The Loss of “Oppositio” in the Modern Church
Matthew Bellisario 2010
It would certainly be a heresy to only accept one of the two natures of Jesus Christ. We cannot love His humanity and despise His divinity. This one sided distorted view of Christ is comparable however to the view many Catholics have today. I think it is safe to say that the average Catholic parish today is infested with the errors of modernism, which has led to an unfortunate clouded view of Jesus Christ and His Church. Modernism of course is a broad term used to describe a radical break with the past, or a shifting away from the objective reality of religious truth, to an obsession with the subjectivist thought of secularism. It may also be classified as a type of rationalism. These types of errors have taken up residence in many different forms within the minds of Catholics today. We witness corrupt catechesis in parish RCIA programs and diaconate formation programs. These theological perversions permeate many Catholic’s view of the Sacraments, most visibly in the celebration of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. The most obvious problem we have today is the denial of objective reality, which is one of the bastard children of secular humanism and rationalism. Many refuse to accept reality for what it is, instead substituting half truths in its place, much like only acknowledging one of the natures of Christ. This creates a lukewarm indifferentism towards the Catholic faith.
For example, many Catholics tend to only focus only on the mercy of God, never giving a second thought to God’s righteous justice. We hear sermons from the pulpit that focus on how much God loves us, and how forgiving He is, but we seldom hear any reference to what God requires of us in order to be forgiven. There is forgiveness yes, but no sin to be forgiven. We want repentance without tears, we want joy without suffering. This mentality now even penetrates the very fabric of our church architecture and artwork. High altars have been replaced with cheap wooden tables, gold chalices with cheap dinner ware, icons with shoddy felt banners, and crucifixes with the resurrected Christ. The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass has been taken captive by this corrupt thought. Surely we have all witnessed those who would rather applaud the music (themselves) at Mass rather than worship God with the reverence He deserves. There is an unhealthy obsession with putting an emphasis on the things that give us pleasure and emotional highs, rather than focusing objectively on reality.
There are many reasons why this one sided secular mentality has taken the minds of the average modern Catholic hostage. We can easily observe the corrupt theology that has crept into the Church over the past 100 years or so, heavily influenced by the false philosophies of modern secular society, all of which serve subjectivism in one form or another. This failure to apply right reason in the theological realm is often justified under the cloak of “freedom," or for the supposed “advancement” of theology. Unfortunately this “advancement” and “freedom” that these “theologians” are so eager to propose, eventually lead to their own theological imprisonment. We see this result in many of the “New Theologians” like Karl Rahner and Edward Schillebeecks, who theologized themselves right out of recognizing the truth of Transubstantiation, instead substituting their own fallacious doctrines of Transfinalization and Transignification. Their need to remove the boundaries of reality ultimately lead to some denial of Catholic doctrine.
Let me make a comparison, to a football player who runs out of bounds after catching a pass. He doesn’t stop after he has been called out of bounds, but presumes to keep running with the ball and call it a touchdown instead. The rules of the game contain a football field that is 160ft wide, no more no less. When you exceed that boundary you are no longer in play, and so it is with theology as well. Infallible theological definitions like that of Transubstantiation are off limits, at least they are to theologians who want to be counted as being true players in the field of theology. Unfortunately, subjectivism and distorted views of reality lead to this “out of bounds” nonsense. An honest football player does not try to change the rules of the game, and so good theologians should know their the boundaries of honest theology as well.
We might also level some blame on this distorted view of reality on the rising of the industrial age and the advancement of science, which brought with it more effective medicine and healthier living environments. As a result, people started to live longer and healthier. This on the surface may seem to be a great achievement, but with great achievement also comes with it great duty, obligation and responsibility. We have an obligation and responsibility to recognize who it is that man ultimately receives his great achievements from. Unfortunately, God almighty is no longer needed or recognized because man has, in a false sense, advanced beyond a need for God, or so he thinks. We no longer contemplate the pandemics that devastated large cities and eliminated complete towns off the map like the Black Plague did in the fourteenth century. Even the more recent pandemics like the Spanish Influenza of 1918 in the US have largely been forgotten. Unfortunately these advancements have infected modern man with a poison which leaves the mind in a delusional state, which I call the “immortality syndrome,” where man rarely thinks of his own end. So we have doomed ourselves into only focusing on part of the reality of life. Yes, we are alive, but it is also true that we must die.
