Thursday, May 8, 2014

Catholic Liturgical Beauty and Anti-Catholicism

I've read this letter from John Adams to his wife, describing the Catholic (Tridentine Rite) Mass, in which he sums up the experience: "Here is everything which can lay hold of the eye, ear, and imagination–everything which can charm and bewitch the simple and ignorant." The same sentiments were often expressed at the Court of St. James when Henrietta Maria or Catherine of Braganza's chaplains celebrated Mass--the Protestant onlookers were shocked by the incense, candles, music, art, and beauty in the service of the worship of God (evidently they had not read the Book of Revelation!). 

Oxford Movement converts were often chastised by their relatives and friends remaining on the Anglican side of the Tiber for falling for the beauty and sensuousness of Catholic worship. Gerard Manley Hopkins, for instance, responded to those charges by pointing out how simple the liturgies were in most Catholic churches. Low Mass would have been the norm, with far fewer "smells and bells". The Catholic rebuilding projects of the mid-to late-nineteenth century included great artistic structures by Hansom and Pugin but they also included small parish churches in simple buildings.

This attraction-repulsion pattern--outside viewers acknowledging the beauty and its attractiveness while expressing distaste and disgust for its sensual appeal--continued in nineteenth century America, as demonstrated in Ryan K. Smith's Gothic Arches, Latin Crosses: Anti-Catholicism and American Church Designs in the Nineteenth Century, published by the University of North Carolina Press in 2006:

Crosses, candles, choir vestments, sanctuary flowers, and stained glass are common church features found in nearly all mainline denominations of American Christianity today. Most Protestant churchgoers would be surprised to learn, however, that at one time these elements were viewed with suspicion as foreign implements associated strictly with the Roman Catholic Church. Blending history with the study of material culture, Ryan K. Smith sheds light on the ironic convergence of anti-Catholicism and the Gothic Revival movement in nineteenth-century America.

Smith finds the source for both movements in the sudden rise of Roman Catholicism after 1820, when it began to grow from a tiny minority into the country's largest single religious body. Its growth triggered a corresponding rise in anti-Catholic activities, as activists representing every major Protestant denomination attacked "popery" through the pulpit, the press, and politics. At the same time, Catholic worship increasingly attracted young, genteel observers around the country. Its art and its tangible access to the sacred meshed well with the era's romanticism and market-based materialism.

Smith argues that these tensions led Protestant churches to break with tradition and adopt recognizably Latin art. He shows how architectural and artistic features became tools through which Protestants adapted to America's new commercialization while simultaneously defusing the potent Catholic "threat." The results presented a colorful new religious landscape, but they also illustrated the durability of traditional religious boundaries.

Smith quotes one Protestant minister's confusion: "Why do we abuse the papists, and then imitate them?" John Adams certainly did not want to imitate them--he was uncomfortable with either the Episcopalian or Presbyterian church service or meeting and much preferred Congregational or Independent services.

No comments:

Post a Comment