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Catholicism, an anachronism

Our Lord and Savior

In the Piazza of San Marco in Florence is a church in which lies the dried-out corpse of Saint Antonino from the fifteenth century, his hands folded on his chest in a well-lit glass tomb. The sight is macabre. Above and behind him and all over the church are models of Jesus’s crucifixion, this man being tortured to death on a wooden cross with blood pouring from his hands and his pierced ribs. The church is cavernous and dark, with heavenly art and stained glass windows lulling the beholder into a state of awe intensified by the enforced silence, the whispering, the candles, the pews for praying on your knees with your head lowered and your hands clasped, and the “mass-iveness” of it all. And there are the rituals, the imbibing of wine (Christ’s blood) and the wafer (Christ’s flesh), and numerous such otherworldly, morbid rituals. And you realize that Catholicism is a religion of death. It is immersion in the past, preservation of the past and the dead, worship of the sphere of after-death, rejection of the worldly and the living. The five-hundred-year-old withered corpse of St. Antonino is an emblem of Catholicism. A religion so death-focused could not have triumphed in a dynamic civilization such as that before the late Roman Empire; and after a reemergence of dynamism in the Late Middle Ages, an epochal reformation was necessary. Individuality, life had to be reintroduced into religion, which had become rigid and cadaverous. And yet even Protestantism is in general a sort of compromise between life and death, this-worldly affirmation and negation. Some forms of Catholicism can even be more this-worldly than some kinds of Protestantism—for example, liberation theology versus, perhaps, primitive Methodism. The forms that religion takes depend on the social context, but Catholicism has a definite tendency to oppress and weigh down the human spirit with death and its conceptual offshoots. The scent of decay, of a decaying antiquity, lingers about it.

It is ironic, then, that Catholicism would have inspired so much more great art (though not music) than Protestantism. Or perhaps not so ironic. An obsession with the transcendent, after all, has often characterized the artistic temperament, as has a peculiar morbidity. On the other side, the Church has always used art as a means to intoxicate and entrance the human spirit, to raise its vision from ordinary life to eternal life-in-death. And to direct it from the present to the past, which is also supposed to be the posthumous future.

One might defend Catholicism by arguing that it “affirms” one side of man, the “transcendent” side, the wonder-full side, the side that looks toward the universe and craves divinity and immortality, as well as the communal side, which goes together with the Catholic emphasis on tradition, ritual, memory, the past. In some sense, this may be true. Nonetheless, Catholicism remains, or tends to remain (depending on the social context), a religion of anti-individuality, non-presence—the non-present, the mythical past and post-deathly future—death-in-life and life-in-death, which as such is opposed to a society immersed in a dynamic and forward-looking present.


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