We could go on further defining many other reasons as to why we live in such a distorted state of modernist indifferentism. I think it would be difficult however to point to any one secular catalyst or philosophical system for this invasion and acceptance of this type of mentality in today’s Church. It would be more accurate in my opinion to view today’s crisis of faith as a type of “perfect storm,” where all of these “cells” seemed to converge on the Church at the same time. Or another explanation may be that these “storm cells” (Rationalism, Modernism, Secularism, etc.) fell into a neat and deadly succession, which made each cell that came before its successor more devastating than it would have been had it been left to run its own isolated course. This is the same when one’s immune system is compromised allowing diseases that would not ordinarily be lethal, to be so.
We could say that this perfect storm hit the Church with full force in the 1960s. Of course there had been isolated “storm cells” brewing off the coast of the Church for over 100 years prior to the 1960s, but it seems that they all converged at this time with a devastating force. The hurricane force winds of modernism hit the Church from all sides at the time of the Second Vatican Council, and soon after the New Mass (Novus Ordo) was introduced, and the ambiguous wording of Vatican II’s documents were released, we began to witness substantial damage inflicted upon the Church. Just as the case is when a hurricane hits a major city, it takes some time to find and repair all of the damage, likewise it will take quite some time for the Church to find and repair all of the damage inflicted from the storm of modernism as well.
The damage has run so deep that even now as the Church is attempting to restore reverence and theological coherence to the Mass by making the Classical Latin Rite readily available, rebellious bishops and priests are attempting to subvert the Holy See’s efforts. Their modernist view of liturgical participation is completely at odds with the true worship that is owed to God. Again their one sided, distorted view of reality, which makes the “community” the only object of attention, is a grave error. They see themselves as the primary point of focus of worship, not God. For example, many Catholic liturgical experts now think that music and liturgical drama are the keys to worship. Many of these “theologians” think it is more important to make the words of the liturgy rhyme to their folk Masses than to be theologically accurate to the reality of the Mass. They falsely assume the “community” has a right to physically force itself upon the Mass as if it was their own private possession to mold as they please. They want to face the priest and one another in a narcissistic gaze at Mass rather than contemplate upon the Blessed Savior. This would comparable to Saint John and the Blessed Mother turning to one another at the foot of the cross to pat each other on the back for their efforts in making it to Calvary, while ignoring Christ as he hung upon the cross suffering for the entire human race. Yet we see this happen all of the time in many celebrated Masses don’t we?
If we examine history, we can clearly see a shift in how the average Catholic views and lives his or her faith today compared to that of Catholics of earlier generations. It is now a largely one sided affair with Catholics today, only recognizing the “realities” that seem pleasing to their modern mind. We love God’s mercy and forgiveness, while we reject the other attributes of God like justice and punishment. We tend to forget the sacrifice of Christ at the Mass and remember only His resurrection. Hell is virtually nonexistent in the modern Catholic mind. It is now as if everyone is going to heaven, and hell is reserved to no one other than the “Hitlers” of the day. The first words that come out of people’s mouths after a family member, friend or an acquaintance dies, is that they are in a “better” place. At the funeral, instead of praying for the soul of the deceased, they practically canonize them instead. We must remember that Catholicism is not an either or faith. We must accept the fullness of truth and reality, it is only then that we are able to live freely. This one sided mentality however brings a great anxiety and sickness upon the Church and it is a contagious disease.
