Saturday, February 5, 2011

Dealing with Compromise in Church History

Ignaz von Dollinger
Periodically when this site posts current and forthcoming versions of collects and other prayers, a commentator will post a third alternative from the Gray Book of 2008, the version of the Missal approved by English-speaking Bishops but heavily modified in the final version. As time goes on, this pre-release version will fade into memory, and, in fifty years, its existence will only be noted by specialists and liturgical historians. For now, however, there remain partisans of rejected drafts, and even partisans of the current Missal.

The most prominent statement of disagreement so far has come from an unlikely source: Fr. Anthony Ruff of St. John’s Abbey. If you are tempted to dismiss his letter as a progressive archetype, the surprise here is that Fr. Ruff is a specialist, and one of the world’s most learned, on Gregorian chant. He was involved in the writing of the USCCB’s document “Sing to the Lord” that provides the strongest endorsement of Gregorian chant from the U.S. Bishops in the postconciliar period.

He is the author of a magnificent book on the history of Church music, and as a consultant to the International Commission on English in the Liturgy, his contribution was to provide musical continuity by introducing English chant in a presentation far superior to the current Missal. This is no small contribution given how music has been such a lightening rod for controversy since even before the promulgation of the Novus Ordo Missae in 1969/70.

The new translation holds out the promise of a tremendous upgrade in the music we hear at Mass, because there is already a large movement of new scholas in parishes and also because the new Missal edition is designed to be a singing edition with Gregorian stylings. Fr. Ruff has made a contribution in both areas, as a teacher of chant since the 1980s, and also as an advocate of the sung Mass deeply involved in Missal preparations.

And yet, now, he has written an open letter announcing that he cannot in good conscience be involved in training for the new Missal. “I’m sure bishops want a speaker who can put the new missal in a positive light, and that would require me to say things I do not believe.” He writes that his “involvement in that process, as well as my observation of the Holy See’s handling of scandal, has gradually opened my eyes to the deep problems in the structures of authority of our church.”

Fr. Anthony Ruff
And what is this scandal to which he refers? He speaks of how “a small group” hijacked the translation “at the final stage, how unsatisfactory the final text is, how this text was imposed on national conferences of bishops in violation of their legitimate episcopal authority, how much deception and mischief have marked this process..”

From here, he offers what might be considered a conventional “progressive” criticism of authority structures within the Catholic but it would be a mistake to conclude that, for he also speaks of his love of the Church and his desire “to stay in this church for life and do my best to serve her.” I have no doubt of his sincerity.

In short, this is not dissent as traditionally understood. What seems to be driving this announcement is more frustration with the process and a kind of demoralization associated with deep familiarity with the behind-the-scenes bureaucratic operations. Very few of us are in a position to dispute the facts here, which are undoubtedly associated with peculiar shift from the 2008 to the 2010 editions of the Missal translation. In a phrase, when one watches the sausage being made, one is likely to choose another breakfast option.

What the laity and most priests are thinking about right now has nothing to do with these issues. The big picture is, to my mind undeniable: we are being blest with transition from an inferior translation to one that is massively superior. The difference is dramatic, and somewhat surprising for those of us outside the process. I never expected this kind of progress in my lifetime. It’s like the new form of the Roman Rite has grown up.

What not generally known is how Fr. Ruff himself made a contribution even in fixing many of the problems that were first revealed in a draft that were later corrected in the final edition. Through his website Pray Tell, he aired many of the disputed passages, posted leaked documents, and generally agitated for improvements to restore many of the orations to a better condition. I do not know the details of what passages were fixed, but it is a fact that Fr. Ruff himself made a contribution here -- and he paid a price by being labeled a critic and a leaker and thereby removed from the process as a result.

I’m fascinated by this chapter in liturgical history and Fr. Ruff’s reaction to it because so much of this reminds me of a much more dramatic chapter in Church history, Vatican I itself, which lasted from 1868 to 1870. Most Americans know nothing about the issues that drove this Council other than the conclusion that endorsed papal infallibility. It was the same even at the time of the Council itself, since the issues were mostly about political changes in Europe.

John Henry Cardinal Newman
The American Bishops who were dragged to Rome for the meeting left dioceses that were war torn and desperately in need of money, attention, and leadership. Instead, they were required to board ships and sail overseas and, sleeping in tiny apartments by night and sitting listening to speeches in Latin that they could barely understand by day, all of which concerned issues that were mostly irrelevant for their pastoral work. This dragged on for two years. Their diaries speak of home sickness and physical sickness, long delays of boredom and deep anxiety about events back home.

From a European point of view, everything was at stake. It was initially unclear at the outset why Pius IX had called the council in the first place, but the truth would emerge in time. The problem concerned the rise of democratic movements, the push for more open societies, and the devastating loss of papal states that threaten the very “temporal power” that the Church had exercised for many centuries. Times were changing, and Pius IX was seeking reinforcement for that particular papal power, the announcement of which would have been devastating for the newly legalized Church in England and might have led to more political repression all over the continent.

These facts are nearly forgotten today. Since the Second Vatican Council, the absence of the temporal power is taken for granted: the Church’s power in this world is a moral and cultural power, one that arises from the persuasive power of the faith and not from the use of the sword. Indeed, Pius IX lost this debate at Vatican I too. The final declaration of infallibility was narrowly drawn to concern only faith and morals and not politics, contrary to what the Pope himself had demanded.

