The Traditional Latin Mass & Reactionary Politics

I found Christina Wassell’s account of moving from “generic Protestantism” (my term) to the Roman Catholic Church very compelling, and I certainly understand the quest for liturgy. As an Episcopal priest, however, I found the following sentence a tad confusing, explaining her move from the Episcopal Church to Rome: “While we had made an intellectual and theological leap of faith toward the tradition that would give us the Transubstantiated Body of Christ, it felt like moving to the desert.” I wonder: Why would Ms. Wassell move from the Episcopal Church (not “Episcopalian church,” by the way; the adjective form is shorter than the noun) to Rome in search of “real presence”? Most Episcopalians I know—including myself—emphatically believe in the “real presence” of Christ in the Eucharist. (I don’t have statistics for Episcopalians, but according to a 2019 Pew survey, only one-third of U.S. Catholics believe in transubstantiation.)

Ms. Wassell goes on to say, “It was belief in the sacraments that fed us, along with spiritual reading and the scaffolding of Catholic piety.” Again, though I’m not certain what the author means here by “Catholic piety” (and there’s little in the essay to suggest what that might be), Episcopalians certainly believe “in the sacraments”; during the recitation of the Nicene Creed every week, for instance, we affirm our belief in “one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.”

So I’m left to wonder whether the migration from the Episcopal Church to Catholicism to the Traditional Latin Mass is motivated by something else.

I understand the lure of tradition and history, which many find in the Traditional Latin Mass (TLM). And I absolutely share Ms. Wassell’s sense of the centrality of the Eucharist—not music or the sermon—in worship: “The whole point of Mass for Catholics is what happens at this moment on the altar.” I’m also sympathetic with her preference for Gregorian chants over “impoverished Catholic worship tunes,” though I confess a certain fondness for some of the Taize music. I don’t agree, however, that the priest facing the congregation during Holy Eucharist necessarily gives rise to showmanship; I have come to appreciate the holy beauty of a priest celebrating with reverence and care.

But here’s my confusion (and I’ll doubtless raise a similar question when we get to the Reformed tradition): Why does fondness for the Latin Mass necessarily go hand-in-hand with reactionary politics? It seems to me eminently plausible for someone to evince a preference for the Latin Mass on aesthetic or historical grounds without having to buy into an entire conservative agenda. It’s no secret that the TLM leadership—and, I gather, many of the followers—regard Pope Francis as a flaming liberal. That caricature is ludicrous, of course, but it appears to be fervently held by the TLM contingent—and it is suggested in Ms. Wassell’s statement that she and her family “were engaged in a fierce battle against the culture with our dear Catholic friends, but this battle wasn’t truly led by our Catholic priests and bishops.”

This sort of sentiment, I surmise, is behind the Conference of Catholic Bishops’ attempts to deny President Biden access to the communion rail because of his prochoice stance on abortion. Curiously, those same bishops have yet (as far as I know) to censure Roman Catholic politicians who support the death penalty, which also violates Church teaching. Hmmm. Although I disagree with the bishops’ position—in what moral universe is Joe Biden subject to episcopal censure when the same bishops fall over themselves to extol Donald Trump?—I’d have a lot more respect for them if they made even a cursory stab at consistency.

I wonder if TLM has devolved into a kind of signifier, much the way that even displaying the flag in recent years has become, for many, a signifier of allegiance to Trumpism. That’s a pity, in my view. Both the flag and the Latin Mass have their own rich history and integrity; reducing either one to a kind of totem for, let’s face it, division diminishes both.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that conservatives have glommed onto the Latin Mass. One sure way to wage “a fierce battle against the culture,” I suppose, is to embrace Latin. But I still see no necessity for the Traditional Latin Mass to be braided with reactionary politics.

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