Friday, July 18, 2014

“The Mass of All Time”: Epilogue

No accounting for taste

De gustibus non est disputandum has been loosely translated as, “There’s no accounting for taste.” But when we say it like that, we imply flippantly that someone has chosen to pursue a godawful aesthetic choice despite our best efforts to point them in the right direction.

Unless there’s some objective criteria to which both sides agree, then no dispute over tastes can ever be resolved — you like what you like, and there’s an end of the matter. No matter how detailed your technical analysis, you’re not going to make a Billy Joel fan give up “the Piano Man” in favor of Elvis Costello, or force a person to get more pleasure out of listening to Metallica than to Barry Manilow. Concerning tastes there are no common grounds for disputation, and therefore no hope for resolution: you’re arguing for the sake of being ornery, that’s all.

Now, I’m not such a naïf as to believe that Anthony J. J. Mathison’s essay, which I’ve posted over the last four days, is The Last Word on the Novus Ordo Mass. People have been writing Last Words on topical issues since people have had writing, and the disputes have gone merrily on despite such thunder from the rostrum. The same is true for Catholics; we never resemble sheep so much as when we go astray, each of us turning to his own way (Isaiah 53:6). Rome may have spoken, but not everybody gets the memo that the case is now closed.[*]

What Mathison has done is clear the field of some errors, both historical and liturgical. This gives us room to consider the debate between traditionalists and “neo-Catholics” on grounds other than that of aesthetic “taste”, if you will.

Vatican II and the Catholic identity crisis

Vatican II and the Mass of Paul VI suffer by their close association with the dislocating cultural insanity of the Vietnam era. To say that two events’ occurrence at a given time is coincidental is not to say that the coincidence is inconsequential. Nevertheless, this “guilt by association” has unnecessarily colored the dialogue concerning the Mass. As Mathison has pointed out, many of the innovations carried out in the name of the Council were in either explicit ignorance of, or direct contradiction to, the reforms called for in the Council documents; invocation of the “spirit of Vatican II” substituted for adherence to the letter of SacrosanctumConcilium. The people who tried to change the Church were working from agendas different from the Council’s.

But while the bishops of the period were eminently blamable for failing to exercise any control over the process — and it’s debatable whether they could have if they’d tried — it doesn’t follow that what resulted was what they wanted. It’s just as easy, and in a way more charitable, to think them “empty cassocks” than to believe they desired liturgical experimentation and catechetical anarchy. This hasn’t stopped traditionalists from committing the obvious post hoc fallacy: It happened after Vatican II; therefore it happened as a result of Vatican II.

In a sense, traditionalists are victims of insistence on the Church’s changelessness. Because the fact remains that the Church has changed in many ways, both big and small, over the last two thousand years. Even the core of the Church, the gospel she preaches, has changed by way of development and “unpacking”; the mustard seed has grown into a very large bush in two millennia (cf. Luke 13:19). Left to themselves, things go from good to bad and from bad to worse; the Church needs constant vigilance and work just to stay the same from year to year, let alone to grow and “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19). Or, to put it differently, semper Ecclesia reformanda: the Church must always be reformed.

In fairness, it’s not only traditionalists who get caught in the “timelessness trap”. My older brother, a very intelligent and wise man in most respects, was complaining about the changes in the Novus Ordo Mass that were introduced over two years ago, especially the changes in the Credo: “I thought that couldn’t be changed!” That the change was one of translation, and not one of faith, mattered not to him. As well, a friend of Mathison’s charged that Ven. Paul VI’s Consilium didn’t simplify the Mass enough, and that the reintroduction of the “mea culpa” in the Confessio was a “rollback”. You just can’t please everyone.

The Church in the West is in a crisis of identity: What does it mean to be “Catholic”? What must a Catholic do, know, believe? How can I live within the tension between the culture in which I live and a Church which seems to be perpetually at odds with it? Can I accept the leadership of the bishops, who seem to be more flawed and failing than ever? Or can I be “Catholic” on my own terms? Or must I make a decision: to leave or to stay? Can the Church be changed to something I like?

And who are these other people who are hijacking the Church, trying to alienate me from it?

These are questions every Catholic must answer for him/herself, and can’t always be handily resolved by citations from the Catechism, references to this Council or that, or reading the Bible, or quotations from saints, scholars or well-meaning layman bloggers. There is no one-size-fits-all answer. What we must not do, however, is conflate issues of liturgical taste with issues of faith and morals. We must also not allow sentimental gush to dictate what we regard as fact; the Tridentine Rite may have been the Mass of some of the saints, but not all, and maybe not even the majority.

Conclusion: Room for both forms

Catholics, you hear people say, are a “both-and” people. We take things that seemingly conflict and we find the truth that ties them together. When you can grasp the paradox of Christ holding his own flesh and blood in his hands at the Last Supper, you can see the truth in such expressions as Tancredi’s line from Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s Il Gattopardo: “If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.”

In this light, there’s room in the Church for both the OF and the EF, just as there’s room for the Ambrosian, Mozarabic, Chaldean, Syro-Malabar, Coptic and Ethiopic rites. What there isn’t room for is heresy or divisiveness. Liturgical tribalism needs to come to an end; people who should be natural allies shouldn’t be engaged in a stupidly fratricidal “sub-culture war” over irresolvable questions of aesthetics.

To that end, I repeat a paraphrase of St. Paul to the Corinthians I made just over a month ago: “Was the Latin Mass crucified for you? Were you baptized in the name of Vatican II?” (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:13)

“The Mass of All Time”
Part I
Part II
Part III
Part IV


[*] Roma locuta est, causa finita est: “Rome has spoken; the case is closed.” Based on two lines of St. Augustine of Hippo near the end of one of his sermons: “Two councils have been sent on this question to the Apostolic See [Rome], and from there rescripts have also come. The matter is at an end; would that their error too might sometime come to an end!” (Homilies on the New Testament 81:10)