Wednesday, 3 July 2013

Sacra Liturgia: the transformation of conservatism, not traditionalism!

There is an interesting article over at Chant Cafe, essentially a wrap up of the Sacra Liturgia Conference, by Fr Christopher Smith.

In it, he claims that the conference represents a milestone for the acceptance of traditionalism in the mainstream of the Church, and the development of a more positive version of traditionalism.

The transformation of conservative attitudes to the liturgy

Actually, on the face of it, I think it represents something quite different, namely the impact of Pope Benedict's 'mutual' enrichment project on conservatism.  Fr Smith argues that:

"Overwhelmingly, the tone was positive.  How can the entire Church develop a liturgical spirit via a beautiful ars celebrandi for the salvation of souls and the regeneration of society?  One of the most arresting things I took away from the Conference was the idea that ars celebrandi is not just a matter of externals to which the priest must attend, but a spiritual and theological orientation of the entire Christian assembly."

That is indeed a noble aim, and entirely compatible with the traditionalist project.

What is not obvious to me, though, is whether the 'spiritual and theological' reorientation he is talking about is actually a traditionalist one, or something else.

The conservative hermeneutic of suspicion

Some years back I had one of those conversations with some conservative English nuns who couldn't understand why I thought the Extraordinary Form was so essential when one they had a perfectly reverent (NO) Mass and Office in Latin.  Afterwards I spent a weekend sitting in the London Oratory hearing almost every variant of the Mass possible - English said and sung, with hymns and without, Latin sung in solemn form and EF.  They were all, of course, reverently said.  But for me the EF shone through, saying something quite distinct.

These days, as the various speakers of the Conference made clear, the distinction and merits of the EF have I think, gained a much greater acceptance, and Fr Smith's write up of the teeming liturgical diversity now on offer, in stark contrast to practice in the recent past, in St Peter's itself for example, reflects that.

All the same, from what I've read of it, and know of the speakers, most of those who attended and spoke at the Sacra Liturgia Conference are not actually traditionalists, but rather conservatives who have come to appreciate the merits of the traditional liturgy, even while rejecting or misunderstanding the traditionalist perspective.

They are in short, proponents of either communio-style conservatism, a la Tracey Rowland, or American style conservatism, like Cardinal Burke and Fr Z, rather than being traditionalists per se.

There has always been, it is true, a small coterie of conservatives who recognised the merits of the Traditional Mass, as witnessed by places like the various Oratories. The size of that group that group has now vastly expanded, thanks to Summorum Pontificum.   But preferring the traditional liturgy in itself does not, in my view, make you a traditionalist.

Traditionalist 'parapsychologies'!

In fact what Fr Smith seems to be lauding in his post is not actually traditionalism, but rather a movement 'purified' of its history and key planks so as to make it acceptable to conservatives:

"A traditionalism which looks only backwards, and only with an eye to criticism, while it may contain some elements of merit with which the Church must dialogue, will eventually run out of steam.  [True enough.  But it is a caricature to suggest that traditionalism is about looking backwards and is only about criticism.] But love for the liturgy, for God, for the Church and her shepherds, which is the ultimate goal, not only of various traditionalisms, but of Tradition itself, cannot stop at that.  The Conference was proof that traditional liturgy has a powerful dynamism for reform and renewal when it is unshackled from the tired labellings and trench warfare of the past.  The sheer diversity of the speakers and participants also point to the fact that the good insights of the traditionalists can be brought in medio Ecclesiae and transform the dialogue over the nature of the Church and her worship in a way which is not tied to the past, but can do good for the future."

Like Tracey Rowland's talk given at the Conference, Fr Smith takes aim at traditionalists.

He attacks, for example, 'the psychopathologies of some who think that traditional Catholicism is a matter of dressing like the Amish'.  Frankly, I think that is missing the point.  I too think traditionalism would be better off without the cult Amish look featuring in our congregations.  All the same, those daggy long skirts do vividly make the point that there is a  real need to promote modest dress on the part of both sexes.  My own view is that we don't need to revert to nineteenth century norms in order to reject things like 'slut walks', but rather should seek to promote dress that is modest within the bounds of today's cultural norms.  But that doesn't make the issue any less real.

Similarly, Fr Smith disparages actual traditionalists (as opposed to those who simply attend the EF Mass!) for their insistence on the fundamentals of faith and practice in a world where heresy is rife:

"But what was even more amazing than the quality of the speakers at the conference, which I could go on about at length, and the beauty of the liturgies, which were celebrated in both forms, was the spirit which animated it all.  A conference which focused so much on the traditional liturgy once upon a time not so long ago would have been the preserve of people who have been caricurated [sic], pilloried and described, sometimes not entirely inaccurately, as rigid, reactionary and schismatic.  Now, there are some in the Church today who still have not grown up quite past employing this paradigm for any and every who darken the door of a Mass celebrated according to certain books.  But the atmosphere at Sacra Liturgia 2013 was not like that at all.

