This Sunday, I’m attending a Latin Mass. There, it’s decided. I could hardly call myself a flâneur of Catholic culture otherwise. Never having taken a knee at the Porziuncola or the Holy Sepulchre, never having set so much as a single toe on the Camino — all these omissions, I think, are forgivable, given budgetary constraints. But never having heard a single Latin Mass when it’s offered in my own diocese is just plain laziness.
I’ve always been a bit of an experience junkie. My checkered life has led me into swingers’ clubs, Mexican cantinas, Hong Kong tattoo parlors, Russian gangster hangouts, and subprime mortgage brokerages. In each case, I had to repress a natural revulsion — that was most of the fun. In each case, the awkwardness evaporated within a few minutes, along with the novelty. By contrast, deciding to go Tridentine, even as a one-off, has been a bear, a resolution arrived at only after many evenings of huffing and wall-punching and chain-smoking. Just writing about it makes me seize up — at the rate I’m going, I’ll probably suffer a psychotic collapse when the first drop of salty water hits me.
The ick factor comes from the association I’d formed between the Tridentine Rite and anti-Semitism. Never mind the line in the Good Friday liturgy about praying for the Jews, or even the line in the old Good Friday liturgy about about praying for faithless Jews. You can be a supercessionist without being a hater. But then, minus Nostra Aetate — introduced a few years before the Mass of Paul VI, and rejected by some traditionalists along with it — Jew-hatred gets automatically downgraded from a serious moral failing to an unpleasant quirk, like B.O. The Society of St. Pius X put up with decades of it from Bishop Williamson. Just recently, SSPX head Archbishop Fellay proved Williamson wasn’t a total oddball by going completely Bobby Fischer in his own right. In an address to followers at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Chapel, Fellay asked, “Who, during [negotiations with the Vatican], was the most opposed that the Church would recognize the Society? The enemies of the Church. The Jews, the Masons, the Modernists.”
Forget the bigotry, forget the self-serving intellectual shabbiness. That statement’s most repellent quality is its ungraciousness — ungraciousness to Benedict and Cardinal Castrillon, whose reputations have already taken hits on SSPX’s account; ungraciousness to all the decent trads who look up to Fellay and have pleaded his cause with skeptics; ungraciousness to more or less faithful Catholics like me who’ve gritted our teeth and smothered our doubts and hoped and prayed that the Vatican knew what it was doing. Frenchy cut the cheese right in our faces.
He ought to be ashamed of himself. But he isn’t, and he won’t ever be. To his way of thinking, because he’s got the Latin Mass, he’s got the moral right of way. The Mass, then, is a perfect aegis for assholes.
But of course, that’s not all it is. I used to know a woman who belonged to a sedevacantist sect. (To take her account at face value, her head bishop was a perfectly sane, pastoral, gentlemanly guy with no particular animus against Jews or anyone else.) During her early childhood, she and her family lived far away from any of the sect’s few churches. They took their Latin Mass wherever they could get it — sometimes in a motel room rented for the occasion by an itinerant priest. Now that’s an image to conjure with: two or three families bowing their heads and straining to tune out the crack-smokers in the next room while a fresh-faced kid in a fancy stole recites the confiteor. It speaks to a catacombs level of commitment deserving of respect. If the draw was in the Latin, well…that’s a point in its favor.
The signs of the times seem to say that Latin, along with traddishness in general, is staging a creeping comeback. In April of 2010, Washington D.C.’s Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception featured a Pontifical Mass in the Extraordinary Form. A Paulus Institute press release called it “gloriously reverent,” and, indeed, it must have been a hit with somebody, because the following year Archbishop DiNoia of the Vatican’s Conrgegation for Divine Worship celebrated a Solemn Pontifical High Mass in the very same place. Just last week, in an about-face no less stunning than Christopher Hitchens’ endorsement for the Global War on Terror, Deacon Greg Kandra called for the re-introduction of Communion rails. True, he made no specific reference to Latin, but he must know the camel and the tent too well to suppose that people can go on kneeling in the vernacular forever.
