One of the rare subjects on which conservative and liberal Catholics agree is this one -- the work of John L. Allen Jr. of the National Catholic Reporter is must reading about 99 percent of the time. This is especially true, in my opinion, when he tackles complex subjects that require blending an inside-the-Vatican perspective with some understanding of Catholicism in the swinging United States. So Allen's recent New York Times commentary on the upcoming controversy about the "return" of the Latin Mass is must reading for anyone interested in writing, or reading, news about American Catholicism. Here is how it opens:
A senior Vatican official has confirmed that sometime soon Pope Benedict XVI will expand permission for use of what's popularly known as the Latin Mass, the service that was standard before the Second Vatican Council. Though some details remain vague, one point seems all too clear: When the decision officially comes down, its importance will be hyped beyond all recognition, because doing so serves the purposes of both conservatives and liberals within the church, as well as the press.
Pope Benedict's intent, according to Vatican authorities, is to make the pre-1960s Mass optional, leaving Catholics free to choose which Mass they want to attend. Because the older Tridentine Mass, named for the 16th-century Council of Trent, has come to symbolize deep tensions in Catholicism, the pope's decision is sure to trigger an avalanche of commentary.
Some voices on the right will say this action is step one in rolling back the liturgical reforms -- or "reforms," with scare quotes, depending on one's point of view -- of Vatican II and, thus, returning some of the sense of awe and beauty lost in the wake of folk Masses, polka Masses, bad liturgical dancing and whatnot.
In other words, this is great fundraising letter material.
Meanwhile, some voices on the Catholic left will, essentially, say the same thing, only with fear and anger in their voices. This is linked, in part, to their opposition to the ministry of Pope Benedict XVI, who has a long history of being a liturgical traditionalist. Allen notes:
That argument, too, depends on selective perception. While Benedict certainly wants to call the church back to some Catholic fundamentals, evidence of a systematic lurch to the right is hard to come by. This is the same pope, after all, who scandalized Catholic traditionalists by jettisoning limbo and by praying alongside the grand mufti of Istanbul inside the Blue Mosque in Turkey. On the political front, Benedict has demanded debt relief for impoverished nations, said that "nothing positive" has come from the United States-led war in Iraq, and denounced capitalism as an "ideological promise" that "has proven false."
In other words, the pope is not a Republican or a member of the Religious Right. However, some on the left love to pretend otherwise while crafting the language in their own fundraising letters.
So this is likely to be one big mess of a media circus, complete with smells and bells. For a handy overview of the controversy, check out this USA Today report. As you would expect, Amy Welborn's open book has its share of coverage and links to people on both sides.
However, it pays to remember that there is a big story lurking behind this one, only it's a story that is much harder for reporters to tell.
Truth be told, there are Catholics who would love to torpedo Vatican II and some of them love incense, Gregorian chant and Latin. For them, the return of the old Mass would be a huge symbolic victory -- even if it does not result in a crackdown on some of the bizarre version of the liturgy that same modernists and postmodernists have dreamed up.
At the same time, there are many American Catholics, including more than a few who wear purple, who dislike traditional Catholics so much that they have gone out of their way to deny them any use of the old Tridentine Mass or even use of the Vatican's own original, official Latin-text version of the Novus Ordo liturgy that followed Vatican II (the foundation text for translations into English and other modern languages).
There are Catholic leaders, for example, who are fighting the new liturgical texts in which the Vatican has attempted to restore some complex, ancient language -- to reform, perhaps, a few of the spirit-of-Vatican II reforms. Click here for a Religion News Service story about Bishop Donald Trautman of Erie, Pa., chair of the U.S. Catholic Bishops' Committee on the Liturgy, and his conflicts with Rome on this issue.
The bottom line: You will find a few of these extreme people, left and right, in most American dioceses. You will usually have one or two parishes that strongly support Rome and like to fly that flag high (and apply pressure for Latin rites). Then you will also have one or two edgy parishes (or "centers" or "Catholic communities") that oppose -- in ways either open or subtle -- almost everything that Rome tries to do.
So where is the big story? It's in the middle there, where the typical Catholic parish offers Masses that are plain, vanilla, often numbingly quick versions of the modernized English rite.
If the people on the left and the right can articulate what their ancient or edgy rites stand for, can anyone find a way to describe for readers the theology of these everyday generic Masses? In other words, what is the theological content of the current state of affairs, of the business-as-usual Sunday Mass in the big, mushy middle of suburban American Catholicism?
That's a big story. Trust me.