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It is a bad sign when the head of a Catholic college’s theology department ends an interview by calling Pope Benedict an Austrian. Father Mark Massa rewrote the pope’s biography in an interview with the Religion News Service, which talked to him about his book The American Catholic Revolution: How the ’60s Changed the Church Forever .

He was using Benedict’s origins to explain his support for liturgical reform as “partly personal preference.” The pope is Austrian, “and likes looking back to the past. He likes the smells and bells. I do, too. I suspect there’s more to it than that, but I don’t know.”

Nice of him to suspect that this profound theologian and author of a number deep studies of the liturgy might push for changes for reasons other than nostalgia and personal preference.

Like, oh, that they bring people closer to God, or better express an organic development of the Church’s liturgical tradition (thereby bringing people closer to God), or more fully offer an experience of counter-cultural and distinctively Christian worship modern man needs, or serve faithful people who find the old rite more helpful and ought to be offered a chance the advocates of liturgical diversity have long denied them. Maybe he looks back to the past because that is where the sources of wisdom for the present are to be found, exactly as a physicist studies Newton and Einstein and Heisenberg before developing theories of his own.

R.R. Reno dealt with the book in his column recently, pointing out that this theologian who keeps invoking history uses it in an ahistorical way. This he does in the interview as well. “The current battles between the left and the right,” he says, “are really between those who want to press a historical awareness of change and those who want to view the church as timeless.”

The first, the rest of the interview suggests, are the good guys, or the wise guys, so to speak, who know things change, the second the bad guys, or at least the simple-minded deluded guys who are trying (impossibly) to freeze everything in place.

But it’s not a very thoughtful distinction, and not a very helpful one either. The Church can be essentially timeless and still change through history, in fact change in order to remain who she truly, essentially, is. The analogies are all kind of obvious. Father Massa himself has changed through life and yet remains, timelessly, himself. Those who view the Church as timeless may in fact have the subtlest understanding of historical change, precisely because they are forced to reflect on how a body can remain essentially who she is while living in history.

I think there is in this kind of claim a strict meaning and an implied meaning, as the example he gives illustrates. “A great majority of Catholics (once) thought of the church as outside of time altogether”that what they did on Sunday is what Jesus did at the Last Supper, and early Christians did in the catacombs.”

The strict meaning is that these people did not know their history and projected the present they knew onto the past they didn’t. Which is true enough, if a bit sweeping (“outside time altogether ”?). The implied meaning is that our fundamental understanding of the Mass has changed, but some people can’t see it. This movement between something like a fact and a dubious theological assertion seems to me characteristic of the public rhetoric of progressive Catholicism, especially when they talk about “change.”

Of course the ritual has changed over time, and some naive Catholics may once have imagined the first Christians celebrating a Tridentine Mass down in the catacombs, all decked out in elaborate vestments while Roman soldiers patrolled the streets above them. They were wrong about that, but if someone told them the real story of the development of the Eucharistic celebration through history, they would still believe the Church’s teaching.

The point is the Sacrifice, not the ritual. Catholics still believe this, because this is what the Church teaches. At the Mass, the Church does what Jesus did at the Last Supper and what his first followers did in the catacombs, however they were vested.

Father Massa supports his claims with, of course, an invocation of the Second Vatican Council. “Vatican II,” he says, “attacked this notion of the church as providing a timeless set of answers to life’s questions about meaning.” (As, for example, that at the Mass the Church does now what the Lord did at the Last Supper.) Nothing in the tens of thousands of words the bishops offered in the documents of their council says any such thing.

In the very first paragraph of the dogmatic constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium , for example, which begins with the stark declaration “Christ is the Light of nations””which might be paraphrased as “Christ is the timeless answer to life’s questions about meaning””the bishops say

Since the Church is in Christ like a sacrament or as a sign and instrument of a very closely knit union with God and of the unity of the whole human race, it desires now to unfold more fully to the faithful of the Church and to the whole world its own inner nature and universal mission. This it intends to do following faithfully the teaching of previous councils.

The Church, in other words, provides timeless answers to the most fundamental questions of human existence. She may apply them creatively and flexibly, in response to the needs of the times, as the bishops go on to explain, but she does not deny that she has them and is called to proclaim them. And that typifies the entire message of the Council. The Council did not come anywhere close to attacking the idea that the Church was the bearer of an eternal word.

In the Tom Cruise movie Jerry Maguire , the football star keeps telling his agent, “Show me the money!” At one point, if I remember right (and I’m not going to watch the movie again to find out), he keeps repeating the demand, almost like a chant, as his agent keeps trying to avoid admitting that he doesn’t have it.

Catholics faced with an invocation of Vatican II, or the Spirit of Vatican II, or the Vision of Vatican II, or almost any phrase that includes the words “Vatican II” but does not include the words “documents of,” should simply say “Show me the text,” and keep asking it until they get an answer. They have to keep repeating it with the calm intensity of a lawyer asking the defendant the question that will convict him if he answers.

They won’t get an answer, of course, because there isn’t one, when someone invokes the Second Vatican Council that way, so the conversations will tend to go like this:

“Show me the text.”

“Spirit of Vatican II!”

“Show me the text.”

“Spirit of Vatican II!”

“Show me the text.”

“Spirit of Vatican II!”

“Show me the text!”

“Traditionalist! Reactionary! ”

They won’t get an answer, but the conversation will still be fruitful. Not to get an answer is to get an answer.

David Mills is the deputy editor of First Things . His last contribution to “On the Square” was Spirituality Without Spirits .


The interview with Father Massa, How the Sixties Transformed the Catholic Church
R. R. Reno’s review of Father Massa’s book, Progressive Catholicism’s Simplistic Thesis
The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church Lumen Gentium

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