Subversive Catholicism: Papacy, Liturgy, Church

by Martin Mosebach

Brooklyn/New York: Angelico Press, 2019

In 2006 Martin Mosebach sprang to fame, in the English-speaking world, as the author of The Heresy of Formlessness. It was a defence of the ancient Latin liturgical tradition of the Catholic Church: the liturgical tradition which had been celebrated by all western Catholic priests until just 40 years earlier, had provided the spiritual roots for the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, had sustained the martyrs of the Nazi and Communist prison camps, and had inspired the Church’s greatest artists, poets, and musicians.

That such a phenomenon as the ancient Roman Rite should find a conservative defender might not seem surprising, but at that time this form of the liturgy had become a kind of forbidden fruit, something which conservatives who wished to be taken seriously as mainstream figures had ritually to disavow. In this context, it was little short of astonishing that Mosebach’s volume of reflections would be published by Ignatius Press, a conservative American Catholic publisher which had made the avoidance of this ‘third-rail’ issue the key to its intellectual respectability.

The founder of Ignatius Press, Fr. Joseph Fessio, felt the need include a Forward by himself explaining that he did not, personally, agree with the contents. Nevertheless, and to Fr. Fessio’s great credit, he realised that Mosebach was initiating a debate which Catholics had to have, and was doing so in a uniquely intriguing, subtle, and potentially fruitful way.

Since then, much has changed. First, in the very next year, Pope Benedict XVI lifted almost all of the legal restrictions on the celebration of the more ancient form of the liturgy. Then, in 2013, Benedict was replaced by Pope Francis. Under the new Pope, we have seen, in subtle and not so subtle ways, an unprecedented attack on those ‘conservative’ institutions of the Church which had positioned themselves so carefully, and yet so precariously, between the official reforms of the 1960s and the Church’s perennial traditions.

Fr. Fessio’s favoured liturgical tertium quid (as he called it in his Foreword), known as the ‘reform of the reform’, has been a particular target of Papal scorn. The result has been a polarisation of the debate, between liberals and out-and-out traditionalists. No longer is the traditional liturgy unmentionable; one might almost say that it has become, for conservatives, the only show in town.

As Mosebach’s latest collection of essays demonstrates, it is not only on strictly liturgical issues that Catholics attached to the ancient liturgy have important things to say. Indeed, the attack on that liturgy in the first place was only partly made on liturgical grounds, forcing its defenders to consider questions like aesthetics, the connections between high and low culture, education, communication, tradition and modernity, and the ways in which the spiritual and moral life is fed, informed, and grounded, in shared rituals. It is to themes such as these that Mosebach addresses himself in this collection of short essays, only a few of which I can explore in this review.

One topical issue Mosebach considers is the question of the exclusion of references to God in the constitutional treaty of the European Union. Why does God normally have a place in such documents, including Germany’s Basic Law? He writes:

The invocation of God in the constitution implies an avowal of the idea that the state cannot create the law, but is rather only called to protect it; indeed, that the state only possesses legitimacy so long as it guards the law that was not created by it.

Mosebach quotes Dostoyevsky’s famous dictum, ‘If God does not exist, everything is permitted.’ Dostoyevsky’s is not a Catholic thought, and Catholics who lose their faith in God can find it easier than some, from other traditions, to maintain their grip on the force of the moral law, and the value of truth and beauty. This is because for the Catholic tradition these things are established as objective features of the universe by God’s creative will, not imposed arbitrarily on an otherwise meaningless and featureless void by God’s command. The order, normativity, and beauty of the world are certainly congruent with the existence of a personal, creator God; but they can be recognised independently of that reality, as they were by Aristotle.

On the other hand, Dostoyevsky, and Mosebach, certainly have a point. In practice, the disavowal of God is often identified with a disavowal of all that binds us, not only in terms of duty, but even in terms of meaning. Indeed, when God is rejected, it is frequently not only God but all those aspects of classical culture which have become associated with Christianity, whether they be practical forms of life, artistic traditions, or schools of philosophy.

As for the rejection of reference to God in a constitutional document, where he can no more restrict the all-important genital freedom of modernity than the figurehead of a ship can determine its direction, its meaning is clear. It is an assertion that there is no law above the constitution, and the constitution is itself simply a convenient, temporary, negotiated agreement to satisfy as many of the preferences of the signatories as possible.

In two of Mosebach’s most intriguing essays in this volume he addresses the Lourdes Madonna: the mass-produced figurine found in its thousands in Lourdes itself, and instantly recognisable all over the world. It is, as Mosebach says, unquestionably kitsch, a word which expresses the triumph of mass production over the instinctive good taste of the traditional artisan.

