A Timely Tract…The Sanctimony of the Legion of Decency

Every time I teach introduction to liturgy to undergrads, grad students, or even ministers I always seek to accentuate the relationship between right prayer and right living – between liturgy and social justice. What a hollow trope it seems though. “How,” I am always asked, “does the liturgy in the church actually connect to the way we live? And isn’t it just enough to go to liturgy and do what the liturgical books prescribe? After all, liturgy is about ‘getting grace.’”

While I have gotten better at answering those questions, increasingly it feels like no one even wants to ask them, let alone hear my answer. For so many, “getting the grace” is all that matters. To “get the grace,” I am told, all we need to know is how to say the black and do the red.

Lest we think this is a new problem, over 80 years ago Hans Anscar Reinhold in a Timely Tract critiqued what he called the “Legion of Decency,” a riff on the National Legion of Decency. This group was established in the 1930’s to protest against films that offended Christian decency and morals.[1]

Reinhold recounts a story about a seminary professor who taught his students 4 central things about the liturgy. The first was (the myth!) that the current “liturgy is good, because it is old, as old as the Church.” The second was that obedience is the most important thing in the Church, “especially for seminarians.” As a result, “let us be obedient and carry out all the rubrics, and that is, of course, liturgy.” Third, he taught the seminarians that “the liturgy is beautiful,” but this can carry with it the danger of the senses. Nevertheless, he consoled them, telling them: “don’t worry, boys, you can’t go wrong, even when your senses come in, provided you obey…Just close your eyes…where you are alone with God.” Finally, he leveled with them that the faithful “need holy shows and sacred actions,” so “let us also stoop and descend to their level.” In the end, the liturgy, according to this seminary professor, is nothing more than a tool by which the faithful are led “to things that really count.”

Sigh.

This is the vision of liturgy laid out by the “Legion of Decency” and the “pious people.” What a depressingly sanitized vision of liturgy. It takes no risks. It strips of the liturgy of its challenging and prophetic dimensions – it waters down the radical call to discipleship and transformation that eating and becoming the Body of Christ demands.

It strikes me as exactly the kind of liturgical mentality that Nathan Mitchell has warned us about: “It is assumed that liturgy’s purpose is to convert parable to myth, so that people can leave church feeling ‘reconciled’ and ‘good about themselves.’”[2] It makes the parable of the widow’s mite, for instance, a tale of a pious old lady, rather than someone who gives her whole self and all that she has to God.

What the vision of liturgy as articulated by Reinhold’s professor really does is prevent the Church from actualizing the reality of the liturgy in our parishes and in our lives. This vision of liturgy strips the liturgy of its prophetic end: “Ritual’s strategy…is to urge us beyond our comfort zone, to let ourselves be ‘parabled’ or ‘koan-ed’ in the direction of a wisdom that exceeds human reason and challenges us…to change our lives.”[3] But, as Reinhold notes, it is much easier if the liturgy is “all neatly tucked away in little file boxes with labels, numbers and according to a system,” even if it means that our religious life ends up “quite dead too.”

The “Legion of Decency” has a very strong attraction, even today. It sure is comfortable to feel comforted. The “Legion of Decency” of the “pious people” today even repeats many of the same points as Reinhold’s professor:

  • The liturgy is unchanging, or if it does change only in small ways and without much human intervention.
  • To do the liturgy right – and therefore “get the grace” – all we need to do is follow the rules.
  • The liturgy is beautiful, ergo:
    • It must be celebrated with pomp and circumstance;
    • It must be protected and preserved from the tarnish of human hands.
  • The liturgy must be performed for, not by, the laity.

Sigh.

I sigh because I often feel like the battle between the Legion of Decency and the trained liturgist is like the battle between David and Goliath. But like the Israelites, the trained liturgists are “dismayed and terrified.”

So, what is the way forward? I am only half-heartedly joking when I say that perhaps it is time we start a legion of in-decency and impious people! I am not particularly fond of the name, but I do like the sentiment. It is time that we be willing in our classrooms and churches to take the liturgy out of the little file boxes in which we have placed it, break the labels, and challenge the system where it needs to be challenged. Perhaps doing so will breathe some new life into our churches and also help us see that the goal of liturgy is to be “parabled” so that we can change our lives and the world. If we can do that, then we really will help lead the faithful “to things that really count.”

[1] For more, see this Time’s article.

