Summer/Fall 2007, Vol. 10, Nos. 1 & 2

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From the Editor:

Beating Up on the New Atheists

Romney and the Mormon Moment

The Democrats Get Religion

No More Mr. Nice Pope

Establishing Religion by Executive Order

The Gospel According to South Park

People Who Loved Tammy Faye


No More Mr. Nice Pope
by Andrew Walsh

It has taken two years, but the tough-talking conservative many initially expected Pope Benedict XVI would be has finally appeared on the scene. In July, he issued one statement asking Catholic bishops to make a 16th-century form of the Mass much more accessible to the faithful and another asserting than non-Catholic forms of Christianity are essentially defective.

Most of the attention was grabbed by Benedict’s motu proprio, or personal statement, on July 7, which “authorized wider use of the long-marginalized Latin Mass, a move that delighted Roman Catholic traditionalists, but worried others who fear the erosion of important church reforms,” Tracy Wilkinson and Rebecca Trounson of the Los Angeles Times reported on July 8.

“What earlier generations held as sacred remains sacred and great for us too, and it cannot be all of a sudden entirely forbidden or even considered harmful,” the pope wrote in his decree, referring to the Latin form of the Mass approved by Council of Trent in 1570. It was the universal form of the Roman rite until it was replaced in the late 1960s, after the Second Vatican Council, by a revised “New Order” Mass that is typically celebrated in the local vernacular language, rather than Latin.

Until July, it required the special permission of a bishop to celebrate the Tridentine Mass. Now any Catholic priest is authorized to celebrate it privately or publicly to a “stable” group of interested Catholics.

The delight evidenced by many traditional Catholics was easy to find—it bubbled up across the nation in news accounts. “It’s lifted a stigma, almost like being freed,” Al Huntz, president of the Buffalo chapter of Una Voce, an international organization promoting the Latin Mass, told Jay Tokasz of the Buffalo News in August. “For a good many years there’s been a misconception that the Latin Mass and the people who attend were some kind of fringe group.”

“My good friends, we are living through and a part of a major, fundamental, awesome reaffirmation of the tradition of our faith,” the Rev. Robert C. Pasley, rector of Mater Ecclesiae Catholic Church outside Philadelphia told his congregation a few days after the pope issued the decree. The parish, reported David O’Reilly of the Philadelphia Inquirer, was one of a handful in the nation that already celebrated all of its services in the “graceful, dignified, formal and obscure” Latin of the old Tridentine rite.

There was a sharp difference in tone between the American and the European coverage of the pope’s decision.

In the United States, typical headlines were the Buffalo News’ “Rebirth of the Latin Mass: major changes unlikely for most area Catholics,” and the Worcester Telegram & Gazette’s “Pope’s OK of Mass has officials studying. Shift to Latin involves more than language.” In Grand Rapids, the word was: “Latin Mass performed at Sacred Heart. Local clergy doubt old tradition will spread.”

In Europe, where many Catholic bishops openly opposed the return of the Tridentine Mass,” the decision was portrayed as far more dramatic.

“Liberal Catholics in Turmoil Over Vatican’s Proposal for Latin Mass,” read a Financial Times headline. “Theo-Con Pope Tries to Force Us All Back to the Middle Ages,” asserted the headline on an Irish Independent column. “Pope Defies His Bishops and Clears the Way for Latin Mass to Return” blared London’s Daily Mail.

“Church Split Feared as Pope backs return of ‘anti-Semitic’ Latin Mass” the Independent of London headlined the story. (The “anti-Semitic” referred to the unwarranted belief that bringing back the Tridentine Mass would entail bringing back a prayer for “the perfidious Jews” in the pre-Vatican II Easter service.)

A columnist for the Irish Independent wrote on July 30 of attending one Dublin Tridentine Mass. “It was grim, joyless, interminable and disquieting. There was no music. Nobody shook hands or brought gifts to the altar. It was as exuberant a celebration of creation as an expired fly left to rot on a window sill.”

