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Walking To Heaven Backward | Interview with Father Jonathan Robinson of the Oratory | Carl E. Olson | December 16, 2005

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Father Jonathan Robinson is the superior of the Oratory of St. Philip Neri in Toronto, and rector of St. Philip's Seminary. He holds a Ph.D. from the University of Edinburgh, and a License in Theology from the Gregorian University in Rome. He is former professor and chairman of philosophy at McGill University, and the author of numerous articles and books, including Duty and Hypocrisy in Hegel's Phenomenology of Mind and Spiritual Combat Revisited.

His new book, The Mass and Modernity: Walking to Heaven Backwards, which, he states in the Introduction, "is about the reform of the worship of the Catholic Church undertaken after the Second Vatican Council."
While many in the Church have accepted modernity in their effort to speak to the modern world, not enough attention has been given to trying to disentangle the complex of ideas and half-formulated convictions that constitute this mind-set, which is, in fact, contrary to Christianity.

Fr. Robinson's book examines the origins and present day influence of modernity, and then argues that there is nothing in the Christian's concern for the modern world that requires accepting this damaging mind-set in connection with the highest form of worship, the Mass.

Carl E. Olson, editor of IgnatiusInsight.com, recently interviewed Fr. Robinson about The Mass and Modernity and what he thinks about the state of Catholic liturgy today.

IgnatiusInsight.com: Why did you write The Mass and Modernity? What specific experiences and concerns shaped the focus and content of the book?

Fr. Jonathan Robinson:
I wrote it to try to make sense of my own varied experience as a priest who was ordained in 1962 (the year the Council opened), and who lived through the liturgical revolution. It seemed to me, as I reflected on this experience, that some of my observations might be of help to others, especially lay people, who are often bewildered, saddened, and not infrequently very angry about Catholic worship in their local parish.

My own experience as a priest is, I know, not typical, but it did help me to understand what I wanted to write about. I have a doctorate in philosophy from a secular university, and I have taught at the Universities of Edinburgh and McGill, and given seminars at Oxford and Fordham. I also have some training in the civil law of Quebec. Then, when I was first ordained I was Cardinal Leger’s English-speaking secretary in Montreal. After the Cardinal left Montreal I went back to teaching and was for a time Chairman of the Philosophy Department of McGill University. During these years I worked with the Brothers of the Good Shepherd, wrote a book on Hegel and worked towards the founding of an Oratory of St Philip Neri in Canada.

For much of this time I lived in an English-speaking parish in Montreal and learned a good deal about parish life. Then for the last twenty-five years the Oratory has been in charge of two parishes in Toronto, and I have had the over-all direction of the liturgical life in both places. Perhaps this adds up to "jack of all trades and master of none," but it was the matrix for the development of The Mass and Modernity.

IgnatiusInsight.com: There have been many books written about liturgical reform and what has gone wrong with worship within the Catholic Church. How is The Mass and Modernity different from other books addressing these issues?

Fr. Robinson:
There are many excellent books written about what has gone wrong. They are, however, "in house" books. By that I mean they discuss the worship of the Church within the framework of Church documents about liturgy show, often conclusively, that there is an enormous gap between what is in the documents and how episcopal conferences and diocesan commissions apply these documents.

What I have tried to do in my book is to step outside this ecclesiastical framework and examine how the Enlightenment and Enlightenment-era philosophers, especially Kant, Hegel and their successors changed how people in the West understand and perceive God, man, society, religion, community, and much more. Then I trace the effect of those changes, noting how the worship of God is often radically skewed, even to the point where God is barely acknowledged.

IgnatiusInsight.com: Some readers might be surprised that the names of philosophers appear more than those of theologians, including men such as Kant, Hume, Hegel, Marx and Comte. Why such an emphasis on philosophy?

Fr. Robinson:
To what I have just said, I would add that theology nowadays, at least the theology that seems most influential at the local level, does not seem to be a very creative discipline. It is in fact heavily dependent on themes marked out by the philosophers; and, moreover, these themes are often treated by using principles of rationality that have little to do with Catholic tradition. Perhaps that is a bit too sweeping, but it does seem to me that a good deal of modern Catholic theological writing is really philosophy of religion. It certainly does not appear to me as patient meditation on the revealed Word of God. It follows that we must go to the philosophers to come to grips with the currents of thought that are really influential.

IgnatiusInsight.com: Your chapter on the Enlightenment contains a quote by Peter Gay that states the Enlightenment can be summed up in two words: criticism and power. How do those two things relate to the Mass and how many Catholics understand worship today?

Fr. Robinson:
To put it bluntly: criticism is about the dismantling of tradition, the refusal to accept the past of Catholicism as in anyway normative in either faith or morals. And power is about reorganizing the remnants of Catholic worship in an autocratic way, by means of a rationality that owes precious little to what I call the givens of Catholicism. What do I mean by the givens of Catholicism? I mean those elements in our faith and worship that we don’t make up, that we don’t create, that are not – or should not be – at the mercy of liturgical commissions, or under the influence of seminars on how to make the Mass more relevant.

IgnatiusInsight.com: You write that modernity cannot be understood without appreciating the "pervasive influence of Hegel and Marx." How has Hegel's understandings of religion and community affected modern thought and, more specifically, the way the Mass is celebrated in many parishes?

