In Defense of Feelings

1.  I mentioned before that one of the biggest changes in my outlook in the last 10 years or so has been a move from a singular focus on what is in my head to a broader perspective.  One of the concrete ways that this has manifested itself is in decision-making.  In my 20s and early 30s, in situations small and large, I fell into a predictable pattern.  Some situation would crop up, and I would get a feeling about it.  Call it intuition, call it a hunch, call it Someone trying to tell me something, but I would get a strong sense that one particular choice in front of me was a bad one and that I shouldn't do it.

But then I would interrogate that feeling--why did I believe that?  What evidence did I have to support this supposition?  It was almost as if I felt I had to justify my decision to some public review board, and if I couldn't martial enough evidence to support my feeling, then I could not in good conscience take it to the board.  Because it was usually the case that I didn't have enough "evidence" to support my gut feeling, I would go charge headlong down the road that my gut was telling me not to take.  And, almost with out fail, my gut was right.  I took two jobs that looked great on paper but felt wrong, and guess what: they turned out to be just as wrong as I felt them to be.

As a result of these experiences, I have come to trust these feelings.  I have come to see them as an alternative way of knowing to the more structured, rational way of knowing something.  The thing is, this way of knowing is not arbitrary and it is not groundless--there are always pieces of information that, in retrospect, provide support for that conclusion.  The problem is that they are often not complete, or not in a form that the kind of rational, deductive process can use--at least, not yet.  Just because I can't articulate those reasons to some hypothetical review board doesn't mean there are no reasons behind the feelings.

This insight has helped me relax and rely on these sorts of feelings.  They are not the only data point to use, but they are a key data point.  For me at least, their track record is very good.

2.  To the right is a picture of Cardinal Robert Sarah, the Perfect [head] of the "Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments," one of the "big six" offices that make up that sometimes amorphous entity commonly referred to as "the Vatican."  Cardinal Sarah is the current darling of traditionalist and conservative voices in the Catholic Church, and those that think that Pope Francis is ruining the Church are actively championing Sarah as the man to set things right after Francis is gone.  Until this week, his two most well known actions were to equate "gender ideology" and ISIS as equal "apocalyptic beasts" at the Synod on the Family last year (a notion he reiterated a couple months ago in the U.S. at the National Prayer Breakfast) and to mysteriously take 13 months to comply with Pope Francis's instruction to change the wording of the Holy Thursday to clearly allow for women to participate in the ritual (and then to reassure priests that they don't have to deign to wash the foot of a woman if they don't want to).

On Tuesday, word got out that he gave a speech at the "Sacra Liturgia" conference in London (the same conference that, last year, gave us these images) where he called upon priests, beginning on the First Sunday of Advent 2016 (November 27, 2016--the beginning of a new Church year), to go back to saying Mass in the ad orientem posture.  For those not familiar with this issue, right now if you go into the vast majority of Catholic churches for Mass, you will see the priest and other ministers standing behind a free standing altar, facing out toward the congregation at the Liturgy of the Eucharist.  This is known as "versus populum" or "toward the people.  By contrast, ad orientem  has the altar placed up against the far wall of the church from the perspective of the people in the pews, with the priest and the people facing toward the altar.  It's called "ad orientem" because commonly (though not exclusively) the church was designed in such a way that the altar, and thus the priest and the people, faced east.

This might seem like a trivial detail.
 But there was a reason that versus populum became the dominant arrangement after Vatican II.  In something as rich and multi-layed as the Eucharistic liturgy, the way you put together the elements says things about how you understand what you are doing.  By putting the priest and the people around the table of the altar, versus populum emphasizes the idea that the Eucharist is a meal, a feast in which we all participate.  That sense is all but absent with ad orientem, which emphasizes the notion of the Eucharist as a ritual and a sacrifice.  Connected with this, versus populum encourages an understanding of the Eucharist as the entire liturgical service, while ad orientem places the emphasis squarely on the consecration of the host.  Versus populum encourages a "horizontal" understanding of God, that God is among us and with us as we pray; ad orientem emphasizes a "vertical" notion, that God is "up there" and we are trying to somehow bridge that gap with our prayers.  And, in the one most people notice, in ad orientem the priest spends the critical parts of the service with this back to the congregation, where in versus populum he is facing them.  Body language matters, and conveys meaning.

I have attended services in the ad orientem posture, both Catholic and Orthodox (where everything is ad orientem), and I dislike that aspect of the service quite a lot.  I feel like a passive spectator, as if I might as well be watching the service on TV.  To me, ad orientem is deeply clerical in a bad way--the priest is up there doing whatever it is he is doing, and we wait for him to come off the altar to give us the fruits of his work, as opposed to something we are doing together as a community.  Ad orientem makes me understand completely why people used to say the Rosary during Mass--if the Eucharist is something that the priest is doing away from me and detached from me, I might as well use this time to do something constructive like say some prayers.

