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Is the Catholic Church sliding towards civil war?

Damian Thompson on the bitter feud between the new young defenders of the recently reinstated Latin Mass, and Britain’s ‘magic circle’ of liberal bishops

18 June 2008

12:00 AM

18 June 2008

12:00 AM

Damian Thompson on the bitter feud between the new young defenders of the recently reinstated Latin Mass, and Britain’s ‘magic circle’ of liberal bishops

While Church of England bishops recoil from the prospect of gay ‘weddings’ with no precedent in Christian history, their Catholic counterparts are wringing their hands at the growing popularity of services that are too traditional for their tastes.

On Saturday 14 June Cardinal Darío Castrillón Hoyos, one of the most senior figures in the Roman Curia and an ally of the Holy Father, celebrated a Pontifical High Mass at Westminster Cathedral. The bishop of the diocese, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, did not attend; nor did any of his four auxiliary bishops. Pope Benedict is rumoured to be furious at this display of bad manners.

What can explain such a breach of protocol? The answer lies in the content and style of the liturgy being celebrated. Cardinal Castrillón processed into the cathedral wearing the cappa magna, a scarlet cape with a 20ft train of watered silk. It is many years since this vestment has been seen in the cathedral — for, although it was never abolished, it is associated with the Tridentine Mass, the ancient Latin rite in which the celebrant faces east, reciting its main prayer in a voice so low that the church falls silent. And that was the Mass that His Eminence celebrated on 14 June, becoming the first cardinal to do so in Westminster Cathedral for 40 years.

Last summer — to the horror of the liberal English bishops — Pope Benedict issued an apostolic letter, Summorum Pontificum, that granted universal permission for the old Mass, which had been effectively banned from normal parish life after the Second Vatican Council. England’s Latin Mass Society seized its chance. It invited Cardinal Castrillón, head of the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei, which is responsible for the old liturgy worldwide, to celebrate the society’s annual traditional Mass at Westminster Cathedral, normally a low-key affair regarded with amused condescension by diocesan liberals.


He accepted, leaving liberal bishops with only one course of action: pleading pressing engagements elsewhere. Hence the absence of Westminster bishops at the Pontifical Mass, though diocesan spies were spotted craning their necks to see if any local clergy had sneaked in (thereby scuppering their chances of promotion). Walking down the nave, I was greeted by a young priest sitting at the back dressed as a layman. ‘I can’t really afford to be seen here, but I couldn’t resist,’ he whispered.

Many Mass-goers are unaware of the fact, but the Catholic Church in England and Wales is sliding towards civil war. A mixture of anticipation and panic is in the air. For worshippers used to the low-calorie ceremonial of Westminster Cathedral, the sight of a curial cardinal presiding over the cruelly complex rubrics of the old Missal must have been thrilling or distasteful, depending on their point of view.

But the evidence of traditionalist revival is not confined to church services: it is scattered over Facebook, of all places, where there are dozens of groups pressing for the return of the ancient liturgy or mocking the caterwauling pseudo folk music favoured by trendy clergy. The internet allows traditionalists in different countries to burst out of the ghetto to which they had been banished by ‘the spirit of Vatican II’. Conservatives hunt down video clips of ‘Sandalistas’ performing arthritic liturgical dances and upload them to YouTube, where they become comic classics. Bloggers share photographs of Corpus Christi processions, and publish private letters in which ‘progressive’ bishops reveal the depth of their hostility to Pope Benedict’s liturgical reforms. These blogs are widely read in the Vatican, where the andante tempo of the day leaves plenty of time for internet surfing.

It was thanks to the internet that Westminster Cathedral was completely full for Cardinal Castrillón’s Mass. (The cathedral, needless to say, had done nothing to promote the event.) Significantly, the average age of worshippers was lower than that for ordinary Masses. ‘And they were so normal, too,’ commented one journalist.

That wouldn’t have been the case 20 years ago. In the 1980s, many adherents of the Tridentine Mass were so bitter and paranoid that one could hardly blame the bishops for giving them a wide berth. In contrast, the young people at the cathedral have grown up with the vernacular Mass; they are happy to attend it, when it is reverently celebrated, but they are also delighted that Pope Benedict has given them the choice of attending an older, more numinous liturgy — and indignant that their own bishops seem to want to restrict this choice.

The authorities’ effective boycott of Cardinal Castrillón’s visit will have done nothing to ease their frustration. In the words of one visitor to a traditionalist website, ‘This situation is comparable to the chief of staff of the army coming down to the 101st Airborne Division as the guest of honour at a division-level parade, and the division commander — and his brigade commanders — does not show up for the parade. Instead, he sends a terse welcoming note to be read by a battalion commander.’

The use of military imagery is significant. In many parts of the world, the response of liberal bishops to the Pope’s plans to revive the traditional Mass has verged on the mutinous. And the sense of impending conflict is particularly strong in England and Wales, which is unique among Western Churches in that not one of its 33 serving bishops is identified with the Benedictine reforms. Indeed, until the last conclave, ‘Ratzinger’ was a swear word in the left-wing circles from which the bishops have been chosen.

John Paul II was not interested in England and, for the most part, allowed the Bishops’ Conference to nominate its own members. Benedict, in contrast, is interested in this country. He has to find a successor to Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor and is not inclined to appoint one of the ‘magic circle’ of Tablet-approved bishops opposed to the reintroduction of the older form of Mass.

On the other hand, he knows that the appointment of a traditionalist outsider carries huge risks. The Archbishop of Westminster has negligible jurisdiction over other sees; even if the national Bishops’ Conference secretariat were disbanded, liberals would still control the bureaucracy of individual dioceses, with far-reaching implications for worship. Paul Inwood, a leading composer of banal Catholic ditties, has used his position as Portsmouth’s ‘director of liturgy’ to try to ban congregations even from asking for the older form of Mass. And, depressingly, similar situations exist all around the world.

Speaking at a press conference in Westminster before the big Mass, Cardinal Castrillón said that the Holy Father wanted to introduce the traditional liturgy into every parish, not just those that ask for it. But, he added, such a process would take a long time and would have to be handled carefully in order not to cause division. The problem is that the only man with the gifts to carry through such a revolution is an 81-year-old Bavarian who — as Catholic liberals are fond of pointing out — suffered a small stroke a few years ago. The traditional greeting to a Pope on his birthday is ‘ad multos annos!’ He’s going to need them.

Damian Thompson is editor-in-chief of the Catholic Herald.


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