POST-GAZETTE - Res Publica

Motu Risin'

by David Trumbull

July 13, 2007

In early July Pope Benedict XVI issued his eagerly awaited motu proprio (or personal initiative) greatly widening access to the Latin Mass according to the use promulgated by Pope John XXIII in 1962. The need for the motu was demonstrated a few days later when the Knights of Columbus, a fraternal organization known for its public advocacy for Catholic moral teaching, announced that it was “shocked, shocked” to learn that 16 of its members who hold political office in the Massachusetts General Court voted against the same-sex marriage amendment in June. The vote, which decided whether same-sex marriage would go on the 2008 ballot, was just five votes short of passing. Polling indicated that the measure was favored by a large majority of the citizens of the Commonwealth, but turning public sentiment into public policy requires an informed and properly directed citizenry, and Catholic voters—formerly a powerful force in Bay State politics—are as muddled and misdirected in the voting booth as they are in the pews of their parishes witnessing some of more bazaar things done “in the spirit of Vatican II.”

Four decades of liturgical GIGO (garbage in: garbage out) is not the sole reason that Christian teaching has so weak a voice in our public discourse. Nevertheless, how we pray affects what we believe, and what we believe determines—to a much greater extent than most realize—what we do. Americans are a religious people. Their religious beliefs and practices inform their exercise of civic duties. And for the quarter of the population that is Roman Catholic, attendance at Mass is the central religious experience and the one that most shapes their thinking on civic issues. Good citizenship is, of course, not the goal of Mass attendance, but it can be a most helpful side effect. Today citizenship needs all the help it can get.

It is often said that democracies all tend toward mob rule and then tyranny. Ultimately it is not laws, administrators, or courts that preserve a democracy—of all polities the most fragile and short-lived—it is informed and active citizens. The mass of men are easily influenced, contrary to their own interests and the principles of justice, to embrace some cleverly presented and fashionable falsehood. And the elected representatives, unless they break out of the tyranny of the narrow present, render to the electors not their informed judgment but their pandering for popularity. For generations of American statesmen it was in the reading of the Founding Fathers and their English predecessors that they found a philosophy of governing. The Founding Fathers in turn got their inspiration from the writings of Cicero and from Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans. And for generations of Catholics up to 1970, the old Mass, itself unchanging, changed men by exposing to them the transcendent truth not bound to our particular place and time.

Sadly, many American pastors miscarried in their delivery of the new Mass issued after the Vatican II Council. That liturgy, while in many ways a salutary revision of the earlier forms, was mishandled and wrongly used to introduce many practices harmful to the civic and well as spiritual life of the people. Faulty implementation of the new Mass changed active Mass participation into passive Mass observance. It is charged against the Latin Mass that the priest and servers did everything (and in Latin with their back to the people!) with no active involvement of the people. Why, it is decried, some of the people were so unconnected to the Mass that they actually prayed the rosary throughout the liturgy! In truth, praying the rosary was for some people their active participation in the Church at prayer. The rosary required more concentration, discipline, and knowledge of Christian doctrine than it does to mumble a few phrases in the dialogue Mass and to sit through—but not necessarily listen to—a homily. When priests, altar boys, and people all faced the same way they all participated, each in his own way, in the common offering of the sacrifice. Now, with the priest facing the people and accompanied by a choir and servers all up front—on the “stage” as it were—the people out in the pews have been transformed from participants to audience.

In church, as elsewhere, we have become a nation of observers and consumers. We buy (or illegally download) our music rather than entertaining ourselves, we watch “Dancing with the Stars” rather than going out to the few dance venues for anyone over the age of 22. We vote in smaller numbers than before and when we vote we make our decision based on slick television adverts, not on personal participation in political organizations. State and local political committees, both Republican and Democrat, struggle to recruit members. This is not surprising given that the nomination of candidates—formerly controlled by those parties committees, with the first round of choices being made by local ward committees representing perhaps a few city blocks—is now done in primary elections where money is king and the typical citizen finds that casting his vote is the sole political activity expected of, or even available to, him. Time was in America when attending political meetings and listening to “stump” speeches were highly popular leisure-time activities, just as was listening to, and critiquing, sermons. Now even our elected representatives—witness the vote on same-sex marriage—do not debate, let alone try to understand, issues; they just fall in line with party leadership and currently fashionable opinion as dictated by Hollywood, academia, and main stream media.

Then there are the God-awful (I use the phrase advisedly) guitars. In so many parishes what passes for “music” couldn’t exist anywhere but in a church, where it has become our penance. Try to present this garbage in a concert-hall or on recording media and you’d find no buyers. It started with the notion, not entirely bad, that the liturgy was stuck in an earlier age and that some introduction of contemporary tastes in music, art, and architecture was over-due. It has ended in—well, you know.

The problem is that really badly done guitar music—which actually enjoyed a degree of popularity for a brief time in the 1960s—was introduced not because it was good, but because it was worldly. The Church has always been ready to “baptize” and put to the service of God whatever is excellent in secular culture. Clement of Alexandria in the late third century called this “taking the spoils of the Egyptians and making of them the furniture for the Tabernacle of the Lord.” The spoils of the Egyptians were the gold and silver the Israelites took with them in the exodus. Legend says King Solomon’s temple was decorated with the spoils. American liturgists took not the precious metals but the dross of popular culture and adulterated the liturgy therewith. Formerly the Church and her Mass stood apart from, and as an instructress to, the world. The abuses of the 1970s and 1980s introduced the mistaken notion that world has more to teach the Church than the Church does the world. For decades this defective interpretation of Vatican II has prevailed. And Sunday after Sunday the people, while having access to valid sacraments (not a small thing in itself) have been denied transforming power of liturgy, the people’s work. They have been told that the things of the world (and of the world at a time when the world had particularly poor taste) are preferable to the treasures of the tradition of the Church. And yet, we are “shocked” to find that sons of the Church vote more accord with the false “wisdom” of today’s worldly dross than with the priceless teachings of Christ.

Well, Benedict the XVI has got his motu working. The old Latin Mass will be less infrequent. More importantly, the theology of the old Mass is now freed up to assist in what some are calling the “reform of the reform,” a purging of the new Mass of all the bad pseudo counter-cultural gunk that got layered onto it and a discovery of the truly counter-cultural implications of a Mass celebrated reverently with active participation. Much will be written over the coming months and years about the motu’s primary spiritual implication. Many believe it, along with other similar developments, will revitalize the Church. Res Publica, the Republic, may likewise benefit as the motuM fosters a spirit of participation and broadening of the intellectual and cultural horizons.