Sunday, July 18, 2021

The Pope Who Hated His Own Church

You've probably heard that Pope Francis has decided to crack down on the Traditional Latin Mass. Ironically -- or perhaps not -- Francis' decision came on the anniversary, to the exact day, of the beginning of the Great Schism of 1054, when Cardinal Humbert of Silva Candida excommunicated Michael Cerularius, the patriarch of Constantinople. The split would never be healed, and Catholicism and Orthodoxy remain today as two separate expressions of the Christian faith. 

The Schism was the end result of years of disagreements -- theological, cultural, and otherwise -- between the Eastern and Western churches. It's difficult to come to any other conclusion than that the West was the primary antagonist in the matter, with its insistence of papal primacy over all of Christendom, rather than having the bishop of Rome acting as first among equals. Orthodoxy continues its practice of collegiality among its bishops and patriarchs, while Catholicism continues to hand down its unilateral edicts from one man in the Vatican.

The latest papal edict is the reversal of the liberalization of saying the Latin Mass. Francis' predecessor, Benedict XVI, in arguing that the Latin Mass had never been abrogated following the Second Vatican Council that modernized the Catholic church, officially authorized its continued use. That was a big deal for traditionalist Catholics who had long bristled at the reforms that had come out of Vatican II. Up until that time, the Mass was said in Latin all over the world, as the priest, facing the crucifix and the altar, recited the Mass mostly inaudibly, with only the altar boys making responses. At high Masses, a choir would sing some of the prayers, but churchgoers quietly prayed with their rosaries or reverently followed along in their missals with side-by-side translations. That was how the Mass was said for 400 years, ever since the Roman Missal of 1570 established the Tridentine Mass

The reforms of Vatican II were an attempt to bring the ancient church into the modern world. The Mass would now be said in the local language, the priest was turned around to face the congregation, the people were given the responses once limited to the altar boys, and the altar rails where the faithful once knelt to receive communion were torn out, in favor of having people walk up to the priest (or a layperson authorized to assist) to receive the Body of Christ.
Some traditionalists contend that Vatican II was a conspiratorial attempt to undermine the church, with its heavy focus on ecumenism and the active involvement of Protestant "observers" at the council. And while I don't know enough to take a stance on those claims one way or another, it's undeniable that the church lost its sense of reverence and holiness by making the Mass more mundane, for lack of a better word. 

The Latin Mass was transcendent in its beauty. It directed attention toward, and promoted contemplation of, the Almighty. It was all oriented toward offering a sacrifice to God. After Vatican II, the Mass became a contemporary participatory event between priest and congregation, almost like a dialogue between the two. It was now this-worldly, rather than otherworldly, with the Eucharist itself reduced to little more than a picnic. The inevitable result of all this was that God was no longer center stage at Mass. At its worst, the modern Mass became a sort of entertainment directed at the individual. I'm not talking evangelical Protestant rock-concert-level entertainment, mind you, but in comparison with the old Latin Mass, the contrast was still quite shocking. The script got flipped.

I was born after Vatican II, so I only ever experienced the so-called Novus Ordo Mass growing up. Some of the Masses I can remember from my youth were garishly awful, with guitar-strumming lectors leading us in contemporary hymns that smacked of feel-good me-and-Jesus Protestantism. These Masses reflected the church buildings themselves, generally modern and ugly, devoid of transcendent beauty. I wouldn't discover the Latin Mass till many years later. But once I did, I could see a night-and-day difference between the old church and the new one, and I was left to wonder how the Catholic church could have ever cast such splendor and beauty aside -- and why. 

I'm not saying Novus Ordo Masses can't be done well. But with the relaxed attitude of the new Mass came relaxed attitudes toward Catholic theology, to the point where priests were delivering the equivalent of pep-rally sermons, designed not to offend and often reducing a rich, centuries-old theological tradition to "be nice to each other." Little wonder, then, that catechesis is so bad these days. A recent Pew Research Center poll found that a mind-boggling 69% of Catholics believe that the bread and wine at communion are merely symbols of Christ, as opposed to the church's teaching that the bread and wine become the actual Body and Blood of Christ. Of those surveyed, 45% didn't even know what the church's stance was.

That kind of failure to even understand the basic tenets of your own religion comes from the top down. Either priests aren't learning what they need to learn in seminary, or they aren't bothering to make sure their congregations are well catechized. I know all this stuff because I constantly asked questions in my younger days, wanting to understand exactly what I was supposed to believe. But I shouldn't have had to force the issue. Some adult in my life, some priest, some catechism teacher, should have been able to sufficiently explain everything to me. Instead, to the best of my recollection, no one ever gave me more than the bare-bones basics -- pretty much enough to get through my first confession, first communion, and confirmation. 

If that's typical of the contemporary state of Catholic teaching, and the Pew poll suggests it is, then is it any wonder why the churches are emptying out? If you can't make an argument for why people should stay in the church, then they're not going to stay.

