“What if Rome no longer wants to be Roman?”: Interview with Martin Mosebach

The following interview appeared in the German newspaper Welt am Sonntag in its December 26, 2021 issue. It has been translated for Rorate Caeli.—PAK
Since Pope Francis issued a decree in July consistently scaling back the celebration of the old Latin Mass, all hell has broken loose on the international scene of Catholic traditionalists (or “trads”). The writer Martin Mosebach is an icon of the movement, not least thanks to his trad pamphlet Heresy of Formlessness (2002). He receives us for a talk in his Frankfurt apartment, less than a ten-minute walk from the old Opera.

When was the last time you were at Mass?
MARTIN MOSEBACH: Last Sunday, on the third [Sunday] of Advent. Here in Frankfurt there is the Deutschordenskirche, where the so-called Tridentine—or better, Gregorian—Mass is regularly celebrated according to the preconciliar liturgical books. Sundays, feast days, and also on some weekdays.

Pope Francis has issued a decree, a motu proprio, to make it more difficult to celebrate the Old Mass, that is, the Mass in Latin and with a priest facing the altar. What does this change for you personally?
There is now no sure legal basis for the way we celebrate the liturgy in the parish. Whether it may take place or not will in the future be left to the discretion of the local bishop. It is no longer a right of the faithful that they can demand, if necessary with the help of Rome. It is denied at all that the old liturgical books are still books of the Church. The Old Mass no longer has a definable status.

What was your first reaction to that?
It was a great shock. I did think such a step was possible, given the personality of the reigning pope and the agenda of the people around him. But I had assumed that, in the spirit of curial courtesy, they would wait until after Benedict XVI’s death to take it. Obviously, an element of personal revenge came into play here.

Revenge for what?
Francis has not forgiven Benedict for influencing the outcome of the Amazon Synod with his book on the priesthood in early 2020 and for spoiling the desired abolition of compulsory celibacy. That made Francis very angry. Now he has retaliated by taking action against the Old Mass, that is, the liturgy that was a matter close to Benedict’s heart and which he had emphatically rehabilitated.

What is so important about it?
It is not only about the Mass, but also about the sacraments: baptism, marriage, confession, confirmation, and ordination. These are simply seriously deficient in the modern versions in force today. Take baptism: there the baptized is asked at the beginning, “What do you desire from the Church?” The old answer was, “Faith.” Today it is, “Baptism.” A huge difference! When I asked Benedict XVI about this, he regretted tremendously not having reversed it in his pontificate.

Conservative Catholics like to talk about obedience. Now that the pope is scaling back the Old Mass, they are rehearsing the revolt. Francis has decided; why not just accept it?
The image of the papacy that emerged after the First Vatican Council, which saw the pope become an autocrat in all spiritual and juridical matters of the Church, does not correspond to the tradition of the Church. The papal office is not an absolute monarchy: precisely in its claim to infallibility, it is strictly bound to tradition, to what the Church has always taught and done. The pope has no dominion over this; his authority consists precisely in the fact that he bows to it. When Pope Francis tampers with tradition, he can no longer oblige the faithful to obey. Above all, he is attacking the very foundation on which the papacy stands.

The Tridentine rite did not fall from heaven, but grew historically. With its pomp, it does not fit well with the child in the manger that we celebrate at Christmas. Why shouldn’t the Pope be able to change that?
The traditions of the Church have unfolded over time. But that is precisely the standard: a tradition may unfold, but it must not be broken. The Catholic celebration of the Mass is coherently derivable from the earliest beginnings of Christianity. The Lord visited the Temple throughout his life and celebrated the Temple rite there. The Catholic Mass is related to this rite, and to an astonishing extent. Yet these references are hardly recognizable in the modern liturgy. One can almost speak of an attempt to remove the Jewish elements from the Catholic Mass by the elimination of the Old Mass.

The Pope warns that the traditionalists tend to sectarianism and want to divide their parishes. Why do you do that?
None of that is true. The traditionalists are a very small group, and I don’t know of a single case where they have been divisive in any way. The only thing they care about is celebrating Mass according to the 1500-year-old books of the Church. Yes, it is true: In the long struggle against total incomprehension, a tendency to be opinionated may have arisen in one or another, which in individual cases could have been somewhat quarrelsome. I don’t want to exclude myself from this assessment. But the moment the liturgy was granted and no longer hindered, all conflict immediately ceased.

