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The Story of My Dissent

Originally posted at Talk to Action

This is the story of how and why I spoke out during a recent church service. When I arrived at Saturday evening mass with my family, I had no idea of the drama that my priest was about to stage — and my own unscripted role. While my outburst may have taken everyone, including me, by surprise, I was and I am faithfully dissenting from what my pastor, Father Michael Louis Gelfant, seems to want to do to my parish, my country and my faith.

His Saturday evening sermon of February 19, 2011 was an effort to introduce the forthcoming but already controversial, revised missal (a liturgical book containing all instructions and texts necessary for the celebration of Mass throughout the year.) Unfortunately, he sidestepped its much-discussed shortcomings and the heavy-handed way in which it is being imposed upon the English-speaking Church. That alone was disappointing, but he also used the pulpit to disparage Vatican II, American Catholics, and to wage culture war. And that is why I needed to speak out.

My parish, St. Finbar’s in Bath Beach, Brooklyn had always been a beacon of tolerance and progressive Catholicism. There, we heard sermons about living good, reasonable lives, economic and social justice and the lessons of the likes of Dorothy Day. Except for the occasional visiting priest, we were never subjected to Catholic Right culture war sermons. Our late pastor Father James Mueller, a Vatican II, aggiornamento-minded priest once complained to me about the young, conservative priests who would rather rush to the front lines of the culture wars than to the duties of a parish priest such as counseling parishioners in trouble or visiting the sick and dying.

After our new pastor’s sermon on February 19, 2011, I was left to wonder if he is the kind of priest Father Mueller was concerned about. Father Gelfant used a reading of 1 Corinthians 3 as the point of departure for his sermon. The key phrase for him was “For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God’s sight.” He then proceeded to use these words to attack the legacy of Vatican II, the current (non-Latin) Mass, and American Catholicism in general.

But before we discuss the reading and the related sermon which helps to explain my dissent, I want to report that I have learned a little more about Father Gelfant that helped me understand why his sermon may have taken the tone it did. During a visit to his Facebook page I learned that his “likes” include Fox News, the “Notre Dame Scandal” (the protest against the University’s invitation to president Obama to speak at commencement) and Tea Party Patriots.

The Tea Party Patriots! This group is about as far outside of any branch of Catholicism as can be. For example, this outfit featured as a speaker at its recent policy summit , the executive director of the Ayn Rand Institute Yaron Brook. Ayn Rand was, of course, a 20th century libertarian atheist philosopher, who railed against the Christian ethic of altruism, found religious faith incompatible with reason and disregarded prohibitions against monogamous marriage. Rand’s views are influential within the Tea Party movement.

Unsurprisingly, Tea Party Patriots organization is doing the dirty work for the infamous Koch Brothers, Charles and David, who are best known today as the major funders of the Tea Party movement.

Let’s briefly consider why a Catholic might raise an eyebrow about the Koch connection. They have employed a plethora of falsehoods in opposing universal health care legislation. Koch Industries was named one of the top ten air polluters in the United States by the University of Massachusetts at Amherst’s Political Economy Research Institute. The Koch brothers are fiercely anti-union and want to pull the social safety net out from under our most vulnerable brother and sister Americans.

Beyond that, the brothers Koch underwrite such organizations as the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty and the Ethics and Public Policy Center that seek to strip the Christian Social Gospel and Social Justice traditions out of both Catholicism and mainstream Protestant denominations. These reactionary projects cut deeply against the grain of one hundred and twenty years of Catholic teaching that began with Rerum Novarum.

Perhaps he was unaware of these facts. Many people are. Or perhaps he is nostalgic for more authoritarian times. Or both. But of course, I didn’t know about his surprising political tastes when I protested out loud during the service.

Father Gelfant took the time in his sermon to complain to us about how the altar and tabernacle were moved to the front from the back in the old Latin Mass. In those days, the priest would say Mass with his back to the congregation and do so in a language Jesus most likely rarely used (being a Jew, He spoke with His fellow Jews in either Hebrew or Aramaic and with non-Jews in Koine Greek the lingua-franca of the Roman Empire). Father Gelfant then critiqued the these key changes of Vatican II in terms of St. Paul’s teaching that “the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God’s sight.” That struck me as an odd approach.

