“To everyone who has, more will be given; but to him who has not, even what he has shall be taken away.”
Memes are important in our society. In our virtual public sphere, they often express with clarity the issues at stake in our public life. The first one I ever recall seeing was back around 2003, when Katharine Jefferts Schori, the first presiding “lady bishop” of the Episcopal Church in the U.S. was prominent on the internet. Schori was a foil for conservative Anglicans, who circulated a meme which depicted her in an earnest boss-lady pose, wearing a sports jacket and dog collar, standing next to a graphic that read: “Don’t believe in that crap? Neither do we. The Episcopal Church welcomes you.” Thus, they cleverly satirized their leaders’ rejection of basic Christian doctrines regarding biblical authority and sexuality (i.e., “that crap”).
This image came to mind when Pope Francis issued Traditionis Custodes back in July. Ever since the end of Vatican II, the church leaders who came to prominence in its wake have battled to enshrine their interpretation of the Council into the Church’s life and teaching. These leaders, as is well known, have fallen into two camps (though of course there are variations) that Benedict XVI described as the hermeneutics of “discontinuity” and “reform” respectively.
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Benedict, in liberating the old Roman liturgy—now unavoidably a symbol of all that the Church since Vatican II has in practice left behind—was saying that we didn’t abandon everything from the pre-Vatican II era, and the existence of this ancient liturgy proves it. With Traditionis Custodes, Francis has, in effect, retorted: no, we don’t believe “that crap” anymore. I’m going to make it disappear, like the teaching on Communion for the divorced and remarried, as well as anyone who is not on board with the new order.
That, at least, seems to be his intention, though whether he can actually complete such a brutal operation by papal fiat is another matter. As Benedict could tell him, just because you issue a motu proprio doesn’t mean your bishops are going to enforce it, as very few ever implemented Summorum Pontificum. The question of the Latin Mass has raised, in a way that perhaps nothing else can, the problem of papal authority and the unity of the Church.
Can popes, by their will alone, impose unity of belief on a body that doesn’t already possess it? Ever since Vatican II (I leave to the side the question of its role in this process), a pluralism in fundamental matters of faith has taken hold in the Church, from the papacy on down to the laity, that has in practice if not in principle destroyed any such unity. Can those who believe gay couples deserve to have their relationships blessed really be in communion with those who believe sex outside of marriage is always sinful? Can those who believe in immutable truth really share a common faith with those who believe truth is merely historically conditioned and ever changing? And, more importantly, will any act of papal authority make this so if they cannot? For, as of now, Catholics share a common set of institutions but not a common faith.
Such questions need to be asked. Some should have been asked long ago by our hierarchs; they avoid them because any real answers are going to be painful for all involved, and our bishops are nothing if not averse to unpleasantness. But they also help us to understand better why these Latin Mass communities that Francis thinks are divisive continue to grow despite such putative “divisiveness.”
As a convert to the faith, I can recall the awkwardness I felt when, after first entering the Church nearly twenty years ago, I attended a Bible study run by a priest. During the meeting, it gradually became clear he believed the Church should ordain women and would do so eventually. (I never went back to the Bible study.) I had similar experiences with other parishioners over the years, and I felt relief when I realized (all too infrequently) that my interlocutor did, in fact, believe in “that crap.” My point is that, in practice, no real unity of faith exists if you can never be sure, from parish to parish, whether your fellow communicants share the same basic faith as you or not.
And in this lies the strength of Latin Mass communities. One can reasonably assume that most people in a Latin Mass community are there because they believe the same things—i.e., all the things the Church, in principle, is supposed to believe. As with the liturgy, so it is in matters of faith: when you go to a Latin Mass community, you know what you are going to get, unlike your average parish. This must account for much of their attraction.
Defenders of the old Roman Rite like to point out their growth, and I believe it (however much disputed it might be), but I doubt this has much to do with converts. It is probably due to growth by natural increase, since everyone at these parishes believes the full spectrum of Catholic belief—including its ban on artificial contraception. But this points to another, unnoticed strength of the Latin Mass communities, the ability to retain members. I would bet that their liturgical and doctrinal stability is a primary reason why. Your community cannot grow, much less evangelize anyone, if you cannot retain the loyalty of existing members.
In other words, Latin Mass communities possess something like what the fourteenth-century Muslim writer Ibn Khaldun called “asabiyyah,” meaning something like “solidarity,” or “social cohesion.” Khaldun had a theory that history moved in cycles, and that when a kingdom or nation was ascendant, it possessed strong asabiyyah; but when it became urban and decadent, such solidarity was lost. When this occurred, more aggressive, tribal peoples from the hinterlands who still retained strong group cohesion took over the kingdom and started a new dynasty. His name has been in the news recently because of the disastrous withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan and their defeat by the Taliban, after seemingly wiping them out twenty years ago. In this case, a modern, sophisticated army with vastly more resources was defeated by a ragtag group of soldiers, possessing little sophistication but a common set of beliefs and a strong sense of common identity.
Before the 1960s, the Church still possessed these traits as well. But the theologians whose ideas inspired Vatican II thought such solidarity narrow, rigid, and immobile, based on mere reactionary opposition to modern ideas rather than a truly “living” faith. They wanted to “raze the bastions,” to make the Church stop wasting her energies in a fruitless battle with modernity; and for them, Vatican II was their peace treaty with the modern world. There was some truth to these criticisms, but what followed the Council has been no cure. The leaders who came to power in the Church after the Council acted as chaplains to the technocratic liberal order of the West, baptizing it in hopes of finding a favored place within it.
Francis is clearly of this mindset and sees the maintenance of the old Roman liturgy as unacceptable backsliding to an obsolete order of things. In that sense, he aims, like the American government did with the Afghans, to “modernize” a “backwards” people and create unity out of warring tribes by diktat. The future is always uncertain, and his motu proprio may do much damage in the short run. But it seems likely to me that this venture in ecclesiastical “nation-building” will end much the same way as did that of the U.S. government. Francis may or may not be able to drive traditional Catholics out of the Church, but the chances of him being able to create unity by doing so is just as chimerical as trying to turn Afghanistan into a haven for feminists.
[Correction: The original edition of this article stated that Katharine Jefferts Schori was a lesbian, which is incorrect. We regret the error.]
[Photo Credit: Vatican Media/CNA]