A few weeks ago Pope Francis came down hard on the traditional Latin Mass in the pre-Vatican II mode. This caused a flurry of reactions from all sides of the issue. There were quite a few so-called liberal Catholics who hailed the move, saying it was about time the Vatican put an end to this “crypto-separatist” movement that questioned the authority of Pope Francis. Of course these are also the same voices often calling for more “diversity” in the Church and quite willing to challenge any pope on an issue they disagree, etc. On the other side, there were the elements proclaiming an apocalyptic moment for the Church and western culture. “The sky is falling!” A more restrained but still negative evaluation was provided by Ross Douthat, an intelligent New York Times writer on matters of religion with whom I find myself disagreeing most of the time. He has a way of seeming to explain things by framing the argument in terms of these labels: conservative vs. liberal, right vs. left. Really this explains nothing, neither in religion nor in politics. These labels are a kind of convenient shorthand, a code for a complex cluster of beliefs, opinions, views, self-understandings, etc., but in themselves they explain nothing. The labels may be convenient, but you have to see beneath them to understand what is really going on. In other words, you have to set your heart on the truth, no matter what label is attached to it. Gandhi used this word in reference to his philosophy and his movement: satyagraha, truth force, or holding on to the truth. We see this lacking very much in both our politics and our religious culture.
A refreshing example of something much better is this recent op-ed piece in the National Catholic Reporter by Rebecca Bratten Weiss:
“The Traditional Latin Mass is not the Problem with the Traditionalist Communities”
There is a very serious problem with the “traditionalist” communities, but it’s not the Latin liturgy. Weiss is very good at rooting this out and illustrating how this brouhaha over the presence/absence of Latin and the traditional liturgy is a smokescreen that obfuscates the very real problems for both the liberals and conservatives in the Church. She merely opens a little crack on this problem; there is so much more to see here.
An interesting historical sidelight: two prominent icons of “liberal Catholicism,” had a love for the Latin liturgy….Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day. Merton, to his dying day prayed his Office in Latin. He was totally conversant in Latin, and on the other hand he often lamented on the banality of the English translations. Day strictly adhered to the protocols of the Roman Mass, and she would not allow the use of cupcakes or anything like that in her Catholic Worker community in New York, a practice which was common among “liberal” Catholics in the late ‘60s. The young people there chafed at her “authoritarian” stance in this regard!
What I see in the Pope’s Latin liturgy edict and in so many other moves and in our President’s actions in so many things is the very common seeking of a solution to a sensed problem but applying a “band aid” instead of dealing with the real cancer deep within. Weiss catalogs the real symptoms (and Latin is not one of them), but even she doesn’t venture to ask the hard questions: WHY has the Church had so much sexual abuse in its priesthood? WHY did it tolerate slavery? WHY did it participate in a cultural genocide of Native Americans? And WHY did it privilege the insights and language of western theology (something Abhishiktananda wondered about and at the end of his life had pretty much given up any hope of any real change in the Church’s blindness and narrowness)? And so, so much more….