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For most Protestants in America, “Church shopping” has become a staple of religious life, and this is no less true for Catholics, on the parish level at least. Once the shopping is done, we settle into our regular communities, and have very little experience of the different ways our co-religionists practice the faith. We go in peace to love and serve the Lord, each in our own worlds.

Often our decisions of parish are driven by aesthetics, such as taste in music. For my own part, I will admit that the sight of a drum kit in a church stops me cold and that any music written by a certain “Marty” presents me with a near occasion of sin. As my brother says, whatever St. Boniface suffered from the Frankish church, it wasn’t amplified. But I also know that people with far more profound spiritual lives than mine find contemporary music almost necessary to their faith. To that degree this is merely a matter of taste.

However, there is often much more to our decision than aesthetics. I was reminded of this on a recent visit to Seattle where I attended a downtown parish with my family. The first thing I must say about the parish is that it was the most welcoming one I have ever visited. I have never met so many people eager to help find parking, find a seat, distribute the order of service, and so many people that, in general, understand their role in the outreach of the parish. The second thing I must say is that it was the most disorienting service I have attended in years.

Where do I start? There was the mandatory meet and greet, the aggressively gender-inclusive language, the bizarre procession of all to offer money into (or ambiguously hover open hands over) the offertory basket. The angry looks and frustration on the part of the ushers”their reaction to our confusion”was not in keeping with the earlier cheerful welcome. In this context, diversity, even if caused by confusion, was not welcome.

The changes wrought upon the order and language of the service were not merely aesthetic. These were ideological changes. Everyone knows this, and it is part of the modus vivendi of modern Catholic parishes that developed since Vatican II. You have liberal parishes and conservative ones. I made the mistake of finding myself in a liberal parish.

Normally I would think no more about our experience, but the new translation of the Order of the Mass will be introduced and used in parishes on November 27th, the First Sunday of Advent. What will this Seattle parish, and many others like it, do on that date? It has taken them years to develop a service with which they are comfortable.

There will certainly be challenges with the new translation for everyone. For instance, “And with your spirit” is not idiomatic, nor is the word “consubstantial” familiar to most parishioners. But we all know what the real disagreements will be. There is an online petition asking the Bishops not to demand the use of the new translation, and in the comments you can see the points of contention.

There is, of course, the procedural argument: The change is being imposed from above and does not reflect the views of the laity because it was not produced by a democratic process. This is the constant tension over the hierarchy. But there is also a theological argument, a dispute over what the language is for. According to one South African Bishop, the very reason for the new translation was based, among other things, upon “a purely arbitrary decision to demand that the English text had to faithfully represent the Latin . . . ” Well, quite.

Both of these concerns, and there are others, highlight the deep fissure in contemporary Catholic life between the right and the left. It is familiar to anyone who has church shopped and it is the same one that caught me in that Seattle parish. What is the Church and what is the Mass? The question of hierarchy and obedience is familiar to most people. But this question about the Mass is going to arise with the new translation.

The “left” is willing to embrace external, cultural features because of the need to bring new people into the churches and keep others from leaving. Why throw up barriers, they ask, when there are so many hungry souls needing to be fed? If dropping all of the references to God as “He” can bring people in or keeps them here, who really cares? To paraphrase Henry IV of France, the Mass is well worth a pronoun.

The “right” is concerned that willy-nilly changes in the language could, in the most extreme cases, invalidate the Mass. Wherever we might be on the spectrum, most Catholics will agree that some ceremonies are valid Masses and some are not. Where is the dividing line? Faithful representation of the Latin is not arbitrary in such an important rite, and in such cases it would seem prudent to defer to exactitude. Moreover, how can we claim to be catholic (universal) when the service differs so much from parish to parish?

Stuck in the middle are the American bishops. Will they penalize pastors and parishes for non-compliance or will they tacitly accept that any local changes to the Order of the Mass are acceptable? And what sorts of sanctions can they use? Forced laicization was not used in cases of child abuse. Would they dare do this now, for this? It would only play into the hands of their critics.

But to do nothing, to allow parishes to use whichever translation they wish and even to change them at will, is to capitulate and to abandon the very idea of hierarchy. What role does the Magisterium have if a directive of the Pope in Rome, fulfilled by a Vatican commission and implemented under the bishops is allowed to be ignored? Who is in charge? Has the Catholic Church become a church of bishops (episcopal) or priests (presbyteral) and not popes?

Because the reaction of the bishops will be key, the familiar disputes on the hierarchy will play themselves out. But a dispute about the Mass is about much more; it is about the very heart of worship and what it means to be a Catholic, as defined by oneself, by others, and by the Church.

Although some parishes have been talking about the new translation, most will be receiving instructional materials only this month. Few but the most active seem to know that anything is coming. As a result, a lot of Catholics are in for a big surprise. And the Catholic community of the English speaking world is in for a very rough ride. The modus vivendi that has allowed left and right to live apart in peace may be over.

Geoffrey M. Vaughan is an Associate Professor of Political Science and the Director of the Fortin and Gonthier Foundations of Western Civilization Program at Assumption College.


Now is the Time to Prepare for the Roman Missal, Third Edition

Bishop Kevin Dowling, “Why The Liturgical Anger is Fair”

Liturgiam authenticam - On The Use Of Vernacular Languages in The Publication Of The Books of The Roman Liturgy

ICEL “ A Joint Commission of Catholic Bishops Conferences

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