The National Catholic Reporter recently published an opinion piece entitled “The Latin Mass becomes a cult of toxic tradition,” written by Zita Ballinger Fletcher. In the piece, the author attempts to show, based on “facts and personal experience,” that the Latin Mass, henceforth properly called the Extraordinary Form or EF for short, per se endorses sexism, clericalism, etc.
This piece wildly misses the mark. Liturgical preference for either the EF or the OF does not in itself imply something about the beliefs and character of those expressing that preference, nor do traditional elements that seem particularly out of place in our increasingly egalitarian society and Church necessarily create or reflect anti-egalitarian views. To say otherwise, and to accuse EF participants of being sexist clericalists simply for the fact that they prefer the EF, is calumnious.
In what deserves a fuller treatment, it can be argued, as I would, that Pope Benedict was wrong in his decision to expand access to the EF of the Roman Rite. My argument essentially points out that, despite Pope Benedict’s intentions, the expansion has segregated communities in some places and extracted Catholics who have been willing to act on faith-based principles from their geographic parishes, denying them the fruits of their active participation. Surely, the “ordinary” Church today is in desperate need of those who dare to act boldly because of their convictions. But as much as I’ve been critical of the decision, I appreciate Benedict’s argument that, in part, the EF retains certain elements that some legitimately prefer and which cannot (typically) be found in the OF. Benedict’s vision, yet to be fully realized, was that the two forms would enrich each other through their respective contributions to liturgical practice.
Sadly, instead of working toward an enriched unity in diversity, liturgical preference (at least in the United States) has created distinct communities at the exact wrong time. Liturgical preference is now frequently seen as a reliable proxy for one’s support (or lack thereof) for Pope Francis and his reforms. Either one is for him (OF) or one is sexist, homophobic, clericalist, and so on (EF). The author’s article feeds into this lazy, false dichotomy.
First, it must be said that despite the common perception, many of those who are outspoken in their support of Francis and his reforms are themselves regular participants at EF Masses, including some of the Where Peter Is contributors. Of course, the opposite is true as well. Secondly, the author makes arguments that are based on her own assessment of how certain elements of the EF affect, reflect, or reinforce certain beliefs, really without any justification whatsoever. Veils, willingly donned by some women, are not necessarily expressive of a sexist patriarchal structure. Nor do communion rails necessarily imply something about the importance of the priest. (Nevermind, I suppose, that these elements can at least sometimes be found at OF Masses and arguably increasingly so following the passage of Summorum Pontificum.) Moreover, the argument made in the NCR piece was that the EF was “priest centric” because the priest is at the “center of the spectacle.” Aside from the obvious fact that priests at OF Masses are still running the show, so to speak, her choice of words is particularly unfortunate given that priests celebrating OF Masses also sometimes make a spectacle of themselves. Finally, the over-reliance on personal experience is just a screaming invitation to all those who oppose the OF to trot out their favorite liturgical abuses they themselves experienced at an OF Mass.
The point must be that abuses can be found on both sides of the OF/EF divide, and certainly the abuses found in the liturgy prior to Vatican II were no doubt an important reason why so many were demanding authentic reform. While Francis has been notably critical of those who cling to certain traditional elements, he has not criticized the elements themselves, and Francis himself says Mass ad orientem at times, prays in Latin, and so on.
What he does criticize are certain attitudes and beliefs, such as what he details in Gaudete et Exsultate, and these attitudes and beliefs can be found in both liturgical forms. Indeed, nothing he condemns has an inherent connection to the EF or those who express a preference for it. Even in the OF there can be found priests and parishioners who lack understanding and empathy, who misunderstand the role and function of the sacrament of Confession, who insist on certain devotions the Church does not require, who take up a position from which they can domineer their parishes. These attitudes and behaviors are condemned by Francis when he details modern day Gnosticism and Pelagianism. He wrote, “Once we believe that everything depends on human effort as channelled by ecclesial rules and structures, we unconsciously complicate the Gospel and become enslaved to a blueprint that leaves few openings for the working of grace.”
If we want to uproot these sins from the Church, we should follow the advice of Francis and recall the essential message of Christianity: that we are all in desperate need of God’s mercy. Moving past the reprehensible attitudes and behaviors detailed by the author in her piece requires that we be reinvigorated in our love of God and reinstate that love at the center of our liturgical worship. Yes, specific liturgies of both the EF and OF at times need to be purified through the grace of God, who calls each of us to deeper faith and love, but the false accusations made against practically all those who prefer the EF does not serve the Church. It only perpetuates the divisions in the Church, which desperately need to be overcome through charity in truth.
I will leave you with these words spoken by Cardinal Sarah, whose work on the liturgy many have seen as in opposition to Francis. Once again, however, the false dichotomy needlessly persists. Sarah said,
When the Holy Father, Pope Francis, asked me to accept the ministry of Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments, I asked: “Your Holiness, how do you want me to exercise this ministry? What do you want me to do as Prefect of this Congregation?” The Holy Father’s reply was clear. “I want you to continue to implement the liturgical reform of the Second Vatican Council,” he said, “and I want you to continue the good work in the liturgy begun by Pope Benedict XVI.”