But you know where Catholic church attendance wasn't sagging? In Latin Mass attendance. A 2019-2020 survey of 1,779 Catholics found that 98% of those aged 18 to 39 who attended Latin Mass were weekly attendees. In comparison, Gallup reports that just 22% of those aged 20 to 29 who attended the Novus Ordo were weekly churchgoers. 

FSSP coat of arms
In addition, the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter (FSSP), an organization of priests and seminarians who train specifically to say the Latin Mass, have consistently reported exponential growth in their parishes. Some have doubled in size in recent years. Here in North Idaho, our Latin Mass parish, St. Joan of Arc, saw a nearly 30% increase in its numbers as of 2019. St. Joan outgrew its original building and had to construct a larger one. And that's not unusual: "At some of our Masses we will have as many as maybe 350 people, and so not everyone fits, and so people are actually sitting outside the doors, looking in through the open doors," said a San Diego priest. Another priest said that his church added a fourth Mass when 200 people were coming to worship, When it did, another 200 showed up.

I've seen that kind of attendance myself. St. Joan offers five Masses on Sundays, and on the occasions I've attended, the church was packed. The same goes for our Immaculate Conception parish run by the Latin Mass-observing Society of St. Pius X, where I've seen the overflow standing in the narthex, all the way back to the front door. (More on the SSPX in a moment.)

Religious vocations are on the rise in the FSSP and SSPX, too, where the rest of the church continues to see a decline in men pursuing the priesthood.

So, of course, given the popularity of the Latin Mass, the natural thing for Pope Francis to do would be to strangle the life out of it

Bishops must now approve of the use of the Latin Mass within their jurisdictions, and some will inevitably say no. Any priests ordained after Francis' edict will have to get express permission to celebrate the Latin Mass from their bishops, who in turn will have to get Vatican approval. Latin Masses can no longer be said in parish churches, no new pro-Latin Mass groups can be fomed within those parishes, and those churches can't create new parishes for the sole purpose of saying the Latin Mass. In other words, any Novus Ordo churches that offer the occasional Latin Mass can no longer do so, but those Masses can't be moved to a new parish, either. The only option for them is to either move to a non-church building or cease to exist. Pretty much the only place the Latin Mass can be said now is in parishes that already exclusively say the Latin Mass. 

That means Latin-only FSSP churches like our local St. Joan of Arc are safe -- for now. But our bishop now has the power to pull the plug on the church whenever he wants. And given his seeming antipathy toward anything resembling Latin Mass practice in the Novus Ordo, it wouldn't surprise me to see him bring the hammer down now that he can. 

So why is the "liberal," "tolerant," "who-am-I-to-judge" Pope Francis doing this? According to him, too many people who populate the Latin Mass are doing so in a show of rejection of Vatican II. But rather than take the growth of the Latin Mass as a sign that maybe the church needs to fix some glaring problems, Francis would rather suppress the movement that points to those very problems. 

I know that some people who prefer the Latin Mass are rigid, unbending, and uncharitable, and that they use the Mass as a weapon to express a kind of pharisaical self-righteousness to the world, and by extension to the modern church. I get that. But Francis is using that minority of people as an excuse to attack the entire edifice of the Latin Mass. 

My sense is that most of those who attend the old Mass just want an authentic Catholicity where theology still means something, and they can't find it in the modern church. Those who attend the Latin Mass are well catechized. Unlike those in the Pew poll, they know very well what the church believes and is supposed to teach. They see that the modern church is failing to pass on the faith, and so they've sought out a place that still resembles the Catholic church of centuries past. 

The old Mass is also appealing to young people with large families. Go to any Latin Mass (while you still can), and by and large, that's what you'll see. And they're there because they're looking for meaning in a chaotic, narcissistic, and nihilistic modernist world that leaves them adrift, directionless. The boomers who foisted their ugly, empty modernism on us seem incapable of comprehending the mess they've made, or why young folks are rejecting it.

You can count the 84-year-old pope among the clueless of his generation. And he will have none of your dissent if you force the issue by way of the Latin Mass. In fact, Francis' right-hand man in the Vatican, Secretary of State Pietro Parolin, is reported to have said, shortly before Francis' edict, that "we must put an end to this Mass forever." Meanwhile, Archbishop Arthur Roche, who in May Francis appointed as the new prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, was said to have gloated that Benedict XVI's Latin Mass liberalizations were nearly dead and that "we're going to give the power back to the bishops on this, but especially not to the conservative bishops." Roche was known as an opponent of the Latin Mass at the time of his appointment, and there was concern back then that Francis' decision to pick him meant bad news for the future of the Latin Mass. Turns out that concern was well founded.

So Francis can't be bothered to do much of anything about the sex-abuse scandal in the church. He has largely stood by while the German church pursues policies sharply at odds with Catholic teaching. He threw faithful underground Catholics under the bus in striking a secret deal with Communist China regarding control of the church there. He attacked church leaders who thought people should still be able to come to church and receive the sacraments during the COVID outbreak. He smeared people who opposed useless mask mandates. He says that those who refuse an experimental vaccine for a virus with an astronomically high survival rate are engaging in "suicidal denialism." Hell, so far he hasn't even spoken a word about the spate of church vandalisms and arsons in Canada. But if the only thing you want to do is worship in a manner that promotes transcendental beauty and upholds Catholic tradition and theology, well, that's just going too far.

