Why We Need Sacred Things (Plural)

The best definition of religion I have ever come across is that given by the great French sociologist Emile Durkheim (1858-1917) in his book The Elementary Forms of Religious Life: “A religion is a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and surrounded by prohibitions – beliefs and practices that unite its adherents in a single moral community called a church.”

“Sacred things” (or “holy things”) is the key here. In the pre-Vatican II Catholic Church, there were lots and lots of sacred things. There was a great pyramid of sacred things. Way up at the top of the pyramid, of course, was God, the most holy of all holy things and the source of the sacredness that trickled down to all lesser sacred things. Of these lesser sacred things, the most holy was the Virgin Mary, the mother of God. Below her were angels and saints, some of them more sacred than others. There were nine orders of angels. Dante has many ranks of saints in his Paradiso.

On Earth there were sacred persons, they too in descending ranks of sacredness. The pope was very holy indeed; thus he was spoken of as “His Holiness.” Cardinals were somewhat less sacred; ordinary bishops less sacred still; parish priests were at the bottom rank of clerical holiness, but they too should be treated with a reverence due to sacred persons. Religious sisters were sacred, both the kind and gentle nuns and the mean nuns who hit your hand with a ruler. The habits nuns wore were also sacred.

Buildings were sacred. St. Peter’s in Rome was the most sacred of all, even though to some Catholics (me among them) it resembled a magnificent train station more than a great church. Medieval Gothic cathedrals were also sacred, especially those of Paris and Chartres. Ordinary parish churches were also sacred, even the hideous churches built in the 1950s in a “modern” style.

Inside, the church overflowed with sacred things: statues and pictures of saints, Stations of the Cross, candles, baptismal fonts, holy water. The altar was holy, made even more holy by the altar rail that set it apart from the rest of the church. The Eucharist was the holiest of all things on Earth, so holy that it mustn’t be touched by the hands of laypersons.

There were sacred ceremonies, the Mass above all. But also lesser ceremonies: Confession, burial of the dead, fasting in Lent, meatless Fridays, fasting from midnight before receiving Communion, reciting the rosary (whether with a group or alone), genuflecting when entering a church pew, making the sign of the cross prior to batting in a baseball game.

Latin was a sacred language. Holy water was sacred, and so were rosary beads, and so was a copy of the Bible (though not many Catholics took the trouble to read the Bible in the pre-Vatican II days, Bible-reading being a Protestant trait and therefore suspect).

Mass by José Gallegos Y Arnosa, c. 1900 [private collection]
From a religious point of view, the great advantage of having all these many kinds and degrees of holy things is that Catholics were at all times surrounded with sacred persons, places, and things. We could easily “feel” the sacred. We experienced it every day of the week, especially on Sunday.

But there were disadvantages too. All of this could degenerate into superstition, and often did. Instead of seeing these lesser sacred persons, places, and things as dim reflections of the infinite holiness of God, we might see them and treat them as if they were sacred in and of themselves. We could slip into idolatry. Instead of believing in a God who has countless reflections, we might feel that there are countless lesser “gods,” some big (the Virgin Mary), some medium-size (bishops and priests and nuns), and some little (candles and holy water).

A fear of this kind of superstition is what, centuries ago, inspired the fierce anti-Catholicism of the Puritans. They had little or no use for the Virgin Mary or the saints or popes or crucifixes or religious statues or stained-glass windows. They felt that there are only two holy things: God and the Bible, the latter being holy not in itself but because it shows us how to be in touch with the former.

Many of the Catholic reforms, both formal and informal, made in the post-Vatican II period were, I submit, motivated by a kind of Catholic Puritanism. Reformers felt that much of popular Catholicism had degenerated into superstition. By getting rid of, or at least by downplaying, the myriad of other-than-God sacred things, it would be easier for Catholics to focus on the one and only essentially holy thing, God.

This reform may have worked for some people, but, by and large, it has been a failure. God alone is not easily known, not easily sensed, not easily experienced. He is incomprehensible, as Thomas Aquinas reminds us; He is a hidden God as Pascal reminds us; He is “entirely other” as Karl Barth reminds us.

Except for a small number of mystics and semi-mystics, most of us will not be able to experience God directly. We will experience him, if we experience him at all, through his myriad of sacred reflections. Get rid of those reflections and you run the risk of getting rid of God.

The danger of Catholicism is that it can degenerate into superstition and idolatry. The danger of Puritanism is that it can degenerate into agnosticism and atheism. We do better, I suggest, to run the risk of superstition than to run the even worse risk of atheism.

It is time to reform the reform. We need altar rails, nuns wearing habits, rosary beads, holy water, Latin, etc.

We need to read – or re-read – Durkheim and notice that he says religion is about sacred things (plural), not about a single sacred thing.

David Carlin is a retired professor of sociology and philosophy at the Community College of Rhode Island, and the author of The Decline and Fall of the Catholic Church in America, Three Sexual Revolutions: Catholic, Protestant, Atheist, and most recently Atheistic Humanism, the Democratic Party, and the Catholic Church.