1962 And All That

As we have all heard this is a month of 50th anniversaries, James Bond, the Beatles and so on. A rather more significant anniversary has been little mentioned. It was in October 1962 that the Bishops of the Roman Catholic Church travelled to Rome to attend the opening session of a General Ecumenical Council called by Pope John XXIII. This Council, commonly referred to as Vatican Two, ended in 1965 having been brought to a successful conclusion under the guidance of the nowadays much underrated Pope Paul VI and paved the way for a renewal of the Church, including an opening to other Christian denominations and the beginnings of reconciliation with the Jewish people. The pontificate of the Blessed Pope John Paul II, and its major historical consequences is unimaginable without it.

Not least of the changes was the introduction of a new Mass and the translation of this Mass into the vernacular.  By a strange irony it was also in 1962 that the final revision to the old Mass, the so-called Tridentine Mass was made. This Rite has a number of adherents, particularly in English speaking countries, and Pope Benedict has been keen to promote its wider use.

Many claims are made for the Tridentine Mass, about the sense of the transcendent, the numinous.  Personally I do not experience this and am rather indifferent to a Rite in which the priest stands back to the people and days most of the Mass in a low mumble. Having said that, there are aspects of the old Mass that I like. As a former Anglican I much prefer the calendar to the modern one with its rather uninspiring “Ordinary Time “, I like the announcement of the dates of the major feasts at the Mass of the Epiphany and I also like the custom of reading the opening of St. John’s Gospel at the end of Mass.   It needs also to be acknowledged that the English Mass, before and after the introduction of the new translation, leaves a lot to be desired. I will return to this issue in a future post.

However there are certain difficulties with the old Rite. Chief of these is the restricted and impoverished lectionary. Much work was done in the wake of Vatican Two to revise the lectionary, introducing a three year cycle of readings and restoring the Old Testament to a place of appropriate importance. I wonder why the old and new Rites cannot have a single calendar, using the old terminology, if not necessarily the old saints’ days, and a single lectionary, the new.

In many traditionally Catholic countries there is little interest in the Tridentine Mass. Poland is a good example. The previous Pope showed little interest in it and a Polish priest acquaintance of mine confirmed my suspicion that in Europe’s most overtly Catholic country it arouses little enthusiasm. He has never celebrated a 1962 Rite Mass and cannot imagine ever doing so.

In this country we have a Latin Mass Society. This is a pressure group campaigning for wider use of the 1962 Rite. The name is a misnomer. Latin remains the language of the Church and of the Mass and vernacular versions of the Mass are translations from the Latin. It is not a Latin Mass per se that they are concerned with but rather the 1962 Mass. A look at their magazine Mass of Ages is revealing. This gives reasons for thinking that, for many of its members, the Tridentine Mass is just the surface of an obscurantist counter culture.

The name of this magazine is, like that of the organisation that publishes it, a misnomer. The Tridentine Mass dates, as the name implies, from the Council of Trent. Of course, it draws heavily on earlier practice but that can also be said of the new Mass and indeed of the Communion Service in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. Pre-Trent there was a multiplicity of local rites, such as the Rite of Sarum in England, and some of these were not displaced by the Tridentine Mass for many years. The Diocese of Munster in Germany did not adopt the Tridentine Rite until 1890! The point is that the Tridentine Mass is not uniquely old, or uniquely grounded in the Church’s liturgical tradition. It is not “the” Mass of Ages but one of many.

The obscurantism of members of the Society is seen best in the readers’ letters to Mass of Ages. A few months ago I caught sight of a letter referring to Darwin’s theory of evolution as “odious.” I found this a rather odd word to use since Darwin’s theory, like all scientific theories, must be morally neutral.  An emotive value judgement seemed a strange response. The important question is, surelywhether theoriesare true or false, whether they are supported or not by empirical evidence. The truth or falsehood of a scientific proposition is, of course, never absolute but always relative to the framework of assumptions (paradigms to use Kuhn’s famous phrase) within which the questions are framed.  This is a crucial difference from the proclaimed truths of a religion which are not empirically verifiable and not, at least in the mind of believers, relative to the cultural assumptions of a given time.

Why would anyone find a scientific theory of evolution odious? Reading this and other letters it becomes clear that many members of the Latin Mass Society, just like the ’conservative evangelicals’ who congregate in college Christian Unions believe in the verbal inerrancy of scripture. Like the evangelicals (and like the likes of Richard Dawkins) they confuse the different categories of truth and think that Genesis and Darwin cannot both be right.

There is, of course, no need for Catholics to have such an impoverished view of Scripture. Reading Scripture in the light of revealed teaching and tradition offers a richness that Evangelicals simply lack. Belief in the verbal inerrancy of Scripture is itself, not “of Ages” but something that emerged with the scientific approach to the world in the nineteenth century. It misses the point of the diverse, poetic and often beautiful texts that constitute the Bible.

Many members of The Latin Mass Society seem to want to retreat from the modern world into a narrow but not unpleasant ghetto. That is not, however, what we are called to do. We are called to evangelise. That, above all, was what moved John XXIII when the Holy Spirit moved him to instigate the renewal and opening to the world that began fifty years ago this month.


Eric Hobsbawm Farewell

Eric Hobsbawm has died and with him has gone a final link to the vanished world of the largely German speaking secular Jewish intelligentsia of Central Europe. He has been vilified for his accommodations with Stalinism and his loyalty to the Communist cause as other leading British Communist intellectuals handed in their party cards , many in 1956, most of the rest in 1968.

Hobsbawm remained in the CPGB until its final demise in 1991. Much of this criticism ignores the formative experiences of Hobsbawm’s life, brought up in an increasingly antisemitic Vienna until his parents both died in 1931 when he went to live with an uncle in Berlin where he watched at first hand the Nazi seizure of power.  It is hardly surprising that he should have seen the only way forward for mankind in Soviet Communism. He was not the only intelligent observer to be of this view. Most of the others had not felt the frisson of fear that he undoubtedly did as he watched SA men picketing Jewish shops or beating up socialists.

He was also a fine historian, a man with an understanding of the broad sweep and an eye for the detail that related that to the specific. A historian of the 19th and 20th century he also made an important contribution to the debate on the 17th century with his famous article in Past and Present in 1962. A probing and subtle mind has left us.

In the week that the Labour Party conference begins it is pertinent to revisit his 1980 essay “The Forward March of Labour halted?” in which he analysed the breakdown of the social base of Labour support, this in the early years of Thatchersim. This predicted that Labour’s journey back to power might be long and arduous and require painful rethinking of what the Party was for. His essay was published by Verso with a number of critical responses. Hobsbawm challenged the prevailing Bennite orthodoxies while his opponents either failed, or did not want, to understand his argument. History has proved him right and while he will be remembered chiefly for his historical works, as he should, his timely and perceptive contributions to political debate should not be forgotten. As an ‘intellectuel engage’, unafraid to voice uncomfortable truths he will be sorely missed.