You may recall that I recently posted in its entirety an article by John Zmirak on InsideCatholic.com answering the ritual complaints of “conservative” novus ordo-attending Catholics about traditional Mass-attending Catholics.
My former editor at the National Catholic Register, Tom Hoopes, has done me a courtesy rarely afforded tradition-minded Catholics: He has stooped to address my arguments, instead of airily dismissing them as the sad obsessions of half-wits, bag ladies, and yellow-eyed anti-Semites with dirty fingernails. Sure, he did so in a blog post which referred to the traditional Mass — the one said by almost every priest who has ever been canonized — as a “freak flag.” But as a true-blue Traddy, I will take what I can get. Give me a Mass at 6 a.m. at a chapel in a lunatic asylum . . . a muttered liturgy with a mandatory sign-in sheet at an abandoned Armenian parish . . . and I’ll show up, clutching a missal — despite the alarming (if not surprising) percentage of eccentrics. Come to think of it, those of us who accept Humanae Vitae are already a vanishingly tiny segment of practicing Catholics, so it seems a bit rich for one sliver of this infinitesimal subculture to throw donut holes across the bingo hall at the other. (Okay, I’ll toss a few: At least we Trads aren’t scarfing down lame Catholic knock-offs of already-pitiful Christian “rock,” or training our daughters to be altar servers for the next World Urban Youth Day . . . bless their hearts!)
What makes responding to Hoopes such fun — I’m almost moved to give up writing this article for Lent — is his resemblance to one of my favorite characters in the works of Evelyn Waugh, Sebastian Flyte’s brother Bridey. Like him, Hoopes is a fervent believer, who has worked hard and sacrificed much in the service of the Church, and he earnestly strives to explain and defend the Faith. Like Bridey’s, his arguments have a curious effect. As Charles Ryder says:
D’you know, Bridey. If ever I thought about becoming a Catholic, I’d only have to talk to you for five minutes to be cured. You manage to reduce what seem quite sensible propositions to stark nonsense.
To which Bridey responds, with admirable humility:
It’s odd you should say that. I’ve heard it before from other people. It’s one of the reasons why I don’t think I’d have made a good priest. It’s something in the way my mind works, I suppose.
The “Bridey Effect” is so evident in Hoopes’s response to my piece on the liturgy that I face an embarrassment of riches. And to avoid the rich embarrassment I fear might otherwise result, I will henceforth refer to the article’s author simply as “Bridey.”
Bridey begins by objecting to the suggestion that it was an imprudent act for Pope Paul VI to forbid the liturgy in its solemn, invariant, historic form and replace it with one open to dozens of options, subject to a decade of tinkering, at a time of deep theological uncertainty and radical social change. Did this radical, unsettling alteration in the form of the Church’s central mystery prepare the laity to accept the lies of dissenting Catholics who claimed that everything else — from faith to morals — was also up for grabs? Was it indeed like a new president coming into office and changing our country’s flag?
Bridey doesn’t answer, but instead takes refuge in a theological evasion: “The Church doesn’t have or need a flag, because it isn’t a nation. Its members are tied to each other by bonds far deeper than political ones.” Very nice, and very high-minded. The Church is indeed, in one sense, the Mystical Body of Christ. And in that sense, a Renaissance cardinal could have whispered to his mistress across the pillow that the Church of his day was not in any sense “corrupt.” Indeed, the Bride of Christ is indefectible. So why even talk about it? Why have a newspaper devoted to reporting on the changeless, eternal union of Christ and His Church? My old colleagues at the Register can pack up their laptops and go home.
What if, however, by “Church” we are referring to the changeable, human side of the Church Militant on earth — you know, the aspect of the Church that indeed has human leaders and members, news, controversies, flaws, reforms, and renewals? It is that Church that had an abuse crisis culminating in the 1990s, and a liturgy crisis beginning in the 1970s. If we’re permitted to talk about the former, we must also address the latter. In that sense, the Church has an earthly governance, a legal code, an administrative structure, and more than one billion imperfect adherents. Thanks to the fall of the Chinese empire in 1912, it is the oldest continuous human institution on earth. Such an organization, which commands human loyalties and can lose them, might indeed need something like a flag. It’s not for nothing that Catholics during the Counter-Reformation marched (heavily armed, to prevent sacrilegious attacks) in Corpus Christi processions through hostile Calvinist towns. The Eucharist itself was those brave Catholics’ banner, and I for one am not ashamed of them. Is Bridey?
