Law in Contemporary Society

-- By AllisonMcCarty - 16 Feb 2012

A few Sundays ago, I went to Mass, willingly, for the first time in about fifteen years. The circumstances that gave rise to this rare event are both remarkable and not. Jerome Frank pretty well summed it up: “When ‘primitive’ man loses his way, when he reaches an impasse, when he is terrified by uncertainty, or baffled or trapped, he turns to magic.” I’m no stranger to depression and anxiety, but the fact that I was lured out of my cave for the first time in a decade and a half to pay homage to a diseased and dying institution says something about the acuteness of my present condition.

I take issue with a lot of what the Catholic Church teaches, but I like the smell of incense and candle wax. I like stained glass windows and garish statues of the saints. Being in church reminds me of being a little kid, of a time when I felt possessed of more “certainty” and “repose” than I do now. There’s comfort in the predictability of Mass, in the rote recitation of what Frank terms “standardized spells.” As unsettling as I find a comparison to Triumph of the Will in the context of my own, albeit blighted, religious tradition, there is something powerful about just being in a group of people, doing something together. It was for these reasons, not in hope of divine revelation, that I decided to go.

I was startled to discover, not long into the service, that in my absence, the script had been changed. I vaguely remembered reading a news article about this sometime in the fall, and as I thought back to that and stood, tongue-tied, the spells I’d mastered no longer of any use, I became increasingly irritated. The article described how the Vatican had created a committee to re-translate the English Mass so as to be more faithful to the original Latin. The result, which sounded around me in stereo, was a clunky, confusing exercise in poetic dissonance. In the prayer before Communion, the priest used to say, “When supper ended, He took the cup.” Now he says, “In a similar way, when supper was ended, He took this precious chalice in His holy and venerable hands.” Before, the congregation was supposed to say, “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you.” Now we’re supposed to say, “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof.”

This to me is both laughable and infuriating, a prime example of both the utility and absurdity of transcendental nonsense. Here is the Church, beset by scandal, increasingly out of touch with the modern world. It’s lost its stronghold; the priesthood is rapidly going extinct and nobody wants to go to Mass anymore. So what’s the Vatican’s big solution? Adapt to the needs of the people it’s trying to reach? Rethink old guard policies that promote homophobia, gender discrimination, overpopulation of a suffocating planet, the perpetuation and concealment of child abuse? No, they give us roofs and chalices! Now there’s a proposition that everybody can get behind!

A theology student from Boston College was quoted in the article as saying he supported the changes, because breaking from the too-familiar language of the past would cause people to “really think” about what they are saying when they pray, or something to that effect. But it seems to me that the changes are intended to do just the opposite. The Church is pretending at innovation, playing with words in an attempt to distract people from their real concerns. I am reminded of Thurman Arnold’s discussion of Norman Thomas, the “decent” kind of Socialist, one who symbolized a different way of thinking without creating any practical change that would interfere with the status quo. Arnold’s friend likewise credited Thomas with making him “think.”

The notion that the new translation is somehow superior because it’s “truer” to the Latin strikes me as entirely misguided. “Absolute certainty,” Felix Cohen writes, “is as foreign to language as to life.” As he explains when discussing the “fruitless controversy” that has arisen over Oliver Wendell Holmes’ definition of law, the point isn’t whether a term or a text is “true” or “false,” it’s whether it’s useful or useless. It’s not what the words say; it’s what they do. This is where Mass 2.0 failed for me. I didn’t go there looking for the truth, because I’m not sure it exists, and even if it did, I don’t think the Catholic Church would know about it any more than I do. I didn’t go there for any new ideas. I went for the transcendental nonsense – the old transcendental nonsense, the magic “based on precedents,” as Frank calls it. I went with an awareness of the fact that it is nonsense, no better for studying, describing, or predicting spiritual than legal phenomena. I went, anticipating its practical value in creating feelings of safety and calm, conditions necessary for meditation. I went and I discovered that the spell had been broken and I didn’t speak the language any more. The old nonsense was gone and in its place was some new meta-nonsense, useless in all the same ways but useful in none.

Which is, of course, the same feeling that caused so much resentment after Vatican II, when the Latin Mass that had been used for centuries gave way suddenly to vernacular translations. You fall neatly into the generational cohort whose first experience of Catholic liturgy was not ancient, but rather aggressively modern. The effort to Latinize the current simple, realistic vernacular translations—which is as much headway against Vatican II as it is now possible to make, given the relative impossibility of global return to a liturgy in a dead language—now afflicts you with the same disorganizing consequences as the modernization visited on Catholics born before 1960.

The link forged in childhood between the precise ritual of repetitive experience and the emotions of safety, security, and well-being is central to the actual organizational coherence of churches, mosques, and synogogues. Writing about your own personal experience of these phenomena is helpful as a starting point. But the essay doesn't need the authority of law reviews, it needs the insight you can construct for yourself by thinking outward from your personal experience to the psychology and sociology of religious adherence. For that, Arnold is probably less important than you make him, and Frank—at least the Jerome Frank on display in _Courts on Trial_—has little really to do.


Webs Webs

r3 - 22 Jan 2013 - 20:10:11 - IanSullivan
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