Mass is a remembrance of the Last Supper. Just as Jesus shared His last meal before crucifixion with His friends, Communion is also a meal with friends. Bringing the altar closer to the congregation was intended as recognition of that remembrance. (I have seen many paintings of the Last Supper and I have yet to see one where Jesus had His back to the twelve.) I couldn’t help but wonder if Father Gelfant would invite his friends and family to a celebratory meal and turn his back on them. In fairness, he has probably never thought of it that way, and may just be such a fan of the aesthetics of the Latin rite mass, that he has not fully considered the implications.

But then he spoke of his biretta, the square black cap priests sometimes wear at the beginning and conclusion of the Mass. Its use is optional since Vatican II, but I was left with the impression that he uses it as a statement that he is above us, not of us.

But it was when he began to tell us about and praise the new missal, with all its awkward literal translations (discussed below) that I became angry. He then announced that a Latin Mass was coming back — to St. Finbar’s, I presume. But he didn’t say for sure.

The Latin Mass is a trademark cause for the Catholic Right. It is emblematic of their desire to establish a dissent-free, top-down system of authority. And its reemergence should be the fire-bell in the night warning that the reasonable reforms of Vatican II are being rolled back. The new missal with its literal Latin translations appears to be a first step to restore the old Latin Mass.

That is when I said “no!” and “I dissent!”

His response to my outburst was that “American Catholics think they own the Church.” (I checked with several people to make sure I had heard him correctly. I had.) His rebuke of the faithful who have raised concerns over the new missal was as shocking as it was unmistakable.

It is not my practice to interrupt a speaker in church or anywhere else. But that is when and why I spoke up. Father Gelfant’s words portend a more angry, strident Church; one where Catholics like me are not wanted. And it appears that my own parish priest is among those who want such a church. I hope I am wrong about that.

Father Gelfant’s sneer not withstanding, American Catholics are not alone in their reservations. A large group of Irish priests, for example, wants a five-year moratorium on its implementation, calling it “archaic.”

Representatives from the priests’ group said the proposed literal translations from Latin had produced texts that were “archaic, elitist and obscure and not in keeping with the natural rhythm, cadence and syntax of the English language.”

What are the Irish clergy talking about? Well, one example is that the prayer “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you” becomes “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof.” As any student of translation knows, idiomatic expressions can be clumsy things.

They also stated:

“We are passionately concerned about the quality of our liturgical celebration and about the quality of the language that will be used in the way we worship Sunday after Sunday,” he said. “If this goes ahead, instead of drawing people into the liturgy, it will in fact draw people out from the liturgy.”

What’s more, the Vatican’s imposition of the awkward new translation has been so heavy-handed that Father Anthony Ruff, until recently chairman on the International Commission on English in the Liturgy which was responsible for the fresh translation of the missal, dropped his support for the project. In a letter to the Jesuit journal America Father Ruff wrote:

The forthcoming missal is but a part of a larger pattern of top-down impositions by a central authority that does not consider itself accountable to the larger church. When I think of how secretive the translation process was, how little consultation was done with priests or laity, how the Holy See allowed a small group to hijack the translation at the final stage, how unsatisfactory the final text is, how this text was imposed on national conferences of bishops in violation of their legitimate episcopal authority, how much deception and mischief have marked this process-and then when I think of Our Lord’s teachings on service and love and unity… I weep.

Objections also come from Great Britain (“Whoever did this work seems to lack a sufficient understanding of our grammar.”); Australia and other parts of the English-speaking world.

That’s why I found Father Gelfant’s comment “American Catholics think they own the Church” at once so illuminating and outrageous. In a single sentence it suggested a deep disdain for transparency and accountability in the Church. It even suggested disrespect for the faithful.

Father Gelfant was also indirectly raising other simmering issues between American Catholics and the hierarchy on everything from ordination of women to artificial birth control to stem cell research. Those of us who hold views that differ from the hierarchy don’t think we should be stigmatized. To the contrary, to loyally question long unchallenged dogmas are part of the traditions of Aquinas, Peter Abelard and Jesus Himself. As Pope John XXIII declared, the Church is on a journey to better understand the Gospels. What Good Pope John understood is that is that while God is immutable, our understanding of Him is not. To accept that notion is not heresy but humility.

