Politics of Reason and Beauty
The faith of the mystics and the light of common sense go hand in hand.
Things can’t be all bad when the new prime minister of Italy quotes G.K. Chesterton.
Three years ago, in a thrilling speech to the World Congress of Families, Giorgia Meloni took up Chesterton’s favorite theme: that our reason is destroyed, not by dogma, but by doubt. She even quotes the Big Guy himself: “Fires will be kindled to testify that two and two make four. Swords will be drawn to prove that leaves are green in summer.”
It’s from his book Heretics, and the whole passage is too good not to quote in full:
It is a rational thesis that we are all in a dream; it will be a mystical sanity to say that we are all awake. We shall be left defending, not only the incredible virtues and sanities of human life, but something more incredible still, this huge impossible universe which stares us in the face. We shall fight for visible prodigies as if they were invisible. We shall look on the impossible grass and the skies with a strange courage. We shall be of those who have seen and yet have believed.
“That time has arrived,” Meloni concluded. “We are ready.”
She’s right about that. There are obvious examples of facing the madness—the ones that get the culture warriors fired up, such as “What is a woman?” But there are some others that don’t get quite as much airtime, and yet make the divide even more stark.
As many of you know, there is a powerful clique of Catholic bishops who oppose the Traditional Latin Mass. They claim it fosters a “divisive tendency” within the Church. No doubt they would cite the army of bloggers, vloggers, and Twitter trolls who devote themselves to castigating the hierarchy. And it’s true: some of these traditionalists say things about the pope that would make Martin Luther blush. So, if your only exposure to traditionalist Catholics came via the internet, you might agree that TLM is a bad influence.
Last year, Pope Francis published his apostolic letter Traditionis Custodes. It gave those anti-TLM bishops the excuse they needed to begin shutting down their Latin Mass parishes in their dioceses.
Suddenly, an obscure debate over liturgics became a human-interest story. Reporters began to visit the parishes that were being shut down. For the first time, ordinary Latin-Massers were allowed to speak for themselves. Come to find, the TLM isn’t actually a hotbed of angry, foul-mouthed revanchists. The parishioners profiled were mostly undergraduates and young professionals, the latter usually with four or five children in tow. They were quiet, devout, and heartbroken.
Back in May, The Lamp published an account of one “listening session” between Cardinal Wilton Gregory of Washington, D.C., and the parishioners of St. Francis de Sales Church. One member of the congregation—a mother of seven, recently widowed—pleaded with her bishop: “I just buried my husband two days ago, please don’t make me lose my parish.”
Alas. In July, Cardinal Gregory announced that his priests are now forbidden to celebrate the Latin Mass in all but three of his 139 parishes. Two are in Maryland; the other is a Franciscan monastery. St. Francis de Sales didn’t make the cut. Neither did Old St. Mary’s, whose parish register has been inscribed with names like Antonin Scalia and Patrick J. Buchanan.
Neither did St. Anthony of Padua. Last week, TAC editorial fellow Harry Scherer wrote movingly—also in The Lamp—about that parish’s final Latin Mass. The TLM at St. Anthony’s was attended mostly by students from the Catholic University of America. And, rather than lashing out, they asked that their last rite be a Votive Mass of Thanksgiving. Scherer recalls,
That Mass of Thanksgiving instructs the congregants to view their situation as good, though it simultaneously reminds them that something good is being temporarily removed from their grasp.… Each proper of the Mass—the collects, the Epistle, the Gospel, the Postcommunion—offered consolation, grounding them in the ultimate reality as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be. From this position of immense security, one woman a few pews ahead of me wiped tears from her eyes as she lifted her kneeler after the choir concluded the final verse of O God Beyond All Praising.
Were there any bomb-throwing RadTrads in the pews that day? Probably. But most of those folks were there to worship God in beauty and truth.
Look: I’m the first to admit that there are problems in the Latin Mass community. Last year, the editor of a major traditionalist publication accidentally CC’d me on an email where he accused me of being a spy for the Vatican. I’ve bent over backwards to give our bishops the benefit of the doubt.
