Wednesday, August 4, 2021

Off the (Communion) Rails: The Legacy of Catholic "Relevance"

I’m a Generation X cradle Catholic, born a little more than a year after the church introduced a tremendous overhaul of its Mass. I grew up not knowing that the church had ever offered anything other than the so-called Novus Ordo Mass, instituted by Pope Paul VI following the Second Vatican Council. So it never struck me as odd that the priest faced the congregation, like a master of ceremonies, and that we engaged in a kind of prayerful back-and-forth conversation with him as the Mass unfolded.

But there were also things that nagged at me as I got older, like contemporary Protestant-ish hymns led by guitar-strumming cantors, or vapid homilies from the priests who seemed to want to be your buddy more than a mature spiritual leader. Those things seemed to cheapen what was supposed to be a reverent and worshipful event.

It didn’t help that my parents were the first Catholic converts in their respective families. Their Protestant backgrounds often shone through quite brightly, such that I had as much exposure to evangelical theology and attitudes as I did to actual Catholic catechesis. My mom, for example, watched the fire-and-brimstone preachers doing their thing every day on our local religious channel. They’d stalk the stages of their auditoriums, railing about the end times, the need to be saved, and the demonic forces that held the world in their grasp — like, well, the Catholic church.

Meanwhile, a Pentecostal-like movement swept through our local Catholic church. We had a “Charismatic Catholic” prayer meeting every week in the church basement. I went along with my dad and godfather a few times. People would lay hands on the sick and speak in tongues, not all that different from the faith-healing revivals Mom watched on TV.

If that seems confusing to imagine in a Catholic context, well, those were confusing times. I was part of the first generation of kids to be catechized in the Novus Ordo era. The church had undergone a massive shift practically overnight, and I don’t think most people quite had their feet under them just yet, least of all those who were expected to instruct us in the faith. Because what was the faith now? I understood not much beyond the basics of Christianity, mostly things to do with Christmas and Easter. And I was expected to prepare for participation in the sacraments — including confession, communion, and eventually confirmation — yet I can’t remember having anyone ever explain to me, in a meaningful way, what those sacraments meant, least of all in a Catholic setting.

Nor did anyone ever really talk about rosaries, novenas, or any other kind of private devotions that might have helped me understand how Catholicism was supposed to be different from any other Christian church. The nun who ran the day-to-day things at our church gave me a rosary following my confirmation, but I had no idea what to do with it. No one had ever shown me how to pray a rosary.

Long story short, practically everything I know about Catholicism, I had to learn through my own independent study. Doing so triggered my lifelong fascination with theological systems and why people believe what they believe. But even though something good came out of it, I never should have had to figure things out on my own. And I know I’m not the only one from the post-Vatican II years to have had such an experience.

In fact, looking back, I wonder how much of my poor catechetical formation was the fault of my parents, and how much was the fault of the reforms of the Catholic church itself. There’s no question that the post-Vatican II church failed me, and the more I read about those early years of transition, the more I’m inclined to think that that was a feature of the new church, and not a bug.

To understand what I’m talking about, I recommend the book Work of Human HandsIn it, the late Fr. Anthony Cekada, a sedevacantist Catholic priest, lays out a damning case, citing their own words, that the Vatican II reformers deliberately set out to strip away everything mystical and transcendent about the Mass, with the intention of orienting it toward man rather than the divine. In essence, the Catholic Mass was flipped on its head. The Novus Ordo was designed to be everything the Latin Mass wasn’t: pedestrian, contemporary, casual, and focused on the worldly, with many ancient prayers removed and wordings revised to make the Mass more ecumenical — that is, to make it more appealing to non-Catholics and to remove anything that made God sound too harsh or that demanded too much discipline, humility, and sacrifice from the people in the pews.  

To be blunt, that’s what the modernists behind Vatican II appeared to have wanted all along. Modernists had been itching to “update” the Catholic church since the 19th century, and they finally got their way with Vatican II and the new Mass. Defenders of the post-Vatican II church often argue that the council never intended the wholesale reforms that we ended up with. Be that as it may, the modernists used the council as a springboard for the reforms they had sought all along. They infiltrated the church leading up to the council and hijacked it afterwards.

It’s still shocking to me, for example, to know that one Orthodox observer at Vatican II was told by a Catholic theologian that “we’ll get rid of Mariology very soon” — as if reverence for the Mother of God was an embarrassment that the church needed to dispose of. That comment sadly embodies the spirit of Vatican II and its attendant fallout, whether that was the original intention of the council or not. In the aftermath of the council, rosaries fell into disuse and were often actively discouraged. Churches stopped saying the Stations of the Cross, and in some cases the plaques that signified the stations were removed from the walls. I can even remember going to churches that had shoved their Mary statues into closets, as if to confirm what that Vatican II theologian had said about the coming end of Mariology.

