Wednesday, February 08, 2023

The Errors of Fr. Fortescue’s “The Mass: A Study of the Roman Liturgy” (Part 1)

Our readers are, I trust, familiar with the English Catholic priest and scholar Fr Adrian Fortescue (1874-1923). The republication of his “Ceremonies of the Roman Rite”, edited for modern use by Dom Alcuin Reid, is one of the many good signs of the burgeoning interest in the traditional Roman Rite, and has served us very well over these last many years. This is more than a little ironic, since Fr Fortescue hated the book, which he wrote because he needed money, and of which he once said that he would rather dig ditches for a living than undertake a revision of it.
Fr Adrian Fortescue in 1924. Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.
Lately, however, one of his other books, “The Mass: A Study of the Roman Liturgy”, is becoming prominent again, not for a good reason, and in service to some rather bad theology. I have seen, and others have pointed out to me, articles and talks in which people have cited it as “proof” for some of the erroneous historical ideas that underlie the post-Conciliar reform. My purpose here, therefore, is to clarify some of the larger mistakes that mar the book and others like it. [1]

Let me say first of all that no one should be surprised at this, and no one has cause to feel or feign indignation that an upstart such as myself should impugn the work of a scholar such as him. The book is over a hundred years old. It would be bizarre if nothing about it stood in need of correction, and the history of the liturgy is NOT somehow the one field of scholarship in which no progress has been made for over a century. No one today would credibly cite a commentary on the Bible published in 1912 as if it were the final word on the subject, and nothing of importance had been learned about the Scriptures since then. There is no reason to do so in the field of liturgical scholarship, or any other field related to theology.
And here is a story from the field of Biblical studies which illustrates the problem very nicely. Since 1780, Oxford University has held a lecture series on Christian theology, named for the man who endowed it, a canon of Salisbury cathedral called John Bampton. In the later 19th century, one of the questions that greatly interested Biblical scholars was that of the authorship of the Fourth Gospel, and the Bampton lectures of 1890 were devoted in part to refuting the theory of a German (of course) named Ludwig Noack, who attributed it to Judas Iscariot. We can easily smile at the absurdity of such a thing, we are right to do so. But we should also note that at the time, it was taken seriously enough to be addressed in one of the most prestigious lectures offered by one of the most important universities in Europe.
Frontispiece of the first edition; a second was issued in 1914.
Secondly, I wish to make it clear that I do not, of course, attribute to Fr Fortescue any conscious dishonesty. There have been plenty of liturgical scholars, and people who write about the liturgy, who can be excused of the charge of deliberate lying only by assuming that before they set out to deceive others, they took great pains to deceive themselves. [2] Fortescue is certainly not one of them.
His fault, if it is even just to call it that, lies rather in a failure of the imagination. He simply does not realize how much of what he says relies on presuppositions common to his era, which he has not critically examined. This is a common enough problem among scholars of all eras, and he was far from the only one to suffer from it and apply it to the liturgy in his own time. This then brings me to the biggest flaw in his work, the basis of the many others.
Evolutionary Theory – Linguistic, Biological and Liturgical
I am very much indebted for the observations which follow to an old friend and colleague, Dr Eric Hewett.
It has always been obvious that the Romance languages derive from the same parent language, in no small part because the parent language continued to be used in church and school in the places where they were spoken. Scholars could therefore easily see that (just to give one simple example) even words as disparate as the Italian “occhi”, French “yeux”, and Spanish “ojos” all come from plural forms of the Latin word “oculus.” But once Europeans encountered the ancient languages of India, starting in the 16th century, they began to realize that relationships between languages could be traced back in time much further than the oldest Latin texts, and much more broadly. They were thus able to demonstrate connections between Sanskrit, the ancient sacred language of Hinduism, Greek, Latin, the Germanic, Celtic and Slavic families, and many others. Together, these languages are now known as the Indo-European linguistic family.
And thus, they were also able to show the common roots of words that might seem to have nothing to do with each other. One of the best-known examples is the Latin word “centum – one hundred” (originally pronounced “kentum”), which is a first cousin, so to speak, of both the Greek “hekaton” and the Sanskrit “shatam.” Latin “quinque – five” is related to Sanskrit “pancha”, whence the Hindi “panch”, and from that, “punch”, originally a drink mixed with five ingredients which the English learned to make in India. [3]
By the 18th century, scholars in several parts of Europe were able to propose various reconstructions of the Indo-European family’s proto-language, even though no written records of it are preserved. In England, the first and most influential of these was published by Sir William Jones in 1788. But of course, once the basic theory had been outlined, there was a natural temptation to turn it into a linguistic “theory of everything.” A good amount of effort was wasted on looking for connections that did not exist, and sometimes, ones that do exist were missed. Jones himself, for example, included in his version of the theory languages that are not Indo-European, such as Egyptian, and excluded others that are, such as the Slavic family.
