Much ink has been spilled concerning the Holy Father’s recent motu proprio, Traditiones Custodes. I want to highlight a point that I think should have been in the document, but was not. And the absence of which has practically set the conditions for a kind of liturgical bidding war. Put another way, Catholics—clergy and laity alike—are essentially being forcibly coerced into an artificial corner.
What is missing from this document? An initial inkling comes from a recent interview with Dominican theologian Fr. Augustine DiNoia. In seeking to address the divisive “movement” that surrounds those who attend the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite, DiNoia unintentionally offers a glimpse into the most significant void of Traditionis Custodes:
Like his predecessors, the archbishop said, Pope Francis believes “the way to address abuses is not by adopting the ‘extraordinary form,’ but by promoting the true renewal of the liturgy which, in many places, has simply not happened…As Pope Francis implies,” he said, “this renewal is not a matter of creatively ignoring the rubrics, but finding the true spirit of the liturgical reform by… celebrating the Mass with absolute fidelity to the texts and rubrics and to its proper nature as a participation in the celestial worship of Christ for the Father with the communion of saints” (Emphasis added).
According to DiNoia’s interpretation of the Pope’s letter, the primary reason the Catholic faithful attend the Extraordinary Form is the result of abuse. In other words, the elephant in the room being overlooked in this discussion is that the common liturgical expression of the Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite is perhaps the most significant cause for priests and laity turning to more ancient liturgical rites.
What is fascinating with respect to DiNoia’s reading is that the Magisterium has been struggling to correct liturgical abuses in the Ordinary Form’s expression for decades. Practically speaking, every liturgical document coming out of Rome following Sacrosanctum Concilium (The Second Vatican Council’s 1962 Dogmatic Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy) has primarily been concerned with correcting disordered liturgical practices. Even Pope Paul VI’s 1967 much-neglected exhortation on sacred music (Musicam Sacram) already alludes to the forthcoming attacks upon the sacredness of the liturgy.
In trying to correct the plethora of abuses, the post-Vatican II liturgical documents subtly reveal that the how of celebrating the liturgy is rather ambiguous. The General Instruction to the Roman Missal argues that “the traditional practices of Roman Rite” (#42) are the proper framework for understanding how to carry out the celebration of the liturgy. With this framework mostly undermined, it seems that we are moving through a dark fog concerning the various contextual aspects of how the Mass is to be offered.
And, yet, there is still a deeper question that hangs over this discussion. What is it about the common expression of the Ordinary Form that would lead people to consider attending the Traditional Latin Mass? DiNoia argues that, at one level, the faithful are seeking the Latin language. However, it seems highly suspect that people are simply looking for the presence of Latin in the liturgy. When a Catholic is unsettled by the liturgical abuses they see, their first line of thinking is not likely to be, “If only we had more Latin!” Nor does it seem to be the case that someone in the pew would be pondering why it is that some clergy ad lib so often, and thus degrade the rubrics of the Missal.
These explanations are vastly too abstract, and contrary to most peoples’ lack of experience with both Latin and the textual rubrics of the Mass.
Most Catholics have never been formally trained in liturgy. Thus, the only referent for liturgy that they can rely upon is their experience of the Mass itself. A more likely hypothesis for why Catholics would consider attending that Traditional Latin Mass seems to be that the common experience of the Ordinary Form leaves a real existential void within. Perhaps they cannot articulate the problem clearly, but they do wonder if “something is missing.” They are searching for something within the liturgy that they are not finding.
In a more fundamental way, people are yearning for an answer to the problem of how to live in the malaise of post-modernity. This is why, among other reasons, St. Pope John Paul II told some of the bishops of the U.S. in 1998 that liturgy must be, more than anything else, “counter-cultural”. He also stated:
Conscious participation calls for the entire community to be properly instructed in the mysteries of the liturgy, lest the experience of worship degenerate into a form of ritualism. But it does not mean a constant attempt within the liturgy itself to make the implicit explicit, since this often leads to a verbosity and informality which are alien to the Roman Rite and end by trivializing the act of worship.
While it might be the case that some good could have come from addressing this problem, what is more certain is that another liturgical document will not be the answer. The common liturgical practices of the Ordinary Form have put Catholics into a rather unsettling position. We have become habituated to a set of practices which too often tend in a direction that undermines the very nature of the liturgical action itself. If this hypothesis is correct, then this is where we must begin. Otherwise, our conjectures are nothing more than artificial.
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