Sense and Nonsense

Part I

6 November 2009



Usually fall brings lots of brilliant color to our town, but not this year.  Weird weather in the form of scorching heat followed by freezing cold caused leaves simply to wither without turning gold.  Watching them fall on a dreary day, I am prompted to reflect on the beauty we missed, while sensing in the scene a pervasive desolation.  For all the talk of money, of markets, of jobs, of gay rights, of wars or health care, who out there notes the spiritual bankruptcy engulfing us?  Who dares to lambast the lies, the indecency, the gross immorality?  Who bemoans the growing lack of sound education, of modest fashions — and of the true Mass and Sacraments, as the remnant of certainly-valid priests ages and dies?


But, you say, look on the bright side!  Be optimistic, like Robert Moynihan, editor-in-chief of Inside the Vatican.  In recent glowing “newsflashes” posted online, he exults over the celebration on October 18 of the first High Mass in the “old rite” at St. Peter’s in Rome since 1969.  We assume the celebrant, Archbishop Raymond Burke, used the 1962 Latin missal, since this is the form specified in Benedict’s motu proprio Summorum Pontificum of July, 2007.  Why it took so long to be implemented in Rome of all places is not clear.  Incredibly Benedict himself did not attend.  Indeed, only one high-ranking Vatican official showed up for the “historic” event, which Moynihan compares to “the end of the 40 years of wandering in the desert of the Jewish people after the Exodus from their captivity in Egypt.”


Archbishop Burke himself is an American, a former Wisconsin farm boy –– and archbishop of St. Louis.  Considering the dominant role played by the U.S. in world affairs during the post-war era, Moynihan considers it fitting that he acted as celebrant.  While our country has “done much to sever the connection of the modern world from its past,” Burke has, by celebrating this Mass, affirmed symbolically “our connection with our past –– with Rome, with Athens, with Jerusalem — and with all those who celebrated this liturgy over the centuries.”


As Moynihan puts it, Burke has “stepped forward to lift high this fallen standard.”  He also predicts that the archbishop, who holds an important post in Rome, will be made a cardinal before long.


Reading on, we learn that during the course of his homily Burke said: “In the Holy Mass the Son renews His sacrifice on Calvary, the sacrifice through which He will accomplish the perfect healing of our souls.”  So far so good.  But then he goes on to cite the motu proprio Summorum Pontificum as evidence that “there is no contradiction between the two forms of the Mass in the Latin rite, the old Mass according to the missal of St. Pius V, and the new Mass of Pope Paul VI.  There is progress, but no rupture with the past.”


Hmmm. . .


“And Pope Benedict has made very clear that the old rite, now called the extraordinary form of the Latin rite, cannot be rejected or regarded as dangerous in any way,” Archbishop Burke continues.  “The double rite is a gift to the Church.  The two forms will mutually enrich each other.”


Oh really?  Tell that to Roger Cardinal Mahoney of Los Angeles, who in an online interview last March said “The Tridentine Mass was meant for those who could not make the transition from Latin to English (or other languages) after the Council.  But there is no participation by the people, and I don’t believe that instills the spirit of Christ among us.”  Even a Novus Ordo journalist like Damian Thompson of found his attitude “patronizing” and “distressing.”


Not surprisingly Latin Masses under Mahoney’s aegis are at a minimum.  This makes us wonder: do you suppose he considers these to be somehow dangerous?  Somebody must; otherwise why would Burke make a point of saying they were not so in his homily?  As of March 3, California Catholic Daily reported a total of four being offered on Sundays in what is supposedly the largest archdiocese in the nation.  This miniscule amount, of course, does not include those Masses being offered by traditional groups not affiliated with the diocese.


Last March, Cardinal Mahoney also banned Bishop Richard Williamson of the SSPX from entering a school or facility in his archdiocese until the latter retracted his remarks “minimizing” the Holocaust.  Apparently Mahoney considers him to be not only dangerous but also heretical.  In an article by, he is quoted as saying Williamson is not –– and may never become –– a Catholic at all!  How can this be?  Well, he says the SSPX’s “rejection of the Second Vatican Council” means they also reject Nostra Aetate.  Composed “after close work with the American Jewish Committee”, Mahoney said, this document “explicitly rejected the charge of deicide against the Jews and affirmed the ‘kinship between the Catholic and Jewish faiths.’”


