I’ve been doing some reflecting about the reputedly forth-coming motu proprio. For those out of touch with current Roman doings, the traditionalist blogs have been abuzz with rumors that B16 may release a document (possibly) in the next week that reinstates the Latin Mass and celebrating ad orientem. I greet this news with mixed feelings. I’ll probably split my thoughts into two posts–this and the next.
A few weeks ago I was leading a section of New Testament on ideological criticism, particularly feminist and socio-economic readings. I was in a small group that happened to be populated by several very intelligent conservative evangelicals. They spent about 30 minutes trashing ideological critism as a form of eiegesis–importing one’s own politics into the text. Now–I’m not a huge ideological kind of guy so but at that point one of them said something to this effect: “There’s no reason to try and make everything so political. Care and concern for the poor and women are already in the biblical text. Why do some people feel they have to go looking for it everywhere since it’s already there?” At that point, I could contain myself no longer. I explined to them that there was a reason why they thought it was already there–because every class they had taken at seminary was so thoroughly imbued wiuth the principles and the benefits of ideological criticisms of one kind or another that they had forgotten that they had read the text any other way. I reminded them that for centuries the guild of privileged white men had read the text without ever finding the women or the over-riding concern for the poor that they took for granted. I pointed out the irony of trashing an interpretive system from which they had already reaped the benefits–especially one of the more vocal critics who was a woman… There seems, to me, to be a certain dishonesty there, rejecting with one hand the very structures that enable your own flourishing.
In the advance of the rumored motu proprio I have read quite a number of folks who are more than ready to jettison the insipid banalities of the English Novus Ordo and to return to the purity and power of the Latin Mass. (By the way, the rumors haven’t quite decided if the “Latin Mass” means the Tridentine ot the Latin Novus Ordo…) Personally, I love the idea of the Latin Mass and certainly wouldn’t mind of our Roman brother brought it back. BUT–I say that with full awareness of three things: 1) I know Latin. No, I don’t have the killer Latin linguistic skills of certain lurkers on this blog but my Latin is certainly good enough to follow the Mass prayerfully without parallel English. I also know I’m in the huge minority of Americans–let alone citizens of the world. 2) I’ve never lived under a Latin Only regime. And from what I can glean, neither have most of the people who seem to be pushing for it the hardest. 3) I honestly don’t have a dog in this hunt. I’m not Roman and my life won’t be changed by this decision whether it ever comes out or not.
From where I sit, it seems that the most vocal critics are the privileged few who not only have had the ability to study Latin but–even more important–have had the advantage of growing up with the Mass in the vernacular. Even those with sketchy Latin will know the general meaning of what the priest is saying because they’ve grown up hearing it in their own tongue.
Now, my understanding is that this document will not signal a return to the Latin Mass; I don’t think that vernacular Masses will be abolished, only that Latin Masses will be more widely allowed. I fervently hope that this is the case. For as much as Ilove the idea of the Latin Mass, people need to hear the liturgy and be formed by the liturgy in their own mother tongue as well.
When I mentioned the document to a Roman of my acquaintance, his response was interesting. He asked me if I knew what was driving it. I responded, “Yes, small t-traditionalism. That traditionalism that believes that tradition is defined as ‘how they did things when I was a kid’ or that defines it as ‘they way things used to be before my parents’ generation f’ed everything up.'” He said, “No. That may be why lay groups are for it but the Vatican doesn’t care about that. It’s about a ressurgent clericalism, pure and simple. Putting the power and knowledge–by means of a language known primarily if not exclusively by the priests–back into the hands of the priestly class and drawing the deep distinction again.” His response is shaped by the experiental knowledge of the vicious conflict in the years immediately after Vatican II when his order went through power struggles that were ostensibly about languge and liturgy but really ran much deeper.
I’ve been thinking about his response for several days now. When studying history, particularly WWII, I often wonder what could possibly make otherwise sane and intelligent Germans vote for Hitler and the Nazis. Why would people want any form of totalitarian system? The answer that I keep coming back to is that people prefer strong and decisive leadership over chaos. And what wasn’t emphasized enough in the hiostory lessons that I received is the chaos and breakdown of the Weimar Republic: the catastrophic inflation, the breakdown of law and order. A vote for the Nazis was a vote for some kind of stability and structure (despite the downsides that most didn’t really grasp) in the face of overwhelming chaos.
Why would people–people who *aren’t* priests, that is–want to embrace a form of clericalism? Perhaps the same dynamic is at work. In an age of relativism, people looking for truth live in the midst of philosophical chaos. Where and how is big-t Truth to be found–and how will you know it when you find it? The denominations and organizations that seem to be growing the most in America are those who are perfectly happy to give clear-cut answers. Your local Vineyard or Southern Baptist or, yes, Roman church will be more than happy to supply you with a big-t Truth. And I can definitely see the attraction. It would be nice to have clear-cut answers, clean lines and boundaries. As Devo once put it, “Freedom of choice/ Is what you’ve got/Freedom from choice/Is what you want…” Because the alternative is uncertainty. Especially when it comes to the realm of spiritual truth, how do you know when you really have it right? When it’s something as important as divine realities, who can really afford to be wrong?
But that’s the kicker isn’t it–because someone says they have the Truth, how do you know they do? At some point, we are still stumbling in the dark, adjudicating competing claims as best we can. The choice as I see it, is either selecting one of the groups who claim to have the Answers or affiliate with one of those that affirms that Answers exist but they’re not going to insist complete conformity.
At some point we who are Christians must ask–what of the Spirit? Does it move in and through people or only in communities–or only in one community? And yes, I have now been talking for a while about the Great Unpleasantness. To my mind, one of the chief virtues in both people and in institutions is humility. A willingness to confess that they do not have all of the answers or, perhaps, that they do have the Answer but not the details. And that is where I prefer to stand. I do have the Answer but, to be completely accurate, that’s not really it. Rather–the Answer has me. Through Baptism. I have been united in a death like his and rise in a resurrection like his. I know that the Answer is Jesus and I take comfort that he has me.