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Of Good Taste and Things Beautiful

(Baseball, Beer and the Latin Mass)

Nate Metzger POSTED: 11/22/13

In a previous article, I argued briefly that, despite the common aesthetic problems of Novus Ordo worship-style, it was not in the best interest of traditionalists to focus on these deficiencies, but to instead focus on the problematic nature of the new prayers. Let me briefly say a bit more about this here.

I know a Catholic fellow who, while perfectly nice and polite, I can’t seem to understand. He is pleasant enough, to be sure. In fact, he is extremely generous and kind.

But he doesn’t drink alcohol and he doesn’t follow baseball. And for these reasons, I have a hard time relating to him.

Actually, he doesn’t follow any sports. Of course, as Catholics, we should be mostly concerned about his lack of interest in God’s favored sport. I fear—for I’m afraid to ask—that he doesn’t even really know the rules of the game, let alone know any of the players, current or past. I live in a city that has severe emotional attachments to their baseball organizations; but as baseball is God’s favorite game, this is one feature of New York that I find virtuous, even heroically so. That this colleague of mine does not participate in this city-wide neurosis, I find disturbing.

As to the other of my colleague’s peculiar features, I have it on good authority that he is neither recovering from prior addictions nor reacting to other traumas: he is simply averse to spirits of all sorts, and always has been. As for me, while details are between me and my confessor, I have no qualms in mentioning that I appreciate a good pint in a pub. Wherever the Catholic sun doth shine, indeed. How one would not like this activity, I do not know.

So this acquaintance of mine: he baffles me. Now, not drinking alcohol for no other reason than personal preference, or worse yet, not loving baseball—these are signs of social disorders in and of themselves, to be sure. And where you find some disorders, you are bound to find others. For our purposes, I should mention one more peculiar quirk of this man. What I write next should not surprise any of the readers of this fine newspaper, given what I’ve written so far: this man, he also cares rather little for the old mass or traditional rubrics, and he rolls his eyes at those who agonize over these adiaphora. This colleague of mine is perfectly fine with versus populum and communion on (in?) the hand, he cared not at all that—for example--the recent beach party mass in Rio featured bikinied ‘ministers’ handing out hosts from plastic cups, and he does not cry in horror at Paul VI Audience Hall or worse yet, the wretched Domus Sanctae Marthae Chapel.

Moreover, as far I can tell, he seems content with the hellishly awful music that infects his Paul VI Mass. The music—dear God, the music—it seems to affect him negatively not at all. Yes, he is a strange fellow.

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I am not expert enough in the Ways of Man to say if his frightening vision of the world is a product of barbaric habituation, some sort of devilish, self-induced beta-blocking, or a glitch in his DNA; but I’m quite convinced that there is a connection between his tee-totaling, his complete ignorance of and disinterest in God’s favored game, and his ambivalence towards liturgy. I haven’t done any sort of formal study, but I’d be willing to bet that a large survey of the American Catholic populace would reveal strong connections between a disinterest in baseball and a disinterest in good liturgy and good lager. This isn’t to say that the best place to find those who appreciate the Old Mass is the local pub on game night, but—no, maybe that is the best place to find such people. I don’t know: we should do a study (or just check the pub and see, and while we’re there…).

This is all to say that we can speak not just of conflicting visions of the good, but large divisions over the nature of the beautiful. And these divisions run deep. This makes sense, if one takes a rather old-fashioned view of taste as something that tracks, if ordered rightly, objectively beautiful things. Those who have the virtue of good taste, argued Aristotle, find (really) beautiful things beautiful. Such a philosophy seems, prima facie, terribly pretentious and elitist from our modern, egalitarian perspective (and that Aristotle would include this virtue in his ethical treatise, no less, makes us gasp!). But once we get over our indignation, most are resigned to admit that Aristotle is on to something here. Indeed, even the utilitarians are happy to say, along with John Stuart Mill, that there are higher pleasures to be pursued, simply because we are humans and not animals (I’ll leave it to the utilitarians to figure out how Mill’s concession concerning the insufficiency of the ‘satisfied pig’ doesn’t collapse utilitarianism entirely). No, it seems perfectly correct to speak of good taste and bad taste. And therefore it seems perfectly correct—as terrible as this might sound—to speak of the more refined tastes of those who prefer certain liturgical rubrics over others.

But here is where our problem begins. Because forget about bad liturgy for a second. Forget about communion in the hand, songs about gathering, liturgical dancing, and the barren wasteland of ‘ordinary time’. How, pray tell, do you get someone who does not like baseball to like it? I suppose you could answer: the same way that you get someone to enjoy a good glass of wine. You get them to acquire a taste for it.

Yes, acquisition and acclimation through habituation. That’s the name of the game, to be sure. Aristotle is right: proper habituation is everything. Assuming that poor taste is not a result of faulty physiology, I suppose we could get my colleague to like baseball by dragging him to Yankee Stadium, in the same way that we drag those at the bottom of Plato’s cave, kicking and screaming, to the light.

But just as Plato’s cave dwellers have been habituated to appreciate the shadows in their flickery darkness, and just as they fastly flee back to the safety of the darkness upon being dragged out by those in the know, my baseball and beer-hating colleague will most certainly be rather annoyed at my insistence that he must accompany me once again to the afternoon game. But drag him I must, one might argue.

And yes, the required tie-in to the Old Mass, can now be briefly made, and some point about how the Old Mass ‘takes some getting used to’, and how this also requires some acclimation by those not previously disposed to such worship style, can be written. Of course. So consider this here the requisite mentioning of this point.

Very good. But enough about that. It is more important to point out what a lousy state of affairs this is. For the answer to our problems—habituation—has revealed a troubling aspect of getting things right in the beauty game. However successful this acclimating program for our aesthetically-blind acquaintances might be, we should note more importantly how, from the beginning, we have recognized that there is simply no straightforward appeal to reason available.

