Brandon's Notepad

November 8, 2019

The Latin Mass: Cult of Toxic Tradition

A few days ago, an article was published by the liberal news source National Catholic Reporter titled The Latin Mass becomes a cult of toxic tradition. Familiar with the source, I would normally ignore something like this, but I kept seeing it pop up in my discussion groups and news feeds, so I decided to see what the hype was about. The article, written by journalist Zita Ballinger Fletcher, is nothing short of appalling, so much so that it is worthy of meticulous review just to expose how bad it really is.

In the interest of full disclosure, I am not a traditional (a.k.a. “Trad”) Catholic In the sense that I attend the Latin Mass on a normal basis and/or refute the validity of the Second Vatican Council. Yes, I have attended a few Latin Masses and have an affinity for the language, but my interest in the TLM as liturgy is more academic than practical and I have very good reasons for being “post-Concilar”. With that said. let’s unravel this dandy piece of work.

The first line of the article really sets the tone. “One culture within the Catholic Church needing major reform is…the practice of the Latin Mass.” Of course, by “Latin Mass”, Fletcher is referring to the Tridentine or Traditional Latin Mass (TLM). This is the form of the Mass promulgated in 1570 by Pope Pius V and is named for the Council of Trent, out of which the form was created. The TLM was taken out of regular use in 1970 and replaced with the Novus Ordo Missae by Pope Paul VI, a result of the liturgical reform called for in another Council, Vatican II. The TLM is a valid form of the Mass and has been explicitly preserved for the benefit of those who still wish to practice it. Asking for its reform at this point is nothing short of, well, odd.

It’s important to note at this point that Fletcher doesn’t seem to be talking about the Mass here at all, but that she has a problem with the subculture that has grown around it. Let’s read on.

The second paragraph is quite problematic:

In a previous era, the Latin Mass was merely a uniform and standard way of celebrating the liturgy in the United States. In the wake of much needed reforms instituted by the Second Vatican Council, the Latin Mass has become a rallying point for change-resistant sects within the church. The ultra-conservatism practiced by these Latin Mass groups is radical and narrow-minded. They utilize the Latin Mass structure to wield control over believers — particularly women, who are reduced to a state of discriminatory subjugation in Latin rites. The stubbornly resistant, anti-modern practices of these Latin Mass adherents border on cultism.

First, the phrase “previous era” makes it sound both distant and irrelevant. That era lasted 412 years (~20% of the Church’s history) and ended a mere 50 years ago. Second, the TLM was not only used in the United States (which is only 243 years old and was founded mostly by Protestants), it was the standard form used throughout the Roman Church, which included all of Europe and various other regions. The claim that the reforms of Vatican II were “much needed” is not substantiated in this article at all, yet this phrase leads the reader to believe that said reforms would prevent the behaviors against which Fletcher is so vehemently opposed without providing so much as a logical proof (i.e. it’s a red herring). The remainder of this paragraph exposes the true agenda behind this article: discrimination against women through the use of mind control, and specifically in the United States. It’s a humanist political piece, not a religious one.

The third paragraph is as bad, if not worse:

The Latin Mass fosters clericalist structures in the church. The liturgy — spoken in an ancient language no longer in modern vernacular usage — places all power in the hands of the priest. The priest keeps his back turned to the people for most of the ceremony. Aside from making occasional responses, the congregation plays no active part in worship. All people inside the church are expected to kneel on cue at various points. The priest is at the center of the spectacle. He is separated from the people he is supposed to serve by an altar rail — a barrier that gives him privileges. To receive the Eucharist, people must kneel at his feet.

Clericalism is a pejorative term used to denote the “undue” deference to the clergy in all matters. This can be a real concern! One need only consider Jim Jones and David Koresh as extreme (and thankfully, non-Catholic) examples. This is the vehicle by which Trad Catholics are supposedly carrying out a maniacal plot against women and their individual freedom. In contrast, anti-clericalism is, in short, a rebellious refutation of Church authority. Fletcher must have been channeling her inner Loraine Boettner when she wrote this paragraph.

