What Really Matters

Christ High Priest
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Dorothy Day—who died in 1980 and was declared a Servant of God in 2012—was widely hailed as a great hero of the Catholic Left, even as her fierce orthodoxy baffled and embarrassed liberal Catholics everywhere. Yet it was Miss Day, this icon of Catholic progressivism, who famously said, “If the Cardinal ordered me to stop publishing tomorrow, I would.”

She meant, of course, Francis Cardinal Spellman of New York, with whom she disagreed on practically everything. Concerning politics, that is. As an ardent and lifelong pacifist, she opposed every war we entered, including the war against Hitler; Spellman, meanwhile, supported them all, including that most bitter pill which was Vietnam—whose final outcome, he prayed, would result in total victory for our side.

But on questions of ultimate concern, which happily and necessarily transcend ideology, they might as well have been two peas in a pod. At the final trumps, I expect, each will find the other equally delighted to be in the company of God and His Angels and Saints. 

I thought of Miss Day the other day when, in conversation with someone for whom I have great affection, I learned that (so incensed was he by the pope’s determination to end the Latin Mass) he will leave the Church rather than attend the Novus Ordo. Never mind how faithful the priest presiding or dignified his deportment in confecting the awesome Mystery of the Altar, my friend simply will not remain.

It hardly mattered that he and his bishop are on the same page, that provision within his diocese for the Extraordinary Form will not change. “Not on my watch, it won’t,” his bishop said. That did not reassure my friend at all. “What happens,” he wanted to know, “when the Old Boy retires? Or, if he doesn’t, what happens when the pope decides to tighten the noose?”

Which he will, my friend insisted, hatred for the Old Mass being the engine that drives his car.

And so the question comes up—How much does it really matter? Would the pope’s dissolution of the Mass in the Extraordinary Form necessarily be a game-changer? For my friend it changes everything. And, surely, at some level, it should matter to everyone that on this issue, without question, the pope has gone off his rocker. Telling faithful Catholics who have long been nourished by a form of worship more than five centuries in the making, which saints and martyrs have gone to their deaths to defend, that they must now cease and desist in the observance of it is not only wrong but needlessly and heartlessly so.  

George Weigel nailed it when, just the other day, he described Traditionis Custodes (Custodians of the Tradition), along with the letter which accompanied its release, as “theologically incoherent, pastorally divisive, unnecessary, cruel—and a sorry example of the liberal bullying that has become all too familiar in Rome recently.” 

So, what could have driven the pope to an exercise of the papal office so “extreme,” to cite the penultimate sentence in Weigel’s critique, “that (it) might have made Pope Pius IX blush”?  

Has His Holiness always been this mean-spirited that, absent the least sympathetic touch, he should so callously disregard the sensibilities of countless “traditional” Catholics, many of them quite young and blessed with large families, just because they actually prefer the Mass of 1962?   “Instead of appreciating the smell of the sheep,” writes Cardinal Gerhard Müller, the former head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, in a scathing review of the document, “the shepherd here hits them hard with his crook.”

Meanwhile, those who truly deserve a tap or two of the crook are left to pursue their own schismatic devices and desires entirely untouched by even the gentlest of papal rebukes. Does Rome really think that indifference to the abuses and, yes, blasphemies, that more and more characterize the behavior of bishops and priests and laity in Germany, is at all likely to advance the ideal of unity so dear to the pope’s heart? What specifically has he done to put an end to that paganization of liturgy, of which Cardinal Müller, among so many others, has lately warned? Does the spectacle of Pachamama raise fewer eyebrows in Rome than seeing Latin Mass lovers worshipping according to the Missal of Pope St. John XXIII?

The good news, of course, is that for all the harshness of its strictures, they are not dogmatic in nature but rather disciplinary, which means they can be changed once a new pope is installed. Much like Francis himself set about abrogating what Benedict had done, this, too, may go the way of all flesh. For all the honest distress it has caused, therefore, we needn’t go to the wall in complaining about it. My recalcitrant friend is not required, I am saying, in registering his disapproval of the suppression of a rite on which he claims his spiritual survival depends, to take himself out of the Church, becoming, as it were, an ex-Catholic.  

And why is that? Because even were the pope to succeed in preventing people from attending the Latin Mass, the fallout would not prove fatal inasmuch as our faith does not finally depend on the maintenance of any particular form, not even one as ancient and beloved as the one in Latin.  

On what then does our faith depend? On Christ, who remains the centerpiece of everything. 

He is the animating idea behind and within the whole Catholic Thing. And He is not an idea at all, but rather a Person, rendered concretely incarnate in the human being Jesus. Who else did the authors of Sacrosanctum Concilium, earliest of the Council’s texts (December 4, 1963), have in mind when they spoke of “the source and summit” of the life of the Church? It is not ourselves but Christ whom we come to Mass to celebrate.

Thus, it is He who, in the exercise of His priestly office, gives glory to God and brings salvation to men. There is the true and abiding summit of the Church’s life. The Sacred Liturgy is only a means pursuant to that end, not an end in itself. It is always Christ, therefore, making use of Liturgy as an instrumental cause, who accomplishes all that the Father sent Him into the world to do.  

What my friend needs to do, and I shall be sure to tell him next time we meet, is to put aside his scruples and go find a parish where the understanding of Divine Liturgy remains faithful to the constant teaching of the Church; which means an act of solemn and public worship offered to the Father by the whole Christ, Head and members. And never mind the language spoken so long as it aims at giving all honor and glory to God, from whom we beg ours and the world’s salvation.

I know of such a parish, by the way. It is the one my family and I have been attending for years. Perhaps I can persuade him to come next Sunday. In the meantime, let us all pray for better days to come.

[Image: Christ the High Priest; Stained glass detail from the great west window of Lancaster Cathedral]

By

Regis Martin is Professor of Theology and Faculty Associate with the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. He earned a licentiate and a doctorate in sacred theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome. Martin is the author of a number of books, including Still Point: Loss, Longing, and Our Search for God (2012) and The Beggar's Banquet (Emmaus Road). His most recent book, also published by Emmaus Road, is called Witness to Wonder: The World of Catholic Sacrament.

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