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Liturgy and Imbecility

“The Latin Church,” wrote the prolific satirist H.L. Mencken, “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.” Given that Mencken was a religious skeptic who wrote columns lambasting fundamentalists at the 1925 Scopes “Monkey Trial,” we should consider his remarks on Catholicism a sort of compliment. . . even if the Church is guilty of “imbecilities.”

I wonder what words Mencken would use to describe the recent document from the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, Responsa ad dubia (“Responses to doubts”), on certain provisions of Pope Francis’ July 2021 Motu Proprio, Traditionis Custodes, regarding the Traditional Latin Mass (TLM), which further limits its practice.

Actually, based on what Mencken said about the liturgy, I think I can guess. In that same 1923 essay, he wrote:

“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. In the face of such overwhelming beauty it is not necessary to belabor the faithful with logic; they are better convinced by letting them alone.”

Mencken warned the Catholic Church in the United States to stop “spoiling poetry and spouting ideas,” lest they suffer the same fate as the brands of Protestantism he found so risible. As someone with a graduate degree in Catholic theology, I take issue, of course, with Mencken’s description of Christianity as illogical and only of aesthetic value.

I thought about Mencken’s opinions on the TLM when reading Gerhard Cardinal Mueller’s recently translated book, The Pope: His Mission and His Task [1]. As an introduction to (and defense of) the theological and historical aspects of the papacy, it is quite good. I especially appreciated his discussion of the substantial historical evidence for papal primacy, as well as his description of Protestantism as resurrecting certain spiritualist and Donatist tendencies (the Donatists were a rigorist, schismatic sect who sought a purer church).

Cardinal Mueller

But I was most interested to read what Mueller says about the current pontificate, and the scenarios under which criticizing the papacy are acceptable. Mueller served as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith from 2012 to 2017 when he was unceremoniously dismissed [2]. He took a hard stance on Francis’s post-synodal apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia, refuting those Catholics [3] who were interpreting it as allowing access to the Eucharist for divorced and remarried Catholics. More recently, he has bemoaned Traditionis Custodes,  the “clear intent” of which, he claims, “is to condemn the Extraordinary Form to extinction in the long run.”

Pope Francis does receive praise in Mueller’s book. He lauds “his intention of building bridges to reach even those who are alienated and distant, and indeed, even those who are hostile.” He highlights Francis’s visit to the island of Lesbos, a focal point of the European refugee crisis, as an act of “courage” and “strength” to address the tragedy of that humanitarian crisis.

Mueller devotes eighteen pages to a positive analysis of the pope’s encyclical Lumen Fidei. He writes another twenty-two pages on Laudato Si and Evangelii Gaudium. This is in keeping with Mueller’s many positive comments on Francis, which have been regularly reciprocated – indeed, the pope has even praised the cardinal for this very book [4].

Yet The Pope ends on a different note. In one of the very last sections, Mueller urges readers to maintain a “critical and unceasing reflection on the tension between the divine commission and human weakness, a tension that will last until the end of the world.” He explains that the word “critical” does not mean a “carping and destructive distance, a sensational protest, or an inner emigration.” Rather,

we need a spiritual sense of judgment and a differentiating perspective on a divine institution that can indeed be obscured and discredited by the weakness and sin of its office-bearers, but that can never be extinguished.

In other words, popes can make mistakes.

Mueller affirms the need to balance criticism and charity towards the papacy. “Criticism without love corrodes. But love without criticism is nothing other than a repellent flattery.” The 16th-century Dominican, Melchor Cano, whom Mueller quotes, said much the same: “Peter does not depend on our lies and flatteries. It is precisely those who blindly and uncritically defend every decision of the pope that make the greatest contribution to undermining the authority of the Holy See. They do not strengthen its foundations, but rather destroy them.”

In this, Mueller offers an approach for how to navigate our Catholic duty to both love and obey our Holy Father, but also to complain and criticize when he errs. The papacy’s 2021 attack on the TLM seems an appropriate occasion for such a complaint, one the German cardinal has himself offered. Writing on Traditionis Custodes, Mueller declares: “Instead of appreciating the smell of the sheep, the shepherd here hits them hard with his crook.”

I confess I don’t regularly attend the TLM – I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve been. But I know many good and pious people who have benefited from it. I also know the TLM camp has attracted some dissenters (though there are plenty of dissenters attending the Novus Ordo, too). Here too Mueller has a balanced response: “It also seems simply unjust to abolish celebrations of the ‘old’ rite just because it attracts some problematic people: abusus non tollit usum.” The restrictions on the TLM are not only unjust but punitive, given that the TLM cannot even be advertised in the church bulletin.

It’s unclear what effect these papal decisions will have on American Catholicism, given that only one percent of churchgoers attend TLM – though the numbers are growing [5], especially among the youth [6]. Which, given declining religiosity across the United States – including among Catholics [7] – suggests tamping down the TLM is counterproductive. Or, to quote Mencken, a bit imbecilic.


You may also enjoy:

Stephen P. White’s A Divisive Approach to Liturgical Unity [8]

Fr. Gerald E. Murray’s The Cruel and Incoherent Further Restrictions on the Traditional Latin Mass [9]

Casey Chalk is a contributor for Crisis Magazine, The American Conservative, and New Oxford Review. He has degrees in history and teaching from the University of Virginia and a master's in theology from Christendom College.