All Americans Are a Little Italian, Christians Are Spiritually Jewish

Michelangelo’s statue of Moses at San Pietro in Vincoli (Photo: Vlad Ghiea)
All roads lead to Rome. There, get on the one that takes you to Jerusalem. A proposed itinerary for Catholic traditionalism.

As social conservatives, we embrace Western culture and defend it, although what we mean by it is necessarily vague. The closest thing to it in the Middle Ages was a notion of Roman culture, sustained by the late form of Latin that served as the lingua franca for scholarship, religion, and official communication across the continent. The very name of the Holy Roman Empire — “It was neither,” in the historians’ old joke — was a perfect expression of the conceit that a German on the Baltic coast could be as Roman as the pope on the banks of the Tiber.

Europe was haunted by the ghost of Rome. The Protestant Reformers chased it out to some extent, but in their attack on it they also stimulated it, and hence that astonishing surge of Catholic art and architecture during the Counter-Reformation. It was not just triumphantly Catholic but self-consciously Roman Catholic. The fuel for the Reformation was theological, of course, but another active ingredient in the mix was a kind of nationalism, a rebellion by northern Europeans against Italian Christianity, which they regarded as corrupt, fundamentally wrong, and foreign.

Protestant rejection of Catholic doctrine was hard to separate from contempt for Romanità, the Roman ways of praying the liturgy and thinking about the faith. Until approximately yesterday, to be Catholic was to be in some sense a Roman citizen, regardless of where you lived, be it the Balkans or the British Isles or Brazil. When the Church of Rome established missions, it exported not only the gospel but much of the culture that it found helpful in supporting the faith on the ground — of the Italian peninsula. Well, why should a Christian in Saxony in the 16th century be bound to that, especially when in his view it was a kit of half-truths tangled up with a lot of accumulated pagan claptrap and Italian mumbo-jumbo? The longer-standing disagreements between the Latin Church and Eastern Orthodox Christians were likewise hard to isolate from suspicions that Catholicism was by its nature a carrier of Roman cultural imperialism.

After the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, the institutional Church itself embarked on a radical campaign to dial back the Romanità until it became almost imperceptible. Between 1965 and 1970, the Mass underwent not just a precise, minor excision or addition here or there, as in the past. It was revised top to bottom and, to be honest, rewritten. “The New Order of Mass,” it was called, the Novus Ordo Missae, although that Latin title was misleading, as the most salient feature of the new Mass was that it was expected to be said in the local modern language — English in England and the United States, Spanish in Spain and the Philippines, and so on. Lingua Latina mortua est.

A seesaw was set in motion: Mass attendance here had already begun to decline, but now it began to do so more sharply. In Europe, it fell off a cliff. At the same time, however, in regions of the world where the Church had never found much success, it took off rapidly and soared. Demographers estimate that a plurality of the world’s Catholics will live in sub-Saharan Africa by the middle of this century.

Most of the reporting I’ve read on African Catholics corroborates my anecdotal experience: On the whole, they are serious about their faith, to a degree that puts their Western counterparts to shame, and they are more orthodox, but they are not not interested in what for the Western Catholic is full-on “traditional liturgy.” A Nigerian Catholic friend in Cleveland several years ago called me his “brother”; each of us considered himself a “conservative” Catholic. He was surprised when I told him I went to the Latin Mass. Why would I do that? “Are you Italian?” he said.

The truth is that the Latin Mass doesn’t have much traction in present-day Italy either, but from his perspective he did take in the bigger picture, and I’ve come to see it, too: The traditional Catholic liturgy that was the norm for Catholics worldwide through the middle of the last century never thrived outside a certain conservative form of Western culture, which much of the world never experienced, despite the broad sweep of European colonization. And now that culture has lost its place of honor here in its native habitat, as Westerners have grown more secular and populist, less in love with their history and past.

Much of the world never experienced conservative Western culture, and now it has lost its place of honor here in its native habitat.

