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Prevarications on a Pin?

Here is what passes for enlightened commentary on matters Catholic in the Boston Globe.

If pre-moderns sometimes played with the issue of how many angels might comfortably land on the head of a pin, post-moderns seem obsessed with how many prevarications can be squeezed into the space of one column?

For Halloween fun and frolic: count 'em.

About the Author

Rev. Robert P. Imbelli, a priest of the Archdiocese of New York, is Associate Professor of Theology Emeritus at Boston College.



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Could we please, once and for all. put an end to this nonsense about "angels on the head of a pin"? For many years it was the standard taunt of anti-Catholic bigots, now it appears more generally. So, to everyone who lazily cites this phrase. I would point to the standing offer lodged with the office of the editor of "The Times" (of London) for many years, whereby anyone citing any original use of "how many angels on the head of a pin" (whether 'landing' or 'dancing' or anything else ) stands to gain a prize of 500 pounds sterling. To Mr Imbelli I say "Go, establish the claim, and enjoy spending the money -- or give it a rest". Maurice A. O'SullivanBray, Ireland.

Quick internet definition of prevarication:[L. praevaricatio: cf. F. prvarication.]1. The act of prevaricating, shuffling, or quibbling, to evade the truth or the disclosure of truth; a deviation from the truth and fair dealing. The august tribunal of the skies, where no prevarication shall avail.Cowper.2. A secret abuse in the exercise of a public office.3. (Law) (a) (Roman Law) The collusion of an informer with the defendant, for the purpose of making a sham prosecution. (b) (Common Law) A false or deceitful seeming to undertake a thing for the purpose of defeating or destroying it. Cowell.*****I suppose, with a stretch, I can see in theory how at least the first two definitions could apply to Carroll (if you consider a column in the Boston Globe a public office)But Bob, I'm really not sure where the "prevarication" is: Is his history wrong? Is his account of the popular understanding of how Latin was explained to the faithful in Boston of his generation wrong (I doubt that, since my father recounted a similar explanation)? Is his connection of the full churches to the vernacular mass wrong? Our churches are full, especially compared with Europe. Do your really think they would be as full if the mass hadn't been widely available in English? Is it his account of the motivations of those who want to go back to the Latin mass --tridintine rite? I surf blogss more than I should, and I have seen those reasons given more than once. I'd be happy to point you to the websites. Check out Adoremus, for one.Is it the fact that the ghost he seems to be combatting is the mandatory return of the whole community to the old rite, rather than an indult for small beleagured groups? I'd want to see the much anticipated and possibly non-existing papal document before I commented on the change at stake. Now, it could be that he doesn't admit problems with the liturgy as it exists now. It can be banal, and boring and point one away from transendence, rather than toward it. I completely agree with that criticism. But as we discovered at one Common Ground meeting, the key is good liturgy. A bad low Latin mass before the Council was pretty bad, or so I'm told.

My dear Mr. O'Sullivan,I rejoice in your demolition of the hoary anti-Medieval canard about angels and pins.And I shall be sure to inform the anti-Catholic bigots, whose name is Legion, of the generous offer lodged with "The Times" (of London).A subtext of my posting (evidently missed) might read: how many tongues can comfortably fit into one cheek?Cathy, a further "resonance":4. "praevaricari" (deponent): to walk crookedly.

Cathy, you were "told" right! There were only two kinds of Tridentine services that were "badder:" the High Mass (worse) and the Solemn High Mass (worst). I do remember serving a Low Mass on a weekday at 7 am for a visiting priest; he "did it" in about 10 minutes, if I recall.

Prevarications from James Carroll on things Catholic?Shocked, shocked I am...

What's the issue here?Is it language or is and has worship been used as a source of control?The worst Mass I remember pre-Vatican II was the priest by himself at a side altar mumbling quickly through in 15 minutes.That doesn't happen any more because we are sure it's the Church's worship in which all take part...and all should clearly understand what's being said, even the little ones.

Carroll is imprecise here and there, but he is a journalist who writes a column in which he gives his opinion about current matters, so what do you want? A work of scholarship? By the way he might have added that until a little more than a century ago--perhaps I am being imprecise--there were not even translations of the Missale Romanum available. O I forgot those parts that were translated by Thomas Cranmer, but what loyal Catholic would think to consult the Book of Common Prayer to find out what was going on in his own church. There is one thing he omitted to say. The translators of the liturgy for our day were not in quite up to the standard of Tyndale and Cranmer. Not quite.

