Where Is Peter?

The Loggia of the Blessings behind the statue of Saint Peter in Saint Peter’s Square at the Vatican in 2013. (Max Rossi/Reuters)
Critics of the traditional Mass lift up authority for its own sake.

The Roman Catholic archbishop of Liverpool, the Most Reverend Malcolm McMahon, made a very curious intervention into the debate about the church’s traditional Latin liturgy, which Pope Francis has recently tried to suppress in a document titled “Guardians of Tradition.”

In a very brief letter to his diocese, Archbishop McMahon wrote something on the matter worth pondering at length:

One thing that annoyed many Catholics is that those devoted to the old ways of worship often describe themselves as “traditional.” I think they have hijacked the word for their own use. Pope Francis has reclaimed the world “tradition” by clearly stating that the bishops are the guardians of the tradition. Tradition has a particular meaning in theology, it refers to St. Paul when he says that he passes on to us what he has received. In other words, tradition is a living concept not something stuck in the past. The Mass which I celebrate daily is the one which I received from Pope St. Paul VI and Pope St. John Paul II and is therefore the “traditional” Mass. The point I am making is more than simple semantics; it is about the very life of the Church itself.

In fact, I think the archbishop has unwittingly demonstrated a subtle truth about the modern Catholic Church, that the church’s self-conception is now a snake swallowing its own tail. Old catechisms used to say that there were three sources of religious authority in Catholicism: the scriptures, tradition, and the magisterium of the church. And together, these preserve for us the deposit of faith given to the apostles by our Lord. But in the archbishop’s telling, the church exists not for the Gospel, but for itself. Its authority is to teach that it has authority to teach. I propose that this error could only have crept into the church because of the liturgical reform.

In August, I wrote two short essays about the Latin Mass and Pope Francis’s attempt to withdraw permission for priests to say it. One appeared in the New York Times, and the other here at National Review. Both came out while I was away, and I haven’t been able to respond to criticism of these essays, of which there was plenty. Some of these criticisms can be dismissed easily. One accuses me of committing the perennial sin of mistaking the constant reform of the church with corruption, and the search for a “pure” Christianity. All I can do is point back to the ressourcement theologians, and to the liturgical antiquarians who promoted the new Mass in precisely these same terms, as a way of recovering the noble simplicity of the early church from Tridentine corruption.

One criticism can be answered relatively easily. In an essay at the blog Where Peter Is, Rachel Amiri and Mike Lewis note that I was advancing the argument made by Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre and other traditionalists that the reforms of the Second Vatican Council aimed at rupture with the tradition and were taken on to detach Catholics from certain beliefs about the Mass itself. I also argued that Pope Francis’s attempt at suppressing the Mass would push traditionalists toward this belief. “How can Francis push anyone to believe something they already believe?” they ask.

Well, what perhaps did not come through in that essay is that my view — the Lefebvrite reading of recent history — was made into the minority view in the traditionalist movement by Pope Benedict’s gesture of goodwill in 2007. I described my views as a radicalism I imbibed before Summorum Pontificum. After 2007, the parishes that brought in the traditional Mass tended to be filled with people who took Pope Benedict’s view that there was no contradiction between the modern, Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite and the traditional “Extraordinary Form” of it. The experience of peace between these rites tended to bolster that view. The vast majority of priests who took up Benedict’s permission in 2007 also say the new Mass; no clearer demonstration can be made of their commitment to Benedict’s idea of the hermeneutic of continuity. By declaring war on the old Mass again, Francis makes the common ground of Benedict’s position untenable and makes the Lefebvrite position more credible.

In fact, Pope Francis has gone on to compare the permission to say the old Mass along with the new as a form of “bi-ritualism.” This has a very precise meaning and does quite a bit to explicitly undermine Benedict’s formula of calling the traditional Latin Mass “the Extraordinary Form” of the Roman Rite, and the modern vernacular mass as “the Ordinary Form” of that same rite. By suggesting priests who say both are bi-ritual — a term used normally to describe a priest who has permission to say both the Roman Rite and (say) the Byzantine Rite liturgy — Francis is implying something that even Archbishop Lefebvre shied away from saying: that after the Second Vatican Council, the Roman Rite had not been reformed, but rather replaced by something else entirely. If Pope Francis can toss away the hermeneutic of continuity, on what basis can defenders of this pontificate oblige me to remain faithful to it?

