Many of the old things are back now: pre-Vatican II Mass, fiddle-back vestments, cappa magnas, birettas, Communion on the tongue, and so forth. Seminarians and young priests – in Roman collar, of course – go for traditional liturgical ceremonial. The Vatican takeover of English translations from national bishops’ conferences is nearly complete. Meanwhile, it looks like the Pope and the Holy See are planning to sit out the sex abuse crisis without admitting any fault or instituting any real reforms.
I bet your friends too are talking about this. What are they saying? In some circles, all this demonstrates a faith-filled, self-confident refortification of the Roman Church. The Church is finding its Catholic identity again, even in the face of strong secular headwinds. There is a new seriousness about liturgy after what Fr. Neuhaus liked to call “the silly season.” Slowly but surely the Church is becoming the Church again, after several decades of confusion and mistaken implementation of the Second Vatican Council. Let the media say what they will: we don’t expect to be understood or affirmed by the world as we calmly go about our divine mission. While the goal is not to drive anyone away, at least those who leave will be leaving The Real Thing. People are ready for a “smaller, purer” Church.
I know a few people who take a rather different view. A prominent liturgist recently said this about Vatican officials: “They’re a bunch of thugs, Anthony, they’re nothing but thugs, and in a world of rapid internet communication, they can’t get away with it much longer. It can’t last.” Another prominent liturgist recently said over coffee, “It’s the last gasp of Europe’s last functioning absolute monarchy, and its days are numbered.” According to these folks, the conservative element in the Church, including at central headquarters, is basically overcome by fear: fear of the modern world, fear of diversity, fear of theological inquiry, fear of dialogue with the laity, fear of sexuality, fear of what Vatican II wrought. Vatican officials and conservative liturgists and young clergy are fleeing what is threatening to them. The liturgy is becoming a lovely place to pretend, an escape into a more comfortable past. For these folks, the liturgical silly season is just beginning, and all the lace and frills from auntie’s attic is rather embarrassing. Such as this may last for some time – we may have many years yet to endure – but eventually it will collapse.
If you want to read more about the Faithful Refortification view, check out the comments which will surely appear below in short order. If you want more on the Fearful Fleeing view, there are two intriguing articles by Eugene Cullen Kennedy in the NCRep. A few weeks ago Kennedy compared the reappearing fiddle-back vestments to the antiquated Victorian frock coats which King George required of parliamentarians in the early twentieth century. King George, like Emperor Wilhelm and Czar Nicholas, “struggled to restore monarchical structures that were being swept away by the incoming tide of modern times.” This week Kennedy compares the Vatican bureaucracy in 2010 to the French bureaucracy under Petain after Paris fell to the Germans. “Everyone would carry on as usual in this case study of a collapsing government living on the fumes of long gone glory. Still, its marshals and generals donned their uniforms and pinned on their sashes and medals to hold military reviews and to welcome the war correspondents with bands and receptions, a final costume party for men who reassured themselves by exercising the last fine grains of power in their finely gloved hands.”
This is fascinating. People look at the same phenomena, all of them deeply concerned about the Church’s faithfulness and evangelical witness, and take such different views of what is going on. Is it faithful refortification or fearful fleeing? Pray Tell takes no position on such things. We haven’t really thought about it, as you’ll surely believe. No, we’re enjoying our late summer reading various books about various other topics.