But to me, the use of tradition as a tool of authoritarian control is not humility before God. When Father Gelfant derided American Catholics, what I heard him saying between the lines was that he doesn’t like it that we don’t simply “pay, pray and obey.”

Such attitudes seem to be on the rise as many of Father Gelfant’s fellow traditionalists are quite clear in their desire for a smaller, leaner Church, purged free of dissenters. One prominent Opus Dei priest, Rev. John McCloskey has gone so far as to say in his ideal future American Catholic Church: “Dissent has disappeared from the theological vocabulary.” The Church, he says, would be reduced from sixty million members to forty million. And he speaks approvingly of secession that would tear asunder these United States. All this, in the name of advancing a reactionary brand of Catholicism.

Young people have stayed away from the Church in droves since the Church issued Humanae Vitae, its 1968 restatement in opposition to artificial birth control. The Church has also gotten leaner due to the way the Church has dealt with the scandal of pedophile priests. I expect that an hour long Mass in a dead foreign language certainly can’t hurt McCloskey’s membership reduction program.

And so we come full circle to St. Paul’s lesson about “the wisdom of this world.” In order to get the full meaning of his words, we need to go to verses 21-23 which read: “So let no one boast about human beings, for everything belongs to you, Paul or Apollos or Cephas, or the world or life or death, or the present or the future: all belong to you, and you to Christ, and Christ to God.”

It is the people together with the clergy that comprises the Church. It is not Latin nor birettas nor the priest who turns his back to the congregants that is the Church. It is certainly not a clergy that colludes with nefarious men who would deny workers their wages, pollute the environment and crusade against better access to health care for all people. What is truly foolish in God’s sight is elevating archaic rituals over the needs of His people.


18 Responses

  1. It’s not the lay Catholics who mistakenly think they own the church, Frank – but some priests and bishops who forget the origins of the priesthood:(as service to the faithful), and who is paying for their livelihoods.

    Canon law makes clear that we have not only the right, but an obligation to make our views known to our pastors when we disagree with their actions.

    Your priest needs to be reminded of that obligation.

    • Rick, I respectfully beg to differ. Reread the piece; this is beyond the sole issue of missal translation.

      In his sermon Father Gelfant derided the changes of Vatican II as “foolishness in God’s sight.” He has already started making physical designs in the actual Church that clearly signal that he wants to take this parish in a pre-Vatican II direction. Beyond that, he spoke about moving the alter back to the old day while speaking not-so-cryptically of bring the Latin Mass back to the parish.

      Why is this disturbing? Simply because he s apparently making these changes without asking the parishioners.

      If that isn’t emblematic of a top-down, “pay, pray and obey” attitude, then I don’t know what is.

  2. All these strange fears about the little changes in the English translation of the Roman Rite seem to me the biggest tempest in a teapot imaginable. For God’s sake, “…and with your spirit” is used by the Episcopalians’ Rite I.

    I am perfectly happy with the Mass of Paul VI, and I am perfectly comfortable if some few priests would like to revive the older Latin mass. I don’t know what’s particularly “liberal” about fearing it. I happen to love Latin. It’s nobody’s enemy.

    Yes there are priests who are tactless and can’t seem to keep their partisanship out of their role as priests. It’s not a failing unique to any one point of view. They are human. I don’t know that shouting back really does a lot to forstall the nasty, angry church you’re so concerned about.

  3. I am glad you stood up and objected. I am deeply troubled by these very issues you raise. Pope John Paul II did much to undo Vatican II in an attempt to recreate the medieval hierarchy in the church and Pope Benedict is following in his mentor’s footsteps. Now that the Curia has been packed with rightwing conservative Cardinals and the Bishops have been brought into line there is clearly a danger of man’s interference in the winds of change that brought Roman Catholicism into the, well, 19th century.

