Sunday, July 16, 2017

Response to George Weigal in The Tablet

I wrote this in early November 2012 as a guest post on The Tablet's blog. It is no longer available there so I re-post it here.

Weigal had written an article for The Tablet replying to an earlier one by John Haldane. I discuss these articles here.

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George Weigal balances his critique of Catholic ‘progressives’ with hard words aimed at Catholic ‘traditionalists’: between us, he says, we represent ‘the tired alternatives of the past 40-plus years [which] have clearly run their course’. Weigal should look in the mirror: his aggressive neo-conservatism (a conservativism without continuity with the past), which he embraced with all the zeal of a convert after his earlier career as a liberal firebrand, has been just as much a fixture of the post-conciliar debate as liberalism and traditionalism. Perhaps neo-conservatism has run its course as well.

Traditionalism has always been the underdog in this debate, and Weigal’s characterisation of ‘nostalgic traditionalism’ in terms of ‘maniples, lace, and Latin liturgies’, wanting to ‘tighten the constraints’ of ‘Counter-Reformation Catholicism’, demonstrates near-perfect ignorance of the movement as well as a lack of charity, both personal and intellectual.

It is not clear what Weigal means by saying that Liberalism and Traditionalism are ‘caught’ in a moment of history, but his own neo-conservatism rejects the conservative voices of the recent past—Ottaviani, Gerrigou-Langrange, Pope Pius XI—just as must as the progressive voices of the present, and is trapped in a narrow range of time as well as of opinion. Pope Benedict XVI’s condemnation of ‘the hermeneutic of rupture’ was as much a body-blow to them as to progressives. Such is the distaste for the past in this movement that Thomas Aquinas College, described by Weigal as ‘one of the jewels in the crown of higher education in the United States,’[1] actually excludes history from its curriculum. Readers should pause and let that astonishing fact sink in a little.

A knowledge of history, of course, is incompatible with the Ultramontanism, of mid-19th Century vintage, which is a central plank of this neo-conservatism. The rejection of Ultramontanism is something which liberal and traditionalist Catholics can agree upon, and although we may jokingly call it ‘the Spirit of Vatican I’, that Council was a disappointment to the more extreme ultramontanists, today as in 1870, who tend to gloss over the important range of authority attributable to papal pronouncements made ex cathedra, in the exercise of their teaching office, on prudential matters, as private doctors, and over breakfast to their friends.

Bl. John XXIII, Weigal tells us, wanted to establish a ‘new way of being Catholic’. If, as Weigal implies, this included a rejection of the Latin liturgy, he needs to explain away good Pope John’s emphatic insistence on it in his Apostolic Constitution ‘Veterum Sapientia’, promulgated the very year the Second Vatican Council met, 1962. In light of Pope John’s condemnation of those anyone who ‘writes against the use of Latin’ in the liturgy, Weigal’s views might have earned him a spell in the papal dungeon.

Weigal’s phrase ‘evangelical Catholicism’ could be an apt description of what Bl. Pope John XXIII had in mind, but it was not an evangelism in discontinuity with the past. The liturgical concerns of traditionlists are in fact echoed persistently by the post-Conciliar popes. Most obviously, there is the problem that if you condemn the past, including the liturgical past, you implicitly condemn yourself: as Pope Benedict wrote, before his election, by such a policy the Church is ‘calling its very being into question’.

Secondly, the ancient liturgy has positive evangelical value. In 1964 Pope Paul VI warned religious superiors that if they abandoned the sung Latin Office, they would lose vocations,[2] a warning whose prescience is now evident. Why this might be so was explained by Bl. John Paul II, who praised the liturgical continuity preserved in the Eastern churches: ‘Today we often feel ourselves prisoners of the present. It is as though man had lost his perception of belonging to a history which precedes and follows him.’[3] Even more important, the liturgy of the East, like that of the Western past, is something whose appeal goes beyond just the intellect. Bl. John Paul II went on: ‘The lengthy duration of the celebrations, the repeated invocations, everything expresses gradual identification with the mystery celebrated with one’s whole person.’[4]

This point is taken up and applied to liturgy in general by the Instruction Liturgiam authenticam. Words are not enough, particularly today: indeed, as Pope Paul noted, ‘Modern man is sated by talk’[5]

The power of the ancient liturgy to move hearts, as well as minds, is increasingly acknowledged by liberal thinkers, as well as traditionalists, as the recent lecture of Prof. Tina Beattie made clear: she wrote

‘Today, the theology and liturgy of the Catholic Church is less ‘cluttered,’ less mystical, and less comprehensive in its spiritual scope. Its tight, clear focus is far more ‘rational’ but far less whole.’


This is not, in fact, an isolated case. Members of what we might call the ‘Pickstock school’ has combined a recognition of the value of the ancient liturgy with a number of positions more at home in theological liberalism than traditionalism. We can argue about those other positions, naturally: the point here is simply that the traditional liturgy has come back into the debate as a live option.

Again, the division between traditionalists and conservatives, once neuralgic, is being broken down by a new generation of scholars and seminarians who are willing to consider the question of the liturgy, and the associated theological issues, on their merits, particularly in the light of Pope Benedict’s writings. It is George Weigal, in fact, who appears to be stuck in the past, a past in which an attack on traditionalism was a compulsory element in any conservative argument, to avoid accusations of ‘disobedience to Vatican II’.

If Weigal wants to know how far, in fact, we have moved on, he should spend a little time with the seminarians, not only of the Traditional Orders, but of the secular seminaries of England and Wales, and America, and ask them what they think of the Extraordinary Form. He will perhaps be shocked to discover how many are planning to say it themselves when they are ordained. This is the future, Professor Weigal: wake up and smell the coffee.

[1] Address to Thomas Aquinas College, 2006
[2] Apostolic Letter, ‘Sacrificium Laudis’, 1964.
[3] Apostolic Letter Orientale Lumen (1995) 8
[4] Orientale Lumen 11
[5] Evangelii Nuntiandi 42

1 comment:

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