Losing (and regaining) our sense of the sacred in a “bourgeois” society

It might be profitable to understand Catholic traditionalism as yet another part of this larger phenomenon of people who are dissatisfied with the state of contemporary Western religion, particularly Christian religion, and looking elsewhere for a more enriching experience.

(Image: Jacob Bentzinger/Unsplash.com)

In 2016, Pope Francis gave an interview to Fr. Antonio Spadaro, editor-in-chief of Civiltà Cattolica, in which he wondered why it is that so many young people are interested in the traditional Roman liturgical rites, as they existed prior to Vatican II. “I always try to understand what’s behind the people who are too young to have lived the pre-conciliar liturgy but who want it.” A similar puzzlement about why anybody, let alone young people, is still attached to the traditional Roman rite seems to underlie the motu proprio Traditionis Custodes, the letter which accompanied it, and the recent clarification issued from the Congregation for Divine Worship.

Of course, Pope Francis himself has his own theories about what the causes of this attachment to the pre-conciliar rites may be. In the same interview, for example, he attributed it to a type of spiritual “rigidity” that arises not from love but from insecurity. To be sure, there may be enough truth to this diagnosis: traditionalists have suffered from a sense of insecurity, the fear of losing something that they cherish, the fear of being forever marginalized, for several decades now; and it would not be surprising if many of them have by now adopted this disposition as a more or less permanent feature of their spiritualities. This is unfortunate, and it is right to call them out of such a rut.

However, there is another, more penetrating diagnosis that is capable of explaining not just the traditionalist movement in the Catholic West, but the variety of religious seekers who are looking for alternatives to the major ways of religious practice that are on offer in the Western World. In a recent article, Bishop Robert Barron commented on the interesting phenomenon of young people leaving institutional religion en masse and seeking out other forms of religious and spiritual experience. Many are going to New Age spirituality, Wicca and other forms of witchcraft, or identifying as “spiritual but not religious.” One could add to this the plethora of young people seeking to practice meditation according to the various Oriental traditions of Zen Buddhism, Yoga, Taoism, and the like.

It might be profitable to understand Catholic traditionalism as yet another part of this larger phenomenon of people who are dissatisfied with the state of contemporary Western religion, particularly Christian religion, and looking elsewhere for a more enriching experience. The only thing separating traditionalist Catholic from the “nones” who seek other forms of religious or spiritual experience outside Christianity is, obviously, that the traditionalists have sought for such an experience within their own Catholic tradition. Although they are by no means abandoning institutional religion, they join the hosts of other spiritual seekers in seeking an alternative to the types of religious experience that are being offered by Western religions by and large.

In the foreword to his fascinating text, Christ the Eternal Tao, Hieromonk Damascene of the Serbian Orthodox Church commented on a sad phenomenon taking place in the contemporary West. Christians in the West are abandoning Christianity in droves and seeking alternative forms of religion and spirituality in the East, particularly in ancient China. Hieromonk Damascene speculates that this is because people in the West are finding that the Christianity being practiced there has been watered down, diluted from its original, ancient, mystical quality. He writes:

They see that the people in the churches are not changing and becoming better, but rather are comforting themselves and each other in their unregenerate state. They find that the spirit of the Western churches is, at its core, little different from that of the world around them. Having removed from Christianity the Cross of inward purification, these churches have replaced a direct, intuitive apprehension of Reality and a true experience of God with intellectualism on the one hand and emotionalism on the other.

In a certain way, what the Hieromonk is describing is the near total loss of a sense of the sacred in the West. In the abstract, the sacred denotes something out of the ordinary, something set apart for the purpose of mediating between God and Man in the context of worship. To encounter the sacred is to step, as it were, into another world, a word that transcends the experience of our daily lives, a world where all of our ordinary impulses and habits are silenced in the presence of a mystery that cannot be comprehended in human terms.

The intellectualism and sentimentalism of contemporary Western religions can be understood as a sort of “dumbing down” of the mysterious quality of the sacred. In Evangelical Protestant churches, for example, a heavily didactic intellectualism prevails, where the experience of going to church necessarily centers around the figure of the preacher. Going to church is very often like going to a lecture – with the added embellishment of singing a few songs of praise before and after the lecture.