We could title this disease as “The Loss of “oppositio” in Modern Man.” Man has decided to look at only side of the coin of reality, which in truth is no reality at all. Again we return to the two natures of Christ. If we deny or ignore the divinity of Christ, do we see Him for who He really is? Are there remedies for this one sided disease that plagues the Church? One remedy I would prescribe for this disease is the recognition and restoration of “oppositio.” Only by contemplating the fulness of reality will we retrieve what has been lost. In order to explain this “oppositio,” I think it is helpful to turn back the clock to look at how the Catholic mediaeval mind contemplated reality, as compared to our own. Dante Alighieri and Giotto Di Bondone will be our tour-guides.
The reality of heaven and hell, good and evil, virtue and vice were all accepted realities in the Catholic mediaeval mind. The accepted reality was, that before there could be an Easter Sunday, there must be a Good Friday. Fulton Sheen often made reference to this fact in his Easter retreats and talks. This was also well understood in the mediaeval mind and it is quite amply displayed in the art of the day, which was richly infused with Catholic theology. The great poets and artists of the age like Dante and Giotto understood it well and it permeated their artistic work. For example, in Dante’s ‘Divine Comedy’ we see the totality of mankind depicted in graphic detail with the turn of each page. Notice that Dante, also a formidable philosopher in his own right, did not confine or limit the scope of his work ‘The Divine Comedy’ to the comforting thoughts of heaven alone. He rightly contemplated that one could not understand the rewards and comforts of heaven without the reality of hell and purgation. Therefore Dante takes the reader on a journey through the depths of hell, the pains of purgatory, up to the heights of heaven, all the while demonstrating the opposition of virtue and vice that every man must ultimately choose between. It was only with the recognition of virtue and vice that one could reach the soaring heights of heaven. If we examine the Divine Comedy we see that Dante always contrasted particular vices with their opposite, in the form of virtue. For example, pride is contrasted with humility, lust with chastity and so forth. Likewise we see a similar depiction in Giotto di Bondone’s work in Padua as well, which I will now draw your attention to.
I had the opportunity in 2007 to step into the Scravegni Chapel in Padua, Italy. I will never forget this work of art that Giotto frescoed upon its walls over 700 years ago. In this little chapel between the years of 1303 and 1305 the great artist Giotto created one of the greatest works of art in all of Western Christendom, and it still rivals that of any other composition of art created after it. It is said by many that only Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel rivals it. A passing gaze upon the many depictions of the Biblical narratives frescoed upon the chapel’s walls may at first appear to be nothing more than many Biblical stories intended to decorate its walls. One with little or no understanding of the mind of the age may completely miss the underlying theological axiom that Giotto brought to life on the chapel walls. It isn’t the beauty or intuitive detail of each Biblical depiction that is most amazing, although they are quite amazing, and it is not necessarily the combination of the stories Giotto chose to depict, for many artists of his time painted similar scenes on the walls of many churches. Even the liturgical detail, although of primary importance, is upheld by a sublime theological underpinning. If one takes the time to examine each depiction contrasted to the others throughout the chapel, they will discover a pattern that is quite thought provoking. It is the order and positioning of each Biblical depiction that takes up residence in the subconsciousness of the onlooker.
Upon close examination of Giotto’s artwork in the Scrovegni Chapel, you will observe a strong depiction of rhetorical antithesis. Antithesis is the placing of contraries next to or opposing one another in order to achieve a perceived “oppositio.” That is an opposition of one idea or depiction to another. This allows one to perceive realities in a more intense manner. When one walks into the Scrovegni Chapel and faces the altar wall, the images depicted may at first strike one as odd, being that the altar wall is the liturgical center of the chapel. One sees a depiction of the Annunciation of Mary up top with the angel Gabriel on the left side of the arch and The Blessed Virgin Mary on the other. Just below the archangel Gabriel on the left we see a depiction of the Visitation of Mary, and below Mary on the right we see a depiction of The Pact of Judas. These two images directly oppose one another on opposing sides of the archway. The two images create an oppositio which offers man two choices, one being a pact with evil, the other being a communion with the family of God. If you look closely at The Pact of Judas you can see a demon behind Judas as he accepts the money from the Pharisees, while on the other side we see the haloed Virgin meeting with the haloed Elizabeth, both celebrating in great joy at the coming of the Savior. This immediately brings the chapel visitor face to face with the ultimate reality of the choice between good and evil, dark and light. This would have certainly have had a profound effect on anyone coming to receive Holy Communion in the chapel, and this was certainly the intent of the artist.
