“Why do you people care so much about externals?” my non-Trad friends sometimes ask me. And they deserve an answer. A few weeks back, my delightfully contentious colleague here, Mark Shea, waded into the conflict between those who describe themselves simply as “orthodox” Catholics, and those who consider themselves “traditionalists.” (Just to save space in the comments box, I mean by this term people who favor the traditional liturgy — not those who associate with organizations under ecclesiastical suspension.)This line has begun to blur more and more in the wake of Pope Benedict XVI’s Summorum Pontificum, which we Trads greeted as a kind of Emancipation Proclamation — even as many of our bishops answered it with liturgical Jim Crow.
Still, the division is palpable. It was lying right there on the table, for any who cared to palpate it, last week when I went to dinner with a Trad-minded colleague and a visiting author who’d come to speak at our college on G. K. Chesterton. (The presentation was riveting, and I highly recommend Dale Ahlquist’s talks and books.) Like the good Mr. Shea, our speaker is a convert, and he shared with Mark a puzzlement at the apparent fixation traditionalists have on restoring former elements of the liturgy and other Catholic practices that are not essential, and resisting innovations that are not inherently evil. Having come from churches that didn’t have the Eucharist, and remaining through God’s grace flush with gratitude for the sacraments, many converts really don’t understand what the rest of us are nattering on about. We who grew up privileged may seem like sulky, spoiled kids. We owe these good people an explanation.
Sometimes they think we just care about aesthetics. One visit to a Sunday Latin Low Mass without music, recited soundlessly into a marble altar, should put that idea to flight. Compared to a Novus Ordo liturgy in the vernacular, and from a purely human point of view, attending Low Mass can be dull. You feel like you are eavesdropping. If you follow along in the missal, you can feel that you are watching a very solemn foreign film without any subtitles, except that you have the screenplay. There’s a reason the old rubrics relegated Low Mass to weekdays, and called (though they were rarely answered) for sung Solemn Mass on Sundays and holy days. Pope Pius X wasn’t kidding when he asked for parishes to revive Gregorian chant and teach it to the laity. Nor is there any good reason why Latin Mass congregations don’t give the responses along with the servers — except perhaps the fear that this is somehow the first step down a long road that leads to clown Mass. Get over it, fratres.
Other people think that we are a band of Latin scholars, desperate to put our dusty declensions to practical use. Again, one conversation with the congregants at the coffee hour will dash that infant theory against the rocks. Most of us studied Latin, if at all, as part of vocabulary practice for the SATs, and follow the English side of the missal. I don’t know a single Traditionalist who wouldn’t prefer the old Mass, facing the altar, said in English, to the Novus Ordo chanted in Latin facing the people. While the universal language of the Church is still to be revered for all the reasons that Vatican II prescribed in Sacrosanctum Concilium, it isn’t Why We Fight.
Still more people think that we cling to the ancient liturgy as a piece of nostalgia for a Church that we vaguely remember, or heard about from our parents, whose schools drummed a stark, simplistic orthodoxy into hordes of dutiful children; whose religious orders and seminaries weren’t riddled with rank heresy and extensive networks of secret homosexuals; whose bishops manfully echoed the traditional teachings of centuries without constant goading from Rome; whose buildings and services at least strove for dignity and austerity, even if they sometimes descended into tedium and kitsch.
I’m tempted to say at this point: That’s right. That’s exactly what we want. Or at least what we’d settle for. What faithful Catholic wouldn’t, if he could right now, wave a magic wand and swap the American church of 2010 for that of 1940 — with all its acknowledged abuses and hidden worldliness? I’ll take the blustering Cardinal Spellman over the scheming Archbishop Weakland any day.
But, of course, things never work like that. You can’t bring back the Habsburgs by hanging their banners in your apartment (trust me, I’ve tried), and we cannot undo the catastrophic “renewal” launched in the name of the Second Vatican Council (often in plain defiance of its documents) by clicking our heels and reciting, “There’s no place like Rome” — even in ecclesiastical Latin. Some confrontation between the Church and late Western modernity was inevitable, and if it hadn’t happened at the Council, it would have occurred some other way. The Eastern churches didn’t vandalize their liturgy; have they been spared the ravages of secularization? Not according to my Greek Orthodox friends, who show up for the last ten minutes of liturgy each week to pick up blessed bread and join their friends for baklava and gossip. The liturgy is miraculous, but it doesn’t work like magic: Rev. Teilhard de Chardin had said the Tridentine Mass for decades even as he invented Catholic Scientology; conversely, his sometime housemate at New York’s St. Ignatius Loyola, the holy Rev. John Hardon, obediently switched missals with every tinkering that came to him from the bishops.
Of course, there’s something to be said for a liturgy whose very nature resists and defeats abuses. The Ordinary Form can be extraordinarily reverent when said by a holy priest. I’ve been to such liturgies hundreds of times, and I’m grateful for every one. On the other hand, the new liturgy, with all its Build-a-Bear options, is terribly easy to abuse. The old Mass reminds me of what they used to say about the Catholic Church and the U.S. Navy: “It’s a machine built by geniuses so it can be operated safely by idiots.” The old liturgy was crafted by saints, and can be said by schlubs without risk of sacrilege. The new rite was patched together by bureaucrats, and should only be safely celebrated by the saintly.
