01 October 2008

An excellent article on the identity crisis that has been taking place in the Church since Vatican II

I won't post the full text of the article because it is very long, but I highly recommend reading the whole thing. Here are some snippets (with my emphases in bold) that should give an idea of the whole thing:

On 14th June this year about 1,500 people filled Westminster Cathedral. Every seat was taken; people stood in the aisles and spilled out on to the piazza outside. The occasion was a mass, but not an ordinary mass. It was indeed a mass in what is now officially called the ``extraordinary form'' of the Roman rite, i.e. the mass as it had existed before the changes that followed the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). It was celebrated by Cardinal Castrillon Hoyos, and was the first mass in the traditional form to be celebrated in the Cathedral by a cardinal in thirty nine years.

Before the mass, Cardinal Castrillon had addressed the Latin Mass Society of England and Wales, a group which had striven for forty years to preserve the ancient liturgy. He told them to `take heart' because the new Pope sympathised with them, and he spoke of the `sacrifices' of those members of the Society `who have not lived to be here today.'

To outsiders, all this emotion, this talk of sacrifices made by dead Catholics for the liturgy might well be unintelligible. What are the great issues at stake? Why should people throng Westminster Cathedral and spill out onto the street, including many too young to remember the old ways, just to experience a service in Latin conducted by a prelate with his back to the people?

In July the Pope was in Australia for World Youth Day. About four hundred thousand of the young, who had travelled from all parts of the globe, acclaimed him at a vast open-air mass in Sydney. But the mass had some new-old features Latin (Gregorian) chant, an altar adorned in the old style with crucifix and seven candles, and an attempt at solemn reverence that is not usually seen at these mass liturgical events. Something is in the air.

The truth is that the Roman Catholic Church has been in crisis ever since the Second Vatican Council, a crisis not only of falling numbers attending mass, a reduction of vocations, the virtual extinction of some religious orders, but a crisis of identity of the Church itself. The confident, tightly centralised "triumphalist'' Catholicism that followed the sixteenth century Council of Trent and regained many of the lands that had been lost to Protestantism, the Church that claimed to be "the one ark of salvation for all," has been replaced by the "pilgrim Church," tentatively stretching out to other faiths, often apologetic about the past, sometimes ready to play down its most distinctive doctrines.

* * * * *

Nearly 25 years ago, a Pole was dining in my college in Cambridge. He told us that he had been an altar boy in Poland, and had often served the masses of the Archbishop of Cracow. A year or two after that prelate, Karol Woytila, had been installed in the See of Rome, he decided to visit him, for John Paul II never became too grand for his old Polish friends. The Pope (so he told the story) strode up to him, punched him lightly in the chest, and began: Introibo ad ad altare dei ... to which our guest responded: Ad deum qui laetificat iuventutum meum. ("I will go unto the altar of God'' "To God who giveth joy to my youth.'') This was the opening exchange between priest and server of the old "Tridentine'' Latin mass, abolished in the early1970s, and the two continued it right down to the Confiteor. Then the Pope shrugged his shoulders and said: "Well, that's no use to us anymore." His old altar boy replied: "No, Holy Father, and that's why I no longer go to church." To which the Pope (he said) instantly rejoined: "Don't blame me. Blame that maniac John XXIII!"

* * * * *

But what is the fuss all about? Is this just a matter of some people preferring to talk to God in Latin? Or is it the re-igniting of a subterraneous culture war that has troubled the peace of the faithful over the past forty years?

First of all: it is not just a question of Latin. The "Tridentine'' mass and the Latin mass are not one and the same thing. True, the Tridentine mass must be said in Latin in the Roman church. But decades ago you could attend Tridentine masses in High Anglican churches in Cornwall celebrated entirely in English. The new order of mass, promulgated by Pope Paul VI after the Second Vatican Council, was originally meant to be usually in Latin, but is nearly always said in the vernacular. But whatever the language, it is different from the old mass, in feel, liturgical gesture and some would even say in theology. The liturgy has always embodied both prayer and doctrine: it is both lex orandi and lex credendi. The ultras would argue that the changes in the mass were part of a stealthy attempt to alter doctrine. The great Council of Trent (1546-63) marked the final separation between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism with ferocious clarity. Catholic doctrines such as the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, reaffirmed by Trent, are liturgically enforced in the Tridentine mass with no possible ambiguity.

The ultras have a point. A pious Catholic who had fallen asleep in 1960 and woken up forty years later would be puzzled indeed at a modern mass (unless he had been allowed to slumber all those years in Brompton Oratory or a few other traditionalist redoubts.) He would find the modern Church culturally and psychologically so altered that he might be tempted to see it as a new religion masquerading under the old name. He might, like my Polish acquaintance, decide not to bother any more.

* * * * *

To undo the Council of Trent would be no mean endeavour, although to anyone with a sense of the religious history of Europe during the last four hundred and fifty years it must seem a madly ambitious one. But what really ignited the Catholic culture wars was the way it was done: by an unprecedented exercise of papal power. Hardly anything of what happened was prescribed by the Second Vatican Council, not the turning around of the altars, not the almost universal use of the vernacular, not the scaling down of the sense of transcendence and sacrifice, not the discouraging of the faithful from kneeling when receiving holy communion, not the receiving of communion in the hand rather than on the tongue. Traditionalists point out that the Council had decreed that the Latin language was to be preserved. (And the "maniac" John XXIII had been totally opposed to the vernacular in the mass.) It had all been done by Pope Paul VI, Archbishop Bugnini and a close circle of liturgical experts. It was never even passed by a synod of bishops.

The paradoxical conclusion might have been forseen: it was the most pious Catholics, most devoted to the papacy and its prerogatives who were most outraged, but who felt most bound by loyalty and obedience. Their anguish when they were presented in 1971 with the abolition of the old rite can be imagined.