Reason, Authority, and the Roman Rite

Catholics are often finding themselves in a situation in which the Church’s authorities sometimes seem to set themselves against the Church’s own teaching and rites.

Catholicism esteems reason without rationalism, authority without authoritarianism. Catholicism works when the Church’s authorities act in a rational manner, using their reason to interpret the Church’s teaching rightly and in turn to teach it with fidelity. As the Magisterium is servant to the Word of God, as a pope is bound to the Magisterium, ecclesial authority at every level is constrained by the truth of the Church’s teaching.

Contradiction and a thousand cuts

Sometimes, however, it seems a few of the Church’s authorities use their authority as bishops, or, on a parish or diocesan level, as priests or lay functionaries, to subvert, correct, or contradict what’s said plainly in the Church’s official documents. For instance, it’s not too hard to find ecclesial authorities nowadays who will advert to conscience in suggesting the faithful can be unfaithful to what the Church teaches in its Catechism on (say) sexuality if their consciences tell them contrary, and in doing so also contradict what the Catechism says on conscience (cf. CCC 1776-1802). 

It’s hard on laypeople and lower clergy who are trying to be faithful to the Church’s teaching when the Church’s authorities act, speak, and govern in ways that undercut, sell short, or sell out Catholic teaching as it’s spelled out in the Church’s official documents. It’s hard to explain to our children why, sometimes, what we teach them in their religious instruction differs from what they experience or what some ecclesial authority says.

The texts say what they say, from the documents of Vatican II to the Catechism and beyond, to say nothing of what came before. Catholics can read, and some can read Latin. Catholics are rational; our reason can make good sense of the texts’ presentation of authoritative human and divine teaching. Sometimes, however, it seems the glorious truths of our official documents suffer the death of a thousand cuts from the knives of a thousand committees by the time they travel from Rome to parishes in Portlandia or Lake Woebegone. But the texts are there, published officially as books or on the internet by organs of the Vatican or episcopal conferences. Presumably, the Church’s authorities want the official texts read. And so Catholics read. 

And yet Catholics often encounter contradictions between what an official document says and what’s happening on the ground in parishes and diocese. There’s one subject Church in history, one mystical Church which is Jesus Christ as head with his members, but sometimes it seems as if there’s two. Were one to raise the issue of discrepancies between Catholic teaching and local practice on matters moral or liturgical, one might imagine certain authorities in the mold of Chico Marx’s character Chicolini in the Marx Brothers’ movie Duck Soup, saying, “Well, who you gonna believe? Me, or your own eyes?” But Catholics can read. They can read the Catechism, the documents of the Second Vatican Council, the rubrics of the Roman Rite, the actual text of the GIRM—some of us in Latin. 

Obedience to the rubrics

With regard to liturgy, the Church has been in this situation since the introduction of the Novus Ordo Missae, now the ‘Ordinary Form’ of the Roman Rite, for its celebration is often at odds with what the Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy Sacrosanctum Concilium says, with what its own rubrics say, and with what the General Instruction of the Roman Missal for the Ordinary Form instructs. And so those who desire faithful liturgy find contemporary practice lacking, for they can read the texts.

Certainly every text needs interpretation (even reading a grocery list is low-level interpretation as our minds make sense of the black marks on the paper), but modern Catholic documents are not so arcane that it takes episcopal oracles to reveal their mysterious secrets to us. Catholics are not gnostics, and modern Catholic documents are written to be understood. Catholics are people of reason. Catholics can read, and believe they should read. Yet the lay faithful often encounter the worst sort of clericalism when they run up against legalistic authoritarians insisting they alone can know what the official texts say, and come up with some pretense for inaction.

But the liturgical texts say what they say. And whatever other practices have arisen, such as versus populum, the liturgical texts at issue assume that ad orientem posture is the normative posture for the Roman Rite. Those who desire a return to the ad orientem posture are not angling and agitating for their own particular personal preferences and predilections, but rather desire fidelity in liturgy, obedience to the rubrics. They trust the Church, and desire her teaching and law on matters liturgical obeyed. It’s shame and scandal that some distrust the Church so much and regard the faithful so little that they feel free to ignore the Church’s liturgical teaching.

A liturgical tempest

And so we come to the latest development in the furore over ad orientem that Cardinal Sarah unleashed—a tempest born of one Cardinal’s clarion call to liturgical fidelity. The Most Rev. Arthur J. Serratelli, the good and faithful bishop who actually does a very good job heading up the USCCB’s Committee on Divine Worship, penned a letter to his brother bishops in the US, reminding them of Fr. Lombardi’s statement of July 11 from the Holy See Press Office that no liturgical changes regarding the celebrant’s posture are in the offing for Advent, and so no changes to the GIRM or mandates for ad orientem posture are coming. Then (1) he asserted that “n. 299 of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal does show a preference for the celebrant’s facing the people ‘whenever possible’ in the placement and orientation of the altar”; but (2) he mentioned that “the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments has clarified on earlier occasions that this does not prohibit the celebration of the Eucharist in the Ordinary Form ad orientem,” conceding that “there are rubrics in the Order of Mass which reflect the real possibility that the celebrant might be facing away from the assembly”; and then (3) closed the letter advising prudence in light the “pastoral welfare of the people” and stated, “Such an important decision should always be made with the supervision and guidance of the local bishop.” 