Speaking of bizarreries liturgiques, I noted this morning that our new curate--a good Tridentine term--after mentioning those for whom the mass is offered, speaks in the first person thus: "for whom I am offering etc." Can this be the new line in presbyteral egotism. I cannot find anything like this in the Tridentine mass in my old missal. He also says "my sacrifice and yours" as a rendering--doubtless his own--of "meum ac vestrum sacrificium". Obviously his mother never told him that while it is good Latin to say "ego ac vos" the English equivalent is "You and I". Poor Carroll. He is really an optimist.

Perhaps the oblique reference to Pope Benedict's blessing of the Tridentine Mass refers to the current fuss over his having established an Institute in Bordeaux for five former members of Lefebvres group? Here are the key facts, in an article in last weeks Tablet:On 8 September the Vatican created the Pontifical Institute of the Good Shepherd for five traditionalist priests - all former followers of Archbishop Lefebvre - which would answer directly to Rome and "not at all to local bishops". On the following Sunday, the institute's new head, Fr Philippe Lagurie, 53, climbed into the pulpit of the Bordeaux Church of St Eloi - a church that the archdiocese confirms he has been occupying illegally for five years - and hailed his "victory". He told his 200-strong congregation, made up principally of young families, that the institute, "especially mandated by Pope Benedict XVI", would celebrate Mass exclusively according to the Tridentine rite, a key Lefebvrist demand. It could also train and ordain seminarians.

Carroll defends the vernacular because it, in his view, empowers ordinary people, transforms content and encourages revolutionary impulses. Not even Dante made such claims. Nor did Virgil, Cicero and Lucretius, who of course were bringing Greek ideas into the Latin vernacular of their day. But with Carroll the battle is more melodramatic. In the dark days of Latin domination he believed absurdities told him by rude Monsignors. But now, no longer bound by the rigid conjugations of Latin he can slay dragons. I'm a little surprised he did not arraign the traditionalist Mel Gibson along with the obscurantist hierarchs of his youth. I find the following words of Cardinal Ratzinger to be an eloquent reminder of what must be ultimately important for believers: Faith comes from listening to Gods word. But wherever Gods word is translated into human words there remains a surplus of the unspoken and unspeakable which calls us to silenceinto a silence that in the end lets the unspeakable become song and also calls on the voices of the cosmos for help so that the unspoken may become audible.

Patrick, with all due respect, I don't see Carroll as making such claims. Here are the key paragraphs:Countering the Reformation, the Catholic Church emphasized Latin more than ever, a rigidity that did not end until my time. The dismissive monsignors of my youth were wrong. The first vote taken by the bishops of the Second Vatican Council in 1962 concerned liturgical reform, centering on use of the vernacular at Mass. If the Council fathers had voted against worshipping in language ordinary believers could understand, the revolutionary impulse driving that Council would have been stopped dead in its tracks, but the tally was overwhelmingly in favor. The Latin Mass was finished. With that single vote, the Council set loose a current of change that is still running.Once Catholics entered into the mystery of the Mass as literate participants instead of as dumb spectators, an unprecedented renewal took hold. The vitality and warmth of today's typical liturgy, involving intelligible encounters with sacred texts, has Catholic parishes surprisingly full, even in a time of widespread disillusionment with clerical leadership. The structure of order that was embodied in the old tradition, and its language, turned out to be dead letters in comparison to the meaning and nourishment that now regularly draw Catholics to the Eucharistic meal. What Tyndale did for English, English has done for American Catholicism. And so with other vernaculars, elsewhere.It is clear, of course, that Carroll is an aggiornamento Catholic more than a resourcement Catholic. But the Council was about both. I also don't see how Carroll's description of the meaning of the Eucharist is inevitably contradictory to Ratzinger's words, which I agree with., I'm also not sure what your point about Ratzinger and Latin is. If you're suggesting that he would rendorse running the following argument , I ithink you're mistaken: 1) There is an inevitable gap between human words and the Word of God. 2) Most people don't know Latin. 3) This deficiency is actually a blessing because not understanding the words helps us to recognize that we don't understand the WORD.That strikes me as wrongheaded on two counts. First, it seems to suggest that we are better off in the mass the less we understand. I think Ratzinger's point is the God's mystery transcends all human understanding, no matter how great. Second, and more broadly it suggests that a sense of mystery is dependent upon cultivating a sense of ignorance. That strikes me as a bad strategy as well, and one inconsistent with the whole understanding of the place of knowledge in the Catholic tradition. The point is, no matter how much we know, we can never know God in the full sense, because God is the sourse and ground of all our knowledge.

