One year after re-introducing the Tridentine Mass and two years after the Regensburg address, Benedict XVI's popular new traditionalism has re-ignited the Catholic culture wars.
24 - 09 - 2008
The new traditionalism
On 14th June this year about 1500 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?
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of the lands that had been lost to Protestantism, the Church that claimed to be `the one ark of salvation for all,' has been replaced by the ``pilgrim Church'', tentatively stretching out to other faiths, often apologetic about the past, sometimes ready to play down its most distinctive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.
There is a deeper issue. Hilaire Belloc had said `Europe is the Faith, and the Faith is Europe.' Although Catholicism is a world-wide religion, and an Abrahamic faith, its European inheritance has been central, its philosophical theology deriving from Greece, its language and structures of authority from Rome. It was not for nothing that Hobbes described the papacy as `the ghost of the dead Roman Empire sitting crowned upon the grave thereof.' Enthusiasts for Vatican II thought they had changed all that. Rituals, language, even theology were to reflect the diverse cultures of the faithful, and even the subjective convictions of the individual.
The attempt since the Counter-reformation of the sixteenth century to resist some of the most important developments in modern culture, with an index of books forbidden to Catholics to read that included most of the greatest philosophers and imaginative writers of the modern world, was to be seen as a sort of auto-immune disorder -- an inability to cope with foreign bodies. In the light of this, an attachment to tradition seemed like a rejection of intelligence, and a scarcely defensible surrender to clerical dictatorship. The Church had raised the drawbridge against the modern world, and Vatican II would confidently lower it again. Central to that was the rejection of the traditional Latin mass. It was there that the battle lines were most obviously drawn.
The culture wars
Last September, a motu proprio (legislation of his own volition) of Pope Benedict XVI, liberating the old mass, and obliging parishes to provide it for those of the faithful who want it, came into effect. It was clearly an attempt to console those who were still attached to the old rite, including the followers of Archbishop Lefebvre, who rejected the new mass and many of the reforms of the Second Vatican Council (summoned by `that maniac, John XXIII.') ``Liberal'' Catholics grimly suspect that the Pope himself has long been disillusioned with the Council, and is bent on restoration of the old order. One Italian bishop said that he actually wept when he read the motu proprio, because he saw one of the greatest achievements of the modernists, a new style of liturgy, dissolving before his eyes. He was right to be alarmed. Benedict''s undoubted love of the old liturgy is also a love of the European culture which produced it.
On the other side, traditionalist Catholics, who were so joyously in evidence at Westminster cathedral, rejoiced mightily. Benedict XVI is on the way to becoming a hero as dear to them as Cyrus the Great was to the ancient Jews, because he freed them from the Babylonian captivity. When the motu proprio was issued, their websites triumphed in the imminent defeat of the philistines and were filled with accounts of celebratory champagne parties and suggestions that everyone should send flowers to the Pope in sign of gratitude.
Not just talking to God in Latin
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?
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.
The first time I was taken to mass as a child, my mother told me to watch the altar attentively, because an angel might fly across it. My hope in seeing the angel faded quite soon, well before my faith did, but the feeling that the celebration of mass marked a mystery in which Godhead was truly present on the altar, body, blood, soul and divinity, under the appearances of bread and wine was astonishingly powerful. The form of the old mass enforced it. There was an overwhelming emphasis on the mass as an actual sacrifice, a mysterious re-enactment of Christ''s sacrifice on Mount Calvary. The priest began at the foot of the altar, with prayers that he might be worthy to ascend the steps: Introibo ad altare dei. In mounting the altar steps the priest was being brought ``unto thy holy mount, and into thy tabernacles.'' These are the words of psalms from the Hebrew Bible, and they go with an extraordinary insistence on using the language of ancient Jewish sacrifice -- `a holy victim, a pure and unblemished sacrifice.' (A Jewish friend of mine, attending a Tridentine mass for the first time, said that this language, and the elaborate cleansing of the sacred vessels, took his mind back to Temple Judaism.) The ritual proceeded with the inevitability of a piece of intricate and beautiful mechanism, as the priest mounted the steps, read the epistle and gospel and came to the canon of the mass. The climax, the obvious focal point of the exercise, was the consecration. The Latin words of this were uttered in a very audible stage whisper, and were followed by genuflection, elevation, genuflection, accompanied by the ringing of bells.
