A review of Work of Human Hands

23 11 2020

An “ex-Catholic’s” look at Fr. Anthony Cekada’s book

When I learned of Fr. Anthony Cekada’s death earlier this year, my thoughts turned to another lifetime ago. I was in the Society of St. Pius X seminary in La Reja. It was summer and thus very hot (no air conditioning, of course). I was in the seminary library by myself supposedly answering the phone (no one ever called). I found a stack of journals to pass the time, among them one called “Sacerdotium”. It was in English and dated from the 1990’s. Unlike so many other traditionalist publications, this one contained decent writing. Namely, the author who stood out was one Anthony Cekada. The content of his articles consisted of the same sedevacantist arguments, yet he added quite a bit of humor to it. Some of it was hit or miss, but overall I enjoyed the effort.

When I came back “into the world” and continued to be obsessed with the 2000’s Catholic traditionalist Internet, Cekada’s name would come up every so often. It wasn’t until the 2010’s that I began to follow Fr. Cekada more closely, specifically his YouTube channel and appearances on podcasts. Overall, he was one of my favorite Catholic talking heads. At that point, I was pretty much a non-believer, but I liked hearing the polemics from periods of former ideological obsession. I found Fr. Cekada to be a whimsical speaker and a convincing polemicist. If I took Catholicism on its own terms, some of the sedevacantist arguments he elucidated would keep me up at night.

So upon his death, I finally decided to try to get a hold of his only book, Work of Human Hands: A Theological Critique of the Mass of Paul VI. When I saw that it was over 400 pages, at first I regretted my decision to try to read the book. But it doesn’t read like 400 pages. Granted, it is repetitive on purpose (it has summaries at the end of each chapter which I skipped). It is more akin to a textbook than a work of theology, at least in format. But Cekada methodically destroys all of the myths of those who think they can spin the modern Catholic liturgy toward a more conservative direction.

I really don’t want to get deeply into the arguments of the book, mainly because I would like to keep this short (I can direct you to Dom Alcuin Reid’s review from years ago for that.) I will say that every apologia for the new liturgy by both liberal and conservative alike appears to be specious at its foundation. For instance, only a fraction of the prayers from the old rite made it into the new, and of those, few were unaltered. The project of liturgical renewal was one massive feat of gaslighting: its authors said to the world that they were doing one thing, yet really intended to do another. The heart of the liturgical revolution was the implementation of a theology of the Assembly, with pretense of restoring “ancient tradition” but with a “pastoral” slant. For example, for those who complain about the overly talkative and improvised atmosphere of the modern Catholic Mass, Fr. Cekada cites how this was built into the liturgy by its authors in order to get the assembly “in the mood” to reflect on this or that lesson of the service of the day.

Fr. Cekada spends much of the book going section by section comparing and contrasting the old and new Mass. These are common traditionalist talking points that I won’t elaborate here. If, however, you are unfamiliar with the arguments (i.e. you haven’t been around the Catholic traditionalist movement for a quarter of a century) I would highly suggest reading Fr. Cekada’s point-by-point take down of the new liturgy. It confirmed my own gut sense when going to the occasional modern Mass as my station of life sometimes requires. I like the people there (as usually I go because of family obligations), however, I have no sense that it has anything to do with the religion I had come to believe in as a young man through contemplation and reading the lives of the saints. Perhaps it’s just my own conditioning or stubbornness, but I can’t see how someone can sit in a typical Sunday Mass at a normal Catholic church week in and week out and then read St. Therese or St. Augustine and think that one has anything to do with the other. Or perhaps a little more charitably, how the modern Catholic service has more in common with St. Bernard or St. Thomas Aquinas than what happens in the typical Anglican or Baptist church on any given Sunday.

The only reason a “regular” Catholic can object to my impressions has less to do with the content of the religion itself than with the label on the particular piece of real estate. To be blunt, even if Fr. Cekada’s arguments are convincing on their face, few will be swayed by them in any real way. That’s because possession is 9/10’s of ownership: the Catholic church down the street with the picture of the Pope at the door continues to be Catholic precisely because that is what the sign says and the people inside believe the sign. The rest is just fine print that few care about. Fr. Cekada makes a convincing case for his version of Catholicism and how any sane person would see that there is a dramatic discontinuity that the vast majority of Catholics simply pretend isn’t there. There’s nothing you can do about this, and Fr. Cekada admits the same at the end of the book. The reason why the liturgy is important is because it is the propaganda arm of the Church: it’s often the only message Mr. Joe Blow gets from the Church on a regular basis. Change that, and you change everything.