Fr. Lombardi’s statement, to which Bishop Serratelli adverts, is unfortunate, as is Bishop Serratelli’s final paragraph, for the claims and implications of both are highly dubitable. To discuss them properly, let’s start by recognizing that not only the rubrics but also the GIRM for the Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite operate with the assumption that the celebrant normally employs ad orientem posture. In brief, one finds the rubrics instructing the priest celebrant to face the people at certain points (cf. e.g. nos. 1, 29, 127, 132, 139, 141), as well as instructions to face the altar (cf. eg. no. 133). These instructions to face the people and to face the altar would be redundant if the rubrics assumed a constant versus populum posture, but they make sense with the ad orientem posture. 

As the GIRM no. 299 is used to shut down the ad orientem posture, let’s look at the GIRM more broadly. In the GIRM too one finds the instruction to face the people (cf. nos. 124, 146, 154, 157) and at other times to face the altar (cf. nos. 158, 244, 268)—which makes sense since it’s tracking with the rubrics. And again, as with the rubrics, these directions would be redundant if the GIRM really assumed a constant versus populum posture. 

The instructions in the GIRM nos. 157-158 are striking, for they assume—even demand—ad orientem posture at the Ecce Agnus Dei and the priest’s communion (emphases mine):

157. When the prayer is concluded, the Priest genuflects, takes a host consecrated at the same Mass, and, holding it slightly raised above the paten or above the chalice, facing the people, says, Ecce Agnus Dei (Behold the Lamb of God) and together with the people he adds, Lord, I am not worthy.

158. After this, standing facing the altar, the Priest says quietly, Corpus Christi custodiat me in vitam aeternam (May the Body of Christ keep me safe for eternal life), and reverently consumes the Body of Christ. Then he takes the chalice, saying quietly, Sanguis Christi custodiat me in vitam aeternam (May the Blood of Christ keep me safe for eternal life), and reverently partakes of the Blood of Christ.

Note the shift: In no. 157, the priest faces the people to present the host to the people. But then no. 158 instructs him to face the altar: he has to turn. This makes sense if he’s on the people’s side of the altar where he’d need to be to employ ad orientem posture. If the GIRM assumed constant versus populum posture, the instructions to face the people (no. 157) and then face the altar (no. 158) would make no sense, for the priest celebrant would already facing both altar and the people at the same time—as in most Masses today, in spite of the rubrics and the GIRM.

If that weren’t enough, the very Introduction orienting(!) priest celebrants to the GIRM affirms ad orientem posture at the anamnesis in no. 2 (emphasis mine):

What is taught in this way by the Council is consistently expressed in the formulas of the Mass. Moreover, the doctrine which stands out in the following sentence, already notable and concisely expressed in the ancient Sacramentary commonly called the Leonine— “for whenever the memorial of this sacrifice is celebrated the work of our redemption is accomplished”—is aptly and exactly expounded in the Eucharistic Prayers; for as in these the Priest enacts the anamnesis, while turned towards God likewise in the name of all the people, he renders thanks and offers the living and holy sacrifice, that is, the Church’s oblation and the sacrificial Victim by whose death God himself willed to reconcile us to himself; and the Priest also prays that the Body and Blood of Christ may be a sacrifice which is acceptable to the Father and which brings salvation to the whole world.

“Turned towards God likewise in the name of all the people”; priest and people together. Is there a better phrase summing up the ad orientem posture?

Assuming ad orientem

In sum, both the rubrics of the Ordinary Form of the Mass and the GIRM assume ad orientem. If the GIRM is coherent, then no. 299 cannot be cited to claim the GIRM forbids (or disfavors) ad orientem posture. GIRM no. 299 is much discussed because it’s much mistranslated and thus much misunderstood resulting in much mischief, but it becomes the sneaky bureaucratic sledgehammer crushing the Ordinary Form’s rubrics and instruction in smashing ad orientem. Go to the pertinent sections here or here or here for detail, but in brief: the GIRM no. 299 concerns the construction of altars, not versus populum posture directly, suggesting that it is desirable that altars be built away from the wall—in Latin, it simply does not say that the versus populum posture is desirable wherever possible. If anything, the GIRM at this one point permits versus populum posture as (perhaps) an experimental innovation, but it should not be read against the rest of the GIRM and the rubrics of the Mass to preclude the normative ad orientem posture.

