28 October 2007

The Hollow Men

Fr. McBrien's "argument"
My Comments,My italics

We are the Hollow Men

I noticed several blogs speaking of a new article by one of the greater bete noirs of the traditionalist blogs: Richard McBrien. Several people have gone over his theological stance, others have gone off on rants. I thought I might take a stab at analysing the article for myself. I should note, however, that I am not a specialist in theology. Where I do have some expertise, however, is in the uses of language and particularly rhetoric.

Rhetoric is, in short, the art of persuasion. It is the ability not merely to form a logical argument, or not even to form a logical argument at all, but to form a persuasive one- one with the force behind it to prove one's point, and to bring others to believe your point to be the true one- the only one. Notice, however, that one's point does not necessarily have to be true in order to persuade others that it is so.

Rhetoric was once considered to be the queen of the sciences, and the heighth of education. It is rare now, which is unfortunate, because not only does it allow one to persuade, but also helps one to recognize when someone else is trying to persuade one. Without a knowledge of rhetoric or logic, people are vulnerable to other people's hollow and empty rhetoric. I go now to Richard McBrien.

We are the stuffed men.

Father McBrien (for the man is indeed a priest) begins his article thusly:

The Latin Mass

This is actually his title. His use of the definite article is a little perplexing, for as the reader probably knows, there is not one Latin Mass, but actually two. There is the Mass variously named the Tridentine Mass, or the Traditional Latin Mass, or the Old Mass, and so on. However, the Novus Ordo Mass is also a Latin Mass. So he is here mixing two together into one. We shall see where this leads.

The pope's recent authorization of the Tridentine Latin Mass, without the need to seek the local bishop's permission, has stirred some measure of debate within the Roman Catholic Church, especially in letters-to-the-editor and on blogs written by individuals who seem not to have day-jobs.
Here he begins with an innocuous observation: "the Pope's authorization of the Tridentine Latin Mass" (Thus clearing up some of the confusion of the title- maybe?) has "stirred up some debate within the Roman Catholic Church, especially in letters-to-the-editor and on blogs." Thus far we have a value neutral observation of a situation- and presumably, the topic of his essay. But the neutral observation quickly changes with the addition of a pointed observation about those partaking of the debate: these bloggers are "individuals who seem not to day jobs." The use of the word "seem" is odd within the ostensibly objective observations of the opening sentence. It slips in a subjective value judgement into an otherwise objective statement, and thus covers the statement's subjectivity. Furthermore, it is a stab at one half the debate. More on that to come.

The overwhelming majority of Catholics, however, are apparently unaware of, or have already forgotten, the July 7 papal letter, entitled Summorum Pontificum (Latin, "Of supreme pontiffs"). Indeed, those who attend Mass regularly would never prefer Mass in a language other than their own.
Here we get another sweeping generalization under the cover of objective observation. Two statements: the people have forgotten, the people would never prefer, come with no statement, only a sense of numbers without any actual Math: "an overwhelming majority" but with no survey, no poll- no footnote, nothing. This "overwhelming majority" has absolute certainty: they would "never" choose otherwise. The only proof he has set up for himself is his tone of objective observer. He is setting up for an ethical proof: that is, the argument is proved (or disproved) on the character of the speaker/writer. Two paragraphs in, and the argument is totally dependent on the character and credibility of the writer. Except he's not making an argument in his manner of presentation. He is merely making observations.

Let me make an observation of my own. Back when I studied with my fellow scholars, when we made a statement, we had to back it up with proof. If you didn't and you went to school in the eighties, a witty prof may scribble in your margins "Where's the beef?" In the nineties, it was "Show me the Money!" This statement of McBrien's is both meatless and penniless, for it comes without any proof.

Those who do claim to prefer the Latin Mass, whether Tridentine or Novus Ordo (that is, in keeping with the reforms of Pope Paul VI), constitute a tiny
minority of the Roman Catholic Church, which is not to say that they have no right to speak their minds about the matter or to take advantage of the
concessions which the Vatican has offered them.

Against the absolute ("never") certainty of the overwhelming majority we have the "tiny minority" who do not speak with certainty, but rather "claim" to "prefer" the Latin Mass. Notice the shift in tone. They aren't only smaller, they're not as sure if this really is what they want. Perhaps they don't even know what they really want, they're only making claims. Perhaps they need someone smarter than they to show them the truth- someone with a generous spirit, someone who is will to give the tiny minority a pat on the head an admit that "they have a right to speak their minds," even if they aren't all that certain what is on those minds.

So, three paragraphs in, and McBrien is an absolutely certain objective observer, who is willing to be benevolent to those who lack his clarity and objectivity. And not only that, he makes it sound as though he is personally granting to this tiny minority the right of free speech- in this case, the right to speak in favour of concessions granted to them by the Pope. By extension, that implies he has more authority than the Pope. But back to the tiny minority- just how benighted are they?

