Monday, May 12, 2008

Lutherans: A Fable of the Present

I just had another look at the 1973 film Catholics: A Fable of the Future, in which a youthful Martin Sheen plays a priest sent from Rome to deal with an outbreak of traditionalism on a remote Irish island. The movie (based on the novel by Canadian Brian Moore) is available on DVD under the title The Conflict. It is set at some point in the not-too-distant future, when the Roman Catholic Church has taken the ecumenical reforms of Vatican II to a new level (the film makes a passing reference to "Vatican IV").

The version of the VHS that I have is identical with the DVD. Some ten minutes have been edited out of the beginning of the film. Without this opening scene, the viewer must gradually figure out the dystopian, futuristic nature of the film.

While the DVD version's title is somewhat ambiguous, I have to admit that I kind of like it. The entire plot revolves around not just "a" conflict, but "the" conflict - The Conflict between absolute truth as articulated by the Christian faith over and against postmodern subjectivism of false religion.

In the movie, this conflict is focused on how the Catholic Mass is to be said - but it is soon demonstrated that the conflict isn't merely one of Latin vs. English, or which direction the celebrant should face when he presides at the altar. The conflict runs much deeper and involves the very roots of faith: the belief in the transcendent, faith in the words of Scripture, the pre-eminence of the forgiveness of sins, the purpose of the Church, and the nature of truth itself.

In short, the film captures the battle between Christian traditionalism and postmodern spirituality. It depicts a clash between a faithful monastic group that clings to ancient dogma against a pragmatic bureaucracy with a contemporary political and popular secular agenda - and the latter's embarrassment with, and intolerance of, the former.

One element of the conflict involves the dichotomy between being "missional" over and against being considered merely "maintenance" (to use current terminology not used in the film, though a revealing discussion about the nature of missionary work takes place). The aging monks on the distant island, bereft of television and quaintly ignorant of things like helicopters, live out a hard and antiquated existence of farming and fishing, as well as worshiping in a 12th century Gothic church. On the surface, nothing could be less "missional" and more "maintenance" than this tiny, largely gray-haired monastic community. Yet, their celebration of the traditional Mass has been embraced by people on the Irish mainland, as well as by pilgrims from around the world eager to worship in the old order. The traditionalism of the monks has ironically become mission work to a diverse group of people from around the world: young, old, black, white, male, female, people of every culture and language.

The popularity of this traditionalism raises alarm bells in Rome, where the order's father-general feels embarrassment at the antiquated ideas being carried out by this monastery - especially given his own status as the president of an upcoming congress between Christians and Buddhists. There seems to be a fear that this traditionalism is in reality a form of rebellion against their authority and the goals of the church hierarchy.

Martin Sheen's character, Father Kinsella, an American radical priest and advocate of "liberation theology" (which combines Marxism and Christianity and calls for leftist political revolution), is sent from Rome to the island to settle things. The ancient crucifixes on the stone walls of the monastic cells stand in stark contrast to Kinsella's plain gold cross around his neck. The traditional posture and vestments of the monks are the very antithesis of Kinsella's praying in the lotus position in his street attire. Kinsella informs the abbot and the community that in addition to the Latin Mass being banned, Catholics are no longer required to believe in the Real Presence in the Eucharist, and that private confession has been abolished in the interest of ecumenical relationships.

The monks and priests on the island are enraged and deeply hurt. They are even more resolved to resist. Their abbot is desperately trying to hold things together, seeking to maintain cordial relations with Rome and Fr. Kinsella, as well as trying to maintain a sense of order and tranquility among his monks.

I won't spoil the ending as to how the conflict turns out.

But the premise of the movie ties in very well to the current conflict in the Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod. The fault lines brought to visibility by the Issues, Etc. scandal make Catholics: A Fable even more meaningful to us in the LCMS. While much of the current discord among Lutherans is framed as being merely a cosmetic debate over liturgical style, the underlying causes of our synodical divisions run far deeper. The debates over liturgy are only the tip of the iceberg.