At the beginning of the 20th century, 95 percent of the world’s Catholics lived in Europe, South America, and North America. The ratio was almost exactly two to one, Europe to the Americas. Latin America was the crown jewel of the Church’s missionary endeavor. Note that the priests there had the conquistadors to augment their efforts. In effect, a bunch of Spanish and Portuguese Catholics, laymen as well as religious, imported Iberian languages and culture, including Catholicism, to the Western Hemisphere. (Spanish is by some accounts the modern language closest to Latin, closer even than Italian.) The conquistadors and the missionaries worked toward some common ends, though on different tracks.

For contrast, consider the Catholic missions to China and Japan in the centuries before Vatican II. Those were less successful, certainly in the numbers of converts to Rome. Those nations were also more resistant to the adoption of Western languages. That was true of the Asia Pacific in general. The Philippines was an exception, in its receptivity both to Catholicism and to the Spanish language. The mission lands where “traditional Catholicism,” as we now call it — the only possible Catholicism until about 50 years ago — took deepest root were Westernized or Westernizing. Or, as in the case of Senegal and Vietnam, which were partially francophone, they had entrenched pockets of Westernization. In the mission lands, the cultural and the religious conversions were often simultaneous and of a piece. To attempt the latter without the former was to sow seed on rocky soil.

The Church of Rome flourished in Italy and regions of the former Roman Empire in part because its language and culture were familiar and prestigious. The Christian faith, the Latin language, and a certain Italianate culture came bundled. The elements were assumed to be inextricably joined. Across Europe, the Catholic faith was enculturated, as we would now say.

We All Live in ‘Mission Lands’ Now
In the 20th century, Church leaders began to advocate an effort, more deliberate and thorough than in the past, to enculturate the faith among the various nations of the Third World: Catholic missionaries should learn, and learn to love, local customs and languages and to translate the faith into forms that would be meaningful and appealing to indigenous peoples. Implicit in their argument was the need for the Church to pour the Romanità out of Catholicism so that vessel could accommodate the new wine of non-Western cultures.

Read Sacrosanctum Concilium (1963), the Vatican II blueprint for liturgical reform, and you will notice a lot of concern for the mission lands. References to them dot the document, and in their glow the reader is led to imagine that the point of the many broadly sketched recommendations is only sensible and moderate, generous but not extravagant. In the mission lands, let bishops adapt the liturgy to local cultures. Trust their circumspection and sober judgment: “Provisions shall also be made, when revising the liturgical books, for legitimate variations and adaptations to different groups, regions, and peoples, especially in mission lands, provided that the substantial unity of the Roman rite is preserved; and this should be borne in mind when drawing up the rites and devising rubrics.”

No sooner had Western Catholics digested and largely shrugged in agreement to the gist of this plan for liturgical reform than they discovered that Rome now counted them, too, as inhabitants of mission lands, in effect. In America, English was introduced into the Mass by increments, which meant of course that Latin was ushered out at the same pace, until the process was complete in the fall of 1970. The movement away from the sacred, classical language and toward the vernacular was accompanied by a corresponding change in tone and style, from solemn and formal to less solemn and less formal. William F. Buckley Jr. recorded for posterity a typical reaction of many a Catholic: both a sense of loss and a glum resolve not to be sour about it. Surely some good could come of this

Catholics in Europe and America are less likely to attend the new Mass than their grandparents were to attend the old one.

Catholicism might still have boomed in Africa even if the liturgical revolution after Vatican II hadn’t occurred. All we know is that it did occur and that the new regime of the Novus Ordo has roughly coincided with the impressive growth spurt that the faith continues to enjoy there. On the other side of the seesaw, Catholicism in the West might have declined even further had the only Mass available here remained Latin and old-school — priest and people facing the same direction, long silences during which he says the prescribed prayers sotto voce, no handshakes with your neighbor or cheerleading from the lady raising her arms at the microphone to the side of the sanctuary. All we know is that Catholics in Europe and America are less likely to attend the new Mass than their grandparents were to attend the old one.

