Rorate Caeli

OP-ED: "To Ross Douthat, With Affectionate Correction", by Fr. Richard Cipolla - Church Crisis, the True Battle, and Sacred Liturgy

To Ross Douthat, With Affectionate Correction

Fr. Richard G. Cipolla, DPhil

Paolo Veronese - The Wedding Feast at Cana (1563) - Musée du Louvre

It is certainly true, as has been observed on Rorate Caeli, that Ross Douthat’s Erasmus Lecture for First Things has caused quite a stir in traditional Catholic circles.  Msgr. Pope’s article bemoaning the lack of growth in the presence of the Traditional Mass in the Church has also gained the attention of Traditional Catholics, but that article lacks the depth and urgency that is contained in Douthat’s lecture. Many of us have admired his Op-Ed pieces in the New York Times, often wondering how he achieved his position amidst the quintessential Liberal Establishment embodied by that paper of record.  His skirmish with the Catholic theologians (and I have refrained from putting theologians in quotation marks out of some sense of objectivity, despite my belief that there may no longer be any Catholic theologians, for Catholic theologians have to be immersed in the Tradition, and there do not seem to be any who are so today) is an example of the proper role of the laity in the Church as encouraged by the Second Vatican Council. 

Douthat sees a number of important issues that are not immediately apparent either to Joe Q. Catholic, nor to the clergy, especially the bishops:  the commandeering of the post-Second Vatican Council by a strong group of bishops and theologians committed to the redefinition of Tradition that would allow for conformity to the spirit of the times, the times of the 1960s and 70s; the failure, despite heroic attempts, of Pope John Paul II, to change the course of the Church directed by those in love with the Zeitgeist of the end of the twentieth century; the failure of the pontificate of Benedict XVI not only to reverse the impetus to the embrace of secularism but also to fail to “clean the stables of the filth”; the terrible and long lasting effects of the clerical sexual abuse scandals on the faith of the people and on the world’s attitude towards the Church.  All this Douthat understands clearly. And he also sees that the biggest problem in the Church, biggest because it is the basis for the continuance of the slide of the Church to tepid and flaccid Anglicanism, is—whatever one wishes to call it—papolatry, hyper-papalism, that adulation of the Pope that is unprecedented in the history of the Church, and the assumption that the power of the Pope has no limits, no boundaries, such that his pronouncements can change doctrine, of course under the guise of development controlled by the Holy Spirit, at will.  Pio Nono was no slouch with respect to having a high sense of his power as Pope. But as I have written before, he would be quite surprised, and perhaps would even blush, in the face of the power the Popes of the latter part of the twentieth century have taken as their right, including suppressing the Traditional Roman Rite and imposing a Novus Ordo of Mass on the whole Church.

Although Blessed John Henry Newman fully assented to the definition of Papal Infallibility at the First Vatican Council, his grave hesitation with respect to the suitability of defining the doctrine was prescient. 

Douthat sees clearly the terrible flaw in those whom he calls “conservative Catholics”, a term that is terrible flawed in of itself, in their constant appeal to documents to uphold a traditional understanding of the Catholic faith.  This appeal to official Church documents is a product of a rationalizing of Catholicism that certainly began with Trent (nevertheless a great Council) and has continued ever since.  The deliberate ambiguity of the documents of Vatican II has been used in a brilliant way by those who would move the Church in a direction that is non-Traditional, brilliant by the standards of the world.  Even the much touted Catechism of the Catholic Faith is no match for the Hegelian goosestep towards the triumph of the naked individual and the inevitability of an apotheosis of history as self-fulfillment. 

Douthat has arrived at the conclusion that Pope Francis, while grounded in Christian morality and the love of neighbor that is the necessary corollary of the love of God, is trying to take the Church to a place that may be denying what Catholicism is, at least as it should be lived.  When Pope Francis was elected, I wrote a piece for Rorate Caeli in which I described Francis as the inevitable Pope for our times.  I declared that the next several years would be “back to the future”. Papa Bergoglio embodies all that 60s Jesuits were and still are.  And I said that we must go through this time again, but this time not as secular society but as the Church.  This is not to malign Pope Francis. I pray for him every day in my Rosary, and I do so with genuine affection for his God-given role in the Church.  And I shall continue to do so.  But I will not succumb to that hyper-papalism that has had such a negative effect on the Church for the past fifty years at least, that papolatry that refuses to look at Church history and stand back with some sense of objectivity in looking at the men who have occupied the See of Peter. 


If I were to have a conversation with Ross Douthat, this is what I would say.  