Whether the purpose of all this was to deliberately undermine everything distinctive about Catholicism or just to make ecumenical gestures toward other faith traditions, the result was the same: The Catholic church was effectively de-Catholicized. Or perhaps it would be more appropriate to say that it was Protestantized. 

I didn’t realize it until many years later, because I had no context in which to place the changes, but the result of all these reforms was essentially the creation of a new church, one that was now only nominally Catholic. Even if the sedevacantists and other critics are wrong and the modernists had no nefarious motives, even if all the modernists set out to do was to play nice with other faith traditions, the result was that they still watered down everything it meant to be a Catholic. Catholicism was no longer something set apart, something distinct from Protestant culture. It was now just another item on the menu.

Some of the worst post-council excesses were eventually reined in under Pope John Paul II, with his deep devotion to the Blessed Mother, but by then the damage was done. So how did the excesses come to pass in the first place? Well, modernists had long argued that the old Latin Mass the church had used for centuries left the people unengaged in their own faith. The Mass needed to be performed in the local language, they said, and there needed to be more opportunities for active lay participation. For perspective, the old Mass was centered on the priest’s offer of sacrifice to God at the altar. The priest would generally speak the Mass inaudibly, in Latin, with the responses limited mostly to the altar servers. The congregation’s role was mainly to prayerfully observe the priest’s sacrifice of the Mass, and to receive the Eucharist at the appointed time.

Moreover, the priest stood facing the altar and crucifix — i.e., away from the congregation. I don’t like to characterize his posture as “having his back to the people,” as is often said, because I think that conveys a misunderstanding of what was happening. It’s not that the priest turned his back on the people; it’s that he was facing in the same direction as everyone else, leading us to Christ, out front and in control, like a holy bus driver of sorts.   

Reformers were right that there were problems to be addressed. For example, I’ve heard complaints from old-time Catholics that priests were rushing through the recitation of the Mass rather than treating it with due reverence, while many in the pews paid little attention to what was happening at the altar, perhaps praying a rosary or looking at their watches or just zoning out, in effect doing little more than receiving communion. It seemed that something needed to be done and that everyone shared in the blame. Priests needed to treat the Mass with greater dignity, and the congregation needed to be more actively involved.

But instead of making a few needed tweaks, the modernists decided to swat a fly with a sledgehammer.

There was no reason, for instance, to rip out the communion rails in the churches following Vatican II. Having recipients kneel in the presence of Christ, as the priest administered the host, conveyed the holiness inherent in the exchange. In stark contrast, I grew up lacking a deep understanding of the Eucharist. I’m sure someone along the way explained to me the church’s teaching on transubstantiation, but it was certainly never emphasized. I stood to receive communion, only to have the person at the front of the line plink the host into my palm like it was a poker chip. Sometimes the distributor was the priest; other times it was a layperson. It didn’t seem to matter who gave you communion, or in what manner.

The point is that the church’s “reforms” stripped the reception of the Body of Christ of its holiness. In the old Mass, only the priest’s consecrated hands could touch the host; kneeling recipients would receive it on their tongues. Now? The priest dishes out plates of wafers to a small army of lay assistants, and reception on the tongue from the priest is now the exception. Reception in the hand is now expected in many churches, such that you’ll often have some layperson’s unconsecrated hands pressing a wafer into the recipient’s equally unconsecrated hands.

Accordingly, I don’t think it’s just a coincidence that in the 50 years since the Novus Ordo replaced the old Latin Mass, most American Catholics, according to a survey, don’t even know that the church teaches that the bread and wine at communion become the Body and Blood of Christ. Priests don’t emphasize it, catechism teachers gloss over it, and the casualness with which communion is carried out gives people no sense of the importance of what they’re actually receiving.

Just the fact that the communion lines are long while the confession lines are short speaks to the disconnect. It wasn’t until I attended a Latin Mass as an adult that I even heard a priest remind everyone that you must be in a state of grace to receive the Eucharist. In other words, if you have anything to confess, you need to go to confession first. Then, and only then, are you properly disposed to receive communion. I’ve never once been to a Novus Ordo Mass where the priest said that.