This type of antithesis is seen throughout the chapel, where we see virtue confront vice. In the Last Judgement we see heaven opposing hell, salvation opposing damnation. On the south wall we see a depiction of The Nativity opposing a depiction of The Massacre of the Innocents. Here life and death, birth and burial are Giotto’s intended objects of oppositio. In The Nativity we observe the serene reality of the Blessed Virgin lying with the newborn Savior as the angels flutter above them in joy and praise. Then we see its bold opposition depicted in The Massacre of the Innocents, where mothers in sheer terror clutch their infants in their arms in fear, as Herod’s evil henchmen pile the bodies of dead infants on the ground before them. Giotto was masterful in bringing oppositio to life.
Upon taking the chapel in on a grander scale we see that this antithesis is carried out on each wall, salvation is opposed to damnation, hope to despair, life to death and so on. The Judas/ Mary oppositio sets the general theme of the entire chapel. Unfortunately this reality is largely absent from today’s Catholic mind. It would rather be content with self absorbed indifferentism. It would rather only acknowledge The Nativity while forgetting the horror of The Massacre. The Catholic mindset of Giotto however was comfortable with acknowledging the full truth. We must realize that this reality of oppositio is in fact something of a theological concept that reaches far beyond a particular time or culture. It is woven into the very fabric of Catholic theology. The Scriptures are full of such examples, and the great artists of the time understood them well and sought to bring them to life in their artwork. Likewise, great theologians like St. Thomas Aquinas and Saint Bonaventure observed this structure of oppositio in their theological works. We can also see this principle expounded upon in the works of ancient philosophers like Aristotle as well.
Why does the modern mind now reject such profound truths, truths that even pagan philosophers once understood so clearly? We must ask the question, how can one be saved when one does not realize that he needs to be saved? Will the Catholic who has no sense of sin ever enter the confessional? We must also ask, in what manner is the mind most moved to accept reality for what it is? Saint Bonaventure once wrote, “everything seems to assert its identity more forcibly when juxtaposed with its opposite.” When we contrast opposites in an explicit manner, one that causes us to stop and ponder the opposite choices that are put before us, we are more likely to make the good choice. When we bury this reality of opposition, as we have done so effectively in today’s culture, we lose sight of the good life, because we become indifferent to it. We cannot see that a choice must even be made, let alone trying to figure out which one it is we should rightly do. We become blind to the truth and ultimately indifferentism sets in.
So we can plainly observe that our Catholic predecessors like Dante and Giotto were much wiser than many today give them credit for. This is especially true for those “theologians” today who pontificate from on high in their lofty academic circles scowling and scoffing at the medieval mind as if it were dull or outdated. Who shall we consider dull or outdated? Those who understood the theological axiom of antithesis, which allows us to be keenly aware of right and wrong, good and evil, heaven and hell, or those who arrogantly fashion reality to their own subjective minds, viewing everything through the rose colored lenses of indifferentism, where everything is “OK”? What is life without recognizing the reality of the “opposite?” I propose that it is a dull and boring existence where lukewarmness and indifferentism become man’s dictators, because there is no longer any real structure for man to exist in. It is like tearing down two walls of your house in an effort to give you more room and freedom in your dwelling, but in reality you are exposing yourself to the outside elements, and your house is now transformed into an uninhabitable shanty.
The question now remains as to how we should go about advancing the rule of “oppositio” in the Church today. Certainly priests ad bishops who are able to effectively communicate the differences between right and wrong, dark and light, moral and immoral in their sermons would go far in restoring such a mentality to the faithful. Simply put, we must change our mode of communicating the truths of the Catholic faith. There must be an effort to actually illustrate the difference between right and wrong, virtue and vice. We must also make an effort to return our Church art and architecture back in this direction. It is a fact, without “oppositio” there is no true reality, and the Catholic mind of today would do well to remember this.