Musings on the Church Irreplaceable, From Councils to Saints

BOOK PICK: Subversive Catholicism

(photo: Cropped book cover)


Papacy, Liturgy, Church 

By Martin Mosebach  

Angelico Press, 2019

164 pages, $16.95

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There is danger in reading Martin Mosebach’s Subversive Catholicism. Readers will find themselves thinking critically about things they have long accepted as settled. And that can be unsettling.

Catholics of an orthodox bent will revel in his words. Those further to the left will be alarmed and may call Mosebach a reactionary. But among the great mass of Catholics who do not think in terms of “sides” or labels, Subversive Catholicism has the potential to cause a revolution. It is a chance to consider who we are as Catholics and what could be lost when we neglect what got us here more than 2,000 years after the death and resurrection of Our Lord.

The book, originally printed in German in 2012 and just published this year in English, is a series of essays covering the papacy, liturgy and the place of Christians in the world.

The theme that runs throughout this gem of a book is that any attempt to improve the solidity of tradition is a fool’s mission when it comes to the Church.

“The Church is not some political party, which can throw ideological ballast overboard when it is no longer opportune for the preservation of its power,” Mosebach writes in the essay called “He Is, After All, Only the Pope.”

“Her goal is universalism,” he adds, “but not at the price of her obligation to the truth. If this truth is no longer acceptable to the majority, more the pity for that majority.”

Mosebach’s most pointed attacks are on the changes to liturgy that came about as a result of Vatican II and the revision of the missal under Pope St. Paul VI, which sacrificed a strong worship of God to put an emphasis on “entertaining” the parish community.

The idea behind this was to make the Mass more pastoral in order to stop the loss of people from the pews who no longer found the old Tridentine Mass relevant.

Yet Mosebach concludes that this pastoral reform has driven more people out than it attracted.

Vatican II was the first time in the history of the Church that a council’s reason for being was not the “re-establishing of discipline, the revitalizing of some Church order that had fallen into decay,” as he writes in the essay “By Their Fruits You Shall Know Them.”

But none of this, Mosebach believes, benefited the Church. Reforms of the past — from Cluny to the Council of Trent — “were a tightening of the reins, a return to a more radical religious practice and a restoration of a spiritual discipline that had been lost.”

Such reforms were accomplished not just in the sense of performance of a rite but in the very act of handing on the faith through the generations.

“Anyone attending the [old] Mass knew that he was witnessing the presence of Christ,” Mosebach writes. “Given the way the Mass is celebrated today, such handing-on of the faith cannot be guaranteed.”

Mosebach notes that there is a human tendency to push back against those things that feel like burdens by watering down rules, no matter how ancient and wise. There is a tendency to forget what seems out of step is what brought the Church to its global glory.

In the essay “The Old Missal: Between Loss and Recovery,” Mosebach makes the case that we have likely forgotten what the liturgy had achieved before what he considers the so-called reform.

He reminds us that Christianity came out of Asia Minor and in a relatively short time spread across the world, toppling cultures centuries old.

“It finally triumphed in the pagan Imperium,” Mosebach writes, “yet survived the latter’s downfall and won pagan peoples of the north for itself. It became the instrument of missionary success that was without parallel in the history of the world.”

His most charming and gentle essay is called “Lourdes: A Magical Place and the Pilgrims.” It is clear that Mosebach loves St. Bernadette for her simplicity and the way she challenged both the state and the Church from a position of purity and poverty. He describes beautifully the processions of pilgrims seeking healings at the famed grotto, where Mary appeared to the simple village girl.

He also makes a wonderful comparison with another great French saint, Joan of Arc.

“Both girls defended their message in the face of crushing intellectual and social superiority,” Mosebach writes, “both were subjected to interrogations and inquiries and remained simple and steadfast throughout. While Joan fought against the external enemies of France, Bernadette’s message applied to the internal enemies of the Church.”

Mosebach’s message is, in the end, to understand that the best of the Church is irreplaceable, whether it would be the lessons of two simple French peasant girls whose faith was severely tested or a liturgy that sustained us for centuries that is now in danger of being tragically lost to modernity.

Charles Lewis writes from Toronto.