 By rejecting the old Mass along with all who reject his interpretation of Vatican II, Cardinal Mahoney distances himself from the wily Benedict, who has paired Old Mass and New together as “Extraordinary and Ordinary rites” under the umbrella of the Novus Ordo.  Going by Burke’s homily at the special Mass –– and the very fact that he celebrated it –– we assume the American prelate has no problem with this.  Nor presumably did the congregation at St. Peter’s.  This included representatives of the Society of Saint Peter and Institute for Christ the King who were in Rome for a special conference.  Back home, of course, such groups strive to seek and find the Extraordinary rite in dioceses whose primary focus is the Ordinary.


If this sounds convoluted, that’s because it is.


If you wonder how a supposed pope can pursue such a line, we suggest tracing it to his background.  Here clues abound.  In a recent online essay, Thomas Drolesky refers us to an article from the Italian periodical Si Si, No No; an English translation of this appeared in The Angelus during the spring of 1999.  Entitled “The Memories of a Destructive Mind,” it uses the Ratzinger memoir Milestones, published two years earlier, as a source for exploring influences on that prelate during his formative years.  The article notes how post-war German seminaries promoted the thinking of Hegel, Kant and Heidegger, the latter two being “omnipresent guideposts.”  The study of theology at this time was also “infected by existentialism” and the liberalism, i.e., modernism, of suspect theologians like Henri de Lubac.  In such a milieu the young Ratzinger dismissed the hard logic of Thomas Aquinas as being “too closed in on itself, too impersonal and ready-made.”  Instead he adhered to those who regarded tradition as a “living process,” and sought to find a “balance between liberalism and dogma.”  Not surprisingly he did encounter some resistance along the way.  During his pursuit of a post-doctoral degree, he was at one point accused of promoting a “subjectivist concept of revelation” that was “typical of modernists.”


According to the Si Si, No No article, such subjectivism is based on the belief that our knowledge of revelation depends on the man who gets the message.  It is this “perceiving subject” who is the “constitutive element of the concept of revelation.”  It follows that as one perceiver replaces another, the product, or awareness of what has been revealed, also changes.  Truth is in the eyes of the beholder.  It changes, or evolves with the vicissitudes of time.  What was true 800 — or even 200 –– years ago is not necessarily so today.  Neither, however, should it be considered as false, or dangerous, if viewed as a legacy of what used to be.  The same principle holds for the liturgy.  If put in perspective as a mere relic of the past, the Old Mass can be safely celebrated and valued, so long as the new rite is acknowledged to be the preeminent form for our day.


How neat.


Though if neither rite reflects the absolute truth, why should it matter?  Why bother with what is outmoded?  Moynihan calls the old rite a “symbolic reaffirmation of our connection with our past,” an “embrace of our cultural roots.”  But is this in itself so vital for us moderns?  If the new rite is equally good or better, how can the past 40 years be compared to wandering in the desert?  How does a celebration of the old one bring a layman like Moynihan to the Promised Land?  Does this make sense?  Or is our editor simply employing a biblical image like some Hollywood director in order to bamboozle a remnant of traditionalists?


When it comes to describing the liturgy, Moynihan seems more poetic than precise — more a subjectivist, like Joseph Ratzinger.  In discussing the latter’s memoirs, Si Si, No No tells us that the liturgy was for him “a matter of feeling, a lived experience, an aesthetically pleasing ‘Erlebnis’, but fundamentally irrational.”  Considering this, we are struck by the fact that Moynihan introduces one of his newsflashes with a lengthy quote from the same book.  In this Ratzinger is reflecting on his youth: 

 Penetrating the mysterious world of the liturgy which was celebrated at the altar in front of us was an exciting adventure.  I realized with increasing clarity that I was encountering something which had been created neither by an individual, by a great mind nor by Church officials.  This mysterious tapestry of texts and actions had developed over centuries, out of the Church’s faith. . .  Not everything was logical.  Some things were jumbled.  In places it was difficult to find one’s way.  But despite all, it was a wonderful building, a spiritual home. . .  The inexhaustible reality of Catholic liturgy has been my companion through all the stages of my life.

For a child, of course, the Mass, especially a High Mass, can certainly seem like such a “mysterious tapestry. . .”  That would be his impression, though we might expect Ratzinger to have made more sense of the jumble as he matured.  Nor should we be surprised to find Moynihan echoing the words of his mentor, who even before the last papal election was featured in his magazine.  Since then, of course, he appears most prominently in its pages on a regular basis.  But that’s not the end of the story in regards to the Ratzinger quote noted above.  After using it as an opener, Moynihan goes on to repeat the key phrase, or image, in his own newsletter, concluding that the Mass is indeed “a mysterious tapestry of texts and actions”.