    If you go to the Fish Eaters website you can read for days about the plans of the rightwing conservative orthodox (whatever they choose to call themselves today). They range from the sedevacantists, who argue that there has not been a legitinate pope since Paul VI and who call Mother Teresa and the last 3 popes heretics to the Tridentine mass advocates. They want so badly to return to a past where Father was never questioned and the laity are quiet sheep who follow in superstition and fear.

    I fear myself that a great schism is brewing as seems to be happening in the secular world. The orthodox/conservative/traditionalists are no longer content to exist by our side — they must eliminate us and their rhetoric is ugly and unChristian.

    May God have mercy on us all this Lenten season and lead us to follow His will in all things for the sake of His son Jesus Christ. Amen.

    • ‘ Pope John Paul II did much to undo Vatican II’

      So many people say this, and yet, time after time, I ask, “Can you please point to one sentence, one phrase, one directive, from all the voluminous documents of Vatican II, which JP2 ‘undid’?” I have never yet gotten an answer.

      It’s like the use of the Latin language. Vatican II’s pronouncement on the liturgy plainly contemplated the continued extensive use of Latin in Sunday mass. It’s there in black and white. Now, I have no problem with the subsequent decision to displace the Latin with the vernacular. But to go on and on about how some modest and occasional permission for Latin masses somehow is a revolution against Vatican II strikes me as very strange. I can only conclude that Vatican II has attained Mark Twain’s definition of a classic: something everyone praises and nobody reads.

  4. You must have way too much time on your hands to worry about talking to someone invisible; get out of religion now and save yourselves time, energy and trouble.
    Arguing over who has the only accurate translation of nonsense? The true definition of trivial pursuit.
    You and the Popes deserve each other.

  5. *sigh*, how I long for a Church that isn’t being torn to shreds by each of our pet causes.

  6. Mass is a remembrance of the Last Supper. Just as Jesus shared His last meal before crucifixion with His friends, Communion is also a meal with friends.


    This is the definition of Mass that both the Catholic and Orthodox Churches have always confessed. The Orthodox believe in the same truths, but word them differently.

    The Mass is the unbloody representation of Christ’s atoning sacrifice at Calvary. Mass is the same as Calvary. The only difference is in the manner of sacrifice. The Mass is also the mystery of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ (the Paschal Mystery.)

    At Mass, the priest, in the place of Christ, offers the Son to the Father. This sacrifice achieves for us the following:

    *propitation (God’s just anger at our sins is appeased through the sacrifice of his Son)

    *remission of sins

    *a means of grace for the living

    *relief for the souls in Purgatory

    *the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Jesus Christ perpetually present in the Eucharist.

    The Mass is NOT:

    * A community meal

    * A feeling, sharing, or purely emotional event

    * Memorial or remembrance of a historical event

    * An action that the laity perform with the same authority as the priest. The priest offers the Sacrifice. We join him in prayer and receive the benefits of the sacrifice.

    If you do not believe in the orthodox definition of the Mass, then why are you a Catholic?

    • So, only the orthodox are faithful.

      Ask yourself, were Peter Abelard, Galileo, Aquinas or even Jesus considered orthodox by their co-religionists? Hardly. In fact, they were all branded as heretics.

      If all the attempts to modernize the Church had been unheeded, dissenters would still be being burned at the stake.

      • The teachings I outlined reached their final definition at Trent. However, the orthodox teaching of the Eucharist has been with us from the earliest Church fathers of both the East and West.

        Your description of the Eucharist (memorialism, perhaps spiritual communion) dates only from the 16th century. Those doctrines are part of the Protestant Reformation.

        Why not become a Protestant and live your doctrinal convictions with integrity? You have the right to exercise your conscience and belong to a Christian community that teaches what you believe. Catholicism and Orthodoxy do not teach what you believe.

        Also — orthodox Catholicism has youth on its side. I’m in my early 30’s. My Extraordinary Form parish is packed with plenty of people my age — twenty and thirtysomething singles and couples. The young families often have four or more children. These are educated and articulate young professionals who know the faith and Mass well. My geographical parish is the “progressive” Church you idealize. It’s full of 60+ year old retirees and very few young adults and couples. The progressives sing hymns about flying eagles and nature imagery. We sing the Asperges and Lauda Sion.