The rest of that excerpt can definitely be construed as an attack on the TLM — and truly on Catholicism itself. At this point, Fletcher has moved beyond admonishing the people who are allegedly exploiting this form of worship to describing “problems” with the Mass itself. She would do well to understand a few details about the Church to which she claims to belong. Things like the fact that, though Latin may be an ancient language, it is still the language of the Church and yes indeed, the priest does have power over things sacred by virtue of his ordination. The priest always faces (up to) God in the Mass because it is to God that the sacrifice is being made, regardless of whether the priest is oriented in the general direction of the people or not. Despite what most Catholics probably think about it, “active participation” is a throw-away term, because only the priest has the faculties to confect the Eucharist, and the presence or absence of other people and whether or not they are singing or giving verbal responses or silently praying rosaries is completely irrelevant. The altar rail is there to represent the separation of sacred space from the profane world (the sanctuary from the nave), just as the veil in the Hebrew temple did, and the notion that the barrier somehow endows the priest with special privileges or that the faithful are kneeling at his feet instead of the Real Presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist is completely baseless and (at best) shows grave ignorance of fundamental Catholic teachings. Oh, and the Mass is not a “spectacle”! Fletcher mentions later in the article that she sat in on a TLM because she wanted to receive Communion, but why do so if she considered it to be a mere performance?

Fletcher continues by explaining how Trad women, as part of their oppression, are “commanded” to wear long skirts instead of pants and to hide their beauty under veils, whereas no such rules apply to the men. I can’t help but wonder how many of these women she interviewed in preparation to write this article to ascertain whether they chose to dress modestly on their own or if their husbands demand them to do so. Journalists still do that sort of thing, right? If she did conduct such interviews, which I doubt, she certainly didn’t mention them.

Fletcher anticipates being challenged about ‘not really understanding what she is talking about’, and proactively reassures her readers that her opinion is based on “facts and personal experiences”. I’m not sure where the facts come into play, because the remainder of the article is pretty much all about her personal experiences.

This series of stories begins with how her mother, a divorced and fallen-away Catholic, decided to return to the Church (to the TLM specifically) for herself and to provide spiritual instruction for her daughter in the face of opposition from atheist family members. The experience at their chosen parish was not good, and it sounds like the priest and people there were misguided. It is understandable that this set off her spiritual journey on a bad foot. But wait, there’s more.

She then recalls an exchange with a somewhat creepy priest who seemed to be obsessed with veiling her hair and who lashed out when she objected. As written, this story sounds like a scene from a bad horror movie from the 1960s. Nonetheless, why should anyone doubt that she had a second bad experience like this one? It could happen. One thing is certain, however, veiling obviously bothers Fletcher deeply, because she interprets the covering of hair as a loss of freedom and explicitly equates the “Latin Mass cultists” to “religious extremists in the Middle East and Asia”. At last check, Latin Mass-goers don’t decapitate people.

There is a brief story about a run-in with a “chauvinistic” professor from her university and his wife, described as “a ghost of a woman” who “looked physically weak — almost ill”. The immediate conclusion one must draw is that, for the professor, “religion was a mechanism of abusive control”. It would be silly to assume that the professor’s wife was a bit eccentric perhaps, or that she suffered from depression or some physical ailment such as cancer, right? Did Fletcher bother to validate her suspicions in any way? If she really wanted to probe, she could’ve started a conversation with the wife, saying that she couldn’t help but notice her rosary and ask if she needed any prayers…but just assuming things about other people you don’t know is much easier..and safer!

The fourth story concerns a friend who “decided to brave the Catholic dating scene” (not sure what that means exactly) and who reported that the Trad males were “shopping for wives”, interviewing the girls about their theology and asking if they would consent to being veiled. In substance, this sounds a lot like traditional courtship, not dating. The difference? In courtship, getting to know a potential spouse is the goal. In dating, hormones tend to lead the couple’s way and it doesn’t always lead to marriage. So, way to go Trad guys for being responsible Catholic adults!

In the fifth and final personal experience, Fletcher describes how she found herself in attendance at a TLM prior to a speaking engagement. She observed how the congregation was filled with young families and college-aged men and women and wondered how they all got “sucked into this vortex of toxic, traditional radicalism”. Somehow, the changing of the times that led to liturgical reform after Vatican II is something different than the changing of the times between the Boomer generation and the Millennials, and the resurgence of a desire to worship according to the old rites is completely illogical and must be part of a diabolical plan involving the manipulation of wayward youth for some dark purpose. If that doesn’t sound paranoid enough, how about the observation of being “surrounded by veiled women who entertained themselves…by casting disapproving glances at my leggings and earrings”. This is very dark and it actually sounds like something a real schizophrenic would write (thus, exhibiting a serious lack of tact on Fletcher’s part on top of everything else).

