I don’t know about you but I am still waiting for Vatican II to kick in–you know the change-for-the-better that was supposed to be the fruit of the ecumenical council (1962-1965) called by Pope John XXIII to make everything old new again.
2005 was the fortieth anniversary of its adjournment, which means that most so-called Roman Catholics born after, say, 1968 have never heard a Latin Mass, know their catechism from stories told by their mothers, went to Catholic schools populated by divorced Catholic women, and grew up thinking that the noxious hymn “On Eagle’s Wings” is the pinnacle of liturgical expression. I haven’t even mentioned a recent survey, where it was revealed that most Catholic children between the age of nine and fifteen think the most solemn part of the mass is holding hands during the Lord’s Prayer and/or the handshaking hugathonics known as the Kiss of Peace.
Rumor has it that Benedict XVI’s recent endorsement of a more liberal use of the “old” Latin mass (called without value-inflation the “extraordinary rite,” Summorum Pontificum, 2007) will awaken the deadened aesthetic sensibilities of a whole new generation of mass-goers. Now that any priests equipped to do it (not many) are permitted to celebrate in the Tridentine style, seminaries are laying on special courses (now say after me: “een no-me-nay pah-treees…”) for rosy-cheeked enthusiasts who hope to see the old mass revived in parishes around their priest-starved dioceses.
Not bloody likely. Vatican II was a colossal failure–at every level–and the time spent studying its documents, probing its theology, anticipating its bounty have all proved a waste of adult brainpower and seminary lecture time.
Its ecumenism was hollow, as proved by the recent decision to create a special Institute for unhappy Anglicans opposed to women and gay priests, gay marriage and sundry other “theological” gripes. Ecumenical dialogue with other denominations is in ever worse disarray, except perhaps with Pentecostals and fundamentalist Christians, Catholicism’s natural enemies at a theological level but their bedfellows on abortion, contraception, HIV-AIDS and sexual ethics (so-called). Its outreach to Jews and Muslims has been political, fumbling, self-serving and inauthentic.
Its attempts to reinvent Catholic theology have been stammeringly painful, testing the resolve of every paid theologian to develop new ways to say the same old thing in ways so obscure they may as well have stuck to Latin. True, Limbo has been questioned, but heaven and hell are still for sale, as are indulgences, the intervention of saints, the infallibility of the pope, and the doctrine of the real presence. Mind you, I do not mean to impugn any of these doctrines; but am I the only one who reads modern Catholic systematic theology with a cartoon balloon over my head filled with an enormous
In terms of church attendance-the once-proud symbol of Catholic allegiance–it has been in decline since 1970–and why not, we have to ask, considering the endless loop of sermons about how loving God is all about hating abortion.
H. L. Mencken died in 1956, a decade before Vatican II had had a chance to work its special destructive magic. Years before that, in 1923 (think Scott Fitzgerald, Bentleys, raccoon coats) Mencken wrote an article in The Smart Set called “Holy Writ” that might have alerted the Church to the perils of the literal in reforming ancient tropes and gestures.
The occasion of the essay was a new translation of the Bible into French, designed to get rid of the contrived antiquity of the language then used for all Bible translations. Whoever did it, Mencken said with characteristic understatement, “is chiefly responsible for the collapse of Christianity in France.”
Contrariwise, he says, “the men who put the Bible into archaic, sonorous, and often unintelligible English gave Christianity a new lease of life….The Bible they produced was so beautiful that the great majority of men could not fix their minds on the ideas in it.”
For Mencken, this inaccessibility was a good thing: it raised the text above both the theological idea-men and the critics of tradition, so that even “the assaults of Paine, Darwin and Huxley” have not been effective against it. “They still remember the twenty third psalm when the doctor begins to shake his head, and they are still moved beyond compare by the sermon on the mount, and they still turn once a year from their sordid and degrading labors to immerse themselves unashamed in the story of the manger.”
No friend of elitism, the chattering classes, politicians nor the nincompoops who worked at factory jobs, Mencken saw the language of the 1611 (King James) Bible as the high-browiest thing about a protestant culture that without it would be as crass as its native sons. He teasingly alludes to the state of an atheist, who by comparison with a Bibled Methodist is infinitely more crass.
When he turns to the cradle Catholicism of his native Baltimore, Mencken finds something different to praise. The good of Catholicism is not in the Bible but in its keeping the Bible away from people, and keeping people away from the technical theological disputes that occupy only a small segment of the learned clergy.
What keeps the Catholic in the pew Mencken thought was not theology or lectures on doctrine but spectacle. The Catholic church exceeds the Protestant as he saw it “because it has always kept clearly before it that religion is not a syllogism but a poem.” “A solemn high mass must be a thousand times as impressive to a man with any genuine religious sense…as the most powerful sermon ever roared under the big top by a Presbyterian auctioneer of God.”
Mencken enjoyed toying with the contrast between the major streams of American religion. Protestantism failed not only because he had a personal dislike for “American bible searchers,” largely Baptists and Methodists, whom he often called vermin, but because their religion purported to be logical.
The Protestants, he claimed “transform an act of worship into a puerile intellectual exercise” by putting their sermons front and center and eschewing liturgy. On the contrary, “Preaching is not an essential part of the Latin ceremonial. It was little employed in the early church and I am convinced that good effects would flow from abandoning it today.”
But Mencken knew the end was near, even in 1923. He observed the lengthening of the sermon by Catholic bishops and priests (blather), the loss of the aesthetic, mumbled prayers, ignored rubrics, the twenty-five minute mass–as though Latin was a cage to be gotten out of.
He associated this tendency with the Irish, who wanted more gab and less godliness. He warns of the “folly” the American church is falling into by trivializing what a later generation of theorists would call “mystique”: “A bishop in his robes playing his part in a solemn ceremonial is a dignified sight, even though he may sweat freely. The same bishop bawling against Darwin half an hour later is simply an elderly Irishman with a bald head, the son of a respectable saloon keeper in South Bend, Indiana.” Darwin’s place, no doubt, has been taken by the Abortion Provider, but the bawling hasn’t changed.
Mencken had some advice for the Church back then, especially with respect to liturgical decline: “Let the reverend fathers go back to Bach. If they keep on spoiling poetry and spouting ideas, the day will come when some extra-bombastic deacon will propose to translate the liturgy into American, that all the faithful may be convinced by it.”
What he didn’t foresee is that the work would be done by the bald headed sons of the saloon-keepers.