Rorate Caeli

Liberal attacks the Traditional Mass: NCR v. Michael Brandon Dougherty

High Mass in Westminster Cathedral for the Latin Mass Society Sat 14th August

(Cross-posted from LMSChairman blog.)

Michael Sean Winters has written an attack, mainly on an article by  Michael Brendan Dougherty (MBD), and it is interest to contrast MBD's sometimes artless sincerity and distress with Winters' manipulation of the facts and instrumentalisation of Pope Francis. For Winters Traditionis Custodes is not about the liturgy at all: it is an instrument of political power. This is what theology and spirituality has come down to for Winters and his little gang.

Winters' words in black, my comments in red and indented.


In the weeks following Pope Francis' Traditionis Custodes, the motu proprio rendering his decision to revoke the permissions to celebrate the traditional Latin Mass contained in the 2007 motu proprio Summorum Pontificum, there has been a great deal of wailing and gnashing of teeth by those who champion the old rite. Many of them have proven why Pope Francis was right to do what he did: The traditional Latin Mass had become an incubator for division. Schism is in the air along with the incense.

Top of the list is Michael Brendan Dougherty, of National Review, for an op-ed in the New York Times. Dougherty gets a lot wrong for someone who claims to be a journalist. He suggests that Gregorian chant only flourished after Summorum, but I worshiped at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle in Washington since 1985 and we had Gregorian chant at every 10 a.m. Mass. They also have it at St. Paul's Cambridge outside Boston. And St. Clement's in Chicago. And in lots of churches.

Great, so there were a handful of churches where they had a bit of chant in the Novus Ordo. I could name three in London, too. But what about the tens of thousands where there was no chant? The fact is a young Catholic from a Novus Ordo parish almost certainly has no idea what chant is, and it is overwhelmingly likely that if he ever encounters it in Mass, it will be with the TLM.

This is not some freak accident. Paul VI actually said 'We will lose a great part of that stupendous and incomparable artistic and spiritual thing, the Gregorian chant' (General Audience, 1969). And it came to pass.

He applauds "British cultural luminaries" who wrote to Pope Paul VI asking him to retain the old rite. Dougherty seems especially impressed that the authors cited the rite's inspiration of countless works of art, that their letter "doesn't even pretend to be from believing Christians." That is an odd, utilitarian encomium for someone so wrapped up in the worship of the Almighty.

Art is utilitarian?

Dougherty exhibits a fixation on the tabernacle. These were never "torn up," as he asserts, but were sometimes relocated to a more peaceful chapel where prayer before the Blessed Sacrament was just as possible as before, sometimes more so. I do not deny there were a few iconoclastic disasters after the Council, but they were anecdotal not systemic. Dougherty thinks it is somehow important that the tabernacle be on the altar of sacrifice, but why he thinks this is not clear. Are day-old consecrated hosts somehow more divine than the hosts the priest just consecrated?   

Perhaps MBD agrees which the thousand-year tradition which was summarised and legally enforced by Pope Pius XII, when he declared: ‘To separate the tabernacle and the altar is to separate two things which should remain united by their origin and their nature.’

It is these sentences, however, by which Dougherty unwittingly proves Pope Francis was correct:

Pope Francis envisions that we will return to the new Mass. My children cannot return to it; it is not their religious formation. Frankly, the new Mass is not their religion.

There you have it. For all his effort to distance himself from "schismatics" earlier in the commentary, he shows he is determined to make his children schismatics in the end. Religion is not, for him, about binding oneself to the community of the faithful that has been faithful to the Lord's command to "do this in memory of me" through the centuries. Religion is not about fidelity to the tradition of faith and its authoritative leaders. It is about vindicating his tastes. His iteration of cafeteria Catholicism might be high-brow in his own eyes, but it is still cafeteria Catholicism. 

I doubt the phrase ‘not their religion’ is intended as a precise theological formula. What I do know is that when there is a schism, at least one side anathematises the other. But MBD is not anathematising anyone. His concern is that he and his family are being anathematised. And this is not because he is not attached to the tradition of faith, but precisely because he is.

Winters has no interest in the tradition of the faith. He wants to roll this idea up with subservience to ‘leaders’, which is to make the Church a cult or a form of fascism. The Office of the Papacy is important, but it is important because it serves the Deposit of Faith, not because it can change it at will. What Winters is proposing is a cafeteria Catholicism where all the choices are made by ‘the leader’.

