The Joy of Sects

I can’t believe I only just found out about this one. In a rare flash of insight and self-reflection, Msgr. Charles Pope wrote an article for the National Catholic Register about how the numbers for Latin Mass participation seem to have stagnated and how Latin Mass communities need to actively evangelize to increase their numbers and their clout.

It seems that a ceiling has been hit. The Traditional Latin Mass appeals to a certain niche group of Catholics, but the number in that group appears to have reached its maximum.

Some traditional Catholics I speak to say, “If only the archdiocese would promote us more,” or “If only the bishop would celebrate it at all or more frequently.” Perhaps, but many other niche groups in the archdiocese say the same thing about their particular interest.

At the end of the day, for any particular movement, prayer form, organization, or even liturgy, the job of promoting it must belong to those who love it most. Shepherds don’t have sheep; sheep have sheep.

And once again we are back to the fundamental point: numbers matter. Groups that seek respect, recognition, and promotion in the highest places need to remember that numbers do matter; it’s just the way life works. If we who love the Traditional Latin Mass want to be near the top of the bishop’s priority list, we’re going to have to be more than one-half of one percent of Catholics in the pews

Unsurprisingly, Pope’s words caused a bit of a stir in the conservotrad and traditionalist blogosphere (Google “Latin Mass” and “niche” to find them), with many Latin Mass fans taking umbrage at the idea that the “Mass of Ages” is the religious equivalent of liking Peruvian heavy metal music or classical Chinese opera. However, as Pope says, the numbers don’t lie. If the average Joe and Jane Catholic was really jonesing for Latin Masses, we’d see a lot more of them, especially after Summorum Pontificum. The fact that we don’t indicates that only a very vocal and very tiny minority of Catholics, the groups that I would call the “Latin Mass or nothing” crowd, is really interested in having regular access to the Latin Mass. This doesn’t make the desire to increase the number of Latin Masses an illegitimate cause, but I do think that Latin Mass supporters have to be realistic about their expectations.

Catholic traditionalists essentially comprise a sect that wants to be a church. In sociological terms, a church is a conservative religious organization that accepts society as it is and works within “the system,” while a sect is a smaller religious group that aims for personal and institutional perfection. Unlike churches, sects generally don’t want political power or influence, because doing so would compromise the purity of the group. The church-sect typology was formulated with the European state church system in mind, and so is difficult to translate into the pluralistic American religious environment, where the difference between church and sect can be quite blurry. Nevertheless, the mainstream Catholic church is usually considered an ideal type of a church by most historians and sociologists. Traditionalists groups, on the other hand, are regarded as sects, especially those within the SSPX and SSPV. Such groups like the ability to maintain strict standards of behavior, belief, dress, and piety that can only be achieved when your numbers are relatively small, yet dream of the day of final victory, when Rome realizes that Vatican II was one big mistake, repudiates the Council, and forces all Catholics in the mainstream Catholic church to be exactly like the members of these sects.

Another problem with the Latin Mass movement is that the culture one find in traditionalist circles is not very appealing to outsiders. Even if John and Jane Catholic find the Latin Mass to be aesthetically appealing, they probably aren’t going to be interested in maintaining a relationship a religious group that obsesses over women’s clothing, openly pines for an absolutist monarchy in the United States, thinks that homeschooling is the only “godly” option for “real Catholics,” and openly tries to root out heresy, real and imagined, among the membership. Plus, if John and Jane Catholic happen to be people of color, they may not appreciate the not-so veiled reactionary undertones that say you have to be white (or at the very least, completely adopt a very Eurocentric lens) to be a “real Catholic” or the fact that the community considers liturgical/theological bickering to be the most important moral issue of our day. Unarmed black teen got shot by the police? Who cares when there are unveiled women wearing pants to distribute the Eucharist in “Novus Ordo” churches! Thousands of unaccompanied minors fleeing drug violence and dysfunctional governments in Central America? Whatever; the parish bookstore is selling books by Pope Benedict XVI that might have been written under the influence of “the Spirit of Vatican II,” and we’ve got to campaign to remove them. Priorities, people!

The fact that even many conservotrads are uncomfortable with much of the rhetoric found in traditionalist circles is itself a major barrier to (just see how much abuse is heaped on “neo-Catholics” on the Rorate Caeli blog). One reason why so many otherwise conservative bishops were reluctant to allow indults for Latin Masses in the pre-Summorum Pontificum days was because traditionalists had already developed a reputation even in the 1980s for being schismatic (see William Dinges’ essay in the edited volume Being Right: Conservative Catholics in America for valuable information about the history of Catholic traditionalism). Given how many parishioners at St F were into the SSPX, sedevacantism, and unapproved apparitions (and keep in mind, this was a parish approved by the archdiocese), I can see why many conservotrads who just want to stay comfortably on the Barque of Peter would be reluctant to make such a place their permanent spiritual home.

Most Catholics view the Latin Mass as a curiosity, and nothing more, which would explain why many Latin Masses start out with large numbers of interested onlookers and then dwindle as the novelty wears off. I don’t think this is a failure of catechisis, as most traditionalists would claim (most people, Catholic or not, know what the Catholic church teaches, whether they agree with said teachings or not), so much as it’s a case of different people having different aesthetic senses. One’s tastes in liturgy or music tell you nothing about their moral/ethical compass. Just because a person like guitars during mass doesn’t mean that he or she is out murdering and raping in their spare time, any more than liking Gregorian chant means that one is a paragon of moral rectitude.

Any social movement has to build bridges if it wants to be successful, but the Latin Mass/traditionalist subculture is generally not willing to do this. The assumption appears to be is that the Latin Mass, being objectively superior to mass in the vernacular, will automatically attract followers, but that doesn’t appear to be the case. Yes, traditionalists do tend to have bigger families than non-traditionalist Catholics, but that doesn’t mean the future of the church is traditionalists; the Amish have a large birthrate too, but no one would claim that America will be taken over by the Amish. Traditionalists live in a ghetto of their own making, and have little desire to leave it, much less rub elbows with the “Novus Ordo” hoi polloi. Being a sect is nice if you want to enforce doctrinal purity and uniformity, rather less so if you want to claim being “catholic” in any sense of the word.

2 thoughts on “The Joy of Sects

  1. I am 61 and remember my first non Latin mass. I remember the joy in hearing a Mass and understanding the words.


    1. I suspect that most Catholics at the time of Vatican II did think that mass in the vernacular was an improvement, if nothing else because the numbers of the “Latin Mass or nothing at all” crowd is very tiny. I think most Catholics simply thought to themselves, “Okay, this is how it’s going to be now,” and adapted accordingly. People who actually sit around and obsess about liturgy are relatively rare (and I count myself among that number).


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