This means two things:

First, the Holy See Press Office’s communiqué on the matter is clumsy. It mentions the GIRM no. 299 to effectively forbid ad orientem, and then relates that Pope Francis reminded the “Dicastery for Divine Worship” that “the ‘extraordinary’ form, which was permitted by Pope Benedict XVI for the purposes and in the ways explained in his Motu Proprio Summorum Pontificum, must not take the place of the ‘ordinary’ one.”

We’ve dealt with the GIRM no 299 already. As regards the issue of the relationship of two forms of the one Roman rite, Benedict himself clarified that it was not licit to mix features of one form with the other. For instance, priests may not substitute the older, longer version of the Confiteor found in the Extraordinary Form for the first option for the Penitential Act in the Ordinary form, which, although based on the older Confiteor, is much shorter.

The problem is that the communique implies that the ad orientem posture would be an illicit pollution of the Ordinary Form brought in from the Extraordinary Form. But that’s not true, for we’ve seen that the ad orientem posture is not something that belongs to the Extraordinary Form alone with versus populum the posture proper to the Ordinary Form. Rather, ad orientem is the normative priestly posture for the Roman rite in both forms. 

Second, beyond the mention of the GIRM no. 299 and the mention of Lombardi’s communiqué, Bishop Serratelli’s claim that ad orientem posture is something subject to the bishop’s control must be challenged. It is true that a diocesan ordinary is responsible for the proper celebration of liturgy in his domain (cf. Sacrosanctum Concilium 22 and 41, CIC 838 § 4, and Sacramentum Caritatis 39), but that does not mean a bishop may prescribe what his priests must do and proscribe what they may not do in a way contrary to the rite itself. The bishop is to direct liturgy “within the limits of his competence” as Ordinary (CIC 838.4) and canon law makes clear that “The Christian faithful have the right to worship God according to the prescriptions of their own rite” (CIC 214). In short, a diocesan bishop has as his task ensuring the proper celebration of the Mass according to the rubrics and instruction of the rite. Bishops do not have the right to forbid or permit something the rubrics and GIRM assume as normative, as if ad orientem posture was a matter of local indult. Indeed, it almost seems as if Bishop Serratelli sees a contradiction between the GIRM and the CDWDS’ clarification and then decides to punt to local ordinaries to resolve it on a case-by-case basis.

Rite reading

Catholics are people of reason, and so it would be helpful if someone could demonstrate how the rubrics or the GIRM demand (or merely favor) versus populum and forbid (or merely tolerate) the ad orientem posture. For faithful Catholics “receive with docility the teachings and directives that their pastors give them in different forms” (CCC 87). What one often finds from those who disdain the ad orientem posture, however, is jejune squealing over the Vatican’s supposed “smackdown” of Cardinal Sarah, or admonitions to the virtue of prudence so extreme they become the vice of cowardice, or a desire the whole thing would just go away. One does not find them making good rational arguments about the meaning and import of the rubrics and the GIRM, to say nothing of broader theological and liturgical principles. 

Catholics are often finding themselves in a situation in which the Church’s authorities sometimes seem to set themselves against the Church’s own teaching and rites. The faithful layperson who is eager to receive and embody what the Church teaches us to know, believe, and do to be saved finds the dissonance disorienting. Worst is when ecclesial authorities act as authoritarians in service of rationalism, in which the deformed reason of the spirit of the age judges the Church’s teaching and finds it wanting, or panders to the narcissism inherent in our recalcitrant flesh. These are the ways of gnosticism, in which it is understood hylics simply cannot have the capacity to access and appreciate the arcane mysteries known by the elite. Fortunately, we are Catholics, and Catholicism works when reason and authority embrace truth.

The educated Catholic laity whom everyone from Augustine to Blessed John Henry Newman and the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council desired are here, and we can read. And so we ought to read again Cardinal Sarah’s ad orientem appeal in his now-famous address, and ask the question whether the Church’s liturgical tradition, the rubrics, and the GIRM favor him—does the Cardinal prefect responsible for the Church’s worship and sacraments not know the rubrics or the GIRM?—or rather those who wrongly wield the GIRM no. 299 against him. Who you gonna believe? Them, or your own eyes?

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About Dr. Leroy Huizenga 48 Articles
Dr. Leroy Huizenga has a B.A. in Religion from Jamestown College (N.D.), a Master of Divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary, and a Ph.D. in New Testament from Duke University. After teaching at Wheaton College (Ill.) for five years, Dr. Huizenga was reconciled with the Catholic Church at the Easter Vigil of 2011. Dr. Huizenga is the author of The New Isaac: Tradition and Intertextuality in the Gospel of Matthew (Brill, 2012), Loosing the Lion: Proclaiming the Gospel of Mark (Emmaus Road, 2017), and Gospel of Matthew, Behold the Christ: Proclaiming the Gospel of Matthew (Emmaus Road, 2019), as well as co-editor of Reading the Bible Intertextually (Baylor, 2009).