Ethics & Public Policy Center

The Problem of the Self-Worshiping Community

Published in The Catholic Difference on February 8, 2001



In his recently published book, The Spirit of the Liturgy, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger offers an instructive commentary on the famous scene from Exodus in which the people of Israel fall from grace by worshiping a golden calf.

Even within the Old Testament itself, this has traditionally been presented as an episode of idolatry, the worship of false gods: as Psalm 106 has it, “They fashioned a calf at Horeb/and worshiped an image of metal/exchanging the God who was their glory/for the image of a bull that eats grass.” Cardinal Ratzinger suggests that the idolatry here is more subtle than we may think—and a prominent American liturgist thinks that the temptation to worship golden calves is one we face, too.

Aaron, the cardinal writes, doesn’t intend to foster a “cult…of the false gods of the heathens.” And inwardly, Ratzinger argues, the people of Israel “remain completely attached to the same God…who led Israel out of Egypt.” So what is the problem? Wherein lies Israel’s apostasy? First, in the notion that the saving power of the one true God can be properly represented by a golden calf. “The people cannot cope with the invisible, remote, and mysterious God,” Cardinal Ratzinger writes. “They want to bring him down into their own world, into what they can see and understand.” So they end up worshiping falsely: the worship of the golden calf “is no longer going up to God, but drawing God down into one’s own world. He must be there when he is needed, and he must be the kind of God that is needed.”

In this false worship, “man is using God, and in reality, even if it is not outwardly discernible, he is placing himself above God.” Worshiping golden calves, we worship gods made in our own image and likeness, rather than acknowledging our dependence on the God who made us in his divine image and likeness.

Which brings us to the second, subtle apostasy. Worshiping the golden calf, Israel indulges in what Cardinal Ratzinger calls a “self-generated cult.” False worship is a feast we give ourselves, a “festival of self-affirmation.” Rather than being worship-of-God, worship “becomes a circle closed in on itself: eating, drinking, and making merry.” That is why Moses explodes in anger when he discovers the Israelite camp in revelry: “The dance around the golden calf is…self-seeking worship. It is a kind of banal self-gratification. Ultimately, it is no longer concerned with God but with giving oneself a nice little alternative world, manufactured from one’s own resources.”

Are we immune to this temptation? Msgr. M. Francis Mannion, former rector of Salt Lake City’s Cathedral of the Madeleine and now director of the new Liturgical Institute at Chicago’s University of St. Mary of the Lake, thinks not. Writing in “Antiphon,” the journal of the Society for Catholic Liturgy, Msgr. Mannion, a leader in the “reform of the reform,” argues that a “fundamental problem facing the Mass today is the cultural corruption of its celebration through the importation of conceptions and practices of consumerism, entertainment, and psychotherapy.”

Rather than letting “the richness and depth of the rites speak for themselves,” Mannion suggests, “the eucharistic liturgy is often buried by cultural overlays which deprive the Church’s central sacrament of its power. The clergy are far from blameless here; indeed a new kind of clericalism is pervasive.”

Msgr. Mannion is no “restorationist,” urging a roll-back to the pre-Vatican II missal. Rather, he proposes that we need to “take the rites we now have an let them be articulated on their own terms.” This requires celebrants who understand that, in Cardinal Ratzinger’s words, they are not “the real point of reference for the whole liturgy.” The celebrant’s task, as a living icon of Christ, the high priest, is to direct the Mass, and the worshiping community, toward the heavenly liturgy in which our earthly worship participates.

The “real point of reference” in the liturgy, in other words, is God the Holy Trinity: Christ leads us, through the power of the Spirit, into authentic worship of the Father. Like true love, true worship doesn’t mean looking into each other’s eyes; it means looking together at the God who is Love.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

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