Change. The word is on everyone’s lips these days, with it being the byline of the Democratic presidential campaign. But, I want to think about what it might mean for Catholics. How should we as individuals, and how should we as a Church look at change? When is it a good thing, when not? When should we embrace change; when should we hold fast to tradition? There is no easy answer; I’m not even sure that there is an answer; but what I am sure of is that two groups within the Church have it wrong: radical traditionalists and liberals.
I define a radical traditionalist as someone who is unwilling to accept any change within the Church that does not entail returning to past practice. We have gone astray today; everything was copacetic in the past. I agree that we have gone astray today, but I don’t agree that there was ever a golden age. The furore over the usus antiquior (or TLM, or Tridentine Mass, or whatever term you wish to use) is a case in point. Is it a superior Mass to the Novus Ordo? In some ways, yes. In my experience, it fosters an atmosphere of contemplation and sacredness that is usually absent in Pauline Masses. It does a better job of emphasizing the Sacrifice of the Mass. It focuses the congregation more totally on God rather than on the priest. I gladly attend such a Mass once a month at our local cathedral, and happily volunteer to chant or provide other music for it. It serves, for me, as a necessary antidote for the insanity that I occasionally suffer through at my territorial parish.
But to say that the usus antiquior is the Mass of the Ages, the perfect expression of Catholicism, is a bit daft. I suspect that I will be tarred as a modernist heretic, or an incompletely converted Protestant, but the new rite has a number of clear improvements on the old. There is more Scripture, which is an unqualifiedly good thing. It is in the vernacular.* It eliminates some repetition of uncertain usefulness. But it simply offers for the enterprising priest way too many opportunities to turn it into the “Father Bob and Cantor Joan Show.” The baby is usually thrown out with the proverbial bathwater, but that doesn’t mean that the baby didn’t need a bath. I contend, with Blessed Cardinal Newman, that the Church has always changed–“developed“–and that we can usually identify which changes are consistent with Tradition and which ones are not. There is no precedent for holding onto traditions (with a little “t”) for their own sake. We do learn, as time goes by, how to more fully express the Faith handed down from the Apostles. That is not easy, and parts of the Church do go astray, all the time.
But folks who consider themselves good Catholics have been going astray since day one. You’d have to look at Church history through some fairly rose-colored glasses to think otherwise. It has reached the highest levels in the past: some 80% of bishops at one time were Arian; a goodly percentage of people took the side of the Donatists and Montanists; the East and West did split once upon a time. Even Luther had the best of intentions. On the other hand, even if not explicitly heretical, practices of the hierarchy of the Church have left something to be desired. You could even say that we’ve been rather blessed with the holiness of our past several popes when you look back and see how others have behaved. Yes, things, on the whole, aren’t good today. But they never have been.
What this doesn’t mean is that we should just sit back and say that there’s nothing that can–or should–be done against abuses within the Church today. All that I’m trying to say is that we are still members of fallen mankind, and that is not going to change. Who knows how much worse things would be if there had been no St. Athanasius to counter the Arians, no St. Francis to counter the abuses of the Medieval Church, no St. Francis de Sales and St. Ignatius of Loyola to spearhead the Counter-Reformation? Things continue to fall apart; the center still doesn’t hold; but we have to keep trying to prop it up for the future’s sake.
Stay tuned for part two: how liberals also misunderstand change. You may be surprised at my conclusions.
* The ability of some Anglicans, Anglican Use Catholics, most Eastern Catholics and Orthodox, and a fair number of Novus Ordo parishes to create an atmosphere of reverence and holiness without resorting to Latin, Slavonic, etc., utterly and completely defeats the argument that Latin is necessary to maintain reverence in a Catholic Mass. I would, instead, suggest that Latin is useful not because it is holy but because it is impossible for all but a few priests to mess with it to suit their own purposes. Ad libbing in Latin just doesn’t happen. The usus antiquior would have almost no devotees if Novus Ordo were only celebrated with the same reverence as the old rite. Prove me wrong.