Traditional Catholics have been weeping and gnashing their teeth since the appearance of Msgr. Charles Pope’s National Catholic Register blog post, “An Urgent Warning About the Future of the Traditional Latin Mass.” I confess I don’t know why. Though Pope relies largely on anecdotal evidence and some odd comparisons to the tragic decline of Catholic schools, his main point about the need for traditionalists to engage in more evangelization is sound. Joseph Shaw, the former head of the Latin Mass Society, disagrees. Writing over at Rorate Caeli, Shaw takes umbrage with Pope’s analysis, pointing out that the numbers don’t lie: the number of traditional Masses around the world is growing; traditional Catholic communities foster vocations to the priesthood and religious life; and traditional Catholics can’t be blamed for the fact their non-traditional brethren of the past two generations or so have been grossly under-catechized and are thus not in a position to truly experience – or have “fruitful participation” in – the Tridentine Mass. I don’t disagree necessarily with Shaw’s first two observations; the last comes a bit too close to cheap blame-shifting for my tastes. I always thought one of the central “points” of the traditional Catholic movement was to correct the catechetical problems introduced by bishops and priests over the past 50 years and that promoting the Tridentine Mass came hand-in-hand with delivering orthodoxy Catholicism. Why does Shaw seem to be disavowing this element of the traditionalist apostolate?
Though clear numbers are hard to come by, no one should doubt for a moment that part of the reason why traditional Latin Mass communities have grown over the past decade is due to the banality of contemporary Roman liturgical life. There are many Catholics who attend the Tridentine Mass for primarily aesthetic reasons and I would not be the least surprised if the growth of “aesthetic traditionalists” has started to slow down in recent years, especially with more priests now offering more reverent forms of the Novus Ordo Missae. Also, it is far from clear that the presence of the Tridentine Mass in a parish means the presence of unsullied Catholic doctrine. In my own hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan, the sole diocesan parish which offers the Tridentine Mass on Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation (a second parish offers it on Monday mornings) is run by two priests affiliated with the Acton Institute (which includes its founder, Fr. Robert Sirico) and houses a number of faithful who endorse Acton’s full-throated dissent from the Church’s social magisterium. That old-time religion of free markets may not be preached from the pulpit each Sunday, but no one who attends can deny the ethos of doctrinal exceptionalism which permeates the parish.
And that’s just one example. Many others can be called forth, which is no doubt one reason why the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX) has been virulent in warning traditional Catholics against compromising the Faith in exchange for a pretty liturgical service. (For the record, I am far from being in perfect agreement with the SSPX on this matter, particularly as it concerns other traditionalist groups such as the Fraternity of St. Peter or the Institute of Christ the King.) To the Society’s credit, it has never seen its mission as being about “the Mass only”; retaining the ancient Roman liturgy is just one part of a much larger project to keep Catholicism alive in the midst of one of the greatest trials to ever face the Church. Many Catholics who attend SSPX chapels do so not just out of fidelity to the old Mass, but because they know they will receive clear instruction in the Faith and proper spiritual direction in the Confessional. Even if some Catholics show up to Society chapels for the Mass alone, it is often not long before they find their eyes opened to a much larger doctrinal, spiritual, and theological reality which has been kept from them for their whole lives.
Returning to Msgr. Pope’s piece and some of the fallout from it, it strikes me as queer that any traditional Catholic should want to distance himself from evangelization as a means to growing and spreading the Tridentine Mass. While Shaw is right that traditional Catholics “didn’t start the fire,” they above all should be dedicated to putting out the blaze. “If you offer it, they will come” are not the words of the Holy Ghost; there is still the Christ-given imperative to “go forth and preach.” That’s not easy work, as Pope notes, but it is necessary work. Pope-emeritus Benedict XVI gave the flock of the Latin Church a wonderful gift when he promulgated Summorum Pontificum in 2007, but it is a gift that will only reveal its full value if the faithful take up to challenge to make it known to all around them. There should be nothing controversial about that.