Thursday, January 02, 2003

Catholic Idolatry

Until very recently, I was unaware of a tradition among some Catholics to leave the infant Jesus out of their Nativity scenes until after sundown on Christmas Eve. Other Catholics have raised a great hue and cry over the Pontiff adding a new set of mysteries to the praying of the Rosary. Still others hold the Latin Mass up as somehow truer and more valid that one said in the vulgar. Many Catholics pray before statues and relics of dead saints. The Society of St. Pius X, insofar as I understand it, appears to have replaced Jesus with a dead pope as the Messiah.

None of these things (except the last) necessarily is or causes idolatry. But all of them strike me as very, very dangerous when viewed as anything other than preference or habit. The Rosary is a great and wonderful thing, but a thing—a creation—it is and remains. Creation is subject to modification. A Nativity scene is a reminder, a physical thing, to bring focus in the Advent and Christmas seasons. Strangely enough, it even includes the representation of the giving of gifts which so many rigorists complain about. But the little wood or clay scene you place in your living room remains wood or clay.

It may well be true that the Tridentine Mass is a more beautiful and inspiring thing than the version now practiced (though I have never attended one). Indeed, I would bet it is, judging by the ugliness of some liturgies I have been present for. But the form of the liturgy is subject to modification by the bishops of the Church. The “right” form is not the one I prefer, but the one the Church offers me.

Statues of saints and relics of saints offer a visible, tangible reminder of God’s power in the world. But those things themselves are not the Power.

Anything that is a creation remains useful only while it reminds us of the Creator. The moment it takes on a value greater than that, it ceases to be useful and becomes harmful. If the Rosary has become for you something that cannot be defiled by even a Pope, then perhaps it is time to find a new devotion. If you find that prayers to St. Anthony or St. Francis or St. Suchandsome are answered only when you pray before that particular statue, the time has come to pray more directly to Jesus, and stop counting on the intercession of a piece of marble. If only the Latin and your knees at the altar rail give you satisfaction, it is time to find the Mass that has Sister Mary Guitar singing from the OCP hymnal, while people in street clothes place the host in your palm.

The same is true for any of 1000 other devotions or rituals or habits. Even the Catechism and Canon Law can come, in an undisciplined mind (and whose is fully disciplined?), to supplant the Creator of those things. The gifts of the Holy Spirit are not the Holy Spirit. Our minds, so ready for worship, are easily misled by our corrupt wills, and brought to worship that which is most convenient, instead of that which is most correct.


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