Try to imagine the mayhem that would be created in the religion blogosphere if a major controversy hit the news that involved gay rights, Mormonism, atheism and (wait for it) the Latin Mass. I think you'd need to call in the online equivalent of the U.S. Marines to control it.
Everyone who covers religion news knows that the Latin Mass is a hot-button topic, a Maypole around which a number of other emotional Catholic issues dance. As the old saying goes: What's the difference between a liturgist and a terrorist? You can negotiate with a terrorist.
So the folks at Crux just ran a massive on-site report about the recent Sacra Liturgia USA meeting. To say this is a colorful piece would be a great understatement.
This is, on one level, a classic example of the neo-National Geographic feature in which the tiniest details of life in an exotic tribe are placed under the microscope in order to contrast these folks with normal people. Yes, think trip to the zoo. In this case, "normal people" are the progressives in the post-Vatican II academic establishment and their journalism friends. Here's the view of one faithful GetReligion reader of the Crux feature:
In this article and the accompanying photos it seems to me as if Crux Now is treating this like they were reporting on and taking pictures at a zoo. "Oh, look! There's the scarlet Cardinal with flocks of admirers around him! Oh, and see over there? That's the white-hatted, red-breasted lionheart with an old-fashioned chasuble on!"
I can see some of that, in this coverage of the Cardinal Burke show. However, I was impressed with two elements of this story, which we will get to in a moment. There is one major wince moment at the very end for the suddenly old new Catholic left.
My problem with this piece? I really like it when journalists quote people to make major, summary points -- as opposed to using that kind of reportorial papal voice with no attributions -- like the following. Let us attend.
These are the True Believers.
They comprise a small, vocal, and especially young segment of the Catholic Church. They see the liturgical changes that took place after the Second Vatican Council as ushering in the breakdown of society. Abortion, same-sex marriage, gender theory: these changes are the result of sacrificing beauty and truth, truth with a capital T, on the altar of individualism and reason.
Many are gathered in New York this week for Sacra Liturgia USA, an annual gathering of mostly American and British priests and seminarians to discuss ways to bring the sacred back to Catholic worship. For them, sacred means the use of traditional music, art, and the Latin Mass.
The main attraction here is undoubtedly Burke, a traditionalist known for his elaborate vestments, outspoken views on traditional worship, and sharp defense of Catholic orthodoxy. That Burke’s been sidelined by Pope Francis, losing his job as head of the Vatican’s supreme court last year and then relegated to a largely ceremonial role at a relatively young age, doesn’t matter here. He’s a rock star.
The crowd of a few hundred is mostly male, and it’s noticeably youthful. They hang on Burke’s every word, interrupting his keynote address repeatedly with applause.
Now here is the key: Are there any parts of that Crux speech that would be challenged by Catholic traditionalist shareholders, the folks whose lives are most connected to this event? Simply stated: Yes. So why not, in this kind of overture, quote critics of this group and its defenders? I guarantee that the quotes would, yes, be colorful.
However, this kind of view-from-on-high narration seems to be the norm in today's world of reported analysis. I still think that a story of this kind should almost go out of its way to make both sides uncomfortable.
Which leads me to one or my two primary areas of praise for this feature -- its emphasis on the youth of the participants at this conference. Yes, we see young Catholics cheering for the scholarly Pope Benedict XVI and his legacy. From my experience, the Latin Mass crowd in the past leaned toward the gray-hair set. But this piece consistently undercuts that older image.
And then, when the on-the-record traditionalist voices arrive, they are very articulate and the content they offer is actually rather complex -- including some praise for Catholic charismatics and others whose liturgical tastes run toward the flexible and modern.
Here is Father Christopher Smith of Prince of Peace Parish in Taylors, SC, which is deep in convert-heavy Bible Belt territory. He notes that:
... Those who practiced the Extraordinary Form after 1970 were viewed with suspicion, that they were driven underground, “marginalized in a Church subculture that wasn’t always healthy.” With Benedict’s proclamation, however, he believes the Latin Mass, “taken out of the dustbin of history,” will only grow in popularity.
“Liturgy must draw from all streams,” he said. His parish, with 2,000 families, offers both rites, and he estimates attendance is equal at both.
You mean these two different packs of worshipers don't fight in the pews between Masses? Then there is another trad voice, who is ultimately given the last word:
The Rev. Kevin Cusick is pastor of St. Francis de Sales Parish in Benedict, Md., which has been offering a Latin Mass since the 1980s. Though his parish is small, about 150 families, he said members are on board with spending money to beautify the Church, restoring brass candlesticks that were unceremoniously placed in storage after Vatican II.
He ripped out the sanctuary’s carpeting and brown paneling, restoring the original wall and placing a marble floor. “People put marble floors in their bathrooms, so they understand beauty,” he said. But they need to be brought on board with the idea of spending money to renovate the church.
And at the very end:
Cusick, the priest in Maryland, tells me that he attended a Mass at a parish known for the Latin Mass. This particular liturgy was unexpectedly a contemporary Mass. Up front sat several gray-haired women and men, enjoying the guitar music.
But in the back, the crowd was younger, disappointed with the worship style. A couple of seminarians, dressed in black cassocks, sat among them.
In all, these story appears to be a duet between Crux sources -- without attribution -- from the liturgical establishment and the live, human voices from the conference. Crux creates the factual framework in the long chunks of prose built on unattributed material, then the traditionalists at the conference are given a chance to debate that frame game.
Is this the new normal? Can you imagine similar coverage, let's say, of a Catholic gay-rights conference in which all of the framework material is unattributed history and background facts from experts and anonymous voices on the orthodox side and then the Catholic doctrinal left is given a chance to respond?
It seems like half a story, again. But the half that is there is, I confess, really interesting.
IMAGE: Cardinals in cappa magna, taken from a liturgical reference site.