Minimalism, in its proper context, can be beautiful.
We see this in the peaceful feeling of an uncluttered house, a simple graphic design, the clean lines of good architecture, or the stark contrast of a cherry blossom against the white backdrop of a Japanese silkscreen print. But when it comes to Catholicism, there is a danger in minimalism. Ours is a complex faith; a rich tapestry of belief, philosophy, theology, doctrine, tradition, and praxis. We should neither accept the iconoclastic nihilism of the present age, nor reach needlessly into the distant past, looking for something simpler and allegedly more pure.
When Pope Pius XII warned against an “exaggerated and senseless antiquarianism,” he wasn’t throwing up a roadblock to the history and traditions of the Church in favor of the new. Rather, he was arguing that we must understand the history of our faith and the reasons for its authentic development, and not fall into the trap of thinking that something is better simply because it’s older. We should instead concern ourselves with what is better. And better is something determined through the process of organic development, of long and careful consideration, and — perhaps most importantly — the observation of fruitful implementation. It is most likely not the latest thing that is best, but rather those aspects of Catholic life and devotion which have been borne out over centuries, standing the test of time with a proven track record of nourishing the faithful.
When the Church abandoned that long, ponderous, organic path of development in favor of aggiornamento and seemingly endless innovation, things got very bad indeed. The past half century of statistics have proven that moving at the speed of the world and in sync with its fads and fashions has nearly decimated the faith. This is bad enough in itself, but it has another effect: it leaves those of us yet clinging to Christ’s mystical bride scrambling desperately to grasp at even the minutest scraps that fall from the table.
There’s a phenomenon that may be familiar to those who labor within the “domestic church.” Some children, after being reminded several million times, will finally do a half-way decent job on a simple chore, like loading the dishwasher or sweeping the floor. A chore they’re expected to do every day, without intervention, because it’s on the schedule and it’s part and parcel of being a member of a large family. Now, as parents, we should certainly acknowledge the work that’s been done with a “thank you” and the encouragement to continue doing even better work. But if the child comes looking for praise or reward for doing the bare minimum, they’re out of luck. If they desire accolades, they need to go above and beyond their obligation.
And yet, every time we see a bishop make even the most basic defense of our faith or our Catholic principles, we’re so surprised, so excited that we have something to grasp onto, that we fall all over ourselves to praise him. Two or three such statements from any given bishop or cardinal inevitably lead to a clamor that he should be elected in the next conclave.
This is what I mean when I talk about “scraps from the table.” Our expectations have become so low, we celebrate when our prelates simply fulfill the basic responsibilities the Church has entrusted to them.
Spin the issue around and look through the other end and the larger problem comes into focus: if the bishops had been doing their jobs all along, it wouldn’t be such an earth shaking event every time a bishop said or did something orthodox. Our shepherds, it must be admitted, have conceded Western Civilization — built by the Church — to the neo-pagan barbarians of our day. This is a mess of their own making, and only their sacrifices (along with our own) on the altar of authentic Christian witness are going to begin setting things right. This will require more than the bare minimum. And it may, when push comes to shove, require real martyrdom.
Another, more important example of Catholic minimalism pertains to the liturgy. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard Catholics go out of their way to defend the legitimacy of offensive liturgy based solely on the fact that Christ is made present on the altar. The Eucharistic presence of Our Lord and God has become for many of us the sine qua non of the propriety of liturgical expression. It matters little, if at all, that the very Eucharistic sacrifice which the Mass centers around is de-emphasized, disrespected, or even profaned by the crass proceedings and irreverent actions of priest and laity alike. And yet we hear, “Christ is there, so that’s good enough for me.”
But should it be?
A priest of my acquaintance recently expressed something that had never occurred to me. “On the spectrum of sacramental validity,” he said, “we have on the one extreme the most beautiful, reverent, Pontifical High Mass; on the other, a priest who, in abuse of his faculties, confects the Eucharist in the context of a Satanic black mass in order that it may be desecrated.” Christ’s presence alone does not validate the context which has called it down from heaven. There must be something more. There is a contribution of human action and responsibility — of gesture, posture, word, song, and action — that must provide a reception worthy of the awesome gift which comes to us through the consecrated hands of the priest.
Imagine a husband and father who has been gravely injured in a car accident and lies, comatose, in a hospital bed. He is, to borrow a phrase, “truly present” within his unresponsive body. His family may draw near to him, hear him breathe, feel the warmth of his skin, take comfort in the knowledge that he is alive. But is it enough for them? Can he enfold his wife in a loving embrace? Can he teach his children, or console them in their difficulties? Can he protect or provide? He is there, but in another sense he is not. The circumstances of his presence diminish the role he is able to play in the life of his family. Not a person on earth who found themselves in such a man’s hospital room would argue that it mattered not whether he was lying there in a coma or living a vibrant, joyful life with those he loved. Ontologically, he is present in both scenarios. Practically, the effect his presence has in one situation or the other are worlds apart. His wife and children would no doubt feel immensely grateful that he was still with them, because it gives them hope that he will recover, and that their lives with him will become once again something more. But they could never honestly say, “He’s still here, and that’s good enough for me.”
Obviously, with so profound a sacrament as the Eucharist, the analogy falls short. But the point is made. Our disposition affects the efficacy of grace received. We should want more, expect more, demand more. We should not allow our expectations to fall so low that even the minutest scrap of authenticity is like a draught of water to a man dying of thirst.
When I met with Bishop Athanasius Schneider during his visit to Washington, DC, I thanked him for the strength and clarity of his leadership in a time when so few of our shepherds seem to care. He placed his hand on my arm and looked very seriously at me, drawing near and saying in a low voice, “It is you who must do these things. It is your witness, the holiness of families, that will inspire the priests. It begins with you.”
If Catholicism is to rise up again and be a force for good in the world, we Catholics must not resign ourselves to settling for the bare minimum. We have a duty to live exemplary lives. To pray and hope and work for more. To avoid indifference, and strive for authenticity.
We owe it to ourselves. We owe it to Our Lord.
A version of this article, which dealt with current events then in the news, originally appeared on March 5, 2015. It has been edited and updated for republication.