There’s a story doing the rounds at the minute, which may well be apocryphal but nonetheless has something of a ring of truth about it. The story is that Pope Benedict (83) recently had to explain to a meeting of Curia staffers what exactly the internet was. When you ponder the question of why the Church has worse PR than Mel Gibson, it’s worth considering that not only does the fabled Vatican PR operation consist of one elderly Jesuit with a fax machine, but going beyond that there’s a whole level of Curial cluelessness. It’s all very well being countercultural – in some ways the Catholic Church could stand being more countercultural – but that shouldn’t preclude having some grasp of how the modern world works.
But there are a couple of points about the internet that are worth teasing out. You may think that B16 makes an unlikely silver surfer (though note for comparison Ian Paisley’s down-with-da-kidz vote against the Digital Economy Act), but set against that his occasional exhortations to the clergy to use modern tools like blogs and podcasts for the purpose of evangelisation. It’s also rumoured that Mgr Georg Gänswein is quite a whiz at Mafia Wars. By the way, you do find techno-savvy in the oddest of places these days – for instance, Patriarch Kirill of Moscow has just issued an appeal to Russian Orthodox priests to get blogging. The impact of the online apostolate is something that I’ll come back to in a second.
But first, there’s something that’s been bugging me about the Holy See website. Don’t get me wrong, it looks nice, and there’s plenty of useful material there. Journalists may find the section on responses to the sexual abuse crisis especially useful, notably the full translation of the famous Crimen sollicitationis, which should (but won’t) mean that pundits shooting their mouths off about Crimen sollicitationis will criticise what it actually says, rather than what Christopher Hitchens imagines it says. But that’s not what I want to address. What I want to address is Summorum Pontificum.
We’ve just celebrated the third anniversary of the publication of Summorum Pontificum, the Emancipation Proclamation of the old Latin Mass, which is one of the most important acts of this pontificate. It’s important because it goes to the heart of the liturgical reform, and indeed to priestly formation. It’s also important because the requirement to offer the Extraordinary Form when a group of the faithful demand it strengthens the principle of subsidiarity and bishops’ accountability, which is a big reason why bishops don’t like it.
In more general terms, the rehabilitation of the usus antiquior raises the liturgical bar all round, even where it isn’t regularly celebrated. My firm view is that all priests should be required to be able to celebrate in both forms, and that learning the old form not only improves a priest’s facility with the Novus Ordo, but the connection to the traditional form changes his view of the Mass and its meaning. It links him to the organic Tradition as against the hermeneutic of rupture that’s associated with the suppression of the Tridentine rite since 1969, which severed the new vernacular form from the old Latin.
So, given that Summorum Pontificum is hugely important, and given that the Holy See website is usually very speedy in getting up translations of official documents in divers languages (the translations aren’t always the best quality, but they do go up quickly) – with all that borne in mind, why is it that, a full three years after the publication of Summorum Pontificum, the document is only available online in Latin and, randomly enough, Hungarian? I mean no disrespect to the people of Hungary, which for all I know might be a hotbed of enthusiasm for the Extraordinary Form, but – Hungarian? Why not Basque, or Inuit, or that African language with the click in it? Is it beyond the capabilities of the Holy See to produce a text in Italian or Spanish or German or English? If there’s a lack of linguists around the Vatican, which I find hard to credit, I suggest that B16 phone up Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, who to my certain knowledge could put him in touch with a few linguists with time on their hands.
Magyar, forsooth. You would almost think there were people around trying to sabotage Summorum Pontificum.
Finally, I return briefly to the whole question of the online apostolate, and I was pondering something that Will Heaven said last year:
The internet – and how Catholics are using it to communicate with each other – has played a huge part as well. Ten years ago, you would not often have a US archbishop criticising a wayward editorial in a British Catholic magazine. Nor would the laity have access to Vatican documents which they can print out to show to their local parish priest. The internet has changed all of this. Sure, the Catholic Church has always been about universals. But now Catholics have formed an online community they’re becoming a more coherent force, and they won’t be sidelined or misrepresented.
Leaving aside relations with the outside world, there’s an obviously revolutionary internal element to this. Modern communications tools make it much easier for stroppy laity or indeed stroppy priests to hold bishops to account, which is very much a good thing. Those further down the food chain have better access to information than ever before. Wild West Masses in Austria, which ten years ago would have been a matter of urban legend, can now be uploaded onto YouTube and flashed around the world in seconds. This is most advanced in America, with an extremely pugnacious Catholic blogosphere, which has forced the Catholic press to up its game, which in turn has an effect on the hierarchy. A deadbeat bishop in Wisconsin, or it may be Arizona, will soon come to know the Wrath of Zuhlsdorf; and anything that makes bishops nervous helps keep them honest.
Things are very different in Britain, where Church culture remains very dusty and respectable and deferential, which is why the Magic Circle bureaucracy is so useless; why the Church remains the market leader in rewarding incompetence; and why a wheeler-dealer like Jack Valero or a social climber like Ma Pepsi can wield so much influence. It’s even worse, of course in Ireland, where we near enough have Zombie Catholicism, a body drained of life but just shambling on and on. But the cold wind from across the Atlantic will blow some cobwebs away on this side as well.
During the fourth century, as some Tablet readers will recall, the majority of priests and bishops went over to Arianism, while it was the laity that in its mass remained orthodox. In general terms, the target today is the pathology of clericalism; in the short term, tackling the prevalence of sheer bloody incompetent shambolic bureaucracy is the order of the day.