Editor’s note: This Opinion essay was originally posted on August 6, 2021, and is reposted in light of today’s news that the Vatican has issued “further strict guidelines on the celebration of the Traditional Latin Mass, in response to questions about the motu proprio Traditionis custodes.”
In the brouhaha following the promulgation of the Motu Proprio Traditionis custodes on July 16th we have been treated to a torrent of commentary from the victors that often betrays such a distortion of liturgical history as to be comparable to the most unprincipled secular journalists crowing with their revisionist by-lines on the morning after ‘their’ candidate gains power in whatever election. Let us not now pretend that this is anything other than a political ecclesiastical war, howsoever disturbing that reality may be – even more so given that a liturgical tolerance if not peace had been taking root, growing and bearing fruit in many if not most dioceses, three weeks ago.
Pope Francis has gone back “strongly to what Vatican II said and upheld it”, we have been told. “Some of what Pope Benedict did was contrary to the Second Vatican Council,” it is said. “The entire church” will be “returning to the 1970 Mass,” it is trumpeted. “The 1970 missal” is blithely said “in a sense to be superior, more faithful to the will of the Lord as understood by the Second Vatican Council.” “Active participation” in the liturgy and the liturgy of Vatican II “are synonymous,” it is asserted. We are to be relieved that corrupt “medieval” elements of the liturgy have been discarded once and for all.
So, too, the very first article of the Motu Proprio itself, which seeks to establish the modern liturgical books as the “unique expression of the lex orandi of the Roman rite”, betrays a fundamentally defective understanding of the history of the liturgy, of the relationship of the lex orandi and the lex credendi and of the power of those whose ministry in the Church is indeed that of guarding her living Tradition.
Corruption of the liturgy?
A recapitulation of some basics of liturgical history is thus in order.1 Let’s start with the supposed medieval “corruption” of the liturgy – a theory quite fashionable amongst mid-twentieth century liturgists and propagated widely by their doyen, Joseph A. Jungmann, SJ. According to this theory the “pure” liturgy of the early Church was corrupted in the medieval period and overlayed with inappropriate elements. Based on this assumption twentieth-century reformers eagerly sought to remove the illegitimate accretions and to return to the liturgy before it was thus corrupted, which they made available anew through the liturgical reform of St Paul VI.
This theory, sometimes called “antiquarianism”, denigrates all liturgical forms growing up in the life of the Church from the fall of the Roman Empire through to the Renaissance – approximately 1,000 years – denying the possibility that the Holy Spirit could inspire legitimate developments in the liturgy in this period. It is staggering in its arrogance, but truly useful as a political tool. In the end even Paul VI resisted its harshest implications, refusing liturgists’ demands to abolish the Roman canon, the Confiteor, the Orate Fratres, etc. (In practice, one may argue, they were abolished nevertheless by becoming mere options, or by being mal-translated, but that is another issue.)
If Jungmann’s corruption theory was the fundamental error underpinning the work of mid twentieth century reformers, the “new clothes” of the liturgical Emperors of our own times are stitched together with the assumption that active participation in the liturgy and the liturgy of Vatican II (read the liturgical books promulgated by Paul VI) are coterminous. Well, no, they are not.
First, that the liturgy is “the primary and indispensable source from which the faithful are to derive the true Christian spirit” and that true participation in it was essential for all was asserted by St Piux X in 1903 and reiterated by his successors up to the Council. Furthermore, his 1903 assertion gave rise to what became known as the twentieth-century liturgical movement dedicated to promoting actual participation in the liturgy as it then was (that is, what is now seen as the older form of the Roman rite – the “usus antiquior”). Decades of work followed wherein pastors and scholars diligently led people to discover and drink deeply from that primary and indispensable source of the Christian spirit as the basis of their daily life.
It is true that in so doing some came to believe that this true participation could be facilitated by liturgical reform – a modest introduction of the vernacular, for example. Accordingly, some reforms were enacted, beginning in the 1950s. It is in this context that the Second Vatican Council – an unquestionably legitimate ecumenical Council of the Church – authoritatively judged it apposite to call for an organic development of the Roman rite, a modest reform so as to achieve the noble pastoral ends the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy sets out in its first paragraph.
