What Do People Do With the Latin Mass?

In my continuing response to Msgr. Charles Pope’s piece about stagnating attendance numbers at Latin Masses (http://www.ncregister.com/blog/msgr-pope/an-urgent-warning-about-the-future-of-the-traditional-latin-mass), I decided that it would be useful to examine what Latin Mass advocates do with their preferred liturgical form and what they hope to achieve by increasing the number of Latin Masses available to the public.

First of all, I think it will be useful to clarify what I mean by “Latin Mass.” While it is true that the liturgical form often referred to as the “Novus Ordo Mass” on conservotrad and traditionalist blogs can theoretically be celebrated in Latin, it generally isn’t. When people talk about the “Latin Mass,” they are generally referring to the form of the mass that was codified at the Council of Trent and had its last iteration in the missal of 1962. Although some traditionalists, like supporters of the Society of St. Pius V, have issues with the missal of 1962, this is generally the form of the mass you get when you visit a venue that offers the Latin Mass.

Advocates of the Latin Mass not only find it to be a more aesthetically pleasing experience than mass in the vernacular, but they also find it to be more theologically robust. Common complaints about the current Roman missal is that the sacrificial aspects have been downplayed, the role of the priest has been outsourced to lay people (including women), and that the words of consecration are different and therefore invalid. Furthermore, Latin Mass advocates believe that the moral laxity that has supposedly crept into the laity since Vatican II is the result of a liturgy that has developed into a “horizontal” communal meal, rather than a “vertical” sacrifice. Implement a more theologically robust liturgy, they claim, and the problems of the post-Vatican II church will improve.

The logic behind supporting the Latin Mass tends to be something like this:

  1. The state of the Catholic church was great when the Latin Mass was the normative liturgy of the Roman rite.
  2. The Catholic church began to crumble when mass in the vernacular was introduced.
  3. Therefore, if the Latin Mass is restored, the Catholic church will be restored to its previous state of strength.

This, I think, is the crux of the problem. Latin Mass fans don’t want to spread Latin Masses for the sake of spreading Latin Masses, but expect that exposure to this liturgical form will somehow make lukewarm Catholics “religious virtuosos,” to borrow a phrase from Patricia Wittberg. Latin Mass communities tend to be for people who are already highly devout and want to be surrounded by other pious individuals, and if my experiences at St F are any indication, they really don’t have much tolerance for the Catholic hoi polloi. If “regular Catholics” starting attending Latin Masses, but remained “regular” without morphing into traditionalists who say the rosary every day, exclusively homeschool their kids, and dream of an American monarchy, the traditionalist core would become highly annoyed, and probably leave for more pious and culturally homogeneous pastures. The average “Novus Ordo” parish is actually more representative of what a pre-Vatican II parish would have been like, because they contain a cross-section of the highly devout, the lukewarm, the Easter-Christmas Catholics, and every other sort, as opposed to just the “religious virtuosos.” As I mentioned the other day, the Latin Mass has a very particular culture attached to it, and if you don’t fit into that culture, you aren’t going to want to hang around a Latin Mass community for an extended amount of time. It’s not the Latin Mass itself that makes people more pious, but rather, that people that are already very pious are seeking out the Latin Mass because of very specific liturgical, cultural, and political concerns.

It must also be mentioned that the people who attend Latin Mass communities are pious in a very particular way. You can find very pious Catholics in liberal parishes, but their brand of piety and spirituality is quite different than that of conservotrads and traditionalists. Something that surprised me in my post-St. F. journey was that liberal Catholics were not “badly catechized” as conservotrads and traditionalists claimed, but had simply reached a different opinion about religious matters. This shouldn’t come as a surprise, since almost all religious and ethical systems have divisions within them, but Latin Mass fans seem to think that their brand of religiosity is “naturally” superior, and if you don’t share their tastes, well, you’re just a self-absorbed, effeminate, “Novus Ordo” goer, aren’t you?

The main thing that kept Catholics in the pre-Vatican II white Catholic ghetto towing the Vatican line was not the Latin Mass, but the fact that they were confined in monocultural neighborhoods where they could be peer-pressured into conformity by clericalist priests and nosy neighbors (because of segregation, black Catholics would have had more contact with their Protestant neighbors than their white co-religionists, except perhaps in parts of southern Louisiana). By the time Vatican II was convened, the white Catholic ghetto was already starting to fall apart, as “white ethnics” began moving to the suburbs. It also used to be the norm that you had to be a member of your local parish, which creates a high degree of cohesion around families, neighborhoods, and parishes. These days, you can theoretically be a member of any parish you want. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but the closeness and cohesiveness that many conservotrads and conservatives claim to want isn’t possible if people are driving 30, 60, or 120 minutes just to attend a particular parish that happens to have a Latin Mass, as opposed to walking up the street to your neighborhood parish.

There were other forces that caused the Catholic church in America to weaken after Vatican II: the women’s movement opened up career and educational opportunities for women that made the religious life less appealing, competition from other religious and ethical systems, and of course, the sexual abuse scandal. The change in the form of the liturgy simply coincided with a period of immense social, cultural, and political change happening all across the globe, so it’s easy to draw a line in the sand and claim that everything went downhill after the Latin Mass was phased out. If you look at surveys and research that try to examine why people leave the Catholic church, complaints about liturgy are never listed as a major motivating factor. Neither is a desire to go back to some imagined pre-Vatican II Catholic ghetto utopia. Ex-Catholics fundamentally don’t want what the Vatican is selling, and that would be the truth even if Paul McCartney or the ghost of Merry del Val were in charge of the liturgy.