There are plenty of theological arguments by men more learned than I — such as Michael Davies and, er, the current pope — for the superiority of various elements in the traditional liturgy, such as the priest facing the altar instead of the audience. (I use that word advisedly, given the theatrical quality that took over so many parishes since the 1970s.) There are serious objections to many of the changes made in the prayers of the Novus Ordo — and they were made by the man who used to hold the former Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger’s job at the Vatican, Alfredo Cardinal Ottaviani, who presented them to Pope Paul VI, begging him not to issue the Novus Ordo. (Imagine Cardinal Ratzinger begging Pope John Paul II not to impose altar girls. Who knows — maybe he did!) Although I recommend reading these arguments, I won’t rehearse them here, since all of them are prudential. Adopting Lutheran or Anglican language in the Mass probably didn’t cause the current crisis of belief in the Real Presence, and cutting such language by eliminating all but the First Eucharistic Prayer might not do much to resolve it. (Still, it’s worth a try!)
So what is the practical motivation that drives us Trads to schlep to distant or dangerous parishes, to irritate our spouses and incommode our pastors, to detach from local churches our grandparents scrimped to build? Why insist on external things, like kneeling for communion on the tongue, male altar servers, and the priest facing the altar? None of these, I’ll admit for the 5,000th time, is essential for sacramental validity or credal orthodoxy; isn’t being a stickler on such issues a wee bit pharisaical, even prissy? (I have encountered the odd Trad activist with an unnatural attachment to silk and lace — pastors wearily call them “daughters of Trent” — but they aren’t the norm. Weary fathers of six or seven pack most Latin Mass pews.)
Here’s what we Trads have realized, that the merely orthodox haven’t: Inessential things have power, which is why we bother with them in the first place. In every revolution, the first thing you change is the flag. Once that has been replaced, in the public mind all bets are off — which is why the Commies and Nazis filled every available space with their Satanic banners. Imagine, for a moment, that a newly elected president replaced the Stars and Stripes with the Confederate battle flag. Or that he replaced our 50 stars with the flag of Mexico. Let’s say he got away with doing this, and wasn’t carried off by the Secret Service to an “undisclosed location.” What would that signify for his administration? If people accepted the change, what else would they be likely to accept?
It’s no accident that the incessant tinkerings with the liturgy came at the same time as the chaos surrounding the Church’s teaching on birth control. As Anne Roche Muggeridge pointed out in her indispensable history The Desolate City, the Church’s position on contraception was “under consideration” for almost a decade — which led pastors to tell troubled couples that they could follow their consciences. If the Church could change the Mass, ordinary Catholics concluded, the nuances of marital theology were surely up for grabs. No wonder that when Paul VI reluctantly issued Humanae Vitae, people felt betrayed. (It didn’t help when the Vatican refused to back a cardinal who tried to enforce the document, which made it seem like the pope was winking.)
The perception that the Church was in a constant state of doctrinal flux was confirmed by the reality that her most central, sacred mystery was being monkeyed with — almost every year. I remember being in grammar school when they told us, “The pope wants us to receive Communion in the hand now.” (He didn’t; it was an abuse that was forced on the Vatican through relentless disobedience until it became a local norm, but never mind.) Then, a few years later, “The pope wants us to stand for Communion.” A few more grades, and we heard, “The pope wants us to go to Confession face to face.” What had seemed a solid bulwark of formality and seriousness was suddenly shifting with every year’s hemlines — which is precisely what the heretics conspiring to change the Church’s teaching had in mind. That is why they pushed for these futile, pastorally destructive changes of “inessentials” — as a way of beating down resistance to changing essentials. And, in a worldly sense, they almost succeeded.
The campaign of dissenting priests, nuns, and (let’s be honest) bishops culminated, in America, with the Call to Action Conference, which its leading advocate John Francis Cardinal Dearden described in 1977 as “an assembly of the American Catholic community .” This gathering of 2,400 radical Catholic activists was composed of “people deeply involved with the life of the institutional Church and appointed by their bishops” (emphasis added). The Conference approved “progressive resolutions, ones calling for, among other things, the ordination of women and married men, female altar servers, and the right and responsibility of married couples to form their own consciences on the issue of artificial birth control.” This is the mess made by the bishops appointed by the author of Humanae Vitae, which his rightly beloved successor John Paul II spent much of his pontificate trying to clean up. What we Trads feel compelled to point out is that he couldn’t quite finish the job, and that the deformations of the Roman liturgy enacted by (you guessed it) appointees of Paul VI helped enable all these doctrinal abuses. They changed the flag.
At this point in my discussion of the gravest theological issues that threatened the faith of Catholics in this country, I wish to call your attention to a stupid YouTube video, which gave this essay its willfully illiterate title: “All Your Base Are Belong to Us.”
For those of you too young to have experienced the incessant assault upon the sacred that was the liturgical “reform,” or grateful converts who don’t understand all the fuss, I beg of you: Please watch this video. In fact, stop reading and watch the video first, then come back to finish this essay. I can wait.
The film takes the Pidgin English from a cheesy Japanese computer game and places it everywhere: on street signs, in Budweiser ads, on cigarette packs. At first, the effect is funny, and you wonder about the geeks who spent their time doing all this Photoshop. But keep watching. Savor the effect as the same mindless, meaningless slogan is plastered everywhere, on every blessed thing. Pretty quickly, it starts to be creepy. By the end, you might feel like Japanese anime aliens have in fact taken over. You can see their fingerprints everywhere . . .
That is how it felt to be young and Catholic in the 1970s. Every sacred thing had to be changed, every old thing replaced with a new one, every complicated beauty plastered over by the cheap and the easy. The message was almost subliminal, but by that means all the more powerful: All Your Church Are Belong to Us.
And by changing back the flag, by taking back our Mass, we are saying: Go back to Hell. Our Church belongs to Christ.