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sheepish, shaken, and angry

By Diogenes ( articles ) | Jul 29, 2007

When the New York Times Sunday Week in Review takes notice of Catholic churchmanship, you can hear alarms whooping in the background. Something the editors cherish must be at risk. This morning's topic is the Latin Mass, which 42-year-old NYT writer Lawrence Downes inspected out of curiosity. It made him feel "sheepish ... shaken and, irrationally, angry." So what indispensable element of progressive spirituality is threatened by the Motu Proprio? Boredom.

[Traditionalists are] right that Mass can be listless, with little solemnity and multiple sources of irritation: parents sedating children with Cheerios; priests preaching refrigerator-magnet truisms; amateur guitar strumming that was lame in 1973; teenagers slumping back after communion, hands in pockets, as if wishing they had been given gum instead.

Pope Benedict insists he is not taking the church on a nostalgia trip. He wants to re-energize it, and hopes that the Latin Mass, like an immense celestial object, will exert gravitational pull on the faithful.

Unless the church, which once had a problem with the law of gravity, can repeal inertia, too, then silent, submissive worship won't go over well. Laypeople, women especially, have kept this battered institution going in a secular, distracted age. Reasserting the unchallenged authority of ordained men may fit the papal scheme for a purer church. But to hand its highest form of public worship entirely back to Father makes Latin illiterates like me irate.

It's easy enough to see where this is going: same God, same church, but separate camps, each with an affinity for vernacular or Latin, John XXIII or Benedict XVI. Smart, devout, ambitious Catholics -- ecclesial young Republicans, home-schoolers, seminarians and other shock troops of the faith -- will have their Mass. The rest of us -- a lumpy assortment of cafeteria Catholics, guilty parents, peace-'n'-justice lefties, stubborn Vatican II die-hards -- will have ours. We'll have to prod our snoozing pewmates when to sit and stand; they'll have to rein in their zealots. And we probably won't see one another on Sunday mornings, if ever.

Much of the discussion generated by the Motu Proprio misconstrues the liturgical controversy by treating it as if it were a conflict of two contrary enthusiasms. But in point of fact all the enthusiasm -- in the sense of positive relish for one form of liturgy -- belongs to the Latin camp. A true partisan of the post-Conciliar vernacular liturgy, on the other hand, pays his respects by blowing it off (ever hear a liberal Catholic call ahead for Mass times when traveling to unfamiliar territory?). A choice specimen of the progressivist attitude was provided by an unnamed Jesuit in McDonough and Bianchi's book Passionate Uncertainty. A senior priest is here speaking about the remains of his spiritual life:

"Formal sacramental action is less central, as are religious 'practices,' than they had been in earlier years -- but frequently much more engaging. To celebrate daily Mass, simply because it's there or expected, is no longer part of my way of thinking. It would be like an every-night-is-sex approach to a marital relationship."

Father's head-patting spiritual condescension camouflages what can only be a weakening of faith. No one who did not find God wearisome could speak as this Jesuit does, yet most of us will recognize in his blasé dismissiveness the voice of progressive Catholicism as a whole. And that's the point. Diversions are important for those who need to be distracted. Contemporary liturgy -- what we get in a parish on Sunday -- focuses on The Assembly, and the balloons and electric basses that accompany the "refrigerator-magnet truisms" are offered as a piece of candy to entice the apathetic or placate the sulky who have no interest in the "religious side" of the Eucharist. By the same token, there are no Prayers at the Foot of the Altar because there's nothing awe-inducing to prepare oneself for.

This explains in large part the air of awkward embarrassment with which progressives have marshaled their objections to the Latin Mass; it's awkward because they have no relish for the liturgy (or for the Church) comparable to that of their antagonists. The NCR was knocked so far off-balance by the challenge as to invoke Rembert Weakland in defense of its position, which is something like calling Paul Shanley as a character witness. But it's not as if they had a lot to choose from. Who of us has not seen the spectacle of a prominent churchman flustered at the altar while celebrating an obviously unfamiliar Mass, flipping around in the Sacramentary with the bewildered resentment of a bushman trying to milk a garden tractor? To celebrate a daily Eucharist, clearly, is "no longer part of his way of thinking."

"Same God, same church," says the NYT's Downes. Well, no. As Mencken remarked, the great triumph of liberal Christianity was to make God boring, and a boring God can never alienate you from your most cherished vices. He plays a key role in the progressivist agenda. Now it would appear that God is not so tame after all, that He deserves worship and demands righteousness, and the familiar compromises are threatened. Downes' perturbation gives the game away. You don't volley a thousand words at an irrelevance.

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