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The Hermeneutic of 17% and the Faking of Reality

Here is a typical modern situation: A couple – or throuple – hires two television stars to renovate their historic house. The homeowners leave for two weeks while the celebrities argue about what tiles, fixtures, and lamps they plan to install. Meanwhile, an actual crew of laborers work behind-the-scenes to do the real painting and tile installation. In fairness to the television stars, they do show up on the last day of the renovation to fluff a few pillows and talk about how stressful the process has been. The day of the reveal comes. In walk the homeowners. Their jaws drop and they utter the rehearsed crude line: “Oh ***! Is this even the same house?!” Awkward laughs ensue. Another successful home renovation episode concludes.

Such is the exalted state of television these days. I imagine one John Senior calling down from heaven: “Smash the television set!” Someday, Mr. Senior, someday soon. However, for now there is an analogy to be derived from this.

Let us take the scenario one step further. Suppose the television stars take the house renovation and, without the homeowner’s knowledge, start smashing down all walls, cupboards, and countertops. The roof and front porch are removed. Even the foundation is jackhammered away and replaced with a combination of untreated wood, spray foam, and sand. The star renovators, being as ruthless as they are arrogant, leave little behind of the original house. To the dumpsters go the antique furniture, hand-crafted bannisters, and rock-solid oak flooring. In comes the shag carpets, rainbow wallpaper, and checkered linoleum. As the great reveal is made, the homeowners drop their jaws, though in disbelief, and murmur, “Is this even the same house?” This time the phrase is not accompanied with awkward laughter.

The television stars answer that they have left more than enough of the old house. “What use is a study filled with… books, anyway?” they explain, while rearranging the new lime-green asparagus steamer neatly beside a custom ice-cream scoop warmer. “Naturally this is the same house! I think we even kept one of the doors. You’ll love how we painted it hot pink. Also, there might be an original vanity in one of the bathrooms upstairs. All in all, you’ll be happy to know that we kept 17% of the character of the original home. So, of course it’s the same house!”

A brawl ensues. Finally, television is worth watching.

* * *

Continuity. It is crucial to the wellbeing of a functional society. Natura non facit saltus – “nature makes no jump” – is Leibniz’s oft-quoted apothegm. There is truth to this. I do not think a standard business could survive if it abruptly fired 83% of its employees. Rewriting 83% of the American Constitution would cause more than a little chaos to Americans. Drastically altering 83% of one’s wardrobe to identify with, say, the hippie movement would make family and friends wonder if a mid-life crisis was happening. “What’s going on with you?” they might ask, “you’re not the same person.” There is only so much change something, or someone, can undergo without it being a rupture.

Ultimately in all of this I am referring to the Mass; the sublime gift from God, organically developed with great devotion and care throughout centuries. The Mass is far more than a business, national constitution, or even personal identity. It is our faith. It is our very redemption, offered in an unbloody manner. That up to 83% of the Orations at Mass were altered or removed with the creation – and I do mean creation – of the novus ordo Mass is not a trivial matter. That Latin and the Roman Canon were essentially gutted and tossed in a dumpster, along with a sweeping amount of prayers and gestures, all while whitewashing the churches and placing man – not Christ’s sacrifice – at the center of the action. What we are dealing with is not simply a rupture, but a nuclear explosion.

I do not wish to belabor the point. To say that the novus ordo – and yes, it is a valid Mass – and traditional Latin Mass are not in continuity is obvious to even a seven-year-old child. “Dad, I don’t want to go to Mass in town. I want to go to real Mass,” said my one son to me. Ouch. The emperor has no clothes. Despite Benedict XVI’s repeated past attempts at a hermeneutic of continuity, even he could not fool a bright young child when it comes to Mass. A child knows when he is being sprinkled with holy water at the asperges, and when he is not.

Unfortunately, there hasn’t been a “real Mass” in my parts for over a month. Locking the old Mass away is the new nefarious agenda. Pope Francis’ summer motu proprio attacking the traditional Latin Mass has sought to bar such little ones as my son from approaching the TLM. But there is a salient consolation from his otherwise disastrous proclamation. That is, the blatant truth was finally admitted. Francis publicly confessed that the two Masses are, in fact, not in continuity. From his own mouth came the word that the new Mass is the “unique expression of the lex orandi of the Roman rite,” and that the TLM is not. His conclusion is utterly wrong, of course, but it nevertheless professes that the two Masses are on entirely different playing fields. Reports of continuity have been greatly exaggerated. End of story.

It must be asked, then, if we do not have continuity, what do we have?  To say we have change, or even rupture, is insufficient. I return to the late Catholic thinker, John Senior. In his important work, The Death of Christian Culture, Senior mused on the transcendentals Being and Truth. He noted that “the opposite of Being is not just nothing – the mere absence of Being, like empty space, which has a kind of ablative reality, a potential for being filled. Pure non-Being, anti-Being, is the faking of reality” (p. 35).

I would argue that, for the past 50 years, we have had the faking of continuity. It has been widespread, deliberate, and at times malicious. We have been told by our fathers and theologians that black is white, up is down, Dan Schutte and Gregorian chant are both valid options, Canons can be created by committees, and that keeping 17% of the Orations makes for perfect continuity with our ancestors. When we have gawked in disbelief and asked honestly, “is this the same Latin rite?” an emphatic “yes!” has been the response. Why? It is because those in the Church have been promoting not so much an absence of continuity, but rather an active faking of continuity. Perhaps we have Pope Francis to thank for finally bringing this home. Did I just say that?

To all of this I must conclude with an obvious point. It is obvious to those theologians able to submit detailed arguments, obvious to a seven-year-old child wondering why one Mass does not have the prayers at the foot of the altar, and now even admitted as obvious by Pope Francis himself. That is, the TLM and novus ordo are not in continuity, which therefore means that the continuity-wishing-game must cease and desist. It is distracting, artificial, unfruitful, and ultimately a fusion of modernism with antiquarianism. More than this, it is the active assertion of what is not true; it is the faking of reality. There is no hermeneutic of seventeen percent, no matter how much we pretend.

Blessed and true continuity: it is crucial to a thriving Church. To which one may be forgiven for wondering: “Is this even the same Church?” For thriving, we are not.

Photo by Kevin Woblick on Unsplash.

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