It is also true that some voices at the time, and in the 1950s, betrayed a misunderstanding of the nature of the liturgy, seeking to adapt it almost completely to the image and likeness and supposed needs of ‘modern man’, thereby evacuating its very content and turning it into something more akin to Protestant worship. Some liturgists, numerous over-enthusiastic younger clergy, religious, and laity, and even one or two Council Fathers rode this wave of liturgical “creativity”. Such theories and practical “abuses” are less frequent today, but they did incalculable damage.
Vatican II and the implementation of reform
In the midst of this, the official group entrusted with the implementation of the Council’s reform (the “Consilium”) whether through enthusiasm, sheer opportunity or sincere conviction that it was for the good of the Church (or a combination of these factors), went well beyond the reform envisaged by the Council and produced rites that owed more to the desires of key players on the Consilium than they did to the principles of the Council’s own Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy. Where did the Council call for new Eucharistic Prayers? Where did it authorize the 100% vernacularization of the liturgical rites? One could enumerate further examples. The Consilium’s Secretary, Father Bugnini himself, boasts in his memoirs of exceeding the Council’s mandate.
What is crucial here is that a legitimate distinction can be made between the Council and the reform implemented in its name. Questioning the continuity of the modern liturgical books with liturgical tradition, and with the sound principles laid down by the Council is not denying the Council or its authority. It is, rather, to seek to defend the Council from those who distorted its stated intentions.
Nevertheless, as is evident from his public discourses at the time, Paul VI was personally convinced in 1969/1970 that these further steps in producing the reformed rites he promulgated – all of which he personally and authoritatively approved in their specific detail – were worth the sacrifice of the venerable liturgical rites. He sincerely believed that they would bring about a new springtime in the life of the Church in his day. The liturgical books he promulgated are unquestionably authoritative. The sacraments celebrated by them are valid. But, given that they went beyond the Council’s mandate, it is historically and liturgically true to say that they are the liturgical books of Paul VI, not of the Second Vatican Council. And on this basis it is legitimate to question their continuity with liturgical tradition.
The new, more recent use of the Roman rite (the “usus recentior”) is an innovation, judged apposite by the supreme authority. His competence to do this is another question, particularly in the light of the teaching of the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
No sacramental rite may be modified or manipulated at the will of the minister or the community. Even the supreme authority in the Church may not change the liturgy arbitrarily, but only in the obedience of faith and with religious respect for the mystery of the liturgy. (par. 1125)
Later in his pontificate Paul VI had misgivings. His 1975 summary dismissal of the key architect of the reform (by then Archbishop) Bugnini, and his severe treatment of those who opposed the reform may be seen as symptoms of this. The expected new springtime in the life of the Church had not materialized, as statistics demonstrate only too well. To be sure, many sociological factors contributed to the gravity of the crisis, but the fact remains that the much-hailed “new” liturgy did not produce the results its architects had promised. Participation in the liturgical rites rapidly diminished for the very simple reason that the first and most necessary participation is physical presence at them. Increasingly, the people no longer came at all.
Reforms under St John Paul II and Benedict XVI
St John Paul II’s election in 1978 sought a stricter implementation of the reformed liturgical books – abuses were strongly denounced – and in 1984 a limited permission was given for the usus antiquior as a means of healing divisions that had hardened under Paul VI. This permission was widened in 1988 in response to Archbishop Lefebvre’s unlawful consecration of bishops, and, significantly, because the Pope recognized the “rightful aspirations” of those attached to the previous liturgical reforms. This recognition facilitated the formation of Institutes and personal parishes and other communities of which the usus antiquior was (and is) the lifeblood. The full, conscious and actual participation in the liturgical rites witnessed in these communities to this day – something of which the Council Fathers would be proud – has borne significant fruit ever since, particularly in attracting the young and in generating vocations to the priesthood and religious life.
