The annual Red Mass was celebrated yesterday at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle in Washington DC. The celebrant was Archbishop Wuerl and the homilist was Archbishop Timothy Dolan of Milwaukee. In general, it was a beautiful and solemn Mass, with one major exception. At the beginning, there was a military-style procession into the Cathedral. One of the soldiers was barking orders, a harsh cacophony in a cathedral renowned for its quiet solemnity. The soldiers, stomped up toward the altar bearing flags (one was the US flag) and rifles. Yes, you read that correctly, rifles! When the barking and stomping had ceased, the choir then led the congregation in singing the anthem of the secular American state, the Star Spangled Banner. We once had a debate in Vox Nova over whether it was appropriate to sing God Bless America. This was something else entirely. In the name of God, how can one sing this song in a Church? Not only is it wholly secular, and thus no different from a Celine Dion song at a wedding– which the Church rightly forbids– but it contains phrases like “ rockets’ red glare, bombs bursting in air” and lauds a purely secular military victory. While people were singing, they had their hands over the chests, a gesture that is only appropriate during Mass if one is saying mea culpa..
I like the Red Mass. It is well and good to ask the Holy Spirit to guide those charged with implementing the law, which Aquinas defined as an ordinance of reason for the common good. Plus, it has an ancient pedigree. I also have no problem with praying for the secular leadership during Mass. But we should never cross the line. The secular state should never be glorified at Mass, and that is exactly what happened yesterday. This melding if the spiritual and temporal is no different from the caesaro-papism of old, when the Byzantine emperor presided over the Divine Liturgy at the Hagia Sophia, and where there was little separation of God from Caesar (and need I point out what Christ had to say about this?). During the heyday of caesaro-papism in the east, while the Bishop of Rome remained orthodox, the patriarchate of Constantinople fell frequently into the hands of whatever heretical group had gained imperial favour at the current moment– whether it be Arian, Nestorian, Monophysite, Monothelite etc. For sure, the Catholic Church also succumbed to caesaro-papism on occasion, but it was always tempered by a clear understanding of distinction between the realm of the spiritual and the realm of the temporal. Unfortunately, many Protestants in the United States have lost sight of this crucial distinction. Their Catholic allies seem to follow suit, forgetting that this distinction us what protects the Church from corruption.
Pope St. Gregory VII, pray for us.