The European reaction was explicable, in part, by that fact that the old Mass figures prominently in a contemporary French schism over the legitimacy of the reforms of Vatican II. In consequence, the rite had been almost completely unavailable in European Catholic churches before the decree. (The pope himself allowed only one Tridentine Mass in Rome a week.)

By contrast, Americans live in a country where the Tridentine mass has been celebrated in many cities since 1984, when Pope John Paul II gave bishops permission to authorize local celebrations. And American reporters filed dozens of stories about the small, enthusiastic communities where the Tridentine Mass has been offered regularly: 150 worshipers in Albuquerque, 250 in Boston, 650 in Pittsburgh, maybe 600 families in Buffalo, 80 or 90 in South Bend, and so on.

Reporters found that these clusters of worshipers loved the spiritual and aesthetic quality of the Tridentine Mass and its evocation of a magisterial Catholicism. “It’s the Mass of the church, of always,” Robert Caraballo told Mary Warner of the Harrisburg Patriot News. “People dress properly.”

Many of the stories, like Warner’s, noted that the traditional service appealed to some younger Catholics who don’t like the contemporary feel of the New Order Mass. “The music is more rock ‘n’ roll. They use hymns contrary to Catholic teaching,” 28-year-old Tyler Kauffman said.

In places like Mater Ecclesiae Parish in the New Jersey suburbs of Philadelphia, which has grown from 70 families to 520 since 2000, dioceses are using the Tridentine Mass as part of a growth strategy. The Inquirer’s O’Reilly reported that the parish’s Sunday noon mass is always a sung, High Mass—a very rare phenomenon—with a procession of three priests, 12 altar boys in black cassocks and white surplices, 12 white-clad girls of the Blessed Imelda society, and Gregorian chant.

But most American stories indicated that bishops expected little or no additional demand for Tridentine Masses. “I don’t see it as being a huge thing in New Mexico, because people are pretty well settled with Mass in English and like Mass in English,” Archbishop Michael J. Sheehan of Santa Fe told Debra Dominguez-Lund of the Albuquerque Journal on July 30.

Sheehan also cited the most important obstacle to a rapid expansion of the Tridentine Mass. “The diocese has very few priests who know Latin, and those few who know it well enough are so elderly that they “don’t have the knees to make the 18 genuflections” that the Tridentine Mass requires of a priest.

But optimistic advocates of the Latin Mass are mobilizing. Julia Duin of the Washington Times reported July 30 that two Catholic religious orders are now training priests in the Tridentine rite, the Institute of Christ the King and the Pennsylvania-based Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter, which offers summer workshops for groups of 50 priests who want to master the ritual demands of the old rite.

“It’s a detailed liturgy, so there’s a lot of books and videos needed to teach a priest how to say this Mass,” the Rev. Carl Gismondi of the Fraternity said. “There’s something about it that’s very attractive to people. It’s more than nostalgia because a lot of young people are interested in it.”

Duin found two suburban Virginia parishes actively preparing to begin Tridentine Masses and dispatching priests for training. “In the older rite, worshipers must kneel to receive Communion on their tongues, the priest always leads the parishioners in facing east, rather than facing them; and the rite is always in Latin,” Duin wrote. “There are other differences in terms of liturgy, priestly vestments and the manner in which laity participate in the service.”

“Logistically, I think the challenge for priests who want to say Mass is to get the missal [the text and instructions for celebrating the Tridentine Mass], vestments and plan for working with a modern sanctuary,” the Rev. Franklin McAfee of St. John’s Catholic Church in McLean told Duin. “Altar boys need to be trained, and men need to learn Gregorian chant. There’s a ton of work for parishes with a priest who wants a Mass.”

Over on the liberal side, there was strong suspicion that the revival of the Tridentine Mass was part of a long-running campaign on Benedict’s part, dating back to his years as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, to redefine Vatican II and to suppress or extrude dissent within the church.

Lawrence Downes demonstrated that conservatives aren’t the only ones who have emotional reactions to the Mass in his New York Times column on July 29 about attending a Tridentine Mass for the first time—he is 42.

