Sunday, October 25, 2015

H.L. Mencken on the Traditional Mass

The two greatest American skeptics of a century or so ago--Mark Twain and H.L. Mencken--are famous for their anti-religious, anti-Christian and anti-Catholic posturing. Yet, in their I think sincere quest for righteousness and truth they were occasionally more reverent and spot on about religious things than many a faithful Catholic.

Twain penned one of the greatest biographies of Saint Joan of Arc. It has long been a feature of Catholic book clubs, and the otherwise cynical Twain counted it as his most important work.

Mencken defended the Traditional Mass.

I love Mencken. I own ten or so of his books, which is only about 3.5% (or whatever) of his output. Like Chesterton he was a journalist who wrote 10,000 words a day--most of them after three steins of beer and at least ten sausages.  When I am stranded on a desert island, I will finally read all of the Mencken and Chesterton that I own (if they wash up with me on shore). Or perhaps I will read them in Heaven.

Ignore Mencken's opinions on Nietzsche. He was wrong there. (It's a German thing and we're not supposed to understand.) And also ignore many of his wrong opinions on Christianity in general. But here he is on the Mass (from The Smart Set, 1923):
The Latin Church, which I constantly find myself admiring [!], despite its occasional astounding imbecilities [Ha!], has always kept clearly before it the fact that religion is not a syllogism, but a poem. It is accused by Protestant dervishes of withholding the Bible from the people. To some extent this is true; to some extent the church is wise; again to the same extent it is prosperous... 
Rome indeed has not only preserved the original poetry of Christianity; it has also made capital additions to that poetry -- for example, the poetry of the saints, of Mary, and of the liturgy itself. A solemn high mass is a thousand times as impressive, to a man with any genuine religious sense in him, as the most powerful sermon ever roared under the big top by Presbyterian auctioneer of God. In the face of such overwhelming beauty it is not necessary to belabor the faithful with logic; they are better convinced by letting them alone. 
Preaching is not an essential part of the Latin ceremonial. It was very little employed in the early church, and I am convinced that good effects would flow from abandoning it today, or, at all events, reducing it to a few sentences, more or less formal. In the United States the Latin brethren have been seduced by the example of the Protestants, who commonly transform an act of worship into a puerile intellectual exercise; instead of approaching God in fear and wonder these Protestants settle back in their pews, cross their legs, and listen to an ignoramus try to prove that he is a better theologian than the Pope. 
This folly the Romans now slide into. Their clergy begin to grow argumentative, doctrinaire, ridiculous. It is a pity. A bishop in his robes, playing his part in the solemn ceremonial of the mass, is a dignified spectacle; the same bishop, bawling against Darwin half an hour later, is seen to be simply an elderly Irishman with a bald head, the son of a respectable police sergeant in South Bend, Ind. Let the reverend fathers go back to Bach. If they keep on spoiling poetry and spouting ideas, the day will come when some extra-bombastic deacon will astound humanity and insult God by proposing to translate the liturgy into American, that all the faithful may be convinced by it.
I don't agree completely with the tenor of this. Catholicism has always been a religion of reason (though, Mencken would probably laugh at that) and it is a slander to say that it has withheld the Bible from the people. As well, of course, we should all bawl against Darwin.

But he gets much of it right. We go to the Altar of God to worship Him in awe, not to sell Him as a self-help scheme or, equally bad, pitch Him as a dippy hippy who likes to niggle us about sharing.

The creators of the New Mass designed a liturgy that was less than a puerile intellectual exercise. The New Mass is merely puerile, as childish as a camp meeting led by Mencken's caricature of a minister with sweaty shirtsleeves--but frumpier and not as charismatic.

If anything, it is the Modern Church that wants to keep the Bible from us, just as it wants to keep Christ from us.

Cupichism: the haunting fear that someone somewhere may be celebrating the Traditional Mass.


  1. Fantastic post, Oakes! That a skeptic like Mencken foresaw and bemoaned our modernist disaster ("translate the liturgy into American" indeed) is very sobering.

  2. Cupichism. Good one.
    I defined Seagullism. Reading Francis through Jonathon Livingston Seagull.

  3. Mencken - of all people! - did seem to grasp the reality that Joseph Shaw of the Latin Mass Society (UK) has been pounding over the last couple of years: the Traditional Roman Rite communicates chiefly through nonverbal means. This is in contrast to the Pauline Missal, which fundamentally aims to communicate entirely through the verbal.

  4. excellent, yes, yes and right on. Thank you.

  5. Mencken! I be just as interested in what Goebbels thought of the Mass. Mencken did as much to ruin this country as anyone, right up there with Obama. He's the patron demon of today's journalism, instiller of contempt for the "booboisie," that is, the hard working, Church-going ( Mass attending) middle class of his generation, and very, very likely the instrumental cause in the hands of his demonic overlord for the loss of very, very many souls. To hell with Mencken and all his thoughts, and all his writings and all his effects.