Of New Things Print
By Robert Royal   
Monday, 28 November 2011

Editor-in-chief’s note: in addition to the new things treated in today’s column, please read the announcement about our new site, Complete Catholicism, at the bottom of this page. – Robert Royal

Among the first idiomatic expressions beginning Latin students learn is the seemingly transparent res novae. It’s hard to imagine a simpler combination of words:  things + new = new things. But in reading Latin, it starts to morph into “novelties” and “innovations,” both – pace the American belief that all things new are good – suggesting distractions at best, worrisome experiments at worst. And the meaning keeps expanding until you get all the way over to revolution.

When Leo XIII wrote Rerum Novarum, the 1891 encyclical that inaugurated modern Catholic social teaching, some wondered – and still do – whether the title meant “Of New Things” or “Of Revolution.”

Of course, he may have been hinting at both, since his central argument is that if we don’t deal with new, modern things in the right way, we’re likely to get a very wrong, revolutionary way instead. A perpetually useful insight.

Such things were on my mind yesterday as we began Advent and had our first experience of a new thing:  the revised translation of the Mass.

The secular media, as you may have noticed, seem suddenly to have discovered a keen interest in keeping something in Catholicism the way it has been.

By contrast, some traditional Catholics hoped for a revolution that would restore the Church Militant.

In truth, the change is modest, as Benedict XVI desired, leaving us a little less mired in our everyday selves and a little more engaged with the divine mysteries.

The pope didn’t want another revolutionary change like the one that occurred right after Vatican II and led to such turmoil in the Church and the world. There will be turmoil enough anyway, since the Mass and the Church, all appearances to the contrary, still matter in ways even anti-Catholics find it hard to ignore.

The revision is good, but not nearly enough. And that’s doubly unfortunate because it’s likely there won’t be further reform of the liturgy for another half century. This one only introduces a few phrases that you wouldn’t hear in a Protestant church. Still, those changes matter.

We’ve often heard that the liturgical change Vatican II envisioned was meant to allow the people to “participate” more actively and fully in the Mass. It did that, after a fashion, but less attention was paid to bare participation than to what people were participating in.

If you read Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, you may be surprised to find that the Council Fathers actually recommend, among other things, a kind of education of the laity that would bring them up to a level to sing chant, understand theological concepts reflected in liturgical language, and more fully participate in the riches of the great Catholic tradition.

This might have happened in the 1960s, a time when many, including Catholics, were beginning to appreciate the advanced education that had become available in many fields. Instead, Catholics received less real education in the faith than previously.

It wouldn’t have taken much for things to have been different. My children went to a fairly traditional Catholic school in the 1980s. I was just starting out and it hurt to write those monthly tuition checks. But one day, it became clear why I did.

My oldest, then about seven, came into my office on a Saturday morning. “Dad,” she said, pointing to my two-volume Oxford English Dictionary, “if we looked up transubstantiation, would it be in there?” The OED came with a little magnifying glass and the kids used any excuse to get it out. But we looked it up – it was not a word only among Catholics – and still tell the story in the family.

That tuition was beyond question the best investment I made in my kids and the best thing I could have done not only for the Church, but for a world increasingly adrift for excessive attention to new things and lack of knowledge about permanent things.

“Consubstantial” in the new Mass and a few other terms may have a similar good effect on Catholics with genuine curiosity about the substance of the faith. Such things may now be “new,” but are not all that difficult to get a grip on. My bishop introduced the new translation yesterday with a note that the faithful may now more deeply and actively participate in the sacred mysteries – precisely what Vatican II hoped to achieve.

The negative reaction in certain Catholic quarters is quite puzzling in one way, all too obvious in another. Given the mildness of the reform, there’s something very nearly neurotic about the sharp recoil.

Already last year, a priest writing in the Jesuit magazine America reported on the scorn towards Roman imperialism at a conference on the new translation:  

One person ventured the opinion that with all that the church has on its plate today – global challenges with regard to justice, peace and the environment; nagging scandals; a severe priest shortage; the growing disenchantment of many women; seriously lagging church attendance – it seems almost ludicrous to push ahead with an agenda that will seem at best trivial and at worst hopelessly out-of-touch.

The writer had been at Vatican II and went into a tirade about the Vatican’s “reversal” of what the Council envisioned. Many voices since have taken up a similar line.

But the Council saw the Eucharist as the “source and summit” of Christian life, something even the progressives claim to believe. Isn’t it important to get the liturgy right, then, even if you’re more preoccupied with the usual litany of “issues”?

And must such a tremendous reality be spoken of in any banal terms? One of the things that always alienated me about Protestant services, despite respect for many Protestants, is the way that they ignore the example of Scripture and speak of God as if he were merely someone, albeit someone rather powerful and important, down the street.

The new translation has already caused some unexpected explosions and more will be coming, because the Mass matters and will continue to do so, while there’s human life on earth.


Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing, and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent book is The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West, now available in paperback from Encounter Books.
 
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