Thursday, September 20, 2007

Rhetoric Is Fun

For the most part I agree with Edward Oakes's assessment of the prognosis for Summorum Pontificum, which you can find at the First Things blog. He argues that disputes over liturgy are nothing new in the Catholic Church, and compares some of the background issues behind Summorum Pontificum to the Jansenist reforms of the Synod of Pistoia of 1786. Although I largely agree with his conclusions, however, there were certain aspects of his essay that brought a smile to my lips because, as clever as this Jesuit is, his rhetoric did not escape my gimlet eye.

The fun begins in the very first paragraph, where Oakes writes:
I cannot predict at this early date how much of a demand there will be for the Mass of Blessed John XXIII (otherwise, and somewhat inaccurately, known as the Tridentine Latin Mass), or what beneficial effects this new legislation will have on the way the ordinary form is celebrated, officially known as the Mass of John Paul II (which is a modest revision of the much more significant changes to the Mass enacted after Vatican II by Paul VI).
In this one sentence Oakes manages to say things that are (a) indisputably true and (b) inevitably irritating to Traditionalists. Indeed, it is probably the very truth of these statements that will most irritate. First, he says he has no idea how many people actually want to go to the Mass said under the older rubrics, yet Traditionalists have argued for years that what they call the "novus ordo" is plagued by low attendance while what they call "Tridentine rite" Masses are bursting at the seams. This demographic argument has been, in fact, a central pillar in their call for greater latitude in permitting the older rubrics. Second, note the nomenclature used here: what the Traditionalists call the "Tridentine Rite of the Mass" Oakes is calling "the Mass of Blesseed John XXIII". Some Trads don't think that John XXIII is very blessed, and none of them thinks that the older rubrics were really his. Indeed, some of them, in calling for a return to older rubrics, don't really mean the Mass of 1963 anyway, they mean the Mass as it was said under Pius X. To these Trads John XXIII is Bad News, and John Paul II is even worse news, so to call what they name the "novus ordo" the "Mass of John Paul II" is also going to chafe. If only he had written "the Mass of Servant of God John Paul II" Oakes could have twisted the knife even further.

Oakes twice mentions the view--possibly one he shares but he never explicitly endorses it--that the liturgical reforms of the immediate post-Vatican II years were not an "unmitigated or universal success", but it is interesting that the first time he says this it comes right after dropping the name of Lefebvre. True, he does not say that only Lefebvrites were calling for the older rubrics--indeed, he is explicitly saying that they were not the only ones. But what if he had written "It's not only the schismatic, possibly heretical, folks who want this...". Well, who else would want it, is a question that might occur to some after a start like that. He goes on immediately to tell us who else he has in mind:
Especially in countries where the vernacular translations have been clumsy or even inaccurate, dissatisfaction was bound to increase by the year, at least among those sensitive to the beauties of their native tongue.
I see, so it's in those countries where the translations were "clumsy" (I've only ever heard folks under the thumb of the ICEL say this about the vernacular--does that mean that we're talking only about English speaking countries here?) that folks were most upset, or, well, the folks who are particularly sensitive to linguistic issues in their own language, you know, the eggheads and such. Regular folks didn't care, and goodness knows there weren't any substantive worries involved, just dissatisfaction with "clumsiness".

From a rhetorical point of view, however, things are just getting started. At this point, Oakes moves on to the theme he will develop at most length--the rather unfortunate similarity between those who prefer the older rubrics to the Jansenists. Citing a book by the 19th century writer Antonio Rosmini Oakes zeros in on the question of "the division between people and clergy at public worship" as a problem calling for particular comment.
For part of the problem with the implementation of liturgical reforms after Vatican II has been that, at least for critics of that reform, there is now too little distinction between people and clergy at worship.
It's not clear what the referent is for "critics of that reform", but there is indeed a suggestion that it is perhaps they who are the ones raising all the fuss, and that there is not necessarily any particular objective reason behind that fuss: it may well be nothing more than one small part of a general Trad package. Then this:
Not many Catholics, I have discovered, are sufficiently aware that one of the earliest calls for liturgical reform came from the Jansenist-influenced (and later condemned) Synod of Pistoia (1786). This synod notoriously affirmed such key Jansenist doctrines as these: that unbaptized infants go to hell (not limbo) and that the grace of redemption cannot be found outside the confines of the Catholic Church. But that same synod also decreed that there should be only one altar in each church, Latin should be replaced (at least in part) by Italian, and the cult of the Sacred Heart (an explicitly anti-Jansenist devotion) should be suppressed. It also adopted other “liberal” positions such as: the authority of the hierarchy derives from the consent of the governed, and the jurisdiction of the bishop is independent of the pope’s.

“Irony is history’s tastiest dish,” says one shrewd observer, and never has that been more true than when we are speaking of liturgical reform. For nowadays those most comfortable with post–Vatican II reforms show not the slightest trace of Jansenism, while the Lefebvrists not only object to those reforms but do so precisely because they fear that the identity of the Church as the sole ark of salvation has been undermined by Vatican II’s openness to ecumenism and the modern world.
Passing over in silence the quasi-approving reference to a postmodernist account of philosophy written by a semiotician who wrote his own biography for Wikipedia (man, you'd never find me doing anything so self-serving), I note that there is a curious dichotomy on offer here. There are those, apparently, who are "most comfortable with post-Vatican II reforms", and these folks do not show even "the slightest trace of Jansenism". On the other hand, there are "the Lefebvrists", who object to certain reforms "because they fear that the identity of the Church as the sole ark of salvation has been undermined by Vatican II's openness to ecumenism and the modern world." That, I take it, is the "irony" in the present situation, that those who see themselves as defending an authentic teaching of the Church against modernism are doing much the same thing that the Jansenists did, that is, these folks who perceive themselves as bastions of orthodoxy are in fact acting like heretics.

