Catholic Sensibility: Our Compass of Sanity


A Voice of the Faithful Catholic

Boswell: “Then, Sir, what is poetry?” Johnson: “Why, Sir, it is much easier to say what it is not. We all know what light is; but it is not easy to tell what it is.”  —Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson 

Let me begin with an incident that I witnessed in the last year that expresses the tragedy a loss of Catholic sensibility entails. I sometimes help out with funerals at my parish by serving at Mass. It usually is an edifying experience, although sometimes I inwardly cringe at the music often sung at such solemn moments in the life of an individual and the Church.

One day I was asked to help usher at a wake of a young person. Although busy that day with work, I went over to the parish church to see if I could help out for an hour or so. There were about a hundred people milling about. Very few were kneeling in prayer. Most were talking with each other. Most ignored the Tabernacle. Nothing unusual there, sadly enough. There was a line of people waiting to offer the parents their condolences for a loss too big, at times, I am sure, for words. Nothing unusual there, either.

Then I saw the casket.

It was made of pinewood and written on it from one end to the other were the multi-colored notes and signatures of hundreds of the deceased’s friends, and presumably, family. There were boxes of markers on top of the casket to make things handier.

The pastor of this parish is a good man. I don’t mean to criticize his intentions in serving his people, especially in such a delicate time as mourning the death of a child. Yet how are we helping our children when we allow them this unseemly behavior unworthy of their Christian calling?

There are some things that cut across the grain of reality—they are just not done. Using a coffin as if it were a large bulletin board (or a Twitter screen) on which to scribble sentiments is one of those things.

This puts self-expression before the objective reality of death, fathomless in its mystery, and heart-breaking in its temporal finality, a cause for profound sorrow. That the family and friends were allowed to believe they were suitably grieving for their loved one in this way is tragically, woefully sad. In such moments, one needs to meet Christ the Lord, in all his majestic, eternal tenderness.

Using a casket in this way also shows a serious lack of Catholic sensibility.

But what is Catholic sensibility? How can one person dare define it? Shouldn’t I just heed Dr. Johnson’s advice, and be content with somehow knowing what a Catholic sensibility is, rather than trying to tell others what it is? In trying to define “Catholic sensibility” do I threaten the marvelous diversity of a Church with 1.1 billion members?

But as much as I love the diversity of our Church, for diversity to flourish in a family—even a family spanning the globe—there has to be some commonality, of creed, of practice, of hope, as St. Paul reminds us. (Eph 4:5).

And, I would add, of sensibility that is an authentic response to the essential truths of our Catholic Faith.

Catholic Sensibility is Found in Things Given by God
We often hear that Catholicism yields in many cultures and individuals “an enchanted” view of reality.

As the late Fr. Andrew Greely put it, this enchantment comes from a “pervasive religious sensibility that inclines Catholics to see “the Holy lurking in creation” where “objects, events, and persons of daily life are revelations of grace.” Greely’s work, The Catholic Imagination (2000), seeks to find a coherent narrative of data to support the idea that there is an imaginative response common to a variety of cultures that can be described as Catholic.

Unfortunately, Greely takes as an axiom of his investigations the absurd statement of philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, which he has as an epigraph to his book: “Religions commit suicide when they find their inspiration in dogma.” Greely’s formulation is the death of faith with merely a patina of Catholic ambience to show for the loss. Catholic sensibility—sensus Catholicus—must be more than this if it is worth looking for, never mind living for.

To start with what should be obvious: I would say a Catholic sensibility must, ultimately, be founded on something given to us by God. If our faith is something made, even over centuries, by human hands, it lacks the first requisite for a truly super-natural reality: Divine Origin. If we lose this, we lose the Faith itself.

The second characteristic follows logically from the first: the Faith given to us by God must be faithfully handed on to us, “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received…” (1 Cor 15:3). St Paul here makes plain the supernatural origin of our Faith and the importance of its faithful transmission to each generation. In our technological age, we tend to ignore the traditional for the new, the tried for the innovative. Consequently, concern for handing on the Faith in its fullness should never be labeled as an “obsession” over “doctrinal purity.” Reading one or two epistles of St. Paul can teach us this.

