Modern urban life has detached most people in the developed world from a visceral experience of the rhythms of nature. Snowstorms such as much of the country has recently experienced represent one of the few occasions in modern life when everyone must surrender to limits imposed by nature; but even here, nature appears as an intrusion, a disruption of the “normal” 24/7/365 regime of work and play that ideally recognizes no limits on time beyond those freely chosen by individuals.
As we begin the season of Lent, the Church reminds us that the spiritual life of a people requires limits, structures, and rhythms not of one’s own choosing. A certain modern sensibility takes offense not simply at the imposition of structure but the seeming hypocrisy of the Church’s spiritual rhythm: pious Catholics walking around with ashes on their foreheads on Ash Wednesday might very well have been up late the night before, eating, drinking and indulging all other sorts of bodily pleasures on Fat Tuesday, Mardi Gras.
With that in mind, I would like to consider the historical dimensions of what may appear to many primarily a moral dilemma.
Mardi Gras is just one of the many popular festivals of pagan origin that wove their way into the life of the Church from the earliest centuries. It was—and in cities like New Orleans with strong Catholic cultural roots still is—part of a longer season of Carnival, stretching from the Feast of the Epiphany to Ash Wednesday. The word carnival comes from carne, a Latin word for meat. During the weeks of Carnival, people traditionally indulged and over-indulged in the consumption of meat. The practice grew out of the practical limitations of food supplies and food preservation in premodern agrarian societies. By the early months of the year, the food from the Fall harvest was running low and meat from slaughtered animals had to be used up before it spoiled.
As the Church gained public authority in the Roman Empire, it glossed this natural seasonal practice with supernatural significance: the holy feast of celebrating Christ’s birth would give way to the holy fast of Lent, a season of preparation for the celebration of Christ’s redemption of mankind at Easter. The carnal excesses of the old pagan celebrations persisted into the Christian era. There was no need to wait for modern skeptics in order to see the contradiction between the Christian ideal and the often-decadent reality. As far back as the time of St. Augustine, many Church Fathers railed against the immorality and quasi-paganism of Carnival and other public festivals.
Still, for better or for worse, such celebrations remained part of the historical reality of Catholic culture; with the hindsight of a post-Reformation perspective, they appear as perhaps the practice that most distinguishes Catholic Christian culture from Protestant Christian culture.
The irony here is that many contemporary Catholics, perhaps especially those who consider themselves “traditional,” are likely to have a much more Protestant than Catholic attitude toward Carnival and other seasonal festivals. In his classic work, Popular Culture in Early Modern Europe (1978), the historian Peter Burke identified the Reformation era as a watershed in Christian attitudes toward such celebrations. Protestant reformers saw the immorality and residual paganism of popular amusements as a symptom of the moral decadence and residual paganism of Catholicism itself; many Catholic reformers agreed. The festivity of these events required not simply excessive eating and drinking but the singing of bawdy songs, the wearing of masks with horns or extra-long noses, and dressing up as animals conventionally associated with lust, such as the goat.
Modern literary scholars have detected echoes of Carnival in the ribald humor of Shakespeare’s comedies; the English teachers at my all-boys Catholic high school preferred to focus on the more edifying passages of his tragedies and history plays. Burke’s account of early modern popular culture actually reminds me of the halls, rather than the classrooms, of my high school. There, what we now call “adolescent” humor relating to bodily functions, reigned supreme. Such humor was central to the adult culture of Catholic Carnival.
Catholic critics of this Catholic culture were even more disturbed by the paganism and blasphemy often associated with popular festivals. Fairly marginal to medieval art, the pagan gods lived on in the costumed processions of seasonal celebrations; if only as symbols of the natural world for a people who lived close to nature, these deities survived in the popular imagination totally apart from the great works of literature through which they continue to live as part of Catholic high culture. More offensive to many critics was the seemingly blasphemous mocking of Catholic beliefs and practices. In France, junior clergy organized the activities of the Feast of Fools, which featured a mock Mass where clergy put on their vestments backward, held their missals upside down and cursed the congregation. Burke sees these mock Masses as but one example of the general aesthetic of “the world turned upside down.” On these occasions, the whole social order was ritually reversed, with peasants ruling and nobles serving in popular skits and plays acted out on the streets of the city or in a village square. The Feast of Fools took place on the Feast of the Holy Innocents: on that day, children ruled over parents.
