~from The Charlotte Examiner
Pope Benedict has just shaken up the Catholic world as no pope has since John XXIII convened the Second Vatican Council in 1962. In his Apostolic Letter Summorum Pontificum, the pontiff announced that any priest in the world may offer the traditional rite of Mass, the liturgy of the Catholic Church before the new Mass was introduced after Vatican II.
What difference does that make?
To outsiders, the Catholic Church today is as it was 50 years ago. The unbroken line of teaching on major moral issues of the day like abortion seems to confirm that view. But a closer look reveals that the church of “Going My Way” has been paralyzed, and the chief vehicle of change was the new Mass. So drastically was it revised in 1969-70 that when Cardinal John J. O’Connor permitted the old Mass in St. Patrick’s Cathedral one Sunday in 1996, the event, once so routine, earned a spot on the front page of The New York Times.
Now, Pope Benedict has brought about the traditional rite’s full liberation, transforming a minor, insignificant allowance under John Paul II into the wide-ranging permission so many have longed for.
The Orwellian world that Benedict describes, in which what was once honored and loved is now to be condemned and forgotten, is precisely what beset the church after Vatican II. A kind of political correctness took over, such that everything — clown Masses, banjos, liturgical “dance” — was to be tolerated except the pre-Vatican II Mass.
Even before the new rite was fully introduced, novelist Evelyn Waugh lamented to his bishop that the initial changes had already made Mass-going “a bitter trial.” That’s why people ever since have organized their entire lives around the old Mass. Families have packed up and moved to get closer to one. Some drive up to two hours each way every Sunday so they can raise their children away from the institutionalized irreverence they find at their local parish church.
For years, Catholic liberals like Andrew Greeley and Richard McBrien, not to mention many a Catholic centrist, assured us that the traditional rite was a thing of the past — the church had moved beyond it, we were told, and hand-holding, bongos and Pete Seeger were the wave of the future. The faithful would just have to live with it, they sniffed. And now Pope Benedict, the most erudite of all the cardinals and impossible to dismiss as a mere reactionary, is — albeit gently — going to push it right back in their faces.
All civilized people, Catholic or not, can rejoice in Benedict’s decision. A group of distinguished European voices — Catholic and non-Catholic alike — signed a petition in 1971 urging the pope not to abolish the traditional Mass. That Mass, they said, had “inspired a host of priceless achievements in the arts — not only mystical works, but works by poets, philosophers, musicians, architects, painters and sculptors in all countries and epochs.
“Thus, it belongs to universal culture as well as to churchmen and formal Christians.”
The signatories of the appeal, which included Agatha Christie, Graham Greene and Malcolm Muggeridge, wished to “call to the attention of the Holy See the appalling responsibility it would incur in the history of the human spirit were it to refuse to allow the traditional Mass to survive.”
Pope Benedict has permanently changed the terms of debate in the Catholic Church. And he is giving a wonderful gift to millions of Catholics around the world who have spent the past 40 years as the one interest group their bishops have generally shown no interest in appeasing. Champagne bottles were excitedly opened all over the Catholic world this weekend.
Forget the media spin: This is a great and generous act of liberalization. When people cherish something so beautiful and hallowed by tradition, ruthlessly denying it to them is the attitude of a fanatic. Granting it to them is a matter of justice and common sense — all the more so when the thing being granted is a priceless jewel of Western civilization.
Thomas E. Woods Jr. is The New York Times best-selling author of “How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization.”