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A Metaphysical Defense of the TLM

It is a phenomenon both peculiar and common amongst Protestants that all faiths, all creeds, or at least all Christian creeds, are equally valid if sincere: that being a Baptist is no more or less than being a Presbyterian, which is no more or less than being a Methodist, which is (possibly) no more and (certainly) no less than being a Catholic.  It could be interesting to sit a Protestant down and psychoanalyze this trait, and doing so would probably say much about why there are tens of thousands of non-Catholic Christian denominations in the world: after all, if sincerity of feeling is all that one needs to attain salvation, then there would be something of a compulsion to start one’s own church whenever a doctrine or practice came under doubt.  But as fascinating an idea as that is, and lacking readily analyzable Protestants, this post endeavors to explore other avenues of thought.  Namely, and the reason Protestants have been brought up at all, this post will examine why it is that the Traditional Latin Mass is in a way equal to the Novus Ordo, and in a way superior, and ultimately why both are incomparably superior to the earnest but inefficacious celebrations of Protestants.

“What is the Mass?”  Such is a question that abounds with simple answers, but lacks any fully sufficient answer.  The Mass is the unbloody sacrifice of Calvary.  The Mass is the greatest act performed on earth, which, through the boundless power of God, happened over 2000 years ago and is yet made present every time it is validly celebrated.  The Mass is a mystery, a prayer, a work.  The essence of the Mass is all these things and innumerably more, as is the case whenever speaking of the Divine.  And yet while the core, the essence of the Mass subsists in the Eucharist and the Consecration, and therein are contained all the goodness that is, there is nonetheless so much more to what is commonly called “the Mass.”  While these things may not be as important as the central focus of the Mass, they, by virtue of their proximity and relation to that center, are nonetheless incredibly important.  Should vestments, altar cloths, server’s outfits, the sex of the priest, the colors of the ceiling, the orientation of the altar, all such things, really be taken that seriously?  Where are the lines drawn?  And why are they drawn where they are?

Such questioning is ordinary, so long as it is not merely a spirit of rebellion disguised as inquiry.  The answer to the first question is an unequivocal “yes.”  This affirmation is consistent with the rest of the human experience; for humans constantly if seldom consciously encounter and interact within a hierarchy of being.  Some things in this world are unquestionably, objectively better than others; some things definitively fit where others do not.  A human being is, for instance, better than a dog.  Those who argue otherwise are stuck so much on minutiae that they cannot see the whole; they, as the cliché goes, miss the forest for looking at the trees.  Certainly, animals and humans share much in common, such as skin and eating.  But consider that there are drastic differences and degrees even amongst humans, partially according to their actions and partially according to their genetic make-up.  A child with down-syndrome possesses just as much of the essential humanity as does a child with a photographic memory who begins reading St. Thomas Aquinas at the age of four; but the latter is smarter, more knowledgeable, and more capable.  Yet the child with down-syndrome may better act as accords a human person: he may be full of charity and obedience, whereas the child genius lives according to his own whim.  Indeed, the handicapped may surpass the other without the other necessarily being bad, but merely one who struggles to maintain faithfulness, for a variety of reasons and influences for which he is not entirely culpable.  The goodness of each, as with anything, consists in the degree by which he participates in the essential being for which he is ordained, how much of its potency for goodness he actualizes.

What does that mean?  Let it be examined simply by a hypothetical situation: two men pass by a box for the poor.  The first, a blue-collar worker, drops in 15% of his paycheck.  This is a good act, to which all men are in potency, the particulars according to their circumstances, but the essence always, an act of anonymous charity.  The second, an executive, drops in 20% of his paycheck.  This is also a good act; but whereas the executive could afford to give more, the blue-collar worker likely gave away enough to deprive himself of some ordinary comfort.  That relative generosity on the part of the blue-collar man does not make the charity of the executive something bad, but it does nonetheless demonstrate that insofar as there are good actions, there are better actions, and there must necessarily therefore be a best; all positives demand a comparative, and all comparatives demand a superlative; each necessitates the others.  Contrary to the silly sophistical word play of Dick Dawkins, there is indeed a “stinkiest stinker.”  There is something that objectively smells worst to the properly functioning human nose; though it is possible for there to be something which smells worse, presumably ad infinitum, but only in possibility.  This leads to a metaphysical question on time, which, for the time being, will be left with the Protestant case-study.

