Summorum Pontificum , the motu proprio whereby the pope grants a universal indult for the celebration of Mass according to the 1962 missal, was promulgated on Saturday in Latin without, at least yet, being accompanied by official translations into modern languages. That fact, like the very vocabulary in which the news is reported in English¯ motu proprio , indult, promulgate¯indicates something of how tenaciously Latin clings to the Catholic Church, which, after four decades of liturgy in the vernacular, still hasn’t been able to lose its Latin accent completely.
Latin was not always ancient. The liturgy was translated into Latin from Greek during the late Roman Empire, when Latin was a contemporary and demotic language, as Greek was when the Hebrew Scriptures were translated into what became the Septuagint. In light of this, the idea of saying Mass in English¯or Italian or Polish or what have you¯here in the twenty-first century should appear unremarkable, even traditional.
To us, Latin may be as Greek was to Roman Christians of the fourth century or as Hebrew was to Hellenized Jews at the time of Christ. Whether we should know the older language well enough to be able to worship in it, the practical reality is that most of us don’t and that worship in our mother tongue is better than no worship at all.
But the issue is not Latin per se. It’s antiquity. Those who hold to the 1962 missal tend to think of it as the 1570 missal, the missal of Pius V and the Council of Trent. Revisions to it in the intervening years are usually described as having been gradual and organic. Moreover, the 1570 missal itself is not a sixteenth-century invention but rather the standardization of the Latin-rite liturgy as it had been said, though with much variation, for much longer. The origins of the Tridentine Mass, as it is informally called, disappear into the mists of time past. Some speculate that its form and content reflect not only certain features of synagogue worship in the first century but even memories of Temple sacrifice in Jerusalem.
Through the cultivation of unbroken tradition, we affirm the value of veteres ¯of old things, the past, those who have gone before us. For a minority of Catholics, but perhaps a creative minority, the 1962 missal serves as the manual for cultivating the communion of saints, whereas the 1970 missal strikes them as more of a fabrication. Catholics of this view are distraught to think that the Temple would be demolished for the purpose of building anew on the holy site. The new may incorporate an abundance of clever architectural allusion to the old, but they don’t want allusion. They want the concrete reality that the allusion calls to mind. And so they make pilgrimage to the bare ruined choirs, to the Wailing Wall.
We love the past, the age of our fathers, because, whether we say so or not, we love God the Father. The past is the verb tense commonly associated with him, the first person of the Trinity and the one who in the popular imagination is most readily identified with the God of the Old Testament¯the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. In Christian art he is depicted as vigorous and strong but old, full of days. The doxology ("Glory be to the Father . . . as it was in the beginning") suggests a correspondence between the Father and the ultimate antiquity, the beginning of time, while the Son corresponds to the present ("is now") and the Holy Spirit to the ultimate future, the forevermore ("and ever shall be").
Which comes first, fear of the past (on that, see Joseph Bottum’s article in the June/July issue ) or fear of God the Father? I don’t know that it matters. Some Catholics describe the Church movingly in terms of dynamism and constant openness to change and the future, although to American ears such talk often carries the ring of a slightly dated optimism, of JFK’s inaugural address and his promise to put a man on the moon. When appreciation of the Church’s hope for the future shades into the implication that Catholics who love the past are afraid of the present, my suspicion grows that the speaker is projecting¯that he fears the past in general and, in particular, the Church’s past, which is profoundly Judaic.
In the weeks leading up to the promulgation of Summorum Pontificum , the Boston College Center for Jewish-Christian Learning published on its website the statement of an organization of German Catholics who appealed to the pope not to liberalize use of the 1962 missal. Calling it Marcionist, they adduced the Good Friday liturgy, which includes a prayer for the conversion of Jews. They added that, with a few exceptions, the Old Testament does not figure in the lectionary or daily Scripture readings. (They neglected to consider the ordinary of the Mass, which draws seriously on the Old Testament, most notably Psalms and Isaiah.)
Both before promulgation of the motu proprio and now after, news outlets have used the Boston College publication to advance the story that the pope’s decision to make the 1962 missal more widely available will damage Jewish-Catholic relations. No one asked why the German Catholics didn’t simply propose a revision to the prayer in question. If the prayer in its present form is wrong, the point is that it shouldn’t be in the missal at all, not that Mass according to the missal should continue to be restricted. The impression created was that the Good Friday prayer was being made "the Jewish card" that Reform Catholics, as it were, could play in their game against Orthodox Catholics.
If Catholicism were Judaism, official Catholicism would be neither Orthodox nor Reform. It would be Conservative. (Like all analogies, this one will eventually break down, but I trust it’s sturdy enough to take me from here to where I’m going.)
I mean that the Roman curia and most bishops since Vatican II are committed to the preservation of tradition but also to the delicate business of adapting that tradition to contemporary contexts.
The Conservative establishment takes hits from Reform and Orthodox alike. Each tends to act jealous when it perceives the other to enjoy some measure of papal recognition. At news that Benedict was about to encourage the Church to a greater appreciation of the liturgy so loved by Orthodox Catholics, some Reform Catholics went to work to discourage him. After a year or more, they published their view that the 1962 missal is mixed up with antisemitism. If they failed to persuade him, and they did, at least they might impress on him that the cost of his going ahead with his plan would be that they would feed the press eye-catching headlines such as "Pope Brings Back Antisemitic Mass."
In my experience, Catholics who have an affinity for the particularly Judaic character of their Christian faith are more likely to be drawn to the Tridentine Mass than are Catholics for whom Judaism is a category on the other side of a boundary they would consider it bad manners to try to cross. You might think that, while Reform Catholics were on the subject of Catholic liturgy and Judaism, they would ask what happened to the Church’s observance of the event that most vividly marks Jesus as Jewish. The establishment of the 1970 missal as normative was accompanied by a certain curious change in the liturgical calendar: The Feast of the Circumcision of Our Lord, on January 1, eight days after the celebration of his birth, wasn’t just moved. It was eliminated.
Of the criticisms that early Protestants leveled against Catholicism, the one that arguably cut deepest was that the Church presumed to revive the Levitical priesthood, which the spilling of Christ’s blood on Calvary now rendered obsolete. They inveighed passionately against the Mass, which they saw as overtly Judaic in its tone, structure, and purpose. (This Jewishness they objected to was largely a theological construct, not to be confused with the social and cultural construct of Judaism familiar to students of Jewish Studies departments at American universities.)
Protestants were correct that the Mass, in its aspect as a sacrifice, could not be fully understood outside the framework of pre-rabbinic Judaism. By the middle of the twentieth century, when Rome’s wish for some thaw in its cold war with Protestantism was in full bloom, it reformed the Mass such that the visible and audible distinctions between Mass and the worship services of the mainline Protestant churches were now greatly softened. Many Catholics saw it as an appropriate ecumenical gesture. So did many Protestants. Whether that step in the direction of Wittenberg and Geneva was deliberate or unconscious, what it was a step away from was Jerusalem, from the Temple and the daily sacrifice priests used to perform there.
Nicholas Frankovich is managing editor of Fordham University Press.