It's hard to imagine that history will remember Francis' pontificate fondly. In attempting to promote a view of the church as kinder and more Christ-like, he has succeeded only in forcing a rigid leftist idealism on the church that is frequently at odds with the church's own mission and theology. But it's also no surprise that we've reached this point, as the theological drift ever since Vatican II was always heading precisely in this direction -- and it's hard not to think that where we've ended up was the plan all along. For instance, I recently read of an Orthodox priest who was told, as he sat in on Vatican II, that "we'll get rid of Mariology very soon," as if the Mother of God was a problem the church needed to rectify. And indeed, I can remember well the Catholic churches of the '70s and '80s that shoved their Mary statues into closets, in their wrongheaded attempts to play nice with Mary-hating Protestants and the Christian-hating modern world. 

Now the church is reaping what it has so foolishly sown. In its obsessive desire to be "relevant" in a world hostile to its very existence, the Catholic church is in danger of meaning nothing to no one. And anyone who wants to engage in meaningful Catholic worship is being told to go away. 

SSPX insignia
I imagine many will. The SSPX, which has a somewhat tenuous relationship with the Vatican, performs exclusively Latin Masses, like the FSSP does. I wouldn't be surprised if the SSPX sees an influx of traditionalists as a result of Francis' edict, nor would I be surprised if the Vatican decides to cut ties with the SSPX to make a point. If that happens, I would expect an uptick in sedevacantism -- the Catholic movement that has rejected the legitimacy of every papacy since John XXIII's, on the grounds that Vatican II, begun on his watch, was an illegitimate reform of the church. (I can't say the sedes are wrong.)

In light of the crackdown on the Latin Mass, it's notable that Cardinal Humbert's excommunication that triggered the Great Schism came about because Patriarch Cerularius resisted Vatican pressure to make the Greek churches in southern Italy conform to Latin practices. If they didn't, they would be forcefully shut down. Sound familiar? History does indeed repeat itself, and the arrogance of Rome remains the same. 

In any event, Francis' attack on the Latin Mass came two days before I decided to attend a nearby Orthodox church. The Eastern church on the other side of the Schism has held an interest for me for many years now, but the only headway I ever made into Orthodoxy was to join an Eastern Catholic church, which is Orthodox in its liturgy while remaining in communion with Rome. I made that move in part because I just wasn't ready to make a clean break from Catholicism, and because I could still receive the sacraments. Not so in Orthodoxy, where I'd have to go through a lengthy catechumenate process first. 

Now I think I'm ready to get off the fence and make the leap, as I can no longer in good conscience remain in a church (even if I'm only nominally "Catholic" at this point) led by a man who shows such utter contempt for its own teachings. Never in a million years would an Orthodox patriarch attack his own church's Divine Liturgy and demand its suppression. Nor will the Orthodox church ever need to call a council to modernize its method of worship. Orthodoxy doesn't conform to the world; rather, one conforms oneself to Orthodoxy. 

Indeed, there's something to be said for a church that prioritizes the eternal and unchanging truths of its ancient teachings over bowing to the compromise of modernist "relevance," that doesn't water down its theology for the sake of getting along, and that doesn't practice the "development of doctrine" that has landed the Catholic church in this spot in the first place. Orthodoxy sticks to its guns, come hell or high water. (Especially hell.) 

To some extent, I don't have a dog in this hunt. My ongoing interest in Christianity has more to do with a love for Mary and the Sacred Feminine, a need for something transcendent to hold on to in these maddening times, and an allegiance with the values of Western Civilization than with any need to feel "saved" from something. It's just that, being raised Catholic, I can appreciate the benefits of following the Catholic faith, so long as one's faith is well formed. Vatican II and the Novus Ordo Mass clearly haven't encouraged the development of well-formed Catholics, and they really can't, because the modern Mass doesn't take us out of ourselves. It's earthbound and puts humans instead of God at the center of worship. 

And that's exactly why the modernists are attacking the Latin Mass: It holds a mirror up to their own failures, and to the destruction they've wrought on the faith. The very existence of the Latin Mass calls them out. 

It's not surprising that those who have infiltrated the leadership positions of the Catholic church are doing exactly what their woke leftist political contemporaries are doing: making phony calls to "unity" that are really just cloaked demands to do things their way. They're authoritarian to the bone, and they're hell-bent on destroying the traditions and institutions of the Western world. That includes traditional, devout expressions of an ancient faith. 

Meanwhile, we can all see the consequences of a narcissism-run-amok world where universally agreed-upon truths to hold society together are growing scarcer by the day. At some point, there won't be enough cultural glue left, and it will all come crashing down. Deluded leftists think that won't happen. As they always do, they think their utopian fantasies will work this time.

One can only hope it's not too late to save us all, including the church, from their destruction.

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