The Tablet is not my favourite read. For me to read it is to experience something similar to those who listen to “shock jocks” on radio, listening precisely in order to be whipped up to a frenzy of outrage at this or that inadequate representation of the topic of the day. The problem for me is that I am of an age where one is getting sick of outrage; and sick also of having to fight for things one holds dear against those who should also be holding them dear. In the words of Browning’s bishop, “Peace, peace seems all.”
Things at The Tablet took a potentially irenic turn with the recent appointment of Brendan Walsh as editor. While I cannot say I know Mr Walsh in any meaningful sense of the word, I have had a few dealings with him by correspondence. He was uniformly gentlemanly and amiable, and there seems nothing about him that is shrill or intemperate. In the 22 July issue he has both the editorial, of course, and a featured comment column on page 5. His editorial takes up the recent lambasting of the emerging ecumenical alliance between American Catholic and Evangelical conservatives, written by the increasingly-notorious papal pal, Fr Spadaro SJ, in the prominent Italian Jesuit journal, La Civiltà Cattolica. Like me, Mr Walsh is not terribly impressed with the Italian (hatchet) job, though his reasons are not always the same as mine. I suspect Mr Walsh would probably share, at least implicitly, Fr Spadaro’s horror at any ecumenical progress that is not aggressively liberal and progressive.
In his comment piece Mr Walsh reveals both his real charm and his credentials. He reveals the origins of his involvement with The Tablet, and he is clearly no ambitious climber of corporate ladders. He also affirms that he holds to the journal’s stance as liberal and progressive; this, he says, is the The Tablet‘s “virtu.” To some degree I can join him in saying, “Well, fair enough.” He confesses to being “a little frightened about the future” (of The Tablet). As he should be. He maintains that “(t)he readers are there. The trick is, to make sure we reach them.” He looks not so much to England as to the whole world: The Tablet is to continue to seek, unashamedly, to be international. Certainly readers in Britain will be increasingly hard to come by.
On The Tablet‘s own history page we read:
A survey in 1966 found that the readers were in the highest socio-economic category, but no less that 72 per cent of them were 55 years old or more. Burns told Woodruff that the paper was dying on its feet.
I have no hard data, but from anecdotal evidence and some interaction with students and young Catholics I can say that this demographic has not changed. In fact it will have hardened even more along geriatric lines. In 1990 circulation reached a peak of “well over 20,000” says the history. In 2017 the figure is apparently 18,772 (publisher’s figure). It is a standing joke, in which lies a real truth, that more Anglicans than Catholics read it. Even so, with its ageing readership this number is set to fall steadily and then, in a few years exponentially, as human biology has its way. One can understand the desire to seek more readers overseas, but the demographic issue will persist and any increase in circulation will be short-lived.
The Tablet needs to reach more younger Catholic readers. But the ones most likely to read a Catholic journal—the ones, that is, who actually go to Mass and practice their faith as a matter of personal choice—are generally reading The Catholic Herald. This journal has left behind its popular broadsheet identity and taken up a magazine format similar to that of The Tablet. The Catholic Herald has news, but beyond the trivia of local dioceses and parishes, and it has serious commentary by prominent writers and experts. The similarities with The Tablet end here, for the Herald is not “liberal” or “progressive”. It seeks to be merely, but soundly, Catholic. It eschews polemic but affirms orthodoxy. It seeks to serve a Catholic readership first and foremost. It has profiles of young religious and prospering congregations, and offers a cogent and coherent summary of Catholic approaches to the topics of the day. This is what young, practising Catholics would, and do, read.
Also in this week’s Tablet is an article by the American Jesuit liturgist, Fr Joh Baldovin SJ. It marks 10 years of Summorum Pontificum, the decree by which Benedict XVI allowed general access to the pre-conciliar liturgy for those who desire it. We should all remember the howls of protest that greeted this humane document, with shrill accusations that the pope was trying to undo Vatican II and turn the clock back.
Fr Baldovin is not so shrill. He clearly is no fan of the pre-conciliar liturgy, but he allows that,
done well, it is wonderful, a thing of beauty. It exemplifies a kind of reverent transcendence that is often lacking in many post-Vatican II celebrations.
That’s fine. But he falls down when he starts to critique both the old liturgy and its many young adherents who “never experienced it in its day-to-day reality in the years before the council.” Moreover,
the Extraordinary Form supports a world that no longer exists. It is like wanting the Middle Ages with central heating and indoor plumbing. More fundamentally, the older liturgy embodies a rejection of much of what the council stood for, particularly in areas such as religious freedom, interreligious dialogue and ecumenism.
In this doctrinaire assertion Fr Baldovin seems to have put to bed his undoubted critical faculties and let ideology do the talking.
One might reasonably ask him in reply: how is it relevant that the young Catholics who prefer the old rite never experience its daily reality before the Council? The Catholics of the 1950s never experienced the daily reality of the liturgy of 1517. Or rather, they did. What, in reality, they did not experience was the socio-historical milieu of 1517. But the Roman rite of 1517 was substantially and essentially the same as that of 1950. The old rite no more supports the Middle Ages than it does the Renaissance or the period between the world wars… or today. It supports them all because it transcends them all. It offers perspective.
Liturgy transcends time. It is not wed to one age or society. Just as “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Heb 13:8) so too is the eucharistic liturgy, for it is Christ on the Cross offering himself to the Father for us and our salvation. The Mass is the Cross on Calvary hill manifest among us. The Carthusians got it spot on in their motto: Stat crux dum volvitur orbis—The Cross stands firm while the world spins.
Yet Fr Baldovin seems unwittingly to have recognised this:
My own guess is that many who want the older rite want it because it signals a stronger and clearer Catholic identity in the middle of a confusing and anchorless culture.
He implies that this is somehow a deficient desire. I would counter that this is an integral part of a truly Catholic liturgical piety and sensibility.
As for Fr Baldovin’s ideological assertion that the old rite “embodies a rejection of much of what the council stood for,” he has descended to absurdity. The old rite was the Mass celebrated every day at the Council! How can it embody a rejection of the Council? Is he aware that the ecumenical movement started before the Council, when the old rite was the Mass uniting all Catholics? Dorothy Day was as grand an advocate for social justice and the poor as one could hope to find, and was nourished and empowered for most of her rich Catholic life by the old Mass. I won’t go on; to be honest it is a little infra dig even to engage with such a facile assertion.
If this is the line The Tablet will continue to promote then it will be dead before I am. Yet I wish Mr Walsh well. Let’s see what he makes of things at Clifton Walk.