Nor does fasting before communion really exist anymore. In the old days, you couldn’t eat or drink anything after midnight of the day you were to receive communion. Now you have to fast for just a measly hour beforehand — and considering Mass lasts about an hour, you pretty much only have to stop eating once you open the church doors. Not really a sacrifice or a hardship.

The problems with the modern church extend far beyond the Eucharist. Another poll reveals that a majority of American Catholics disagree with their church regarding contraception, divorce, abortion, same-sex relations, cohabitation, even having kids out of wedlock. Again, it’s hard to think that the lax modernist attitudes within the church’s leadership haven’t significantly contributed to the situation, especially when you contrast Novus Ordo-goers with those who attend the Latin Mass. 

What I mean is that the way each group does Mass speaks volumes: At the Novus Ordo, a relaxed, almost lackadaisical, casualness in both dress and posture is the order of the day; while folks at the Latin Mass will be dressed to the nines in their Sunday best, women veiled and wearing dresses, as everyone sits, stands, and kneels as one, with disciplined military precision, their attention quietly riveted on the priest. There couldn’t possibly be more of a contrast between the two Masses in the seriousness, gravity, reverence, and dignity with which the respective congregants approach their faith. And there does appear to be a direct correlation between outward appearance and inward adherence to the faith.

Those who prefer the Latin Mass are, perhaps unsurprisingly, very well catechized in what their church teaches. In fact, the differences between them and those who go to the Novus Ordo are so stark, according to one survey — 51% Novus Ordo approval of abortion rights, for example, versus 1% in the Latin Mass — that you might think you’re looking at two completely different churches. And in a sense, you are.

And that’s precisely why arch-modernist Pope Francis wants to shut down the Latin Mass. The same pope who has shown so much tolerance for those out of line with traditional church teaching, the same pope who once famously said “Who am I to judge,” has laid down the hammer on the old Mass. Not because of some defect in the old Mass, but because it holds up a condemnatory mirror to what modernism has wrought on the church, on its members, and on Catholic belief.

Francis didn’t frame it that way, of course. His excuse for placing extreme restrictions on saying the Latin Mass is that it has become a tool of division within the church. Francis’ predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, had removed most restrictions on saying the Latin Mass, correctly pointing out that it had never been banned following Vatican II. So German bishops can be in near-schism with the policies they’re promoting in their churches, the pope can bring a pagan idol into St. Peter’s Basilica, he does next to nothing about the sex-abuse scandals, and he privately praises pro-LGBT activism among the clergy — but letting a small minority of theologically sound Catholics celebrate the same reverent Mass that most of the saints attended for hundreds of years? Well, that’s just a bridge too far. 

And Francis isn’t messing around: His own Vatican secretary of state, his right-hand man in Rome, is reported to have said before the edict came down that “we must put an end to this Mass forever.” So much for the pastoral and compassionate pope who wanted to reach out to people on the margins. But then that’s the way “liberal” “tolerance” usually seems to play out, isn’t it?

Now, I’m not saying I’m 100% on board with the Latin Mass contingent. Nor am I 100% opposed to some of the reforms that Vatican II and the new Mass brought about. But at a minimum, it seems that if you’re going to be part of an institution, you ought to be in line with its teachings. Francis and the modernists, in thumbing their nose at tradition, are turning the Catholic church into something it was never intended to be. The Latin Mass crowd, meanwhile, embodies what it means to live an upright Catholic life, but Francis is correct in suggesting that the old Mass itself has become as much a political statement and an obsession with proper form as it is an embrace of tradition. Francis called out the rigid spirit of those who attend the old Mass — and he’s not entirely wrong to do so.

In fairness, I have no doubt that many, if not most, who attend the Latin Mass are there for good reasons — they find spiritual truth there, it enriches their lives, they see it as a more authentic expression of Catholicism, and so on. But I’ve been to enough Latin Masses and spoken to enough people who attend them regularly to know that there is a triumphal, even Pharisaical spirit among some of the congregants. I do understand why they feel that way, and I have some degree of sympathy for their viewpoint. But I’m not so sure it’s a healthy religious attitude. Standing up for what’s right is one thing, but closed-minded fundamentalism is another. Nor does doctrinal correctness mean much if you lack the fruits of the spirit.

Where I completely agree with the Latin Mass folks, however, is in their rejection of relevance. The Catholic church is in the state it’s in because of its seemingly endless desire to tinker and innovate. Ever since its unilateral addition of the filioque to the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed a millennium ago has it been this way. It can’t leave well enough alone. And indeed, Vatican II, for all its purported noble intentions, ended up being, more than anything else, an expression of how to make the church “relevant” to the modern world. In doing so, it has succeeded only in watching its Novus Ordo churches empty out. Its desire for relevance has made it even more irrelevant, in a culture that continues to be openly hostile to its very existence.  

