There is little less dignified than a street fight between drunken old men. For my sins I have witnessed these more than once, where losing combatants who were too out of shape to fight like gentlemen resorted to cheap shots, childish wrestling moves and even, on one occasion, hair-pulling (though both fighters were almost bald). One feels shame even looking at such a spectacle: it seems too much like the Vatican Curia.
The Catholic Church seems to be in a “culture war”, of the sort that has been tearing apart American universities since the 1990s. Or perhaps it’s the other way round, and the universities are currently going through a civil war of the sort that has all but destroyed the institutional Church since the end of the Second World War.
Those of us who were born in the 1980s or afterwards have never experienced a healthy, vibrant Catholic culture, unless we had the good fortune to grow up in some isolated enclave where Church teachings were never allowed to fall away. Otherwise, we have watched the Church steadily weaken, lose followers and make pathetically doomed attempts to “modernise”, whilst prelates and clergy seem systematically to destroy the institutional Church’s moral authority in the eyes of remaining Catholics – never mind the rest of the world, to whom the Church now seems at best to supply sentimental comfort for the deluded, damaged and self-deluding.
Catholics struggle to defend the Church because even well-educated Catholics are usually so ignorant of fundamental Catholic doctrines that they cannot even accurately describe, at a basic level, what goes on in a Mass. Instead they must fudge, lie or deftly change the subject. And yet for over 50 years, Catholics have been attending Mass every Sunday in our mother tongues: there has been no excuse not to pay attention.
Alas, we have collectively learnt nothing. Something has gone horribly wrong in Catholic culture.
I was never aware of internal struggles in the Church before the election of Pope Benedict. But then, until that point I never took much interest in the Church. Nobody I knew really did, except a few isolated eccentrics. This was true in my circles even among those who had been educated at famous Catholic schools, were members of large Catholic families, and vocally claimed to take pride in their Catholic identity. Even these friends couldn’t defend the Apostles’ Creed point by point, except through a kind of double-think. When pressed, they might describe the Articles of Faith as “poetic truth”, which amounted to a temporary but pleasant substitute for real truth.
I had long been vaguely aware that ‘traditionalist Catholics’ existed, but was led to believe that all of them were deranged fantasists, and many were quite literally Nazis
No wonder the Church was always on the losing side of “culture wars” in society. Even the best “warriors” knew no history r doctrine, as if programmed never to win arguments. Then Cardinal Ratzinger was elected pope, and the “culture war” erupted inside the Church too. The most violent battleground seemed to involve liturgy.
Until 2007 I had no idea that there was an ancient Mass that had been suppressed in 1970, or that the ritual that we were all used to was cobbled together in haste after the Second Vatican Council. At the time I frequented “reverent Novus Ordo” Masses in Latin, presuming that there was no difference whatsoever between these Masses and the rite that Saint Aloysius Gonzaga and Saint François de Sales so loved. When I asked clergy about these things, they flat-out lied to me. But then Pope Benedict announced that the ancient rite of the Mass had never been abrogated, and I became profoundly confused. There was another Mass? Suppressed by the Vatican?
It was a mistake to bring any of this up with priests. They not only discouraged me from looking into “things that didn’t concern me”: some grew suspicious, and even hostile.
I had long been vaguely aware that “traditionalist Catholics” existed, but was led to believe that all of them were deranged fantasists, and many were quite literally Nazis. Clergy discouraged me from investigating these things further, lest I turn into “one of them”. The problem was, one by one, close Catholic friends were quietly turning into “them”. So were various family members. Yet none had transformed into conspiracy theorists or Holocaust deniers. Still, I dared not join any of them at the ancient Latin Mass, for fear of upsetting clergy. But these anti-traditionalist priests had no truthful, straightforward arguments, just emotional blackmail and passive aggression. They never explained their bizarre hysteria.
Why did the clergy I knew emotionalise this particular issue more than any other? In general they were fine if I blasphemed, toyed knowingly with heresy, or committed grave sins without bothering to confess them; whereas the old Mass, in their eyes, was evil – more evil than sin itself – and had to be stamped out like a cockroach. I was puzzled, but obediently stayed away.
Finally, on Candlemas 2015 (The Feast of the Presentation in the Temple), I gave in, unthinkingly. An old friend convinced me to join him for the Monday evening sung Mass in Latin at Corpus Christi Church in Maiden Lane, Covent Garden. I was not prepared for the experience: it was immediately clear that this was for God, not us.
Until that night, I had never really prayed a Mass. But this liturgy was radically different from any I had ever taken part in: everybody melted together into the sacrifice. When the Mass was over I stayed behind for almost half an hour to pray in silence – something I had never done before. I prayed to be worthy of what I’d just witnessed – the great gift I’d just been given. Up to that point, I had never honestly been a believer. From that night onward, the teachings of the Church began to reveal themselves as genuine truths, not just “poetic” ones.
I was reluctant to share this experience with most of the clergy I knew: in fact, it ultimately wrecked relationships with many of them. They felt betrayed by my disobedience. Some tried to punish me with elaborate head games.
One priest, a university chaplain, began repeatedly confiding in me about how he hated the Latin Mass, and deliberately tried to sabotage his own celebrations of it. He refused to advertise it properly, offered it at irregular, inconvenient times in an out-of-the-way chapel, and deliberately used the wrong vestments, all so that he would be able to tell his superiors that nobody wanted it at his institution. I still don’t know whether this is true, or why he even told me. Yet he also openly disparaged this Mass, and the people who attended, to several of my friends who might otherwise have been curious about attending.
I am not particularly “political”: I don’t use Twitter, listen to podcasts, watch Catholic YouTube videos, et cetera. Thus it is a shock to have been slandered by clergy and prelates as a “culture warrior” purely because I prefer not to pray or worship in a now-dated 1970s manner. We the faithful in the pews are simply trying to save our souls and get to Heaven, and have no interest in old men’s drunken street fights. So why are they trying to drag us into their sordid private quarrels?
This article first appeared in the September 2021 issue of the Catholic Herald. Subscribe today
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