A portrait of Sir William Jones. (Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)
Since his time, his work and that of other scholars in the field have been refined in many ways, and expanded by new discoveries. (The written remains of a whole new branch of the family, comprising the now extinct Tocharian languages, were only discovered in western China in the early 20th century.) More importantly, the theory’s scope and limits have been better defined; linguists recognize that there are things it does not include and others which it cannot explain. It is not a “theory of everything.”
My friend Dr Hewett believes that the success of this theory of linguistic evolution created a certain forma mentis that had an enormous influence on the thought of the nineteenth century. Once it had been proposed, proved (in broad terms, not in every detail), and then, in the English-speaking world, popularized by Jones, it established an intellectual climate that tended to see evolution from a common root as the explanation of all relationships between varied forms (or species) within a genre (or genus).
In the field of biology, the adoption of this forma mentis conditioned people to accept the theory of Charles Darwin, which as currently articulated, posits any number of relationships between biological forms as seemingly improbable as that between “centum” and “shatam.” (We are told, for example, that whales descend from a creature called indohyus, which was about the size of a raccoon, and shaped something like a cross between a deer and a mouse.) Furthermore, the controversies over Darwin’s Descent of Man drove its proponents to turn it into a “theory of everything” that explains the existence of ALL biological forms. It is on this basis that the more parodically arrogant “new atheists” confidently declare that Darwinian evolutionary theory has made belief in God not merely unnecessary, but impossible. [4]
A whale
(Image from Wikimedia Commons by Nobu Tamura, CC BY 3.0)
In the liturgical field, this brings us to the first major error of Fr Fortescue’s book. His first chapter, “The Eucharist in the first three centuries”, is dedicated to the basic thesis that there was a substantial liturgical uniformity in the very early Church; the header of the fifth section is, “Liturgical Uniformity in the first three centuries.” He does not realize that he is propounding a liturgical “theory of everything”, and assuming without proof that all the minute fragments of evidence which we have of the liturgical practice of the earliest centuries, disparate in time and place, belong to the same liturgy. (This is also analogous to what some proponents of biological evolutionary theory do, those whom Chesterton lampooned for giving us intimate details of the eating and mating habits of the long-dead former owners of minute bone fragments.)
And thus, he can even arrive at the proposition that when St Justin Martyr speaks of “a word of prayer and thanksgiving”, “It seems most reasonable to understand it of the whole prayer of Consecration, the whole Anaphora which consecrates the gifts, which in the opinion of the Fathers of Justin’s time was handed down entire by our Lord and His Apostles.” In evolutionary terms, this is the “original” form from which all the other forms of the genre, i.e. other liturgies, would eventually evolve. In reality, this theory is the error from which other errors would later, as it were, evolve.
I conclude this first part with just one example of how he goes about doing this. In the second section, “The Liturgy in the Apostolic Fathers”, he adduces from the epistle of Pope St Clement (34, 6) “an allusion to the Sanctus, an element of nearly all liturgies: ‘The Scripture says: “Ten thousand times ten thousand waited on him, and a thousand thousands served him and cried, ‘Holy, holy, holy, Lord of hosts, every creature is full of thy glory.’ ” In other words, he is assuming that Clement is quoting something that is already known to his readers from the liturgy. This makes sense within the evolutionary model which he takes for granted, because the Sanctus is “an element of nearly all liturgies.” But there is no reason to assume this. We know full well that this letter was widely read in the early Church, and regarded in some places as if it were part of Scripture; it is just as reasonable to posit that someone was inspired to insert the Sanctus into the liturgy by reading this passage of Clement, and that the custom was then widely imitated by others. The Sanctus, after all must come from somewhere: why not from here?
[1] Part of the reason why Fortescue’s book has garnered a lot of interest of late is also that in the 1980s, it fell into the public domain in the United States. It is therefore available on the internet for free, and widely diffused. It has also been photostatically reprinted, a fact which I mention because not that long ago, I saw an article that cited it to “Loreto Publications, 2012”, without mentioning that that edition is a photostatic reprint of the original book of 1912, thus obscuring how old the book, and the information contained therein, really are.
[2] I wish I could take credit for this bon mot, but it comes from Sir Peter Medawar’s brilliant, savage review of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s The Phenomenon of Man.
[3] It is possible to adduce literally thousands of other examples. I here gave “centum / shatam” because it has long been used as a classic example of one of the major early divisions within the Indo-European family.
[4] From another brilliant, savage review: “Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology.” (Terry Eagleton reviewing The God Delusion, London Review of Books, Oct. 2006)

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