This striking headline encapsulates the fears of progressive Catholics surrounding the Latin Mass. It is crowded with buzzwords evocative of women’s subjugation. The shadowy accompanying photo shows a kneeling female with a Rosary and a mantilla. She has no face.
But what hides inside Zita Ballenger Fletcher’s November 5th editorial for the National Catholic Reporter? Evidence of a Handmaid’s Tale writ Roman? Or personal prejudice writ large?
Fletcher’s condemnations of the Extraordinary Form are overarching. She claims to uncover structural sexism, clericalism, and injustices inherent in the EF. The priest speaks in an ancient language. He turns his back on the faithful. “The congregation plays no active part in worship. All people inside the church are expected to kneel on cue at various points. The priest is at the center of the spectacle.”
These are common objections, but are they objectively indicative of oppression? Fletcher provides only her opinion. The heart of her editorial suggests she’s not accepting any counter-arguments: “Anyone who may accuse me of not knowing what I’m talking about … would be wrong. My opinion is based on facts and experiences.”
As one strong-willed woman to another, Zita Fletcher, I have a few opinions of my own. But rather than conflating these personal opinions with objective truth, what follows is entirely my own experience:
I, like you, was educated as a journalist and author. I have poor tolerance for elitists and sexists. But the Extraordinary Form of the Latin Rite is the Mass that I feel most closely proclaims my dignity and strength as a woman.
I appreciate the liturgy being prayed in a language other than my own. Rather than serving as a stumbling block, it expands my intellectual horizons. Though I do not speak or read Latin (or German, for that matter) I am fully capable of knowing what’s happening around me in either environment. Instead of sitting back to listen passively, I am actively following along with my senses and my prayers.
I find ad orientem prayer to be egalitarian and liberating. No longer is an individual male literally talking down to me. Instead, we are facing God together, and I am encouraged to pray the Mass along with him. I have also found the Latin Mass to be more forgiving of individuality of posture–some faithful kneel the entire time, the sick and elderly sit, parents pace with infants in the back, children scamper back and forth. The movement feels organic, not scripted or forced. This is also active participation–the natural needs and lives of families ebbing and flowing under the song of the Mass.
Head covering, too, is a personally freeing experience. I feel like I am putting on the armor of God, even vesting myself in a way that the lay male is not allowed to access. But at the Extraordinary Form Masses I have attended, I have never found skirts or veils to be a prerequisite for entry. I have seen plenty of manes and pant legs, but no pitchforks or torch mobs.
That does not mean the mobs are not present. You say you have had unpleasant experiences at Latin Mass, and I believe you. But these dark places in the Church exist in every form. All the structures of the Church hide misogynists, because all the structures of the world hide misogynists. They come in every style and sex. Some of them leer and say things like “women look the most beautiful in church when they are veiled.” Some of them sneer and say things like, “get that napkin off your head.” Some men won’t date a woman they cannot dominate by forcing her to veil. Some men won’t date a woman they cannot manipulate by forcing her to abandon “oppressive” religious beliefs. Some sniff at earrings and leggings. Some at long fusty skirts. Toxicity, narrow-mindedness, and bigotry are everywhere. Sometimes they are shrouded in incense, but sometimes they stand stark and proud, right in the bright spotlights of modernity.
You have called attention to Pope Francis’ wise words on hypocrisy. “He described hypocrisy as ‘appearing one way, but acting in another.” He said that a hypocritcal attitude “always kills.’”
In turn, I would like to apply that definition to your editorial, specifically to one of the stories you use to illustrate your point.
A professor takes his wife to Church. She “was a mere ghost of a woman. She was covered from head to foot … Even her entire neck and her hands were covered. She kept her head bowed and always walked behind her husband. She carried a rosary and looked physically weak — almost ill. The professor, by contrast, looked swaggering and hearty. He strutted around and chatted with others in church as she followed him like a pale shadow. Seeing this, I believed I had witnessed a very dark side to the professor’s spirituality. His religion was a mechanism of abusive control.”
You appear to be showing concern for the professor’s wife. But you have fallen ill with the same sexist infection as the people whose behavior you claim to loathe. You have judged a woman for her appearance, her dress, even her husband’s mannerisms. You claim oppression for her. But in my mind’s eye, I imagine illness. A physically weak woman might be covering her body to keep warm. Falling behind her husband because she cannot move quickly. Bending because she can’t stand straight. Gripping her rosary because it helps her hang on for dear life. Her husband might be heartily chatting in relief after an exhausting week of caregiving. I can imagine this because it was my own personal experience. As a cancer patient, I closely resembled this woman — right down to the long clothes, downcast countenance and shuffling gait. My experience is no less likely than a scandalous tale of abusive control, but the truth is, neither of us will ever know. That is, unless we take the time to encounter the woman as an individual rather than hoisting her up as a banner for our own cause.
Attendees of the Extraordinary Form, especially our fellow women, deserve the same individualized compassion and dignity that you exhort them to provide for others.They are not a monolithic enemy to be rooted and shut out, nor a caricature to be pitied, nor a symbol to be objectified.
“Judge not, lest ye be judged,” said Jesus. He was not only speaking to traditionalists.