The Latin Mass in the Zero Sum Church

How fear of decline can push institutions and societies from decadence toward crisis.

I published two essays about the Roman Catholic Church in the last few weeks: One an adaptation of the talk I gave at the University of Dallas linking American debates about Catholic political theory to the harsh facts of American Catholic decline, the other an analysis of Pope Francis’s long-awaited, still-unexpectedly-sweeping move against the Tridentine Mass. In this post I want to use a passage from the first essay to illuminate the argument in the second one, and talk briefly about what the trajectory of Catholic decadence might tell us about decadence in the Western world writ large.

Here’s the passage, which is specifically about the tendency of arguments about a “post-liberal” Catholic politics to turn into a festival of anathemas:

Ideally, conditions of Catholic decline would forge greater solidarity among the Catholics who remain. But quite often the opposite happens: The fact of decline makes the stakes of debate seem desperately high. Diminishing institutional spoils are fought over more fiercely. A sense of crisis magnifies differences that in a time of optimism and plenty might be debated in an irenic and fraternal spirit. And this, of course, only makes the decline more likely to accelerate, because people outside the Church, and the marginally attached, look to whether the most fervent Catholics act like Christians, and instead see ­fratricide—or its Twitter equivalent.

Obviously this rule applies well beyond intellectual debate — and I think it definitely applies to the dynamics that have given us Pope Francis’s attempted abrogation of the old Mass, which is intended to provide for a slow-motion suffocation of communities connected to the old rite. (Whether it will is, of course, another question.)

From an institutional perspective the move arguably appears perverse: Here you have a Western church conspicuously lacking in public zeal, religious vocations, large families, liturgical seriousness … and yet the leaders of the church have decided to act punitively against a small minority that, whatever its highly-debated growth rate, clearly is a locus for intense forms of piety and practice. It’s as if a major auto manufacturer whose big brands were all struggling decided to kill off one of its few profitable lines of cars, because it only turned a profit in a niche market and wasn’t big enough to subsidize the whole. A strange decision …

… but under the psychological conditions created by decline also an understandable one. In a general corporate climate of diminishment and disappointment a small form of success invites resentment: If the small brand isn’t capable of subsidizing the whole, then why are its engineers and salesman wasting their talents on its niche market, when they should be contributing to saving the larger company? Shouldn’t they be expected to chip in where the need is greatest, in the main brands — by analogy, big, empty diocesan seminaries and struggling Novus Ordo parishes and schools — instead of concentrating their talents serving a more intense but (it’s assumed) self-limited market?

And more than that — if you believe that the big brand can only survive if it makes a pretty radical transition, perhaps even to making a completely different kind of car, then the small profits of the niche line are just helping feed a climate of denial about what needs to happen, and encouraging resistance toward the revolution that will (it’s imagined) save the company from its otherwise-certain obsolescence and collapse.

Then of course the zero sum thinking, the mood of crisis-driven mistrust, runs in both directions. The contrast between the niche’s success and the institution’s larger failures makes the engineers of the niche brand more confident in their own correctness, more apt to criticize the people in charge of the larger company, more inclined to regard the corporation’s broad policies as disastrous rather than just mistaken — which in turn gives the corporate hierarchy another reason to regard their success as a danger rather than an opportunity.

They can read the company Slack channel, after all, just as people in the Vatican can scan traditionalist Twitter and YouTube, and the way the niche brand’s engineers talk about the company’s larger mission sounds so hostile and disloyal, so damaging to the corporate leadership’s own authority and the wider company’s morale, that the case for simply shutting them down and dispersing their talents to other divisions seems that much stronger … and if a few of them go join the boutique firm that also caters to their niche market, well, no great loss. (I’ve pushed this analogy far enough that I’m picturing a new sedan called Gaudium et Spes, so best to stop there, I think.)

At the height of an earlier Francis-era peak of controversy, over communion for the divorced and remarried, I wrote a post called Catholicism For the Time Being, that was among other things a partial defense of the uneasy coexistence of different forms of Catholicism, despite their theological and liturgical differences, under the formally-conservative pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

There is a parallel between that argument and the chapter in The Decadent Society where I try to give decadence its due. In both cases the point is that there is still grace to be found living in a time of stagnation and self-contradiction and diminished optimism, and that there are real dangers in policies that try to accelerate things toward a resolution of the tensions, since that resolution might also be a disaster, a great smash.

