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The liturgy and American constitutionalism

I was discussing America, the Constitution, the liturgy and the Roman Catholicism with an Anglican and Americanist friend. It occurred to me that the issues were all related, so I decided I’d put them somewhat together. On the liturgy I said (in an edited way):

My vote for the Novus Ordo for now would be to improve the way it’s done—improve the translations, have the priest once again face the same direction everyone else faces, and put more and more of it back in Latin. That would be very much in line with what Vatican II said should be done, and it could be carried out without any formal changes in liturgical rules if bishops and priests liked the idea and decided to take it piece by piece. If you don’t have support in the clergy for this kind of stuff you’re not likely to get anywhere anyway.

The preference for Latin isn’t mindless adherence to tradition. Latin displays the identity and universality of the Church through time and across borders. Total vernacularization of the liturgy makes it national simply by what it most obviously is, a text wholly in the national language. If it’s a good liturgy the language will take on a sacred quality. The Book of Common Prayer (and King James Bible) made Tudor English the liturgical language for the English-speaking world. But when that happens the sacred and the national start to look the same. There’s nothing in the linguistic form of the liturgical text that makes the point that something higher and different from the national society is in play.

I don’t think either America or Catholicism needs that. It’s been a problem that the Anglican Church has been a national church. It’s made critical distance with regard to national trends and authorities very difficult to maintain. It’s worth a lot to head that off, because it’s important to have a hierarchy of societies. I’d rather America weren’t understood altogether as a novus ordo seclorum, and the Latin liturgy corresponds to Western civilization and to the whole of the Western past. It’s important to see America as part of that and subordinate to it. (I also think, by the way, that it’s important to have other liturgies that correspond to other civilizational groupings within the universal Church. Such liturgies exist and are in use, for example the Greek and Slavonic liturgies).

On the U.S. federal constitution and religion:

My general point is that the federal government has final authority over survival issues like war and final decision-making power in case of conflicts, for example over federal/state jurisdiction. That makes it the ultimate focus of social loyalty. Unfortunately, it was also created for purely secular purposes, commercial prosperity and physical safety. It doesn’t point at all to anything higher, and religion is explicitly made irrelevant to participation through the “no religious test” clause.

It seems to follow from all that that in America our ultimate worldly loyalties and most serious social connections have nothing to do with anything higher than physical security and making money. I don’t think the same conclusion would follow if the federal government had been set up ad maiorem gloriam Dei for the salute populi in the name of the Sanctissimam Trinitatem even if its actual assigned functions for one reason or another happened to be pretty much the same (I suppose they’d have to be different enough to make the broader orientation recognizable but I don’t think that would take much as a practical matter).

The basic point is that the limitation of function has to be a practical decision rather than a matter of ultimate principle. In order for it to be the former the federal government has to be seen as subordinate to some higher principle so its own principles can be seen as only relative and pragmatic. To that end it helps to have the highest principle be something transcendent that is embodied in a concrete universal institution that nonetheless lacks direct political power. Then both in theory and in organizational reality no level of political authority will represent ultimate standards in a privileged way. You escape this-worldly totalitarianism by making the ultimate principle of unity a transcendent one that can never be more than very partially realized anyway and putting it in an other-worldly institution.

That line of thought has some historical backing. The division of the Empire under Diocletian was followed shortly by the effective establishment of Christianity under Constantine. Conversely, the Reformation led to divine-right monarchy and the principle of national sovereignty, and the 20th c. decline and then collapse of Christianity in Europe led to various attempts at a totalitrarian unity, including the current EU variety.

I’m inclined to think that if you don’t have recognition at the federal level of a specific church, which would then also have to apply at lower levels, federal authority is not institutionally relativized to something higher and there’s more danger of a slide into absolutism. Possible you could fix the institutional problem with a clear right of secession. Then the ultimate this-worldly loyalty would be to the states, each of which could recognize some concrete representative of higher authority. How stable that would be I don’t know.

What the two discussions have in common, of course, is the recognition that Western freedom and self-government grew out of Western Christendom, and if you want to keep valuable things that have been specific to the West in general and America in particular, like notions of freedom, constitutionalism, government under law and whatnot, you need to keep the basis of the civilization of the West out of which those things grew, and that basis is in fact the Catholic Church. Without Catholicism and its true expression in liturgy government in the West tends to become absolute, and in the modern age that absolutism can go very far indeed.

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