Thursday, July 12, 2007

An Old Guard perspective on recent changes in the Church

The Rev. William Curlin (pictured right, below), now 79 years old and "bishop emeritus" of Charlotte's Catholic diocese, marked his 50th year anniversary of service in the Catholic Church by a celebration at St. Gabriel Catholic Church in Charlotte recently. An article by Tim Funk, "Celebrating his golden anniversary" (Charlotte Observer, May 28, 2007), gave an account of the event. Funk, after describing the exuberance of Curlin, also noted that he had a serious point too:
. . . that conservatives calling for a return to the church's old ways -- stern ritualism, Latin Masses and personal piety instead of social action -- are missing the Gospel spirit.

Curlin said he lived through the church's "good ol' days" -- and they weren't all that good.

"No women were allowed in the sanctuary," Curlin told the congregation Sunday. "And the (Latin) language? Honestly, we priests didn't speak it. We took exams in it and then forgot it."

That all changed in the 1960s with Vatican II, a conference that modernized the church, banishing Latin and calling on the laity to take a bigger role.

"Suddenly," Curlin said approvingly, "it was our Masses, not just Father's Masses."
Funk goes on to note that Curlin's comments come at a time when U.S. Catholic seminaries are graduating increasingly conservative future priests, who are more skeptical of Vatican II. He also notes that the newest U.S. bishops named by the Vatican -- including those now presiding over the Charlotte and Raleigh dioceses -- tend to be to the "right" of their predecessors. Funk observes:
In an interview last week, Curlin called his successor, Bishop Peter Jugis (pictured left), who was installed in 2003, "very prayerful, very intelligent." And whenever the two meet, which Curlin said is rare, "he's very kind."

But when asked about Jugis' most controversial decision -- directing that the feet of men, but not women, could be washed during Holy Thursday services -- Curlin said he did it differently.

"When I first came (to Charlotte), the priests asked me about washing women's feet. I said, 'What is the problem? I've always done that,'" he said. "I said, 'Do the pastoral thing.' So, if the priest wanted to or if he didn't -- it was up to him. He's the pastor. I didn't make any decrees."
Rev. Curlin is in many ways a good a decent man and was in many ways a good and decent bishop. I have met him. I have heard him preach on several occasions. I have heard him speak at conferences. He is genuinely exuberant about his faith, talks almost constantly about Jesus (I sometime wonder whether this might not be for the benefit of Evangelical Protestants who might be listening to him) and about his personal meetings with the late Mother Teresa of Calcutta.

Yet his laissez-faire "pastoral" approach, as well as his views and assumptions, clearly reflect the perspective of the Old Guard generation who presided over the revolutionary changes of Vatican II and its aftermath. His less-than-sanguine view of pre-Vatican II Catholicism and his enthusiasm for the post-Conciliar changes -- getting rid of the dusty old, dead-language of Latin, and all the old patriarchal exclusions of women from the sanctuary and from Maundy Thursday foot washings, and the like -- speak to an ebullient embrace of the democratization of the Church that many others see as highly problematic. These others would regard this Old Guard outlook as animated more by the populist spirit of the times (stemming from the cultural revolution of the 1960s) -- identified by some with the "Spirit of Vatican II" -- than by an historically informed familiarity with Catholic Tradition.

It goes without saying that statements condemning the pre-Vatican II exclusion of women from the sancturary plays well to crowds informed by secular media-spun values, just like statements praising the post-Vatican II promotion of active participation of women in the sanctuary. Likewise with dismissive condescention towards Latin and uncritical acceptance the vernacular, etc. The relevant question left unanswered is: What was the rationale for the old rules? Funk, not surprisingly, offers no discussion of this question, likely because he was as oblivious to it as most contemporary Catholics seem to be. Certainly Curlin didn't raise it. One wonders how many rank-and-file Catholics would know the answer.

If the majority of Catholics acquire their 'schema' of Catholicism from the public media in much the same way an individual catches a cold -- that is, without nary a thought -- it should not be surprising that Pope Benedict's Motu Proprio liberalizing the use of the old Latin Mass will be regarded by many uncomprehendingly, as a reactionary throw-back to the pre-Vatican II "dark ages." At its farthest extremity, one finds the most brazen expression of this sort of outlook in the kind of hyperbole exemplified by Fr. Joseph O'Leary's dissident essay, "Motu Proprio Madness" (July 7, 2007), in which he begins with a parody of a medical diagnosis of Benedict as a man suffering from a "mental illness," obsessively preoccupying himself with the Tridentine Mass as a pathological "fetish."1 But even among generally mainstream, non-dissident Catholics, it will not surprise me if very few respond to the Holy Father's initiatives on behalf of overcoming the liturgical "rupture" with liturgical tradition with anything more a shallow puddle of understanding.

Yet there are plenty of reasons for optimism if one takes the long view. The Old Guard is rapidly graying and passing from the scene. The Holy Father, himself an octogenarian, is systematically preparing the soil for a new harvest of tradition. May God bless and reward his efforts.

  1. See O'Leary's well-deserved fisking by Barbara Nicolosi, who classifies him as a GHPWLALHF (= Grey-Haired Priest Who Long Ago Lost His Faith) in her post, "Isn't it hard for you to kick against the goad?" (Church of the Masses, July 7, 2007) [back]

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