Thursday, January 14, 2016

"Tridentine" stagnation in a post-Summorum Pontificum world

I was recently asked what I thought of Charles Pope's recent article is something of a sobering up for the Traditional Roman Catholic segment.

It has to be noted that I really don't have a stake in this discussion - those days are gone.

This being said....

Pope (no opponent of the pre-Vatican II liturgy) pointedly contradicts the affirmations made by certain Traditionalists that "the movement" is growing. Notably, Traditionalists, he argues, cannot argue that ecclesiastical rigging and lack of promotion or tolerance. Almost nine years after Summorum Pontificum, the pre-Vatican II liturgy, and its accompanying variant of Catholicism, appears to have hit a wall. Its growth has stalled and there appears to be little appeal to the broader body of the Roman Church.

Expectations that the innate "beauty" of the old liturgy would drawn in the crowds, that the "Tridentine" liturgy was its own best promotion, have met a harsh reality. It is time, Pope seems to say, to accept reality as it is, and not as we wish it to be.

Pope's prescription is evangelization, although he doesn't particularly narrow down the subject of our gospel. Presumably, the subject of this gospel would be the "Tridentine Mass" itself, after all, Pope's concern is that the numbers aren't there to sustain Traditional Catholicism. Most Roman Catholics are content to find some space in post-Vatican II Catholicism.

Having noted the above...

I have long been a proponent of the theory that Summorum Pontificum did more harm than good. For better or worse, up until that point the "Tridentine" liturgy was (whether Traditionalists prefer to admit it or not) a sign of protest and distrust of the Vatican. More importantly, it provided a venue with which to resist modernity and post-modernity, a consequence of which was some form of resistance to contemporary Catholicism. A consequence of Summorum Pontificum was that it stole much of the "Tridentine" liturgy's thunder; many principles behind the cause no longer had the force of intent behind them.

Evangelization is a tricky thing. To be honest, sacramental churches (Orthodox, Catholic, Anglican, and Lutheran) are often tepid at it at best. It is a plain fact that Catholics, Orthodox, and certain strands of Anglicans and Lutherans cannot credibly talk about evangelization without consulting the Protestant churches who know how to do it - oftentimes Evangelicals. Evangelicals are almost fearless when it comes to evangelization and working through the surrounding culture. Sacramental churches tend to be clumsy, hesitant, self conscious, and overly apologetic. In the worst case scenario, Catholics, Orthodox and other "high churches" present themselves as being artificially removed from the culture or relatively clueless regarding its contemporary currents. To cite an episode from my past, I once had music director at Catholic parish tell me utilization of Latin chant wasn't acceptable because "the mission" requires more contemporary music to "reach people." My response, "fair enough, but your contemporary music sounds an awful lot like dated (and poorly written) folk music. If you want to do something contemporary, there is a Pentecostal church down the street that can teach you a bit about the tasteful use of distortion." Needless to say, this didn't go over well. Which is a shame, because there are some fine examples of suitably Christian music laden with distortion or otherwise electronic instrumentation....

Again, evangelization isn't easy - if you're going to talk about it, you need to consult with the people who actually do it. Part of the challenge is building up the experience of a Christian community. Again, Evangelical churches often provide the best example. If your community is composed of cliques and is otherwise insulated and unwelcoming, your evangelization effort has no source of sustenance.

There is the plain fact that there is very little interest in traditional forms of Western liturgy. The dominant preference (and numbers do matter) is for contemporary Western forms that incorporate "Traditional" elements. It is this context where the future of the Latin or Western liturgical tradition resides. This isn't intended to make a value judgment, rather it is a statement of fact. Could this change? Of course, but there is no indication a change is happening anytime soon.


  1. Part of the problem seems to be a narrowing of theological vision and praxis in the various camps - each one seems to be identifying a too limited set of beliefs and practices as the really important ones... the trads are concentrating on liturgy saving the world, and don't have much of an idea of kerygma; the evangelicals are so steeped in the Enlightenment vision of the material universe that they have almost completely lost the sacramental sense or indeed react against it.

    Having come from evangelicalism to Catholicism via Anglo-Catholicism, the biggest shock on arrival has been the lack of evangelical zeal in my new co-religionists. Sometimes I wonder if the faith-life of many Catholics is deliberately insulated from the outside world because of a very thin sense of a "personal relationship" with Christ. (Such an "individualist" ingredient to the faith is I think vital, but also necessary in a world where individualism is so dominant in our psychology that it is the only meaningful point of entry into faith for most... without it there can be no real evangelistic effort to reach people in a post-Christian society.) There is a need to insulate oneself a little, because one has a sense that what one believes is true, but yet a feeling that one's faith is so incompatible with the world around that it would not stand up to an airing in a public sphere where it is the personal, individual and psychological conviction of one's faith that will be focused upon. Hence the avoidance of real evangelism, and the unconscious need to invent reasons why it is bad and not Catholic (because evangelicals who are not part of the One True Church are presenting Christ with energy and zeal, and we are secretly ashamed of being incapable of the same).