[2] Nathan Mitchell, Meeting Mystery: Liturgy, Worship, Sacraments (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2006), 127–28.

[3] Ibid., 125.

7 comments

  1. Is not part of the problem the marginalisation of ritual action in our secularised culture? It seems to me that any connection, conscious or unconscious, between ritual act and life has long ceased to exist. The liturgy may have been reformed to be more prophetic (successfully?), but the problem predates the liturgical movement and goes back to the loss of ritual focus in tbe later Middle Ages. So we are left with the nebulous ‘getting grace’ idea.

    One of my colleagues, a greatly revered and truly holy priest, now over 90 years of age, frequently argues with me about the irrelevance of liturgy. Yes, Mass is important (is Mass not liturgy?), but what really matters in Christians making a difference as a community in the world. It is an argument that I just don’t ‘get’ but I am in a minority. You can be a good christian without going to church, etc.

    AG

    1. Alan, I think you make some important points. I do think part of the issue is the un-linking of “church” ritual with “secular” ritual. I think that secular rituals are always evolving, and perhaps now more so than ever, but I think that people are inherently still ritual beings. Part of what we have to do is study what are the secular rituals that are key today, because I think ritual is much more pervasive in even our culture today than we often think. So first we need to discover those rituals and then we need to make the ritual connections again to what is happening in our churches. This is how I understand (in part) the need to take the liturgy out of its nice file boxes, etc. I do think that you have, in many ways, put your finger on two of the pressing issues that we as liturgists have to deal with today.

  2. This reflection is also timely in that it echoes something Pope Francis said in an address to seminarians in Rome yesterday. In it, he recalled Pius XI and his decision to speak not just to the faithful but to everyone, addressing injustice, particularly economic injustices. Francis sounds a theme that would be right in synch with this Timely Tract and Nathan’s concern about teaching liturgy:

    “Please, let us not be barricaded in the sacristy and let us not cultivate small, closed groups where we can snuggle up and be quiet”, warned Francis… Speaking to future priests, the Pope highlighted that “it is necessary to open up, to expand the horizon of the ministry to the dimensions of the world”.

  3. Thank you for this “Tract,” Nathan, which is indeed very timely. I’m anxiously awaiting your next tract where, I assume, you will outline for us the key principles of the Legion of Indecency–and instructions on how to become a member.

    But more seriously: there is something really scary about the instructions for absolute obedience rightly lampooned by Reinhold, especially with the revelations of what has transpired in seminaries over the last several decades. The culture of unquestioning obedience and of infantilization has had terrible consequences across ecclesial communions and denominations. And yet there is still something within the nature of liturgy itself that laudably strives for obedience–or maybe “faithfulness” is a better word–to the text, to the tradition, and especially to the Gospel. How might we reclaim liturgical obedience/faithfulness in a way that is also faithful to the Gospel and its work of “parable-izing” us and our communities?

    1. I had not thought to write on the key principles of the group, or how to become a member(!), but I will think on it…
      …I know you were mostly joking, but I would begin by saying that the key principles would seem to be:
      – A respect for the liturgy as co-authored by God and humanity throughout all times and places.
      – Seeing the liturgical texts and rubrics as being in service to the relationship cultivated in the liturgy between God and humanity.
      – Understanding the cultivation of that relationship as the primary goal and foundation of the liturgical life (this opens the liturgy up to pastoral context).
      – Acknowledging the beauty of the liturgy both in its splendor and its simplicity, but also in its messiness and imperfections (here there is a lot of room for further reflection, which also touches on the human side of the co-authorship of the liturgy).
      – Understanding that the liturgy emerges from the cooperative work of the minister and the assembly, both of which are first and foremost priest, prophet, and king by virtue of their common baptism.

      Does this seem fair?

      I agree with your assessment about the scariness of the absolute obedience Reinhold points out. It is also my experience that this is increasing an issue in the Church – both from seminarians, clergy, etc., and also laity. At the same time, you rightly point out that we as Christians are called to an obedience/faithfulness to the liturgy, tradition, Church, and the Gospel message. All I can say about that at this point is that obedience/faithfulness for me is dynamic and ever-living. It is rooted in a relationship grounded in the the Holy Spirit moving among us, the Church. The obedience/faithfulness is first and foremost to the belief in, realization of, and commitment to that Spirit-filled relationship.

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