Thirdly, because our Creed professes the Lord as both creator and redeemer, a Catholic sensibility must always respect nature as coming from the hand of God, made according to the reason or Logos of the eternal Son, the Word made Flesh. All things are, and are what they are, by the Divine Logos.

Cardinal Ratzinger, in an essay on the sacramental nature of reality, illustrates how foreign this way of thinking is today for many people: “the sacramental idea presupposes a symbolist understanding of the world, whereas the contemporary understanding of the world is functionalist: it sees things merely as things, as a function of human labor and accomplishment….” As Ratzinger often stressed, this does not mean denigrating the modern world’s advances in technology. They are indeed a blessing, but only when used in the service of human dignity.

“All sensible creatures are signs of sacred things,” writes St. Thomas. (Summa Theologiae, 3.60.2) In fact, the whole material world is created, according to Thomas, in his discussion of the “fitness” of the Incarnation, to manifest by visible things the invisible God. (Summa Theologiae, 3.1.1)

The saints have always kept this vision of Divine immanence before them. This is why they are so crucial to Catholic piety. In fact, St. Ambrose formulated an important axiom that must never be far from a Catholic sensibility: Sanctorum vita ceteris norma vivendi est, or “the life of the Saints is the norm of living for others.” In all their rich diversity of temperament and culture, the saints are living catechisms. A young Maximilian Kolbe would write in his notebook: “each thing is a small ray of divine perfection.” Blessed Newman perhaps put it most succinctly: “All nature is a parable.”

As a child, I remember quite vividly holding a buttercup in my hand, its lemony aureole glowing in my palm. Such tiny but countless masterpieces of beauty speak eloquently of the ratio of the world as gift. Evil, however malignant or destructive, can never cancel this underlying, fundamental richness of being which sheds its light whenever right reason directs its disinterested gaze. But if we are consistent with this fundamental insight, then our ethics must also take seriously that moral goodness can only be founded on the truth of things.

St. Augustine, whose many treatises are a virtual hymn to love, describes the just soul as one who knows how to love in a manner founded on the myriad, ordered truths of reality made by God: “Now he is a man of just and holy life who forms an unprejudiced estimate of things, and keeps his affections also under strict control, so that he neither loves what he ought not to love, nor fails to love what he ought to love, nor loves that more which ought to be loved less, nor loves that equally which ought to be loved either less or more, nor loves that less or more which ought to be loved equally.” (De Doctrina Christiana, I)

How are we to become like this, when our affections and desires are often nothing but riotous whims alien to our true good? Where are we to find an unfailing source of strength to develop and live with a sensibility that is authentically Catholic?

The Mass: A Source of Catholic Sensibility
The answer is simple but endlessly real: At the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, the source of our spiritual life and, in fact, the goal of the entire creation, adoration of the Lord God. If we get this wrong, what can we get right?

I know a good many thoroughly orthodox Catholics who think this solution to a lack of Catholic sensibility either misguided or overstated. Of course, proper liturgical celebrations are not the only solution. Yet they must be at the center of any solution that has a hope to succeed.

Here the Church, both in the long centuries preceding and in the documents of Vatican II, gives us a resoundingly clear answer: we find this vitality in the Eucharistic Offering of the Church, “the fount and apex of the whole Christian life,” (Lumen Gentium 11) or, as the very first document of Vatican II puts it, the “summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed; at the same time … the font from which all her power flows.” (Sacrosanctum Concilium 10)

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, often referred to as the founder of the “New liturgical Movement,” wrote in his memoirs, after much familiarity with the Church’s many challenges, “I am convinced that the crisis in the Church that we are experiencing today largely derives from the disintegration of the liturgy.”

If a funeral Mass with a graffiti-covered coffin isn’t liturgical disintegration, then the words have no meaning.

