Saturday, September 22, 2007

Prayer and Politics

~from First Things by Edward T. Oakes, SJ
Last Friday, on the Feast of the Triumph of the Cross (September 14), Pope Benedict’s motu proprio (a genre of decree indicating the pope is acting “on his own initiative”) titled Summorum Pontificum took legal effect. I cannot predict at this early date how much of a demand there will be for the Mass of Blessed John XXIII (otherwise, and somewhat inaccurately, known as the Tridentine Latin Mass), or what beneficial effects this new legislation will have on the way the ordinary form is celebrated, officially known as the Mass of John Paul II (which is a modest revision of the much more significant changes to the Mass enacted after Vatican II by Paul VI).

But, however murky the future, this motu proprio can certainly tell us a few telling facts about the past. First (and on this I think both supporters and detractors of the document can agree), the drumbeat of requests that kept coming into the Vatican from Catholics (especially those with no other particular sympathy for the Lefebvrists) tells us that the implementation of the liturgical reforms has not been an unmitigated or universal success. Especially in countries where the vernacular translations have been clumsy or even inaccurate, dissatisfaction was bound to increase by the year, at least among those sensitive to the beauties of their native tongue. Further, moments and junctures in the rubrics that allow for more spontaneity by the celebrant have often been abused. Such abuse harms the Church, because unauthorized alterations in the rite only draw attention to the presiding priest and thus away from the Lord, who should be the focus of the worshiping gaze of the assembled community.

All these problems, and more, reminded me of a title of a book I had read long ago, Prayer as a Political Problem, by the French Jesuit Jean Cardinal Daniélou, especially these lines: “[T]here can be no radical division between civilization and what belongs to the interior being of man; there must be a dialogue between prayer and the pursuit and realization of public policy. . . . In other words, there can be no civilization where prayer is not its representative expression. Correlatively, prayer depends on civilization.”

That connection between cult and culture binds all civilizations, Christian or otherwise (Cicero is explicit on this point). The contemporary problem, though, is that we live in a time characterized by what Nietzsche called Great Politics. Just about everything is “bleared, smeared” with political markers. By that I mean, for the most part, politics comes as a “package deal.” Liberals are liberals across a range of issues, just as conservatives stay conservative on most matters (the war in Iraq being the major exception). This holds true especially nowadays in this era of the so-called culture wars, which are now raging just as much inside the Catholic Church as outside. So my question, in this unique setting, is: Will Catholics of different political persuasions now cluster toward one rite over another?

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