Wednesday, July 9, 2014

A Brief Response to Michael Dougherty on Summorum Pontificum

Birmingham Oratory Church
Three years ago I spent a few days at the Birmingham Oratory founded by Blessed John Henry Newman.  I've long been fascinated by Newman, and the Oratorians were gracious to let me stay with them, to spend time in Newman's library, and to visit the room where he studied and said mass.  One of the highlights for me was the high mass in the Oratorian church, a mass celebrated in the Extraordinary (Latin) Form.  Beautiful liturgy is an essential part of the Oratorian charism, and the Latin mass I attended was stunning. There have been only a few moments in my life when I felt transported by an experience of Divine Beauty, and this was one of them.

I write this to underline that I have a deep love for the Latin mass.  Even though I am not a traditionalist nor do I regularly attend a Latin mass, I like to think that I 'get' at least some of the concerns of my traditionalist sisters and brothers.

Michael Dougherty, senior correspondant for The Week and a traditionalist Roman Catholic, wrote an article today to commemorate the seventh anniversary of Summorum Pontificum, the document issued by Pope Benedict XVI that legitimized the Latin mass and made possible its widespread celebration.  Pope Benedict's actions regarding the Latin mass should be commended.  The years following Vatican II witnessed to an unprecedented and, in my opinion as an historical theologian, unfortunate rejection of the church's liturgical and artistic tradition.  Pope Benedict rightly noted in his letter that the Extraordinary Form was never "juridically abrogated" after Vatican II, and therefore that its usage was always permitted.  "What earlier generations held as sacred," he wrote, "remains sacred and great for us too."

In his article, Dougherty provides an aesthetic defense of Pope Benedict XVI and of the Latin mass.  He argues that by allowing for the wider celebration of the Latin mass, Pope Benedict re-opened the church's liturgical and musical treasury to the world, and as a result, Dougherty is treated at his parish "not only to Gregorian chant, but to Renaissance-era motets, and Masses composed by Morales and Monteverdi."

An aesthetic argument for the Latin mass is a good one, much better than defenses of the Latin mass I've read on some traditionalist websites.  But what bothers me about Dougherty's argument is the narrow way in which he defines beauty.  Dougherty writes that, by liberating the Latin mass, Pope Benedict XVI restored beauty to the world, as if beauty simply ceased to exist liturgically after Vatican II.  Perhaps I'm selling Michael short, but there's a sense in the article that there is very little that is aesthetically redeeming in the Novus Ordo - he refers to one contemporary hymn as "saccharine and theologically insipid" to illustrate the aesthetic vacuousness of post-Vatican II liturgy - and therefore that liturgical beauty can really only be found and experienced in the Latin Mass. 

Such a sentiment bothers me on several fronts.  The beauty of the Latin Mass is very real, but it is a beauty that is entirely European in its history and form.  I get concerned when traditionalists insist on the universality and aesthetic superiority of the Extraordinary Form, for this disregards the reality that the Roman Catholic church is no longer predominantly European.  It also, I think, fails to take seriously the implications of the Incarnation.  Early medieval Irish monks famously painted Jesus Christ with red hair and a red beard, recognizing that the particularity of the Incarnation in first-century Palestine does not prevent us from worshiping and experiencing God in a way that embraces, rather than rejects, our cultural and racial background.  An incarnational God is, I think, a God who is willing to be 'incarnated' or 'particularlized,' and so experienced in a beauty that is culturally specific.  I may not appreciate the "saccharine and theologically insipid" hymns so often sung at my parish, but I know that there are those in my parish who are deeply moved by them.  And I can't dismiss that, just as I can't dismiss those moved by hymns sung to blaring synthesizers at a mass I attended in India.

I mentioned at the beginning of my response that there have been only a few moments in my life when I felt transported by an experience of Divine Beauty.  The most recent time came at a small Latino parish where, under the gaze of Our Lady of Guadalupe and to the accompaniment of acoustic guitars and drums, I sang upbeat hymns in Spanish and clapped along.  For I witnessed there the profound devotion of  people whose culture was not my own, but whose expression of love for God was real and tangible.

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