Great New York Times Article on the Glories of the Old Mass

The New York Times has taken an interesting direction in the last year or so. Before you could count on the Times to offer what they felt was the whole spectrum: commentators who were anti-Catholic specifically, commentators who were anti-religion of all sorts, and commentators who didn’t care about religion or find it relevant. If religion was worth anything at all, it was simply to remind people of how great other people were; any other kind of religion was best viewed with a suspicious eye, particularly those forms of religion in which the adherents seemed to actually believe what they were saying. That kind of religion was just asking for trouble, or so the Times viewed it. Now, though, there are a few cracks in the de facto ban against a Catholic voice. Ross Douthat is the most obvious. He was brought on to the Times team in April, and by July I was impressed enough to mention his body of work here. Douthat’s coattails have been fascinating to watch, as well: most obviously, his blogroll on his official New York Times blog. It contains, amongst others, First Thoughts, Front Porch Republic,Get Religion, and Mark Shea: in other words, it contains a lot of intelligent commentators on religion specifically, and often Catholic particularly, presenting a side you’d never expect to see from a Times-related source.

Then we get to today’s op-ed column, which I just found jaw dropping. I heard that they ran an op-ed on the Latin Mass called “Latin Mass Appeal,” since today is the First Sunday of Advent, and it was on this Sunday, 40 years ago, that the first vernacular Mass was celebrated. I naturally braced myself. Douthat aside, the Times is still a pretty anti-Catholic rag, and writers like Maureen Dowd only reaffirm that (particularly given the Times’ refusal to publish Abp. Dolan’s excellent rejoinder).

So imagine my surprise when the piece turned out to be one praising Pope Benedict XVI for bringing back a lot of the treasures lost in the aftermath of Vatican II. If you can’t get to it here, Google the words “Latin Mass Appeal,” and you should be able to pull it up in full from NYT’s website (for some reason, that approach lets you avoid registering).

Reading the article was sort of surreal for me, honestly, and I imagine that would be even more true if I’d encountered it in print form. For starters, this is almost certainly the most public forum for the oft-whispered accusation that Msgr. (later Abp.) Annibale Bugnini, architect and implementer of many of the Vatican II reforms, was secretly a Freemason. As the author, Kenneth J. Wolfe, notes:

Bugnini fell from grace in the 1970s. Rumors spread in the Italian press that he was a Freemason, which if true would have merited excommunication. The Vatican never denied the claims, and in 1976 Bugnini, by then an archbishop, was exiled to a ceremonial post in Iran. He died, largely forgotten, in 1982.

So far as I know, all of that is factually accurate. There were rumors, there was no official Vatican denial, Bugnini did get transferred to Iran (which wasn’t exactly an epicenter of Catholicism, particularly given that this was only a few years before the Revolution overthrowing the Shah, and installing the Ayatollah as the Supreme Leader). The last claim is really the only contestible one, but even this, hardly so. After all, here’s the Times‘ own obituary for Bugnini, who merely a decade earlier, seemed more powerful than the pope:

Archbishop Annibale Bugnini, the Papal Nuncio in Iran who tried to obtain the release of the American hostages in 1979, died today in a Rome hospital, the Vatican announced. He was 70 years old.

The Nuncio met with Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the Iranian leader, to deliver Pope John Paul II’s appeal for the release of the hostages. But the Ayatollah rejected the appeal. The 52 Americans were eventually released on Jan. 21, 1981, after 444 days in captivity.

Archbishop Bugnini was born on June 14, 1912, at Civitella del Lago near Todi in central Italy. He was ordained in 1936 and was named archbishop in 1972. In 1960 he was named by Pope John XXIII as secretary of the Pontifical Liturgy Commission, which laid the groundwork for Vatican Council II.

Three paragraphs, with a single sentence mentioning his work for the Pontifical Liturgy Commission, and nothing about his role in the implementation of the Vatican II reforms (and his implementation of his own ideas of reform, as well). The entire obit suggests a man whose life was a tragic failure.