While there may not be any open conflict between the traditionalist element and their detractors in the LCMS bureaucracy regarding the Real Presence in the Sacrament, there is a similar division regarding the supernatural. The Lutheran Confessions are very clear that although God uses earthly means, that is, the Word of God as preached by pastors, to evangelize and bring people to faith, the process of conversion is supernatural. The preaching of the Word and the administration of the sacraments bring about faith when and where the Holy Spirit desires. This belief causes traditionalists within the LCMS to cling to the traditional liturgy, to theologically rigorous hymnody, and a reverential and dignified approach to worship. However, the modern element, which dominates the church's bureaucratic leadership, has a more pragmatic approach to evangelism and "church growth." The hierarchy is promoting business and sales models, gimmicks, programs, and a modernist approach to worship that more closely resembles American generic evangelicalism than the traditional catholic liturgy of historic, sacramental Lutheranism.

Thus, where traditionalists are content to allow pastors to recklessly cast seeds about like the biblical model of the sower (Matt 13:1-23), the modernists (or perhaps more accurately, post-modernists) have a far more "practical" approach that leans heavily on psychology, marketing, demographics, the social sciences, and promotional techniques learned from outside of our religious tradition (not to mention the Bible). The two underlying approaches to evangelism indeed play out in style of worship. The traditionalists cling to ancient liturgical forms, whereas the post-modernists feel free to leave tradition and embrace technology, entertainment, and other secular forms. The former are moving toward increased ritual and use of vestments, the latter are going the opposite direction, toward spontaneity and casual attire. The former pay homage to history, the latter see history as less relevant.

The current president of the LCMS has used the epithet "speed bumps" to describe traditionalists in the church body, and has admonished church members that "this is not your grandfather's church." This is precisely the role personified by Father Kinsella in the film. The monks, for their part, replied to Kinsella by singing the traditional hymn: "Faith of our Fathers".

Another subtle conflict in the film pitted Kinsella's condescension of the monk's humble fare and quaint folkways - especially in light of his cosmopolitan and stylish demeanor. In a telling scene, immediately after an impassioned and eloquent soliloquy in defense of the traditional liturgy (over and against informality and "entertainment") delivered by one of the monks, Father Manus, (who is also the main celebrant of the Latin Mass), Father Kinsella walks away disapprovingly as Manus and one of the brothers lovingly and joyfully feed a baby sheep that had been lost. The "go-getter" Kinsella, though an ordained priest, does not preach and administer sacraments. He is a bureaucratic henchman, who sees his work as Rome's executive policy enforcer as more important than "feeding lambs" (John 21:15) like a common preacher and steward of the mysteries.

The conflict over the liturgy is really symptomatic of the difference between a faith that is dogmatic and supernatural vs. a faith that is flexible and pragmatic. The same dynamic is evident in both this movie and the current situation in the LCMS: a division between traditionalist pastors and congregations and their pragmatic and political leaders who are embarrassed by the traditionalists, and seek to use ecclesiastical executive authority to bring about compliance from those they deem to be inflexible and standing in the way of the growth and public esteem of the church.


Jonathon said...

I saw the movie a few years ago and was stunned at how prophetic it was. The connections you make to the LCMS are right on. I hope we don't see a Martin Sheen coming around to check on things...

Past Elder said...

I saw the movie in 1973 when it came out, which was also the last year I counted myself Roman Catholic.

I can't really go into my fuller reaction to the movie without breaking our host's desire not to reveal the ending.

But I will say, and in complete agreement with Jonathon, it is quite prophetic about what has happened and/or is happening, not just in LCMS, but in all denominations with an historic confession.

Even though we don't share all of those other confessions, we in all of those confessions share the same enemy who wants to be rid of all of us. We share that in common now too, along with those parts of our confessions that agree, and I do not hesitate to join hands with these brothers and sisters.

It would seem we already have "Martin Sheens" checking on things.

Past Elder said...

A post-conciliar Catholic would consider the movie dated now, wrong at the time and proven so in the thirty some years since it came out -- the Latin Mass (the real one, not the New Order in its Latin original) is now the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite, the Real Presence is still maintained, as is private Confession etc, so all is well as the Holy Spirit has guaranteed it always will be under Peter's office.

I would disagree. The same things have played out, just not in the way the movie envisioned.