The Idler: Mass and Modernity

For some time, I had been aware of “Jonathan Robinson of the Oratory” as a writer and interesting priest. I was, however, too shy and Anglican to come near. But when I resolved to be received into the Catholic Church, there was a happy accident: I was sent to him for catechetical instruction. This was, of course, terrifying. In addition to founding the Toronto Oratory, the man was once chairman of philosophy at McGill and wrote a book on Hegel. By reputation he does not suffer fools gladly; how was I to know that under a forbidding exterior he is a gentle parish priest?

I mention Father Robinson because his new book, The Mass and Modernity: Walking to Heaven Backward (Ignatius Press), deserves mention outside the ecclesiastical confines, where it will be read by the “professional Catholics” as the expostulation of a frustrated, traditional Catholic. Its subject—the Mass—is far broader, and the book is pitched to the intelligent general reader—Christian and non-Christian alike—who wants to understand his world. It largely ignores the “in-house” disputes over liturgical arrangements that have been rending the Church for two generations.

The book is instead about the Mass in relation to Western civilization in the time since the Enlightenment; about how the Mass has been interpreted and progressively diminished—not by some conspiracy of freemasons in the Vatican, but by the impact of modernity. Father Robinson traces lines of skeptical rationalism that pass through Kant, Hume, Hegel, and Comte. He shows how the West’s perceptions of God, man, society, religion, and so on have been changed by the philosophers, and the effect this has had on worship.

The God of the philosophers becomes ever more distant and abstract, deflecting theology from patient meditation on the revealed Word of God to virtuosic exercises in philosophy of religion. Paradoxically, the role of the priest grows in an unhealthy way, until he becomes a kind of team captain or soccer coach with the exhausting task of “inspiring” a congregation. The practice of celebrating Mass from behind the altar—with the priest standing, symbolically, in the way of God—is part of this backward journey.

In the course of trying to understand what has happened to the Mass externally, Father Robinson does more. He gives glimpses of the Catholicism that underlies the modern experience. He reminds us that religion is not philosophy; that the Mass does not promise a formula for solving metaphysical puzzles. It instead offers a direct entry into the mysteries that underlie all being. It is something given to us by Christ—not something we have made, or could remake with the help of any liturgical commission.

The Enlightenment was not something that happened of its own accord. It was a project consciously advanced by self-anointed members of a “party.” It continues as the common project of all who consider themselves “progressive” or “liberal.” It has produced much worldly good, while terribly attacking the roots of Christendom. Now entering its postmodern phase, it has begun also to attack its own principles of reason and consistency, going “beyond value, beyond right and wrong, beyond truth and falsehood.” It has engendered an attitude that, as Father Robinson argues, is inimical to freedom, to sanity, and to the continuity upon which Catholic faith depends.

He is a pessimist; yet he knows Christ can fix what we cannot. Father Robinson advises the contemporary Catholic to succumb to neither anger nor indifference. He counsels prayer and study. As Newman observed, a light shines deeply into history. Follow it, and the extraordinary claims of Catholicism (and of the Judaism on which it was founded) become more visible. Abide with that light.


  • David Warren

    David Warren is a Canadian journalist who writes mostly on international affairs. His Web site is

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