Fr. Robinson:
I don’t try to trace a direct connection between what Hegel and Marx wrote and what the liturgists actually read. What I say is that when someone like me is criticized for being "out of touch", or told that "no one believes that stuff anymore", or that we must have to have a "man-centered (or "person-centered") understanding of worship, of the sacraments, of the Christian Community" — we are under the long shadow of the Hegel-Marx syndrome. That is the dynamic, and the way the ideas will be enforced is all laid out in the thought of Auguste Comte.

IgnatiusInsight.com: Postmodernism is, as you point out, an elusive concept. Is the term "postmodernism" very helpful? What distinctions can be made between modernism and postmodernism?

Whether the term "postmodernism" is helpful or not it has become so common that we should at least watch out for it and see how it is being used in particular circumstances. I think the thrust of the attitudes and concepts that we associate with postmodernism is towards "liberation" – especially liberation from the necessity of making judgments. Postmodernists are not required to reject or accept anything at all; they are at home with everything from the Nicene Creed to hard pornography, from kitsch to high culture. This, they believe, is their escape from the harsh, scientific, masculine, sort of thinking of Modernism. The postmodernists seem to think that they are living beyond value, beyond right and wrong, beyond truth and falsehood.

I think this attitude has fearful consequences for freedom, for sanity, and for any serious version of the Catholic faith. Furthermore, I believe postmodernism is used by the self-anointed inheritors of the Enlightenment as one more tool to destroy the authority of tradition, and to wreck the partnership (of which Edmund Burke spoke) between the dead, the living, and yet unborn, and which is the only real guarantee of a freedom not based on the ukases of Sociology Departments and High Court Judges. Whether this is viable politics, I don’t really know; but I believe that something like Burke’s attitude is necessary to Catholicism if the Church is not going to become a debating society in a rather dusty museum. Newman said that to be deep in history is to cease to be a Protestant – and we should add today that to forget about history is to cease to be a Catholic.

IgnatiusInsight.com: What are the most overt ways that a proper understanding of worship been undermined and even attacked in recent decades? What are the biggest failings of how the Mass is often celebrated in a typical parish in North America?

Fr. Robinson:
Saying Mass facing the people is the biggest single failing in most places today. I think it is more important even than the questions of language or music — vital as those both are. The modern practice has turned priests into social animators who must continually improvise, and impress their personalities upon their congregations. It is no criticism of them to say they are not up to it – no one is on a regular basis. This practice has also emphasized the congregation in a deadly way, so that the community and its concerns have begun to take the place of the sober Catholic presentation of the fallen nature of man, of suffering, of death, and of judgment. This focus on the congregation has in its turn prevented the splendor of the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of the Lord from shining through the liturgy.

IgnatiusInsight.com: Although The Mass and Modernity focuses mostly on the "big picture," you do make several specific suggestions and criticisms. What concrete steps should or could be made to improve the state of liturgy and worship in the Catholic Church today? Do you see any of these being addressed by Pope Benedict XVI currently or in the near future?

Fr. Robinson:
I don’t really know what concrete steps can be taken except to say your prayers, do your best where you are, and show that what you believe in actually works and meets people’s deepest spiritual needs. Of course this requires that one is allowed enough space to actually get on with it. In this I have been blessed.

I would not presume to second guess what the Holy Father might do or not do. But we have to realize that more violent change — even in what I consider the right direction — is the last thing we need. Fr Faber said that all change is change for the worse even when it is change for the better, and although that sounds odd when we first hear it, nonetheless, it contains a profound truth. Given what Cardinal Ratzinger has written about the Liturgy one can only pray for Benedict XVI. He would seem to be faced with an impossible situation.

IgnatiusInsight.com: You contend that "the deformation of the liturgy has to be understood as the result of cultural and intellectual forces that will have to be recognized before anything very serious can be accomplished in the way of serious liturgical reform." How can this process of recognition be encouraged and facilitated?

Fr. Robinson:
As Christopher Wren, the architect of St Paul’s Cathedral is reported to have said: Si monumentum requires, circumspicite; if you are looking for a monument open your eyes and look around.

IgnatiusInsight.com: Does the current state of catechesis and homiletics within the Church bode well for this sort of understanding? What can ordinary Catholics do to help bring about lasting and fruitful liturgical reform?

Fr. Robinson:
The answer to the first part of the question is no, and because of this the ordinary Catholic must try to pray, to be faithful, to study if he can, and not be swept out of the Church by either anger or indifference; anger will probably lead to joining groups who are not in communion with the See of Peter, indifference will lead to the laity leaving the Church. This latter certainly seems to be the preferred option in Quebec and large parts of Europe.

I can only conclude by saying that I believe the Church has enormous powers of recuperation. It is God’s Church, not ours, and therein lies our hope for the future. Humanly speaking, I think that future is a grim one.

Related IgnatiusInsight.com Articles:

Foreword to U.M. Lang's Turning Towards the Lord: Orientation in Liturgical Prayer | By Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
Reflections On Saying Mass (And Saying It Correctly) | James V. Schall, S. J.
Rite and Liturgy | Denis Crouan, STD
The Mass of Vatican II | Fr. Joseph Fessio, SJ
Liturgy, Catechesis, and Conversion | Barbara Morgan
The Liturgy Lived: The Divinization of Man | Jean Corbon, OP
Worshipping at the Feet of the Lord | By Anthony E. Clark
Understanding The Hierarchy of Truths | Douglas Bushman, STL
The Eucharist: Source and Summit of Christian Spirituality | Mark Brumley
Eucharistic Adoration: Reviving An Ancient Tradition | Valerie Schmalz

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