    I suppose I remain convinced that the almost vanished Anglo-Catholic synthesis of a deeply personal faith, inserted into an impassioned love of Christ in the sacramental life of the church, is capable of winning people over, largely because the Spirit is not being quenched in any aspect of Its sovereign activity... slum priests such as Fr Dolling of Portsmouth 100 years ago had High Mass, solemn Evensong and then a sing-along evangelical service (complete with revivalist songs and unashamed popular preaching about Jesus) on Sunday evenings, and had a packed church too. But the people who would now be interested in the first two would scorn the third as bad taste or "not Catholic".

    I honestly see more hope of a conversion of evangelicals to sacramentalism than I see hope of trads understanding the role of evangelism and respecting it a charism of the Spirit in the Church. I'm afraid that this former evangelical thinks talk about beautiful liturgy being evangelism is a lot of hogwash.

    1. Timothy, I found your comment interesting and there's a lot in it I agree with. I would like to know more about the High Anglican slum-priests of whom I have heard (I'm currently reading Shane Leslie's novel "The Anglo-Catholic") and also believe that high liturgy should be aligned with social justice and Christian socialism. Your final statement is not ungermane to my statement that thinking high liturgy will of itself and inevitably convert people to believing theology of only one kind or character is not realistic.

  2. Well, here’s my theory: one of the major reasons, or considerations, why the “Tridentine” liturgy does not appeal to so many people is that the spectacle of vested clergy “fussing” around an altar silently or in an incomprehensible language seems ridiculous or meaningless or an inadequate means of expressing worshipful relationship with God. Once people were exposed to being, or became “activa” (whether or not that was different to “actuosa”), an evolution in habit and expectation occurred and the old skin, once discarded, no longer fits easily. A similar evolution has probably taken place, subconsciously, in that the hieratic language of the old liturgy no longer feels or sounds quite true. Another reason, I think, is that I think that it is a mistake to think that a cultural form can be judged or can triumph simply on its aesthetic merits and purported ‘spiritual’ effects: forms are contextual in political and social and psychological terms. The “Tridentine” liturgy is not simply an exotic variant of the New Forms, but a loaded exercise: it has become a polemic and protesting exercise, and a banner for an anti-modern religious economy and party (often allied with right-wing philosophies). Attending Tridentine liturgies seems to entail submission to a particularly intensive form and culture of religious angst and submission, and the democratic and egalitarian instincts or habits of many modern people, particularly in the West, recoil from this, even if they have no clear, and only inchoate, ideas of the alternatives. I sometimes ask whether it is really possible to use any liturgy without embracing the politico-theological overtones or undercurrents that seem to accompany it. I also ask what exactly is the priority amongst those arguing for one form or another: is it the liturgical form itself, or the associated ideological content?

  3. Being myself of an age when I can remember the Old Mass, and even remember having been an altar boy during that time, I must say that my experience of that Mass was a dreadful affair. In retrospect, I would rather have liked it if they had bothered to tell me what those words meant (V: Introibo ad altare Dei. R: Ad Deum qui laetificat iuventutem meam. Etc.). In retrospect, I should also have rather enjoyed learning how to do the chant responses, and to have sung them. As it is, I recall when, many years later, and a year before the death of my wife, Elizabeth, I managed to get to a liturgy conference in Colorado Springs, where I delivered a paper in liturgy, and I managed to hear a Tridentine Mass served there. Or rather, I tried to hear it. The priests and servers parts were inaudible, and there were only a couple of bits of chant sung for it. I remember thinking to myself, "Yep, that's what I remember of how it was done then, too." Needless to say, I was not impressed. Or at least, not favorably impressed.

    Personally, I think that far more fundamental to the failures of both the Novus Ordo and of the Traditional Masses is the poor education of the priests, and the poor katechesis of the people, which has led to such poor Masses and liturgies. And I fear that as long as that double ignorance remains, we are not going to see any improvement in either the Novus Ordo, nor in the Traditional Mass.

  4. You're right about sacramental churches not being great evangelizers. I have had visits from Mormon missionaries and Jehovah's Witnesses. The family next door have just let their daughter go away on a mission for 18 months. That's evangelization.