First, Downes was stuck by the atmosphere of the Chicago church he visited. “I went up the steps of the Renaissance Baroque church, through a stone door and back into my dimmest memories. Amid the grandeur of beeswax candles and golden statuary, the congregation was saying the rosary. I sat behind an older couple wearing scapulars as big as credit cards. I saw women wearing lace mantillas and a clutch of seminarians in the front rows, in black cassocks and crisp white surplices.”

Then, by the silence. “At a Low Mass, the priest prays silently or unamplified. The people do not speak or sing. They watch and read. All around me, people’s heads were buried in thick black missals.”

As he sat self-consciously in the church, Downes felt “shaken and irrationally angry. Catholics are told that the church is the people of God, but from my silent pew, the people seemed irrelevant. The Mass belonged to Father and his altar boys....For the first time, I understood viscerally how some Catholics felt in the 60s when the Mass they loved went away.”

He noted that he understood that the pope wants to use the old Latin Mass to re-energize the church, to use it “like an immense celestial object” that “will exert gravitational pull on the faithful.” But from where he sits, that won’t be the result.

“It’s easy enough to see where this is going,” he concluded. “Same God, same church, but separate camps, each with an affinity for vernacular or Latin, John XXXIII or Benedict XVI. Smart, devout, ambitious Catholics—ecclesial young Republicans, home-schoolers, seminarians and other shock troops of the faith—with have their mass. The rest of us—a lumpy assortment of cafeteria Catholics, guilty parents, peace-‘n’-justice lefties, stubborn Vatican II die-hards—will have ours. We’ll have to prod our snoozing pew mates when to sit and stand; they’ll have to rein in their zealots.”

William Acquario wrote the Albany Times-Union to say that he hoped that in future Tridentine Masses in that region would include a mandate “that the sermon/homily at such Masses also be in Latin. That way the ‘mystique’ of the service would be complete.”

Catholic leaders in the United States generally downplayed the divisive potential of the pope’s decision to make the Tridentine Mass more widely available.

Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston told the Boston Globe that the pope had told him personally that worship in Latin will continue to be the exception, not the rule.

“There are some conservatives who feel that everything ended with the [Second Vatican] Council, and some liberals who think that everything began with the Council, and this Holy Father is trying to say that this is a continuous growth, that it’s the same church, and that we must try to avoid allowing the liturgy to become a battleground rather than a point of unification and communion for believers,” he told the Globe’s Michael Paulson on July 8.

John Allen, everyone’s favorite Vaticanologist, has been writing repeatedly that the ruling on the Mass doesn’t indicate much about the intentions of the pope. Conservatives can’t point to widespread unhappiness with the vernacular Mass and those worried about a “systematic rollback” of Vatican II are also making arguments based on “selective perception,” Allen wrote in a column published in the International Herald Tribune on May 31.

“Benedict certainly wants to call the church back to some Catholic fundamentals,” Allen wrote. But “this is the same pope who scandalized Catholic traditionalists by jettisoning limbo and praying alongside the grand mufti of Istanbul inside the Blue Mosque in Turkey.”

But other church watchers are more inclined to see Benedict chipping away at the liberal interpretation of Vatican II. Robert Marquand of the Christian Science Monitor, writing on July 18, found Benedict to be “completing a significant theological shift of the Roman Catholic church—a sweeping change that not only eclipses 40 years of a more moderate and collegial Catholicism, but seeks to reassert the spiritual supremacy of the Vatican and more openly proclaim the authority of the pope among all Christians.”

Papal biographer David Gibson, in a New York Times op-ed published on April 23, on the second anniversary of the pope’s election, also judged that Benedict was finally showing his hand as a forceful conservative. The pope, Gibson noted, was more than willing to use the Tridentine Mass to make gestures of conciliation to ultra-traditional and even schismatic Catholics, but went out of his way this spring to censure an elderly and infirm liberation theologian, Jesuit priest Jon Sobrino, who narrowly escaped assassination by death squads in El Salvador during the 1980s.

