On Orientophobia: Coming out of the Liturgical Closet

The question of the proper orientation of Latin liturgics is so painfully simple that people cannot deal with it.

It is very instructive indeed to watch people burst out of the closet in the Latin Church to announce their inner struggles with liturgical orientation, and to denounce others for insufficient sensitivity to their occidental proclivities and positions. It is also a bit rich to watch the alacrity with which Cardinal Sarah’s comments about Latin liturgical posture have been slapped down by an undisciplined papacy that has done much damage with off-the-cuff comments and other utterances of dubious authority and torturous prolixity. The fact that the cardinal’s comments have been attacked repeatedly by people huddling in the papal petticoats tells us much about them but almost nothing about the issue to hand.

What is going on?

The question of the proper orientation of Latin liturgics is so painfully simple that people cannot deal with it. There is, in fact, no question: the posture of the entire assembly facing liturgical East is universal and ancient, and until the 1960s no Christian, East or West, would ever have dreamt of disorienting the priest by turning him around in the wrong direction. That bizarre decision of the Latin church in the 1960s immediately set her at odds not only with her own sacred tradition but that of the rest of the Christian world, especially the other major liturgical families—the Byzantine, Alexandrian, Armenian, and Syriac. It should never have happened, and can only be counted a massive mistake. 

But celebration ad orientem is not the central issue. Ecclesiology is. 

Fears about ad orientem posture today are stalking horses for incoherent and ultimately groundless fears about a return to an earlier ecclesiology. Though I disagreed vehemently with certain completely backwards conclusions of Massimo Faggioli’s book  True Reform: Liturgy and Ecclesiology in Sacrosanctum Concilium, he was absolutely correct that Vatican II’s reforms both contained an incipient, and helped to advance a more robust, ecclesiology of the local Church. 

Faggioli was wrong, however, in attempting to argue that any criticisms of SC are based on a nostalgic hankering for an earlier, more centralized ecclesiology. In this view, any challengers—such as Cardinal Sarah—to the liturgical vision dubiously and tendentiously attributed to Vatican II are taken as threats to its ecclesiology. Faggioli has been commendably candid about this, repeatedly flatly insisting in his book that “questioning the liturgical reform of Vatican II means undoing also the ecclesiology of the liturgical reform and the ecclesiology of Vatican II” (p.86; cf. 89, 91, etc.). 

Nonsense. There are, as I showed elsewhere, two major problems with this line of thinking: first, Faggioli and others seem completely immune to recognizing that this ecclesiology of the local church advanced by Vatican II was badly mangled at birth by the ham-fisted papal fiat imposing a “reformed” liturgy on the entire Latin Church at Advent 1970. Whatever ecclesiology of the local church was advanced by Vatican II—and there was one, thankfully—has ever since been flying against very strong currents of papal centralization and personality cult now reaching (one hopes) their apogee in Francis before (one hopes even more fervently) beginning a necessary, welcome, and healthful decline back to earth. 

Second, Faggioli seems incapable of recognizing that one can coherently and without contradiction hold several positions at the same time, criticizing aspects of Vatican II while upholding others. It is artificial and unhelpful to insist that Vatican II must be taken as some kind of package deal, so that questioning one part of it must necessarily lead to the dismantling of others or even of the whole. 

There are many critics of the liturgical reform who have no desire to subject the Church to any kind of yet more centralized ecclesiology supposedly attributed to the pre-Vatican II era but actually much more in evidence since then. I am myself–and can easily think of many others—one such critic: I think the liturgical reforms were good in some ways, but (as Cardinal Ratzinger, inter alia, has also said), enormously damaging in others. At the same time, I salute—and have said so at length elsewhere (see my essay in The Reception of Vatican II, forthcoming from Oxford University Press)—the ecclesiological and ecumenical advances of the council. Indeed, if anything, I join Faggioli in fervently wishing for the ecclesiological and ecumenical work of the council to be yet more fully and widely implemented, especially with regard to the papacy (see my book Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy). 

What seems to have eluded critics of Cardinal Sarah is that his call for a return to ad orientem celebration is precisely what will advance Vatican II’s ecclesiological and ecumenical goal of unity with the Christian East. As the late Ukrainian Orthodox Archbishop Vsevelod of Chicago used to note frequently at Catholic gatherings, the Orthodox East keeps careful eye on what Rome does and does not do, what it encourages or forbids. In 2007, when Pope Benedict XVI released Summorum Pontificum (which, pace Faggioli, freed up the extraordinary form of the liturgy precisely at the very local level, without sending Catholic ecclesiology backwards!), Alexy II, the patriarch of the largest Orthodox Church in the world, the Russian, stated that “The recovery and valuing of the ancient liturgical tradition is a fact that we greet positively.”

“We hold very strongly to tradition,” he continued. “Without the faithful guardianship of liturgical tradition, the Russian Orthodox Church would not have been able to resist the period of persecution.”

Many Orthodox have been appalled, as many Eastern Catholics have also been, less by the well-known if rather rare liturgical shenanigans one forever hears about (clown Masses, prancing ladies wafting incense from flea-market crockery, etc.) and more by the profound estrangement of Latin Catholics from their own tradition—indeed, appalled at their open disdain for their own tradition, and that of the universal and undivided Church. 

True to form, critics of Sarah’s proposal give every evidence of this, insouciantly defending a disoriented priest celebrating Mass backwards and refusing with indecent haste (as in Westminster) to tolerate any other “tradition” than this one. That is a sign of deep internal pathology bordering on self-hatred, and does not bode well for East-West unity.

At a stroke, Cardinal Sarah’s wise proposal would accomplish two things. First, it would contribute to the slow but on-going process of the Latin Church’s healing and recovery of parts of her tradition that were perversely junked after Vatican II by shady operatives (see Louis Bouyer’s memoirs for evidence of this) playing duplicitous games with a credulous Pope Paul VI. Second, it would contribute to the slow but on-going process of the East and West drawing closer to one another by both drawing closer to Christ, the rising Son of God whom we worship by the first light of dawn in the East. 

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About Dr. Adam A. J. DeVille 110 Articles
Dr. Adam A. J. DeVille is associate professor at the University of Saint Francis in Ft. Wayne, IN., where he also maintains a part-time private practice in psychotherapy. He is the author and editor of several books, including Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy (University of Notre Dame, 2011).

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