If you were hoping that there would be some juicy details regarding the Jansenism of today's Trad-leaning Catholics, I'm afraid you're in for some major disappointment.
For example, at present, when the wine is consecrated into the blood of Christ, the priest says (here quoting Christ’s own words) that this blood will be “poured out for you and for all.” But soon the priest will, according to reliable reports, have to use the more accurate translation and say that it will be “poured out for you and for many.” Does this new and apparently more restrictive translation mean that the Church is now giving official sanction to the Augustinian/Calvinist doctrine of limited atonement, one that the Jansenists made the first principle and foundation of their heresy?
This is followed by some canned remarks from Pope Benedict XVI about not trying "to set limits on God's behalf". Now, I've already commented on the so-called "pro multis" controversy at some length, so I won't rehash my feelings about that here. I will only point out two things. First, Oakes is either mistaken or just being disingenuous when he writes that he is "quoting Christ's own words" as "poured out for you and for all" (my emphasis). In the Gospel of Matthew he says "this is my blood of the new testament that is poured out for many (peri pollôn)", and he says virtually the same thing in the Gospel of Mark, and literally the same thing about his blood being poured out peri pollôn. In the Gospel of Luke, he says only that his blood is poured out huper humôn, "for you", which on a "Lefebvrist" reading might actually mean that it was poured out only for the Apostles themselves. St. Paul, when discussing the agapê meal ritual in 1 Corinthians, doesn't bother to mention just for whom the blood has been poured out, he quotes Our Lord as saying only that we ought to "do this" as a "commemoration". (The Gospel of John, you will recall, has no institution narrative.) Now, don't get me wrong, none of this is intended to show any support for those who are get themselves all worked up over the "for all" translation of "pro multis". I don't, in fact, have any sympathy for the view they defend. I mention this mistake on Oakes's part only to illustrate the way in which he is thinking and writing about this particular issue. (Possibly what Oakes intended to say is that the priest, in saying these words, is supposed to be saying Christ's own words, that is, he is acting in persona Christi, but of course the issue, from the point of view of those who are getting all worked up about this, is how to translate the normative Latin version of the Mass into the vernacular; it is also partly about whether, and how well, the normative Latin version of the Mass translates the actual words of Our Lord as they are recorded in the Greek New Testament. But on both counts, the words are literally translated as "for many", not "for all".)

Second, it is worth noting that a genuinely "traditionalist" approach to ecclesiology would not make as much hay of this issue as either the self-styled "Traditionalists" or their critics, such as Oakes, do. The genuinely traditionalist Catholic knows perfectly well that Christ died "for everyone", not just "for many", and he knows, too, and accepts, that this is what the Church teaches. However, the traditionalist also knows that the Church's teachings were not changed by the second Vatican Council, they were merely clarified, so that whatever we are to think about nulla salus extra ecclesiam, our thinking needs to be in the context of an authentic understanding of the development of doctrine. (For a really good example of that kind of thinking, I recommend Mike Liccione's essays.)

I have emphasized from the start that I am largely sympathetic to the position that Oakes is staking out in his essay, and I will draw to a close here by emphasizing that point again. To draw attention to a particular rhetorical approach to a position is not to express either agreement or disagreement with the position being staked out. But it does, I hope, illustrate a phenomenon that I think is rather unfortunate, and that is the fact that certain extreme factions have had the luxury of defining, for certain other factions, how a particular view is to be regarded in the media. Granted, there's always a risk involved when one decided to tackle a complex issue in a (gasp) blog post or online essay. The danger of oversimplifying for the sake of clarity in exposition is very real and, critics of long boring blog posts might add, basically worth it if it means getting the message across more quickly and painlessly. As a result, even one's friends and allies sometimes say things that make you go "hmm."

I count myself among those who think that the liturgical reforms since 1970 have not been an "unmitigated or universal" success, and even though I have some ideas about what would, at least in my opinion, be the best way to improve things, I really don't have any idea how much of this is going to play out in the end. But I fully agree, in the end, with one final point that Oakes makes:
I look forward to discovering how many Catholics will follow the pope’s lead here, in obedience both to Summorum Pontificum and to the theology that animates it. In other words, will Catholics come out of Mass as truly converted Christians, eager to engage the world already loved by God (John 3:16) and redeemed by the cross (1 John 2:1-3) and whose cult transforms the culture? Or will they think of salvation as a zero-sum game, to be hoarded as a precariously won personal possession, made valuable only if others are damned? The answer to that question will not just determine the reception history of the motu proprio but will largely set the course for the future of the Church as well.


Tom said...

Out of curiosity, do you think those whom Fr. Oakes calls "sensitive to the beauties of their native tongue" constitute a group about which someone might have something meaningful to say, and if so, are there any words by which the group could be identified that you wouldn't interpret as belittling?

Kevin Jones said...

"Second, note the nomenclature used here: what the Traditionalists call the "Tridentine Rite of the Mass" Oakes is calling "the Mass of Blessed John XXIII". Some Trads don't think that John XXIII is very blessed, and none of them thinks that the older rubrics were really his."

Incidentally, Pope Benedict has referred to the old rite in precisely this way. Some blogger interpreted it as an attempt to appeal to liberals, who like some trads see the Tridentine Mass as something Pope John XXIII abolished rather than refined.

Scott Carson said...


Didn't you learn anything from Marida? Context is everything.

Scott Carson said...


I think most folks, other than the self-styled "Traditionalists", refer to it that way. My own practice is to refer to it as "the Mass of the 1963 rubrics", but I occasionally call it other things, depending on the context.