Hands Across Catholic America - Should churchgoers hold hands during Mass? By Andrew Santella
Not long ago, I heard a Catholic churchgoer complaining about a wave of inappropriate touching that had spread across so many American parishes. He wasn't talking about pederast priests and the sex-abuse scandal. What he had in mind was the way many Catholics have taken to holding hands in church while they recite the Lord's Prayer...Of course, most Catholics are neither vehemently touch-feely nor vehemently traditional. I'm not a big fan of hand-holding and have even complained about it in print. To me, it smacks of enforced good cheer and saccharine singalongs. But the trouble with being against hand-holding is that it puts you in league with the church's most ultra-orthodox flat-Earthers.
Same here--though, mercifully, hand-holding hasn't gone quite this far in the Episcopal Church. Still, apart from our son's wedding last summer, I haven't been to church now for, I think 6 years.
I don't like the "horizontal dimension" in religion. I don't like the Peace, I don't like chatting in the pews before the service and I don't like running the gauntlet of ushers and greeters to get into the church.
It isn't that I'm misanthropic and it isn't that I'm afraid of germs. I am just shy: little social contacts and the protocols of friendliness stress me out. Not a lot: I've gotten used to saying hi to colleagues and minor chit chat with cashiers. But I would really rather not have it than have it: I like being private in public.
Sociability sometimes still overwelms me. I wanted to learn French--and one of the advantages of being an academic is getting to sit in on all the classes you want. But in the French II class I went to, as a pedagogical technique the instructor passed out lists of questions and had students go around to other students getting answers to the questions--a sort of scavenger hunt. I couldn't take it.
This is a really effective way to learn a language. After a summer of no French or in my case 30 years of no French, we were rusty. Then things started coming back--surprisingly. But I couldn't handle it. It might have been different if I were a traditionally-aged USD student, though even under optimal conditions I wouldn't have cared for it, but for me, as a professor, obviously older, it was just too uncomfortable. That's my quirk. I am, in this peculiar way shy. I would have stuck with it if I had to, but I didn't so I dropped the class.
What is surprising is the extent to which this kind of shyness is socially taboo--in the way that smoking or admitting that you like junk food is. It is not only shameful but, according to some, sinful. When I had a curmudgeonly letter published on Anglicans Online complaining about contemporary liturgy, the Peace and other elements of the "horizontal dimension" I was lambasted. Readers sent me emails, in some cases multiple emails condemning me as a reactionary and homophobe.
Homophobe? I suppose it's not entirely incomprehensible since social conservatives in the church have picked on liturgical revision as a symbolic issue to rally the troops. But I would bet that lots of people who had no axes to grind about same sex unions or other Red/Blue hot issues got in bed with these conservatives because they didn't like the horizontal liturgical style. After all if the guys in the pew next to me are gay, whether married in the church or not, how does it affect my church experience? What skin is it off my nose? Everything looks exactly the same.
If however I have to engage in "community" with ushers and greeters to get into the building, chit-chat with people before the service, shake hands or put up with hugs while making miserable noises about "justice, freedom and peace" that does profoundly change my church experience. Of course, ceteris paribus, I want to have enjoyable experiences and avoid stressful, unpleasant, embarrassing ones--why not?
At this point the pious, in a huff, snort "You don't go to church to get good experiences for your self" followed by a number of doctrinal claims about why one should go to church. Well, I don't buy any of them. As far as "building community" which, among the enlightened is supposed to be the purpose of church-going, if what that means facilitating little social niceties, hugging and chit-chat I can't see why this is supposed to be a religious duty. It is simply a taste that some people have and others don't have.
I suppose the idea is that friendliness is good because it spills over into altruistic behavior--that those of us who prefer using ATMs to chatting with bank tellers and find minor social interactions on the whole unpleasant are less likely to give to charity or work for social justice. But I doubt that this is so. Moreover, to the extent that friendliness and sympathy motivate altruism they seem to promote inefficient sentimentalities--sending out sympathy cards and hand-patting, taking Thanksgiving baskets to the deserving poor--rather than behavior that would be more efficient in maximizing utility, e.g. working and giving to promote the establishment of a welfare state. In any case, if what's wanted is altruistic behavior, promoting "community" is an inefficient, indirect and ineffective way to get it.
Friendliness is a taste--not a virtue much less a religious duty. And shyness isn't either a vice or a pathology but a feature of personality. I've leant how to make the appropriate noises, to act suitably in social situations, but it's something I'll never enjoy and I do not see why I should.