By now, after half a century of extreme marginalization, Latin and the associated old accoutrements of Roman identity have lost most of their prestige and mystique for Catholics even in the West. In loosening the restrictions on the use of the traditional Latin Mass ten years ago, Pope Benedict XVI attempted to allay the concerns of liturgical progressives by noting, drily, that “the use of the old Missal presupposes a certain degree of liturgical formation and some knowledge of the Latin language; neither of these is found very often.” Buckley arrived at the same thought 40 years earlier, quoting a like-minded Catholic who spoke for him on the question of the new liturgy: If “the Latin Mass is only for the educated few, surely Mother Church in all her charity can find a little place even for the educated few?”

Most American Catholics today find the traditional Latin Mass as exotic as a non-Westernized African would have a hundred years ago. Annibale Bugnini, the architect of the new Mass, may have seen the writing on the wall back in the 1960s and proceeded accordingly, recommending a de-Romanized liturgy for all, Westerners and non-Westerners alike. Whatever he perceived and whatever he intended, the Vatican’s response to the cultural coarsening was to contribute to it, by making Western Catholics choose between dumbed-down public worship and quitting church. Would they have continued to adhere to the liturgy as it was, Old World and crisp and formal, had Paul VI, the pope at the time, exercised more prudence and left well enough alone, at least in the West? Traditionalist Catholics will forever wonder.

Advocates of traditional Catholic liturgy these days stress catechesis, the education and formation of the faithful. What our grandparents absorbed like a toddler learning his native language, we must acquire through study, like an adult. No point in springing the traditional Latin Mass on a generation who can find no door through which to enter into that mystery. We must show them. The process is slow but a labor of love. The establishment of independent Catholic schools steeped in an understanding of Catholicism as the marriage of the gospel and Western culture is key to this project of reconstituting Christendom, which happens to be the name of a Catholic college, in Virginia, dedicated to that end.

In my judgment, Peter Kwasniewski has emerged as the most eloquent and persuasive American proponent of traditional Catholicism. Read his latest book, Noble Beauty, Transcendent Holiness. Read the review of it by Gregory DiPippo, himself an informed and insightful commentator on the ancient Roman rite. I follow them as far as they go. They lead their readers back to a Catholicism that is Roman not in name only. Even in all her former glory, however, Rome is not the final destination. It’s a stop, necessary and important, to be honored with a long layover, before we pick up and complete the trip home, which is Jerusalem.

The Long Trip Home to Jerusalem
The Church began in Jerusalem, with the Big Bang that was Pentecost. The apostles — literally, those who are sent forth — went forth. According to tradition, Thomas made it as far east as India, but the direction in which most of the going forth happened was west. Paul wanted to evangelize in Asia Minor, but the weather kept pushing him to Europe. There the spirit of Jerusalem met the spirit of Athens, and the rest is history. In pious tradition, Peter preceded him to Rome and both were martyred there. Rome’s place in salvation history is expansive and high. But it is not infinite, and it is not supreme.

The explosion of the gospel outward geographically has accelerated in the past century, thanks in part to air travel and electronic communication. Rome is not the only significant center from which the gospel radiates. Protestants — Americans, Brits, and others — have spread the Good News across Africa and Asia and seen it burgeon into lush rain forests overnight. The mushrooming of Christianity, including but not confined to Catholic Christianity, appears unstoppable in China.

Christians have made astounding progress in fulfilling the Great Commission, Jesus’s command to “go and make disciples of all nations.” No longer can any nation be immune to some awareness of the religion that 30 percent of the global population claims in some fashion. As long as non-believers have ears, the Christian must continue to proclaim the gospel, although whether they hear it is ultimately up to the Holy Spirit. The Christian’s apostolic impulse, to spread the Word to people who haven’t heard it yet, leads him to set out for new frontiers, but the virgin mission territory he seeks no longer exists.

