Wednesday, May 11, 2022

Reply to Gavin Ashenden: the evangelising power of the Traditional Mass

Evangelising by doing something recognisably sacred: Walsingham Pilagrimage

Cross-posted from Rorate Caeli.

I have an article in the current issue of Inside the Vatican, and by coincidence it is preceded by one by Dr Gavin Ashenden, the former Anglican cleric received into the Catholic Church just before Christmas. Ashenden has become an important commentator on Catholic affairs, so I was dismayed to read his treatment of the movement for the Traditional Mass, which is the subject of his article. I think, however, that Dr Ashenden’s analysis may appeal to many, in trying to put together the kinds of things Pope Francis has said along with a perhaps superficial knowledge of the movement itself. For this reason, as well as because of the respect I have for him as an intellectual, I would like to make a response.

His article is not freely available online but it is possible to buy access to just this issue of Inside the Vatican, May-June 2022, through the ISSUU platform, for a small sum, if anyone thinks I am misrepresenting him.

The first thing with which I would like to take issue is the background Ashenden proposes for the debate about the liturgy. He writes:

The civil war that dominates our day has narrowed down to a fight over liturgy. But only because liturgy has become emblematic of two ways of looking at the world; two perspectives, two competing theologies.

This seems to me a very odd, and potentially a very distorting, way of looking at the current situation of conflict in the Church. Perhaps supporters of the Traditional Mass should be flattered, because it makes them seem very important, but the fact is that opposition to Pope Francis’ real or imagined agenda, which is what the ‘civil war in the Church’ is presumably about, does not have traditional Catholics as major protagonists or the traditional liturgy as a major issue.

It may be objected that traditionalists punch above their weight in Catholic journalism, and so the liturgical issue is endlessly discussed. This is true, but this is not where the fight is centred. Traddies have scarcely any presence among bishops and cardinals—they have been systematically excluded from these roles for fifty years, after all—and it is among bishops and cardinals that the war is raging. The wealthy, powerful, and numerous German bishops persist with their ‘Synodal Pathway’ towards same-sex unions, holy communion for the divorced and remarried, and women’s ordination; in March this was publicly criticised by the Episcopal Conference covering Scandinavia, and in April, it was attacked by 70 bishops from the USA and other countries. These criticisms make public in an extraordinary way a conflict which is theologically profound and global in scale.

No doubt there is a correlation between friendliness towards Latin Mass communities and opposition to the German agenda of blessing same-sex unions and ordaining women, but it would be easy to give examples on both sides which buck the trend. The Traditional Mass is far more welcome in Germany than it is in Tanzania, and yet fourteen Tanzanian bishops felt moved to sign the petition criticising the Synodal Pathway. I don’t think any of the relevant documents on either side even mention the old Mass.

There is, of course, a fight about the liturgy going on, and within this rather niche area in the life of the Church the ancient Mass has a bit more significance. Ashenden describes it in this way:

Tradition presents the fruit of a long steady development of depth under the hand of the Holy Spirit; the contemporary quest claims to re-connect with the earliest sources, and at the same time attempts to build a bridge between the Church and secular proprieties in a society experiencing rapid change.

There is virtue in both a liturgy that prioritizes transcendence and virtue in one that prioritizes immanence. One prioritizes profundity over easy access, and the other facilitates evangelism in a culture that finds the Faith increasingly strange and unfamiliar.

This is the second area in which I would like to object. Here Ashenden does no more than summarise a few conventional views on the old vs. new debate, so perhaps it is not him I am criticising here so much as those widespread assumptions which he has summarised for us.

First, I have, frankly, no idea what work the ‘immanent’ vs. ‘transcendent’ contrast is supposed to be doing here. It would be interesting to hear how the reformed Mass creates a sense of the immanent presence of God, but I’ve never seen an attempt to make this case. What I have heard is that the reformed Mass simply has a tendency not to create a sense of God’s presence at all. Indeed, this is implied by the words of Popes John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Francis, who all noted the ‘sacrality’ of the ancient Mass, and also of the Eastern Rites, and contrasted this with the reformed Mass as all too often celebrated.

People may be surprised to hear that all three Popes can be quoted to this effect, but I am thinking of Pope John Paul II’s 2001 address to the Congregation for Divine Worship, Pope Benedict’s 2007 Letter to Bishops, and an interview of Pope Francis in July 2013.

I have a similar problem with the idea that the reformed Missal ‘facilitates evangelism in a culture that finds the Faith increasingly strange and unfamiliar’. Certainly, the reform implemented strategies to this effect, but so does the older Missal.