The overwhelming majority of the faithful worldwide, over 95 percent, celebrate worship in the form resulting from the liturgical reform of 1969. Is this worship legitimate in your view?
If an orthodox priest celebrates the new Ordo [Missae], then of course it is a valid Mass. The new liturgy is not capable of making the Eucharistic mystery unambiguously perceptible, but it can still have its sacramental effect.

When was the last time you were at a modern Mass?
A few weeks ago in Morocco, where I was working on my new novel. There was no possibility of attending the Old Mass there. The priest was always running back and forth between the altar and a CD player to put on new spiritual songs in the French chanson style—not very sacramental.

Many faithful will prefer to listen to French chansons rather than watch a priest muttering or praying Latin formulas in complete silence.
First of all, it is not a matter of what many believers would prefer—the sacraments are a foundation, a gift granted to people that conveys the presence of God. The ancient liturgy, in fact, is not readily accessible. It requires initiation and a lifetime of practice. It is a school of reverence. Its effect is a lifelong maturing. It must be learned like a language. Until the Second Vatican Council, most Catholics understood this language, by which I do not mean Latin specifically, but the whole process of chant, gestures, and images, which created a sensual and transcendent counter-world. This traditional liturgical building was torn down; the smashing up went quickly, as precious things are usually fragile. The result is apparent to everyone: the shrinking of the Western Church.

The Church would be better off if it were decidedly anti-modern?
It would not be better off: it would be what it is. If it had remained true to its traditions and therefore lost members, it would at least have remained unbroken as a spiritual force—as an institution oriented toward the supernatural, toward the otherworldly. The bankruptcy of the Western Church has not, however, been stopped by maximum adaptation to modern civilization. Let us think of the fate of the Greek Church under the Ottomans, or of the Russian Church, which was deprived of any possibility to act publicly, to exercise works of charity, to hold classes during seventy years of Communism. And yet, this Church has survived, thanks to the liturgy. Thanks to a celebration that was oriented towards heaven and had nothing to do with everyday Communist life.

In Germany, the number of church members will soon fall below 50 percent. What is the country losing?
I am convinced that the loss of religion destabilizes a country. When the belief that man is not the highest and final authority disappears, the world becomes dark. What the idolization of human autonomy can lead to was proven in the twentieth century in the great totalitarian systems. In addition, there is the loss of history, of the consciousness of experiencing oneself as a link in a long chain, as a heritage. If we are Christians today, it is because our great-great-great-grandparents were Christians. The chain of this tradition goes back to the Holy Land. Without this reverberating space of the past, I can only imagine man as a shadowy existence.

How long will you continue to be a church member?
Since I am baptized, I am a son of the Church until the end of my life. But what is happening right now is indeed an attack on the substance of things, and I sometimes wonder if I could bear another Francis. What does one do when one realizes that the Church is really staying on a fundamentally wrong path and wants to fundamentally move away from its origins? That is a hypothetical question. Goethe’s Mephisto says, “When such a little head gets stuck, it immediately imagines the end.”

Orthodox churches are places of longing for traditionalists because their liturgy is so ancient. Why not convert?
Orthodoxy is a wonderful guarantee for me: there is a great Church that preserves the tradition of the first millennium. Whatever wrong is happening in the Catholic Church, it can never damage the whole Church of Christ to the core. In the Orthodox, she has before her the counter-example against which she must be measured and against which she can correct herself. Nevertheless, I am personally attached to the Latin world and to Rome. I also know what I would have to give up. Peter was in Rome. But what if Rome no longer wants to be Roman?

The fact that backward-looking does not necessarily mean reactionary could stand like a motto over the work of Martin Mosebach (even if he sometimes provocatively calls himself a reactionary). Since his debut, The Bed (1983), the writer, born in 1951, has practiced the art of the social novel like no other contemporary, usually with the plot set in Frankfurt am Main where he was born. In his novels, Mosebach has developed a language whose cultivated distinction seems antiquated at first glance. But aesthetic conventions are not a constraint for him, but an ordering support in an untenable time. His persistent support for the Catholic Mass according to the old rite undoubtedly stems from the same conviction.

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