While in Rome some years back, I was wandering about aimlessly somewhere in Trastevere and I stumbled into a church (I don’t remember which one) and saw the flickering of light at a votive candle stand. I decided to light a candle for a prayer intention. But as I approached the stand, I let out a groan of annoyed disappointment and stopped abruptly. The dancing lights were not those of candles but of electric lights designed to imitate candles right down to the shape of the tiny bulb which was in the form of a small “flame”.
It reminded me of when I was a kid at Christmas time when my parents put up a fake cardboard fireplace next to the artificial tree and at the bottom there was a small light bulb behind a fake cardboard cut-out of a flame that gave off the illusion of fire via some magic of electrical engineering. And, even in my youth, I remember thinking, as I did that day in Trastevere, “This is really stupid!”
In reality, however, those electric votive lights in Trastevere were more than stupid. They were an expression of a different sacramental order than that of the Church. They were simulations of a sacramental and as such mere simulacrums of the reality of fire, which is the true sacramental since it is one of those deeply symbolic “elementals” of creation along with wood, stone, wind, food, and water. This is why, traditionally, churches and their altars are built of wood and stone, and the matter of the sacraments comes from wheat, grapes, water, and natural oils. Space precludes here a lengthy analysis of the sacramental difference between things that are grounded in natural elements which are then “transposed” by human agency into things like wine and bread, and things which are purely synthetic and which are designed to imitate natural elements rather than to transpose them into a higher register. Here I can only assert that this is a true distinction and hope that the reader can intuit the insight I am driving at here.
The Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann in his masterful book For the Life of the World relentlessly hammers away at this same reality and links the very teleology of creation to its true vocation as the mediating vehicle (sacrament) of God’s presence. For example, he inverts the normal manner in which we think of the waters of baptism where the usual tack is to say that since water sustains biological life, it is an apt symbol for the impartation of divine life. He affirms instead that God created water first and foremost with baptism in view, which is why God also decreed that water would also sustain biological life. The theological ordering is to view creation and bodiliness precisely through the lens of the Incarnation as its very reason for existing rather than viewing “nature” as some kind of neutral substrate pressed into service in order to symbolize an Incarnation which is viewed as a kind of “add on” to the whole affair.
This is also true on a broader theological scale beyond the seven sacraments and the various sacramentals that flow from them and constitute the deep logic of the Christian faith. God comes to us, paradoxically, most immediately and directly, in and through various mediations, with the Incarnation of God in a particular human being as the preeminent example and the ground for all other mediations. The words of Scripture mediate this Incarnation in a privileged way. And the Church as the body of Christ, through sacrament, magisterial office, and the witness of her saints, provides the only proper mediation for the Incarnation and the scriptural witness to it.
The genius of Vatican II was that it took all of these truths and deepened them via a Christological concentration precisely to drive home the point that there is only one metric for truth in Christianity — and that metric is Christ. Therefore, the true conciliar hermeneutic for retrieving the Tradition is the logic of mediation, now properly ordered, with Christ as its only “filter” and which involves a Christological reading of Scripture and Tradition as the only authentic way that the Church can think. And for the Church to think in any other way than Christologically constitutes an idolatry and a sure token of faithlessness.
Furthermore, all true “reform” and all construals of “aggiornamento” that depart from this Christocentric mediation come from a different spirit than the Holy Spirit and must be judged negatively and rejected tout court.
The philosopher David C. Schindler, in an excellent article on “Mediation” as the defining theo-logic of Christianity, makes all of these points with his typical clarity and brilliance. He states that any theological path that departs from the logic of a Christocentric mediation is nothing less than the repudiation of Christianity as such:
To go right to the heart of the matter, the “logic” of Christianity in person … is the unique Mediator between God and man… Note that God does not communicate his presence thus in a (merely) immediate way as pure God, but only through the mediation of the flesh of human nature.
Schindler further says that this mediation is now definitive and normative since it is divinely willed and is the very form and substance of Revelation as such. And this divinely sanctioned normativity extends to the concrete matter of the sacraments themselves, to the mediating words of Scripture, and to the mediation of the Church as Christ’s body extended in time.
This is why the Church insists – indeed demands – that the matter of the sacraments cannot be tinkered with. Furthermore, if I may be allowed to extrapolate on the point, that far from being a pharisaical insistence on “the rules of men” over the needs of the people, this demand for sacramental, scriptural, and doctrinal integrity is the only true faithfulness to the logic of the Incarnation. And to begin where I started, Schindler even references the “horror” of electric candles:
In her wisdom, the Church insists … that the candles used in the celebration of Mass be at least 51 percent beeswax. We see expressed here the sacraments’ rootedness in the natural world; once again, grace is mediated by nature. Purely synthetic materials are not permitted in the confection of the sacraments, nor – if one can imagine the horror – the artificial lights of imitation candles.