Continuing, he says, “I want to know what it is,” and “why many are concerned about how it is celebrated, whether in the old rite or the new, whether in Latin or in the vernacular, whether in silence and great solemnity, or with singing and dancing, whether in twenty minutes or in four hours.”


(Did he say dancing?  How orthodox is that?)


Eschewing anything so dry as a “definition from a handbook,” in order to explain the meaning of a Mass, Moynihan goes on to incorporates the same image yet again — all in the same newsflash!  This time he says the Mass is “that ‘mysterious tapestry of texts and actions,’ as Ratzinger put it, which mediates true life to men and women, which allows men and women to share in the eternal life of Christ.  That is what the Catholic Mass is.  In essence the Mass is located at the point of crisis between life and death.”


Now if this is sounding a bit scary, it gets scarier, as Moynihan proceeds to push the limit, making us wonder what lurks behind that mysterious tapestry: 

Wherever the Mass is celebrated, what we are celebrating is this mystery, a mystery at once very simple and very complex: the mystery of life and death, the mystery of sin and forgiveness, the mystery of sickness and of healing, the mystery of irrationality and of reason, the mystery of chaos and of the Logos, the mystery of the Fall and of redemption, the mystery of sacrifice and of atonement, the mystery of Israel and of the Promised Land.

This is indeed a peculiar mix.  The way he balances good with evil seems more Hegelian than Catholic.  Could he be trying to mimic his idol Benedict by wallowing in modernism?  Be not fooled, folks.  Remember your old catechism, which describes the Mass as an unbloody Sacrifice, the offering of the Innocent One, the Purest of the Pure, to His Father.  How then can Moynihan say that in it we celebrate “the mystery of sin,” along with forgiveness,” “the mystery of irrationality” along with reason, “the mystery of chaos,” along with the Logos, “the mystery of the Fall,” along with redemption?  Does this reflect the sort of “balance between liberalism and dogma” touted by Ratzinger in his Memoir?  To us it smacks, rather, of imbalance.  Though it’s hard to say exactly, since, Moynihan shuns precision.  Take the following:

Whenever the Mass is celebrated, it is the re-enactment of the great dramatic moments in the history of salvation.  It is the Exodus from the slavery of Egypt, through the Passover; it is the Last Supper of Jesus, when he was betrayed as he celebrated the Passover meal; it is the crucifixion, when he went like a lamb to his death, becoming himself the Passover sacrifice; it is the Resurrection, when that sacrifice shatters the bonds of sin and death, and flames out into eternal life, and eternal joy, eternal glory; it is the meal in Emmaus, when the disciples recognized the risen Christ in the breaking of the bread; it is the sharing in the manna in the desert, which fed the people on their wandering journey, which is the Eucharist bread shared at communion, the bread of thanksgiving that death and sin have been defeated, so that there may be life, and true love, in holiness.


This is the Mass.

No, it is not!  What he presents is a hodgepodge of images, a veritable mirage.  The Mass is not the “re-enactment” of all those “dramatic moments” in so-called salvation history!  Much of what he mentions — the Exodus and Passover, for instance — are simply part of the biblical background.  Moreover, the clause featuring those events in his paragraph is structured so as to emphasize the Exodus over the Passover, when actually, with the Mass the latter is more pertinent.  Christ did celebrate the first Mass at the Last Supper, which began as Passover meal, but for our purposes the terms are not equal.  Nor is it correct to call the Mass a supper as opposed to a Sacrifice.  That is a Protestant error.


In the next clause Moynihan brings up the Last Supper, but now the emphasis is not on what occurred there at the scene, but, rather, on the betrayal that occurred elsewhere!  From here he does go on to mention the crucifixion and “Passover sacrifice,” whatever that is supposed to denote, but several clauses later we are way back in time at the Exodus and the sharing of “manna in the desert.”  This, he says, “is the Eucharistic bread shared at communion, the bread of thanksgiving that death and sin have been defeated.”


 Sorry, folks, not only is this bad poetry, it is just plain wrong.  It is not theologically correct to equate the “manna in the desert” with “Eucharistic bread,” consecrated or not.  While prefiguring the Eucharist, it is hardly the same in substance.  It’s only a symbol.  Nor is “manna” shared by communicants at a Catholic Mass.  Let us not confuse a remote image with the reality in the here and now.  In seeking to avoid a theological definition, Moynihan wanders further and further into murky realms, leading readers astray in the process.  But is this by accident, or is it a clever ruse, calculated to deceive the gullible?


