Have you ever wondered why Catholics are more likely than Protestants to leave Sunday worship before it is finished – typically, right after receiving Communion?
According to a crude caricature, Catholics have a real priesthood, a real sacrifice, a real presence of Christ, but Protestants don’t. That’s not quite accurate, but let’s go with it for now. Given their high theology of sacramental worship, why would Catholics feel free to saunter out at leisure?
This isn’t a post about judging people. This isn’t even a post about admonishing people to do better.
This is a post about analyzing as accurately as possible the deep structures of liturgical piety, the deeply entrenched thought patterns we have inherited from liturgical history, and the formidable challenges that await us in fully implementing the vision of the Second Vatican Council.
I see four distortions we’ve inherited from our venerable forebears: what I’ll call thingism, quantityism, dispenserism, and obligationism.
Thingism. This is the misunderstanding of transubstantiation that sees Eucharist at Mass as, above all, the real presence of Christ under the species of bread and wine. While orthodox, I suppose, in what it affirms about the transformation of the species, thingism misses the whole point of Eucharist. Thingism obsesses about a means (transformed elements) rather than the end (the unity of believers as the Body of Christ). See David Turnbloom on this. Countering thingism is exceedingly challenging, for it masquerades as deeps faith in the Eucharist and misreads any challenge to it as a denial of the real presence. But countered it must be, for it isn’t quite the fullness of orthodox Catholic faith. As Joseph Ratzinger once put it (see his Collected Works: Theology of the Liturgy), “Jesus is not there like a piece of meat.”
Quantityism. This is the distortion that thinks it useful to measure the grace given by sacraments, as if grace could be quantified. When one is skeptical of priestly concelebration, for example, because we’d get “more” grace if each priest said a private Mass, this is quantityism. (Never mind the sign value of the rites or the type of unity they are meant to actuate.) As a general rule, any time one speaks of a quantity of “more” or “less” grace in connection with sacraments, something has gone off the rails.
Dispenserism. This is the distortion of the indispensable role of the ordained priest, and indeed of the entire sacramental system of the Church, that sees the liturgy as a means to get something by way of it. While there is a vague realization that God is the source of all grace, and that grace is a gift that reconciles us to God and one another, this gets lost in the focus on what one can get from the sacramental/liturgical dispenser. When the word mediator makes one think first of the ordained priest rather than Jesus Christ, dispenserism is lurking. When one speaks of the priest’s “power” to bring down Christ on the altar as if he had Christ at his disposal, something has gone amiss.
Obligationism. This is a way of speaking about obligations, such as the obligation to attend Sunday Mass (which I believe in, by the way), as a calculation which inevitably asks what the minimum is. Turns out that if you’re present for the offertory, consecration, and communion of the priest, you’ve fulfilled the obligation. Where there is obligationism, minimalism is not far behind. What gets lost is the Christian life as a loving response to God’s good (and undeserved) gifts.
Put all these together, and the sacramental system of the Church becomes one big vending machine. How many (or few) coins do I need to put in to get my grace back from the Church?
No one would put more coins in the machine than the minimum which is the posted price. No one would think about ones relationship to the machine, or to the strangers in line to use the same machine. No one would hang around to be with the machine after the goods come out.
Be it noted: leaving after Communion is entirely compatible with a deeply “traditional” Catholic piety and understanding of priesthood, sacrifice, and real presence. Leaving Communion fits quite well with a “sacred” and “reverent” liturgy conducted in Latin. Centuries of history suggests that there is even a sort of inevitability about the liturgical culture and the resulting lay practice. There is a reason why the liturgical reform happened, and there is a reason why the magisterium (Pope Francis) considers it “irreversible.”
And a half century of liturgical renewal since Vatican II shows that thingism, quantityism, dispenserism, and obligationism have amazing and distressing staying power, even as the form of the liturgy is now more communal, scriptural, and imbued with the paschal mystery.
The task before us is to be formed more deeply by the spirituality inherent in the reformed liturgy, to discover better ways to celebrate the reformed rites so that they engage us as they’re meant to, and to unpack the theology of the reformed rites to inform our understanding of what worship is. Then the issue of people leaving early will take care of itself.
Pope Francis has stated that it takes a century for an ecumenical council to be implemented, that we’re only half-way there after 50 years, and that we must now implement the other half of Vatican II. That sounds right. We have our work cut out for us.