In other churches, including Catholic churches, the liturgical service takes on the appearance of something like group therapy, and the style of music only reinforces the sense that the congregation is celebrating itself and attempting to cultivate “good feelings,” as though these were equivalent to religious devotion. The sermons and improvised prayers one hears from the altar add yet more to the sense that all we are doing is attempting to feel good about ourselves and each other. The act of worship is thus reduced to a form of collective self-care, in a capitulation to the narcissistic quality of a secular therapeutic culture at large. It is well and good to call this sort of activity “sacred,” but to do so is to render the word practically meaningless.

The didactic intellectualism and the therapeutic sentimentalism of contemporary religions extend beyond the boundaries of the liturgy as well, and into the complex plethora of devotions and spiritualities that religious people seek to cultivate in their lives. These spiritualities, as complex as they sometimes are, often do little more than to give an air of religious piety to a life otherwise indistinguishable from the prevailing social patterns of a fundamentally secular culture. Such forms of religious practice serve an ideological function in the way once identified by Karl Marx: they do not radically call into question the ways of life assumed to be normal by “bourgeois” society. Rather, they merely give it a veneer of religious legitimacy.

This is probably what Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger had in mind on the several occasions he has labeled contemporary Western Christianity “bourgeois.” In The Yes of Jesus Christ, for example, he identifies “bourgeois Pelagianism” as a peculiar attitude among Christians, in which the Christian tells himself, self-confidently:

‘I do my duty, and the minor human weaknesses cannot really be as dangerous as all that.’ This attitude is a modern version of ‘acedia’ – a kind of anxious vertigo that overcomes people when they consider the heights to which their divine pedigree has called them. In Nietzschean terms it is the mentality of the herd, the attitude of someone who just cannot be bothered to be great. It is the bourgeois because it is calculating and pragmatic and comfortable with what is common and ordinary, rather than aristocratic and erotic…

Ratzinger goes on to attribute this to a culture of security, as a substitute for the full and open response of Christian hope. This sheds some light on what the “sacred” is, and why it is that contemporary “bourgeois” Christianity resists it. To encounter the sacred is to be shaken out of all one’s prior illusions of security, to fall entirely out of one’s comfort zones. The bourgeois Christian desires to be secure in what is common, ordinary, and familiar, rather than to be shocked into awareness of his radical calling.

The therapeutic culture of self-care, however disguised by the accoutrements of religious piety, is no more than this culture of security, at the expense of the theological hope which is necessary in the face of the fearsome unknown that is present in the sacred. In a similar way, the security and certainty of an overly rationalistic and moralistic approach to religion is but another illusion, a form of self-assurance that refuses to be faced with the call of faith to total transformation, and no substitute for the opening of the heart to the mystery of the sacred.

The German philosopher, Rudolf Otto, identified the element of tremor as an essential component of the experience of the holy, in his seminal work The Idea of the Holy. To encounter something holy is to be confronted with something entirely other, and therefore something unknown, mysterious, and tremendous in its mystery. The Latin phrase mysterium tremendum encapsulates this experience, connoting something of the “fear and trembling” that necessarily accompany the experience of sacred things. Otto rightly notes that this experience is at the root of all the ancient religions. It is not difficult to understand why this experience is all but avoided by the complacent people of the contemporary West. Trapped in the culture of security identified by Ratzinger, they are afraid to be struck into holy terror by the awful face of the sacred – they are afraid to fear the tremendous mystery of the divine. They would rather recede into the ordinary comforts of a bourgeois existence.

Others, dissatisfied with the culture of security and longing for a genuine encounter with the sacred, are going elsewhere to find it. Many are going to the East, perhaps to non-Christian Eastern religions and spiritual traditions like Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism, or New Age spiritualities, with their austere traditions of meditation, contemplative silence, or other forms of experiencing the sacred. (Pope Francis himself has recognized this interesting phenomenon.) Or they are going to Orthodox Christianity, which possesses its own ancient traditions of prayer and elaborate ritual. Yet others are seeking the sacred in the more ancient traditions of Roman Catholicism itself, such as the ancient liturgy as it existed prior to Vatican II. Or they are seeking to restore the spirit of these traditions to the celebration of the reformed liturgy itself, in accordance with the very directives of Vatican II itself, when so often the celebration does not accord with that spirit. These are all part of one global movement of souls in search of the sacred – in search of an other-worldly encounter.