Amiri and Lewis went on to write that my essay was “the latest and most prominent piece of evidence justifying the necessity” of Francis’s suppression of the traditional Latin Mass. A number of others have made similar observations then and since. Any sin in my life — I have many that are evident to friend and foe alike — or any theological statement in my op-ed that could be interpreted as an error (whether by generous or tendentious readings) was taken to demonstrate the fundamental defect in the traditionalist movement itself.

This was an odd argument. Why should scores of thousands — perhaps millions — of Catholics be denied something that was their right on the account of one man’s sins? You can throw a stone and hit any number of Catholics who regularly attend the traditional Mass who disagree with my views or did not like the way I stated them. So what?

It never occurs to those making this argument to say, “Joe Biden believes abortion should be legal; this demonstrates the fundamental problem of the modern liturgy.” Why not?  I go out and say candidly that I think the pope has made an error. This seems normal to me because, being a Catholic, I was taught that in most situations the pope is not protected by a guarantee of infallibility. But Francis’s defenders use the criticism itself as evidence in a trial where the punishment is already decided to be meted out collectively, not just to me. Modernist theologians such as Edward Schillebeeckx were absolutely scabrous about the papacies of Paul VI and John Paul II, seeing in them a betrayal of the spirit of Vatican II. Why is my criticism taken as emblematic of the traditional Mass, but those of Schillebeeckz are considered entirely exceptional, emblematic of nothing in particular? My argument that the new Mass informs and produces this dissent is never met and confronted; it is simply waved away.

I would submit that this can be done only when one is committed to papal positivism. If the pope says it, it must be true. Many conservatives unwittingly set the stage for this error themselves when, in the wake of the council, they tended to concentrate on Pope Paul VI’s document Humane Vitae and the papal pronouncements of John Paul II as the primary — perhaps sole — manifestation of the dogma of the church’s indefectibility. Instead of following the ancient formula of Saint Vincent of Lérins, “We hold that faith which has been believed everywhere, always, by all,” modern apologists tended to look around and orient themselves to, well, “Where Peter Is.”

When one looks back to Catholic history, it’s easier to see how distorted this hyper-papalism is. When you look at the great theological works from the past, like the Summa Theologica of Thomas Aquinas, or the Sentences of Peter Lombard, they rarely cite a papal statement unless that pope was himself a great theologian. They certainly don’t do what we do now. Modern catechisms overflow with quotations from the last four or five papacies, many of them enigmatic and unclear. The papacy itself is increasingly treated as a kind of independent and semi-oracular authority. Thus we have the absolute scandal that in the lifetime of my father-in-law, Catholic catechisms have articulated three different — and contradictory — teachings on the justice of the death penalty. This incoherence comes out in the suppression of the Latin Mass itself by Pope Francis, which plainly misrepresents and distorts the reasoning given by Pope Benedict for the permission, before outright contradicting Benedict’s religious reasoning to maintain it. Benedict wrote that the old Mass could not “all of a sudden” be forbidden. That’s precisely what Francis did.

In fact, I think this hyper-papalism is itself a consequence of the liturgical reform. The old Mass, a product of many centuries of organic development and slow reform, provided a deep spiritual connection for Catholics to the lives of saints going back ages. The Mass itself was the center of Catholic faith, devotion, and mystery.

Having severed the connection to what the Eastern Church calls “holy tradition,” the search for that tie to the divine has brought about a mystification of the papacy. Catholic media and apologists have gotten into the habit of treating the bishop of Rome’s thoughts, attitudes, predispositions, and initiatives as if they were the main show of the Catholic faith — the primary theater of God’s will for the world today. They point to the curia — which we know from history and current gossip to be a den of the most vicious politicking — and presume that this is where the magic happens. Well, not in Catholicism, I’m afraid.

When I look to scripture for where Peter is, I see him upbraided by other apostles, outdone by the women who follow Jesus, making solemn vows and breaking them minutes later. That is, I see a man in full, loved by God. I’m grateful for him. I see something else, too. In Matthew 17, I see Peter babbling totally absentmindedly about his grand liturgical vision at the Transfiguration. How lucky we are that even “as he was yet still speaking,” God descends on a cloud to interrupt and silence him.