Thoughts on the Latin Mass, Relativism, and the Answer

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.

13 thoughts on “Thoughts on the Latin Mass, Relativism, and the Answer

  1. Chris T.

    Interesting post, Derek.

    I would clarify first that it’s only kinda-sorta about Latin. The motu proprio would definitely concern the traditional (that is, Tridentine) Mass. Absolutely any priest anywhere in the entirely Roman church is currently allowed to celebrate the Novus Ordo Mass in Latin, provided he has faculties for celebrating the Mass at all. And Latin is still considered by every official teaching of the church (including the recent apostolic exhortation on the Eucharist) to be the normative liturgical language of the Roman church.

    Now I do suspect some of the “reform of the refom” folks are actually interested in TLM because it would mandate a return to Latin for that rite for any parish that embraced it (there is no authorized English translation now — there was back in the late 60s AFAIK before the Novus Ordo rite was promulgated). And I think you’re right to draw an analogy between wanting a Latin-only regime again and seminary students opposing ideological criticism of the Bible. The folks who want to abolish non-Gregorian hymns, the vernacular, ad populum worship, and everything else just don’t seem to be living on planet earth or care much about the other people in the pews. (There’s a very strong sense on many of those blogs of “So what if everyone else hates it? They’ll learn to like it, dammit!”)

    It’s funny what you say about clericalism. I’m almost positive you’re right. What’s weird, though, is that I think the NO liturgy actually encourages more clericalism than the Tridentine liturgy IF both were in vernacular and the mumbled (sorry, “low tone”) Canon weren’t normative in the Tridentine Mass. The NO is so showy and tries to make so much out of the personality of the priest sometimes that I think it feeds plenty of clericalism.

    Anyhow, while I hope the Holy Father liberalizes the 1962 Missal, I’m definitely glad I’m not a Roman priest and don’t have to worry about whether he thinks I should say Mass using the older rite. My bishop is just fine with either NO or Tridentine, and while all of us in the jurisdiction use English, I’m sure he would be ok with Latin if any of us asked. Why be authoritarian about it?

  2. Anastasia

    I am really conflicted about the last part of your post. for one thing, I don’t know of any group that can honestly be characterizes as “one of those that affirms that Answers exist but they’re not going to insist complete conformity.” I think two things here. First, in my experience some of those who engage the strongest “non conformity” and openness rhetoric are the least tolerant of those with whom they disagree. I’ve spent a lot of time in places where people presume I’m more theologically liberal than I am. I know what they say when they think no one is listening.

    Second, so long as we aren’t putting people to death for heresy, I’m not sure anybody is *really* insisting on conformity in a way that has any teeth. Take the Roman church. Now, I appreciate that they are very clear about what they teach, i do think they plead ignorance in some cases where it’s appropriate–and official theology is a hell of a lot more subtle than our average parishioner or even your average RC priest–but when it comes to what people actually believe, you find a wide range. There is a kind of flexibility there. I’m aware it’s not enough to satisfy some people, but its just not the case that you need to think like the magisterium or the inquisitor is going to come knocking at the door.

  3. Anastasia

    there’s also excommunication but I also don’t think your average parishioner is having his or her thoughts interrogated quite that closely.

  4. Jonathan

    I agree with Anastasia. The Catholic Church is remarkably tolerant. It took Rome what, 12 years to censure a theologian recently? And even then he was just not allowed to claim to be a Catholic teacher. No formal excommunication, no removal from the priesthood. The Hans Kung case was the same way. I’m sure many conservative TEC priests would love to have been treated that well.

    I also find your friend’s comment about clericalism a bit off base. When the Vatican tells liberals what to do it’s bigotry, clericalism or control, but when liberals (usually by a carefully selected academic committee often including “acceptable” priests and religious) tell everyone what to do, it’s somehow unquestionable. I have no interest in attending a Tridentine mass personally, but I don’t see how merely allowing it to occur is clericalism and forcing the Novus Ordo and the vernacular on everyone is not.

  5. Chris T.

    I have to defend Derek on his clericalism comment. I don’t think what the Pope himself is doing with this (rumored) motu proprio is based in clericalism. I’ve read a lot of his works on liturgy and the wider church and I’m impressed that he is a man of deep prayer and loves the old Mass for valid reasons (as I do).

    But having interacted with some of the traditionalist folks who are agitating for the old Mass — both in the Roman church and in the Lefebvrist and sede vacantist groups — I have to say that this feeling of being at sea and wanting strong authorities to set it all right comes up a lot.

    And frankly, I’m happy to blame liberals like Cardinal Mahoney and Bishop “Troutperson” (Troutman) of plenty of clericalism, too. One of my enduring complains with the NO liturgy as it’s typically celebrated in Roman churches is that it makes much of the priest’s personality, eye contact with the congregation, etc.

    Give me someone to celebrate the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass over a Mahoney “presiding” at the “liturgy” any day. There’s plenty of blame to go around. ;-)

  6. Jonathan

    Chris T,
    I think you make great points about both the “radtrads” and clericalism on all sides. I also think, however, there is the opposite tendency where the laity becomes supreme and apostolic succession becomes practically meaningless. It really is a fine line to walk to avoid falling into either clericalism on one hand or a sort of chaotic, do what you feel religion on the other. I think the modern Catholic Church, especially since Vatican II, is trying hard to figure out how to be authentic to its traditions while also involving the laity as much as possible. Perhaps that’s why we see so much horrible experimentation and the reaction of radical traditionalism The liturgical future, I think, is in the way of Pope Benedict who doesn’t want to undo Vatican II, but to actually follow the council’s instructions and not its “spirit.”

