I had a conversation recently with someone very close to me. Despite being raised a Catholic”and even spending some time in a seminary”this person has fallen away from the faith. While I believe he still identifies as a Catholic in a hereditary sense, he is angry about the sexual abuse scandals, highly critical of the Church and its bishops, and does not attend mass in anything like a regular fashion.

Although I try hard to avoid discussing matters of faith with this fellow, it’s not always easy. He feels passionately that the Church has lost its way. While he knows that I am serious about my faith, and that my wife and I are raising our children in the Church, he often can’t resist pointing out just what he feels is wrong with Catholicism and how he thinks it can be fixed. His various grievances usually boil down to some variation of, “Christ was all right, but his followers really turn me off.” His various recommended fixes resemble standard-issue liberation theology.

Our recent discussion touched on the upcoming introduction of the new Mass translation. My friend lived through the liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council, and remembers fondly the institution of the English mass and the turning around of the altar. At the time, he told me, these changes were greeted as a long-overdue and very welcome “opening up” of the Church. To him, the new translation sounds like the beginning of a roll-back of these important reforms.

What my friend always leaves out from these conversations is that he doesn’t attend mass anymore anyway, so the new translation is not of any material significance to his life. In fact, he stopped going to Mass well before the sexual abuse scandal became a defining issue for the Church. The anger and alienation he professes is therefore, in my view, something of a cover for his laziness. I believe this is true of many of the Church’s most vociferous public critics”for the most part nominal Catholics for whom the arrival of the scandal provided a convenient cudgel with which to beat an institution they had already abandoned.

The revolutionary developments of the late 1960s”the ones my friend remembers so affectionately”weren’t, in the end, enough to keep him and his cohort in communion with the Church whose hierarchy they now find so odious. My friend never considers for a minute the possibility that some of the reforms he found so timely and vital may have opened up the Church a little too much. He will not acknowledge the prospect that the current crisis in the American Catholic Church is at least partially a result of the Second Vatican Council’s well-intended attempts to let in some fresh air.

I am no scholar of Church history, nor am I a liturgical expert. But I am conservative by temperament, and so I operate on the general assumption that unforeseen and unintended consequences almost always outweigh the benefits of change. With 20/20 hindsight, I am inclined to view misguided reforms in the so-called “spirit” of the Second Vatican Council (which is not to say the council itself) as in some way leading to the current moment of general crisis. My gut has always told me that”despite the infinite moral asymmetry between the two”the guitar mass is at least as responsible for the diminution of American Catholicism as the sex abuse scandal.

Like I said, I try to avoid these conversations when possible. Nothing I can say is ever likely to persuade my friend that the Church is not what he imagines it is. I haven’t given up hope that with patience, and with God’s grace, he will see the error of his ways and return to the practice of the faith he was born into. Yet, as I frequently point out to him, there are any number of Christian denominations from which he could choose, were he so inclined, many of which are built around the reforms he sees as vital to Catholicism’s redemption. That he hasn’t done so indicates that he may not be as interested in reforming the Church as in tearing it down.

On the other hand, it’s easy for me to see how unsettling the new translation will be to some faithful Catholics. The notion that a familiar ritual”any familiar ritual, but especially one that sits at the heart of a system of belief”can be declared outmoded or invalid and revamped seemingly without warning is disturbing. But that’s not what is happening here. It’s important to remember that we are not getting a new Mass , merely a new translation. Latin is, was, and ever shall be the official language of the Church, and the Mass”whether in English, Spanish, or Italian”will always and everywhere be translated from the Latin.

In fact, as I understand it, the new translation is a more accurate rendition of the Latin Mass, correcting some of the less precise word choices stemming from the original translators’ desire to get the job done quickly. You might call it a more faithful translation. My own feeling: Simply moving forward isn’t progress if you’ve made a wrong turn. Sometimes, returning to the spot where you lost your way and selecting the right path instead is the true way forward, though it may feel like travelling in the wrong direction.

Somehow, I doubt my friend would agree.

Matthew Hennessey is a writer and editor who lives in New Canaan, CT. You can follow him on Twitter @MattHennessey .

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Articles by Matthew Hennessey

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