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Re: Catholics and Postmodernity


Only a “robustly evangelical Catholicism” allied with like-minded people of faith can “give America a new birth of freedom,” George Weigel argues on the homepage yesterday. He includes in his alliance “traditional” Jews, as he should. He dismisses “traditionalists” who are Catholic but doesn’t say whether he means only schismatics and other sundry dissidents. Most Catholics who are attached to the traditional Latin Mass are loyal sons and daughters of the Church. How about just plain “traditional,” never mind “-ist,” Catholics? Are they allowed in?

The Catholic Church is discriminating but catholic in its embrace of liturgical diversity. Its collective public prayer reflects cultures that span much of the inhabited earth — most of it, probably, when you consider that the ordinary form of the Roman rite, whose primary texts remain in Latin, is translated into scores of vernacular languages and admits a fair amount of adaptation to local custom. Life is too short for anyone to be able to sample all of the gems in the Church’s liturgical treasury.

Twenty-two Eastern churches in full communion with Rome contribute five broadly defined families of Eastern rites, noted for their beauty and antiquity. The family of Latin rites includes the Church’s most prominent and in some ways signature rite, the Roman. The ordinary form of it is what most Catholics know and, for that matter, all that most Catholics know, but the Roman rite actually comes in several flavors, including the recently instituted Anglican Use and — here we come to the traditional Latin Mass — the usus antiquior (older use), the “extraordinary form” in which Mass is celebrated according to the 1962 missal, the missal of Blessed Pope John XXIII. It’s close to the missal of Saint Pius V (1570), which, the English liturgist Adrian Fortescue argued, was close to the sacramentary of Gregory the Great at the turn of the seventh century.

Use of the old missal shouldn’t be controversial, but it is. Among its harshest critics are older Baby Boomers who apparently see it as symbolizing what they didn’t like about the world when they were growing up in the 1950s. Today, younger seminarians, for whom the liturgy wars are mostly a bit of leftover detritus from the era of disco and The Brady Bunch, look at the traditional Latin Mass with fresh eyes and often find its classicism refreshing.

Rites in the Catholic Church are typically felt to represent a culture tied to geography, whether Rome, the Balkans, the Middle East, or wherever. What’s striking about the two forms of the Roman rite, ordinary and extraordinary, is that the disputes over them are less about where than about when. It’s the Quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns, Catholic-liturgy edition. The Church herself is liberal in the matter and counsels comity. She accommodates Catholics who have an affinity for forms of worship shaped by regional cultures. She extends the same courtesy to faithful who gravitate toward worship in a form congruent with their historical sensibility.

Traditional Catholics are eager to make their contribution. Today a group of them on pilgrimage to Rome concluded with Mass at Santa Maria sopra Minverva, around the corner from the Pantheon. Yesterday, it was the traditional Latin Mass at the Altar of the Chair in St. Peter’s Basilica no less. The pilgrims marked the end of “this Year of Faith,” noted Father Claude Barthe, the pilgrimage chaplain, “by making their way to Rome and showing their support for the mission of the Church and their desire to play a greater part in it.” He boasted that 15 percent of priestly vocations in France, for example, “come from the extraordinary form.”

“It attracts many of the young people who come to know it,” he added, “thanks to its powerful identity and the way it expresses sacredness, and for these reasons it should be considered one of the important planks in the New Evangelization.” Meanwhile, in the Diocese of Fréjus-Toulon, in southeastern France, Bishop Dominique Rey is promoting a new seminary where both forms of the Roman rite will be taught and cultivated. He sees Pope Benedict’s “hermeneutic of continuity” (the understanding that the Church did not simply reinvent itself at Vatican II) to be integral to “the Church of the New Evangelization,” a view he articulated at a liturgical conference in Rome last June.

Weigel describes “traditionalist Catholics” as “retreating into auto-constructed catacombs.” As a characterization of traditional Catholics broadly defined, that’s familiar but exaggerated, based less on observation, I suspect, than on a wish. It’s obviously complicated by countervailing evidence.


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