Bell Curve The Law Talking Guy Raised by Republicans U.S. West
Well, he's kind of had it in for me ever since I accidentally ran over his dog. Actually, replace "accidentally" with "repeatedly," and replace "dog" with "son."

Friday, July 20, 2007

Reflections on the Latin Mass

Last week, Pope Benedict XVI took a step back from the post-Vatican-II world by authorizing priests to say the Latin Mass whenever they wish. Previously, the vernacular was required except by special dispensation of the bishop. With priests struggling to make church relevant for modern parishioners, it is hard to imagine any great clamor among them for turning the mass into a ritual both longer and incomprehensible to all but a very few parishioners. Full disclosure: I am not a Roman Catholic; I belong to the American branch of the Church of England (the Episcopal Church), which decided nearly five centuries ago that it was wrong to hold public ritual in "a tongue not understanded of the people."

Still, the creeping return of the Latin Mass has relevance for the wider world, which is why I blog about it. The issue is not, by the way, that Latin is a "dead tongue." I read Latin with minimal proficiency and certainly appreciate it. I have no revulsion to Latin. Indeed, the Latin language is not inherently conservative or even catholic. It was the language of the Renaissance and much of the Reformation. It was the language in which Newton wrote. It was the medium through which American founders learned of the history of the Roman republic that so influenced them (the Federalist papers are signed "Publius", after all).

The problem is that the Latin Mass is a symbol of conservatism. It is a victory for those who equate modernity and progress with decay and disease. Clinging to the Latin rite a core mark of identity for church conservatives. And I mean conservatives: those who supported monarchy, opposed democracy and "modernism," worked hard to ban books, preached anti-semitism, and openly sought the of Papal rule over Italy. I'm not talking about the distant past here, crusades and inquisition. No, I'm talking about the very real anti-democratic nature of the Roman church of the 1920 and 1930s.

Make no mistake about it, Benedict is giving these people the nod. It's scary.

The inward focus is alarming. This turning inward and backward parallels the developments in Islam calling for a return to the Caliphate.

Most of all, the Latin Mass is a rebuke to the enlightenment. It represents mystery, secrecy, elitism, obedience, and a distrust of reason. Thomas Mann famously decried fascism as the true rebuke of the enlightenment. I see this at work here.

Turning to the Latin Mass is a statement of just how far unhinged the Western World has become since the fall of communism. During the post-WWII period, with the defeat of fascism, the West lined up (in fits and starts) behind liberalism, with a small "l." The end of imperialism and embrace of liberal democracy in Europe was part of this. I fear we have lost our moorings. In 1989, Liberal Democracy seemed to be the Wave of the Future, even the End of History.

The Right has returned with a vengeance. In the USA, biblical literalism and right-wing theology are everywhere on the rise, creating parallel institutions to the mainstream liberal democracy. Even seizing a political party, the GOP. Pronouncements about "Islamofascism" are not so far off the mark in describing the anti-liberal nature of the movements sweeping the Islamic world, except that the charges are made by those who share the underlying distrust of democracy and liberalism. Republicans today are generally older white males who believe that democratic processes, open deliberation, and "civil rights" mostly get in the way of our security.

So, when Hillary Clinton describes Bush as "the most radical President in history" she is not lying. Starting with being the first president to take office since the 19th century without winning a majority of the popular vote, Bush has paid lip service to democracy while tearing at the roots of post-WWII liberal constitutionalism. Make no mistake about it: we are having serious debates in this country about the fundamental nature of the US constitution for the first time since the 1930s.

The good news is that the majority of the American people are not moving in that direction. Commitment to racial and gender equality is gradually increasing over time, as this year's field of Democratic candidates attests. Even gay marriage, totally unthinkable 20 years ago, is now supported by nearly a third of the country, and that support is growing. The awakening of the right need not be a catastrophe, but the strong center needs to start asserting itself again, awaking from a long political slumber.

Rident stolidi verba latina (Ovid).


Dr. Strangelove said...

LTG's comments on the Latin Mass are interesting. It sounds just like the flap over flying the Confederate flag in the South. In and of themselves, administering the Latin Mass and flying the Confederate flag could easily be done in the spirit of celebrating tradition and history--but we all know the real reason conservatives push these things is because they are seen as symbols of opposition to liberal values.

Rather than oppose these things, I believe the better--albeit harder--goal should be to try to reclaim these symbols.