Christianity has expanded to its geographical limit. To keep moving, it must move inward, because it can’t move outward any farther.

On YouTube you can probably find frustrated missionaries itching to travel into outer space so they can baptize aliens from distant stars and galaxies, but with respect to Earth, the universe of Christianity has expanded pretty much to its geographical limit. To keep moving, it must move inward, because it can’t move outward any farther. It must delve deeper into the evangelization of those who have already accepted the Christian promise or at least been exposed to the rumor of its existence.

Over the centuries, Christian theologians have divided Church history into a number of ages. The schemes vary. One that appeals to many progressive Catholics goes like this: In the First Age, which is brief, the Church is conceived and born in Jerusalem; in the Second Age, which is long, it moves to Rome and establishes its international headquarters there; in the Third Age, which has only begun, the Church decentralizes and goes cosmopolitan, dissolving the primacy of its Roman establishment and cultivating nodes of Christian life out to the peripheries. We call it the Catholic Church because it’s catholic — literally, universal. Mission accomplished. End of story. Finis.

That outline, too, like the traditionalist vision, is cogent as far as it goes. I’ll follow the traditionalist on this, however, because he goes farther, though he stops short. The mission he sees for himself is to lead Catholics from the peripheries, or Age Three, back to Rome. Good. But we have promises to keep, and miles to go before we sleep.

My dissatisfaction with conventional Catholic traditionalism is that it’s not traditional enough: Our final destination is farther in the past than the Rome of the apostles and martyrs. It’s all the way back to the Jerusalem of Jesus himself. It remains both true and beautiful that the road from where we are now to the Holy Land leads through Rome. To complete our return trip, we need to go to the Eternal City, spend some time there, and revive our romance with it, but we can’t afford to settle in and get too comfortable, because Sion beckons.

Jews who have been received into the Catholic Church and consider themselves still Jewish despite that — no, more Jewish because of it (they sometimes call themselves “completed Jews”) — are sherpas for Gentile Catholics who yearn for the full complement of their biblical patrimony. For the sake of clarity, the early Christians may have needed to separate themselves from the synagogues of rabbinic Judaism, but in the process they were too quick to shun even biblical Judaism, the mother of their faith. They dug what they hoped would be an impassable moat, the work of generations, between them and the Old Religion. And Jews who remained in the synagogues may have been happy with that arrangement and pitched in to make the chasm wider and deeper.

Through the language of the missal as well as through the posture and gestures of the priest at the altar, the traditional Latin Mass recalls Temple sacrifice, a type that prefigured the blood sacrifice on Calvary. The traditional Latin Mass is the royal road down which the Westerner can be transported fast to the House of God, in whose shadow Jesus died on the cross, even if Christians have not always preferred to dwell on the Jewishness of the setting. The new Mass, in contrast, is typically scripted and choreographed to convey an understanding that it’s a ritual meal, the Last Supper. Perhaps Mass should be both, sacrifice and banquet, but to the degree that its sacrificial character is hidden, so is its ancient Judaic character.

The movement to recover the Church’s Roman character speaks to the longing to restore her noble beauty, to borrow from the title of Kwasniewski’s book. And to restore their awe of her holy transcendence, Catholics must figure out how to recover her Judaic character. Most Protestants would object to any argument for seeking Christ in Jerusalem via Rome. So would many Catholics, for that matter, and Jews can offer criticism from their own perspective. My answers to them will have to wait. I’ve run out of space, and the map I’m working from is not highly detailed anyway. It’s more like a compass. It points to the bones of Saint Peter on Vatican Hill and, beyond that, to the one city holier even than Rome.


Why We Shouldn’t Stop Making Religious Arguments

Judging While Catholic

The Case for the Traditional Latin Mass


The Latest