But if such Catholics are under the ages of 45 or 50, they have little or no hands-on experience of the pre-Vatican II Mass. It is a mystery how one can be nostalgic for something one had never experienced.

Now he ascribes motives to a subgroup of that tiny minority: They're nostalgic. It would seem the objective omniscience is dropped, and the man who could blankly state the opinion of the vast majority is now mystified by the tiny minority: except, notice he does not state he is mystified, only that "it is a mystery." It is objectively a mystery how this can happen. So the mystery is not something on the part of the writer, it is shifted on to the group of "such Catholics"- they are the ones who are mystified, not the writer. No other possible motivation is mentioned, or considered, and the tiny minority are left, in McBrien's construction, ignorant even of themselves.

So we have two groups- one the Vast majority, certain etc, and the tiny minority, who have a right to speak, except they don't really know what they're talking about, and who are- by the way- most likely unemployed.

Headpiece filled with straw.

This, gentle reader, is what is known as the "straw man". In order to prove oneself right, we must have someone else who is wrong. Therefore in this style of argument you set up someone who is as wrong as wrong can be. However, although this style of argument is rather popular, it is also rather weak. Someone being wrong does not automatically make someone else right, unless there are only two possibilities.

Which, according to McBrien, is all there is. And again, his side (surprise, surprise) is the one with more weight.

In the past three months, liturgical scholars have published articles which carefully pick apart the reasoning behind the papal document that authorizes the use of the Tridentine Latin Mass. (The document is technically known as a motu proprio, in that it is produced by the pope "on his own initiative.") Each
critical analysis usually provokes a flurry of indignant reactions from a
handful of Latin-Mass advocates.

And again, large groups authoritative groups- "liturgical scholars" -are put against a tiny group which contains a pope who writes -notice how he puts in the definition of Motu Proprio here, rather than earlier in the first paragraph- solely on "his own initiative"- and a "handful of Latin-Mass advocates." Even as he invokes the Pope he is minimizing the Pope's authority- the Motu Proprio was just the pope alone. Also notice he inserts another kind of motivation to that handful: they are "indignant". They are writing emotionally, not objectively, as is, say, Father McBrien and his liturgical scholars.

By the way, any one catch the name of those liturgical scholars? Any one? A name? A quotation? A something?

Again, while no one should question their freedom of speech, not one of them, to my knowledge, has presented a credible justification for their preference. A few substitute ridicule for reasoning.

While these tiny minorities may speak, they don't speak well. Not one of them has a credible justification. His statement that a "few" (again, small is the defining characteristic of this group) "substitute ridicule for reasoning." I think McBrien is sliding into comedy here. Given that he has not offered an ounce of proof, that he has not made any kind of logical point here, given that he has minimized his opponents to unemployed idiots- the irony just becomes crushing. How can his description of his opponents thus far be construed as anything other than ridicule? But he's nice, he admits they have a right to speak. It's just that they have no reason, no knowledge. They're just idiots.

The whole argument still hinges on an unspoken "trust me, for I know" and "they're all wrong". By this point, I think there's going to be a straw shortage this winter.

And on we go:

The challenge to offer a specific, compelling argument for the Latin Mass has
just been made more difficult by a witty, down-to-earth article in the October 8 issue of America magazine, written by Emil Wcela, the retired auxiliary bishop
of the diocese of Rockville Centre, who also happens to have a degree in Sacred Scripture from Rome's Pontifical Biblical Institute. Bishop Wcela, however, proceeds neither from biblical evidence nor an exegetical analysis of the papal document, but from common sense and long pastoral experience. One does not have to be a liturgical scholar to understand what he is saying.
Now he brings in his outside proof. Of all the possible liturgical scholars he could have chosen, he chose this fellow. Notice the set up. No compelling reason (notice the subjective term compelling hiding as an objective one. There has been no compelling reason for him, and being the objective reasonable type that he is, that must mean there is none at all.) for the Mass in Latin, and the possibility of such a compelling reason has just shrunk because of a "witty, down-to-earth article." And now the subjective points are rolling right in. McBrien spent the first few paragraphs setting himself up and knocking his enemies down, so that by the time he starts voicing his opinion it does not come across as opinion, but fact. McBrien sets this author up with a series of credentials, thus extending the ethical proof to him. In short, we extend the trust-me-I-know to trust-him-he-knows, and we know he knows because McBrien says so.

Further, notice that while the other side, that tiny minority which certainly has the right to speak, must present "credible justification" and "compelling reasons" for their "preference", this bishop doesn't have to. This Bishop does not need to invoke the Bible, nor exegetical evidence- he can just speak off the top of his head. Which, incidentally, is what McBrien is doing. No wonder McBrien chose this man as the provider of proof for his entire argument.

