Sunday, June 03, 2007

The Freedom to Love Our Heritage

As the Motu Proprio freeing the classical Roman Rite approaches, I'm gaining a greater personal clarity about what it could mean and what its restriction has done to the culture of the Catholic Church. It opens up our history as Catholics in a way that has been sadly and unnecessarily shut off from us for nearly forty years. We are going to be free to learn from the past in ways that we oddly haven't been permitted to do.

Now, it's true there was no decree from the Church that said: "all Catholics are hereby prohibited from harboring affections for all preconciliar liturgical expression." But I fear that this has been the effect of the restriction of the traditional rite. And this impulse spread from liturgy to doctrine to morality to the every day practice of the faith. Whatever else we have known to be true about our faith, there has long been some sense in the air that we are encouraged to look down on everything that preceded the new era.

By way of analogy: A priest once told me that he honors the Catholic Catechism because before it came out, he felt as if he had no support in trying to convince Catholics that we truly believe what we have always believed. Pre-Catechism, he reports, laypeople were under the impression that whatever Catholicism taught, it did not teach what had taught in the past. "Do we really still believe all that?" was the constant refrain that he would hear. The Catechism corrected this problem by reasserting what was true.

In some way, the same problem confronts us in liturgy. You ask for chant, and people say, oh we left that behind after Vatican II. You seek solemnity and a prayerful setting, and people respond that this approach to worship is long gone. You wonder why you can't kneel to receive communion and you are upbraided that we've moved beyond all that Dark Ages stuff. You cite any document before the new epiphany and the automatic assumption is that this is surely a dead letter.

Experienced Catholics know all about this. Let's say you are attending a talk on confession, liturgy, music, morality, doctrine, or whatever. It could be in your parish RCIA program or prayer group or at a mainstream national convention. Apart from a few outposts, it is almost a sure bet that at some point the speaker is going to make some effort to refer to life before Vatican II in ways that encourage a sort of disdain. It might be about mean nuns from the past, or how the priests used to "turn his back to the congregation" or about how dreadfully scary confession used to be or about how in the bad old days Catholics were encouraged to believe no one but them would go to Heaven.

It doesn't matter if it was true or not, or whether a grain of truth had been blown out of proportion perhaps. And in bitter irony, it doesn't matter at all what the true intentions of the Vatican Council were. The approved response to such comments from the podium has always been to smile a knowing smile or laugh lightly through your nose or show some other way of indicating that we all know how fabulous and enlightened we are these days as compared with the glowering dullards who ran things for the last thousand years or so. We've all lived in an atmosphere that encouraged us to imagine that the one true Church was founded in 1970.

I should add that no one knows about this more than anyone in seminary from 1965-70 and forward. So many of these priests today who have developed an attachment to strong Catholic tradition consider themselves to have been self educated, since the atmosphere in the classroom partook of the attitude described above: whatever else they know, they know that the past was not as good as the present so there really isn't much reason to look at it very deeply.

If you think about it, this is the most incredibly unCatholic attitude one can possibly imagine. To be cut off from our history? Unthinkable and preposterous. And yet that is precisely what came about, with the most conspicuous sign being the continued prohibition on public presentations of the Mass as Catholics had known it for the previous millennium or so.

Was all this deliberate? Were there some dark forces at work? The answer to that question is surely complicated. I know many traditionalists who are glad to think it is purely a matter of malicious intent. And yet I've seen enough evidence that there was enough intellectual error at work to doubt that this explanation is sufficient.

Even in the casing of the old-rite ban, it was astonishing and awful but there was a rationale, however flawed. There must have been some sense alive in 1970 that the new Mass was a serious leap into a new epoch, and there were deep fears alive that it might not work absent a kind of coercion. This is a human failing to turn to the use of force when one fears that persuasion alone is not going to get the job done.

Indeed, this impulse is not foreign to the history of our faith. One only needs to look at the Inquisition or actions of the Conquistadors. On the other side, look at the courage shown by de Las Casas in opposing them, and eventually leading to the development of the full embrace of religious freedom, which is a shining moment in the history of the Church (that happened to be fully ratified at Vatican II). On Las Casas, Benedict has written: "Alongside the suffering conscience he represents the prophetic conscience which shakes the power of the powerful, which raises the rights of those deprived of their rights, places himself calmly between the thrones and does not cease to disturb the rest of those whose power is at the expense of the rights of others."

In the same way, the use of force in liturgical matters has not worked, and it has had the unintended consequence of encouraging heterodoxy, schism, and the deracination several generations of Catholics. It has led not to peace, enlightenment, and tolerance but to division, ignorance, and arrogance. The sense has been growing for many years that this was a terrible error, and Pope Benedict XVI — who is a passionate believer in liberality, rightly understood, and the "prophetic conscience" of our age — will surely be honored in the annals of Catholic history for having had the courage to do undo this mistake.

We are being told not to expect hordes of Catholics to start attending the Tridentine Rite. Ok, granted. But to see that as the test of the Motu Proprio reflects a superficial understanding of its intent. What the Motu Proprio gives us is the freedom to love and learn from our heritage, openly and without fear.

From this, we can expect glorious things to unfold over time, the fruit that comes with a renewed affection for our history, and the blessings that come from feeling part of something much larger than ourselves, and the wisdom and beauty that will unfold from turning to the accumulated experience of the centuries as creating a pathway forward.

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