A pope crushed by modernity

When in 2013 Benedict XVI became the first pope in six centuries to resign, he made his resignation speech in Latin.

Many took that choice of idiom as a gesture of defiance, the pope’s parting shot at the modernising Second Vatican Council (Vatican II) he had always despised. Perhaps that’s indeed what it was.

Yet major thinkers like Benedict seldom make public gestures devoid of didactic significance. They don’t just speak, they teach. And the style of their lessons is sometimes as telling as the content.

Vatican II represented a triumph of modernity over tradition, which had implications going far beyond the internal politics of the Catholic Church. After all, contempt, often hatred, for tradition of any kind is the dominant feature of our time.

That is masked by pronouncements about progress, popular appeal, inclusivity and whatnot. Such things are seldom treated in this space with the reverence they tend to attract elsewhere, but that doesn’t mean they are inherently wrong.

Christian proselytism, for example, presupposes a steady widening of popularity, drawing more people in and keeping fewer out. Yet Christianity – or any other sublime celebration of God in man – should never buy popular appeal at the price of vulgarisation. If it does, the outcome may well become the opposite of the one intended.

For example, playing Benedict’s beloved Mozart the way he is so often played today, as a rococo trifle devoid of any spiritual content, may put more bums on concert hall seats. That would have a positive effect on the box office – but a shattering one on the music. And in the end people seeking light musical entertainment wouldn’t bother listening to Mozart at all.

Vatican II (1962-1965) is another case in point. It emphatically discouraged the Latin Mass, opting instead for the vernacular. The hope was that greater accessibility would encourage wider access, but that’s not how it has worked out.

The first, relatively minor, problem was the divisive effect of the vernacular Mass. If in the past a Catholic could have moved from Peru to Poland and still celebrated Mass in the same language, now he found himself at a linguistic disadvantage.

Then there were translation issues. Anyone who has ever attended vernacular services in different countries is aware of some scriptural passages coming across slightly modified, which may affect the meaning.

Off the top, in the KJV Luke quotes Jesus as saying, “The kingdom of God is within you,” and indeed the original Greek preposition entos can mean ‘within’ or ‘inside’. However, it can also mean ‘among’ or ‘in the midst of’.

The difference between ‘inside’ and ‘in the midst of’ is important: the former internalises God completely and unconditionally; the latter doesn’t. The kingdom of God could thus be within some people, but only among some others.

Which did Christ mean? Different translations of the scripture disagree – and that’s just within the same language. (Contextually, since Jesus was talking to hostile Pharisees, He was probably referring to Himself as the kingdom of God that was among them, but entos leaves room for interpretation.)

Yet vernacular Mass has more serious problems than linguistic variances. For a liturgical language different from one spoken in the street confers mystical grandeur on the service, lifting it high above the morass of daily life.

Conversely, biblical personages talking in everyday colloquialisms have a demystifying effect, which can turn off more people than it draws in. So yes, the Church must appeal to the masses – but only for the right reasons and in the right ways. Populism for its own sake can diminish popularity, and so it has proved.

Looking at the dire state of the Church in France, one of the core Catholic countries, one would find it hard to argue that Vatican II has been a success. In the provinces, one priest often has to cover 30 churches or more, making the Mass largely unavailable – and those looking for it increasingly fewer.

As a parish priest, Ratzinger had some leeway even after Vatican II: the Church practises the principle of subsidiarity, devolving power to the lowest sensible level. But as he climbed up the hierarchy, he found his freedom diminishing. And when Ratzinger became Benedict XVI, he really had to watch his step.

Even as cardinal and head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), he could still describe pop music as “a vehicle of anti-religion” or homosexuality as “a tendency ordered towards intrinsic moral evil”.

But when, as pontiff, he dared to quote a Byzantine emperor’s uncomplimentary view of Islam (“Show me just what Mohammad brought that was new and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.”), Benedict faced such public outcry that he had to apologise profusely.

The walls of modernity were closing in, with Benedict pushing against them as hard as he could, but finding himself unable to keep the roof from collapsing. The Church he saw in his mind’s eye wasn’t one before his physical eyes, and the contrast eventually wore him down.

The greatest theologian among the modern pontiffs, Benedict wasn’t the most fleetfooted politician. But both outside the Vatican and increasingly inside, the demand for politicised wheeler-dealers trading in voguish platitudes far outstripped one for deep thinkers and upholders of tradition.

So Benedict stepped aside, citing his advanced age and failing health. Yet he was neither too old nor too infirm to be an outstanding pope. It’s only when he had to take on modernity that he had to admit defeat.

Thus not only the Church but indeed the whole world was robbed of another 10 years of Benedict’s spiritual leadership. Both are the less for it.

His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI, RIP.

3 thoughts on “A pope crushed by modernity”

  1. I think it was more “the spirit of Vatican II” that ushered in near universal use of the vernacular. I remember attending Mass in Montreal for the first time and thinking, “Wouldn’t it be nice if Mass everywhere were said in the same language” – long before I ever even heard of the Latin Mass.

    Compare Pope Benedict’s words on Islam with the false ecumenism of Pope Francis. (Interesting, “The Pope: ‘Christianity isn’t the true religion'”, from 12th August 2015, shows up in the links for related articles today.) Without Pope Benedict’s “Summorum Pontificum” we would not have our local Latin Mass, and I would be sinning each week with my vulgar thoughts about the equally vulgar celebration of the Novus Ordo.

    Sad to say, but I think that the power of what is called “the Saint Gallen Mafia” and the homosexualist agenda played a (major?) part in the pope’s resignation.

  2. It is all explained here in this book (and also in the same author’s book “The Jesuits” ) Windswept House
    by Malachi Martin.

  3. “If in the past a Catholic could have moved from Peru to Poland and still celebrated Mass in the same language, now he found himself at a linguistic disadvantage.”

    Pre Vatican II, my dad said that evidence of the validity of Catholicism was the point above.

    The abandonment of Latin cut the legs out from under that argument.

    My knowledge of theology is so little that I cannot speak to whether universal Latin makes the RC the true church. Still, I resent it if only because it betrayed my dad.

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