Agatha Christie Letter 2.0: The Traditional Latin Mass as a Cultural, as Well as Liturgical, Treasure

COMMENTARY: The cultural argument, which apparently won the day in 1971 with Pope St. Paul VI, may be used against the TLM today.

Traditional Latin Mass celebrated in Rome.
Traditional Latin Mass celebrated in Rome. (photo: Pigama / Shutterstock)

Among traditionalist Catholics in England, the “Agatha Christie” letter is a touchstone of memory, revered as one might an Elizabethan-era maniple preserved in a recusant house. 

So it is unsurprising that the letter be updated for the current controversies about the 1962 Missal, or the traditional Latin Mass (TLM), as it is commonly called by its adherents.

In July 1971, The Times in London published an open letter, or petition, to Pope Paul VI, asking for permission (an “indult”) to continue the TLM in England and Wales. The letter was signed by more than 100 cultural grandees, including novelist Agatha Christie. She was not Catholic, but she had great esteem for Catholic traditions. Other notable signatories included Graham Greene, Kenneth Clark, Iris Murdoch, Joan Sutherland, Yehudi Menuhin and two Anglican bishops (from the dioceses of Exeter and Ripon).

Paul VI, himself a man of great culture, reviewed the signatories and was particularly struck upon seeing Christie’s name. He granted the “Agatha Christie indult,” as it came to be known. Adherents of the TLM point to the letter as a recognition that, as the 1971 letter put it, “the rite in question, in its magnificent Latin text, has also inspired priceless achievements ... by poets, philosophers, musicians, architects, painters and sculptors in all countries and epochs. Thus, it belongs to universal culture.”

This week, a new letter was published in The Times. The initiative was led by Scottish composer Sir James MacMillan. A Catholic, he was commissioned to compose Masses for Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to Britain (2010) as well as an anthem for the funeral of Her Late Majesty Queen Elizabeth II (2022).

MacMillan organized the open letter in response to “worrying reports from Rome that the Latin Mass is to be banished from nearly every Catholic church,” removing from Catholic life what it calls a “magnificent spiritual and cultural heritage.”

Calling this a “painful and confusing prospect, especially for the growing number of young Catholics whose faith has been nurtured by it,” the letter specifically refers to the precedent of the July 1971 letter. 

“The traditional liturgy is a ‘cathedral’ of text and gesture, developing as those venerable buildings did over many centuries,” write the 2024 signatories. “Not everyone appreciates its value and that is fine; but to destroy it seems an unnecessary and insensitive act in a world where history can all too easily slip away forgotten.”

The 48 signatories are from the worlds of culture, academia and politics and include Catholics, Protestants, Jews, agnostics and atheists. Alongside MacMillan are magazine publisher Sir Nicholas Coleridge, pianist Dame Imogen Cooper, former cabinet minister Michael Gove, historian Tom Holland, human-rights campaigner Bianca Jagger, musical composer Andrew Lloyd-Webber, Princess Michael of Kent, soprano Dame Kiri Te Kanawa and journalist A.N. Wilson. It is an impressive list. 

The letter, like its 1971 predecessor, makes an argument from culture, rather than worship generally, or liturgical norms in particular. That nonbelievers signed the letter makes that clear.

In recent years, debates about the traditional Latin Mass have shifted from more specific liturgical matters to that of culture, namely that the TLM creates a certain culture of its own. There is a certain consensus about that. 

Proponents speak of the healthy TLM culture as an alternative to the dominant secular and debauched culture, a secure, confident place in which evangelical energies can be nourished and from which they can be launched. Detractors speak of a narrow subculture, closed in on itself and incubating various regrettable tendencies. 

Damian Thompson — a prominent London journalist and former editor of the Catholic Herald — wrote recently about whether “Pope Francis will kill the Latin Mass.” Thompson is a defender of the traditional Latin Mass and a fierce critic of Pope Francis. 

“How can Rome possibly justify such cruelty?” asks Thompson. 

“One argument used by Francis and his anti-traditionalist circle is that TLM adherents, especially in America, behave like a spiritually superior elite. And there’s some truth in this,” he writes. “The more fervent ‘trads’ have adopted a form of fancy dress: the men wear beards and smoke pipes; their wives dress in conspicuously modest long skirts. They sometimes slip into patronising language that has alienated Catholics who would otherwise be well disposed towards them.”

Thompson thinks that those who wish to restrict the TLM are not so fussed about the Mass itself but precisely the culture it creates. There is some legitimacy in that view. 

When Pope Francis restricted the TLM in 2021, he wrote an accompanying letter to bishops. It is clear that the Holy Father was worried about a certain negative culture developing:

 “An opportunity offered by St. John Paul II and, with even greater magnanimity, by Benedict XVI, intended to recover the unity of an ecclesial body with diverse liturgical sensibilities, was exploited to widen the gaps, reinforce the divergences, and encourage disagreements that injure the Church, block her path, and expose her to the peril of division.”

Instead of the traditional Latin Mass being a place of cultural renewal, such a view holds that the TLM has become a disruptive subculture in the life of the Church. Making a cultural argument in defense of the TLM may thus not be optimal; there may be agreement that it creates its own culture, but disagreement on whether that culture is benign or malign.

The 2024 MacMillan letter is making a rather different cultural argument though. It proposes that, over centuries, like the grand cathedrals that are planted abundantly in England’s green and pleasant land, the traditional Latin Mass is a repository of wisdom, a vessel for ideals and an expression of noble aspiration. It’s an argument deeply resonant with a certain English temperament. 

It might not be viewed in the same way from Rome — or from the New World. The “cathedral” image that the letter employs also invites the observation that English religious culture has a certain genius from maintaining the form after the faith is gone, the style without the substance. 

The great cathedrals of Ely and Canterbury are monuments to the best of English culture, but now are given over to profane raves. The beauty of the external form does not mean an interior integrity. To a certain mindset, fully aware of the doctrinal and moral confusion of the Anglican communion, an argument about English cultural monuments may not resonate positively at all. All the more so when agnostics and atheists are arguing for those monuments.

Indeed, the grandest of the English Catholics who adorned English culture — John Henry Newman, Ronald Knox, G.K. Chesterton — were willing to choose against the formal grandeur of Anglican architecture, ritual and music in favor of the Catholic faith. 

Adherents of the traditional Latin Mass would reply that they are the custodians of the authentic tradition of Catholic orthodoxy. They wish to live the faith integrally within the “cathedral of text and gesture” of the TLM. It’s no doubt a sincere argument for a culture animated by faith. Given the prestige of those making it, notice will be taken. 

But the cultural argument, which apparently won the day with Pope St. Paul VI, may be used against the traditional Latin Mass today.