That this world seems so strange to us reflects many changes that have transformed the Catholic imagination in the modern era. The change is most obvious in the area of morality. The Council of Trent saw raising the moral standards of the average Catholic as an essential part of its larger vision of turning nominal Catholics into true Christians; on this point, the Church took Protestant criticisms of medieval moral laxity to heart. Still, the Church parted ways with its Protestant critics on the more fundamental issue of the form, as opposed to the content, of popular festivals. Protestant reformers often rejected the rituals of Carnival as part of their broader rejection of all ritual as priestcraft; Catholic reformers strove instead to replace bad rituals with good rituals. A “good” ritual would be simpler, free from pagan excesses and extraneous accretions, and in some sense more edifying—much like the Council of Trent had streamlined the Mass in comparison with its medieval antecedents.
In trying to position ourselves in relation to Carnival, we also stand on the other side of a historical divide with respect to our understanding of social hierarchy. So much of the ritual and humor of Carnival depends on the context of living in a society in which nearly every aspect of life was structured by some sort of established, inherited hierarchy. The arbitrariness, even injustice, of such hierarchies is a recurring theme in the Bible; Burke notes the proximity of the Feast of Fools to that most cosmic of all reversals, the birth of the Savior of the world in a humble manger.
Still, the Bible’s response to unjust hierarchy is just hierarchy: not Caesar, but Christ is the true King of the World by virtue of being the true Son of David. Historians and anthropologists alike argue that the ritual reversals of Carnival ultimately affirmed the traditional hierarchical order even through comic reversal: the privilege of being king for a day affirmed the privilege of kingship itself. Family and Church are perhaps the only areas of where something like traditional hierarchies remain, yet modern moral propriety precludes Carnival-like humor in these settings.
It may be tempting simply to say, good riddance. Is not modern Catholic culture better for being more moral? Is not the sanitized medievalism of Tolkien more virtuous than the bawdy reality of actual medieval culture? Or, more broadly, is not getting together as a family to watch a Disney movie better than going to New Orleans for Mardi Gras? I suppose it depends on what one means by “virtuous” and “better.” The medieval Catholic world could tolerate the reckless spirit of Carnival because it had no illusions that individual moral virtue could sustain social order; the instability of Carnival took place within the stability maintained by social hierarchy, Church liturgy, and the enduring cycles of nature. The social virtues embodied in these sources of stability do not lend themselves to articulation in easy moral maxims.
The American, French, and Industrial Revolutions destroyed this old order and offered as a new ideal an egalitarian world of virtuous citizen-workers, educated in the moral principles that would equip them to make responsible choices as they continuously remade the social world in the name of progress. According to partisans of this modern ideal, the world is better and more virtuous today than it was yesterday and will be even more so tomorrow. Catholics have not, as a people, figured out just where they stand in relation to these two visions, nor have they yet articulated a persuasive new synthesis. Those most anxious about the current state of “progress” often seek to protect certain areas of private life, most especially the family and the Church, from the constant change they see all around them. The quest to carve out a private “haven in a heartless world” failed the Victorians and it continues to fail us. Catholic culture is by nature public.
So, would I take my family to New Orleans for Mardi Gras? Well, a couple of years ago I did just that. I was researching a book on the history of Catholic life in North America and felt I had to experience the city with perhaps the deepest Catholic roots of any within what is now the United States of America. We arrived in late January, before peak Carnival season; we confined most of our exploring to daylight hours. Compared with what a visitor could experience in New Orleans, ours was decidedly a walk on the mild side. Still, in broad daylight we saw a city whose founders established the first settlement around a church that would eventually become the St. Louis Cathedral. Directly in front of the Cathedral we watched acrobats and dancers and listened to an old-style New Orleans jazz band, complete with marching-band tuba and bass drum. We walked through city streets packed with people soaking up the sights, sounds, smells and tastes of a city known as much for its great food as its great music.
Perhaps most powerfully, we visited the glorious “Cities of the Dead,” the above-ground graveyards through which the people of New Orleans maintain a public devotion to their families unmatched by any city in the United States. These practices are all, in their own way, virtuous. Their virtues may not save our souls, but they are necessary to sustain our bodies and Jesus died for us body and soul. That is perhaps the moral of the story of the Feast of Mardi Gras and the Fast of Lent.
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