St. John Cantius, Chicago, Illinois

St. John Cantius, Chicago, Illinois

In the meantime, how does this pertain to the Traditional Latin Mass?  Simply, the things that may not seem essential – the vessels and vestments and all those things that could be merely aesthetic – are in fact better than anything else that could be offered.  At least, that is the idea; like the blue-collar worker, like the poor widow in the gospel of Mark, the Mass ought to be given all that those giving can offer.  That does not mean prudence ought to be cast out and that every Catholic ought to be selling their houses and living on the streets in order to donate to their parishes.  But it does mean that when it is possible to use a beautiful chalice, it should be used in place of a plain one; it does mean that when a vestment that speaks of the regality inseparable from the office of the priesthood is available, it should take precedence over that which looks more suited to a parade in San Francisco.  It does most certainly mean that only a man may take on the role of priest, for reasons nigh innumerable, but briefly because just as only a man may be a father, so too may only a man be a priest.

Finally, it is a prudent juncture to address the fittingness of Latin to the Mass.  Msgr. George Moorman, in his book The Latin Mass Explained, devotes a whole section to this topic.  Firstly, he states that the language used in the Mass is of little consequence itself; else the Novus Ordo, as allowing the vernacular, would indeed be inherently problematic, as likely would the many rites of Eastern Catholics.  Nonetheless, however, while the language is not essential to the celebration of the Mass, Latin is indeed more fitting than the vernacular, for the following reasons.  Firstly, it is venerable in its traditional usage with the Mass that is more or less two millennia long.  Secondly, as a language no longer used in common speech, that is, as a dead language, it is somehow mysterious to those who do not understand it; much like the little bit of Greek used, at the Kyrie Eleison, and the Hebrew which persists in the Alleluia, Amen, and Hosanna; all three languages were notably inscribed above Christ’s head on the Cross.  Thirdly, unity is fostered by a universal voice for the celebration of the Mass, giving an auditory reminder (in addition to the preferable visual unity given in the Mass being celebrated ad Orientem) that there is only one Mass and one Church.  Fourthly, and finally from Msgr. Moorman, the deadness of Latin protects the Mass from deviations or alterations in the connotations of meaning.  An English word today may not mean the same thing in 100 years; indeed, the difficulties of placing the Mass in the vernacular can be seen by the failings of the 1973 ICEL translations, and the necessitated new, more accurate, non-watered-down translations, hopefully to be implemented soon.  In addition to Msgr. Moorman’s statements, it could be added, particularly to the argument from mystery, that having a language in which one does little other than pray, if anything at all (unless you like reading works in the original – which is not a bad idea, oftentimes), adds to one’s sensible impression of the unique significance of the celebration in which he is participating.  All of these things, added up, combine for the Traditional Latin Mass, equal to the Novus Ordo, insofar as both are the sacrifice of the Mass, to be on the whole superior.

This topic will be revisited in the future.  Stay tuned.

Categories: General
  1. Jeff R.
    June 20, 2009 at 5:10 pm

    Nice post. Obviously you’ll want to take my thoughts with a grain of salt – I understand that blog posts aren’t the best venue for more “academic” discussions, but I figured you might like to hear some feedback from a fellow friend of traditional liturgy who also takes an interest in rigorous philosophy.

    First, the good:
    Not only did you make the critical distinction between the “essential” and the “accidental” with regards to the Holy Mass, but I think you did a very good job making the point that just because something is “accidental” doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter. Those things which have no impact on the Mass’ validity can have a wildly significant impact on the way the valid Mass is both subjectively experienced and objectively offered. Is it really the best we can (prudently) give to God? Does it communicant Otto’s “mysterium tremendum et fascinans” to the laity (and priests/servers) who participate therein? I think you did a nice job making these points.

    Second, the philosophically nitpicky:
    I would suggest revisiting the philosophical content of the fourth paragraph with a bit more precision. Without augmentation or distinction, the premise that “all positives demand a comparative, and all comparatives demand a superlative; each necessitates the others” is false. Integers can be compared in such a way that we can meaningfully speak of one being “greater” or “less” without necessitating a “greatest” or “least.” Similarly, we can speak of something be “far” and something else being “farthest” without being forced to postulate some actual place that is “farthest.” Finally, we can talk of something as being earlier that something else without having to conclude that there was some “earliest.” Saint Thomas himself argued in De aeternitate mundi that an eternally created world is possible, and as such rejected Bonaventure’s claim that an actual infinite of temporal moments is impossible.

    Perhaps this is the “metaphysical question on time” that you want to avoid in the final sentence, but it seems to me that the objection applies equally well to place and number. You can strengthen your position significantly by arguing that the statement “all positives demand a comparative, and all comparatives demand a superlative” is one that applies particularly to values or transcendentals (the good, the true, etc.)

    Again, these critiques are not meant by way of undermining your argument, but in the hopes that by incorporating such considerations the “metaphysical defense of the TLM” can be strengthened.