One cannot simply offer a written argument for the beauty and grandeur of baseball, or Guinness, let alone the Traditional Latin Mass. Believe me, I’ve tried with my colleague regarding all three. It appears that it’s habituation or nothing. If you do not see the beauty of any of these things, the best I can do, given my fortunate access to this ‘inside information’, is to get you too to ‘try them’. I cannot present a PowerPoint presentation for their aesthetic superiority (I’ve also tried this), and expect anyone who isn’t already convinced, to be convinced.

So enough about baseball and beer. If you do not see the beauty of the Old Mass, of ad orientem, of the Latin language, of Gregorian chant—if you do not recognize the superiority of these forms of worship, then nothing that anyone says about these things will do any good. If someone has been poorly habituated, then, as Aristotle rightly said, they will see the ugly as beautiful, and the bad as good. Sadly, a distorted sense of taste cannot be corrected by the offering of a syllogism.

This isn’t to say that beauty isn’t rational. It’s entirely rational, and therefore knowable. Beauty supervenes on being, and being is intelligible. But not all knowledge is built on a priori, self-evident truths that can be found regardless of one’s lot in life, simply by transcending the confines of a wrongly encultured mind, and thinking upon things ‘purely’. To think this is possible—this is one of the many myths of the Enlightenment. Most certainly, there are deft philosophical arguments for why certain things are objectively beautiful and others are not (and many of these arguments are right). Moreover, as the work of Benedict XVI on liturgy attests, there are arguments that connect good theology with good liturgy and proper reverence and form. But Benedict does not proceed like Euclid, by building up a large set of necessary truths from initially posited self-evident principles. A traditionalist cannot build up a logically air-tight case for the insanity of communion in the hand. Likewise, I cannot make an argument for the stupidity of my colleague’s favorite hymn (you don’t want to know) in such a way that reveals that he is in fact offering a logical contradiction by disagreeing with me.

At the end of the day, after all arguments are made, and all theological and philosophical matters unpacked and explained, we still have to appeal to a proper vision of reality in order to make our arguments for the beautiful, and getting this proper vision takes some real work on the part of the poorly trained. If one’s eyes aren’t trained, then reading or arguing will only do so much good.

So what does this mean? It means, among other things, that if failure of a purely logical appeal to the beautiful is impossible, then we should not be surprised that so many in the world of the Novus Ordo simply can’t see what traditionalists see, and we should not be surprised, moreover, that Novus Ordo types get annoyed at traditionalists constantly pointing out to them their ridiculous music, their architectural disasters, and their irreverent forms of worship.  Traditionalists cannot proceed by axioms, but neither can they hold up a CD of Tomás Luis de Victoria in one hand, pound their other hand on the table, and declare, “If you’d just LISTEN to this, you’d understand!” It’s not that easy.

This isn’t to say that we should cease trying to train those who are amenable to being trained. And drag we must our friends to the Old Mass. But in the meantime, we can appeal to aspects of the Old Mass that require no habituation or privileged vision to understand. There are features of the Old Mass that are superior to the New Mass, but that require no inside information to grasp.

The prayers. The content of the Old Mass. If there is any straightforward ‘empirical’ or strictly ‘scientific’ argument to be made, if there is any argument that does not transgress the so-called fact/value divide, if there is any appeal to the superiority of the Old Mass that does not threaten the sensibilities of those who actually like songs about gathering, it’s the prayers themselves.

We do not need to properly habituate or reorient anyone’s vision to see the problematic nature of the prayers of the New Mass. We simply need to do a quick compare and contrast. Whereas explicit references to Catholic dogma saturate the collects, secrets, and antiphons of the Old Mass, the same cannot be said of the prayers in the New Mass. When it comes to the content of the prayers, we do not need inside information to understand the problem. In fact, one does not even need to be Catholic to see the differences in the prayers. One simply has to know what Catholics teach regarding the Real Presence, the merits of the saints, propitiation, and the like. Thus, to focus on the worrying prayers of the New Mass is not to make an appeal to a properly formed vision, nor is it even to appeal to specifically Catholic sensibilities. It’s simply to appeal to facts about Catholic belief. Any Methodist could tell you, if (you found one and) had him quickly compare the prayers of any given Mass for any given day, that one Mass had more Catholic-rich content than the other.

For this reason, focusing on content is the safest strategy a traditionalist can take. There is no risk of offending anyone when we simply focus on the fact that these prayers do, and these prayers do not, reference particular Catholic dogmas. It is to simply focus on facts. Facts, as philosophers point out, do not offend. Only values do. Moreover, to point out faulty content is to focus on aspects of the New Mass that do not run the risk of attacking faulty character. To focus on content is not to criticize any one parishioner’s taste, and more importantly, it is not to criticize any one priest. After all, not only are priests overworked and underpaid, but they can’t help what they are given to work with. The prayers are what they are. It is not the fault of any priest or any parishioner, nor is it a mark of anyone’s poor taste, that the content of the New Mass is what it is. Most importantly, to focus on content is not to present yourself as superior in any way. In my case in particular, this is quite important, as such a self-presentation would be impossible.

I’ll probably never get my colleague to appreciate the joys of a good glass of wine by demanding, again and again, that he try it. I similarly have had no success convincing him of the joys of baseball. But I should be able to convince him of the superiority of the Old Mass, simply by appealing to his knowledge of Catholicism, and then showing him the differences in the content of the prayers of the two Masses. Who knows: perhaps when he sees the factual differences, he’ll start attending the Old Mass, and this will start a process that will properly habituate him, and rightly form his sense of taste. Before you know it, he’ll be joining me for a pint in the pub for the night’s game.

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