Patrick Molloy,Imprecision is contagious, it appears. Your account of Carroll's piece evinces a good deal of it. I think Cathy Kaveny answers you quite wellAs for your citation from Cardinal Ratzinger, I have no wish to disagree with it, but it is far from being a prescription for liturgy in a language that only a few, even among the clergy, will understand. In fact it is far from clear generally, although it has some very pretty phrases. What does it mean for "the unspoken" to become "audible"? I agree that we could do with some more silence here and there, e.g., during communion time. But to revere mystery in silence is not at all the same as to mystify the faithful by mumbling in a tongue they do not understand.

Prof. Kaveny said: "Is his connection of the full churches to the vernacular mass wrong? Our churches are full, especially compared with Europe. Do your really think they would be as full if the mass hadn't been widely available in English? "Are you saying that the churches in, say, Denmark and the Czech Republic are losing ground because their masses are all said in English or Latin? I was under the impression -- correct me if I'm wrong -- that European churches use the vernacular (which may or may not be English), which would mean that the use or non-use of Latin cannot be what's causing American vs. European rates of religiosity. As for Carroll's original statement in this regard: "The vitality and warmth of today's typical liturgy, involving intelligible encounters with sacred texts, has Catholic parishes surprisingly full, even in a time of widespread disillusionment with clerical leadership."Vitality and warmth of the typical liturgy? That's got to be a joke. If parishes are surprisingly full, my first guess at an explanation (from having visited at least 20 different parishes in different states over the past several years) would be high rates of immigration from Catholic countries that take the Sunday obligation more seriously. And, for what little it's worth, a couple of the fullest services I've been to were both Tridentine rite, one at a monastery in Oklahoma and one outside of Los Angeles. Another very full service was the Latin version of the Novus Ordo that Fr. Weinberger used to do in Dallas -- the nice thing was that it brought the white and Hispanic communities together in a shared mass. (By contrast, many parishes seem to be more interested in allowing de facto segregation of the masses.)

Mr. Buck rightly calls me on imprecision in my argument. Obviously, having the liturgy in the vernacular is not a sufficient condition to have full churches. I too have been to mass in the low countries and in Europe. My statement expressed rather inexactly my own hunch that it might be a necessary condition, in the US at least-- I wonder whether there would have been more defections to either mainline protestant churches or evangelical megachurches had the liturgy not been changed.All liturgy, like all politics, is local. I think there are some wonderful novus ordo masses. It seems that Mr. Carroll has found one. At Notre Dame, we take them for granted. I also think it is impossible to deny that there were very bad Tridentine masses. I love Latin -- and the Latin novus ordo mass. I've put a lot of time into learning it. I need to put a lot more time into it. But I worry that many people who want to bring it back like it precisely because they haven't learned it. Mystery is gained on the cheap, through ignorance. It is reduced to spooky. Hoc est corpus meum -- "hocus pocus".

Cathy Kaveny,I don't think I'm unfair to Carroll. In the linked column he doesn't have any reservations about the transformation of the faith that occurred with the introduction of the vernacular in England. He clearly sees the endorsement of the vernacular in Vatican II as clearing the way for revolutionary impulses. To see him as merely an "aggiornamento" Catholic is to underestimate the radicalism of his views. You are probably aware of his arguments elsewhere of the need to re-think, and more, to reject the centrality of the cross in Catholicism. Those who don't share Carroll's perception about the "surprisingly full" contemporary Catholic liturgies may be interested in discussions like the one below - they are not uncommon: xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxThursday, 2 November 2006, 5:30-7:30 pmFordham University, Pope Auditorium113 West 60th Street, New York CityFree and Open to the PublicCatholic Teenagers: Faith at Risk? will examine the data and interviews from the recent National Study of Youth and Religion that found Catholic teenagers falling well below other Christian teens on a number of measures of belief, experience, practice, and church involvement.xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxCarroll also has Pope Benedict engaged in a "futile shoring up of a rapidly collapsing clericalism." The point of my quotation of Cardinal Ratzinger's earlier words was that Pope Benedict is not likely to have forgotten these sentiments or to act in opposition to them. For that reason I don't expect him to try to shore up a rapidly collapsing clericalism but to attempt to be faithful to the mystery of salvation. Furthermore, I don't think Benedict sees the choice as one between rigid clericalism and positive revolutionary impulses. But clearly those are precisely the terms that Carroll favors.