The Second Vatican Council, in Nostra Aetate, declared that the Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true in the great non-Christian religions, such as Hinduism and Buddhism. The Council proclaimed:

[In] Hinduism, men contemplate the divine mystery and express it through an inexhaustible abundance of myths and through searching philosophical inquiry. They seek freedom from the anguish of our human condition either through ascetical practices or profound meditation or a flight to God with love and trust. Again, Buddhism, in its various forms, realizes the radical insufficiency of this changeable world; it teaches a way by which men, in a devout and confident spirit, may be able either to acquire the state of perfect liberation, or attain, by their own efforts or through higher help, supreme illumination. Likewise, other religions found everywhere try to counter the restlessness of the human heart, each in its own manner, by proposing “ways,” comprising teachings, rules of life, and sacred rites.

It is sadly ironic that, in an era when the Church is supposed to be exploring the ways in which these other religions have aided souls in the pursuit of the divine, some of Her leaders are simultaneously disregarding the traditions by which her own faithful have been aided in this same quest. If anything is to be learnt from the other ancient religions, it is that the flight to God cannot be accomplished by means of a compromise with the social fashions of the world, which are aptly labeled “bourgeois.” Rather, such a journey can only be mediated by the stark symbolism of the sacred, with all its air of mystery and other-worldly transcendence.

In this respect, the traditional rites of the Church share a close kinship with the non-Christian religious traditions in their authentic form. The ancient, slow chants of the Roman rite, the incense that rises like the cloud of unknowing, the sacred language that is spoken more like a spell or incantation than as conversational speech, the meditative silence and the emptiness that pervade the traditional liturgy – these are elements which the ancient Catholic rites share with many of the world’s great religions. The souls who seek out these rites do so to encounter something great, something nameless, a mystical presence that cannot be securely defined by words or comfortably domesticated by sentimental emotions. Like the multitudes who look to the Orient or to the New Age in order to find a path of spiritual awakening, many of the traditionalists who look to the ancient rites of the Roman Church seek nothing more nor less than to lose themselves in the transcendence of God.

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About Jonathan Culbreath 4 Articles
Jonathan Culbreath is a writer living in Southern California. He is an assistant editor at The Josias, a site dedicated to the recovery of Catholic social teaching.


  1. I would respond that in trying to understand why Catholic people tend toward the Extraordinary Form of the Mass, it is because they are dissatisfied with the state of the New Order of the Mass in the Roman Catholic Church, and are not expressing “dissatisfaction with contemporary western Christian religion.”

    • The author put into words a lot of my thoughts about the current state of our church and the “slippery slope” we have been on for 60+ years of my life. Apathy that we see and the idea of just “don’t rock the boat” faith a lot of us have lived, falls short of the calling we all have to the Gospel Jesus preached. They crucified Him for the truths He told us to achieve, but our apathy and comfort just makes us afraid to stand tall and not let satan win! We are called to be zealots of our faith, to recognize and seek the sacred, and eternal life!

    • I agree with your reason why Catholics tend towards Latin Mass. Roger Buck in “The Gentle Traditionalist” sums up the “merchandizability” of New Age spirituality for the materialistic mindset: no doctrine, complete accommodation to one’s personal sexuality. The article does a bad job of fitting TLM and Eastern Religions into a discussion of the flawed-ridden Vatican Two diplomatic efforts of Nostra Aetate. Nevertheless, we should be grateful for this article because it raises some issues that merit far more discussion than they have thus far received.

  2. Thank you, first of all, for the biographical link to the very rich site: josiah.com. Then, author Culbreath quotes Hiermonk Damascene as saying that “[people in the West] find that the spirit of the Western churches is, at its core, little different from that of the world around them.” Christopher Dawson contrasts the bourgeois mind (quantification, money and accumulation), with the heart of uncontaminated eros, ecstasy and charity.