Instead, he argues, the focus should be a positive one:

"While there was the occasional barb at liturgical looniness, it was directed, not in the service of a critique borne from a desire to paint the Liturgical Reform as a Masonic plot to destroy the Church, but from a desire to highlight a proper ars celebrandi..."

But here is the thing.  The traditionalist movement was originally born out of the recognition that the new liturgy as it was being practiced (regardless of what explanation one has for how it came about) was indeed destroying the Church.

Fifty years on, the evidence for that proposition is pretty conclusive in my view.

Perhaps the power of that particular narrative has diminished, and it is time to put more emphasis on other aspects of the story, but that doesn't necessarily make it any less true.  And thta history is important to explaining just why liturgical reform is so important.

Similarly, Fr Smith rejects a traditionalism 'tied into the critique of Vatican II'.  Yet that critique is fundamental to the movement, for traditionalism is, at root, a rejection of the uncritical acceptance of novelty for the sake of novelty, and an attempt to maintain continuity with what came before.

Thanks to Pope Benedict's hermeneutic of continuity concept, conservatives do now, potentially at least, have a way of looking at Vatican II that rejects the revolution narrative and seeks to recover the Church's rejected patrimony

The real traditionalist project

But the reality is that there is a very long way to go indeed before that integration can truly be realised in practice.

We have a long way to go to making the typical parish liturgy actually an encounter with the sacred, a genuine act of worship.

We have a long way to go to recover orthodox interpretations of Scripture in sermons and elsewhere.

We have a long way to go to reestablish a rich devotional life as the norm for Catholics.

We have a long way to go to ensuring Catholics know and defend the fundamentals of their faith.

We have a long way to go to ensure that Catholics actually integrate their beliefs with their practice practice in all aspects of their life, as so vividly illustrated by the constant rejection of the 'hard sayings' on the part of most Catholic politicians.

There are certainly conservatives whose approach has a high degree of alignment with the traditionalist project-  Fr Aidan Nichols, with his books on an agenda for the restoration of Christendom, being the most obvious example.

And I'm certainly all in favour of the promotion of the use of the Extraordinary Form widely, and am not for a moment suggesting that you should have to accept all the other 'baggage' that comes along with it.

Nor am I uncritical of the traditionalist movement itself.  The reality is, in my view, that because of its embattled status, the movement has inevitably attracted some fringe elements and unfortunate baggage that we would do well to discard.

I agree that we need to look forward, not backwards, and continue to work to create a Catholicism that is firmly traditional yet grounded in the realities of the twenty first century, not the seventeenth or some other era.

I do agree that we have to engage more actively with the mainstream - to seek to convert in fact - rather than simply dwelling in the ghetto.

I particularly agree with those who argue that traditionalist theologians need to step up to the post, and develop the critique of mainstream theology, not simply ignore it.

But the traditionalist movement can't afford to altogether discard its origins, and forget the efforts of all those who made possible where we have reached today, for those who forget history are doomed to repeat it.


jeff said...

history aside, what differentiates trads from the hermeneutic of continuity type neo-cons who attend the EF as they are today?

Kate Edwards said...

Jeff - I started having a go at answering that question here:

I've been sick, so haven't finished the further posts on what I was proposing to say, but watch this space!

SCEcclesia said...

Kate, I do "get" your characteristic and oft repeated distinction between "traditionalists" and "conservatives". However, I don't share (as I am sure you are aware) your favour for the former over the latter.

Years ago, when I ceased being a Lutheran and became a Catholic, it was partially because I was was reading the dialogue statements from Lutheran-Catholic dialogues both here and internationally. I became aware that I was in fact identifying more with the Catholic side of the statement than the Lutheran. I had to admit to myself that I was, in fact, a Catholic.

As I read your descriptions of "conservative" and "traditionalist" Catholics, I have a similar experience, in that I find my full sympathy is with those whom you describe as "conservative" rather than those whom you describe as "traditionalist". While I can completely see how the "conservative" cause serves the mission of the Church, ie. of the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, I fail to see how the "traditionalist" point of view - at least as your represent it - serves this purpose.

Just my own reflection, of course...

Kate Edwards said...

SCE - I'm not quite sure what it is about traditionalism you see as at odds with the mission of the Church SCE, perhaps you could be a little more specific?

For me it is quite the opposite: conservatism essentially strikes me as a shallow sham that falls apart when put under deeper examination in the light of the teachings handed down to us by the Fathers and Theologians. At first glance it seems attractive perhaps, but it doesn't really provide a basis for resisting modernism, secularism and the other threats to our faith.