My original article implied — no, it stated outright, and let me here reaffirm it — that the chaos in Catholic bedrooms began on Catholic altars. The noodling, tinkering, profanation and vulgarization that afflicted the Catholic sanctuaries gave busy, weary, worldly Catholics (i.e., most of us) apparent permission to follow the lead of pastors and theologians who were tinkering and noodling with Catholic sexual morality. Humanae Vitae was treated as a dead letter when it was issued, as was Sacrosanctum Concilium, and then the norms that (once upon a time) forbade Communion in the hand and altar girls. Documents trickled in from Rome from time to time on sexual morality and liturgical abuses, and they were duly ignored by the very bishops Rome had appointed. What exactly were ordinary Catholics, the kind who don’t read curial admonitions over breakfast, meant to think? If that’s good governance, I’d hate to witness anarchy.
Of course, much of this confusion — which has dragged on for a generation — could be resolved by a “reform of the reform,” such as many suggest Pope Benedict XVI has in mind. Were the Novus Ordo pared back to something resembling the intentions of the Second Vatican Council — facing the altar, minus all the ambiguous Eucharistic Prayers (that is, all but the First), with congregants kneeling for Communion on the tongue received from a priest — most Traditionalists would shut up. No, we’d sing for joy. Most of us appreciate hearing the readings in the vernacular, and few would travel for miles and hours to find a Mass for the sake of the old Confiteor.
The next point Bridey makes is one intended to make the delicate reader squirm. He compares the reception of Holy Communion to the intimate marital act, and suggests there is something prurient in paying undue attention to the externals attending either sexuality or Mass. Here again, it is hard to know where to begin. I might start by noting that the sexual act is private and properly confined to the participation of two. The Mass is inherently public and communal, even when said by a solitary priest in a prison camp. It is the summit and locus of unity in the Church. To lump these mysteries together and ask that marital dignity and privacy be accorded, say, the public masses said by an archbishop . . . for once in my life, I am almost speechless. I’ll leave my response to one of Bridey’s more acerbic commenters, who rightly replied:
[I]f that’s the analogy you REALLY want to use, current celebration of the Liturgy has become less like one of the parties insist[ing] on the same candles and Journey tape all the time, and more like one of the parties . . . insisting on constant novelty, obsessing on what she can do to make it “different” this time; as if it were . . . oh, I don’t know, the French maid’s outfit that made it all “meaningful.”
Bridey says that the Eucharist, like sexual intercourse, is an “expression of a relationship of which it is a very small (but very important) part.” Concerning the Eucharist, this statement is so wide of the mark I’m tempted to say, “It is not even wrong.” Does the author really regard sexuality and all the ripples it spreads across the surface of life as a drop in the bucket? Is he saying, with so many randy bachelors over the centuries, “It’s just sex, sweetie”? Surely not. That’s just the “Bridey effect.”
The sexual act and the commitments (such as children) that follow from it are the only decisive difference between a marriage and a friendship. The first thing we singles wonder when we see two members of the opposite sex together is: Are they “together”? Are these people married, engaged, exclusively dating, or are they just “pals”? In answer to this honorable question, married people wear rings, women change their names, and healthy laws still distinguish marriage from “domestic partnerships.” We do all sorts of very public things that declare which person we’re married to, and mark that relationship off from every other.
Indeed, in almost every culture, the two sexes engage in a wide variety of activities designed to reinforce and celebrate the distinctions between male and female — almost as if the most primitive men and women knew that the difference between them was profound and meaningful. In Jewish and Christian theology, as theologian Manfred Hauke demonstrated, the male represents transcendence and the female immanence; God is the Father or the Bridegroom, and humanity is the Bride. Desacralizing the liturgy, confusing the roles of priest and laity, is as confusing and misleading as pretending there is no difference between the sexes. But then we’re doing that too, nowadays.
