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What Shia LaBeouf Understands and Bishop Barron Does Not

The New Mass is Inauthentic

If you are attuned to online Catholic discussion, you have probably seen clips at least of Bishop Robert Barron’s interview with Shia LaBeouf, the actor who became Catholic after portraying St. Pio of Pietreclina on film. The most shared one (at least in my corner of the Catholic world) has been his statement that he prefers the old Latin Mass to the newer rite because “it feels like they’re not selling me a car.”

This naturally pleased Trads very much (and ruffled the feathers of some other Catholics) but I think his remarks are worth explicating, since they capture something important about the difference between the old and new rites. I should state up front that I am not interested in proving the superiority of the old rite (though I believe it is) over the new, but only discussing in detail why some find the New Mass off putting. I say this because Latin Mass converts tend to cite their experiences and give subjective answers about why they are attached to it. Their witness is important, but I want to argue that there is something objective behind reactions like LaBeouf’s to the New Mass.

To put it simply, the main problem with the new rite is that it is inauthentic. I am not speaking here of the theological contents of the New Mass, nor even the issue of Latin versus the vernacular, but rather the the way it communicates the faith of the Church in ritual, anthropological terms (though I believe all these concerns are related). This does not mean it is invalid, or heretical or spiritually harmful. It does mean that elements which are essential to the new missal prevent it from effectively communicating the faith of the Church.

The Liturgy of Rationalism

To understand why this is so, you have to understand something about the theologians who constructed the New Mass back in the 1960s. Many of them were influenced by a rationalism that privileged abstract, verbal communication over bodily, non-verbal means of expression. As many traditionalists (and Joseph Ratzinger) have pointed out, most of the members of the Consilium (the commission tasked with implementing Vatican II’s mandated constitution on the liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium), were not pastors but academics. They were men comfortable with abstraction and suspicious of what they regarded archaic but meaningless gestures that had no precise rationale. This sensibility, which was widely shared by professional liturgists before Vatican II, made its way into Sacrosanctum Concilium itself (§34), with its admonitions to remove “useless repetitions” from the liturgy so that it “should not require much explanation.”

What is wrong with clarity and ease of comprehension, you may ask? Well, for one thing, not everything worth understanding can be explained in the highly verbalized terms the reformers preferred. In fact, human beings are always communicating in non-verbal, often unconscious ways, using gestures, body language, vocal emphasis and so forth. The idea that we could express anything worth communicating with perfect verbal clarity and simplicity alone, even the greatest Mystery in the whole universe-that God himself took flesh and sacrificed himself for us-is hard to fathom.

Anthropologists Evaluate the New Mass

Critics both at the time of the promulgation of the New Mass and since have pointed out this problem, and not only traditionalists. The esteemed anthropologist Mary Douglas pointed out that the people tasked with reforming the liturgy were middle class professionals comfortable with linguistic abstractions but who failed to see the meaning of rituals that resonated with less educated Catholics in England. She famously criticized the English Bishops for abolishing the Friday fast, noting how important it was to generations of working class Catholics. Critics of the way the Mass was celebrated prior to Vatican II, who endlessly repeat the charge that Mass goers were merely “mute spectators,” illustrate this lack of comprehension. That many could not articulate with perfect clarity what was happening during the liturgy does not mean they could not understand what was happening. They simply understood it in a way that was alien to the liturgical reformers. As Douglas said of the English bishops, “it is as if the liturgical signal boxes were manned by colour blind signalmen.”[1]

The way the Mass communicates differs from other forms communication because the Mass must take place on subliminal, non-verbal levels, to have its effect. Some appear to think the liturgy is merely a forum for communicating information, when it is a ritual whose purpose is to induce a specific experience, that of timelessness. The anthropologist Victor Turner, a Catholic (as was Douglas), pointed out that liturgy creates this experience by what he called “ritual flow,” the incessant repetition of elements that take the participant out of their sense of ordinary, linear time.[2]

Turner criticized the new liturgy as being incapable of producing this “ritual flow,” precisely because it favored what he called “transient communication.”[3] Everyone who has ever attended the Novus Ordo can attest to the truth of this. The New Mass often appears as little more than a series of instructions and exhortations, capped by a few songs and a valid Eucharist. This is by design. If you value “active participation” above all else and demand that every single participant be self-consciously informed of what is going at all times, these constant verbal interventions are necessary.

A Modern Liturgy for Modern Man

But that means one can never settle into that “second space,” as the poet Czselaw Milosz called it, the other world beyond the senses that the liturgy invokes by means of the senses. In the modern rite, the repetitious, non-verbal elements of the liturgy are always interrupted by the greeting, announcements, the sign of peace, and other verbal addresses. It is this element of the Novus Ordo I think Shia LeBeouf identified when he said he felt like someone was trying to “sell me a car.”

The reason why the new liturgy does this, even though such concerns form only one part of Sacrosanctum Concilium’s instructions on liturgical reform, is the conviction among liturgists and the members of the Concilium that human nature no longer responded to such experiences in the modern world. This sentiment is echoed in Pope Francis’ letter on the liturgy, Desierio Desideravi (§27), where he claims that “modern people… have lost the capacity to engage with symbolic action.” Some maintain the liturgical reform intended to recapture the liturgical experience of the early Church, but liturgists who influenced the reform in the 1960s were quite clear about their aims. They made no secret that their real motivation was “the evolution of new forms…from the need for contemporary and relevant expression” in the liturgy (Richard McManus), and that “there was no question of a mere desire to restore ancient liturgical practice” but only “pastoral necessity…for reform” (Charles Davis).[4]

Criticisms of the New Mass are Not Going Away

These criticisms I have just outlined are not new; learned, eloquent men from Dietrich von Hildebrand to Joseph Ratzinger and many others have voiced them for years now. I emphasize this because it is important for those Catholics of good will who have no interest in the old liturgy to understand that such criticisms can’t be written off as the expression of personal preferences, but are the result of very real defects inherent in the modern liturgy.

And that is the value of LaBeouf’s comments. It is not surprising that an actor, attuned to non-verbal communication, was able to succinctly articulate one of the major problems with the New Mass. Church leaders should not run away from this fact, but understand the upsurge of interest in the old rite is not the result of some sort of moral or psychological problem with Latin Mass goers, but is indicative of a larger human need, one which the liturgical reformers did not understand or appreciate. Failing to address this and other problems with the Novus Ordo is simply selling the liturgy, and the faithful, short.


[1] Fr. Aidan Nichols, O.P., Looking at the Liturgy: a Critical View of its Contemporary Form (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1996), 28.

[2] Ibid., 30.

[3] Ibid., 30-31.

[4] Richard McManus, “Preface,” in Cipriano Vagaggini, The Canon of the Mass and the Liturgical Reform, translated by Peter Coughlin (London, Dublin, Melbourne: Geoffrey Chapman, 1967), 11; Charles Davis, Liturgy and Doctrine: the Doctrinal Basis of the Liturgical Movement (London and New York: Sheed and Ward, 1962), 19.

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