  7. Derek the Ænglican

    I agree with you that liberals can be just as rigid and dogmatic as anyone. My point is that the Episcopal Church does not teach that all things it says must be believed. And yes, I acknowledge there is a range in regard to Roman belief. At the same time–it’s not what it used to be either; Trent and Vatican I had a definite effect in changing the boundaries.

    Jonathan, I think we’re dealing with several things here. First, your last comment gets precisely to the point of my post on the nature of certainty and its relation to authority. It is a fine line. While I think that the motives of the rumored motu proprio are based ina desire to get back to traditional Catholic liturgical theology its effects will go far beyond that and will have unintended institutional consequences

    And I’m sure as hell not go to tell you that liberals can’t be just as clericalist as conservatives…

    The situation isn’t just occuring the Roman Church, obviously. I think most churches these days are feeling it both in their internal politics and in the number of people who are choosing by not attending a church or practicing a faith. A delicate balance is necessary. I personally believe, however, that the Vatican’s version is not the way to go. I do have a lot of respect for the Roman church, but disagree particularly with its institutional culture.

  8. James Day

    RE: “The Episcopal Church does not teach that all things it says must be believed.”

    Hi Derek. I would have to disagree with the above comment. I feel that TEC has become more and more dogmatic especially in its approach to its more conservative members. While I certainly don’t agree with the backwaters thinking of certain bishops, in the end it is their diocese and their flock. The people elected them. It seems that TEC is pushing hard to impose that they MUST accept women clergy and homosexual unions.

    While I agree that it is hypocritical for us not to accept these things, I also accept that there are those who disagree with me and wish to practice their faith as such. It seems though, that our current PB is being rather harsh to them. Whether or not it is merited, if we are truly a church that embraces all views, the most consistent course of action is to leave them alone. Just my $0.02.

  9. Derek the Ænglican

    James, a necessary and important distinction to draw is the difference between what happens in church politics and the official dogma & doctrine of the church. While certain things are preferred and pushed–no doubt–the canons of the Episcopal Church do not insist upon theological conformity. Unlike Roman or even Lutheran churches.

    And no, we’re not a church that embraces all views. That’s a straw man. Rather, Anglicanism as classically understood has been willing to live with a wider diversity of views than other groups but that does not mean that there is nothing beyond the pale. And defining when and where that occurs is the root source of the Great Unpleasantness. The liberals want to boundary-out the conservatives and vice-versa.

    Yes, it bugs me too for a number of reasons. The biggest of which is undoubtedly that it leads to us highlighting the lesser-order issus of theology that define the outer edges of boundaries. As we emphasize them rhetorically to make our case for why the other guys should be thrown out, we rhetorically deemphasize a living faith engaged with the living Christ and the community that is his body.

    I know there are some who will disagree and will state that the liberals have eviscerated the Jesus of faith and no longer hold a Christian christology. I would disagree with them and suggest that this represents stalking horses like Spong et al. rather than the majority of American broad-churchers.

  10. Anastasia

    this is exactly where I think our bishop is coming from when he says sure, we disagree. but isn’t it wonderful that we all still come under the umbrella of anglican diversity, we share the same faith in christ, and we can all come to the table and pray together.

    in point of fact, no. we can’t. and I’m not talking about spong.

  11. David Bennett

    I think a big reason so many folks want to return to some type of Latin Mass is that, in this day and age, because of their rarity, the Latin Masses people experience are often dignified and traditional, opposed to the Novus Ordo Masses some folks may be used to. However, if every church were to go to a Latin Mass, then I am sure we would see examples of bad Latin masses, just like the old days.

    I am not necessarily clamoring for a return to the Latin Mass, and I have taken enough Latin classes to understand what is being said. I think if English masses were more traditional, we probably wouldn’t hear as much about the Latin Mass. My suggestion is usually to simply do the Novus Ordo properly and with dignity (and hopefully the new translation coming out is a start).

    I honestly don’t think the interest in the Latin Mass has to do with clericalism, at least not primarily, although I can see why some Catholics would like it to be about this, because it reduces the issue to a class struggle. First, the Catholic Church and Orthodox Church are always going to be charged with “clericalism” because of the lack of lay participation in making decisions. Second, I think the interest in the Latin Mass is about demanding a reverent, dignified Mass, instead of being at the whim of priests educated in the 60s and 70s that, sometimes on their own, decided to change the local Mass for the “good of the people” (which is a type of clericalism I suppose).

    Besides, I don’t think we are going to see a whole lot of Latin masses spring up anytime soon, and the Vatican seems to be inching along, if moving at all, on this issue.

  12. lutherpunk

    Could it be that Latin Mass just appeals to the same sort of “boutique” religious consciousness that seems so prevalent among emergent folks?

    I know that there are many good theological justifications for the Latin Mass, and a number I agree with, but it almost seems to me that some people are touting it for all together different reasons.

    I think there is a way to be rid of the banality of the current NO without total reversion to the 62 missal. I think the current English translation project will help bridge that gap. I hope to God that there is a trickle down effect as well, so that we Protestants can turn back some of the stuff we are seeing in our English language liturgies as well.

  13. Derek the Ænglican

    I’d be all for good, aesthetically pleasing, modern English liturgies. And, I would be all for a move back to ad orientem celebrations too.

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