Recognizing this reality and understanding the larger question of the need to address the rupture in the Church’s liturgical tradition, John Paul II’s right hand man for two decades, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, undertook two initiatives. As a Cardinal and in the capacity of a private theologian he wrote and spoke often about the need for a new liturgical movement to recapture the true spirit of the liturgy. And he spoke about the desirability of a “reform of the liturgical reform”, to correct the liturgical books of Paul VI as it were.
The former was general enough to cause no concern amongst the partisans of the missal of Paul VI, but the concrete proposal to retouch and improve the usus recentior was too much for them. Even after his election to the papacy, talk of a possible “reform of the reform” was forbidden within the walls of his own Congregation for Divine Worship, effectively blocking its progress. The opportunity lost by the rigid insistence that the liturgical books of Paul VI are irreformable may not be judged well by history.
As pope, Benedict XVI acted on his convictions and in 2007 exhorted the Church to a more worthy celebration of the usus recentior in continuity with liturgical tradition (Sacramentum caritatis). Some months later he established that the usus antiquior had its rightful place in the liturgical life of the Church and freed it from the parsimonious grip of the bishops who had, in too many places, sought to strangle it (Summorum pontificum).
As a result, the growth stimulated by John Paul II accelerated. Peaceful liturgical coexistence augmented many dioceses. Some mutual enrichment between the uses began to grow. Visiting bishops encountered young, vibrant, apostolic communities – sometimes in stark contrast to others in their diocese.
Were these acts of Benedict XVI contrary to the Council? For those of us too young to have been there it is difficult to say. We did not work daily with its Fathers, nor did we help draft its documents. Benedict XVI did. And he has dedicated his theological and episcopal ministry to its interpretation in a hermeneutic of continuity, not of rupture – which is surely the only valid way to interpret its reforms. So too, the discourses and documents of Benedict XVI reference the Council constantly, far more than those of his successor. That is not to criticize the Holy Father, who has his own approach, but simply to observe that Pope Benedict’s teaching was thoroughly Conciliar, even though by no means warped by the ideological belief that the Church (or a new Church) started at Vatican II. If Benedict XVI’s acts are seen as contrary to the Council, it is because they challenged and corrected this ideological “Council” and its progeny with historical and theological reality.
What is significant – and this was unexpected by many – is that the pontificate of Benedict XVI revealed him to be a gentle and fatherly professor, quite generous to those of differing views. He did not harshly sanction those with whom he disagreed. Rather, he sought to teach them, often by example. Liturgically, whilst himself celebrating the usus recentior well, he recognized and respected the importance of the usus antiquior in the life of the Church of the 21st century, and in particular its attraction to the young. The riches of diversity in unity were a reality in many dioceses, and were valued.
At Pope Benedict’s resignation it was unimaginable that any successor could rescind Summorum Pontificum. And yet that has now happened. Why?
The virtual vs. the on the ground realities
The stated motivation is urgently to protect the unity of the Church which is threatened by Council-denying traditionalists’ attitudes and utterances. It is true that there are loud self-styled ‘rad-trads’ whose pontificating on any aspect of the faith and on the sacred liturgy in particular at times takes one’s breath away for its presumption, arrogance, or ignorance. And yes, there are the professional traditionalists who have never had an unpublished or unmonetized thought and who presume to dictate the media narrative, or even dispense from liturgical law, based on their own private judgement. And there are the laptop liturgists who should otherwise be in seminaries or monasteries but who, through their own or through others’ fault, find themselves only able to talk about the liturgy rather than to live it, and who end up living in a liturgical world of their own based on their personal and often quite eccentric preferences.
If there is division or denial fomented by these people, it is virtual – which is not to say that it is not serious, particularly given the capacity of virtual reality to influence minds. But, as many bishops worldwide have attested in recent weeks, this is not the on the ground reality in the communities who live a tangible liturgical and apostolic life centered on the fruitful participation in the riches of the usus antiquior. What is needed is not an edict ordering these peoples’ extermination, but the provision of centers of integral liturgical life that can draw these people from the fringes back into the heart of the communion of the Church, with mercy, charity, and, yes, when necessary, with correction. To overreact to this problem simply demonstrates one’s insecurity in the face of it. It also goes some way towards proving their point and further fueling their narrative.
