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).
Friday, July 20, 2007
Posted by The Law Talking Guy at 12:13 PM