    Now, we hear from Pope Francis, with technical accuracy, that SEXUAL SINS are not the most serious. Of the implied more-serious sins, for example, if I were to summarily brand my critics as “rigid” and “bigots,” possibly using a global megaphone, some might regard this as a most serious sin of SLANDER. But who am I to judge?

    But, then, what of INTELLECTUAL SINS, as in the mind games and euphemisms that escalate sexual sins into our bourgeois abortion culture? The slippery slope into our diabolical Culture of Death? The real “seamless garment”? (Fatima tells us that two-thirds of those in hell are there due to sexual sins. Serious enough!)


    FIRST, today should we at least wonder about a “synodality” that identifies itself with seven beckoning, and yet ungrounded attributes: innovative outlook, inclusivity, open mindedness, listening, accompaniment, co-responsibility, dialogue? (https://twitter.com/USCCB/status/1480570606160695297). How do these signs compare to the well-grounded seven signs of the “Development of Christian Doctrine,” as coherently carried forward from the 5th-century Vincent of Lerins through the 19th-century Cardinal Newman (now a saint, and regarded as the “father of Vatican II”) and beyond?

    Newman: “I venture to set down seven notes of varying cogency, independence, and applicability to discriminate healthy developments of an idea from its state of corruption and decay, as follows: There is no corruption if it retains: one and the same TYPE, the same PRINCIPLES, the same ORGANIZATION, if its beginnings ANTICIPATE its subsequent phases, its later phenomena PROTECT and subserve its earlier, it has a power of assimilation and REVIVAL, and a vigorous ACTION from first to last…”.

    Where settled teachings are concerned, what’s the retained and affirmed fit, if any, with undefined synods (sin-nods)?

    SECOND: When the continental/synodal compendia are “synthesized” in 2023, what then about today’s corrupted eros/bourgeois mindset flagged by Hiermonk Damascene? What about the “deposit of faith” and a too-ambulatory “synodality”? Or, the difference between what the Church IS and what it DOES (synods)? Or, the possible word games of McCarrick termites and enablers who—embracing serious intellectual sins—can no longer even see the difference between spiritual firmness and physical erections?! “Anthropological-cultural change?”

    What then of “Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Heb 13:8)?

  3. “Hieromonk Damascene speculates that this is because people in the West are finding that the Christianity being practiced there has been watered down, diluted from its original, ancient, ‘mystical’ quality

    While the present-day reality of Bourgeois Christianity should lead us into forming the faithful in a Post-Christian Age, so “Be not conformed to the world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect (Rom 12:2).”

    So, a “New Reformation” must therefore start by admitting that much of the once-Christian world, and even a great many self-described Christians, are in fact pagan ..V.. for comprehension, please consider following the link


    Humility is the key but will we bend our knee.
    “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the way that leads to life, and only a few find it”

    It takes an honest heart to truly see the full fallen reality of oneself as in “One Iota” before Him, for if we do so it will induce humility (St Bernard, Humility; a virtue by which a man knowing himself as he truly is, abases himself) while we find self-knowledge (Reality of ourselves) as we reflect in faith on the living Word/Will of God within the Gospels while The Holy Spirit prompts/enlightens our understanding of our ‘own’ brokenness.

    So, His ‘Way’ “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls”

    ‘When we look at ourselves it is often a mirror image that greets us, a light reflection on the bathroom wall, a quick recognition of form whilst the true me remains hidden’

    Our Lord Himself in this present time has given His Church a true spiritual mirror (The True Divine Mercy Image that is one of Broken Man) to look into from where we can see the reality of our fallen self and if we are honest, it will induce us to embrace humility, the forerunner to the commencement of the ‘mystical’ Way (spiritual life) accompanied by the Holy Spirit.

    “The wind blows where it wills, and you can hear the sound it makes, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes; so it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

    In past times a Quickening (The first known movement of the fetus within the uterus) was an acceptance of a new life (Creation). Those born anew of the Holy Spirit do not fully understand the time and place (Whereof) of that birth as initially He enlightens our minds with the ‘sound’ of His living Word given within the Gospels (True knowledge God) while quickening/moving our hearts into obedient, truthful tender compassionate ones as we are gradually been transformed into a New Creation.