The reason for the failure of the “ultramonatists” can be traced to two brilliant men in particular: John Dalberg-Action and Johann Joseph Ignaz von Dollinger. Acton was a cosmopolitan intellectual. Dollinger was Germany’s greatest theologian and perhaps the greatest theologian of the 19th century. Together, they were a powerful team, for Acton was his greatest student and a man of remarkable moral courage and erudition. They were both convinced “liberals” - which, in those days, meant that they were opponents of the temporal power (another example would be John Henry Newman, who similarly opposed the temporal power).

Neither had a direct role in Vatican I, but both exercised enormous influence. Acton got himself an apartment in Rome and ran a kind of headquarters of the opposition. He cranked out volumes of essays that agitated against the idea of the political infallibility of the Pope. More importantly, he became the primary conduit of leaks from the Council itself. Those in the Council were under strict obligation, punishable by excommunication, to keep all proceedings quiet. But one way or another, the information did not stay in the Vatican itself, thanks largely to Acton’s own efforts, which were heroic by any standard.

Lord Acton
Dollinger, meanwhile, worked to organize the priests, Bishops, and theologians of Germany in opposition, and his role here was crucially important. He had a greater standing to speak on these issues than any living thinker in the Catholic world. He could move mountains with his words, and he worked to provide the arguments, the history, and theological cases against the temporal power. He stay constantly in touch with Acton and they plotted and worked day and night for two years.

Consider the final result of their efforts. Against their wishes, Vatican I did make a declaration of infallibility but one far more narrow than had been imagined at the outset. This was largely the responsibility of Acton and Dollinger (a fact that was well known to the Pope). But by then, and after years of bureaucratic struggle and difficulty, the lines had become too starkly drawn. It was hard to recognize a victory under these conditions, since the Council had seem to embrace the very thing they had oppose. In the heat of the moment, it might not have seen to be a victory at all, since it was true that the declaration did seem to enhance the power of the papacy. Emotions remained high and there were many scares from battle.

What I find particularly interesting here is how Acton and Dollinger each dealt with the aftermath. Both knew that they were at risk for complete excommunication if they spoke out against what a Church Council had declared. Though Lord Acton was bitter about the result (his victory was invisible; his failure very visible), he chose the quieter route and gradually reconciled himself to what had happened, seeing that he had played a role in preventing something worse. He ended up finally embracing the Council’s results and doing so in good conscience, recognizing that, in the end, the temporal power itself had failed to become part of Church teaching.

Dollinger, however, was not able to settle himself into this state of mind. He had been a giant of the opposition, a moral leader of thousands, and he knew that many looked to him to take the principled stand. He could not finally embrace the new teaching. Maybe it was his principles at work or perhaps it was his high status in intellectual circles, but regardless he chose a different route from Acton: he walked right into the blade. He experienced the deep pain of excommunication, eventually becoming a leading figure in a break-off sect called the Old Catholics.

Now, what is striking here is that Acton and Dollinger did not really disagree with each other. They just handled the reality of compromise in a different way, Between the two, Dollinger is the far more tragic figure. I’ve always imagined that he cried of heartache every night for ten years until his death in 1890, though he never recanted. Acton, meanwhile, moved on to other projects and other issues, avoiding theological polemics completely and becoming a full-time professor. He died in 1892, twelve years after the Council closed. Again, both had made a mighty contribution in their opposition, and one might even say that they were used by the Holy Spirit to guard the Church from error.

Even more striking is that the views of both Acton and Dollinger were essentially no different from what we believe in our times and what Pope Benedict XVI teaches as a settle matter of his papacy. Indeed, the rejection of the temporal power and the embrace of religious liberty is a theme that is repeated more often than any other in his pastoral addresses. Acton and Dollinger were both ahead of their times; Acton had the vision to see this and be wise and stable in his postconciliar strategic decisions; Dollinger did not see this and instead imagined that he would submit to martyrdom even if it means the end of all relations with the Church he loved.

Was Acton’s decision driven by humility or unprincipled compromise? What Dollinger’s decision driven by courage or pride?

On a much less dramatic level, all of us will likely be faced with similar dilemmas in dealing with Church. We can learn from the lives of those who came before. To me, Acton is the model. We must stay focused on the big picture. We must be willing, even, to submit, not matter how humbling it might be. It can be the hardest thing we are ever asked to do, and perhaps this is easy for me to say because as a laymen and an outsider, nothing of this magnitude has ever been asked of me, but I hope if that day comes, I can reflect on the lives of these 19th century figures and how their choices look more than a century later.

The process of the production of the new translation has been sticky, messy, bureaucratic, and even demoralizing to some. It has also produced a Missal that will spark a new chapter in Church history, one that is likely to be characterized by beauty, evangelism, and increasing levels of artistic creativity. It is time for us all to look at the big picture, embrace the translation, put our interests aside, let bygone be bygones, and look to making a contribution to make the future better than the immediate past. That is the best of all possible worlds for which we can hope in this vale of tears.

(Thank you to Arlene Oost-Zinner for comments on the thesis and argument here, and one anonymous commentator as well.)