Lots of folks disagree with me; I get that.  But that's how I feel.

3.  Dr. Gregory Hillis is a professor of theology at Bellarmine College is Louisville, Kentucky.  Based on following him on Twitter, he is a big baseball fan (Toronto Blue Jays, as it turns out).  He seems like a good guy and is a good Twitter follow.

The other night, Dr. Hillis made his feelings known about Cardinal Sarah's speech, and he is in favor.  I pushed back a bit, explaining much of what I wrote above about my feelings on ad orientem (as much as one can with 140 characters).  His response hit me, and prompted this post: "but it’s not about feelings. It’s about the ecclesiology & theology being articulated."

Ten years ago, I would have reflexively agreed with Dr. Hillis.  What is this feelings nonsense?  Why take that seriously in the face of the long train of history and theology behind ad orientem?  Who cares what I feel?  Ten years ago I would have dismissed my feelings in favor of the cold logic of those positions.  But this is not ten years ago.

My reaction to Cardinal Sarah's statement was and is wholly out of proportion to its relative importance.  Maybe none of this will come to pass.  Maybe Pope Francis will fire Sarah tomorrow and void the entire initiative.  Maybe pastors will ignore the directive.  There is no rational, intellectual reason to care about this very much.  And yet, I had a viscerally and reflexively negative reaction to this announcement.  It feels like a giant step backward.  It feels like the beginning of a sustained campaign to roll back the clock to before Vatican II.  It feels like an effort to reassert a cultic, ritually-focused model of priesthood as opposed to a more participatory model.  It feels like a shot across Pope Francis's bow, and the bow of everyone who hopes that he will be the catalyst for real, substantive change in the Catholic Church.

Because my reaction is so out of proportion to the objective importance of the event, I've learned the hard way to take that seriously.  I've learned not to dismiss these reactions, because they may represent a different kind of knowledge.  I've learned to think about what I am telling myself through those feelings.  Or what Someone Else is trying to tell me.

4.  So, what might all this be telling me?  I think I know the answer, even if it is one I don't really want to face.  You see, I thought I had made my peace with the Catholic Church.  It was my home, for better or for worse, I thought.  Sure, there were many things that it did and said that I disagreed with, but I thought I could live with those disagreements.  And besides, Pope Francis is the Pope--who knows where he is going to lead the Church?  Maybe some or all of my conflicts will take care of themselves, as time and patience move the Church off of the (it seems to me) clearly unsupportable positions it has held to.  I chose to live in hope, to see the positives in what the Pope does and says, even where that required minimizing the bad stuff.  I thought I found a stable place to stand and wait in hope of better weather.

I'm not sure about that any more.  Orlando shook me, and forced me to confront the reality that these are not simply intellectual disagreements--these positions have consequences.  It's one thing to be a part of a church that says stuff you disagree with, but it is another thing entirely when you think that the positions being taken in your name are doing affirmative harm to people.  I've also had some experiences in the last couple of months where I have reconnected with friends from my time with the Dominicans, and have been troubled by where they are in their lives.  They seem like they are being harmed, too--unhappy, confused, and trapped by the life they live, and tacitly forced to live by the rules and theological edifice of the Church.

All of that is bad, but the second dimension to this is that I am beginning to suspect that my plan of waiting for the world to change in the Catholic Church is an exercise in self-delusion.  When I see people like Cardinal Sarah, or Archbishop Wenski, I see that the bulk of the institution is steadfastly against anything like the kinds of moves for which I am holding out hope.  Pope Francis seems either unable, or unwilling, to break through this wall.  I told myself that I could only stay a Catholic if I had a good faith believe that there was the possibility of significant reform.  I'm not sure how long I can maintain that good faith belief.

Cardinal Sarah's announcement is a small thing.  But my overblown reaction to it suggests that it is a harbinger of what is to come.  It feels like something or Someone is trying telling me "look, you are walking down the right hand path, and they are not going to follow you; if anything, they are going to take off to the left.  Stop waiting around for them to turn down the right hand path--it is not going to happen."  Cardinal Sarah's announcement feels a little like a straw that might break, or have already broken, the camel's back.

I can't defend this feeling with logical proofs.  If someone were to tell me I was blowing this way out of proportion, I don't really have a response to that.  All I have is this feeling that tells me maybe it is time to pack my bags and move on.  And I have learned to trust these sorts of feelings.      