What I found even more shocking was the next part of the op-ed:

But his legacy lived on. Pope John Paul II continued the liberalizations of Mass, allowing females to serve in place of altar boys and to permit unordained men and women to distribute communion in the hands of standing recipients. Even conservative organizations like Opus Dei adopted the liberal liturgical reforms.

But Bugnini may have finally met his match in Benedict XVI, a noted liturgist himself who is no fan of the past 40 years of change. Chanting Latin, wearing antique vestments and distributing communion only on the tongues (rather than into the hands) of kneeling Catholics, Benedict has slowly reversed the innovations of his predecessors. And the Latin Mass is back, at least on a limited basis, in places like Arlington, Va., where one in five parishes offer the old liturgy.

Besides my surprise (and pleasure) at seeing my diocese mentioned by name, I was more surprise that Wolfe: (a) recognized that Pope John Paul II, for all of his numerous saintly qualities and achievements, did too little to reverse many of the liberalizations of the Mass, and in fact, allowed many more to occur; and (b) that Pope Benedict is a far different pontiff on this issue, precisely because Benedict is a liturgist himself. The other popes from Paul VI onwards ceded too much control to liturgical “experts” with questionable views; Benedict is not particularly at risk on that front.

This portrayal of John Paul II as something other than an arch-conservative secretly plotting to undermine Vatican II is something I hadn’t been holding my breath for. And the portrayal of John Paul and Benedict as making different decisions under the same circumstances is one which I wish would be explored more. Benedict, as Cardinal Ratzinger, opposed the creation of World Youth Day (from what I understand, because he doesn’t like the Mass becoming a party or a concert), but continued JPII’s lead when he became pope himself. As Ratzinger, his original report on Liberation Theology was harsh but accurate; John Paul II wisely (in my opinion) instructed him to make note of the many positive contributions which that political-theological movement provided, which keeping the overall thesis. Indeed, the transition from Ratzinger to Benedict, from “God’s Rotweiller” (his nickname as head of the CDF) to God’s German Shepherd, is one that is probably directly tied to the relationship between these two saintly men.

Finally, the op-ed correctly noted the way that the winds are blowing:

Benedict understands that his younger priests and seminarians — most born after Vatican II — are helping lead a counterrevolution. They value the beauty of the solemn high Mass and its accompanying chant, incense and ceremony. Priests in cassocks and sisters in habits are again common; traditionalist societies like the Institute of Christ the King are expanding.

This is a really important point worth drawing attention. Part of the problem with calling heretical Catholics “progressives” is that it implies that they’re just supporting the direction in which the Church is moving. In fact, that tide’s long since turned. I recently heard a young Catholic RCIA director who was concerned when he noticed that the celebrating priest was gray-haired. His concern was that the priest was probably predictably liberal, feeling free to deviate from what the Church taught (he was, incidentally, correct in his suspicions). In as much as there is a generational gap, it’s the opposite of what the term “progressive” suggests. Rather, the generation of priests who were trained in the years immediately following Vatican II are the ones who came out funny. Those men who accepted their call to become priests even after the culture began to scoff at celibacy, and long after the culture turned against Catholicism (if you don’t believe me, watch old Catholic movies, and then watch new ones) view the enemy not as the Vatican but as the Devil.

Consider the way that publications like Commonweal or National Catholic Reporter view the present Pope. Then consider that 76% of Catholics view the pope favorably, and 73% think he’s good for the Church (compared to only 17% who disagreed). This suggests pretty strongly that the loudest voices in American Catholicism aren’t genuinely representative of what the average layperson is thinking anymore — or more accurately, they never were. Ironically, those who clamor for tearing down the priesthood to favor lay involvement would be wise to consider how that very laity feel about Public Enemy Number One, Pope Benedict. Handing them the keys may just mean a detour towards Rome. (Of course, it may not, also, but that’s for another day).

In closing, I just want to mention again how pleased I am that the Times is allowing voices like Wolfe’s to be heard, because I think it provides something pretty vital to the national and Church-wide discussion.

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