But the ethos of the modern world is precisely synthetic and grounded in a false imitation. Ancient mimesis sought to emulate in the microcosmic world of man the “music of the spheres” and to align the human realm with the divine. But modern imitation is Titanistic insofar as it begins and ends with a repudiation of the normativity of the formal structures of existence and thus seeks to make everything plastic and fungible in the interests of “control and domination”.
Ironically, as Jennifer Newsome Martin points out in a fine article on Charles Péguy, it is precisely because modernity desires control that all of its emphases upon historicity, subjectivity, change, and flux amounts to nothing more than the denial of the normativity of the organic – of the form of life as such. And the elevation of a static view of the world to dominance as humanity imposes its libido dominandi on absolutely everything. But as Martin observes, Péguy thought otherwise, and presciently noted that only Christianity, with its incarnational logic, can properly preserve the normativity of the organic form of things and, therefore; it alone can preserve an authentic notion of change as organic growth.
All the foregoing has implications for how we approach the concept of the development of doctrine and how this notion is being applied in the current agitations surrounding synodality.
Specifically, there is a lot of emphasis being placed by the promoters of the synodal process on “listening” to the people of God in order to better assess the pastoral needs of the Church. That is fair enough, in and of itself, and thoroughly unobjectionable. Indeed, if that is the true goal of the process, then it is praiseworthy, and I wish it well.
However, the synodal promoters have now gone beyond this pastoral aim to making theological claims about how the results of the process are indicative of the movement of the Holy Spirit and are therefore a true expression of the sensus fidelium. For example, papal biographer Austen Ivereigh has written that the listening sessions are the “greatest-ever exercise” in ecclesial listening and consultation in the history of the Church (really?!) and therefore to cast suspicion on their results is tantamount to an insult against the Holy Spirit and the sensus fidelium.
That is a big claim. And I doubt it is true.
And when one further notes that what is being highlighted in the curated summarizations of the listening sessions is a call for women priests, contraception, acceptance of homosexual relations, and so on, one begins to suspect that the game’s afoot. It appears that what is being attempted is an end-run around the normativity of the normal mediations of the Tradition. Nowhere do we find in Ivereigh and others an acknowledgement of the possibility that what is being expressed in the listening sessions is not the Holy Spirit but rather the spirit of the times.
Is that perhaps because the results that are coming in are the ones desired by the synodal organizers? There are significant numbers of the faithful who are more traditional and desire free access to the old Mass. Is the Holy Spirit not speaking through them, too? But synodal promoters do not affirm those opinions of the faithful and only seem to see the Holy Spirit at work when it confirms their antecedent progressive theological biases.
More importantly, and in line with the main theme of this essay – “mediation” – for me the deepest problem with the synodal path as it has been spelled-out by its promoters is the thoroughly unCatholic nature of its concept of the development of doctrine. It seems closer to the modern liberal mantra of “God is doing a new thing” than it does to a proper theological sense of how development actually works in the Catholic Tradition.
The line coming from Ivereigh, Hollerich, Marx, and others is the theological equivalent therefore of those electric candles in Trastevere rather than the true fire of the Tradition. And if the movement of the Holy Spirit is now to be conflated with the mélange of ill-assorted opinions on hot-button issues expressed haphazardly by the 1% of Catholics who have participated in the process, then what we are seeing is the expression of a new theological concept of how God comes to his Church. That is, immediately in the inner “illumination” of a handful of private believers, the opinions of whom the Church must now collate and uncritically digest as movements of the Spirit, and which threatens to overturn the true inner logic of Christianity as a Christologically-mediated Revelation, as well as all of the related ecclesial mediations of that Revelation.
The synodal promoters of course deny all of this. But astute observers who understand the buzzwords of theologically progressive rhetoric are rightly raising red flags. This is how I interpret the recent interview given by Cardinal Gerhard Mueller, the former prefect of the CDF, who offered up the shocking observation that what is going on is nothing short of a hostile takeover of the Church, seeking to impose a non-Christian ideology of change and development on the Church’s traditional understanding of those realities. And that traditional understanding is the theological path of normative mediation – in Incarnation, Scripture, doctrine, Sacrament and sanctity.
So how does the average Catholic fight back? We can begin by asking our pastors to unplug those damn electric candles. And to tell them that we need the beeswax of the Gospel and not the synthetic simulacrums of modernity.
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