So, it would be nice, then — really comforting — to run with the image of the Best Western conventicle; to write off Fellay and his followers as a million isolated cases; to refute any connection between crankishness and a flair for the fruits of Trent. It’d be nice, but it’d be hard. Too often does one hear the words Novus Ordo used as a weapon, a nifty synedoche for every species of moral degeneracy the speaker wishes to pin on his opponent. In the mouth of a pro, it can sound impressive. Fr. Clement Procopio, formerly a priest in the Diocese of Phoenix, demonstrates as much here, in the letter where he tells his bishop what’s what:
What you should be saddened by, however, as all of us should be, is what has happened to the Catholic Church since Vatican II. That revolution is what brought about changes in doctrine, such as, false ecumenism of a Cosmic Christ that doesn’t exist, universal salvation in which all are automatically saved, distorted notions of religious liberty that eliminated Christ as King of the Universe; changes in morals such as immoral sex education in the Catholic schools, the defense of homosexuality, a sin that cries to Heaven for vengeance, that has resulted in the glaring scandals in the priesthood and in the hierarchy; changes in the liturgy, like substituting the Mass of All Ages, instituted by Christ, with a Masonic Protestantized Novus Ordo Mass, that was concocted precisely with the intention of destroying the True Mass and the whole Catholic Church, by lending itself to all kinds of abuses, sacrileges and circuses at the altar, resulting in disastrous effects, such as the loss of many vocations, the loss of faith, the loss of discipline, etc. etc.
Fr. Procopio was last seen in Malibu, presiding at he Oratory of the Holy Family, Mel Gibson’s private chapel. No doubt it’s a good fit for him, but even Latin-lovers who are less openly defiant tend to define themselves less by what they’re for than what they’re against. Consider the defunct but still mesmerizing trad blog Lair of the Catholic Cavemen. To give contributors due credit, they might have been the last Catholic writers in America who didn’t sound as though their best friends were Hobbits. On the bad, well, they’re mighty quick on the draw. To them, Cardinal George is “a veritable tower of Jell-O.” Archbishop Niederauer and others are guilty of “ingratiating themselves to the Sons of Sodom.” John Paul II’s dialogue with Jews was a “turd bloom,” and John Paul himself “a very ineffective and even weaker pope who allowed abuse upon abuse to be heaped upon The Bride of Christ.” And these guys are in full Communion.
Plenty of reasonable-sounding people have made plenty of reasonable-sounding arguments in favor of the Latin Mass. Many tout the aesthetics — the euphonious qualities of the Latin language itself, and of Gregorian chants. My problem is I’m insensible to all of it. My furniture comes from Ikea; my favorite songs are novelty songs. If it weren’t for bad taste, I’d have no taste at all. What I do have a connoisseur’s eye for — what draws me like the proverbial flame draws the proverbial moth — is disgruntlement, especially the kind that verges on looniedom. If frustration and protest were languages, I could write the grammar. Probably, the only meaning I’m capable for finding in the Latin Mass is one absent from the rubrics, namely, a middle finger hoisted against modern society.
And part of me understands the hand that hoists the finger all too well. I turned 41 yesterday, and the occasion of my birthday brought me face-to-face with the realization that I no longer understand the world I’m living in (and helped to build). Reddit, drone strikes, Twilight, the new generation of Windsors, naked Lena Dunham — all of these have plenty to recommend them, but to me but they look like products of an alien culture, one I’ll never wholly adapt to. My views and expectations were formed in a simpler time, the 1990s. (Bill! Monica! Jerry! Elaine! Bud! Kelly! What happened to you all?) I doubt I’ll ever qualify as a Catholic caveman, but I am, increasingly, surrendering to the laws of human nature by hardening into a fossil.
I suppose what I’m trying to do here — being a liberal and potential candidate for the archepiscopal see of Canterbury — is a little bit of old-fashioned bridge-building. I don’t think I’ll ever find much to say to Fellay, but to the faithful trads whose views on the Jewish people are appreciably softened by the times, I’d like to be able to say, “Yeah, I’ve been to your Mass, and it was okay.” As common ground goes, alienation may be as good as any; I suspect it’ll furnish the vocabulary with which to translate its appeal into my own terms. Trads talk up modesty and reverence; I say, “Aha! Nobody is going to rattle my cage by looking too sexy.” They plug a re-focusing on God; I say, “Aha! I don’t have to pay attention to other people.” With this kind of active, interested listening, you could end a war.