Every gesture by the priest, the signs of the cross, the genuflections, the many kissings of the altar, were strictly controlled by the rubrics. There was no place for ``creativity'' or the expression of personality. The authority of liturgy has always been its immemorial antiquity, and this strange, intensely focussed ritual certainly took you back to the remote past. This was sometimes a cause of scandal. The Good Friday liturgy (which was not actually a mass, Good Friday being the only day in the year when mass was not said) notoriously had a prayer for the `unbelieving Jews' (perfidis Judaeis) that God would remove their ``blindness'' and lead them to Christ. Even worse, this was the one prayer during which the congregation did not have to kneel. (John XXIII removed the offensive words in 1962.) There were also curiosities of an innocent sort. A missal published in 1935 contains a Good Friday prayer that God will `look favourably on the Roman empire' and `render all barbarous nations' subject to the Emperor.
The curious thing about the old mass was that it did not much matter if it was performed badly. It often was. Some priests spoke the Latin intelligently and well. Others gabbled it. We altar boys fought to serve the Low Mass of a certain Franciscan priest because he got through it, by means of remarkable elisions, in twelve minutes flat.
The priest was a craftsman, bringing Christ to the altar, and distributing Him to the faithful in communion. In many ways, it was the priest''s mass, to which the congregation were onlookers, or listeners in. Much of it was in silence, with the priest raising his voice at certain moments to indicate what point the mass had reached. In northern Europe and the United States most of the congregation followed in their missals, which were in Latin and English. But in earlier times people would instead read ``prayers during mass,'' rather than follow the actual words. Illiterates would simply tell their beads. Perhaps they looked for angels to fly across, or at the stained-glass windows. Yet there is overwhelming evidence that they, too, were moved, for they participated in a ritual that signified visually and in terms of movement as well as in words.
Vatican II decreed that the people should `actively participate' in the mass. To the older idea that active participation could take place largely in silence and stillness was opposed the feeling that the congregation should always be doing things, saying prayers aloud, reading passages of scripture, presenting the bread and wine for the mass. The priest became less one who offered an awe-inspiring sacrifice, and more like one who presides over a community meal. Altars were turned round, so that the priest faced the people, rather than praying on their behalf to the East, as had been done from ancient times. (Critics of the new order often suggest -- rightly -- that this leads to a cult of the priestly personality.) The first part of the liturgy is now given over to scripture readings, somewhat in Protestant style, so that when the priest goes to the altar to say the actual canon of the mass, this can seem like an afterthought, rather than the focal point of the whole proceedings. The priest''s genuflections and other ritual signs of assent to the real presence, which in the old mass enacted an idea of worship and transcendence, seemed to have been cut to a minimum. For many, the remarkable beauty of the Latin text itself, set by so many great composers over the centuries, and a profound influence on the authors of the Book of Common Prayer, had helped create a sense of the sacred which had now all but vanished.
How did this happen? There had been a liturgical movement, strong in northern Europe, going back to the nineteenth century. It emphasised the intelligent participation of the laity, the use of missals, and a partial return to what were believed to be pre-mediaeval liturgical practices. This led to the half-conscious assumption that there was some golden age before the ``accretions'' that led to the elaborate liturgy of modern times. This was rather like the Protestant idea of the ``primitive'' Church before Roman ``corruptions.''
There was another line of thought. This was that the Council of Trent had been a tragedy just in that it had sealed the division between Catholic and Protestant in the sixteenth century. Trent had re-affirmed the hierarchical structure of the Church, the role of the priest, and the mass as the continual re-enactment of Christ''s death on the cross. The Anglican Thirty nine Articles say that the `one oblation of Christ is finished on the cross .Wherefore the sacrifice of Masses were dangerous fables and blasphemous deceits.' The underlying purpose of the new rite was reconciliation with Protestantism. Its chief inventor, Archbishop Annibale Bugnini, actually said: `We must strip from our Catholic prayers everything which can be the shadow of a stumbling block for our separated brethren, that is, for the Protestants.'
Traditionalists oppose Papal power
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. (The most popular English Catholic newspaper, The Universe, informed its readers on 26th November that year that `as from this Sunday it is forbidden to offer Mass in the Tridentine rite anywhere in the world.')
Only in France was there open rebellion. Led by Archbishop Marcel Lefevbvre, a thousand or so traditionalists occupied the Church of St. Nicholas in Paris, resisted all attempts to evict them, reintroduced all the old ceremonies, and have been there ever since. The Lefebvrists decreed that with Vatican II Rome had departed from Tradition, and had as good as apostatised.
