The Substance Behind the Style

Dr. Natalia Imperatori-Lee [postscript: Dr. Imperatori-Lee was elected to the board of the Catholic Theological Society of America.  Congrats, Professor!] said something in her panel discussion with Andrew Sullivan and Fr. Jim Martin that has been stuck in my head and won't let go--in a Church that believes in the Incarnation and the Sacraments, there can be no distinction between style and substance, because style is a kind of substance.  It matters how things look and how they come across, because in how they look and how they come across, they communicate truths every bit as real as any explicit doctrinal formulation.

Consider an example.

These two photos were taken at the Sacra Liturgia conference last week in New York City.  The guy seated on the throne with the long red cape (a cappa magna, or "big cape") in the top photo is Cardinal Burke; the guy in the middle of the bottom photo in the red gloves is Archbishop Cordileone (indeed, the Sacra Liturgia conference was where Cordileone made his comments about transgendered people that I mentioned recently).  I suppose this goes without saying, but you will not see these kinds of outfits in your average Catholic Church on a Sunday, or even in your average Cathedral with your average bishop presiding.  This regalia has, until recently and only in some narrow subcultures, gone completely out of style.

You might be tempted to say, "who cares?  If they want to dress up in these kinds of outfits, good for them."  But it is here where the style as substance point comes into clear focus.  These folks are making a very clear and intentional theological point.

Get-ups like this are, to a modern eye, hopelessly out of date.  It is true that all liturgical clothing is basically period costume held-over and re-purposed, but these particular outfits seem especially anachronistic.  These specific vestments also come across, and this has to be acknowledged, as flamboyant in a way that normal liturgical clothing often does not (compare, for example, some examples here).  Whether or not they always had that tone to them, they certainly do now, just as powdered wigs were once something George Washington wore and later were something Liberace wore.  The context that we place on clothing like this has changed.  This may have been cool and unobjectionable in 1515 or 1715, but in 2015 it looks out of place, even suspicious.

And that's why guys like Burke and Cordileone insist on wearing it.
Not so much because they want to go back to 1515 or 1715 (though, deep down, that's a big part of it), but because they have a vision of the Catholic Church in which the Church is a timeless institution.  Saying that vestments like this are "out of date" presupposes that the Church changes over time, that things that may have made sense in 1515 do not necessarily make sense in 2015.  That's precisely what these folks reject.  Cardinal Burke putting on the cappa magna is a statement that, by definition, nothing that was appropriate yesterday can be inappropriate today, because today and yesterday are fundamentally the same.  Archbishop Cordileone wearing those red gloves is a statement that everything that goes on outside the walls of the church--culture, politics, ideas, technology--is basically irrelevant to that which goes on inside the walls of the Church.  They know that you and I and the vast majority of people looking at these photos think these outfits are ridiculous, and they wear them as a statement that what we think doesn't matter, because the Church transcends the conditioned historical situation she finds herself.

To be fair to Cardinal Burke and Archbishop Cordileone, they did not invent this notion out of whole cloth.  This was the dominant self-understanding of the Catholic Church coming out of the Counter Reformation.  But, and here is where the rubber meets the road, it is not the vision of the Church articulated at the Second Vatican Council.

To carry out [its] task, the Church has always had the duty of scrutinizing the signs of the times and of interpreting them in the light of the Gospel. Thus, in language intelligible to each generation, she can respond to the perennial questions which men ask about this present life and the life to come, and about the relationship of the one to the other. We must therefore recognize and understand the world in which we live, its explanations, its longings, and its often dramatic characteristics.  (Gaudium et Spes, p. 4)

The vision of the Catholic Church articulated at the Second Vatican Council was one that was in constant dialogue with the present situation and constantly refining and honing its practice and way of being in reaction to the present situation.

Moreover, the Council Fathers seem to recognize something that the pre-Vatican II Church tried very hard to cover-up--it is an objective, historical fact that the Church has changed over the course of its long life.  The past, as constructed by Counter-Reformation theologians to fend off the Protestant challenge, doesn't actually exist.  I mean, do we really think St. Peter and St. Paul wore a cappa magna?  Or, in a Church founded by Aramaic-speaking uneducated fishermen from Galilee and whose sacred texts were originally written in Hebrew and Greek, that Latin is somehow divinely privileged above all other languages?  The Council Fathers understood that all of the things that made up the Catholic Church in 315 and 815 and 1515 and 1915 were influenced by (at their best) the attempt by the Church to respond to the situation present in 315 or 815 or 1515 or 1915.  That doesn't make any of these things bad, but neither does it make any of them inherently necessary or relevant to the situation in 2015.  To figure out to what extent any of these old things are relevant, the Church must discern the signs of the times.  Which carries with it the possibility that, indeed, some of these things are anachronistic or mistaken.

Cardinal Burke and Archbishop Cordileone are perfectly aware of that understanding of the Church coming out of the Council, and they reject it in favor of the previous understanding.  They cling to a past that doesn't actually exist, except in their own construction.  That's why wearing the cappa magna and the red gloves are important to them, and that's why it matters to everyone else as well.

On a personal note, something else has become increasingly clear.  There is no future for me in the Church of Cardinal Burke and Archbishop Cordileone.  Because it's not just about the fact that I find the Latin Mass (particularly these ostentatious displays) empty and ridiculous.  It is because the substance that is manifest in those services is not one I am willing to embrace.  It is Vatican II or bust for me.  The vision that they articulate is not one that I can in good conscience be a part of.

I cannot be apart of it because their vision, at bottom, does not reflect reality.  The notion that the Church is an unchanging, out-of-time institution is simply not true.  It's a fantasy.  And a fantasy cannot be the basis of of a faith that has a founder that said that "I am the way, the truth, and the life."  If our faith is founded on a fantasy, then all of this is Kabuki theatre, and we are all wasting our time.

If we are not trying to discern the sign of the times, we are not seeking the truth.  Those pictures above are reflective of people who are not discerning the sign of times, and so are not seeking the truth.  If the vision of Cardinal Burke and Archbishop Cordileone prevails, then we are lost.  That's why it matters.

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