OpEd from the Great White North
Doctrinal disputes within a religious faith are normally best left to the believers, but all of Western civilization has an interest in the recent indications that Pope Benedict XVI will throw new weight behind traditionalist adherents of the old Latin Mass, placing the onus on his bishops to actively suppress its performance.
Since the liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council, the old Tridentine mass has become almost a borderline human-rights issue within the Church.
Liberal bishops have been so eager to update their image, and so reluctant to give ground to conservative sentiment, that the old mass has been effectively outlawed even for Catholics who grew up on and revered it.
That has left one of the core cultural artifacts of our civilization -- a verbal pageant rivalling Shakespeare, Homer and Dante in importance -- gathering dust on a shelf.
Paradoxically, the vandalizing of liturgical monuments has perhaps been lamented by unbelievers almost as often as by Roman Catholics.
Consider H.L. Mencken, who may have been (with apologies to Richard Dawkins) the 20th century's bitterest enemy of religion among English-language writers.
Failing to foresee Vatican II, that bilious genius wrote in 1923: "The Latin Church, which I constantly find myself admiring despite its frequent astounding imbecilities, has always kept clearly before it the fact that religion is not a syllogism, but a poem .... A solemn high mass must be a thousand times as impressive, to a man with any genuine religious sense in him, as the most powerful sermon ever roared under the big-top by a Presbyterian auctioneer of God."
Outsiders are surely entitled to at least wonder whether the Vatican II bargain with modernity was wholly wise.
Just as priests and nuns abandoned some of their social standing along with their traditional uniforms, the Church lost some of its ineffable dignity when it abandoned the common, worldwide Latin Mass (which also has Greek and Hebrew elements, and thus taught even as it supposedly saved). To be sure, Catholicism was never the idealistic, coolly rational moral authority it sometimes pretended to be -- but perhaps there was value, after all, in having someone pretend?
In many ways, Benedict has been a more liberal pope than his prior reputation would have prepared us to expect.
He has been as friendly to leaders of other faiths as his predecessor; only the other day, he met with the Dalai Lama. After his "slip-up" concerning Manuel II Paleologus in a German lecture last month, he matched a surfeit of contrition with unexpected fierceness in favour of dialogue with Islam and respect for the Koran.
He appears to be contemplating an abandonment of the doctrine of limbo as a neutral abode, apart from Heaven, for unbaptized infants.
But non-Catholics should not overestimate the relative importance of these liberalizing gestures.
The Mass comes much nearer the heart of the Church, and among earnest Catholics it is debated with far more intensity than that which attends more familiar controversies over birth control or the ordination of women.
When it comes to core theology, the Pope is conservative from tiara to toenails. The opening the door to the Tridentine Mass, with its "sexist" language and its non-communitarian staging, is not likely to go unresisted.
© National Post 2006