    Lastly, the hope for further development:
    This line of argument can be fruitfully developed. Having established a degree of objectivity in the realm of values (not mere aesthetics) and applied this analysis to the triumvirate of Ad Orientem, Chant, and Latin, we can go further and make similar inquiries into the “fittingness” of such things as the actual texts and rubrics of the respective Missals. Do prayers at the foot of the altar objectively enhance worship and better communicate the solemnity and mystery of the eucharistic sacrifice to our subjective experience?

    These latter points are not only fruitful in their own right, but actually better accomplish the present goal (a metaphysical defense of the TLM). The holy triumvirate – ad orientem, chant, and latin – while immensely important, can all be implemented in the ordinary form of the liturgy and so are not (in theory) unique to the TLM. But an application of these principles to the rubrics and texts of the missals themselves will hit upon the real genius of the usus antiquior.

    I hope these little reflections don’t sound too patronizing, and can be taken with charity as from a friend who only wants to see the project succeed.


    • Raskolnikov
      June 20, 2009 at 6:45 pm


      Thank you for your comments. They are very thoughtful; and although I think we agree, I believe there is a misunderstanding. Please allow me to clarify:

      In reflecting upon positives, comparatives, and superlatives, regardless of whether or not one is considering them in the regard of transcendentals or the immanent, insofar as one is, there are necessarily – in two ways – the others. For instance, if I am a hundred yards away from you, and our hypothetical acquaintance Jill is fifty yards away, then I am far away (if our frame of reference is a pass with a football), farther away than Jill, and the farthest of the subset of Jill and I. If we were to consider only the distance between you and I, without Jill in the picture, then it becomes sort of a semantical contraction: since “far” is a relative term, it can only relate to other things, it must fit within some sort of referential frame. If you are talking to me on a radio, 100 yards is nothing, and I am not “far” as regards that frame; but for throwing me a pass, I am far, farther than you can throw, and past the furthest point to which you can throw (unless you’ve one hell of an arm). Additionally, another way to consider it, is that amongst whatever subset, even if it be only myself, I am still the “farthest” away; I can be yet farther, but as I said, such possibility can go on ad infinitum; but insofar as I am the farthest away within whatever group is being considered, then I am in actuality the farthest. Certainly integers can be compared without speaking of superlatives; but they are referring merely to possibilities, not to actualities. Whenever an integer has an actual referent, as “twelve donkeys,” then the three terms necessarily come into play, even if their referents are only similarly in possibility; e.g., thirteen donkeys, compared to twelve, would be the greatest number, but so would forty-five; it depends on the actuality.

      The question on time is indeed one more complex than I can handle at the moment; to what does time refer but motion, and to what does motion refer but consciousness of alteration?

      My post was written somewhat hastily, and for that I apologize, as I ought to have made all the distinctions.


  2. Jeff R.
    June 20, 2009 at 5:13 pm


    Similarly, we can speak of something be “far” and something else being “FARTHER” without being forced to postulate some actual place that is “farthest.”

  3. Jeff R.
    June 20, 2009 at 7:47 pm

    Raskolnikov, thanks so much for the quick (and cordial!) reply.

    I like the point that frames of reference can account for objects which satisfy the conditions for being superlatives without precluding some potential object which is “_____-er.”

    Not only does this do justice to both the way we speak in ordinary language and plain common sense, but it also provides the distinctions necessary to defend the premise in question . . . All of that is a long way of saying, “Yep, we’re in agreement, thanks for the clarification.”

    One final thought. It’s easy for me to see an objection being raised against us at precisely this point. That objection goes something like this:

    “In order to make the case that, say, chant at Mass is better than ‘Lord of the Dance’ or surplices and albs on servers are better than jeans and sneakers, you make the claim that positives and comparatives demand superlatives. So even if ‘Lord of the Dance’ is good it itself [author note: it’s not] something may still be better. But in defending this position you’re forced to admit that there are certain cases where the superlative in question is not and cannot be ideal but is only real, and, further, such actual/real superlatives are determined by a given frame of reference. Thus, there is no “ideal” largest-collection-of-Marty-Haugen-CDs. Rather, “largest” is determined by the frame of reference, namely, you and I (or you and I and Jill) comparing our collections. So why shouldn’t non-essential liturgical choices fall into this latter category and, if they do, who’s to say what frame of reference we should use to determine what is most ‘fitting’ for the liturgy?”

    In a sense, this objection uses the necessity of frames of reference as a jumping off point for an argument from relativism.

    Obviously I think this objection is answerable, even if we grant that the superlatives in question are non-ideal (strictly speaking, no finite created being could be an “ideal” accoutrement for the liturgy). But I do think we should be wary of this sort of objection, I can see it coming up.


    • Raskolnikov
      June 21, 2009 at 4:26 pm


      Glad we agree! I also think you are insightful into the possible objection; perhaps I will make a post of it in the near future, as I did and do intend to revisit the metaphysical defense of the TLM.


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