The bitterness (even despair) of traditional Catholics ran deep. The enthusiasts for Vatican II hailed it as inaugurating an epoch of religious liberty. Yet the abolition of the old mass actually depended upon a Vatican diktat. The Anglican Church has introduced new forms of service, often distressingly banal. But it is impossible to imagine the Anglicans wishing, let alone being able, suddenly to forbid the Book of Common Prayer in all churches of the Anglican Communion. I remember in the 1970s attending out of curiosity a Tridentine mass ``illegally''celebrated by Archbishop Lefebvre in the Great Western Hotel at Paddington. The atmosphere was extraordinary, like that of some improbably enormous catacomb where a clandestine ceremony was going on. Catholics had come from all over England, and many were in tears as they participated in a rite that had suddenly been forbidden them. It was tempting to see this as religious persecution.
Iconoclasm and novelty
The changes were accompanied by an astonishing outbreak of what one can only call iconoclasm, for that is what it literally was. In the University Catholic chaplaincy in Cambridge, the furniture of the chapel, including a charming little baldachino, was largely destroyed at the instigation of the Chaplain. The parish priest of the main Catholic church in Cambridge proposed replacing all the pews with raked cinema-style seats, removing the stained glass, and dismantling their own noble baldachino. (He was frustrated by his congregation, which had been infiltrated by dons.) In my own old parish church, the Franciscans smashed to pieces the whole Byzantine-style sanctuary. Such scenes were replicated all over the country.
There was also liturgical vandalism, especially in America, including priests with red-nose masks celebrating ``clown-masses,'' Halloween masses, dancing-girls and various New Age fooleries. In England, Catholic practice plummeted, and churches were shut.
English Catholics had a special reason for attachment to the old mass. In penal times, several hundred English priests had been executed for saying it. At the place of execution they would often kiss the scaffold, as the priest kisses the altar in the Tridentine mass (much more rarely in the new rite.). The English, more docile than the French, did not rebel. Instead they organised a letter signed by cultural luminaries, many of them non-Catholic, politely asking the Pope for an ``indult'' - permission to celebrate the old mass on special occasions, with the permission of bishops. But their letter did not conceal their feelings of horror: ``If some senseless decree were to order the partial or total destruction of basilicas or cathedrals, then obviously it would be the educated, whatever their personal beliefs, who would rise up in horror '' The old mass ``in its magnificent Latin text, has inspired a host of priceless achievements by poets, philosophers, musicians, architects, painters and sculptors in all countries and epochs. Thus it belongs to universal culture as well as to churchmen and formal Christians.''
The Agatha Christie exception
How could the Pope fail to respond to such a letter, signed as it was by (amongst many others) Vladimir Ashkenazy, Agatha Christie, Kenneth Clark, Robert Graves, Graham Greene, F.R.Leavis, Cecil Day-Lewis, Nancy Mitford, Iris Murdoch, Yehudi Menuin, Malcolm Muggeridge, Joan Sutherland and the Anglican Bishops of Exeter and Rippon? The story goes that Paul VI was quietly reading through the list of signatories and then suddenly said: ``Ah, Agatha Christie!'' and signed his approval. Ever since, this permission has been known in traditionalist circles as the Agatha Christie Indult.
But although this indult had been granted, many bishops were unwilling actually to give permission. The traditionalists, including the Latin Mass Society, were often treated as trouble-makers and rebels.
The authority to change
I once interviewed the Patriarch of Antioch, in Damascus. I asked His Beatitude whether he, like the Bishop of Rome, believed he had power radically to alter the liturgy. `Oh yes, we have authority in liturgical matters. And in fifteen hundred years we did once alter a prayer.' Clearly the idea of virtually inventing a new rite had never entered the Patriarch''s head. (The so-called ``Tridentine'' rite was not invented by the Council of Trent, but was a codification of the Roman rite which dated back many centuries.) The question all along was whether pope and bishops really do have such authority. One distinguished Catholic thinker judged that there was no such sweeping power, that liturgy had its own authority based on immemorial tradition, and that the pope''s authority in liturgy `is at the service of Sacred Tradition.' The same thinker even dared to describe the new mass as `no re-animation but devastation... fabricated liturgy... banal-on-the-spot product.' The man who wrote those words is now Pope Benedict XVI. The Cardinals elected Ratzinger knowing that these were his convictions. It cannot have been done in a fit of absence of mind.