Wonder of wonders.


Why, given his love for the Mass, does he avoid describing it in doctrinal terms?  Could he have ulterior motives?  Is he playing some sort of game, a charade?  Is he afraid of stating plain truths which, if turned against him, could be used to expose what he and his magazine are really about?  Going by Catholic standards, Moynihan is not really all that orthodox.  Look at what he wrote in his newsflash regarding the three languages found in the traditional Mass: Latin, Greek, and (though minimally) Hebrew.  Noting these “were probably spoken by Jesus himself,” he goes on to say:

 Some may object that we don’t know that Jesus knew Latin, or spoke Latin, or even that he knew Greek and spoke in Greek.  But there is considerable evidence that he knew and spoke Hebrew and Greek, and some scholars argue that he knew Latin as well.

But does Moynihan himself believe it?  The way he gives a nod of recognition to those who question Christ’s omniscience makes us wonder.  Why the ambivalence?  Does he really believe Jesus to be the Logos, i. e. the Word?  If so, why bring up the question as to His knowledge of languages?  Why does he feel the need to justify Jesus’ expertise by citing the “evidence” of so-called scholars who have studied His linguistic proclivities.  If Jesus is God, and God is omniscient, do we need modern experts to tell us what He could and could not do?  Should we be listening to modernists who strive to redefine doctrine in up-to-date terms?


Here Moynihan seems to reflect the subjectivism found in his mentor’s memoir.  It’s no wonder he shuns an orthodox definition of the Mass.  It’s all of a piece.  If truth evolves in time, so does dogma, especially any formulation thereof.  Thus in another recent essay, Thomas Drolesky cites a report submitted by Ratzinger while a member of the International Theological Commission in the 1970’s.  Referring to the “identity of the Christian substance,” this says that “no formula, no matter how valid and indispensable it may have been in its time, can fully express the thought mentioned in it and declare it unequivocally forever, since language is constantly in movement and the content of its meaning changes.”


Such verbiage clearly contradicts the teaching of Humani Generis, the encyclical issued in August of 1950, whereby Pius XII condemns modernists who dare to “reduce to a minimum the meaning of dogmas; and to free dogma itself from terminology long established in the Church.”  The pope goes on to say the “more audacious” of these actually

. . . hold that the mysteries of faith are never expressed by truly adequate concepts but only by approximate and ever changeable notions, in which the truth is to some extent expressed, but is necessarily distorted.  Wherefore they do not consider it absurd, but altogether necessary, that theology should substitute new concepts in place of the old ones in keeping with the various philosophies which in the course of time it uses as its instruments, so that it should give human expression to divine truths in various ways which are even somewhat opposed, but still equivalent, as they say.  They add that the history of dogmas consists in the reporting of the various forms in which revealed truth has been clothed, forms that have succeeded one another in accordance with the different teachings and opinions that have arisen over the course of the centuries.

Drolesky also refers in his essay to pronouncements by Vatican Council I, one of which tells us that “the meaning of the sacred dogmas is ever to be maintained which has once been declared by holy mother Church, and there must never be any abandonment of this sense under the pretext or in the name of a more profound understanding.”


 Another states: “If anyone says that it is possible that at some time, given the advancement of knowledge, a sense may be assigned to the dogmas propounded by the Church which is different from that which the Church has understood and understands: let him be anathema.”



Thus the true Church of the ages — the Catholic Church –– holds that doctrine does not change, does not evolve in time.  Whoever says otherwise, priest or layman, puts himself beyond the bounds of orthodoxy.  From this it should be also obvious that, since in matters of faith truth can not coexist with error, liturgies expressing true doctrine should not be celebrated in conjunction with those that do not.


Lex orandi, lex credendi.


These are the solid truths that Moynihan refuses to admit, while hiding behind a tapestry of culture: beautiful cathedrals, statues, altars, music, vestments, ceremony.  His magazine exudes an appreciation for such stuff –– and don’t get us wrong.  As part of our heritage, all this is wonderful, provided it is seen in proper perspective.  Certainly it should not be used as a glossy facade to obscure the hard core issues of what constitutes a valid Mass, and whether one of these was truly celebrated last month at St. Peter’s in Rome.


Was it or was it not?  That is our next question.


Copyright by Judith M. Gordon 2009