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May 26, 2020 (LifeSiteNews) – Photographs have been proliferating of clerics of some kind aiming water pistols at babies in order to baptize them. Some of these seem to be fake news, inasmuch as they did the baptisms in the ordinary way but then staged the photo afterward. This makes a difference, but I’m not sure how much. Should clerics be clowning around in church after baptizing a baby? Again, there’s the photo of a priest wearing vestments using a water pistol to bless adults with holy water. If that was staged, it almost makes it worse.

Sometimes it is said that the era of the “clown mass” and other extreme examples of disrespect for the liturgy is over, but it would appear that its spirit lives on, among Catholics and non-Catholics alike. Those who published these photographs, and the people in them, clearly think this is all terribly funny, and that that is fine.

Before anyone suggests that the use of water pistols is a serious response to the coronavirus, let me be the thousandth person to point out this is not so. At the “asperges” before Mass people have been blessed at a distance for centuries, with a liturgical implement called an aspergillum; as for baptisms, it doesn’t need to be the priest doing it anyway. 

This is a small step, perhaps, from the approach to the liturgy, and especially to Baptisms and weddings, which sees it as something to be enlivened with jokes and sentimental asides. Civil marriage services can also descend into this. It is as if a sustained appreciation of the seriousness of the occasion would be some kind of disaster, and make people feel uncomfortable.

Official guidance on the sacraments usually stress how serious they are, and the important difference they make. Carrying them out in a clownish fashion is first of all sacrilegious, as an abuse of a holy thing. But it is also an offense against all who witness it, because it makes it difficult for them to take it seriously. If you don’t take it seriously, you can’t participate in it fruitfully, either as a candidate for the sacrament or as an onlooker.

It might be objected that at least the sacrament is valid. The rest is not of ultimate importance, and why not have some fun? Well, this may be so in the case of Baptism by water pistol, but a marriage service where the couple are not taking it seriously may well not be valid, and even if it were, the couple, like someone confirmed or ordained in a frivolous manner, or someone who receives Holy Communion at a Mass celebrated without seriousness, will not find it easy to receive the graces of the sacrament as abundantly as they otherwise would. 

The liturgical anarchists’ appeal to validity is not a serious argument, however. Alongside sacramentally valid clowning around, we find sacramentally invalid clowning around. One of my own “red pill” moments on the depth of the problem of liturgical anarchy was reading about invalid matter used in some American dioceses in the 1970s for several years. That eventually came to an end, but the plague of invalid marriages doesn’t seem to be abating. In 2016, even Pope Francis suggested that half of all Catholic marriages could be void. We’ve also had problems of invalid formulas for Baptism, and the use of general absolution for the Sacrament of Penance without bothering with the conditions for validity, and so on. I don’t often see liturgical progressives getting worked up about those issues. 

No, the reason they feel free to play fast and loose with the liturgy is not because they feel strongly about sacramental validity and don’t care about anything else, but because they don’t care very much about sacramental validity either. They may be influenced by the idea that bishops and the Holy See feel strongly about validity, and they may allow us to comfort ourselves with the thought, when it is possible, that the sacrament was in this or that case valid. But if they really cared about validity, they would take the liturgy seriously, and that is something they are manifestly not doing.

Liturgical abuses are an offense against God, as the abuse of something holy. They are also an offense against the faithful, whose spiritual engagement in the liturgy is impeded. Again, they are an offense against our Lord, who instituted the sacraments for our salvation, and Holy Mother Church, who has surrounded them with ceremonies and texts intended to give God glory and to assist us in our participation. Finally, they are an offense against the priesthood itself, which should protect the liturgy from profanation, and whose function is to provide it to others for the good of souls.

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Dr Joseph Shaw has a Doctorate in Philosophy from Oxford University, where he also gained a first degree in Politics and Philosophy and a graduate Diploma in Theology. He has published on Ethics and Philosophy of Religion and is the editor of The Case for Liturgical Restoration: Una Voce Position Papers on the Extraordinary Form (Angelico Press). He is the Chairman of the Latin Mass Society of England and Wales and Secretary of Una Voce International. He teaches Philosophy in Oxford University and lives nearby with his wife and nine children.