Could the Latin Mass Save Western Civilization?

July 09, 2007

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Could the Latin Mass Save Western Civilization?

Back during the Roaring ‘20s, a then-contemporary witticism had it that four institutions would prevent the takeover of Europe by Communism: the German General Staff, the British House of Lords, the Academie Française, and the Holy See. Eighty years have brought many changes, to be sure. On the one hand, Communism is as unlikely to remerge in Europe as Fascism or Nazism. But on the other, the four mentioned institutions have also undergone alteration. The German General Staff was corrupted by Hitler, and destroyed by the allies; the House of Lords has suffered the same fate (albeit in reverse order) at the hands of the late Tony Blair. The cultural supremacy of English has diminished the relevance and importance of the Academie severely: as one French friend told me, “it would not be so terrible for the language of Moliere to be eclipsed by that of Shakespeare; but by that of Rod McKuen?”  A horrible fate for us all, to be sure.

Moreover, if Communism has departed for the happy hunting ground of evil philosophies, the civilization of the West has acquired other enemies, unthinkable in the Flapper age. Islam is the obvious external threat—not merely in terms of terrorism and the like, but by a seemingly inexorable birth-rate within the Mother Continent herself. This latter development is matched by a corresponding fall in the fertility of the native population, itself bound up with a sickness-of-self on the part of that same population. To a great degree, this is the result of a second, internal enemy: a secularism that hates all that Europe, North America, and Australasia once were, and that would replace it with—well, that’s just it. It is a state of mind that cannot build; it can only destroy. Worse, it is the dominant mindset among those of the Western elites who belong to that age-group called the “Baby Boomers” in America , and the “Generation of ‘68” in Europe. Despite the rapid onset of old age, they cling to the rebelliousness of their youth as though it were a mystic talisman, protecting them from Father Time. All that made the West strong, in culture, governance, politics, and most assuredly in religion, is intolerable to them. But if the identities of the nations they manage are destroyed from above and within, how can those countries possibly survive in the long run?

The one remaining member of the quartet earlier mentioned is the Holy See. But it too is not what it was when Pius XI occupied St. Peter’s Throne. The horrors of World War II damaged the self-confidence in the Catholic ethos of the generation of clerics who lived through them. This would play a big part in the events of Vatican II and its aftermath. However one wishes to view those occurrences, the fact remains that by 1970, the Church appeared to be in an acute state of what Paul VI called “auto-demolition.” Although the Holy See under John Paul II contributed heavily to the fall of the Soviet Union , and its role in the diplomatic world expanded, the Church’s ability to counter the self-destructive tendencies in Western Culture became severely limited. Supposedly Catholic legislators throughout the West (even including such clerics as Congressman Robert Drinan, S.J.) joined gleefully in wrecking the moral and political heritage of centuries. Bishops themselves often quietly acquiesced in this, refusing to discipline such members of their flock as, say, Teddy Kennedy, for their anti-Catholic voting patterns. This was, however, emblematic of said prelates’ attempts to purge the Church of every vestige of the Catholic past.

Nowhere were these attempts more obvious than with the liturgy, the center of the Catholic religion. Most particularly, the classical form of the Catholic Mass and various other Sacraments was virtually banished from almost every nook of Christendom. With it went much of the distinctive Catholic identity—so much a part of the very foundation of Western culture. As the Harvard historian Christopher Dawson famously remarked, culture flows from “cult,” or worship; when forces internal or external root out the forms or content of religious practice in a civilization, they have essentially cut out its heart—the brain will follow.

After some 36 years of liturgical controversy, Pope Benedict XVI, on Saturday, July 7, 2007, in his motu proprio Summorum Pontificum, has liberated the ancient Roman liturgy, which, after September 14 of this year, may be celebrated by any priest anywhere in the Catholic world. This action was angrily attacked by a number of bishops and other liberal Catholics in the weeks leading up to its promulgation.

Now it may be objected at this point that this occurrence, while doubtless of interest to Catholics, would have little interest to those outside of their religion. But in fact, it has attracted angry denunciations by such as the ADL’s Abraham Foxman (admittedly, Mr. Foxman has been described by his co-religionist, comedian and ordained rabbi Jackie Mason as “more afraid of a real job than of anti-Semitism”). Catholics might be tempted to angrily respond that Foxman’s statements upon an internal Church affair are as impudent as Gentiles attacking elements of the Jewish liturgy that they might find offensive (such as Yom Kippur’s Kol Nidre prayer) would most certainly be. But such Catholics would be wrong.

The truth is that the Catholic Church is a bellwether for the health of Western Civilization in general—a sort of canary chanting in the coal mine of culture. On the one hand, events within the Church cast their shadow on the rest of the Christian ecclesial bodies. This author has ventured, for example, into formerly beautiful Anglican and Lutheran churches, only to find them sacked by their clergy in similar manner to the depredations suffered by Catholic parishes in the past four decades. Upon enquiring about the reason for such artistic purging, he has often been told—“oh, because of Vatican II!” While he understands that this a misreading of the Council common in Catholic circles, he has never been able to understand how it could have any relevance to other denominations.

But there are wider implications as well. When, in 1971, news came out that the traditional Latin Mass was to be scrapped, a primarily non-Catholic group of English artists and writers protested to Paul VI:

If some senseless decree were to order the total or partial destruction of basilicas or cathedrals, then obviously it would be the educated—whatever their personal beliefs—who would rise up in horror to oppose such a possibility.

