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Some Reflections on Anne Maloney’s Article              

(Lessons from Descartes on the Value of Latin Liturgy by Anne Maloney
Crisis Magazine June 10, 2016)

               When I first went to Cambridge University as an undergraduate, it was impressed upon me that, although I thought I knew everything, I actually knew next to nothing.  Even after three years at the university, I would still know very little.  This was a healthy dose of humility to someone attending one of the best universities in the world.  When a few years later I emigrated to the USA and found myself in the other Cambridge, I was amazed at the self assurance of young graduates from Harvard and Wellesley.  They exuded an air of competence.  Many years later I have come to see that truth does not lie in either extreme. 

               Maloney attributes to Descartes the self assurance of the average person in his/her own opinion on philosophical questions, which are questions on the meaning of being.  Actually this trend started much earlier with the Protestant Reformation.   Every reader of the Bible became his own interpreter of revealed truth, moderated perhaps by his confessional identity as a Lutheran, Methodist etc.  An aficionado of Marcus Grodi’s “Coming Home” show on EWTN, I am frequently struck by the number of former Protestant ministers, who are attracted to the Church by its insistence that Scripture must be read in the Tradition of the Church, as well as by the authority of the pope and the Magisterium.

Descartes in France instigated with the vernacular what had already taken place in Protestant countries in Northern Europe.  France, however, carried it over into the political sphere with the French Revolution and its rallying cry of liberty, equality and fraternity.  Henceforward equality became a sine qua non of democracy.  This was the political form inherited by the newly formed United States of America.  A key to the Bastille still resides in Mt. Vernon.  As a primarily Protestant country, the U.S., therefore, inherited both traditions of the common man as his own authority.  It would be churlish not to recognize the creative energies that were released.  The question is has it gone too far?

               Maloney points to changes brought about among Catholics, whether legitimately or not, by Vatican Council II.  Here it is important to note how the 1968 encyclical Humanae vitae on birth control was a catalyst for most Catholics becoming their own authority in such a critical matter as sexuality, moving eventually from obedience to Church teaching in this one area to acceptance of cohabitation, reproductive technologies and so called same sex “marriage.” As John Marshall, MD, a natural family planning pioneer, who ended up a dissenter, noted: formerly a person knew what the Church taught but, if he could not live up to it depended on God’s mercy to forgive him, but now he regarded the Church as simply wrong and, therefore, he was in no need of mercy or forgiveness.

               Since, as John Paul II maintains, the body is the expression of the person, and Catholic Christianity is above incarnational all this was bound to have an effect on worship, from rejection of the Sacrament of confession to alterations in the design of Churches and the ritual of the Mass.  Reverence, especially for the Eucharist and the Sacrifice of the Mass was an almost inevitable casualty.  Will the use of Latin restore what was lost?  Undoubtedly language, as an expression of reality, is deeply implicated as Maloney divines yet she cannot bring herself to endorse fully the restoration of Latin for the whole of Mass.  It seems to me that vernacular for the readings and the homily is appropriate up to the Offertory but it would certainly add to a sense of transcendence if the consecration was performed in Latin.  Sanskrit, a “dead” language is still used in Hindu ritual.  

What this means is that the whole of modernity should not be thrown out, lock, stock and barrel because it brought a necessary correction from the divine right of kings and clericalism in the Church, but allegiance needs to be given to properly constituted authority in the political and spiritual spheres.  This calls for humility, as Maloney so presciently recommends.  Without humility there can be no true worship of God or even true charity towards neighbor.  Without such humility in submitting to authority  our society is condemned to a “dictatorship of relativism” in Pope Benedict’s words that denies the priority of truth and flattens all human experience to the detriment of reverence for the transcendent, standards of excellence and the ultimate dignity of the human person.

Mary Shivanandan, MA (Cantab), S.T.L, S.T.D.

Former Professor of Theology, John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage & Family at the Catholic University of America.


Copyright ©; Mary Shivanandan 2016

This version: 14th June 2016

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