I have to say, one of the things that annoys me most about the current state of the Catholic Church is the "whose team are you on?" approach. If you're on "my team" I'll defend you, no matter what, and if your on "the opposing team," nothing you ever say can have a shred of truth in it, and everything you say has to be interpreted with a hermeneutic of suspicion.I don't agree with everything Carroll does or says. Some of the things he writes I find very problematic. But I also think I can take this particular column on its own terms, which doesn't seem to me to be particularly objectionable -- or hostile to Catholics. That's why I wonder why Bob was so bothered about it.

"...a couple of the fullest services I've been to were both Tridentine rite..."Yes, and the so-called largest Catholic parish in town is a protestant megachurch. The point being: birds of a feather flock together --- and no where else!

A couple of points:1) How many young (under fifty for discussion sake) priests know any Latin at all? I'm only aware of a couple, both of whom also spoke Chinese.2) On immigration, I grant a little of the point, but I'm also familiar with Spanish language masses where I was the only non-Spanish (or barely Spanish) speaker present and I'd have to say the spirit seemed to be pretty with them. I doubt so much had it been in Latin. Any Spanish speakers may clarify.3) Thge wisest words I know of on the pre-vernacular mass I ever heard were from my mentor, now deceased, as a lector. Not only had he been a distinguished research scientist and pioneering engineer in Silicon Valley before they called it that, he also remembered enough of his Catholic high school Latin from the 30's to be able to state with conviction that it was good they had moved the Mass from Latin to English because he had only heard the Latin mass said well once or twice a year.4) I was interested in the comment about there being no translations of the Missale Romanum before about 100 years ago -- any more details? It's all a little foreign to me because my earliest memories only go to the liturgical reforms of Pius XII (dialogue mass, anyone?)5) Amen to the avoidance of "which team are you on." I try to be on all five.6) If one wants something really special, you can go once a year to San Antonio Mission in the middle of nowhere in California and hear an 18th century mass setting (said to resemble Haydn) by a priest who is buried in front of the altar. Interestingly enough I discovered from on job faith sharing (sh!) with a plumber I worked with a number of years ago that that whole remote mission complex (San Antonio, San Miguel, which I believe is now closed due to an earthquake) is a center of spiritual devotion for Spanish speaking (not necessarily Mexican) Catholics.On which subject I really hate to say because it was a useful comment (one of my favorite catechism memories is a staged passion pageant in English, Spanish, and Vietnamese), but I don't believe that "white" and "Hispanic" is a proper antithesis, EEO coding notwithstanding.Finally, is it just me that values them, or is it really true that the typical American parish mass is that bad?

Gene, for a very good and readable book on liturgical history, I recommend WORSHIP: a Primer in Christian Ritual by Keith Pecklers, SJ, a professor of liturgy and of liturgical history at two pontifical institutes in Rome. It is very informative for us layfolk. He also authored an earlier work, DYNAMIC EQUIVALENCE, that I can also recommend.Both books are available from Amazon.

Gene,I am the one who said that translations of the Roman Missal only were made for the laity starting about a century ago. I remember quite clearly that I read this, and was a little shocked, but I cannot recall the source. I would be interested if somone can come up with more precise information.

To the owners of this site: It's acting rather weird lately. From time to time (such as right now), the front page of the blog reverts to the Oct. 18 post with the picture from the New York Times. No more recent posts show up, no matter how many times one hits refresh. But this post (and others) are still available when I go back to the direct link ( Then at other times, newer posts will suddenly show up, but then disappear the next day when the front page reverts back to the Oct. 18 post. Very odd.