For all readers and followers who sincerely want me to profess the unadulterated Catholic Faith again, my response to them is that I am tired of trying to hit a moving target. Which Catholicism should I try to adhere to? That of the current Pope? Or of the Pope before him? Or the Pope from 60 years ago? Fr. Cekada’s? My mom’s? Her mom’s? Or her mom’s? Because they are all different. And to a certain extent I respect all of them. I respect J.D.’s Catholicism even though he was literally a member of Call to Action but he fed the poor every week and that’s why we worked together. I respect my spiritual director in seminary, the polar opposite almost, who might once in a while still pray for me all these years later. But if I were Catholic (I actually hate labels, but I have to be honest here), I would have to choose one of these paths and exclude the rest as wrong, and I am no longer prepared to do that. Maybe you can believe in a big tent and still be a Christian in good standing, but I can’t. I realize that there is a contradiction there that has to be resolved at another level.

But enough about me, let us discuss Fr. Cekada more. I was pleased to learn that Fr. Cekada was an accomplished musician who was devoted to making his parish an enviable venue for sacred music. Together with his wit, he was one of the reasons I maintained some interest in religious faith in the first place, in spite of years of professed unbelief. Fr. Cekada was more than a polemicist. This comes out in his book in his humorous digs at the modern liturgy, such as his suggestion of moving the Sign of Peace from before Holy Communion to before the doughnut table in the parish hall. Fr. Cekada was one of the few traditionalist clergy I have encountered who had an authentic humanist inclination that wasn’t centered on some tired reactionary politics. He seemed to like beauty and a good joke for what they were in themselves, not just for “the cause” (though without deviating one iota from his cause).

So in spite of my contention above that I can appreciate all sincere factions of Catholicism, my heart remains with traditionalism, despite its flaws and neuroses. In my view, all of the things I like about Catholicism came from things that the traditionalists are trying to preserve in their own problematic way. They’re like remnants at an archeological dig, inscribed with a language I barely remember, as if taught to me when I was very young. Are these remnants enough to convince me to adhere to traditionalist Catholicism? As I stated, I don’t think they’re enough to make me adhere to orthodox Christianity. But I hold these things dear in my memory at least. God wanted me to encounter them for a reason. I don’t question His providence.

One penultimate thing I want to discuss is how Fr. Cekada’s book has aged. In 2009 when it was completed, he probably had very little idea what would be on the horizon for the “Conciliar Church” only a few years later. Here I speak of pontificate of Pope Francis. In 2009, the “Reform of the Reform” was still a vibrant force within the Church. Pope Benedict had managed to impose a more accurate (if clunky) translation of the Mass in English. He was also leading by example from the Vatican with his penchant for older vestments and his conservative resourcement theology. In 2013, for unknown reasons, he renounced the papacy and the global reality of the Third World Church came crashing down on St. Peter’s Square. If the “Reform of the Reform” was a thing in 2009, it isn’t anything anymore, at least not from the top down. Fr. Cekada invoked a “Fr. Retreaux” as a foil to the liberal Baby Boomer parish pastor, a young cleric who enjoys a good ecclesiastical tailor and Gregorian chant. Life has not been easy for the now middle-aged priest in the last ten years. With the increased hegemony of the Third World in the Catholic Church, things are looking grim for any “reform of the reform”. Most people in those regions like the Vatican II liturgy just fine, thank you very much.

While I can’t really appreciate the old Latin Mass at the doctrinal level, I recognize that its absence diminishes the religious profile of the whole believing world. People have no clue what reverence is, and the modern Catholic liturgy doesn’t help. They have no patience for tradition. While I don’t sympathize with the idea that the Mass is needed as the unbloody representation of the Sacrifice of Calvary for the sins of the world, the notion of sacrifice itself, of offering our lives back to God as the origin, is the essence of devotion. I don’t necessarily believe in Christian Heaven, but I think Fr. Cekada is in a better place. He has gone to be with Jesus who He served so faithfully. In memoria aeterna erit iustus.



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