Cardinal Koch on a Liturgical “Reform of the Reform”

During an interview with Armin Schwibach of the Austrian Catholic news website on Christmas Eve, Cardinal Kurt Koch, Prefect of the Congregation for Promoting Christian Unity, was asked to comment on the connection between talk about a “reform of the reform” of the liturgy and the post-conciliar crisis in faith. A translation of his answer follows.  

Cardinal Koch: Given the inflationary use of the word “reform” nowadays, the initial question arises also in talking about Rome’s reform of the liturgy: what is to be understood sensibly by “reform” in light of the Christian faith? This is a question about the fundamental alternative: Is a reform a matter of a rupture with history thus far, so that with it something new has begun that is no longer identical to the previous thing needing to be reformed? Or must we understand “reform” according to the meaning of the word, so that reform has to do with being able to rediscover the original form of the reality that has to be reformed, so that a liturgical re-form takes its orientation from that fundamental form of the Christian worship service that is prescribed by the Church’s Tradition? The question of liturgical reform is therefore very closely connected with the question of the correct interpretation of the Second Vatican Council.

Because the reform of the liturgy after the Council was often regarded and carried out with a hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture, this view departed in quite a few points from the great liturgical vision of the Council, which is centered on the Paschal Mystery of the death and resurrection of Christ. With reference to this Pope Benedict XVI, already when he was a Cardinal, judged that most problems in the post-conciliar development of the liturgy are connected with the fact that the Council’s approach to this fundamental mystery was not sufficiently kept in mind.

The call for a “reform of the reform” therefore includes the critical further inquiry, whether in the post-conciliar development of the liturgy the wishes and decision of the Council Fathers were really implemented or whether the results independently went beyond them. Or to put it positively: a “reform of the reform” can have no other aim than to reawaken the true heritage of the Council and to make it fruitful in the Church’s situation today. Just as the Council was preceded by a liturgical movement, the ripe fruits of which could be brought into the Council, so the Holy Father sees today also the necessity of a new liturgical movement, which he of course considers in light of a larger liturgical tradition. Only in this more comprehensive horizon can it be fruitful in an ecumenical respect also.

Comments: Cardinal Koch is remarkably candid in admitting that “the reform of the liturgy after the Council was often regarded and carried out with a hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture.” During the first half of the twentieth century, many of the leaders of the liturgical movement were German-speaking abbots and religious (e.g. Ildephonso Herwegen, Odo Cassel, and Pius Parsch). In some places they obtained permission from Rome to introduce ad experimentum the vernacular in worship and other innovations such as the “dialogue Mass”. Vindicated and emboldened by the success of their ideas at the Council, many professional liturgists then mistook “creativity” and “relevance” for liturgical principles and turned the post-conciliar German liturgy into a perpetual laboratory.

Cardinal Koch also alludes obliquely to the “ecumenical” pressures that were brought to bear on plans for Catholic liturgical reform. In surveying the intellectual landscape in the pre-conciliar years, historian Roberto de Mattei writes, “The biblical-liturgical movement and the philosophical and theological tendencies merged into a broader ‘ecumenical’ movement, which was also characterized by a strong anti-Roman sentiment.” Selected non-Catholic clergymen had “observer” status at the sessions of the Council. But there were Council Fathers and periti (experts) working on the conciliar Commissions who insistently reasoned, “No, the Council cannot say or do that, because it would offend the Orthodox or the Lutherans, it would not promote ecumenism.”

The de-emphasis of sacrificial language in the Novus Ordo Mass was not something called for explicitly by the Vatican II Constitution on the Liturgy Sacrosanctum Concilium. But it was on the unofficial agenda to try to make the Catholic Mass more like Protestant worship, in the name of “ecumenism.” The Prefect of the Congregation for Promoting Christian Unity is now saying, though, that ecumenism is best served, not by changing the prayers of the Church’s liturgy to please one group or another, but by returning to “the true heritage of the Council,” “a larger liturgical tradition” that is not just attuned to twentieth-century concerns but rather is “centered on the Paschal mystery.”    

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About Michael J. Miller 127 Articles
Michael J. Miller Michael J. Miller translated Priesthood and Diaconate by Gerhard Ludwig Müller for Ignatius Press and Eucharist and Divorce: A Change in Doctrine? for the Pontifical John Paul II Institute.