Benedict XVI and the Great Liberation

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I cannot believe I have lived to see this. Pope Benedict XVI has just announced that effective September 14, any priest in the Roman Rite may offer Mass according to the Missal of 1962 (the most recent edition of the Church’s traditional rite) or the Missal of Paul VI (1970) in wide use today.

To non-Catholics I am sure it sounds all rather technical, but I assure you that with the publication of the Pope’s motu proprio Summorum Pontificum an event of staggering importance has just taken place in the Catholic Church. Although I’m in the midst of publicity work for 33 Questions About American History You’re Not Supposed to Ask, which was released just yesterday, I am delighted to set that aside in order to write what follows.

To make a long story short, in 1969—70 a new liturgy was introduced in the Roman Rite of the Catholic Church. Far from the minor changes that most bishops had thought they were approving at the Second Vatican Council, the Missal of Pope Paul VI was a sweeping and radical overhaul of the traditional Mass, which was in turn suppressed de facto (though not abolished de jure, as Benedict explains in the motu proprio). Nothing like it had ever been seen in the history of Catholic liturgy, as the man who later became Benedict XVI repeatedly protested.

Even before the new liturgy was fully introduced, the initial changes were enough to make novelist Evelyn Waugh refer to Mass-going as "a bitter trial." Father C. John McCloskey estimates that hundreds of thousands — I think even more — left the Church in the wake (and as a direct result) of the liturgical reform and its consequences.

Accompanying the new missal were profanations of various kinds. The Church’s extraordinary musical patrimony was abruptly discarded and replaced by a string of forgettable banalities. Church architecture suddenly became weirdly humanistic, with theater-in-the-round seating, denuded sanctuaries, the elimination of altar rails, and the like. Sanctuaries were literally bulldozed so the priest could "face the people" across the altar — despite ancient practice to the contrary, researchers discovered after it was too late.

Whether any of this had any necessary connection to the new missal or was merely an unfortunate byproduct is a contentious issue that cannot be sorted out here. The fact is that this frenzy of "de-sacralization" — to use Benedict’s term for it — compounded the disorientation that the new missal in and of itself would have produced.

When it seemed as if the old liturgy would never be heard from again, a group of European intellectuals, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, sent a petition to Pope Paul VI urging him not to suppress this venerable rite. The signatories, who included Agatha Christie, Graham Greene (no conservative he), and Malcolm Muggeridge, urged the Pontiff to reconsider. If the Vatican were suddenly to order the demolition of all of Europe’s great cathedrals, they said, it would be the intellectuals who would have to stand up and resist. But those great cathedrals had been built for the celebration of this beautiful rite that was itself in danger of suppression.

"The signatories of this appeal," the petition concluded, "which is entirely ecumenical and nonpolitical, have been drawn from every branch of modern culture in Europe and elsewhere. They wish to call to the attention of the Holy See the appalling responsibility it would incur in the history of the human spirit were it to refuse to allow the traditional Mass to survive, even though this survival took place side by side with other liturgical forms."

This, among other reasons, is why people have been driving hours at a time, or even relocating across the country, in order to attend one of the few traditional Masses that Pope John Paul II’s 1988 indult once again made available. Now, at long last, their sacrifices have borne fruit.

So no matter how many news reports misleadingly portray the issue as pitting those who favor "Mass in Latin" over those who prefer "Mass in English," the issue is not merely one of language. The Missal of Paul VI can just as easily be offered in Latin. It is a question of two different ways of saying Mass.

Although we have come to expect the mainstream media to get major stories wrong, the stories about the motu proprio and its aftermath are in a class of their own. Three-quarters of every article is devoted to interviewing the various strains of emotional hypochondriac who think the world is ending because people can worship the way they want.

If we had a media with the tiniest shred of intellectual honesty, or even just some normal human curiosity, we might have heard these naysayers asked questions like, "Why are we supposed to feel sorry for you, when these people are asking only that their favored liturgy be tolerated? Are you happy only when other people have their spiritual aspirations denied?" Instead, our liturgical vandals have been allowed to portray themselves as the victims here. We are the victims, we Catholics who lived through the series of experiments that people like this have been putting us through since the 1960s.

The fact is, Roman Rite Catholics all over the world could be found rejoicing after the release of these documents (the motu proprio itself and the explanatory letter to bishops that accompanied it). People actually held motu proprio parties at their homes, as indeed did we. (Photos follow.) Parishioners at church after church sang the Te Deum.