For the last decade the Francis pontificate has moved back and forth between accelerationism and stalemate, between attempts to bring up Catholicism’s divisive arguments and deep contradictions up to the surface and decisions that seem to deliberately submerge them once again. My own writing in this era has reflected this up-and-down, back-and-forth movement: In To Change the Church I emphasized the possibility that Francis was driving the church toward schism; in The Decadent Society, where the book touched on religion and Catholicism, I emphasized the eternal return to 1975, the way that even for a destabilizing pontiff the stalemates and gridlock of the post-Vatican II era have tended to reassert themselves.

But looking at developments in the last couple of years — the push (clearly driven by fears of decline and dissolution) by the liberal/German wing of the church for more doctrinal change than Francis can or wants to give, and now the similarly fear-driven crackdown on the TLM — you can see how the dynamics of decline cut against the dynamics of stalemate, pushing a decadent system toward a crisis. The eternal return to 1975 can’t actually go on eternally amid conditions of diminishment: Instead with each repetition the underlying institutional weaknesses become more important, the returns to stalemate becomes less acceptable, and the competing factions become less inclined to play the long game and more inclined to take truly reckless steps.

Any sustainable decadence depends, by definition, on sustainability: A sense among the factions living with the stalemate that while they may not like each other, there will be enough to go around. Thus in Catholicism the muddling-through of the JPII era depended — for liberals who kept their heads down and stuck with the church as much as for conservatives who accepted the very partial restoration of authority — on the sense that things had somewhat stabilized after the shocks of the 1960s, that the condition of the faith was difficult but not exactly dire, and that every group had reasons to be patient, to live with one another and see what happened next. Whereas the pressures of the Francis era increasingly reflect a fear that stability is gone, that the bill is coming due, the money and numbers are drying up, and the only question is which faction will be left standing at the end. Intellectually this feeling can be a spur to creativity — the post-liberal arguments I try to limn in the First Things essay are definitely creative — but institutionally it’s how you end up with crises, breakage, schism.

In the specific case of traditionalism, it was that sense of relative stability that helped pave the way for the Latin Mass’s return from its 1970s exile, for the permissions issued by first by John Paul and then more sweepingly by Benedict. And then it’s the subsequent weakening of both conservative and liberal Catholicism — the former pushing more right-wing Catholics tradward, the latter making tradness appear more of a threat to a necessary acceleration of the Vatican II revolution — that’s given us the sharpened conflicts between traditionalism and Pope Francis, and now the attempt at outright suppression.

Of course the church is still vast, it still has money and manpower, there are whole Catholic worlds outside the polarized Western debates, and — as we all know — the faith held together by supernatural as well as normal forces. But the feeling of scarcity still matters — that sense of dwindling resources, not enough parishioners to keep the churches open, not enough money, not enough vocations, not enough to share. That feeling has strengthened since 2010, it’s likely to strengthen further by 2030 — and with it, the stresses and zero-sum assumptions that can turn a decadent phase into something more destabilizing, more dissolving, more overtly dire.

Meanwhile this idea of scarcity and its terrors has applications for the potential crack-up of secular forms of decadence as well. One sort of scarcity undergirds Peter Turchin’s cyclical theory of civilizational crises, which has various weak spots but predicted our recent turbulence quite well: The idea of overproduction of elites, in which what gets scarce are positions of power or influence, with too many talented or credentialed people chasing too few positions in the ruling class, so that there isn’t enough to go around becomes the prevailing mood and suddenly every fight is zero sum.

Another sort of scarcity haunts our economic debates, in which growth has persistently disappointed but Western governments have been able to create more wealth with fiscal and monetary policy; it’s why real inflation, the end of that power to simply make abundance happen, would probably be a bigger threat to sustainable decadence than financial crises and the Covid shocks have been.

And of course the anxieties around climate change reflect a fear of ultimate scarcity, of an Earth where uninhabitable zones expand and human spaces contract, where not enough to go around applies not just to jobs at law firms or dollars for 401(k) savings but to our crops, our water, the basic stuff of life.

Of late Roman Catholicism seems to be entering into a period of dangerous diminishment at greater speed than our secular ex-Christendom — even if, having the loaves and fishes reading in last Sunday’s gospel, we know that God is not bound by the usual laws of scarcity.

But the point applies generally: For all that rising expectations can famously lead to revolution, it’s when the course runs the other way, with a society accustomed to stability meeting a future of scarcity and disappointment and decline, that the gods of the copybook heading are most likely to fearfully return.