In some ways the reformed Missal signally fails to ‘build a bridge’ with culture. Thus, the world celebrates St Valentine’s Day on 14th February and the Church, as far as the reformed liturgy goes, fails to do so. In this case, far from building a bridge with culture, the reform seems to burn down a bridge which previously existed. Annibale Bugnini expressed his frustration that he was unable to break the similar connection between Ash Wednesday and Mardi Gras (The Reform of the Liturgy, p307, n7). The reformers’ problem with these bridges to popular culture is that they felt the Church had become too culturally weak to cope with the distorted popular meanings of these events. The thing to do in response is to withdraw: to pull up the drawbridge, to retreat into our shell.

Nevertheless, there is a strategy for engaging the world implicit in the liturgical reform. This is the theory that if people experience the Mass as something less alien, more everyday—fresh modern language, pottery chalices, a plain table for an altar, the priest in ordinary clothes—then the message of the Mass will carry over more easily into their everyday lives. Whether this works, of course, is an empirical question.

One problem with this approach, hinted at in my examples, is that the Church has never done this wholeheartedly. The stilted English of the 1974 ‘old ICEL’ has now given way to a deliberately elevated liturgical register in the 2011 ‘new ICEL’ translation. Pottery chalices are actually forbidden. Priests are obliged to wear vestments. And so on.

Leaving that problem aside, one can accept that there was a sincere and heartfelt attempt to evangelise the world in this way, and still notice that the ancient Mass also attempts to evangelise culture, also builds bridges, in a very different way. This is the strategy of a maximally clear differentiation between the sacred and profane, to create a really palpable sense of the sacred, which can stay with the worshipper from Sunday to Sunday.

Ashenden has slipped into characterising the contrast between the two liturgical forms in terms of the self-understanding of just one of them. Because the reform aimed to make the liturgy more effective for evangelisation, he assumes that this effectiveness now marks the difference between the two liturgical forms. Is there, however, any reason to think that the reform actually worked in this respect? This is, let us say, far from clear. The recent research presented by the sociologist of religion, Prof. Stephen Bullivant, suggests that the strategy of contrast, of contrasting the sacred with the profane, of building walls around the community, and of encouraging visible testimonies to the truth of the Faith—all-night vigils, long walking pilgrimages, demanding fasts—is actually more effective in maintaining and spreading the Faith than trying to erase the boundaries.

Related to this is Ashenden’s unqualified acceptance of what Pope Francis says about ‘rigidity’.

Pope Francis is using the word rigid as a criticism. He perceives opportunity. The rigid are those who cannot see opportunity or be sufficiently flexible to make anything of it.

Pope Francis is no doubt sincere in saying this kind of thing, but he is not necessarily correct. The idea here, ultimately derived from Freud via Adorno, is that ‘rigid’ people are attached to traditional forms, due to the childhood repression of sexuality, and are cursed with a lack of creativity and morbid risk aversion. For all the influence this theory has had, it was never very well supported by the empirical data, and intellectual fashions have long since moved on. The ideas of the 1940s and ’50s don’t necessarily provide the best lens for understanding the 2020s.

As Ashenden must have noticed, evangelising creativity and effectiveness today is often associated with the more conservative and demanding forms of the major world religions, and  Catholicism is no exception. Indeed he has noticed the ‘the growth of the young traditionalists’. Where does he think they came from?

A final point I would like to raise in this already over-long response to this article relates to this very puzzling sentence:

[Ashenden wants to ask] why those supporters of the Tridentine mass, like the head of SSPX, Fr. Davide Pagliarani, repudiate the validity of the Novus Ordo that mediates immanence?

First, it is strange to make Fr Pagliarani a kind of representative or spokesman for the movement in dialogue with Pope Francis over Traditionis Custodes. Because it is canonically irregular, the SSPX is not effected by Traditionis Custodes or by anything else Pope Francis might decree. If it were the views of the SSPX that brought forth this document, it would be unjust to the point of weirdness. Why punish non-SSPX traditional Catholics for the views of the SSPX?

Second, I think Fr Pagliarani would be pretty surprised, and not very pleased, to hear it suggested that he ‘repudiates the validity of the Novus Ordo.’ I really wish Ashenden, and others, would be careful in what he says on this subject, as it is a matter of considerable sensitivity. It has never been the official view of the SSPX that the Novus Ordo Mass, if celebrated according to its own rules, is sacramentally invalid. Such a view is extremely marginal in the traditional Catholic world, and unsurprisingly so as its implications are mind-boggling. If you start saying that the reformed sacramental rites are invalid—and if the Mass is invalid, where do you stop?—then by today the Church would have essentially ceased to exist outside a few beleaguered enclaves.

This is nonsense, and Dr Ashenden really should not give it credibility.


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1 comment:

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