I’m reading that great “classic” on modern Roman Catholic culture called “Why Catholics Can’t Sing : the culture of Catholicism and the triumph of bad taste” by Thomas Day. Published in 1990, it is a little dated now—but only in that it doesn’t cover the full story of the post-Vatican II decline in Catholic liturgical standards. The rise of Post-Modernism (only given slight attention by the author) has now brought to light a whole new bunch of semi-solutions and extra-problems.
I have been especially interested to read his comments about “clarity” and “understanding” in the liturgy (in light of Bishop Donald Trautman’s comments last month).
On page 110, Day says “it may take centuries to fix the wreckage” of the “shining [but naïve] ideals” contained in those “innocent words” in article 34 of Sacrosanctum Concilium:
“The rites should be distinguished by a noble simplicity; they should be short, clear, and unencumbered by useless repetitions; they should be within the people’s powers of comprehension, and normally should not require much explanation.”
This, of course, is Bishop’s Trautman’s main plank in his opposition to the new translation of the missal. But as Day points out, “in the real world, things are not necessarily appealing just because they are clear.”
- When ritual is watered down to the point of being comprehensible by “everybody”, they cease to be rituals and become sessions for dispensing information
- Repetitions can be fun, giving words just the right flourish to make them memorable (he points to Churchill’s “We shall fight them…” rhetorical patterns)
- Absolute clarity in language can be a futile quest
- Demands for instant clarity and comprehension destroy poetry
- Clarity can be confused with loudness: artificial electronic over amplification!
On the question of simplicity, Day cites Sir Alec Guinness (a convert to the faith in 1956) who wrote in 1985:
“I find the post-Conciliar Mass simpler and generally better than the Tridentine; but the banality and vulgarity of the translations which have ousted sonorous Latin and [a] little Greek are of supermarket quality which is quite unacceptable… [T]he general tone is rather like a BBC radio broadcast for tiny tots (so however will they learn to put away childish things?).”
I agree with Guinness. The new rite is simpler and, in this sense, better than the Tridentine. To this degree the post-Conciliar reforms have been successful. But the 1970’s ICEL translations never had enduring quality, and we eagerly await (like watchmen for the morning) the arrival of the new translation of the missal.
If you can get a hold of “Why Catholics can’t sing” you will find it an enjoyable and enlightening volume.