Manners and the Mass, Part 2

If (as argued before) manners are an objective sign of respect, and if the rubrics of the Mass, especially the traditional Latin Mass, play the role of manners or courtesy towards God, then what is the meaning of the tendency to informalize the Mass?

I would argue that the tendency to informality is also a tendency to subjectivity. It’s a movement away from showing respect and reverence through outward actions, and instead showing it through inward feelings. Outward formalities (objective) are considered shallow and empty, whereas spontaneous words and gestures (subjective) are “real” and sincere.

I think of Catholicism as an objective religion. This is not to say that subjectivity plays no role, but that on the objective/subjective spectrum, it falls more on the objective side.

Protestants tend to see this as a bad thing. To them, outward actions which cause inward, spiritual realities are hocus-pocus, or in other words, works. For them the Mass, baptism of babies, and confession are acts that try to compel God to do things for us, and are therefore akin to works righteousness, trying to earn our way to heaven; whereas all that really matters is your subjective, inward experience of having “accepted” Jesus as your Lord and Savior.

I have argued before that the modern belief in subjective truth may be traced to the Reformation, by way of the Enlightenment. I can’t say for sure whether the former caused the latter, or they both had some other cause. But I submit that they both follow the same trajectory, leading up to the present day: The Reformation introducing the idea of the individual, as opposed to an authorized institution, interpreting the scriptures for himself; which, since the scriptures are held to be the sole standard of religious truth, leads ultimately to the individual determining truth for himself.

Whereas in Catholicism, truth is given to the individual from outside himself, and the individual, recognizing  it, is expected to submit himself to it. Here’s where the subjective element in Catholicism comes in: Each individual has to decide whether to accept the Chuch as the instrument or conduit of God’s revelation to humanity, whether through the scriptures, which were written by members of the Church and canonized by its authority, or through the Church’s own proclamations and definitions of the faith. But once that decision is made, from then on he possesses an objective standard of religious truth, which is the teaching authority of the Church.

I would argue that the subjectivization of courtesy, by which I refer to the informalizing tendency of modern manners, follows on this sea change in the manner of determining truth: From basing truth on submission to objective standards and authorities, to basing it on individual interpretation and subjective criteria. Rather than I submitting to reality, reality is made to submit to me.

Traditionalists have argued that the Church during and after Vatican II sought to Protestantize Catholic worship. I suspect that it wasn’t so much an effort to Protestantize, as to subjectivize it. In a sense, to subjectivize is to Protestantize, but I think subjectivization was the intended goal.

Now I would argue that to subjectivize worship is to turn it inward as opposed to outward. When you subjectivize worship, you make it conform to the desires of the worshippers: Rather than prescribing certain actions (and proscribing others), you let them do what pleases them. Thus worship becomes ad-libbed: The priest stops using the pulpit for his sermon and instead paces back and forth in the sanctuary, or wanders out among the pews. He alters the prescribed prayers, or prefixes them with an impromptu greeting. People in the congregation are invited to insert their own spontaneous prayers during the Prayer of the Faithful. The people dress in any way they please, rather than conforming to outward standards of appropriateness. The mantilla (chapel veil) is abandoned.

Further, certain practices and attitudes are introduced, which serve to stir up emotions in the people of the congregation. Loud, rhythmic music is used, and the people are encouraged to clap and dance; or very emotive music is sung in an informal, emotional style, mimicking popular love ballads. People sway back and forth, raise their hands in the air and break into tears.

Again, I contend that subjective worship is worship turned inward: It consists of actions designed to produce certain emotional reactions within the worshipper, rather than actions directed outwards towards God.

Christ gave us the Mass so that we would have an outward, corporate action to perform, which is pleasing to God. This doesn’t eliminate inward, subjective experiences of God in the privacy of prayer. But it is not designed to produce inward, subjective experiences, but to constitute worship of God which is acceptable to him and worthy of his great dignity and holiness, which on our own we could never do. Often it does result in inward, subjective experiences of God’s grace and friendship, arising from the appreciation of his great mercy in condescending to be present to us and consumed by us in the Blessed Sacrament. But such experiences do not, and should not be expected to happen all the time, since they are not its primary purpose, but a gratuitous by-product of God’s overflowing kindness to us.

It is in this light that I understand Pope Benedict’s description of the priest facing the people at Mass, as the congregation being turned in on itself, rather than outwards towards God. It is one of many signs of the subjectivization and inwardness of modern Catholic worship.

Those who prefer the TLM are often accused of having no objective reason for their preference, but of being merely nostalgic and wanting to turn back the clock, or alternatively, of wanting to play “dress-up”. I can’t speak for every TLM adherent, but personally I prefer it because I like its outward rather than inward orientation, and its formality, the way it enables me to make outward and repeated gestures of courtesy and reverence towards God the Father, Christ in the Blessed Sacrament, and the priest acting in persona Christi.

4 thoughts on “Manners and the Mass, Part 2

  1. That’s a very insightful reflection on the modern day Mass. It’s interesting how things have changed so subtly over the years. The wandering priest during the homily struck home for me. One young priest I encountered actually began his homily by wandering through the pews and asking the congregation open-ended questions, like a corporate trainer leading a workshop. That didn’t go over well.


  2. Pingback: Mass roundup | Petty Armchair Popery

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