The last story has a second part to it. At that Mass, Fletcher approached the rail for Communion and asked to receive in the hand. To her surprise, she was denied by the pastor! She received anyway (on the tongue), but then confronted an assisting priest after Mass about the ordeal, asking that he correct the pastor. She was shocked again when he declined to reprimand his superior, even after she reminded him of his “duty” to serve her as a believer. Yes, priests minister to the faithful, but they serve God first and foremost. They are not customer service representatives or table waiters. This incident, however, is relayed as more empirical “proof” that radical clericalism has been unleashed throughout the ranks of TLM parishes.

Not cringy enough? She flatly states that the term Novus Ordo is “a derogatory term used by Latin Mass cultists to denote regular English-language Masses.” It is certainly true that sedevacantists (those who believe that the Seat of Peter is truly empty and that every Pope since Pius XII has been a false Pope) impute a negative connotation on this phrase, but the fact is that the new order of Mass is, literally, the Novus Ordo Missae in Latin, and the definitive version of it is written in Latin, not English. And how is someone referring to Novus Ordo Catholics with a pejorative connotation any different than her referring to Latin Mass Catholics in the same way (or in her words ‘Latin Mass Cultists’)?

The paragraph that follows that account is worth examining as well. Long story short, the assistant priest makes a comment about how the old rites are just as sacred as the ancient rites of the Byzantine and Coptic Churches and that the new Mass is tolerated but not recommended. (For the record, not all TLM priests hold this position. Opinions vary between FSSP, SSPX, and other sects). She responds with:

I feel it necessary to point out…that the Byzantine and Coptic rites originate in the traditions of distinct Catholic churches in foreign countries. The Latin Mass, by contrast, is merely an extinct model of tradition practiced in the United States and other countries, and was never a separate church nor imported from a foreign country. Therefore the Latin Mass can be compared to Coptic and Byzantine churches as much as apples can be compared to oranges. No ancient Romans or native Latin speakers will be disenfranchised by changes made to the Latin Mass — just hardliners unable to let go of their particular ideology.

Again, Fletcher places heavy emphasis on the United States, as if the location actually matters. There are 23 Eastern Catholic Churches that span 5 different Rites, and most (if not all) have parishes (and even full dioceses) in the United States. Guess how many use the Novus Ordo. None. The claim that the Latin Mass “was never a separate church” is in itself nonsensical, but that the TLM was the order of Mass for the Latin Church within the Roman Rite for 412 years cannot be disputed as a historical fact, and it is the Latin Church to which most American Catholics belong today, so no, it isn’t extinct.

The last five paragraphs concern hypocrisy and tolerance, and Pope Francis’ stance on these things, and the irony couldn’t be thicker. Fletcher implies that the TLM crowd conforms to Francis’ description of hypocrisy, “appearing one way, but acting in another”. This is the polar opposite of what they do! They strive to keep a Catholic identity by acting as Catholics did for centuries. She quotes Francis in his metaphor that the Church is a tent and not a fortress, a call for diversity and inclusion, yet she demands that Trad Catholics conform. She states that “Compassion defines true Catholicism” and then scoffs at the passion these folks have for the old rites. She appeals heavily to the teachings of one Pope, Francis, but completely fails to recognize that another Pope, Benedict XVI, has already decreed that the TLM is not only valid, but that it was never abrogated and is to be allowed. And finally, she twists the words of our Lord “I desire mercy, not sacrifice” by which he meant that love for others far exceeds the prescribed animal sacrifices of the Jewish law; instead, she uses them to supplant the importance of the Mass, which contradicts Church teaching that the Eucharist is the “the source and summit of the Christian life.” (CCC 1324)

It is safe to conclude that this work cannot be considered a sound product of good journalism, and no one — especially Catholics — should take it seriously. There are no real facts present in this article at all, no surveys or statistics on which her claims can be based, and honestly, no attempt at real scholarship evident whatsoever. It is an opinion piece that is based heavily on emotion and confirmation bias, and the entire narrative sounds far more Protestant than Catholic. I am certainly sorry to hear that her experience with the Traditional Latin Mass has been far less than ideal, but it does not justify the copious shaming she doles out on those who have decided to live (or in the words of Saint Paul, to work out their own salvation) by a different set of rules than she does. So much for tolerance.

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