    So, in humility venerate the true divine mercy Image a reflection of ourselves before God, mankind and each other, then from this base one of humility the church can open her doors wideto embrace suffering humanity which includes all those Catholics who are entangled in sinful situations and cannot receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation the means to partake of His table dressed in wedding bonding garment of humility and grow spiritually.

    Please consider continuing via the link

    kevin your brother
    In Christ

  4. Rigidness, perfunctory liturgical manner unfortunately can downgrade experience of the sacred. Retreat at a Trappist Abbey Our Lady of the Genesee W NYS revealed for the first time the essential beauty and depth of the Mass. Mystery, an absorbing reverence imbued person, and surroundings so it seemed. It was prior to 1969 and the Novus Ordo. Mass at home in Brooklyn didn’t convey the same. Years later at a Trappist Monastery St Joseph’s Abbey Spencer MA a Novus Ordo Mass, a similar experience as at Our Lady of the Genesee.
    Both experiences were exceptional and differed substantially from Mass offered at home parishes. Except that at the Confraternity of the Precious Blood Monastery Brooklyn offered by Msgr Joseph B Frey [who wrote a book, My Mass 1958]. His offer of the Novus Ordo compared in reverence and mystery.
    It’s easy for the reader to grasp my point. That it’s what the priest gives to the Mass, his own faith and reverence that can make a significant difference. Fr Frey’s title My Mass speaks of his love for the Mass, not the faut ownership by which progressive priests disfigure it. A love that left its wonderful effect.

  5. What I think attracts young people to the EF is the experience of transcendent beauty in contrast with the juvenal banality that they typically grew up with in the OF, especially in the unfortunate and embarrassing “youth Masses” intended to be “relevant” to them. In the EF, they experience a liturgy that speaks to eternity instead of the whimsical popular culture of the moment, one which many generations gone before have attended and beautified for those yet to come. Ironically, the one place where some teens might have gotten just a tiny whiff of tradition is as members of the choir or select singing ensemble in the local public high school, where it’s actually possible to hear a few selections by Palestrina, Victoria, Byrd, etc. I recall the unintended irony of an observation of one of the choir members whom I had complimented on the selections of the school’s winter concert, which had included a few pieces of Renaissance polyphony: “I wonder why we can’t sing this music in Church?” Good question.

  6. The fundamental sickness with which contemporary Christianity is afflicted is idolatry: We render unto Caesar authority over innocent humanity that belongs to God alone when we do not make clear by our resistance that the simple truth is that the state has no authority whatsoever to “legalize” the murder of the innocent children of God.

    People were drawn to the infant Church as it struggled to bear witness to the truth that there is but one True God, and boldly did so in a world dominated by polytheism. This placed the Church in open conflict with the world and the one Christ had called its “prince.”

    Contemporary Christianity avoids open conflict with the prince of this world and so there isn’t anything different about it that would draw the people to it like there was in the Early Church.

    So it is no surprise that the flock, sensing that something is missing in contemporary, idolatrous Christianity, begins to look elsewhere.

    The people will be drawn to the Church again when it goes beyond paying lip service to the Truth and begins boldly living in a manner that is loyal to Him, which will require engaging in a great conflict.

  7. I disagree fundamentally with the author. I left Vatican 2 Mass aged 40 because there was only 1 candle left on the altar. I stumbled into my first Latin Mass and left in tears, having found the most beautiful liturgy man can offer God. But it is so much more. Solid theologically trained priests, no more puffy-flakey half-baked homiliies… Experience sought in TLM? Just wanted my Sunday to feel like Sunday again. Mystical? You bet it is! But it is simply The Real Deal Experience. The Faith of our fathers. That Mystical Sunday Experience is made to bring God to Man century after century. Aged 50 I am like a child relearning catechism. My Carholicism is a permanent stimulating learning curb. Have to go. I am learning gregorien pieces for Sunday.

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  1. They couldn’t love God – they didn’t know how – Pondus Meum Amor Meus

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