Now the fact is that basilicas and cathedrals were built so as to celebrate a rite which, until a few months ago, constituted a living tradition.  We are referring to the Roman Catholic Mass.  Yet, according to the latest information in Rome , there is a plan to obliterate that Mass by the end of the current year.

One of the axioms of contemporary publicity, religious as well as secular, is that modern man in general, and intellectuals in particular, have become intolerant of all forms of tradition and are anxious to suppress them and put something else in their place.

But, like many other affirmations of our publicity machines, this axiom is false.  Today, as in times gone by, educated people are in the vanguard where recognition of the value of tradition is concerned, and are the first to raise the alarm when it is threatened.

We are not at this moment considering the religious or spiritual experience of millions of individuals.  The rite in question, in its magnificent Latin text, has also inspired a host of priceless achievements in the arts—not only mystical works, but works by poets, philosophers, musicians, architects, painters and sculptors in all countries and epochs.  Thus, it belongs to universal culture as well as to churchmen and formal Christians.

In the materialistic and technocratic civilisation that is increasingly threatening the life of mind and spirit in its original
creative expression—the word—it seems particularly inhuman to deprive man of word-forms in one of their most grandiose manifestations. 

The signatories of this appeal, 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.
Fifty-six of the most prominent and celebrated English writers, artists, and musicians of the time signed it—- among them Vladimir Ashkenazy and Yehudi Menuhin (pace Mr. Foxman), Graham Greene, Robert Graves and Cecil Day-Lewis (onetime poet laureate and father of Daniel), Iris Murdoch, and, in the end most importantly, Agatha Christie. The importance of the last signatory lay in the fact that the then-Pontiff was a devotee of her mysteries, and so granted her request. The resulting permission for the Old Mass to be continued in England to some degree has therefore been dubbed the “Agatha Christie Indult.”

What these illustrious folk understood, better than many theologians, was that the health of the Catholic Church was and is integral to the health of the West. If our civilization is to withstand its current slate of internal and external foes—throughout Europe and the Diaspora—it must regain its hold on the things that first enkindled its spirit. Restoration of liturgical sanity and unity within the Catholic Church will inevitably have a beneficial “trickle-down” effect far beyond the Church’s borders. Those who prize the health of the West must welcome Benedict XVI’s action, regardless of their own creed.

Of course, this is only one part of the new Pope’s apparent program—all of which, however, tend to the same ends. His ongoing efforts at the formation of an Anglican Rite within the Catholic Church bode well for members of that Communion who are disgusted with their hierarchies’ headlong retreat from Christian orthodoxy and morality. The Pope’s initiatives to shore up the beleaguered Patriarchate of Constantinople show an authentic desire to move past the hatreds and bitternesses of the past that have so long sundered East and West. Recent moves to discipline erring theologians and free the Catholics of China are very hopeful signs that the long slumber of the post-Vatican II era is over. With Benedict’s encouragement, the Cardinal-Archbishop of Mexico City has excommunicated the Mayor and City Council of his town, who have introduced abortion to their bailiwick (although they seem less capable of policing the streets). This is an example that—given the caliber of his episcopal appointments— may well be echoed one day in New York , Boston , or even Washington.

Should the Pope be successful in his attempts to straighten the course of the Barque of Peter, it will of course be of immense benefit to his own flock. But more importantly, to the non-Catholic, it will restore the Church’s ability to function as effective a watchdog over the health of the body politic of the West as ever she did under Pius XI.

But do not be fooled. The viciousness of the attacks of the liberal media, such as Mr. Foxman, and various Catholic clerics and other such pundits on the new liturgical decree are being echoed in other spheres. From Belgium , news has come that homosexual activists have brought charges against Mgr André-Mutien Léonard, the Catholic bishop of Namur , for homophobia. In that country, this is a criminal offence under the country’s 2003 Anti-Discrimination Act.

In an interview last April in the Walloon weekly Télé Moustique, the bishop is said to have described gays as “abnormal”. According to Michel Graindorge, the activists’ lawyer, the bishop intended to “stigmatize” homosexuals, whose “identity and dignity is debased from the moment that the bishop considers them to be abnormal.” In Australia, A New South Wales parliamentary committee will investigate whether Sydney ’s George Cardinal Pell was in contempt of parliament in warning that there would be “consequences” for Catholic members of the NSW parliament who voted for a bill that would scrap a ban on stem cell research. The alleged free nations of the West, apparently intent on suicide, will—should these trends continue—punish Catholic prelates for doing their duty as they believe Christ has called them to do. Nor, in the end, will it only be Catholics so threatened, but anyone who holds to what the West has been, and what it needs to be if it is to survive.

For such as these, then, any and all of Benedict XVI’s efforts at rebuilding the Catholic ethos should be welcomed, and their success prayed for. But all of these things can bring little surprise to students of history. Very often, down through the two millennia of the Church’s history, internal reform has been followed by external persecution—itself usually the prelude to a period of triumph. In this light, July 7, 2007, may well be seen in future centuries to be as momentous a date as September 11, 2001—although, of course, one that points not toward death but rebirth. Whatever the case, keep your eyes on Rome.

Charles A. Coulombe is author of Vicars of Christ: A History of the Popes.

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