Rorate Caeli

“The Old Mass is Good for Catholic Social Teaching”—Article by Stefano Fontana

The Old Mass is Good for Catholic Social Teaching

by Stefano Fontana

La Nuova Bussola Quotidiana, July 21
translated by Zachary Thomas

Summorum pontificum gave hope to many who are committed to Catholic Social Teaching [CST] who nevertheless continue to regularly attend the Mass of Paul VI. CST is not unrelated to the liturgy. The old Mass stresses the centrality of God, including his social kingship, more than the Novus Ordo does. Francis’ latest motu proprio moves us in the direction of a “new” CST where the divine recedes and the primacy of the Church over the world is obscured.

Francis’s motu proprio Traditionis custodes has many aspects that can be considered imprudent. Some are still emerging, others will only become clear with time. Meanwhile, I would like to point out one that relates to Catholic Social Teaching.

When Pope Benedict XVI promulgated the motu proprio Summorum Pontificum in 2007, he reaffirmed the ancient rite of Mass as an expression, albeit extraordinary, of the one lex orandi of the Roman Church. Many people who are active in the realm of Catholic Social Teaching were pleased, including many who have continued to attend the Mass of the Novus Ordo Mass even after Summorum pontificum. While faithful to the Mass of Paul VI, they are grateful to Benedict XVI. Why? Because they know that the liturgy is related to the Church’s social doctrine, given that nothing in the life of the Church or of the Christian is alien to the liturgy. That is the meaning of the motto lex orandi - lex credendi means, after all.

The attitude we have just described demands an explanation. Why has Benedict XVI’s opening to the old rite filled many Catholics who are dedicated to Catholic Social Teaching with great hope? What link do they find between openness to the old liturgy and the promotion of the Church’s social doctrine?

Catholic Social Teaching has a direct relation with tradition: in fact, it belongs to the Church’s tradition. It wasn’t born in 1891 with Rerum novarum. It was born with the Gospel. John Paul II clarified this relationship in his encyclicals, especially in Laborem exercens (1981). If the Church’s social doctrine loses this intimate link with tradition, it loses its nature as a proclamation by Christ in time, and morphs into generic solidarity-driven humanism. In other words, it begins a terminal decline.

Within the Church, besides the popes who have worked to maintain the Church’s social doctrine within the scope of tradition, especially John Paul II and Benedict XVI, other forces have conspired to lead it elsewhere, transforming it into a social ethic and a promotion of man as man. In the first version—the traditional one—the Church has an ultimate word to speak about political life, one only she can speak, without which political life cannot stand. Consequently, she has a public role that is properly religious, and not only ethical or humanistic. In the second version, on the other hand, the Church cannot become involved in the political dimension of common life without descending to the level of brotherhood and ethical solidarity, and leaving the religious dimension aside.

Now it becomes clear why someone who is committed to the tradition of Catholic Social Teaching is interested in Summorum pontificum. The Vetus ordo liturgy brings out the centrality of the omnipotent God and his lordship over creation, including his social kingship, more clearly than the Novus ordo. Not only as a result of the abuses and forced adaptations that indeed are found there, the anthropological dimension emerges in the Novus ordo in a particular way, and the relationship it portrays between the Church and the world is more equal, rather than being characterized by the primacy of the Church over the world. The human becomes the criterion for the divine. The public role of the Church is presented more as a function of helping the world to be the world, rather than to save it, and the role of the Church in social relations is characterized more in terms of charity, while often obscuring truth.

To use a simple example: A supporter of the “anthropological turn” in theology, inaugurated by Karl Rahner, can read the Mass of Paul VI as an application of this turn and largely conforming to it. Obviously, the same cannot be said with regard to the old Mass. Somewhere between the two, there is Christian personalism, not precisely the anthropological turn.

That’s how I think we can explain why Catholics committed to Catholic Social Teaching are sympathetic to Summorum pontificum and disappointed with Francis’ new motu proprio. While professing to want to defend tradition, the new legislation opens the door to those who have always wanted to insert the Social Teaching into a “new tradition,” characterized by a diminution of the divine and the exaltation of man.