        Young people can get bongos and drums at the local music store. They’re really thirsting for the true, unadulterated spiritual and liturgical milk — not Dr. Phil in a chasuble that you’re peddling. You tried to “build a new church”, and it just couldn’t compare to the true faith we’ve had all along.

        • Why not become a Protestant and live your doctrinal convictions with integrity? You have the right to exercise your conscience and belong to a Christian community that teaches what you believe. Catholicism and Orthodoxy do not teach what you believe.

          Hmmmm….Why do I almost always get this response from the traditionalist clique, especially from recent converts?

          I’m not trying to expel you. That exclusionary statement speaks volumes about your “ideal” Church. My family has been in the Church from the days of the Roman Empire.

          Sorry bub; I”m staying put to fight the good fight.

  7. For me, the tragedy of this blogpost is that it is not without genuine and pressing concerns, concerns that go obscured to persons like myself because I can’t recognize Catholicism in radical undergirding theologies.

    Thank God we are largely spared Tea Party antics in the Canadian Church. That’s why I appreciate blogs like Vox Nova which give a much needed leftist political perspective, while avoiding the radicalism that tends to characterize progressive discourse.

    What so many of the progressives seem to have failed to foresee was that if you rock the boat hard enough, there is no guarantee that not even you will fall out. This is what I think is happening to them today. Their revolution died with John Paul I, who so fittingly combined the names of his predecessors as if to say there is a new papacy and a new church with this Council, as if we have begun again.

    The daring and highly risky break for a “new Catholicism” created an instability, even a void that needed to be filled for the sake of the coherency of a religion based on history and divine revelation- antithetical to the idea of a “re-founding”-, a religion that had previously sustained itself by the adoration of its own antiquity. Perhaps thus was necessitated the authoritarianism of John Paul II, spectacularly wielding his charisma and stage talent to take on the image of a renewed and changed church “ready to march into the future” while all the meanwhile fortifying the camp, redrawing the lines, pouring in plaster to fill all the conciliar cracks. Fittingly, he becomes the next John Paul, this time the Second, as if to absorb and even wipe out the memory of the previous three men. Following him is the “hermeneutic of continuity” and the “real” liturgical renewal.

    Yes, progressives helped to throw over the venerable antiquity, mystery and deep multi-dimensionality of established Catholic ways, but clearly the clericalism, authoritarianism, smugness (and the resultant corruption) managed to stay in the boat, perceiving, now, a need to hold all the faster to the railing.

    In my opinion, this is the almost comedic tragedy of contemporary Catholicism’s dialectical movement.

    • Jordan, I am hardly a radical. All I want is a Church that fulfills John XXIII’s vision.

      If anyone is the radical it is Father Gelfant, If he and the traditionalists win, Catholicism will become even less relevant for young people.

  8. Jordan, why bother with any religion if you want to see something change in politics? Is it because it’s easier to get voter registration done if you have a place to collect voters, especially voters from favourable demographics? Or that you need the approval of institutions to gain respectability for things you want to see done?
    It seems to this atheist that you and the Fundies are pretty much mirror images of each other; even with your version of nationalist rhetoric; what would you think if I, an American said, “Well, my religious people are crazy, but at least we’re not as nuts as the Mexicans and their Santa Muerte!”

    • If you’re going to troll by attacking people of faith, why don’t you do it someplace else?

    • I don’t really care about politics. That’s not a conversation I typically have, though I observe it from afar. It just gets tedious for me when the religious right dominates that particular discussion and tries to foist its political views on the rest of the faithful.

  9. Fr. Gelfant sounds like the kind of priest that I want at my parish. I think he representative of the younger generation of priests and I look forward to having more of them join the ranks. Restoring orthodoxy may chase away those catholics who grew up in the 60’s, “kumbaya, give peace a chance” liberation theology as religion era. This is the reason that millions have abandoned the church. It is the reason why women out number men at mass, by 2 -3 to 1. It has been feminized and diluted to such an extent that there is no longer meat on the bones, so to speak. Young firebrand priests like Fr. Gelfant can help restore it. People are catching on. Young people, surprisingly.

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