.

Admittedly, I wouldn’t be surprised if Sheridan hadn’t read the background texts before passing comment.  Here’s my copy:


Look, the part where Sheridan and I agree is the lack of beauty in modern culture.  But our society is not currently geared towards having nice things like Latin mass.  School children are not forced to study Latin (despite my Tweets to Andrew Leigh).  And the broader population is seeking something new in its connexion with the divine.  It’s seeking a new form of meaning which Gregorian chant simply does not provide.  Hell, a few years ago, a bunch of monks released pop songs in Gregorian chant form.

Yeah.  Totally sublime.

We need to recapture what was important in our cultural tradition.  Too many conservatives think that we need to preserve every last detail and ensure they are repeated in perpetuity.  But we need to remember why the Church uses Latin in the first place: to connect with the ordinary people.  The Vulgate connected them with what was beautiful in Scripture.  A modern hymn should connect ordinary people with what is beautiful about the Church.

We’re not living in the 1960s, Sheridan.  It’s time to buy a new calendar.

All my enemies are turning into my teachers… in defence of theology

My last post attracted some interesting quips from the mouthier atheists who haunt this substandard blog.

The best comment was a plagiarised ‘Theology is just like Fairyology’.  It seems to be a fairly common attitude among the ‘new atheist’ (whatever that is; the public image of ‘new atheism’ seems to be old white guys).

On ReligionDispatches.com, Eric Reitan outlined the attitude of ‘new atheists’ towards theology.  While I think he accurately identifies the problem, I disagree with his analysis.

The other day, Terry Sanderson—president of the United Kingdom’s National Secular Society—published a short, scathing indictment of theology in The Guardian, a piece titled “Theology—truly a naked emperor.”

This title deliberately recalls H.C. Andersen’s famous fable, “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” and by implication its ongoing use by popular atheist critics of religion to defang criticism that they know next to nothing about theology. The fable was first made use of a few years back by atheist blogger (and biologist) PZ Myers in a bit of satire called “The Courtier’s Reply,” a response to H. Allen Orr’sscathing review of Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion in the New York Review of Books. “The Courtier’s Reply” so delighted Dawkins that he quoted it at length in the preface to the paperback edition of his book. [Source: Eric Reitan, ‘Can Atheists Simply Ignore Theology?’ on ReligionDispatches.com]

Instead of arguing that Dawkins did understand theology, presented it fairly, and dealt it a fatal blow, Myers mocks the criticism.  There’s nothing inherently wrong in mocking criticism.  Many of our finest minds do it.

Oh hey.  See what I did there?  If you link something to something dubious, you don’t need to provide evidence that the two things are anything alike.  ‘Proof by humorous connexion’ is a well-known tool in critical thinking.

More seriously, the ‘proof by humorous connexion’ shields us from having to take criticism seriously.  There’s no need to intellectually engage with the claims of our ‘opponents’ because their claims are ridiculous.  We don’t even need to know what those claims are.  All we have to know is that they’re ridiculous.  Don’t question the apparent paradox which arises: how do you know the claims are ridiculous if you don’t know what the claims are?  Down that path lies madness and critical thinking, and that’s not what critical thinking is about!  No, sir!  Critical thinking is about finding ways to avoid criticism and evaluating claims based on your prejudices and biases.

Reitan also notes the inability of ‘new atheists’ to take criticism seriously (or, at the very least, respectfully).

The link to that interview quickly appeared on Richard Dawkins’ Web site under the heading, “Another Flea,” invoking the practice of Dawkins’ supporters to call critics of The God Delusion “fleas.” The very first posted comment was this: “Just from reading the abstract it sounds like another book in ‘The Courtier’s Reply’ category.” The subsequent comments were riddled with mockery. [Ibid.]

This is where I think Reitan’s argument goes pear-shaped.  After noting two ways in which ‘new atheists’ shield themselves from criticism (mocking the criticism and belittling the critic), Reitan tries to show why the comparison isn’t apt (the fairy story has a different meaning to the imputed meaning) and why theology is intellectually substantive (‘It is, rather, a certain holistic interpretation of our experience, one that offers an account of the meaning and significance of the empirical world and the lives we lead within it’).  Both responses fail to be persuasive.

First, who cares what the actual meaning of the story is when the imputed meaning is more relevant?  Imagine you say, ‘Mark, thank you for inviting me ’round for dinner.  The meal was terrific.’  It would be downright weird for me to check to see if you were in shock or inquire which part of the meal inspired fear.  I don’t think my actions would be justified by appealing to the original meaning of the word.  Similarly, the ‘new atheists’ don’t much care for the original meaning of the story or the minutiae of the fairytale.  Mere details. If there’s one thing busy atheists lurking on PZ Myers don’t have time for, it’s details.  They’re too busy agreeing with each other and chiding fringe theists.

Second, the defence of theology has to be more persuasive than ‘theology is the holistic interpretation of our experience’.  The smackdown response to the ‘new atheists’ is to show why theology is intellectually meritorious.  So why hasn’t this been forthcoming?

Most serious theologians don’t give a toss what Dawkins and Myers think.

It’s a weird standoff.  Just as Dawkins and Myers don’t really care about the claims of the Discovery Institute (and don’t spend vast amounts of time going through their ‘research’), why would theologians care about the ill-informed, belligerent, and oafish claims of Dawkins, Myers, et alia?  Dawkins and Myers want to have an intellectually serious position but they can only do that by redefining the game (‘only claims which can be verified using modern science are valid’).

And you can’t question the new rules because it’s impossible to do so using modern science.

In other words, they’re advocating positivism despite the fact that there are no intellectually serious forms of positivism.  Karl Popper (the guy who basically handed to us on a silver platter the distinction between science and pseudo-science) destroyed it decades ago: positivism considers only claims which are verifiable may be true, but the claim ‘only claims which are verifiable may be true’ is not itself verifiably true.  Nobody’s managed to start a positivism comeback tour.

Some even go a few steps further.  Sam Harris tried to play a new Humpty Dumpty game with language by trying to define all valid intellectual pursuits (for example, history) as science.  Screw falsification.

The weird thing is that a justification of theology is trivially easy to do.

Science provides a toolkit for evaluating specific types of claims: those which can be verified empirically.  There are claims which cannot be verified empirically (if you disagree, try to demonstrate that twice one will always equal two).  For those claims, we require different toolkits.  Theology (and atheology) provides a toolkit for evaluating religious claims.  If you want to make the claim that ‘God does not exist’ using theological arguments, you’re going to need to use the theological toolkit.

Oh, but why would you want to do it using theological arguments?  I have no idea, but this has not stopped Christopher Hitchens writing an entire book doing it, and Dawkins dedicating paragraphs of garbled jibberish attempting it.  If you’re going to make scientific claims, you need science.  If you’re going to make theological claims, you need theology.  Are all claims about God theological?  No.  But — and hold on to your hats, people, because this is going to get controversial — the theological claims are theological.

Woah/whoa.  Freak out.

But doesn’t this give a back door to ‘fairyology’?  Not really.  Nobody uses fairyological claims to dismiss the existence of fairies.  In the ‘new atheist’ world polluted with concepts like invisible pink unicorns and flying spaghetti monsters, it’s difficult to distinguish between the intellectually serious and the asinine.  This small fact makes it much easier to understand the plethora of rubbish ‘new atheist’ writings (for example, The Australian Book of Atheism).