I am probably (nay: definitely) not literate enough to assess whether Carroll's sources or conclusions were in part inaccurate, but honestly, based on my mother's stories to me, I think Carroll got the dilemma over Latin just about right. It's either unifying (because it transcends national boundaries) or divisive (because it separates the educated from the not in their familiarity and comfort with churchly rites). So here's my thought: Latin is worth preserving -- for some, as a scholarly pursuit in which they are deeply immersed -- and for most, as a way of connecting with the tradition of the church. Is it possible to have a "minimal level" of Latin competence for all, but also to encourage some to go much further in order to preserve the Church's tradition? I'm thinking having contests and awards for "best original essay in Latin" for interested high school students, and special scholarships for those seeking to specialize in Latin or patristic languages. But I think it's unrealistic to expect a re-emergence of a universal Latin rite, and to create a wall between those who "do" the Latin rite and those who "don't" really strikes me as counterproductive, especially if the former are always lording their greater Catholic authenticity over others. To do so really overlooks fundamental barriers in place to learning Latin and, at its worst, is a proxy for disagreement with other things or for avoiding certain classes of people. Sort of like I avoid the "guitar mass" because it drives me batty when other mass attendants come up to me and think I would actually welcome being hugged by a complete stranger. These kinds of people avoid the mass that is always accompanied by a cappella and choral music. That kind of thing can be taken too far.

And to give some further ideas: To have at the beginning of all hymnals, the Latin text of the usual texts that are found there, along with some pronunciation keys. So if the priest decided to do the "our father" in Latin on an especially appropriate Sunday, everyone could turn to the book and follow along without feeling lost. Sort of like having the original text of "Adeste Fidelis" as a single verse in the carol. I see alot of people in favor of imposing Latin, but I don't see many people who are simply opposed to it in any form. The question is, is there room for compromise?

Having been raised on the Tridentine Mass I always wondered why it was necessary to use a language that, in order to follow along with what was being said, one had to use a missal with English on one side and Latin on the other.This Latin mass was in used for YEARS and the average Catholic in the pew had very little understanding of Latin as a language or prayer. We understood a few phrases but, because of the mumbling on the part of the priest and altar boys or most of the prayers, the understanding level was minimal to dismal at best.To this day, how many people travel to other countries, go to mass and find themselves severly disappointed that the don't understand the local language?There are some beautiful Latin prayers and hymns that could be taught to the worshippers, but to have Latin as a principal language of worship tends to reduce the attending assembly into a "my Jesus and me" collection, as opposed to a community at prayer. Been there; did that; no thanks.

Latin is not worth preserving as a liturgical language for the Church. While it may "transcend national boundaries," it does not contribute to meaningful understanding of the Mass for most folks. If Latin had any result, it served effectively as a way to elevate the clergy and subordinate the person in the pew (or out on the floor). And, of course, we all know what happened as a result of the clerical culture. As has been said, "the rest is history." Thanks but no thanks.

"I see alot of people in favor of imposing Latin, but I don't see many people who are simply opposed to it in any form."Did you write this backwards? Just in the comments on this very webpage, you'll find several people who are simply opposed to, or suspicious of, Latin in whatever context, while no one argues for "imposing" it.

Dear Father Imbelli,You say James Carroll is obsessed with how many prevarications can be squeezed into the space of one column.Thats a very serious charge. After reading your post, I read Carrolls column. I found things I didnt agree with, but I found nothing I would call a prevarication.Neither did Cathy Kaveny. Im really not sure, she wrote to you, where the prevarication is. She cited several examples from Carrolls column and asked you, in effect, Is this what you were referring to? Or this? Or this? When you wrote back to her, you didnt respond to that question. Id say youre obliged to do so. That is, if youre going to make such a grave accusation, you have to back it up with evidence.

Dear Mr. Palumbo,Remember that for many in the Boston area, Carroll is the authoritative voice of "liberal Catholicism."Would one, reading his column, have any inkling of the following from Vatican II?"Particular law remaining in force, the use of the Latin language is to be preserved in the Latin rites" (SC, 36, 1); or"The Church acknowledges Gregorian chant as proper to the Roman liturgy: therefore, other things being equal, it should be given pride of place in liturgical services" (SC, 116)?I am not raising the question about the legitimacy of post-Vatican II liturgical development; or even the desirability of a universal indult to celebrate the Mass according to the Missal of Pius Vth.I am concerned about the ideological trivialization and polarization of conversation in the Church; and find Carroll's column a stellar example of this deplorable trend.In this respect I would apply Kaveny 1: "a deviation from the truth and fair dealing: and Imbelli 4: "a walking crookedly."

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