First: your use of the terms conservative and liberal in your analysis of the situation in the Church is absolutely wrong, absolutely guaranteed to continue the march towards the morphing of Catholicism into the silly vagueness of contemporary Anglicanism, where Scripture, Tradition and Christ himself are no barriers to proclaiming the darkness of the world as the light.  The very foundation of Anglicanism in the selfish break of a randy King with the Church, as Newman finally saw, guaranteed its demise and apostasy, for the center does not hold, for there is no center.  The death of Anglo-Catholicism as a force within Anglicanism to bring it to a Catholic understanding of the Christian faith, while peopled with truly great men and women of faith, devolved into an imitation of Catholicism but with good taste, and was destroyed by mere aestheticism and a clergy where homosexuality was an all too common element.  Newman saw, unlike Pusey, Keble and their followers, that Catholicism is impossible except in the Catholic Church.

What is going on in the Church today is not a battle between liberal and conservative. Those are political terms that have changed their meaning quite often through two centuries.  The battle is between Catholic Tradition (which includes the primacy of Scripture and its binding force) and the selfishness and darkness of the world clothed in the sentimentality of "LUV".  That battle is what the First Epistle of St. John speaks about.  And it has not changed for two thousand years.

But above all, Mr. Douthat, you do not understand that the deepest problem of the state of the Church today is the destruction of her liturgical life.  That blindess you share with the Neocons, who have been blind to this for so many years and who refuse to see this because of their inability to even consider that the Church can make serious mistakes despite her indefectibility.  The Panglossian attitude towards the post-Vatican II developments in the liturgy on the part of those who style themselves as conservative Catholics is not only an affront to reality but has contributed to the shocking (never admitted by the bishops) decline in Mass attendance to the point where less than 25% of Catholics go to Sunday Mass on a regular basis.  Any rational person would want to sit down and discuss how we got to this point and at least consider that bad decisions were made in the implementation of Sacrosanctum Concilium by the Consilium entrusted with liturgical renewal.  It is a remarkable fact that Pope Paul VI thought that he had the power to change the liturgy of the Mass.  As I said before, even Pio Nono would have been amazed that he had this power.  But then comes Benedict XVI who declares that what was sacred then is sacred now and that the Traditional Roman Mass was never suppressed.  Ahem.  There may a contradiction somewhere in all of this. 

We who love the Tradition of the Catholic Church rejoiced in Benedict’s Motu Proprio—Summorum Pontificum that freed the Traditional Mass from the tyranny of the post-Vatican II liturgical establishment.  But Benedict did this by inventing the fiction that there are two forms of the one Roman Rite:  the Ordinary and the Extraordinary.  What this means is, to say the least, not clear, perhaps not cogent.  But he could not say explicitly that what Paul VI did in imposing the Novus Ordo on the Church was wrong—because Popes do not make serious mistakes.  And so that whole fiction about if a small group in a parish want the “old Mass”, they should go to the pastor and ask that it be celebrated in their parish, and if the pastor refuses (why would he?), they could go to the bishop.  What does all this mean?  The great majority of bishops are inimical to the Traditional Mass, and this animosity is true even more of pastors of parishes and seminary officials.  Those of a certain age have a vested interest in the de-sacralization of the liturgy that occurred after the Second Vatican Council.  And, Mr. Douthat, what you see happening in the doctrinal life of the Church is a direct consequence of the unmooring of the liturgical life of the Church from its foundation in Catholic Tradition.  This is not conservatism.  This is foundationalism, grounded in the Tradition of the Apostles.

But this is not a time for gloom and doom, nor is it a time for Pope-bashing, nor is it a time for circling the wagons. No.  Next Sunday’s gospel in the Extraordinary Form as always is the first miracle of Christ: the changing of water into wine at the wedding feast of Cana, as part of the Epiphany of the Lord. And, mirabile dictu, because it is "Year C in the Ordinary Form", our people at the masses celebrated according to that Form, will also hear this Gospel.  

And how wonderful that is! For this first miracle of our Lord is a miracle of pure largesse, a miracle not to heal, or to exorcise, or to raise someone from the dead.  His first miracle was to help make people happy at a celebration of hope and love that is a wedding.  And so let us all raise our glasses in happiness and thanksgiving that we are blessed by our Catholic faith.  And let us, yes, toast the Pope, but conscience first.  And let us toast each other, whoever we are, and let us toast this whole messy world in which we live that whether they know it or not,  the world has been redeemed by Jesus Christ.  And with a smile on our face let us thank God that He has loved us so much that He sent his Son to die for us; and that he continues to love us so much despite our ungratefulness and sin-- and let us thank God that we know the beauty and the truth of the Catholic faith.