But, perhaps fortunately, Winters is not sincere. He didn’t have a cult-life devotion to Pope Benedict or to John Paul II, and you can bet anything you like he won’t be devoted to the next Pope if he doesn’t deliver Winters’ agenda. And this is the great difference between Winters and MBD: as is clear from his writings, Dougherty has allowed himself to be changed by the tradition. That is why he is attached to it today; that is why he does not want to deprive his children of it. But while MBD has been docile to the tradition, Winters wants the tradition to be docile to himself. He puts himself in charge: or the Pope, insofar as the Pope does what Winters wants. Just see below his attitude to John Paul II.

First Things was a hotbed for dissent against Pope Francis' decision. The worst was the column by Martin Mosebach, which demonstrated a truly remarkable ignorance of actual Catholic teaching, even while claiming that those committed to the old rite exhibited "a serious and enthusiastic devotion to the complete fullness of Catholicism."

Did they? I would think accepting the teaching and the rite of an ecumenical council would be part of the "fullness of Catholicism."

Where does Mosebach reject any of the ecumenical councils? Can’t quote him doing that? Too bad. But I’d be fascinated to confront Winters with the anathemas of Trent or of Lateran IV and ask him if he accepts them.

Mosebach also demonstrated a complete misunderstanding of liturgical history when he wrote, "Tradition stands above the pope. The old Mass, rooted deep in the first Christian millennium, is as a matter of principle beyond the pope's authority to prohibit. Many provisions of Pope Benedict's motu proprio can be set aside or modified, but this magisterial decision cannot be so easily done away with."

Has he even heard of the liturgical movement, which began in the 19th century and led to the Constitution of the Divine Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, at Vatican II? The Council – and several popes previously, including the conservative Pope Pius XII and the reactionary Pius X – were constantly renewing our liturgical forms. Pius X lowered the age for First Communion and encouraged frequent reception by all. Pius XII brought back the Easter Vigil, which changed not only our Holy Week liturgies but our ecclesiology: The emphasis on baptism and the baptized at Vatican II would have been unimaginable if Pius had not restored the Easter Vigil.

Perhaps Mosebach had in mind Pope Benedict and many others pointing out that the Papacy exists to serve Tradition, and not the other way round. What is really remarkable however is that Winters is incapable of distinguishing ordinary liturgical development with what happened after Vatican II. If the latter was comparable to developments under Pius X or Pius XII, which are themselves open to criticism, then we wouldn’t be having this discussion, would we?

George Weigel, also at First Things, did invoke Pius XII and made a great deal of sense in his defense of the Novus Ordo. But he complained that Traditionis Custodes "was theologically incoherent, pastorally divisive, unnecessary, cruel — and a sorry example of the liberal bullying that has become all too familiar in Rome recently."

All too familiar? I seem to remember Weigel's hero St. Pope John Paul II having professors removed from their academic chairs because they fell afoul of his interpretations of Vatican II. I actually think some of the removals were warranted and have no problem conceding that Rome has the right to rule on such matters. But if Traditionis Custodes is bullying, and bullying is bad, wasn’t John Paul II guilty of it also? Or is it just "liberal bullying" that irks Weigel? Most people wonder why Francis has been so willing to tolerate opposition from his own cardinals and others in the curia who seek to undermine his initiatives.

As I’ve pointed out, Weigel has nothing to do with the movement for the Traditional Mass, but it is telling that Winters thinks Pope Francis is punishing Weigel by prohibiting what Weigel has called ‘nostalgic traditionalism’, which he understands in terms of ‘maniples, lace, and Latin liturgies’, and traditionalists' ‘somewhat self-indulgent’ ‘self-constructed catacombs’.

The morning the news broke about Pope Francis' decision, I voiced my concern for those who were devoted to the old rite but did not buy into all the ideological nonsense that often came with it. But in the weeks since, Francis has been proven right. The traditional Latin Mass led to a distorted ecclesiology and, at least in America, opened a new battlefront in the culture wars. If you doubt the pope was right, you have only to listen to his critics.

But which critics, Winters? Because one thing Traditionis Custodes has done is to bring together, in criticism, a coalition of people never seen before: liberals like Catherine Pepinster, trad-bashing conservatives like Weigel and Fr Longenecker, reform-of-the-reform die-hards like Fr Somerville-Knapman, and many secular observers, including the atheist French philosopher Michel Onfray. The only people left defending this document are a tiny band who have made Pope Francis an instrument of their own agenda. Where they will go when we get a Pope they don’t like, we can only guess.