The Confederate flag is trickier since the Confederates did actually fight to keep slavery... but in truth the Civil War was about many issues, of which slavery was just one. It is also about states' rights and Southern pride.

The Latin Mass should be easier to reclaim. By holding some masses in the vernacular and others in Latin, modern Catholic parishes can celebrate the two thousand years of Catholic tradition and show how the church has evolved [wink] and reformed to become the modern Church that speaks to the people in the people's language about things that are relevant to their lives.

While you're at it, why not celebrate the Mass in other languages--a French or Tagalog mass, for example--to celebrate the unity of the Catholic church around the world? In the modern, liberal view, it is the meaning behind the words--not the words themselves--that matter. By celebrating the Mass in many languages, that would be a symbol of God speaking a universal message to everyone. And isn't universality the essence of Catholicism?

Anonymous said...

I'll disagree with Dr. Strangelove on this. I think the Latin Mass is inherently anti-democratic. It is based on the notion of elitism. Given that it is intentionally using a language that not widely spoken, it is intentionally exclusionary.

It is an artifact of a time when the Church saw itself as the God annointed guardians (see Plato's Republic) of humanity.

As for the Confederate Flag and the supposed complexity of the Southern "Cause."...Holding up the Stars and Bars as an innocent and inclusive symbol celebrating history is like saying the same thing about the NAZI swastika flag. They are equivolent.

The Southern "Cause" was never as complex as post war Southerners and their apologists would have us think. The issue was simple in its source even if its implications were comlex. Slavery and the racialized feudalism that dependended upon it was the one and only reason for the formation of the Confederacy. The idea that there was a principled adherence to "states rights" is demonstrably wrong given the positions taken by Southern leaders in the years leading up to the war.

It is interesting that the South comes up because it is exactly that part of the country that is so firmly in the grip of the Christo-fascists that LTG alludes to in his posting.

I can only hope that as the forces that push the Latin Mass or other forms of anti-modernist religions and ideologies get more and more shrill they will continue to isolate themselves.


Dr. Strangelove said...

I don't believe that the Latin Mass is intentionally exclusionary in the sense you mean. It is not designed to "include" those who speak Latin and exclude all others. Most people advocating for the Latin Mass probably don't speak Latin either. Frankly, I think they like the Latin because it sounds like a magical incantation and--since they can't understand it--the silliness of it all is masked by the ring of ancient lore. I have a hard time believing that anyone who doesn't want to speak to God in his own language actually believes in that God as a good and helpful deity. But that's the atheist talking, perhaps.

Regarding the Southern thing... I concede the Nazi analogy makes sense. But I wonder if, in a hundred years, whether it will be possible for the Nazi flag to mean something else...? That's the other part of the analogy that matters: no one flying the Civil War flag now ever fought in he Civil war... hell, none of their grandfathers did either. Can symbols really change? If not, then no to the Confederate flag for the reasons RbR duly indicates. But if it can happen, maybe we should try.

Anonymous said...

Non-Latin speakers like the Latin mass for the same reason many people like such a-spiritual religion...they want to abdicate their free will. They want to be told what to do, what to think and so on. Having a Latin Mass puts the priest in a priviledged position to interpret a mysterious religion and give life instructions to people. It transforms the act of religious practice from a spiritual self exploration to an exercise in obedience.

Granted it has been generations since Appomattox, VA made the news but not since Selma, Alabama. And the Stars and Bars stood for the same thing at both places.

I won't even discuss the possibility of rehabilitating the NAZI flag. Yikes!


Dr. Strangelove said...

Anything can be rehabilitated. Look at the crucifix :-)

The Law Talking Guy said...

Dr. S. - The Christian take on your comment would be "anyone" can be rehabilitated. I believe that. But anything? Things don't have moral dimensions.

I think what your'e saying is that any symbol can have its meaning changed over time. True enough. Symbols have no inherent meaning. Welcome to the postmodern world.

All that being said, the process of changing the meaning of a symbol requires creation of a narrative that reinterprets the symbol. Doing that with the confederate flag is hindered by the fact that for 100 years plus it was the symbol of racism and segregation, and is still very much alive as such a symbol. For a new narrative to develop, older ones must fall into disuse. The Nazi flag is even harder to imagine. What content could a new narrative of Germany in the 1930s have that would gain currency today?

The Law Talking Guy said...

