Performing Catholicism, Cultivating Habits

I must cordially disagree with Neo de Caussade’s criticism of certain suggestions by Bishop Egan concerning the Year of Faith:

he [Egan] also suggested Catholics could also “make the sign of the cross” when out for a meal and say grace before meals as a family. “Why not say ‘thank God’ when someone tells you good news or ‘please God’ when they tell you their hopes and aspirations?,” he asked.

The good Bishop believes that if you play the role of the stereotypic Catholic that the Year of Faith will look good. What the Bishop is asking people to do is be hypocritical. If Catholics had the attitude to say grace before meals they would already exhibit the behavior.

There are several issues here, which I’ll take in reverse order:

– who are we evangelizing?
– what is the relationship between attitude and behavior?
– what does it mean to “perform” Catholicism?

I’m borrowing this notion of performative behavior from, for example, feminist analysis of performing femininity. Performance in this sense does not have the pejorative connotation of deliberately acting in a way that is contrary to one’s internal desires in order to achieve a desired external result. Of course, it’s possible that a person might do this, but we don’t invariably deem this hypocritical: think about “dressing for success,” for example.

Frequently, we perform an aspect of our identity because the behavior is either consonant with, or actively enhances, our sense of that identity. This may, or may not, involve a conscious, deliberate choice. In either case, performing the identity has both an inward-directed and an outward-directed effect.

A number of years ago, I made a conscious choice to do more specifically Catholic “stuff.” I don’t remember whether there was a particular event or circumstance that prompted my decision. I do remember feeling that things had changed since I was younger: then, the important thing was to emphasize that Catholics and Protestants were all Christians together. After a couple-three decades of that emphasis, I felt, we could largely take that common ground for granted. Now, it was both important, and valuable, to highlight the Catholic distinctives.

This didn’t involve anything terribly dramatic. I became more attentive to the saints: promoting a particular observance on All Saints Day at my parish, wishing my Catholic family and friends happy saints’ days. I started keeping an Advent wreath, and wearing a cross on Fridays during Lent. Things like that. The point is, I was doing it on purpose, and I was doing it because “this is what Catholics do.” I was performing my Catholicism.[1]

Doing these things made me feel “more Catholic,” and it enhanced the connection I felt with other Catholics. That’s what performing an identity does.

Now, as to attitude and behavior: when the revised General Instruction on the Roman Missal came out, about, gee, must be almost 15 years ago now, it included some modified rubrics (which are, basically, stage directions for Mass)[2], and an increased emphasis on them. At the time, I was singing in a choir that was fairly visible at Mass: we were up front, behind the priest (completing the three-quarters round of the church into a full circle), and we were dressed in black and white. Therefore, our choir director said, it was important that we, as the choir, model these new behaviors for the congregation. He spent part of a choir rehearsal reminding and/or instructing us on how and when to genuflect, and how and when to bow, at various times during Mass.

If I had not been in the choir, or if I had had less respect than I did for my choir director’s judgment in matters liturgical, I would have simply ignored these new rubrics as so much fuddy-duddy traditionalism. My impulse was to scoff: if I don’t feel like doing these things, what value is there in my doing them? His response was twofold: on the one hand, if we are willing to recite unspontaneous formalized prayers that may not be precisely what we feel like speaking, why should we be unwilling to perform unspontaneous formalized gestures that may not be precisely what we feel like doing? And, on the other hand, “this is what Catholics do.” [3]

So I dutifully, and with a partially open mind, started doing this stuff. The most alien piece to me was to bow immediately before receiving communion, but I did it anyway.

…And to my rather significant surprise, I discovered it was meaningful to me.

I am still doing all those things that I originally did only under protest. I discovered for myself what the Catholic church has always known: we are not just incarnate souls, but ensouled bodies. Our bodies can pray. Our Catholic gestures are prayers.

Neo appeals to the “theory of learned behavior” in which “the belief informs the attitude and the attitude dictates the behavior.” Certainly, the belief can inform the attitude and the attitude can dictate the behavior. But there’s also a backchannel: the behavior can form the attitude, and the attitude can inform the belief.

The Catholic way to talk about this is to talk about cultivating habits, and cultivating virtue. I like that word cultivate here because it has connotations of intention and artifice. We cultivate gardens; if we do not cultivate them, but simply leave them to grow naturally, the result is not a garden, but a wilderness. Just look at my backyard. Thomas Aquinas talked in terms of the supernatural: not as in the modern sense of ooky-spooky stuff, but precisely in the sense of not natural, or more than natural. He would surely think very odd the idea that Catholics ought not to do anything that doesn’t come naturally.

So who are we evangelizing? To whom is this Year of Faith primarily directed? Why, ourselves. We Catholics are invited to deepen our own faith, to explore and embrace the treasures of the church. I read Bishop Egan’s suggestion to say grace, to make the sign of the cross, or to adopt certain characteristically Catholic phrases in that spirit.

When Blessed John XXIII called the Second Vatican Council, he declared

“The principal purpose of the Council itself will be to promote the growth of the Catholic faith, and a salutary renewal of the habits of the Christian people, and to update ecclesiastical discipline in accord with the needs of the day” [4]

An observance of the Year of Faith that includes a renewal, a renewed emphasis, of those habits, is surely a suitable observance of this fiftieth anniversary of the Council.[5]


[1] I hope it is needless to say that I was doing these things with a certain degree of mindfulness: for the sake of what they meant, as well as for the sake of doing them.

[2] They’re called rubrics from the Latin word for the color red, because these stage directions are traditionally printed in red ink in missals and other worship aids.

[3] He had more specific answers than that for each specific issue, explaining what each rubric signified, but an important part of his overall response was “this is what we do:” while there might be a variety of ways to legitimately express some X, this particular rubric is the particularly Catholic way.

[4] Encyclical, Ad Petri Cathedram, June 29, 1959; emphasis mine.

[5] My sincere thanks to Neo for his blog post which prompted these thoughts, and more that didn’t make it into the post. I must also note that I didn’t click through and read the article from which he is quoting Bishop Egan’s statements.

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One Response to Performing Catholicism, Cultivating Habits

  1. Pingback: Framing the Question: The Sleeping Symbol – Part 1, Ch 1 of #FOGAP | Gaudete Theology

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