An article I penned eight years ago on Paul VI’s collaborator in crafting the Novus Ordo, Archbishop Rembert Weakland, explains the implications here:
The priest acts in the person of Christ. Christ acts as high priest, and offers himself as victim to God the Father, in expiation for the sins of man. In the person of the priest, Christ weds himself to the congregation, which stands for the Church, Christ’s mystical Bride. Just as the priest’s sacrificial role in the New Testament theology is a direct outgrowth — down to many of the rituals and prayers used — of the High Priest’s Temple ritual in Judaism, so this matrimonial theology grows directly out of the Old Testament understanding of the Jewish people as wedded to Yahweh. (See the Song of Songs and Hosea for lovely, poetic meditations on this theme in the Hebrew Bible.) . . .
This marriage between the priest and the congregation, between Christ and the Church, is at the very heart of Catholic theology. It connects to the sacredness of the sexual act, and expresses the very reason why (as we believe) God became a man — in order to unite the mass of fallen, weak humanity to himself, in a mystical sacrament of love. In pagan religions and ancient Judaism, the role of a priest — one who offers sacrifice — was distinctly and utterly masculine. This is true in all the traditional liturgies of the Church, East and West, along with the papal mass in Rome, which dramatically depict Christ’s manhood along with his transcendent Godhood, in the imperfect but sanctified masculine person of the priest. A woman playing at priest is just as absurd as Nathan Lane playing a nun. It’s a drag act, proper to Saturday Night, but not to Sunday morning.
In a reverent liturgy, we engage in all sorts of symbolic behavior to distinguish the sacred elements from the profane, the unconsecrated bread from the Body of Christ, and the priest from the laity. Liturgies that cloud such distinctions are inherently confusing, as in some sense they were meant to be. As Michael Davies noted long-ago, the Anglican and Lutheran-inspired changes in the Novus Ordo Missae in the original Latin were intended by the committee that crafted them to fudge the differences among the churches — in the hope that an ecumenical liturgy would promote Christian unity. Later, secularizing abuses such as Communion in the hand were promoted precisely in order to cloud the exact Catholic theology about the Mass as a sacrifice performed by a priest in the Person of Christ, in favor of a nebulous, liberal Protestant spirituality of communal commemoration — one that could lead to the ordination of women. The Holy Spirit has prevented any changes that invalidated the Mass. That is all we were promised.
It is one thing to call for the proper celebration of the Novus Ordo, minus destructive options (ambiguous Eucharistic prayers, handing out Communion like a movie ticket, Mass said facing the people — something Benedict has regretted). Do that, and you settle the question. In that idealized vision of the Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite — such as I’ve seen good priests celebrate maybe five times in my life — there are no theological or catechetical problems. Impose that liturgy throughout the Church, and every objection raised by Traditionalists fades into pedantry — though some of us will really miss those extra Kyries . . .
It is quite another thing to defend the Ordinary Form as ordinarily celebrated, in some 99.9 percent of parishes outside Vatican City, then scoff at those who object to its banality, vulgarity, and casual sacrilege as aesthetes or Pharisees. Bridey’s position reminds me of a wedding I heard about among some distant acquaintances. For reasons that remain opaque to me, the groom decided to take his bride’s last name, and have her female friend serve as his “best man.” My charitable response was: “Which one of them wore the white dress?”
Imagine for a moment that the groom was indeed the one in the puffy gown, the bride in a tuxedo. Picture that whole wedding party done up in drag, with the bridesmaids wearing taped-on Freddie Mercury moustaches, the ushers in high heels and stockings. With his consistent disregard of “externals,” I’d expect Bridey to answer that this marriage was sacramentally valid. As indeed it was. So is the Ordinary Form as ordinarily celebrated. That’s pretty much all we can say for it.
John Zmirak is the author, most recently, of the graphic novel The Grand Inquisitor and is Writer-in-Residence at Thomas More College in New Hampshire. He writes weekly for InsideCatholic.com.