Those who have seen the emergence of the old conservative got some more evidence as the pope turned his attention to an external audience with his second major utterance in July. The Vatican issued a blunt document clarifying what Benedict considers to be (according to the Los Angles Times’ Rebecca Trounson) “mistaken interpretations of the Second Vatican Council, in this case involving non-Catholic Christians.”

On July 14, Trounson reported that the Vatican had “reasserted its position that Roman Catholicism provides the only true path to salvation and that other Christian denominations suffer from ‘defects’ or are not true churches.”

The statement, which was personally approved by Benedict, declares that Protestants belong only to “Christian communities” and not authentic churches. Orthodox Christians, because they share so much historically and theologically with the Catholic Church, can be considered to belong to valid churches, but these churches that are nonetheless fundamentally defective because they do not recognize the leadership of the papacy.

Ian Fisher of the New York Times reported laconically that “it was unclear why the Vatican issued the document now, especially since it largely restated earlier, if contentious, statements of church doctrine. The document from 2000 called ‘Dominus Iesus’ prompted angry reactions from other faiths which accused the Vatican, and (then) Cardinal Ratzinger specifically, of being unnecessarily divisive.”

Similar protests were reported almost immediately. Reuters quoted the head of Germany’s Evangelical Church as saying the document “effectively downgraded the Protestant churches and would make ecumenical relations more difficult.” He called the document a repetition of the “offensive statements” of 2000.

“It makes us question whether we are indeed praying together for Christian Unity,” the World Alliance of Reformed Churches grumbled.

Once again, in the United States, religious professionals took a cooler approach. The Minneapolis Star Tribune’s July 11 story on the document carried the headline, “Benedict asserts church’s primacy; Many turned the other cheek to the pope’s proclamation.”

Asked by reporter Jeff Stickler whether the document was “fightin’ words,” the Rev. Barbara Anne Keely, associate professor of Christian education and congregational spirituality at the United Theological Seminary outside Minneapolis replied, “This is who they’ve always been…I was raised Irish Catholic. That’s what I was taught then, and that’s what they teach now.”

Out in Salt Lake City, the Mormon Church took the news from Rome philosophically. “We are neither offended nor concerned when other faith traditions assert their authority,” Scott Trotter, a spokesman for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints told Jessica Ravitz of the Salt Lake Tribune on July 13. “As stated in our 11th Article of Faith: `We claim the privilege of worshipping Almighty God according to the dictates of our conscience, and allow all men the same privilege, let them worship how, where, or what they may.”

Utah’s Episcopal bishop, Carolyn Tanner Irish, on the other hand, called the document “disappointing and regressive,” and wondered why Benedict would want to issue comments that “will not help our efforts to find common ground and move forward together.”

Irish’s sentiments were echoed in the Pacific Northwest, where Steve Maynard of the Tacoma News Tribune found that local religious leaders were buzzing over the pope’s statement and interested in protecting that region’s strong local culture of ecumenical cooperation.

“Protestants are not the only ones shocked, dismayed and hurt by the Vatican’s statement,” the Rev. David Alger of the Tacoma’s Associated Ministries told Maynard. “A lot of Catholics are deeply troubled and are struggling with what this means.”

In retrospect, the Pope spent most of his first two years in office creating a positive and pastoral atmosphere. As David Gibson put it: “In his pronouncements and writings, [the pope] carefully accentuated the positive. His first encyclical was titled ‘God Is Love,’ and charity has become the recurring byword of his apparently irenic pontificate. Christianity, Catholicism, isn’t a collection of prohibitions: it’s a positive option, as Benedict said last year.”

Nevertheless, the real Benedict has a harder edge, which is now making itself clear. As Gibson somewhat reluctantly concluded, “[E]ven as he has preached the boundless grace of Christian charity, Benedict has also made it clear that divine love does not allow for compromise on matters of truth as the pope sees it, and that he will not brook anything that smacks of change in church teachings or traditions. Nor is he a caretaker pope who is willing to stand pat.”

As things cash out, it seems, Benedict has not traded in his cardinal’s bad cop role to be the Good Cop Pope. Instead, he wants to play both roles at the same time.


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