This year and next see some significant ecclesiastical half-centuries racked up. This year it is the encyclical Humanae Vitae‘s (HV) turn, and next year it is the turn of the Novus Ordo Missae (NOM)—the new Mass. There has been and will be much written on these milestone anniversaries, by many more qualified that this writer to comment. Rather than publish a parallel, and probably quite similar, commentary to theirs, it is intended here to offer a few contextual notes you might keep in mind as you read them. We need now to interrogate more searchingly and more insistently both what you read and hear, and our own current situation.
50-odd years on HV and NOM offer a study in both contrasts and congruities. What HV predicted of a contraceptive culture has been comprehensively fulfilled; the promised fruitfulness of liturgical reform has not. The sad accuracy of the one and the equally sad failure of the other share a common cause (among others): the turn to self as the standard of judgment and the focus of attention.
That both HV and NOM came from the same pope, Bl Paul VI, is surely sobering. Popes are infallible in ex cathedra dogmatic judgment, but not in personal judgment, and Bl Paul VI is the example par excellence. Paul VI soundly, if controversially, ignored the advice of the commission on birth control; but he lamentably listened all too willingly to Annibale Bugnini, outed now as a manipulative scoundrel of diabolical ability.
In HV Paul VI prophetically foresaw the disastrous effects on church and society of the contraceptive mentality, with its sexual objectification of others as tools for the gratification of self, and the objectification of the human person itself, no longer a gift from God but either an accessory or an impediment to a misguided quest for self-fulfillment. It was a small but logical and indeed inexorable step from a contraceptive mentality to an abortion mentality, to designer babies, to population decline. The popular refusal to serve the perennial truth affirmed in HV exacerbated a crisis of authority in the Church that paralleled that in secular society, and by which the culture of the Church was overwhelmingly infected. The individual self became its own locus of authority and its own standard of judgment. Truth became a dead letter; now every individual has his or her own truth. No shock then, really, that individuals now can decide their “gender” irrespective of their biological inheritance; and if biology gets too much in the way, they can now just change it. It’s all about “me”, after all. This is the “progress” of our more “enlightened” age. In this the vast majority of those who still identify as Catholics acquiesce.
In NOM Paul VI ceased to be prophetic leader and became pathetically led. Probably against both his better judgment and the inner voice of a well-formed conscience Paul VI hitched his wagon to the reform train. Perhaps distracted by justifiably fond memories of the principles of the classic liturgical movement he failed to notice how it had been commandeered by the forces of a far more radical, more secular reform that had little to do with the true liturgical movement. Fruitful participation at Mass had become active participation, the gratification of the congregation was now the proper object of liturgical attention, not the duty to worship God in spirit and in truth. The original goal of promoting conscious awareness of the mysteries celebrated and addressed in liturgical worship had been supplanted by the new mission to promote a demystified cult of activity and verbosity. Tradition ceased to be the paradigm of worship; now it was the “me” of self, though cunningly camouflaged in the “us” of the increasingly self-worshipping community. Whatever got in the way of the new liturgical principles and priorities was discarded with increasing impunity. When authority all too infrequently tried to restrain the dogs of liturgical war now let loose, it was ignored. More often authority acquiesced in the new enlightened spirit of novelty, ensuring that authority came to be heard only when it agreed with the loud and militant minority among those they should have been leading. The shepherds also too often put self first, again camouflaged as the will of the community.
So when we read about the sins of Cardinal McCarrick, try to read his actions, and those of other clerical and episcopal abusers, in the same context we are now understanding HV and NOM. All evidence the triumph of self as the standard of judgement and the subject of gratification; truly, we might call it self-service. It is a tragedy, and even the right-thinking and right-intentioned find themselves trapped in the web of this modern, yet ancient, spirit.
I will not serve, said Satan. I came to serve not to be served, said the Lord. I will give you all the kingdoms of the earth if you would serve me, said Satan. The one who leaves father, mother, property and lands for my sake will be repaid a hundredfold in this life and receive eternal life in the next, said the Lord.
Who would truly be my disciple must deny himself, take up the Cross and follow me, says the Lord. This must be the paradigm and principle of all liturgy and morality if ever we are to regain ecclesiastical and social health. Both the shepherds and the flock have the opportunity to promote this renewal. Yet, let it be understood our Lord makes it clear that from those to whom much has been given, much will be demanded; and regarding those who lead the little ones astray, the Lord says it would be better for them that they had a millstone around their necks and be cast into the seas than to fall into the hands of the Lord at judgment.
May we have ears hear what the Lord has always said, and continues to say. And may be give us courage not only to hear his word, but to do it.