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Should the Latin Mass Scare Us?

With a decree he released “motu proprio”—that is, without the counsel of others—on Saturday, Pope Benedict XVI authorized a wider use of the old Catholic rite known as the Tridentine Mass. Officially abandoned in 1970, this traditional service is conducted … Read More

By / July 11, 2007

With a decree he released “motu proprio”—that is, without the counsel of others—on Saturday, Pope Benedict XVI authorized a wider use of the old Catholic rite known as the Tridentine Mass. Officially abandoned in 1970, this traditional service is conducted by a priest who faces away from the congregation and mumbles the prayers in Latin. With this decree, Benedict, like the Tridentine priest, has turned his back once again on the modern Church, to say nothing of the modern world. The apologetic Catholic in me is constantly trying to defend the Church’s relevance and basic goodness, in spite of official prejudices against women and homosexuals, and an ongoing history of sex scandals, cover-ups, and conspicuous wealth in the face of extreme poverty. With this latest turnaround of the modernizing spirit of Vatican II, it’s harder still to be apologetic. According to the Vatican, the pope’s statement was an effort to reconcile with traditionalist Roman Catholic groups who parted ways with the Church over the mid-century liturgical innovation of saying Mass in the common languages of believers. The new Mass had also eliminated a Good Friday prayer for the conversion of the Jews, one of several moves by the Vatican II Church to improve Catholic-Jewish relations. Jewish groups are already condemning the current pope’s decree, which restores the call for Jewish conversions. So much, it seems, for reconciliation. The old Latin prayer for conversion is as offensive now as when it was discarded more than thirty-five years ago. It comes as only partial consolation that the number of Catholics praying the Tridentine Mass is not expected to increase much in the wake of this decree. But, if the pope is actually committed to reconciling with those believers outside the mainstream, most of whom support increased interfaith dialogue, continued improvement in Catholic-Jewish relations could be a small yet important step in a process that could bring monumental changes for the Church, and its relationship to the world. That’s if the pope can be taken at his word. Pope Benedict should begin with something easy and reconcile with married priests. As it was for the Church’s first 1,200 years, married Catholic clergy—of which even today there are some 110,000 worldwide—should not be excluded from holding institutional positions in the hierarchy. The first pope, St. Peter, and the real founder of the Church, St. Paul, were both married men.
Further, the pope should reconcile with female priests, like those ordained through the organization Roman Catholic Womenpriests. They serve in the tradition of St. Pudentiana and St. Praxedis, ancient leaders of Roman Christian house churches, and Phoebe and Priscilla, whom St. Paul calls his colleagues, or fellow workers, in the early Church. And finally, in the tradition of moral innovation that makes Jesus so special to liberal Christians, and that separated him from the stodgier rabbis of his day, the pope should reconcile with gay and lesbian Catholics and open the Church to them completely. Those who remain part of the faith—and I cannot blame anyone for having left—are the renegade Christians of our day. Gay and lesbian believers, through their vitality and sense of community, are changing the way the rest of us believe. As we’re learning from the growing number of inclusive Christian, Jewish, and Muslim communities, to have faith in God is to recognize God wherever we see love. That insight was Jesus’ religious genius. The same insight will probably not be Pope Benedict XVI’s legacy. He’s much stodgier than Jesus was, answering, with his decree Saturday, to a small group of traditionalists who fear the moral innovations of Vatican II as much as its liturgical ones. Pope Benedict’s decision, however, did accomplish something most people aren’t sure the Catholic Church is capable of anymore: It changed it. And while it may take a more modern pope to recognize the true faithfulness of other Catholics who live, pray, and love outside the mainstream, by turning his back Benedict has ironically set a precedent for changes that, I pray, may one day reconcile us all.

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