Traditional Mass & How To Be Catholic in 21st Century

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

A young intellectual, a convert to Catholicism, Carl Wolk, in an insightful article entitled “Nominalism And The Possibility Of A Modern Liturgy” ( ) from which excerpts are quoted on this page, noted the following statement from a letter to a friend by C. S. Lewis regarding Modernity:

“What you say about the present state of mankind is true: indeed, it is even worse than you say. For they neglect not only the law of Christ but even the Law of Nature as known by the Pagans. For now they do not blush at adultery, treachery, perjury, theft and the other crimes which I will not say Christian Doctors, but the Pagans and the Barbarians have themselves denounced. They err who say ‘the world is turning pagan again.’ Would that it were! The truth is that we are falling into a much worse state. ‘Post-Christian man’ is not the same as ‘pre-Christian man.’ He is as far removed as virgin is from widow: there is nothing in common except want of a spouse; but there is a great difference between a spouse-to-come and a spouse lost.”

Carl Wolk explained his agreement with C. S. Lewis as follows:

“Now, of course there have been good and true things in the modern world, but there have been no good and true things flowing from modernity, that spirit that has motivated the movement of the modern world, since this spirit has always made itself the enemy of the Faith. Whether or not a particular philosopher explicitly rejected the Faith, he did at least share in a philosophical or theological lineage that rejected the Faith. Thus, inculturation was possible in a pre-Christian world in a way that it is not in the post-Christian world, because while the former was non-Christian, the latter is anti-Christian. […]

To understand this disaster, we must begin, at the latest, in the 14th century with William of Ockham, who taught that the metaphysical forms that underlie reality do not exist. For Ockham, when we speak of humanity, we mean only a name to describe many individuals who can be observed to be very similar. There is no common human nature that they share. This means there is nothing essential to the nature of any being; in fact, a thing’s nature is simply a linguistic fiction. There are no fixed definitions and no possibility of understanding the essence of things. From this denial of ontology came a denial of teleology. If a thing lacks a nature, it lacks an end, since the purpose of a thing flows from the essence of the thing. Man’s final end is the beatific vision because man is an intellectual being. This nominalism became the basis for nearly all Western thought since then. Only the Church has, for the most part, avoided the trap. […]

More importantly for our purposes here, however, is the consequence of this mental denial. What exists in the mind of man comes to exist, through his actions, in reality. If the modern mind is like “mud,” according to Hilaire Belloc, unable to make proper distinctions between beings, identify the nature of beings, or perceive the proper ends of beings, then it will produce this in reality. Thus, since the essence of marriage does not exist in the mind of modern man, neither does it exist in reality. “Gay marriage” is not bad marriage; it is simply not marriage. Fiction in the mind becomes fiction in reality.

Moreover, if the entire worldview of modern man has become fictionalized by nominalism and its consequences, so the entire culture of modern man will have become fictionalized for the same reasons. Now, the proper objects of the intellect are universals, i.e., essences, natures, forms, etc. Thus, if nominalism denies the existence of these things, then a nominalist mind does not have bad knowledge; it simply does not have knowledge. Likewise, a culture built by the mind of modern man is not a bad culture; it is simply not a culture.

Thus, we cannot merely say that where religion, the supernatural, or the theological are concerned, we can ignore modernity, while where ethics, the natural, and the philosophical are concerned, we can listen to modernity. Ockham destroyed nature, and by destroying nature, he destroyed culture. And this great destroyer birthed a philosophical Leviathan that fulfilled itself in the intellectual suicide of the 20th century.

Thus, there is no culture with which to inculturate the Church. The old liturgical signs were signs rooted in nature. Any new liturgical signs would be contrived and artificial. They would be the product of the nominalist revolution. We cannot find forms that speak to modern man, because the forms in the mind of modern man are not true forms. They are confusions. Kant is in his mind, but we cannot speak to him in the language of Kant, because the language of Kant is false. Evangelical worship is in his mind, but we cannot speak to him in the language of protestant worship, since the language of protestant worship is false. The old forms, on the other hand, are truly eternal forms, because they exist as the divine ideas in the intellect of God.[…]

The symbolism of these acts is not indifferent, dependent only upon the cultural associations of various men. Rather, symbols are rooted in nature; if an age rejects nature, it gives up its ability to create true symbols that are based on more than mere social contract.

So, what to do? There is only one option. We must learn to kneel before the divine King, without ever having knelt before a human king. The liturgy was always strange, since it always involved that leap of analogy from the human to the divine. Yet, today it is doubly strange. Today, the post-Christian world has stolen our natural analogs for divine things. Therefore, we don’t know why we kneel, why we chant, why we light candles, or why we burn incense.

This is the challenge of being a 21st century Catholic, but I think it is also a great joy. When we discover the Faith today, we discover it like a newborn discovers the world. We believe in dogma, after never having heard of dogmas. We celebrate liturgies, after never having seen a liturgy. We obey after never having truly obeyed. Never before has the Church existed in a time when it appeared so different from the world, and therefore, never before has it been in a better position to sense the transcendent than it is now.

Beauty might not save all men, but awe will.

To return to where we began, could we have changed the liturgy to suit the needs of medieval man? Yes, and we did. But can we now change the liturgy to suit the needs of modern man? No, instead, we must change modern man to suit the liturgy. We must all learn how to make an act of fealty to kings, so that we can renew our covenant worthily at the altar rail. We must learn how light candles in honor of Our Lady in our own home, so that we will understand them when we see them on the altar. We must pray the psalms at sunrise in our bedroom, so that we understand them when the priest prays them at the altar. We must pray and work for the return of Christendom, so that we can regain our natural analogs for divine things. […]

Amid the distractions of smart phones, blogs, cars, skyscrapers, mass industry, and constant marketing, we must get back in touch with The Real. This is what the traditional Mass affords us to do. This Mass tells us that electric light bulbs are not the same thing as candles, guitar is not the same as chant, and business casual is not the same thing as vestments.

The modern world has rejected both the natural and the supernatural; the traditional Mass helps us rediscover both.” (Carl Wolk,