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By Dwight Longenecker, The Imaginative Conservative
The traditional liturgy may be a surprising magnet for disparate groups to be united because it is so ancient. It transcends culture because of both its antiquity and its ubiquity. It also transcends personal taste and cultural fashions…
When I was a student at Oxford, my parents came to visit, and on her first venture onto the roads, my mom exclaimed, “They’re driving on the wrong side of the road!” Being a young snob I corrected her by saying, “No, Mother. They’re driving on the other side of the road.”
I ended up living in England for twenty-five years. Moving to another country was a great education. It helped me see my own land from a new perspective. In fact, it helped me see everything from a fresh viewpoint, to understand others’ better and to realize that diversity is not necessarily perverse and that being different is not the same thing as being wrong. Living abroad made me broad-minded.
Another thing I experienced in England for the first time was established religion. I was a minister in the Church of England, and that venerable church is just that: the Church of England. As one English friend of mine protested in horror when encouraged to become a Catholic, “I just couldn’t! I’m English, and the Church of England is so quintessentially English!” Quite. It is just as much the religion of Bertie Wooster and braying football hooligans as it is HMQ, cricket on the village green, Nine Lessons and Carols from King and “is there honey still for tea?”
The Church of England, as the established religion of the land, illustrates not only the concept of the established church but also what Catholics refer to as “cultural Catholicism.”
This is religion infused with nationalism. Just as the Church of England grew strong as the English stood against the invading Catholic forces of the Spanish Armada, so Ireland stood staunchly Catholic against the English Protestant overlords, and Poland stood proudly Catholic against a parade of invaders, most recently the Nazis and then the Russians.
When they came to America, the wave of Catholic immigrants clung to their religion and to their native culture as the fierce flag of their personal and tribal identities. The American bishops encouraged cultural Catholicism in the New World as a way to keep everyone happy. So, in the cities of the Northeast and Midwest, you did not so much find Catholic communities. Instead there was St. Patrick’s for the Irish, St. Stanislaus for the Poles, St. Anthony of Padua for the Italians and so on.
A parishioner of mine who grew up in Reading, Pennsylvania, said, “Father, we belonged to the Czech parish, and I remember one of our girls fell in love with a boy from St. Patrick’s and the Irish priest wouldn’t let them get married because he said it was a mixed marriage.”
Now, with increased mobility, global communications, widespread travel and further education, the old tribal barriers have pretty much broken down, and both established religion of the Anglican sort and cultural Catholicism do not work anymore. After two or three generations, when the Irish and Polish and Italian Catholics who came to America stopped being Irish or Polish or Italian, they also stopped being Catholics.
On Sundays many of them drifted off to the Protestants, to the golf course, to the mall or to their kids’ sports tournaments. They were American now; so, if they were religious at all, they became American Christians—which means Protestant, because (as the old joke goes) America is a Protestant country—even the Catholics are Protestant.
And what happened to the Catholic religion? Instead of being Italian or Polish, Portuguese, Irish or Czech, it became American. After the war when the suburbs popped up, the big fan-shaped Catholic Churches also popped up, and they were pretty much indistinguishable from the Protestant churches that also sprouted like so many mushrooms. Inside the carpeted churches looked much alike, and neither were the message and music all that different. It was not supposed to be.
It was the American message: that life was about the quest to find and retain liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Religion was there to add a little depth and feel-good spirituality. It merely added some zest to the quest.
What nobody understood was that this kind of suburban American Catholicism is just as much an example of cultural Catholicism as Italians’ spaghetti supper, Irish dancing on Saint Patrick’s Day, the Hispanic Quinceañera, and the Poles going on pilgrimage to Czestochowa. The music— as comfortable, flat and banal as the buildings—the big budgets, social- justice agenda, and easy-going Catholicism are simply American cultural Catholicism. The fact that Americans turn up to church in shorts and T-shirts, chewing gum, illustrates my point.
The problem with cultural Catholicism, in whatever form you find it, is that it is essentially nationalistic, tribal, and sectarian. It is limited by its time and culture, and in an increasingly globalized world, where nationalism (despite its current fight-back) is on the way out, how does cultural Catholicism translate? It does not.
Rather than being a disadvantage, this could be a huge advantage for Catholicism. The Catholic faith has a truly global footprint. The Pope is the one truly global spiritual leader, and the faith has the capacity to provide a religion for the whole world. That is what Jesus Christ told his disciples to do in the first place as I recall: “Go into all the world and preach the gospel even to the end of the age.”
How might Catholicism transcend its sectarian, tribal, and cultural boundaries? This is where the traditional liturgy may be a surprising magnet for disparate groups to be united. A celebration of the Catholic liturgy transcends time because it is so ancient. It transcends culture because of both its antiquity and its ubiquity. It transcends personal taste and cultural fashions.
So, for example, a Romanesque or Gothic church is timeless. Furthermore, they have been built in every corner of the world. Although it sprang from the ground of Italy or France, they are no longer Italian, French, or medieval. They are simply Catholic. Gregorian chant may have its roots in fifth- and sixth-century Italian monasteries, but for the last fifteen hundred years it has survived, and it is not Italian or French or Spanish. It is simply Catholic. The same can be said of the liturgy itself. When celebrated with noble simplicity in a traditional manner with Gregorian chant and sacred polyphony, the effect is beyond time and place.
Consequently, while it is ever ancient, it is also ever new. If Catholics celebrated the Mass in a simple, traditional manner, it would be the focus of unity that it is meant to be.
An example is my own parish in South Carolina. Happily, because Catholicism is a minority religion in the American South, cultural Catholicism is practically non-existent. As this part of the country grows, most of the Catholics are either converts or migrants from another part of the country. There are pockets of new cultural Catholicism: the Mexicans, the Vietnamese and the Koreans. But for the most part the different nationalities and ethnicities simply come to Mass and find a unity in a celebration of the liturgy that is traditional and therefore transcends their own culture, yet at the same time it helps them feel at home. It may not be Nigeria or Poland, India, the Philippines, or Scotland. It may not be Columbia, Kenya or Italy.
But it is still home, and they are among family.
The move, therefore, to promote a traditional celebration of the liturgy with Gregorian chant, a pipe organ, and sacred polyphony—with generous helpings of Latin in a building that is designed and decorated in a traditional Catholic manner—should not be seen as an arcane throwback, an exercise in ecclesial nostalgia or a conservative museum piece. Instead it should be seen as true conservatism doing its work: preserving all that is best from the past in order to invigorate the culture of the present and building a firm foundation for the future.
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