[Post-Script:  Exactly a week after Cardinal Sarah's comments (record time by Church standards), the Vatican has issued a "clarifying" statement which essentially cut Cardinal Sarah's initiative off at the knees.  In particular, it reiterates that the post-Vatican II Mass, in its versus populum form, is the standard manner of celebrating the Eucharist, and explicitly suggests that the phrase "reform of the reform" (a phrase made popular by Pope Benedict XVI and code for going back to pre-Vatican II forms of Liturgy) is to be "avoided" because it results in "misunderstandings."  So, the immediate crisis appears to have been averted, and Cardinal Sarah gets a public, if implicit, rebuke from the Pope.

It is a good thing, from my perspective, that this initiative has been squashed, for the reasons I discuss above.  But this doesn't make my basic concerns about the direction of the Church go away.  Now that he has taken Cardinal Sarah to task for ad orientem, maybe it is time for Pope Francis to rebuke him for comparing gay marriage to ISIS?  Or perhaps just get rid of him altogether? That would truly be reassuring to me regarding the future of the Church.] 


Michael, thank you for this very fine statement. I anguish with you at what some Catholics have chosen to make of the church, and the way in which this makes it increasingly impossible for many of us to continue connecting to the church they have chosen to fashion.

About Cardinal Sarah and his portégé Cardinal Napier: it is very clear to me that some U.S. right-wing interest groups are providing them with talking points and are grooming them and pushing them forward. Those interest groups would have been responsible for bringing Sarah to the National Prayer Breakfast.

Someone with good investigative reporting skills might, I propose, investigate the funding sources that are propelling Sarah and Napier forward. These are men who have been bought and sold. Who's doing the buying and selling, I wonder?
Anonymous said…
I find myself feeling the same way about this move towards the ad orientem posture.

I attended the Extraordinary Form of the Mass for the first time about 6 years ago. At the time, I had converted to the Catholic Church four years before, in college, and I had loved it, but I was starting to sense a slight change in my feelings about the Church. Then I went to visit the Extraordinary Form of the Mass for the first time. It was a Friday evening, low Mass. I was horrified. My grandmother, and other Protestants, had always claimed that the Catholic Church wanted to put up barriers between a person and God, but this had not been my experience. When I attended the EF, I realized that they were exactly right. I had a few questions about my faith at that time, but attending the EF really shook my faith. It never recovered.

In a way, I wish I could leave too. I already have in most ways. With the exception of Sunday Mass (which I still attend every week) and crossing myself in the car when something frightens me (which is sadly a frequent occurrence), my faith is pretty much dead. I don't pray, I don't read books about faith (though I did borrow The World in the Trinity book you recommended) I have purposely separated myself from all of my old conservative Catholic friends. I am tired of the lies, the abuse, and the harm perpetuated. Yet I am paralyzed, by pride, fear, and grief.

When I heard about the ad orientem posture, I thought, "Is this it?" Is this the moment that overpowers my pride, fear, and grief and forces me to do what I want to do and what I believe to be right? In some ways, it would be a relief. But I cannot even bring myself to attend an Episcopal church on Sunday instead of Mass, so the idea of leaving is nothing more than a pipe dream at this point.
Heather Coleman said…
As a non-Catholic, I can't speak to the particular tension you feel about the church. However, as a former conservative evangelical, I understand crisis of beliefs. One of the greatest truths I have learned (and, frankly, am still learning) is to trust my feelings. They are good; they tell me when something is in conflict with my values. I am glad you know that, too.
catlady said…
Michael - thank you for a very good description of the underlying meanings of the two positions. I often find it useful to analyze something in terms of a specific dichotomy. There are many ways of characterizing the two sides, which have overlapping aspects - here are a few: male/female; left lobe/right lobe; rational/emotional; vertical (power)/horizontal (relational); right/left political positions; authoritarian/democratic; focused/inclusive; standardized/varied; White/Black, and on and on.

I don't have to spell these out for you to see how they apply both to your shift in perception and to your subsequent response to ad orientem. To be fully human we have to use both sides of our heads and all our ways of knowing, with the realization that our perceptions and opinions may change over time, and that currently we may be on different "sides" of our various issues and beliefs. In other words, there is no "best" or "right" way and which it might be varies, depending on a variety of things. (My belief here clearly falls on the second side of the dichotomies.)

I think I can make a case for a shift between the sides over the last centuries, at first very gradual but now increasingly speeding up. Examine how long it took to do away with slavery as an institution and to give women the vote, in contrast with speed of same-sex marriage becoming legal and the remarkable change of opinion occurring about it. All these opposed by a preponderance of men-in-power, but with humanness and empathy wining the day. So we're looking at the 10th century RCC vs the 18th(?) century one which is having trouble functioning (together with the Pope who stands first on one side then the other) and the current presidential candidates as exemplifying the 19th versus the 21st centuries. Every shift is accompanied by varying forms of protest (thank God we're past civil wars, but the current police/blacks has whiffs of such), but here is one more example of absolute power coming under increasing questioning and doubt.
catlady said…
I forgot to note that there's often a lot to be said for the diagonal.

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