RBR is right about the Latin Mass. The dirty secret of Vatican II is that it subtly protestantized the Roman church by making parishioners believe they had a direct line to God. That's what the vernacular does. It makes people become involved in the service. It makes them take ownership of the words they hear and say. In an incantation, as the Latin Mass is today, the words themselves are without real meaning. In fact, the RC recently revised the *English* version of the mass to increase the repetition of phrases to match the incantatory rhythm of the Latin rite. In many ways, the Latin Mass is the caricature of everything modern secularists hate about religion. It is antithetical to reason and humanism.

Dr. Strangelove said...

LTG asks, "What content could a new narrative of Germany in the 1930s have that would gain currency today?" My answer: Nothing, of course. I specifically said I was speculating on what might happen 100 years from now.

I must concede, however, that I cannot see anything to gain from even attempting to "rehabilitate" such a symbol. It serves far better as a reminder of Nazi horrors, and I hope it remains so until--perhaps centuries from now--such reminders truly are no longer necessary.

I don't think, however, that the confederate flag is quite in the same category of awfulness--and even if it is (I don't really want to argue this point), I think we can all at least agree that the Latin Mass is not so horrible. The Latin Mass may be ripe for a "hostile takeover"--a reinterpretation by liberals.

And I did try to suggest a "narrative" that would reinterpret the Latin Mass as a symbol of Catholic universality... placing it in the context of conducting the Mass in languages from cultures around the world.

USWest said...

I'm late to this thread, but am settling into a new job so I have been distracted. Maybe you'll see this, maybe not.

As a relapsed Roman Catholic I don't have strong feelings about the Latin Mass. In fact I don’t mind that it is an option that can be offered now along side of the vernacular. I don't fundamentally disagree with what has been said by anyone thus far. It is exclusionary, it is a throw back to pre-Vatican II and it is a very conservative move. But to me, it is less harmful than other conservative things the Church as done, such as blocking the use of condoms in AIDS prevention, or banning women from the priesthood and gays from church.

That said, Mass lost its meaning for me ages ago, as did the Church itself. I was made to attend mass every Sunday, every holy day (and there are a bunch of those), and nearly every morning during Lent (40 days) from the time I was 5 years old until I graduated from Jr. High. Then I was allowed to skip daily Lenten mass. But even when we went camping, my mother would drag us for the 45 minute drive into Yosemite Valley to go to Mass. Do you honestly think I tuned into all the prayers? Do you honestly think any of is cared about what were saying in Church? It wasn’t as if we were there by choice.

For 22 years, my mother said grace before meals so fast, that to this day I have no idea what the actual words are. I still say the Hail Mary as one breath as if I were a machine gun. It doesn’t matter what language the mass is in, we all quit listening years ago. With all that repetition, you tune it out. But I will say that on those rare occasions, such as during the Stations of the Cross, when the Priest would break into Latin, I would start paying attention. It was a beautiful sound and you could follow what he was saying in your English Missal. I liked it.

Since most of what the priest said during his sermon made me mad, or bored me to death, and since I was required to attend every Sunday to avoid being sent to hell, I started going to Portuguese mass. It sounded a lot like Latin and I got a lot less angry. I focused on the spiritual rather than the political. I followed along using the English Language missal. A lot of people have complained over the years that the mass lost some of its beauty and meaning when they did away with Latin. All that said, I don’t think anyone likes the idea of the priest having his back to the people, and no one really wants the Latin liturgy to include prayers about the conversion of Jews, no one wants to cover their heads when entering the Church. That is the part that is wrong, not the Latin itself.

FYI Dr. S, where I grew up, Mass was offered in Spanish and Portuguese as well as English. Midnight mass was said in all three languages with each part of the Mass said in a different language. It was actually pretty cool to experience. This is sill the case in my home parish. It is very common for mass to be offered in the languages that are dominant in the other parishes as well. In the French Quarter in San Francisco, they have mass in French.

The Law Talking Guy said...

USWest writes:
"I don’t think anyone likes the idea of the priest having his back to the people, and no one really wants the Latin liturgy to include prayers about the conversion of Jews, no one wants to cover their heads when entering the Church."

Er, not no one. Some definitely do. And it is they who were cheered by Benedict's edict.

Dr. Strangelove said...

I love the idea that Mass was offered in three different languages at once... it sounds very cool. That is a tradition worth preserving.