Monday, May 15, 2017

“Optioned Out of Existence”: On the Loss of Legitimate Traditional Practices in the Ordinary Form

I was once talking with a priest about the strange phenomenon of options in the new rite of Mass and the other sacraments. He made the observation that whenever there are multiple options, one of which is traditional and the others more recent inventions, there seems to be a subtle pressure to choose the more recent inventions, with the consequence that, as he put it, the traditional practice is “optioned out of existence.”

Now we know that this happens a great deal when it comes to anything that’s longer or more complex, or requires a special effort. For example, if the lectionary provides optional readings for a particular saint or category of saint, chances are they’ll be skipped, just because it’s so much easier to march through the daily cycle page by page rather than being bothered to look up the optional reading. An example of length would be the Confiteor: it takes a little longer to pray the Confiteor and the Kyrie than to use the pseudo-troped Kyrie. And so the Confiteor often falls by the wayside.

A dangerous tendency is at work here. Although theoretically many options are put at the celebrant’s disposal, in reality there is a certain pressure against choosing the traditional option precisely because it is traditional and a certain pressure in favor of choosing the modern option because it’s modern, because it can be done, because perhaps it’s more politically correct, or it’s more feminist, or whatever it might be. One is reminded here of the arrogant vanity of modern applied science, which seems to function by the technobarbaric principle of “If we can do, we should do it.” No matter the larger questions of right or wrong, the nuclear bombs must be built, the organs must be harvested, the test tube babies produced, the embryos frozen, the animals cloned, or whatever it might be.

An excellent example would be how the missal says that the priest can say “Pray, brethren.” Nobody ever says “Pray, brethren”; they always say “Pray, brothers and sisters” (or sometimes “Pray, sisters and brothers,” although that’s not an option given in the missal).

The same problem crops up everywhere. Take, for example, the ritual of the washing of the feet on Holy Thursday. For decades, clergy throughout the world were simply violating the rubrics that said if feet were to be washed, they had to be those of viri or men. Although a number was not specified, often twelve men were chosen to represent the twelve Apostles. This simultaneously symbolized two things: the universal commandment of charity, and — more specifically tied to Holy Thursday and the commemoration of the Last Supper — the institution of the priesthood in the first Apostles and the institution of the Most Holy Eucharist, which only priests can confect. So if you have twelve men, you successfully capture both sides of the symbolism. The twelve Apostles, as the foundation stones of the Church, represent all of us, so the universal commandment of charity is there. On the other hand, if you have a mixed group of men and women, it cancels out the symbolism of the institution of the priesthood and of the Eucharist, and emphasizes only the commandment of charity. Therefore, these two different approaches are not equivalent to each other. One of them is more comprehensive while the other is more narrow, and (arguably) politically motivated.

Even after Pope Francis’s change to the rubrics so that women are permitted, it is of course still allowable to wash the feet of twelve men, or some number of men; that’s perfectly allowable. The use of exclusively viri has not been forbidden. But there’s an attitude among many clergy that this option is a theoretical option only. We have to include women, now that Pope Francis does it, now that so many places do it: “If we can have women, we should have women.” If we don’t include women, we’re being prejudiced towards them, discriminatory, chauvinistic. In this way, an option that really remains — having only men’s feet washed — is optioned out of existence.

The footwashing debacle illustrates a more general principle of action I’ve encountered in certain priests, namely, that traditional options are nowhere to be chosen: they are never appropriately chosen anywhere. This, after all, is the modern Church, we’re in the contemporary world, and we need to do what’s relevant, what’s up-to-date, what’s in fashion. Consequently, the traditional options, though they exist on paper, have to stay on paper.

To take another example, we know that it’s possible to sing the entire Mass in Gregorian chant, and that this is the clearly-stated preference of the Second Vatican Council; but a chanted Mass was one of the first casualties of allowing options for music. Most places don’t use the Entrance, Offertory, or Communion antiphons. The music ministers simply substitute other, more or less appropriate (usually less appropriate) hymns for those Propers, which are actually part of the structure of the Mass in a way that hymns never have been and never will be. Miscellaneous vernacular hymns are not printed in the official liturgical books; they’re not printed in the missal; they’re not part of the liturgy; they’re just optional add-ons. But the optional add-ons have become the norm, almost as if they’re required, and the traditional options, which are a part of the structure of the liturgy and its history, are optioned out of existence.

