I can remember a time when the sound of chanted Latin could soothe my addled soul, before the ancient tongue became the calling card of the most regressive forces in the One True Church, as the Vatican has once again declared the Roman Catholic Church to be, with a bit of curious timing, on the ecumenical Feast of Saints Peter and Paul. The pronouncement, delivered in a document called "Reponses to Some Questions Regarding Certain Aspects of the Doctrine on the Church," came on the heels of the return of the Latin Tridentine Mass to the status of liturgical legitimacy (after some 40 years in liturgical Limbo).
If you're not Catholic, the controversy over the Latin Mass is doubtless a bit of inside baseball, but to those who lived through the change from the Latin liturgy to one effectively marked "your language here," the somewhat befuddling linguistic transition became the most obvious legacy of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), from which the church's efforts to modernize itself flowed. Less obvious to the layperson is the fundamental reshaping of religious orders via newly democratized governance structures that resulted from Vatican II, ultimately laying bare divisions between the Vatican and the orders -- particularly the nuns.
To right-wing Catholics, Vatican II represents all that went "wrong" with the church: mouthy feminist nuns, liberation theologians, and altar girls -- not to mention Masses celebrated with maracas and djembes.
The first time I heard a service chanted completely in Latin in a Catholic Church after the close of Vatican II was in New York in 1992, a benediction that followed an anti-abortion march led by Archbishop John Cardinal O'Connor to the doors of the Eastern Women's Clinic. To the right, Latin represents all that is good in the world, if you count Eurocentric, anti-Semitic patriarchalism as good. And because Latin has become the symbol of the right, its return, thanks to a letter issued earlier this month by Pope Benedict XVI, struck a powerfully ominous chord for those who truly believed in Vatican II's restatement of the Roman Church as defined not simply by the hierarchy, but by the "people of God" -- the congregants themselves.
As if to confirm those fears, Benedict followed up on the letter by having the Vatican's Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, the enforcement organ he once headed when a more charismatic and savvy pontiff led the flock, restate in insulting terms not just the church's assertion of itself as the only "true church," but to assert that Protestant churches are not truly churches because of their "defects," and that the Eastern Orthodox traditions, while meeting the Vatican's criteria for churchiness (apostolic succession), are "wounded" by their failure to acknowledge the pope as their (infallible) leader.
The day on which the document was issued was the solemn feast of Sts. Peter and Paul, which is celebrated in modern times by the orthodox and the Roman churches as an ecumenical feast, often with shared services. In the Americas it came as the National Council of Churches (NCC), the quintessential ecumenical Christian organization, prepared to gather this Thursday for the 50th anniversary of the meeting in Oberlin, Ohio, that served as the precursor to subsequent gatherings of the NCC's Faith and Order Commission, at which doctrinal differences and commonalities are discussed. The title of that 1957 meeting was, "The Nature of the Unity We Seek."
This year's Faith and Order meeting is titled in less forward-looking terms: "On Being Christian Together: The Faith and Order Experience in the United States." There to explain the Vatican's Q&A smack-down tract from its Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith -- once known as the Inquisition before the Inquisition got all that bad press -- will be Monsignor John A. Rodano of the Vatican Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, a guy with a job about as desirable as running FEMA.
To be fair, it must be said that, as the late Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg reminded me from time to time, it is the natural ken of a religion to assert itself as the keeper of the truth. The issue here is not that the Vatican, in its ugly little missive, is saying anything it hasn't said before; the issue is, "Why now?" Do we have not enough religious strife in the world?
I was born into a church at the moment it summoned its own renewal; born in a country at that moment it, belatedly and urgently, at last began to confer human rights on all its people. Today I live in a nation that sanctions torture, and belong to a church that has revived the rites of the dark ages. Kumbaya, anyone?