Entitled "A Dinosaur Ponders the Latin Mass," the article avoids the scholarly path favored by specialists in liturgical studies. That type of work is absolutely necessary, but it is over the heads of most readers, who do not know a motu proprio from an encyclical --- nor do they care to know. Unlike many Latin-Mass devotees, Bishop Wcela (who is 76) learned and recited the Latin prayers as an altar boy (all altar servers were boys in those days). There were no sermons at daily Masses, no congregational responses, and few Communions.

Again, his chosen authority's credentials are lined up again- including his age- (the only other people whose ages are mentioned in this article are those who were mystified in their nostalgia, remember? This guy, by contrast, is old enough to remember and isn't nostalgic.)- to cement his authority. So what does this retired bishop authoritatively say?

He also recalls his years in the seminary where each day began with a Latin Mass. (At my seminary in Boston, there was a second Mass, called a "Thanksgiving Mass," which followed the community Mass. We remained --- always silently --- for only part of it.)
On Sundays and major feasts, a solemn high Mass was sung, complete with priest-celebrant, deacon, subdeacon, and a host of altar servers. The seminarians, however, would never receive Communion at this Mass since they had already done so at the early community Mass. As a young
priest, ordained in 1956, Bishop Wcela knew and celebrated only the Latin Mass, in which the celebrant "proclaimed" the Epistle and Gospel in Latin while facing the back wall. On Sundays, he would also read the Gospel in English from the pulpit, just before the sermon. While doing graduate work in Rome in the early 1960s, Bishop Wcela and other student-priests celebrated a daily Latin Mass without a congregation, but with a priest-partner. concelebration had not yet become common.
And the good Bishop says? Here are more credentials and memories, but nothing to any argument. Just more observations about the way things were. I could say something about the "facing the back wall" line but I see no reason to bother at this point. I am just waiting to be overwhelmed by this paragon of clarity, wittiness and down to earthness. That is, should he say something to the point.

After teaching in the seminary for several years, he became pastor of a large parish. By 1979, he writes, "Latin had pretty much disappeared, except for some hymns." His parish, however, had the custom of a Latin Mass one Sunday a month --- and in prime time, at 10:30, with full parish choir.
Good for him! But so what?

During the summer months, however, the Latin Mass was suspended because of vacation schedules and the influx of visiting priests. "After one of those
breaks," Bishop Wcela continues, "I suggested to the other priests an experiment: in the fall, we would not reintroduce it unless people asked for it. The months came and went without a word of interest. So the Latin Mass simply stopped."

And here you have the final proof. After all that- at one parish- one!- Latin was not missed. That is the entire justification and proof for every statement McBrien made thus far. His vast, overwhelming majority of well informed objective non-irate Catholics comes down to one parish.

There is another little slip here as well. Remember when I said the title conflates the Extraordinary and the Ordinary Form in Latin? He fulfills that here. The Bishop was not speaking of the Extraordinary Rite, but of the Ordinary Rite done in Latin. On the one hand, he has brought the entire debate he has been observing done to the issue of language. On the other hand, this little piece of 'evidence' he has slipped in ultimately proves nothing. The Motu Prioprio, which was the subject he proposes to discuss- or proposes to make observations on discussions he has seen- was not about in what language the Ordinary form should be celebrated: it was about the Extraordinary rite.

But here's a punchline, of sorts:

More on Bishop Wcela's thoughts next week.

Not to nit pick, but the use of "more" is not proper here. In order to show "more" at another time, one must show a minimum of "one" here. There was none. Only observations and memories.

And at the end, we have one last line: the publication states the author's credentials:

Fr. Richard McBrien is the Crowley-O'Brien Professor of Theology at the University of Notre Dame.

This whole essay has the intellectual honesty of a three card trick. McBrien sets up two possible groups which, in spite of his effort to make himself seem to be an objective observer- are completely of his own creation. He ascribes poor motivation to the group with which he does not agree, and dismisses them with contempt. But what does he have for his own side? His vast majorities, his liturgical experts, hides the fact that in the end he has one. Just one. Incidentally, in the way he has set this up, he has this up, he seems to have inadvertently given the tiny minority the pope (see the paragraph where he defines "motu proprio") whereas, ultimately, all his vast majority has is one bishop, who is, incidentally, retired. And this in an essay where the entire proof rests on the credentials of the author. When it comes down to that, whom would you trust?

I would not hesitate to flunk this paper were it to have come across my desk when I taught. There was no logical argument in this entire essay, no research, and the proof for everything he says comes down to single parish and his own authority. I said "Where's the beef?" and he hands me tofu. I say "Where's the money?" and he tosses me a wooden nickel. If you trust this guy, everything he says is true. It all sounds very nice, but in the end, it is nothing but rhetoric. And you can trust me on that. I at least quote the people of whom I am speaking.


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