Similarly, we all know that ad orientem is a valid option for the celebration of the Novus Ordo. But once again, the huge pressure of versus populum celebration — the psychological insecurity of the clergy who have to be, so to speak, validated by their relationship with the congregation, and also the egocentricity of the congregation expecting to be coddled and catered to — these forces make a return to ad orientem extremely difficult, even though we know that it’s a perfectly legitimate option on paper. Such examples could be multiplied.

What we see in the world of the reformed liturgy, in short, is a continual drift towards a more and more meaningless, vestigial, paper-thin permission for traditional practices — as if the traditional practices were a rare and dangerous species of delicate flower that’s being pressured out of its ecosystem by an aggressive, invasive species of noxious weeds or foreign frogs.

As a name for the phenomenon, I suggest “the imperialism of novelty,” a kind of unseeing, undiscerning, indiscriminate favoritism or advancement of all that is new and recent and shiny, the latest model rolling off the production line. Tradition has no voice with which to defend itself; it has no armies, no force. It compels solely by its inner rationale, its beauty, its value as something passed down to us. But because modern people don’t care about what has been passed down to us, tradition’s voice is muted; the moral force that it should have is tempered, if not suppressed altogether. Modernity is fundamentally anti-traditional: recall Thomas Jefferson talking about how the enlightened governments of his day will at last throw off medieval priestcraft and monkery and superstition as we embark on a new Age of Reason, Novus Ordo Seclorum. The only positions that have any clout are those that are espoused by people today — not surprisingly, because the people today who espouse them are alive, with muscles and vocal chords, and they will do what they want to do because they are in charge and they’re alive right now.

This having been the case and still being the case in so many places, I am struck by how often I encounter in younger generations a re-thinking of all of this. Not having the baggage of the Second Vatican Council, these generations can look at this phenomenon of the imperialism of novelty and see it for the empty do-it-yourself religion that it is. They can see that it’s a form of chronological snobbery, an egocentricity of the age. They can see that modern Christian people and leaders are, in essence, slapping each other on the back and saying: “Isn’t it great to be modern, isn’t it great to be up-to-date, isn’t it great to be politically correct and democratic and sensitive?,” and so on. It all rings hollow; as Ratzinger says, when the community celebrates itself, the liturgy becomes an exercise in boredom and futility.

Contemporary Catholics have painted themselves into a corner by insisting that everything be “new” or “renewed,” as if this adjective, all by itself, were the token and guarantee of the rightness of an enterprise. This places a subtle pressure on everyone to innovate, to change, to be different — to privilege motion over stability, acting over suffering, doing over being. But Christ dies once for all; He is the only priest who offers sacrifice; He gives us the true religion whose dogmas never change, however much the theological understanding of them grows through the ages. “Do not let yourselves be deceived: Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.” The Christian religion is inherently new, permanently new, yet in essence unchanging and everlasting. That is why it is capable of never growing old.

Tradition, rightly understood, shares in this perpetual youthfulness; it is not something of the past, much less an object of nostalgia, but a vital energy in the Church that carries us forward, uniting us with the entire Church outside of our age. Indeed, Jews and Christians in the past viewed our “predecessors” as those who have run ahead of us to eternity, and therefore as the ones we are following behind. This, of course, is the very opposite of how we tend to think about time and history and culture: we think that we are ahead and our ancestors are behind; they are behind the times and we are on the cutting edge. But this makes no sense, because our ancestors (antecessores) went before us: they have already lived their lives, they know the mysteries of life and death, and we are dependent on them, we are their pupils, their followers.

Young people, if they still have faith and still wish to use their reason, are becoming more and more aware of the inherent value, one might say the silent but immensely powerful value, of tradition. They are becoming its spokesmen; they are taking up the cause, giving it voice and muscle. They are asking, in some cases demanding, that traditional options be exercised — that traditional practices be rescued from oblivion and be allowed a genuine foothold in the Catholic world, in the Catholic consciousness.

The very least we can ask is that the traditional options not be optioned out of existence. May all Catholics come to see, sooner or later, that the very best option is to return to a liturgy with no options, a liturgy not of modular components associable in countless inculturated permutations but a single sacred tunic woven from top to bottom by our Holy Mother, ready to give us warmth and beauty if we will but take it up and wear it again.

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