The Pope’s Language Lesson
By JOHN L. ALLEN Jr.
Published: May 30, 2007
The New York Times
A SENIOR Vatican official has confirmed that sometime soon Pope Benedict XVI will expand permission for use of what’s popularly known as the Latin Mass, the service that was standard before the Second Vatican Council. Though some details remain vague, one point seems all too clear: When the decision officially comes down, its importance will be hyped beyond all recognition, because doing so serves the purposes of both conservatives and liberals within the church, as well as the press.
Pope Benedict’s intent, according to Vatican authorities, is to make the pre-1960s Mass optional, leaving Catholics free to choose which Mass they want to attend. Because the older Tridentine Mass, named for the 16th-century Council of Trent, has come to symbolize deep tensions in Catholicism, the pope’s decision is sure to trigger an avalanche of commentary.
Many on the Catholic right will hail the move as a death knell for the liturgical reforms of Vatican II, such as use of the vernacular languages and modern music, and participation by the laity, most of which conservatives have long derided as misplaced efforts to make the church “relevant.” The older Mass, many argue, has such beauty and elicits such a sense of awe that, over time, it will triumph, leaving the changes of the last 40 years as a failed experiment.
That argument fails the smell test of contact with reality. For one thing, Catholics old enough to remember the pre-Vatican II Mass know that it’s as capable of being celebrated in drab, uninspiring fashion as any other rite. Moreover, four decades after Vatican II, many Catholic priests don’t even know the old Mass. Given the other demands they face in light of a priest shortage, a good number won’t take the time to learn it.
Most basically, there’s scant evidence of a huge pent-up demand for the old Mass. Since 1984, celebration of the old Mass has been permitted with a dispensation from the local bishop. While some dioceses where it’s allowed report that the celebrations are often well attended, sometimes with a surprising number of younger Catholics, there’s been no widespread exodus from the new rite to the old.
In the end, the normal Sunday experience for the vast majority of Catholics will continue to be the new Mass celebrated in the vernacular. (It’s worth noting, however, that the new Mass can also be celebrated in Latin, with all the “smells and bells” dear to the high-church set.)
Many on the Catholic left, meanwhile, will make a cause célèbre out of the document because, to them, it symbolizes a broad conservative drift in Catholic affairs. They will read it as another sign of a “rollback” on Vatican II.
That argument, too, depends on selective perception. While Benedict certainly wants to call the church back to some Catholic fundamentals, evidence of a systematic lurch to the right is hard to come by. This is the same pope, after all, who scandalized Catholic traditionalists by jettisoning limbo and by praying alongside the grand mufti of Istanbul inside the Blue Mosque in Turkey. On the political front, Benedict has demanded debt relief for impoverished nations, said that “nothing positive” has come from the United States-led war in Iraq, and denounced capitalism as an “ideological promise” that “has proven false.”
And, of course, we in the press will abet the hype because it’s about conflict, which is the motor fuel of storytelling, and because we need to “sell” the story in order to win air time and column inches.
Benedict, a quintessential realist, will probably be among the few who understand right away that his ruling is not terribly earth-shattering. Sources close to the pope I have spoken to say his modest ambition is that over time, the old Mass will exert a “gravitational pull” on the new one, drawing it toward greater sobriety and reverence.
Perhaps — although it’s equally possible that traditionally minded Catholics will now have a broader “opt out” clause, making them less likely to pester priests and bishops about what they see as the defects of the new Mass.
In any event, the real impact of Benedict’s ruling is likely to be measured in small changes over a long arc of time, not in upheavals or revolutions. That reality, however, will do little to lower the rhetorical volume. If only we could convince the activists to slug it out in Latin, leaving the rest of us blissfully oblivious, then we might have something.
John L. Allen Jr. is a senior correspondent for The National Catholic Reporter and the author of “The Rise of Benedict XVI.”