In a lecture given in Rome in 1985 to the Eighth International Music Congress, Cardinal Ratzinger spoke about the rifts that were apparent in the liturgical life of the Church. These rifts, he said, asked us to ponder the anthropological and theological foundations of liturgy itself. In that lecture, in an almost throw-away line in the introduction, Ratzinger remarks that music and worship have always gone together because words alone are insufficient in our conversation with the Lord. He says “more belongs to the praise of God than man alone, and liturgy means joining in that which all things bespeak.” (Emphasis added)

In praising the Lord at Holy Mass we join in the silent adoration of the whole creation. When our liturgies are about us, and push the Lord to the side, when we see beauty as a barrier to worship, we have left the guiding compass of Catholic sensibility for false lights, for chimera. To exclude beauty, truth, or goodness from the path to God is to embark on a broken path that will not bring us to a healing encounter with the Lord.

Catholic Sensibility Deepens Our Value of Human Life
While the following anecdote, at first thought, may not be exactly in tune during the populist ethos of Pope Francis’ pontificate, I think a moment’s reflection will reveal quite the opposite:

The funeral Mass of Archduke Otto von Habsburg, who died in 2011, illustrates how an authentic Catholic sensibility deepens our appreciation of the value of every human life. Otto was the son of Blessed Karl Hapsburg, last emperor of Austria. After his Requiem Mass, held at St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna, the body of Von Hapsburg was brought to a Capuchin Cloister for burial with his many forbears in the Imperial Crypt. At the door of this crypt, there took place was it called the “knocking ceremony” (Anklopfzeremonie).

Otto von Habsburg’s coffin was brought to the door of the crypt. The Master of Ceremonies knocks three times at the door. The Prior, from the other side of the door, asks, “Who is it?” The Master of Ceremonies replies (translation courtesy of Rev. Edmund Waldstein, O.Cist.):

Otto of Austria; once Crown Prince of Austria-Hungary; Royal Prince of Hungary and Bohemia, of Dalmatia, Croatia, Slavonia, Galicia, Lodomeria and Illyria; Grand Duke of Tuscany and Cracow; Duke of Lorraine, Salzburg, Styria, Carinthia, Carniola and the Bukowina; Grand Prince of Transylvania, Margrave of Moravia; Duke of Upper and Lower Silesia, of Modena, Parma, Piacenza, Guastalla, of Oświęcim and Zator, Teschen, Friaul, Dubrovnik and Zadar; Princely Count of Habsburg and Tyrol, of Kyburg…etc. etc.

The Prior responds: “We do not know him.” Again, the Master of Ceremonies replies with more of Otto’s titles, both honorary, inherited, or earned. Again, the Prior responds: “We do not know him.” A third time, the Master of Ceremonies knocks. The Prior asks, “Who is there?” This time the Master of Ceremonies responds: “Otto, a mortal and sinful man.” The Prior responds: “Then let him come in.”

Actions have meanings as well as (sometimes more than) words. The Archduke’s burial vividly shows us this very thing: No one deserves a casket scribbled on with random wishes as if he or she were so much flotsam to be cast away from the eyes of the living. No one.

Would that we all would receive, whatever our earthly rank, a burial such as the Hapsburgs, wherein the riches of grace raise up each saved soul to eternal friendship with the source of all that is: galaxies, stars, seas, continents, nations, peoples, cultures, stories, and, yes, buttercups, all wonders, but none more wonderful than the least soul born into the kingdom of God.

Editor’s note: In the image above, Bishop Edward J. Slattery of Tulsa, Okla., celebrates a solemn high Mass in the extraordinary form at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington on April 24, 2010. (CNS photo/Nancy Wiechec) 

Michael J. Ortiz


Michael J. Ortiz is the author of Swan Town: the Secret Journal of Susanna Shakespeare (HarperCollins 2006), and, most recently, Like the First Morning: The Morning offering as Daily Renewal (Ave Maria Press, 2015). He teaches English and Religion at The Heights School, in Potomac, Maryland.

About abyssum

I am a retired Roman Catholic Bishop, Bishop Emeritus of Corpus Christi, Texas
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  1. Jose A. Ballester says:

    Some of y’all may not be familiar with the subject matter of the article. All well and good but at least look at the last six paragraphs. This is the last one I’ll forward today. Don’t want to overwhelm your inboxes!

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