A House Divided: Cancel Culture & the Latin Mass
Fr. Gordon J. MacRae | The Daily Knight
In Traditionis Custodes restricting the Traditional Latin Mass, Pope Francis insists that his goal is ecclesial communion. Then he dropped a bombshell of division.
The Year of Our Lord 2003 seemed a lot more like a year of Our Lord’s Calvary. It was a most painful year for me personally and for many Catholics. Starting in Boston with a rapid ripple effect across the land, diocese after diocese faced relentless Catholic scandal over the horror of Catholic priests accused of sexual abuse. A spotlight was cast upon the Catholic Church to the delight of the news media, but the subject needed a flood light. There was little justice in the moral panic to follow. This is a story I wrote about in a recent post, “A Sex Abuse Cover-Up in Boston Haunts the White House.”
Just beyond the glare of The Boston Globe spotlight, there was another event that had an even more profound impact on another church community in 2003. It took place just north of Boston in New Hampshire and from there it, too, rippled across the land, and many lands. Its most distinctive feature was its contrast to the Catholic story. While Catholic priests were judged and condemned in the media, one Episcopal clergyman in New Hampshire became a celebrity of pop culture.
In 2003, The Reverend V. Gene Robinson became the first openly gay Episcopalian priest to be nominated to become a bishop. The announcement had the immediate effect of alienating conservative members of the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire. Born Vicky Gene Robinson in 1947, the nominee had been married, raised a family, divorced, and was in a conjugal same-sex relationship at the time of his nomination. For many, this seemed more of a politically correct statement than a serious nomination. If The Reverend Robinson had been divorced and living with another woman who was not his wife, this nomination would have gone nowhere.
Bishop Robinson’s nomination was confirmed by the Episcopal church of New Hampshire to equal parts applause and dismay. Then the cascade of damage was set in motion. With the support of the Nigerian Anglican church, many American conservative Episcopalians broke from the Worldwide Anglican Communion to form the Anglican Church in North America. The Anglican bishops of Uganda announced that they too broke from communion with the Episcopal church. This spread among conservative Anglican bishops across Africa and other parts of the world.
Having torn the Worldwide Anglican Communion asunder, Bishop Robinson announced his retirement seven years later in 2010. At some point he checked into drug rehab, and then used his voice as a retired bishop to promote same-sex marriage before the New Hampshire Legislature. He and his partner were among the first to marry under the new law he helped to pass. Then he announced his divorce to a news media that kept it very low key.
Among the protests came a multitude of petitions to Pope Benedict XVI who, in 2009, promulgated the Motu Proprio, Anglianorum Coetibus accepting into the Roman Rite entire Anglican parishes desiring to “cross the Tiber” to join the Roman Church. The first was a parish that became part of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Galveston-Houston, Texas in 2009.
We Are on a Road to Calvary Not Schism
The reactions that resulted in a breakup of the Worldwide Anglican Communion could not happen in the Catholic Church. Canon Law does not allow for the decisions to leave promoted by the Anglican bishops of Africa and other conservative communities. Only the Holy See can declare that a schism exists in a region or diocese. Popes have gone to great lengths to avoid schism. Pope Benedict XVI lifted the excommunication of Bishops in the Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX) to heal a longstanding rift with traditionalists. In 2007, Pope Benedict further mended that rift with his Motu Proprio, Summorum Pontificum, which removed obstacles to the Traditional Latin Mass.
Now Pope Francis has reopened those wounds anew with Traditionis Custodes, his Motu Proprio: announced on July 16, 2021 which contradicts and revokes the permissions granted by Pope Benedict. I wrote of this last week in these pages in “Pope Francis Suppresses the Prayers of the Faithful.”
I used that title because in many ways my experience of the vast majority of those who seek out the Latin Mass are among the most faithful. In a published Letter to the Editor of The Wall Street Journal on July 30, 2021, writer Ray Martin of Ridgefield, Connecticut described what has become a lax and often disrespectful atmosphere in too many parishes. This is an impression that I hear about frequently from readers:
“I do not regularly attend a Latin Mass but I do remember it from childhood ... Nowadays, fewer Catholics attend Mass regularly, they tend to come late and leave early, and it is not unusual to see T-shirts, short-shorts and flip flops. Everyone presents at the altar for Communion. One study found that around one in three Catholics believes in the True Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. I would guess that more than 90-percent of Latin Mass attendees do.” — Ray Martin, WSJ.com
My experience of the many Catholics I hear from who seek out the Latin Mass either weekly or even just on occasion is that they are our modern day Essenes. I wrote of the Essenes and their role in preserving the faith of both Israel and the early Jewish Christians in “Qumran: The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Coming Apocalypse.” When Pope Benedict XVI opened the Church door to those requesting the Tridentine Latin Mass, many thought it would draw only senior citizens and some “far-right cranks,” as one writer put it back then. That has been far from true. Pope Francis expressed a concern that many who take part in the Latin Mass deny the validity of the Novus Ordo, the form of the Mass promulgated by Pope Paul VI in 1970. This also is far from true. I hear from many Latin Mass attendees who also take part in the Novus Ordo Mass. All they ask for is a sense of the sacred, and a communal acknowledgment that Jesus is truly present in the Eucharist. Their appreciation of the Novus Ordo has been strengthened by the Latin Mass.