Many bishops, including some who are no real friends of the usus antiquior, have been prompt to take a pastoral stance in respect of the measures enacted by Traditionis custodes. This may simply be because its provisions are untenable, or unworkable, in the judgement of diocesan bishops with real problems with which to deal. It has also often been because they know that the problem motivating this legislation does not exist in their dioceses. The widespread ‘non-reception’ of this Motu Proprio by the episcopate may itself turn out to be an important historical event in liturgical and papal history.
Seemingly, though, there are those in the Roman Curia who sincerely believe that Traditionis custodes will result in the disappearance of the usus antiquior from the Church. With all due respect to their Eminent, Most Reverend and Right Reverend persons, they are as out of touch with reality as they are with historical fact. Blind suicidal obedience is a thing of the past. They may rekindle liturgical wars and drive people underground or outside the ordinary ecclesiastical structures; they may well frustrate and even destroy Christian lives and vocations; they may increase division in the Church in the name of purportedly protecting its unity (and for all of that they shall have to answer to Almighty God), but this will only serve to underline the importance and crucial value of the usus antiquior in the life of the Church of today and of tomorrow. So too, the perceived need to resort to such drastic measures to ‘protect’ the usus recentior some fifty years after its promulgation is, perhaps, its greatest indictment.
Some prelates might take comfort in repeating the mantra that the Missal of Paul VI is “a witness to unchanging faith and uninterrupted tradition,” as an article of faith. But that is not actually true. The need to employ such language to assert continuity where it is so patently absent belies the propaganda such a statement in fact is. That the Missal of Paul VI contains theological and liturgical differences to that of St John XXIII which are substantial and intentional is something on which the post-conciliar reformers themselves, honest and intelligent protagonists of the usus recentior today, and its critics, all agree. Traditionis custodes itself, in its assumption that the usus antiquior has no place in the post-conciliar Church, implicitly affirms this.
If it is true that the new Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship was a key player (or pawn?) in the production of this Motu Proprio, and if it is true that he boasted that his clique would succeed in annihilating Summorum Pontificum, then it is clear that this is part of an orchestrated campaign. Has the Holy Father been misled or even abused by some zealots? Or does he labour under a profound historical misconception in respect of these questions? We must redouble our prayers for him, and for the Church. The votive Mass for the Unity of the Church should not be ignored in these days.
As I have said many times, I am not a traditionalist. I am a Catholic. And as a Catholic I hold that the bitterness, fear, alienation, and growing division directly brought about by Traditionis custodes is a situation of the utmost grave concern. It is a source of scandal well beyond those whom it targeted and, pastorally speaking, is already a disaster – particularly amongst the young.
In the face of this, as a liturgical historian, I cannot remain silent. Legislation cannot change historical facts. Nor can an act of legal positivism determine what is or is not part of the lex orandi of the Church, for as the Catechism teaches, “the law of prayer is the law of faith: the Church believes as she prays. Liturgy is a constitutive element of the holy and living Tradition” (par. 1124) – of which the bishops, and first amongst them, the Bishop of Rome, are guardians, not the proprietors. For as one humble Pope taught when taking possession of his cathedral in Rome:
The Pope is not an absolute monarch whose thoughts and desires are law. On the contrary: the Pope’s ministry is a guarantee of obedience to Christ and to his Word. He must not proclaim his own ideas, but rather constantly bind himself and the Church to obedience to God’s Word, in the face of every attempt to adapt it or water it down, and every form of opportunism.
The same pope was a diligent student of theology and of liturgical history. This led him to conclude that: “What earlier generations held as sacred, remains sacred and great for us too, and it cannot be all of a sudden entirely forbidden or even considered harmful.” He insisted that “It behooves all of us to preserve the riches which have developed in the Church’s faith and prayer, and to give them their proper place.”
Any other conclusions fail Liturgical History 101. They wouldn’t pass the theology or pastoral care courses either.
1 For more detailed examinations of these questions and relevant bibliographical references see my works The Organic Development of the Liturgy (Ignatius, 2005) and T&T Clark Companion to Liturgy (Bloomsbury, 2015).
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