Mass and Invariance
The Catholic Church has often enforced unity with ferocity. Yet in the present culture war (officially denied, of course) real unity seems far away. As the Pope''s intentions become clear (Cardinal Castrillon said that the Pope wants to make the old rite available `in all the parishes' of England and Wales) the English bishops have fallen into a curious silence. The parish priest of a famous Jesuit church, politely asked whether he would make some traditional masses available, responded with unconcealed rage. (This church advertises a children's liturgy, Japanese masses, services for Brazilians and Filipinos, but apparently drew the line at the ancient Roman liturgy). The dispute about liturgy is part of a wider battle. Those who want to align the Church with modernity, which inevitably means drawing on current liberal values, became influential following Vatican II. But if they hoped that the Church would change its stance on liberation theology, divorce, homosexuality, the ordination of women, they found their nemesis in John Paul II . Woytila''s reassertion of tradition in all these areas was less flamboyant than Pio Nono''s famous denial that `the Roman Pontiff can, and ought to come to terms with progress, liberalism and the modern world,' but it came to much the same thing.
Pope Ratzinger is even more profoundly traditional than his predecessor, and he believes that disputes about liturgy are disputes about the very nature of the Church. He prizes a mass that develops according to its own laws throughout the ages. He is also attracted by the Eastern Orthodox conception of a liturgy `whose light illumines our changing times with its unchanging beauty and greatness.' Those who altered the mass after Vatican II thought it possible to create a form of worship that was illumined, indeed determined by the changing times. These are two wholly incompatible visions. As Benedict puts it in a letter to the bishops that accompanied his motu proprio: `What earlier generations held as sacred, remains sacred and great for us too, and it cannot be all of a sudden entirely forbidden or even considered harmful.'
Tradition re-discovered in every age
Something unexpected seems now to be happening in the Catholic Church. Far from attachment to the old forms dying away, a generation of younger priests and lay Catholics is coming into view that is enthusiastically attached to the Tridentine mass, and to Catholic orthodoxy. In France, one in five of all priests currently being ordained is devoted to the old mass. And this is a committed, determined minority growing up in a virtual wasteland for the French Church. Only five per cent of French Catholics attend mass regularly. In one diocese, the Cathedral attracts seventy worshippers on Sunday, while the chapel of semi-schismatic Society of St Pius X (of Archbishop Lefebvre) attracts seven hundred to a traditional mass. Indeed, it is suggested that an actual majority of church goers on a Sunday in France attend Lefebvrist services.
Pope Benedict himself is a philosophical traditionalist of a sort that is barely understood in the modern world. In a lecture to the University in Regensberg he enraged some Muslims because he quoted a Byzantine Emperor who suggested that Mohammed countenanced violent religious conversion. But what he was talking about was the relation between religion and reason.
In other words, Christianity is a culture as well as a set of beliefs. Equally, Europe should remember its Christian roots. (Cardinal Ratzinger once said that if Turkey were ever allowed to join the EU this would represent ``the triumph of economics over culture.'') Catholic liturgies have to keep their Roman and European heritage, and cannot simply be adapted to local conditions, tongues and cultures. The mass in China should not be celebrated with rice and rice wine; and in America it should not express folksy inclusiveness. For Ratzinger, this special blend of Judaism, Greek philosophy and Romanitas is essential to the Church, an idea that Luther scorned. So it is almost literally unthinkable that a genuine liturgy could be fabricated, rather than grow out of immemorial tradition.
Admirers of Ratzinger insist that his traditionalism is no blinkered love of the past, no theological auto-immune disorder. As T.S.Eliot put it, tradition cannot be blindly inherited, but has to be re-discovered in every age, an enterprise that requires great labour. No one who reads Ratzinger can deny that he brings a very lively intelligence into his attempt to rediscover tradition. It is his critics of the ageing Vatican II generation who begin to look intellectually lazy.
In Benedict XVI, Catholic modernists meet a formidable antagonist indeed. His gentle manner and readiness to persuade rather than bludgeon conceals (from those that have not eyes to see) a philosophy of tradition that challenges not only liturgical philistines, but all those Catholics for whom history began with the Second Vatican Council. He is the immediate cause of all those joyful traditionalist Catholics congregating in Westminster cathedral and overflowing onto the pavement. The authority of a pope of Rome is not to be underestimated. When the Pope''s motu proprio became known to Catholic traditionalists, not a few of them wept for joy. At the moment his election was announced in St Peter''s square in 2005, several priests of modernist sympathies were also seen to weep -- but with chagrin. Provided his health holds, then (to misquote Henry James) those tears are not the last they are destined to shed.