Writing for The Wall Street Journal, Matthew Walther, editor of The Lamp magazine, penned an eye-opening op-ed one week after Pope Francis announced new, severe and immediate restrictions on the Latin Mass. Entitled, “Pope, Francis, the Latin Mass, and My Family” (July 23, 2021), Mr. Lamb described the reaction of those in his Catholic community of faith:
“We are loyal children of the Church on the receiving end of a harsh punishment. Pope Francis ... seemed to suggest that things had gone too far and were threatening to undo the liturgical reforms of the 1960s. The gradual displacement of the new rite, which emerged after Vatican II, was in fact the half-articulated ambition of many traditionalists. Until recently many had looked forward to a future in which the ‘extraordinary form’ of the Mass, as Benedict referred to it, was set to become rather ordinary.” — Matthew Walther
Perhaps that is the point. The solemnity, majesty, and sacredness of the sacrifice taking place is just that — extraordinary. I want to contrast that with an experience I had as a newly ordained priest in one New Hampshire parish whose pastor made a weekly show of rushing through Sunday Mass at warp speed. After his hasty final blessing he would look at his watch and declare, “Twenty-two minutes, and I didn’t miss a thing!”
Standing with Peter v. Standing Our Ground
In some ways, Pope Francis has been unpredictable for so-called progressive Catholics as well. After playing down the issue of homosexuality with oft-quoted remarks like, “Who am I to judge?”, he disappointed many in liberal Catholic enclaves like Germany when he refused to allow blessings of same-sex unions. He dismissed the proposition while shocking liberal German priests with the definitive statement, “God cannot bless sin.” In an open letter to German Catholics in 2019, he cautioned them against “multiplying and nurturing the evils the Church wants to overcome.” He also gave a definitive “no” on the topic of ordination of women.
With all the open, and often flagrant, dissent from Church teaching and discipline in Germany and other parts of Europe, why would Francis choose to label traditional Catholics who appreciate the Latin Mass as “divisive?” I do not have answers.
But I do have more questions and a few suspicions. As I pointed out in these pages a week ago, there is an immense and growing contrast between the state of the Catholic Church in Germany and other areas in Europe, and that of the Church in Africa. The former has been in a state of stagnation for decades, and is now deeply involved in the embrace of what has come to be called, “Cancel Culture.” In its Catholic manifestation, I can only describe this as the setting aside of the “sensus fidei,” the sense of the faith as it has been expressed across two millennia, in favor of populist social trends of just the first two decades of the 21st Century.
With that understanding, “Cancel Culture” has become a modern plague on humanity that is far more destructive than any viral pandemic. If we do not understand history, and learn from it, we are doomed to repeat its most destructive patterns. Joining this secularized culture by placing God on the shelf while morphing Roman Catholicism into a mirror image of the flailing American Episcopal church is perilous.
The rapid growth of the Traditional Latin Mass since Pope Benedict XVI re-opened that door may well be the work of the Holy Spirit. Pope Francis knows well that the entire Church — and not just the bishops with whom he consulted — comprises the “sensus fidelium,” the action of the Holy Spirit in the hearts and minds and souls of the faithful from the Sacrifice at Calvary to the present day. The faithful witness of those who embrace the Traditional Latin Mass may prove to be a gift to the Church.
But the faithful must not stand against Peter to achieve that end. We are a Church built upon the blood of martyrs, and faithful witness may now require paying the cost of discipleship. Sometimes in the Church’s story of faith, white martyrdom has not only been for the Church. Sometimes it has been from the Church. Padre Pio knew this. So did Cardinal George Pell. So do I.
I have been most struck by the two volumes of Cardinal Pell’s Prison Journal. He frequently repeated his longing for Mass and the Eucharist in a place where he was barred from them. I recall reading from Father Walter Ciszek’s book, With God In Russia, that he sat on the edge of his bunk in a Siberian labor camp and would mouth from memory the words of the Roman Canon of the Mass.
My experience of Mass as a prisoner is reduced to the contents of a small plastic box. On Sunday nights at 11:00 PM, after the last prisoner count of the day, I take that box from a shelf and place it at the foot of my prison bunk. It serves as both a container and an altar. It has a Corporal that I spread over its surface. I attach a small battery powered book light to the wall just above it, and begin my preparation for Mass. The Mass is always “Ad Orientem,” toward the East, not by any design of my own, but because the cell window faces in that direction.
I have no sacred vessels. I have a coffee cup purchased years ago but never used for any other purpose. I have a weekly supply of a host placed on a clean linen purificator, and a one-quarter ounce of unfermented wine with no additives approved for liturgical use by Catholic priests serving in a battlefield. I have a small wooden crucifix on a stand on a shelf just above where my Mass is offered.
There was a time when I did not have even these. For many years in prison, I had no access at all to the Mass. So I look upon this present drama unfolding now in our Church, and see it as madness that is hopefully brief. If you have appreciated the Traditional Latin Mass, you must not leave. The Church needs you. We need you to remind us of a lesson that I have long since learned harshly, and can now never forget.
What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly.
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You may also like these relevant posts from Father's blog, Beyond These Stone Walls: Saint Maximilian Kolbe and the Gift of Noble Defiance Qumran: The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Coming Apocalypse