Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Evolving Catholicism

This weekend, as part of a school trip for my architectural studio class that focuses on cultural sustainability, I visited three pueblos in New Mexico: Acoma, Ohkay Owingeh, and Taos. I was surprised to discover that all of these pueblos are Catholic even though they also retain their cultural and spiritual traditions as American Indians. Each one had a church, and each one had a patron saint. Of course, their Catholic faith is a result of the Spanish who conquered them in the 16th century and established missions to convert the Indians. As the friars worked to bring the Indians to the faith, they incorporated some Indian symbolism and traditions into the Catholic faith in order to help them understand Catholicism. (I have to give one caveat here. Some of the traditions of the Indians may be contrary to the Catholic faith and many still pray in the traditional Indian kivas. I have not studied their rituals, but I do know they celebrate the Catholic holidays and Mass on Sunday.)

Of course, we were there to study architectural preservation, not religion, so that is what my class focused on. Each one of the pueblos has a very different idea of what it means to preserve their culture and buildings.

To be honest, the first one, Acoma, seems to be confused about what it is they are trying to preserve. While their center city, known as Sky City, that sits on top of a beautiful sun-lit red and gold mesa, has many traditional adobe buildings, there are no rules about how the people can build, and there is a hodge-podge of building materials, including concrete, wood, contemporary plaster, even tin. Not only that, but the tour we went took seemed somewhat irreverent to their culture, as we went tromping through their streets and plazas, and many of the residents stood outside trying to sell their pottery. I had a feeling that there was a disconnect between the sacred culture they were trying to preserve in Sky City and the Disney World conception of "white man" coming to see an exhibit. Only thirteen families live in that center city (with no plumbing or electricity, keeping with their tradition) and I was afraid that their true sacred culture would soon be lost to tourists.

The second one we saw was at Ohkay Owingeh. This one, in contrast, seemed to be a successful adaptation to contemporary life while keeping the key traditions of the people. In fact, an article I read on this pueblo mentioned that keeping the city center alive with activity was more important that simply preserving buildings. This city center has running water, bathrooms in the houses, and electricity. However, the buildings retain the adobe block and mud plaster with minor alterations such as metal coping on the top of the walls to make it last longer. The mud plaster was retained (though it requires more upkeep) because it was essential to the quality of the buildings. Once, when they had decided to use concrete plaster instead, they found that the new material did not bond with the adobe block or let it breathe, and the adobe block failed. So, they kept the mud plaster, a tradition of building that was key to the life of their homes.

The third peublo we toured was Taos. This is by far the most traditional of the three. There is no plumbing or electricity (only propane gas stoves are allowed) and the use of materials is very strict--adobe block with mud plaster and viga (large tree logs) / latilla (small branch) roof systems. To them, building construction is essential to their way of life and spirituality (there is a strong connection to the earth), so training their young men in this way of construction and continuing to pay attention to craft is essential to sustaining their culture. I will say, however, that this peublo had a similar issue to Acoma in that it allows tourist to roam through its grounds past those who still dwell in the center city every day. I also wondered how long people would continue to live in that center city when contemporary conveniences were so easy to find down the road.

So, you may ask, what does this preservation have to do with Catholicism? As I was touring these peublos, I considered what it means to preserve a culture or a spirituality (to them, it was very spiritual) for many many years. I thought of the Catholic Church, which has been around for over 2000 years. What a great example to follow! (Of course, the Catholic Church has the added benefit of the Holy Spirit to keep it going.) So how does a faith tradition carry on like this for centuries? To me, I think it is the result of having a universal faith that is expressed in a variety of distinct cultural ways. The ritual and tradition in Mexico surrounding Our Lady of Guadalupe is very different front the way tradition is expressed in Italy. (Notice tradition with a lower-case "t". I am not referring to Sacred Tradtion.) But the core beliefs, the ones that make us Catholic, never change, and are the same around the world. Because these doctrines remain and people are continually taught the beliefs of the Church, then our Catholic faith (The Eucharist and other Sacraments, the priesthood, the Mass) will carry on forever.

As you know, the Church has adapted its disciplines to work with a contemporary world. We saw that adaptation in Vatican II when the Church decided to allow the language of the Mass to be in the vernacular. Now, we see it again as the Church is changing the language of the Mass once more to help contemporary men and women regain a sense of that spirituality and sacredness of the Mass (It was always there; it's just a matter of helping us understand it.). But, as I said before, the doctrine never changes. These small disciplines do not change the understanding of the Mass or our relationship with God and Heaven as we celebrate Mass. They do not discredit all the Masses that have come before. They simply work with a contemporary world and perception.

Sometimes, the world tries to change doctrine, claiming the Catholic Church is old fashioned (gay rights, women priests, contraception). But even when the doctrine becomes difficult in contemporary society, it cannot change. We cannot succumb to a hodge-podge of differing ideas and allow Catholics to simply believe what they want. We cannot be like Acoma, which has allowed many different building practices to create a city that is no longer unified.

So, at these pueblos, it seems to me that in order to retain a culture that is strong enough to move into the future, there must be some adaptation to contemporary society without losing the core "doctrine," so to speak. Taos, while traditional, may not be able to sustain itself into the future as its members become frustrated without contemporary conveniences and move away. Then their culture will become completely foreign to them. Acoma seemed to have lost an idea of what was important, retaining some traditions but forgetting about others. Ohkay Owingeh, on the other hand, allowed for plumbing and electricity, but they retained their adobe walls. In order to sustain their culture, they must remember to teach their children of the important connection to and protection of the earth. If they can do this, then the adobe walls will never go away. If they can help their people understand why they believe what they believe, then it will no longer be preservation of something in danger of being lost, but continuation of a rich culture into the future.

To me, my Catholic faith is like the adobe block way of building that must never change. Our disciplines are like the metal coping, the plumbing, the electricity, that allow the house we've built to work into the future. Our doctrines are like the mud plaster that seals and protects the adobe block. Though the mud plaster requires upkeep (concrete plaster would be so much easier to apply), it is the only material that works with the adobe block. To try to change it and use something else would destroy the faith. To use concrete plaster instead would cause the adobe brick to melt away leaving nothing but the plaster. Eventually the plaster will not be able to support itself, and it will crack and the whole house will crumble.

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