This is only one side of the story, however. For it was not mass-production which evicted genuine art from the devotional market-place; on the contrary, it moved into a vacuum created by the emigration of fine art to secular subjects. This itself, Mosebach suggests, was the ultimate consequences of the western Church’s liberation of religious art from the narrow restrictions of form, subject matter, and symbolism we still see in place in the Christian East. This led to the ‘its surrender to individualism and subjectivism’ which has given us the story of Western art, which is ultimately incompatible with a devotional vocation. He notes:

Goethe did not know how right he was when, in his Roman Elegies, he wrote in a spiteful undertone: ‘Miraculous images are usually very poor paintings.’ Idols are not meant to be works of art, and even when they are — like the great icons of Byzantium and Russia — they are only incidentally so.

Mosebach notes that the mass-produced quality of the Lourdes Madonna, and the namelessness of the artisans who created her, in an odd way lend her the objectivity and anonymity characteristic of traditional devotional art.

Another aspect of the situation is the aesthetic ideal of the modern, anti-traditional Catholic élite, which is as incapable as it is unwilling to serve the devotional and aesthetic needs of the simple faithful, despising their faith even more than their simplicity.

When our age comes into contact with the faith of more pious, simpler people, there arises a reaction which is comparable to the struggles and resistance with which the body fights blood of the wrong blood group. This reaction is religious kitsch — it characterises the clash of a secularised civilisation with the sense of veneration and faith of those people who, at the same time, originate from within this very civilisation. Thus the kitsch in a place like Lourdes is probably unavoidable. It is the last final memory of a time when the greatest artists vied with one another to unleash a truly intoxicating sense of beauty within churches, before the very eyes of the poor. The sour, self-consciously ‘objective’, puritanical ideal of ‘noble simplicity’, encouraged in official church art, will never be able to silence this memory. Kitsch is inauthentic, certainly, but it stands for something authentic. It is the defiant resistance of the poor in an age which despises their needs.

Another intriguing discussion in this volume concerns art, blasphemy, and censorship, an issue until recently thought to be closed, but now reopened by the growing and increasingly assertive Muslim minority in Germany and elsewhere. Mosebach is free of the incompatible, yet inseparable, assumptions which make coherent discussion of this topic impossible in liberal circles: first, that censorship of art is inherently intolerable, and second, that causing offence to members of non-Christian cultural groups is never justified.

Mosebach’s discussion starts from the point of view of the artist. He observes that the effect of the lifting of all legal and social restrictions on blaspheming against the Christian religion has been to render blasphemy ubiquitous and banal. Some might have hoped that the failure to give blasphemous artists the satisfaction of the reaction of pious horror might lead them to explore other avenues in search of excitement, but it has not done so. In the end it is not Christians who are the object of this abuse, but Christ. At least, this would be my own explanation for the phenomenon Mosebach observes:

These bold ‘blasphemers’ are happy to cry ‘Victory!’ as they run through gates that are wide open anyway; they perform in a jaded and blasé milieu, and act as though they had just risked the pyre of the Inquisition.

Vigorous opposition to blasphemy, of the kind which might cost you your job or even your life, which once played a part in European culture and has reappeared in the context of Islam, gives the artistic religious insult the possibility of having real cultural meaning and significance: ‘It will do a lot for the social climate if blasphemy once more becomes dangerous.’

That is not to say that the dangerous action is always wrong. For Mosebach, the artist’s vocation implies freedom, but that is not a freedom which should or even could be legally guaranteed. It is freedom which the artist may think must, for artistic reasons, be asserted, in the teeth of legal or social opposition, and it is the riskiness of this assertion which guarantees the seriousness and the authenticity of the artistic statement.

The artist who feels called to injure a social convention, or the belief of those for whom God is present, or even a law for the sake of his art, is obliged — and I am convinced of this — to follow that call. He will generously pay the large costs thereby incurred, even if they endanger his existence. The risks which he assumes in his infringement of the law will at the same time, however, protect him from being flippant in practice. In his studio or study he will ask himself: is this blasphemous element really necessary, is it an irreplaceable part of my work — or is it just a flourish, a caprice or piece of insolence? Must I undertake this hazard if I wish to be able to look myself in the mirror?

Mosebach speaks, of course, as an artist himself. To be an artist, as to be scientist or an academic, is to take seriously the inner logic of one’s discipline and be true to it. One’s conception of that logic will correspond to one’s own artistic or intellectual vision, so the question is also a matter of being true to oneself, oneself as an artist or intellectual. The possibility of artistic martyrdom may be the price of artistic integrity.