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America, the world, science, the Tridentine Mass, etc.

In my recent entry on being American I quoted John McCain and Thornton Wilder as authorities. McCain evidently views America as a sort of overriding moral cause that we should all buy into, Thornton Wilder as an inescapable reality and predicament we must accept and deal with on its own terms. That is to say, their understanding of America is their religion. It defines what they believe is ultimately real and unavoidable and obligatory, at least for us (as with Wilder) and possibly for everyone (as with McCain).

That’s just their angle, though. It’s true that various neoconservatives and other politicians continue to profess Americanism as a religion, and Richard Rorty apparently proposed it as a Leftist strategy, but it has receded since the ’60s, partly because of the Vietnam war and other displeasing features of American life but more basically because of the general convergence of America with Europe and much of the rest of the world. In its place there has been a trend, at least among the well-placed and influential and their hangers-on, toward History and Scientific Rationality as religions.

History, like Americanism, takes the social system of which one is part and its internal tendencies as the ultimate standard, but looks more to an incipient global system than to local peculiarities. Scientific Rationality treats procedures likes those of the modern natural sciences, together with various supposedly rational default positions, as sufficient for all realities that need concern us. Usually the two are combined: the emerging global system claims to embody scientific rationality, and scientific rationality is thought an all-conquering force that will soon bring everything under its sway. (People say postmodernism or some such has superseded scientific rationality, but the latter is still the functional view and postmodernism etc. mostly a way of making meaningful criticism impossible.)

It seems there’s a basic problem with all these views, one Thornton Wilder noted and emphasized: “Americans are still engaged in inventing what it is to be an American.” None of these grand principles—America, Science, Global Society—tell us what’s worth doing, and on the whole they deny that we can stably be anything whatever. Our purpose and identity becomes self-invention, which obviously goes nowhere, so we get bored and disgusted and turn to stupid diversions: the consumer society and pop culture. Emerson, of course, put it best: “Whilst we are waiting, we beguile the time with jokes, with sleep, with eating, and with crimes.”

Religions that don’t illuminate and don’t satisfy don’t last. Man is a social animal, but the society around us is no longer one that can socialize us. It moves too much on the level of what it understands as the public sphere—free contract and legal regulation—and defines everything else too forcefully as private taste and so excludes it from any scheme of objective value. “I believe in America” is rather in decline. “I believe in Science and Reason,” or “Tolerance and Progress,” or “the EU” will I think follow suit. Most of those faiths have become somewhat ashamed to speak their names in demanding intellectual circles, and when demanding intellectuals notice that something’s amiss social institutions and the people are likely eventually to follow.

So what will happen? The New Age seems a bit of a stopgap, the consumer society and pop culture gone spiritual. To my mind a radical turn is likely at some point. That is why I think the recent motu proprio liberalizing the availability of the old Tridentine Mass is so important. The New Mass accepted and subordinated itself to the modern world, which seems likely to disappear because of its own incapacities. The Old Mass didn’t bother accepting anything, except what is permanent in our situation, and responded to what it accepted by pointing to and presenting something radically other than any social order. As such it was able to ground what has since become known as Western Civilization. On the face of things, it could once again became the infinitesimal but infinitely consequential point about which something necessary and new crystallizes. We shall see.

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> The Old Mass […] responded to what it accepted by pointing to
> and presenting something radically other than any social order.

Well, I’m an Old Mass enthusiast and have thought about this for awhile. I think you were more onto something when you said the Old Mass accepted what was universal, but then went a little off the rails with the above.

There is a universal social order that has existence in the mind, and little by little in fits and starts, at least until the Deformation, the Church using the Old Mass was drawing that order out of the mind and making it concrete. The reaction of the Church to the Protestant Revolt has been mostly to hunker down behind sandbags. By the time of Second Vatican it was finally acknowledged this wasn’t working and in a lot of ways was making things worse. So the Counter Reformers in the Church decided then to throw off the externals and accomodate itself to the iconoclastic, self-consciously anti-culture popular culture. I’m not telling anyone anything he doesn’t know here.

Where I live, the main Old Mass apostolate is located in a part of the city where blacks, hispanics, bosnians, vaguely Christian but un-churched whites, and even a few mainstream Catholics live. It seems to me this is the perfect laboratory to test this thesis of the Universal Culture, but there seems to be little interest: most Old Mass enthusiasts don’t see any sort of opportunity except to rebuild the sandbag wall in front of the foxhole. Then they grumble about having their ghetto in a ghetto.

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I’ll stick by what I said though. The holy is the radically other. As they said at Lateran IV, “We cannot note between the Creator and the creature a similarity so great that we must not see a still greater dissimilarity.” The universal social order you mention needs the holy, meaning it needs something quite other than itself.

The Old Mass supports and makes possible that order but the way it does so is not by presenting it directly but by presenting the one necessary precondition it can’t supply of its own resources.

While the Old Mass provides a necessary precondition, provision of something needed is not of course enough of itself to transform the situation.

Rem tene, verba sequentur.

Rem tene, verba sequentur.

So you’re saying that a greater dissimilarity entirely negates howsoever much similarity, leaving radical difference? Sorry, but I’m not buying. When God looked at the world and called it “good” wasn’t He saying it had a share of His holiness? If human culture is something quite other than holy, what does that say about human nature? The term “Total Depravity” comes to mind.

The Universal Culture is holy—it does not need holiness added to it. It is imperfectly and incompletely made concrete in the world, but even this concrete expression is holy insofar as it instantiates the Universal Culture. Sure, grace is needed to perfect everything under the sun, but it is perfectable meaning it is at root good. The Old Mass is a particularly good channel of grace, and instantiates its bit of the Universal Culture at the same time it helps to perfect us and the wider culture. The sacraments symbolize what they contain. But as you say (at least as I think you say) people have got to be disposed to take advantage of the content as well as the symbol. Lately they have not been.

I’m not sure what you mean by saying “the Universal Culture is holy—does not need holiness added to it.” The UC sounds like an aspect of human goodness, that aspect that has to do with institutions, customs, etc., and human goodness depends on something other than itself.

Maybe the dispute is mostly linguistic though. In his Regensburg address the Pope said

“The faith of the Church has always insisted that between God and us, between his eternal Creator Spirit and our created reason there exists a real analogy, in which - as the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 stated - unlikeness remains infinitely greater than likeness, yet not to the point of abolishing analogy and its language.”

I’d describe that as a situation in which radical otherness is one of God’s attributes, at least from our standpoint. I think the language of radical otherness is used fairly often among Catholics although as you suggest Protestants might emphasize it more. As you also suggest however creatures do participate in the divine. They exist, for example. What that shows to my mind is that it’s hard to talk about God without soon falling into paradoxical language.

As to the Old Mass, it seems to me it that emphasizes our distance from God and our need for him, with all the penitential language etc., and his making himself available under the specific form of the sacrament. It doesn’t push his general presence among us, for example in the form of the goodness of creation. It’s not particularly moralistic and to my mind doesn’t say anything very definite about social order.

Rem tene, verba sequentur.

Rem tene, verba sequentur.