Jeff Tucker (r.) and the author, looking at the motu proprio, shun all theatricality in this totally spontaneous photograph.

Not a word about any of this in a single mainstream report. Not one word. Instead, Catholics are said to be walking around moping that reverence and dignity might come back to their churches.

Now part of me sympathizes with those who say we should be magnanimous in victory, and not seek to score points against those with whom we have been at odds on liturgical issues in the past. Indeed most of me takes this eirenic view.

But I am convinced that this cannot be right. There is an essential lesson in what has just transpired, a lesson that must be properly absorbed even if it means ruffling a few feathers for one last time. The liturgical warfare of the past four decades has caused too much anguish for us simply to walk away in triumph and learn nothing from it.

For several decades, not only the Catholic left but also the "orthodox" Catholic right condemned supporters of the 1962 Missal as disobedient, wicked, schismatic — you name it — because they believed that what was beautiful and venerable yesterday could not cease to be beautiful and venerable today. They likewise found it hard to believe that they were considered a little bit crazy, perhaps even in need of counseling, because they longed for the traditional Mass, the very thing they had been taught their whole lives to venerate. They rightly refused to believe that being Catholic meant living in a scenario straight out of Orwell or Kafka.

Speaking of Orwell, the chaplain at a Catholic university I spoke at not long ago scolded a group of students who asked for the traditional Latin Mass on campus. The new Mass, he insisted, "is the traditional Mass." Since authority had decreed it, a brand new rite became ipso facto traditional. It is this kind of nonsense that Cardinal Ratzinger never accepted, and that as Pope Benedict he has buried once and for all.

There is no need to mention names — that would be uncharitable at a time like this, and in any event they (and we) know who they are.

Motu proprio party at the Woods home.

The point is this: if it is right and good to honor the 1962 Missal now — as our critics, having been gently rebuked by the Pope, now concede — then it was right to do so 30 years ago as well, and it was wrong to scold people for it. And we love it now not because the Church’s highest authority has said it is to be loved (much as we genuinely appreciate that important statement) but because it is venerable in and of itself.

Catholicism becomes a contemptible caricature of itself when people are suddenly considered deranged for honoring in the evening the very things they had been told to honor that afternoon. The current pope, while still Cardinal Ratzinger, once observed that "the old rite should be granted much more generously to all those who desire it. It’s impossible to see what could be dangerous or unacceptable about that. A community is calling its very being into question when it suddenly declares that what until now was its holiest and highest possession is strictly forbidden and when it makes the longing for it seem downright indecent."

In 2001 Ratzinger told a liturgical conference at the Benedictine abbey of Fomtgonbault that "a venerable rite such as the Roman rite in use up to 1969 is a rite of the Church, it belongs to the Church, is one of the treasures of the Church, and ought therefore to be preserved in the Church." And "what was up until 1969 the Liturgy of the Church, for all of us the most holy thing there was, can not become after 1969…the most unacceptable thing."

Both themes come through in the letter to bishops that accompanied the motu proprio: "What earlier generations held as sacred, remains sacred and great for us too, and cannot be all of a sudden entirely forbidden or even considered harmful. It behooves all of us to preserve the riches which have developed in the Church’s faith and prayer, and to give them their proper place."

There is nothing sinister about what the Pope has done, ignorant news reports to the contrary notwithstanding. His liberation of the Church’s traditional liturgy is a matter of justice and simple common sense.

Many of us have accepted, with grim resignation, that over time the world is simply destined to get worse and worse: uglier, more vulgar, more perverse. And yet, in the midst of it all, we get an extraordinary development like this. A major aspect of life in the West, and around the world for that matter, is suddenly about to improve dramatically. It is truly astonishing.

Normally I’d have been a little upset when something broke at my house the other day. Instead, I said to myself, "Oh, well, we still have the motu proprio."

On few occasions in my life have I been so utterly overjoyed. Justice has truly prevailed. A great wound has been dressed by the Church’s chief physician.

Thomas E. Woods, Jr. [view his website; send him mail] is senior fellow in American history at the Ludwig von Mises Institute and the author, most recently, of 33 Questions About American History You’re Not Supposed to Ask. His other books include How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization (get a free chapter here), The Church and the Market: A Catholic Defense of the Free Economy (first-place winner in the 2006 Templeton Enterprise Awards), and the New York Times bestseller The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History.

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