I even have a soft spot for Cardinal Gregory. Raised in a secular home, he converted to Catholicism at the ripe old age of eleven. He resolved to become a priest even before he was baptized. I would like nothing more than to dismiss him as a fifth columnist, a crypto-Freemason, an “infiltrator.” But I can’t. The numbers don’t work. I have to believe that he truly loves Jesus Christ and His holy Church.
So, why is he lashing out at the Latin-Massers? Because he hadn’t spent enough time at St. Francis of De Sales, or Old St. Mary’s, or St. Anthony of Padua. He hadn’t gotten to know us trads.
At least, that’s what I told myself. And I wanted so badly to be right. But that view is no longer tenable either. He sat through these “listening sessions.” He listened to that widow’s plea, and the pleas of hundreds of Latin-Massers across his diocese. And he didn’t care.
So, again, we have to ask: Why?
There’s only one answer that makes any sense. Cardinal Gregory doesn’t understand the desire for beauty in worship. That is as much a failure of common sense as the belief that men can be women just because they feel like it. They’re two symptoms of the same disease. And “traditionalists,” of all faiths, know this only too well.
Mother Teresa said, “[God] has chosen us; we have not first chosen Him. We must respond by making something beautiful for God—something very beautiful. For this we must give our all, our utmost.”
Our all and our utmost. That is what traditionalist Catholics offer to God in Tridentine Mass. It’s what Orthodox Christians offer to Him in the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom. It’s what traditionalist Anglicans offer to Him when they pray according to the Book of Common Prayer.
No doubt some would detect a whiff of “Pelagianism” in this attitude. They think we’re trying to “earn” God’s love by offering him a sacrifice of beauty. They would point out that, compared to the radiance of God’s face, the TLM or the BCP is as lovely as a mud pie.
And they would be right. But here, I think, is where common sense breaks down. No “trad” is under the illusion that we’re offering Him the utmost. No: we offer Him our utmost. We make our little prayers to Him like a kindergartener offering her Father a finger-painting. We come to Him with our stick-figures, the square house with the triangle roof, and the little spiral of smoke rising from the rectangular chimney.
We pour our heart and soul into this poor little gift. It is the consummation of our genius, and it’s pathetic. If we knew better, we would be humiliated. If we could meet God face to face, even for a moment, we would despair of all our works. But God is a good Father. He pins our doodles to the fridge, because it’s the most we have to offer. It’s not the best that can be done; it’s the best that we can do. And so it means more to Him than anything the world.
Think of St. Thomas Aquinas, the most subtle philosopher in the history of the world. Three months before his death, he was offered a glimpse of God’s true self. Thomas immediately resolved to abandon his magnum opus, the Summa Theologica. One of his disciples begged him to continue working on the text; he refused. “I can write no more,” he said. “I have seen things that make my writings like straw.”
He was right. Compared to the Beatific Vision, the Summa was mere chaff. Still, God wouldn’t allow Thomas to consign his straw to the flames. Our Father wouldn’t let His child destroy his scribbles, not because they were perfectly True or Good or Beautiful (objectively, they weren’t), but because they were offered in love. Thomas gave his utmost, and God saw that it was good—not great, but good.
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This is how the “traditionalists” come to worship. Whatever our tradition, we try to offer something beautiful to God. It may be as majestic as Gregorian Chant; it may be as simple as the Scottish Psalter; it may be some blessed combination of the two.
But those who feel the poverty of “radical gender ideology”—who feel the weight of truth—are also usually the same men and women who feel the need to worship God in goodness and beauty. That is just common sense. And common sense is the province of the common man. Giorgia Meloni knows that. So did G.K. Chesterton. As the Big Guy once said, “The ordinary man has always been sane because the ordinary man has always been a mystic.”
May the mystics always triumph over the madness of the modern world.
I’m a journalist who specializes in investigative reporting and writing. I have written for the New York Times and other publications.