Sunday, May 16, 2010

The New Missal: Disaster or Opportunity? [Updated]

Fr. Rob Johansen has a very interesting article up on wherein he examines the question of the debate which has surrounded the new English translation of the Roman Missal. An excerpt:

So what explains the difference between my experience and the predictions of "pastoral disaster" offered by Bishop Trautman and others? Why did 9 out of 10 Catholics that I surveyed say they would find it "easy" to adapt to the new texts, whereas one commenter at "What If We Just Said Wait" dismissed the new texts as "not helpful at all to our prayer life as a community"? Not one of the participants in my survey had reactions remotely similar to those who wrote that the new text represented "regression and retrenchment," or that the prospect of celebrating Mass with the text they had reviewed left them "enraged and terrified." There is not only a difference in the kind of reaction, but a difference in its toneand emotional intensity. Clearly, more is going on here than meets the eye.

I have observed that "something more" before, writing and speaking about what I describe as "ideologized" liturgy -- that is, liturgy being made to bear ideological burdens that are extrinsic and, in many cases, inimical to it. The highly charged language of many of those objecting to the new Missal is frequently ideological: When I see words like "archaic" and "tyrannical," and phrases like "a great step forward" or "a major step backward," being used in complaints about the Missal, I suspect that the train of thought is carrying heavy ideological freight.

I use "ideology" here in the circumscribed manner of political theorists like Michael Oakeshott and Russell Kirk: to refer to the political fanaticism that results from elevating an abstraction to an absolute, all-explaining and all-encompassing concept, and making everything, including persons, subordinate to that concept. It is to take political concepts and impulses and make them serve ends that are properly religious.

One of those ideologies most prevalent in American society today, even among Catholics, is egalitarianism: the belief in a radical equality that seeks to level all differences and distinctions between persons. It is true that we are all equal in the eyes of God, but there are distinctions between the members of the Body of Christ. The Church, then, is hierarchical in its very nature, and its liturgy reflects that.

The ecclesiastical egalitarian seeks to demolish those hierarchical elements of the Church's life, wanting instead to subsume all under the abstraction of Equality. This outlook informs comments like those of one priest at "What If We Just Wait?" who asked, "Why have we wasted all this time and money and energy on 'egotistical' improvements?" Another commenter sees the new Missal as evidence of "elitism," saying "Liturgy is the work of the people rather than just liturgical elites." In an egalitarian worldview, any exercise of hierarchical authority is condemned as elitism or oppression.

Another strain of objection to the new Missal is what I have sometimes called the ideology of "progress," one based in the Enlightenment concept of humanity's development and advancement from darkness to light. This ideology rejects the past as de facto inferior to the present, believing that we necessarily know more and understand better than our forebears. Pope Benedict XVI called this mindset a "hermeneutic of discontinuity," which has as its starting point the assumption that Vatican II marked a point of division between the pre- and post-conciliar Church. Adherents to this ideology reject expressions of piety and liturgical forms from before the Council, seeing them as "regressive" or "unable to speak to our times."

Adherents to an ideology of progress use language like "up-to-date" or forward-looking" to show approval, and "antiquated" or "backwards" to illustrate disapproval. Examples of this ideological frame of mind abound in the objections to the new Missal: "Please do not ask us to move back in time!" "Yet another retrograde maneuver by the conservative hierarchy." "Many of us are not going to go backwards."

The article is excellent and worth a read. It may be read in its entirety here: The New Missal: Disaster or Opportunity?

The only possible difference I would make note of is with regard to the matter of a more antiquated or hieratic English -- the "thee's and thou's" so to speak. Father Johansen notes that "...the new Missal translation does not return to something past. A reading of the texts does not reveal precious or antiquated language; there are no thee's and thou's..." Etc.

I say "possible difference" because it is not clear if Father Johansen is himself arguing contrary to this sort of liturgical usage (a position which he would certainly be free to argue of course), or if he is simply making note to those who do raise such objections, that they may not be made about this particular translation since they are not found within it -- other than perhaps the Our Father. The latter would thus make such an objection moot of course, though I'd not like to see the point ceded.

From my own perspective (I have written about this here and here), the particularly sacral and religious connotation which such a form of English has taken on by way of its use in scriptural translations, prayers like the Rosary or Our Father, pew missal translations, not to mention elsewhere, means it is not foreign to us and also that it can be particularly appropriate for liturgical use -- and without danger of being retrograde or precious; indeed, with regard to the Rosary or Our Father, I suspect we are barely aware of it insofar that it seems both natural and appropriate to pray in this way. I also believe that a historical consideration of liturgical Latin (as compared to 'vernacular' Latin) can also be used to support this thought, not to mention Old Church Slavonic in parts of the Christian East. Surely, too, the Book of Divine Worship, and soon the forthcoming liturgical expression of the Anglican Ordinariate, can help show forth the beauty and liturgical propriety of such forms of liturgical English.

But that friendly caveat aside, please do go over and read Father's excellent article at


Fr. Johansen has confirmed what I wondered: that he himself is not arguing contrary to the "thee's and thou's," but is instead simply pointing to the fact that one cannot raise such objections against this particular translation since they do not involve that form of hieratic English.

Thank you for the clarification Fr. Johansen.

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