Benedict XVI and Iconoclasm One Year On

One year ago, when Pope Benedict XVI shocked the world by announcing his retirement, a scholarly friend said to me that the papacy of Benedict XVI was a “failed papacy” in that it left too much undone. Only very diffidently did I agree with that summary judgment in some small ways. I did think, e.g., that the 2006 decision to delete the title “Patriarch of the West” from the Annuario Pontificio was badly handled (as I have argued several times elsewhere) and the necessary follow-up to that decision was never forthcoming, and this I greatly regretted insofar as it (needlessly) inflamed Orthodox worries about renewed Roman centralization and papal control.

Other small examples of things left undone could be found—but of whose life and legacy is that not the case?  If you don’t have regrets, you don’t have a conscience. Benedict may not have done a lot in the eyes of my friend, but in thinking back on Benedict’s legacy a year later, there is one hugely significant thing that stands out to me: the 2007 document on the liturgy, Summorum Pontificum.

I first began reading Ratzinger’s reflections on liturgy in the books helpfully translated by Ignatius Press, starting in 1981 with Feast of Faith and more recently his Spirit of the Liturgy, published in 2000. In that latter book he asks a question that is still very important: was there a latent “iconoclasm” in the West influencing liturgical reform from the 1960s onward? In preparing for a public lecture later this month on iconoclasm—Eastern and Western, Christian and otherwise—I would very strongly agree with Ratzinger that there was a form of iconoclasm that damaged many Roman Catholic churches in the last decades. Some of that, happily, is being reversed, and I think we can safely relax from the threat of seeing new churches constructed today with all the beauty of Soviet-era hydro stations. But a lot of the damage remains, and it will be decades before some of the more egregiously ugly churches meet the bulldozer they so richly deserve.

Recent scholarship on iconoclasm, especially that of Leslie Brubaker, John Haldon, and James Noyes has shown that iconoclasm in whatever form and context—Calvinist Geneva in the 16th century, Catholic France during the Revolution, Orthodox Russia under the Bolsheviks, or Afghanistan in 2002 under the Taliban—is always a product of, and prelude to, an ascendant new ideology. We remove or destroy certain images because we fear the power of those images, but even more we fear and loathe the beliefs embodied in those images. Iconoclasm (a 20th-century neologism, as Brubaker has shown—the term was unknown to Christians in the eighth and ninth centuries where they spoke of iconomachy or “image struggles”) need not always be violent, or even be openly opposed. Some people may happily go along with it in the name of aggiornamento or by appeals to the “modern man.”

What was the new “ideology” that accompanied liturgical changes from the 1960s? Here I think the late historian Christopher Lasch was correct: it was a widespread belief in modern “progress” and the pious hope that the so-called modern world was on the cusp of peace and prosperity—what Lasch called “the true and only heaven.” That heaven, however, was to be fully realized here, now, today; and it was thus not the heaven of classical Christian theology. It was a heaven realized on earth—what the political philosopher Eric Voegelin memorably called the “immanentization of the eschaton.” As a result of this ideological shift, images and mementoes of the past, with their reminders of our fallible and fallen world, had to be removed. Dark and cramped confessionals were replaced with cheery reconciliation rooms replete with flowers and cushy recliners where you talked not about sin and judgment but about your feelings of self-esteem. Altar rails, guarding the Holy One who is always beyond, were yanked out and a simple table thrust into the midst of the assembly with priest and people talking to one another—what William Placher memorably called the “domestication of transcendence.” Black vestments and the Dies Irae were ditched in favor of homilies promising instant canonization of the dead accompanied by music dripping with narcissism and treacle.

But leave aside these abuses, some of which are now being corrected. The worst expression of “iconoclasm” consisted less in an attack on images per se and more on texts—the liturgical texts of the Latin liturgical tradition, which was gutted in such a drastic way that, as Ratzinger admitted in his memoirs, Milestones (published by Ignatius in 1997), the Roman Church has suffered “a breach…whose consequences could only be tragic.” Indeed, Ratzinger goes on, “the old building was demolished, and another was built,” which is as neat a definition of iconoclasm as you are likely to encounter—and here, handily, can be taken both metaphorically and literally. This liturgical iconoclasm, Ratzinger concluded, “has caused us enormous harm.”

How are we to recover from this? Here is where I think my friend was on to something insofar as Benedict XVI did not promote an equally radical or revolutionary series of changes to sweep the Church as she had been swept in the 1960s and 70s. But I would not count this lack of dramatic change a failure. Rather, it was born from a true pastor’s heart who, seeing how the Church had been convulsed once already, and painfully aware of the massive damage of those convulsions, could not countenance putting the people of God through a second experience of upheaval. Instead, as pope, Ratzinger opted for a quieter, gentler solution, Summorum Pontificum.

This 2007 document has often been characterized as a “conservative” or “reactionary” agenda, but I think it deserves to be defended as genuinely “liberal” in the old sense of that phrase: the pope gave liberty to Catholics to rediscover earlier liturgical forms in the so-called Latin or Tridentine Mass. He liberated that liturgical tradition and gave it new, wider, permission to flourish not so that Catholics lusting after Latin litanies and lace surplices would be satisfied but so that the damage done by people like Archiconoclast Annibale Bugnini might eventually be overcome.

This one gesture of Benedict’s, of course, has not yet had all the influence one might hope, but it is still a young document and clearly written for a long-term “reform of the reform.” The history of ecumenical councils reveals how often problems councils were supposed to fix actually deepen and worsen at the time of the council, and only much later improve. After the seventh ecumenical council, Nicaea II, met in 787 to formulate an official refutation of iconoclasm, iconoclasm burst out again in a second phase. It was not until 843, in fact, that iconoclasm was finally routed on the first Sunday of Lent that year—a Sunday still kept in the East down to the present day as the Feast of the Triumph of Orthodoxy. So perhaps sometime around the year 2067, on the 60th anniversary of Summorum Pontificum, and nearly a century after Pope Paul VI promulgated his new missal, wise minds might convene to debate whether Benedict’s policy failed or not. In the meantime, I think his actions deserve to be counted unto him as righteousness.

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About Dr. Adam A. J. DeVille 109 Articles
Dr. Adam A. J. DeVille is associate professor at the University of Saint Francis in Ft. Wayne, IN., where he also maintains a part-time private practice in psychotherapy. He is the author and editor of several books, including Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy (University of Notre Dame, 2011).

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