This is one of the biggest reasons Orthodoxy looks more and more attractive to me. Do you think the Orthodox care if they’re “relevant”? If a church is secure in its faith, then the faith and its traditional teachings ought to speak for themselves. There should be no need to cater to popular trends, or to the popular desire to be entertained at church, or to dumb down the faith in any way. Eternal truths, after all, are just that. The culture ought to conform to the church, rather than the other way around.

Development of doctrine, within reason, is one thing. Sometimes the church needs to elaborate on its existing truths to address unforeseen situations. But to invent new dogmas out of whole cloth, like papal infallibility, is quite another. Some wags have suggested that a Catholic from 200 years ago would be a heretic in today’s church. That’s probably true, and that points to a significant problem that the Catholic church needs to come to grips with.  

There’s a reason, after all, that large young families are flocking to the Latin Mass: They want a firm spiritual footing. They’re yearning for goodness, truth, and beauty in a modernist world that only feeds them cynicism, relativism, and confusion. They want something bigger than themselves to hold on to in a culture filled with narcissistic meaninglessness. Francis and his modernism are the problem, not the solution. You can’t have a banal Mass with contemporary music in an ugly modern church building and expect to instill deep faith in people. A casual Mass and casual beliefs feed on each other.   

I’ve always struggled to believe, and I’ll always wonder whether that was because my catechism was so bad and the Catholic churches I grew up in were so… un-Catholic. Don’t get me wrong: the Novus Ordo can be done well. I love the new Mass in big cathedrals with choirs and organs and beautiful, inspiring architecture. The transcendent beauty of such places always seems to affect the reverence with which the Mass itself is conducted.

But the Catholic church isn’t interested in reverence and tradition so much anymore, and the rot goes all the way to the top. The church is so completely infiltrated with modernist heretics (yes, I said it) that I’m not sure it can be saved. I know the church has survived a lot of horrible popes in the past, but the entire edifice seems to be crumbling now. The church no longer holds the massive institutional power it once did. It’s now on the outside looking in, being run by people who want the church to mimic a depraved culture, while the depraved culture just continues to heap scorn on it. 

Meanwhile, too many Catholics are ignorant of their own faith and too accommodating of cultural trends that run counter to traditional church teachings. When I wanted to learn what I hadn’t been taught about Catholicism, I put in the effort myself. Most people won’t do that, if they ever figure out there's a problem with their religious education at all, and the faith will suffer for it more and more with each passing generation. Those who care enough to agitate for change — mainly the Latin Mass-goers and a handful of aging bishops — don’t appear to hold enough power to right the ship.

The church will inevitably continue to lose its institutional power in this post-Christian world, and those who embrace the traditional faith are slowly coming to grips with the reality that they’ve lost the culture wars. Thus is the church entering a period of countercultural witness. And maybe that’s not a bad thing. After all, before the church allied with Emperor Constantine, it spoke truth to power as a rebellious outsider, a continuous thorn in the side of the system. It now has the opportunity to return to that vital role, if it can manage to purge itself of its enemies within and still survive. 

Pope Benedict predicted this future for the church. He believed that the church, falling out of cultural and political favor, would shrink dramatically, but that the church that remained would emerge purified and still able to bear witness to the truth of the faith. This is a little of what he said:

From the crisis of today the Church of tomorrow will emerge, a Church that has lost much. She will become small and will have to start afresh more or less from the beginning. She will no longer be able to inhabit many of the edifices she built in prosperity. As the number of her adherents diminishes, so will she lose many of her social privileges. […] 

And so it seems certain to me that the Church is facing very hard times. The real crisis has scarcely begun. We will have to count on terrific upheavals. But I am equally certain about what will remain at the end: not the Church of the political cult, which is dead already, but the Church of faith. She may well no longer be the dominant social power to the extent that she was until recently, but she will enjoy a fresh blossoming and be seen as man's home, where he will find life and hope beyond death.

Want to guess when he spoke those words? When he was still just Fr. Joseph Ratzinger, in a radio address in 1969 — a few short years after the conclusion of Vatican II, and on the eve of the rollout of the Novus Ordo Mass that would replace the 400-year-old Traditional Latin Mass.

He saw what was coming. And his successor in Rome is only helping it all come true.

(Photo by Gabriella Clare Marino, on Unsplash.)

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