By Samuel Keyes

Theologians John Cavadini, Mary Healy, and Thomas Weinandy recently published a series of essays as “A Synoptic Look at the Failures and Successes of Post-Vatican II Liturgical Reforms.” The series is important reading for anyone interested in the current state of Catholic liturgy (a.k.a. the “liturgy wars”), as well as contemporary reception and interpretation of Vatican II.

I’m conscious of the strangeness in offering my reflections and critique of the series in this decidedly ecumenical space. Isn’t the fallout from Traditionis custodes — the motu proprio in which Pope Francis restricted the use of the Extraordinary Form of the Latin Mass — an obscure internecine Roman problem (not even particularly on the radar of most Roman Catholics, much less Anglicans)? Yes and no. As Sarah Puryear recently pointed out here, the content of Desiderio desideravi is relevant to Anglicans. Matthew Olver has written elsewhere about the interesting parallels between prayer book revision and Traditionis custodes. So I take it for granted that, in some general ways, these liturgical questions about the Roman Rite have broader ecumenical implications. I’ll say more about those, but I think the implications go beyond how the various separated communities handle their liturgical life; they also touch on the status of Rome in relation to such communities.

Cavadini et al., with Pope Francis, are rightly concerned for the unity of the Church and fidelity to the Second Vatican Council. I have no intention to dismiss those concerns as unfounded, much less to offer any subtle sympathies to that vocal minority of radical traditionalists who call into question the authority and validity of the pope, the council, or the revised ordo missae. Rather, I believe the steps taken to address those concerns fail to address the root questions and experiences that stand behind our apparent contemporary impasse.


Now to the essay. I appreciate the seriousness with which Cavadini, Healy, and Weinandy approach this topic. Especially on the internet, doing so opens one to a variety of responses, and no doubt the trolls of extreme left and right (or is it low and high?) could find opportunity to distort and dehumanize. Following an Augustinian hermeneutic of charity, it seems important to treat the authors in light of their best possible intentions. I commend them especially for (1) an illuminating summary of the historical liturgical movement and its development, (2) repeated acknowledgment of the many ways the liturgical reforms proposed by the council in Sacrosanctum concilium have not in fact been implemented well, (3) real sympathy with the concerns of traditionalists and critics of the Novus Ordo, and (4) an admirable desire to see a fruitful and united culture of liturgy in the Latin Church.

On this last point, I think the authors seek to echo the pope’s pastoral concern, evident in different ways in Traditionis custodes, for deeper unity in the Church. While I find myself at odds with many of their particular comments about the Tridentine Mass, I agree with this particular call:

If it is incumbent on those in the Tridentine movement, for the well-being of the Body of Christ, to return to the Church’s ordinary liturgical form, it is also incumbent on those who would receive them to work constructively to address their legitimate concerns. Now is the time for them to make their own significant contributions to the present liturgical renewal …

There remains the significant “if” at the start, but the point is that a ghettoization of the Church into “traditional” and “modern” camps is no real solution. The obligations fall to both sides. Bishops and pastors who call for traditional Catholics to “return” to the ordinary form will never succeed in that call if they do so by demeaning the rites and traditions that so many of these Catholics find nurturing to the life of salvation. They must be prepared to listen to and accompany (concepts much celebrated in Francis’s pontificate) these faithful, recognizing their concerns as legitimate rather than writing them off as somehow schismatic or old-fashioned.

But the faithful in such traditional communities must also be willing to share the treasures they have found and not hoard them as some kind of exclusive possession for the pure. I have a friend who runs an excellent nonprofit dedicated to teaching Gregorian chant. Certain traditionalist families refuse to show up when the apostolate’s choirs visit “ordinary” Novus Ordo churches. In doing so they harden the lines within current ritual cultures of the church, preventing the riches of the tradition from informing and vivifying the reformed rite.

This all-or-nothing attitude among traditionalists faces, rightly I think, strong criticism from Cavadini et al. Even if we grant  that the older rite is intrinsically more reverent or in some other way superior to the new, this admission does not require shunning the Novus Ordo as some kind of theological or ritual poison. As the authors point out, this attitude silences countless pastors, parishes, and musicians, who continue to enact beautiful, traditional, orthodox liturgies following the books of Paul VI and John Paul II. Lamenting the abuses present elsewhere — whether sappy praise choruses or an improvising entertainer-celebrant with bad homilies — and even lamenting the sloppy way that the reform was implemented by the hierarchy simply does not require that we write off the entire reform project as diabolical.

The principal weakness in the “Synoptic” essay, in the end, lies not in its spirit and its hopeful invitations, but in its assessment of recent history and the liturgical reform’s failures. It rightly points out a conciliar hermeneutic of continuity, arguing that the council, especially in Sacrosanctum concilium, had no intention to create an entirely new rite that suppressed an old, but it does not occur to the authors to question whether this intention was followed by the post-conciliar committee that put together the new Missal. This is not a point I can really argue here, but it is precisely this point that is in dispute. It is hard to overestimate the centrality of this question to the experience of liturgical traditionalism. The average person who picks up and compares, say, the Missal of Pius V (1570), the Missal of John XXIII (1962), and the Missal of Paul VI (1970) cannot avoid questioning the claim that the new missal is nothing more than a revision of the old.

The authors spend a good deal of space defending the development of vernacular liturgy, but they do not seem to understand that this is perhaps the least of concerns among most traditionalists. To be sure, many prefer Latin (as does the council). But Archbishop LeFebvre famously suggested that he would have preferred the old Mass celebrated in the vernacular to the Novus Ordo in Latin.

According to Cavadini et al., the Pauline Missal and its concordant practices (like celebrating Mass versus populum) better represent the theology of the Eucharist and, in particular, the priesthood of Christ expressed in the assembly of both clergy and laity. In other words, they assert that it better allows for “full, conscious, active participation” as promoted by Sacrosanctum concilium. But, again, this is exactly what is in dispute. They do not truly argue these points; nor, I think, could they, because any assertion to the effect of a rite’s intrinsic relation to subjective experience would be so burdened by cultural, sociological, and personal factors that it is entirely beyond demonstration.

Since it is difficult (impossible) to argue about the subjective experience of liturgy, what is left, in objective terms, is the rite in its raw form. Joseph Ratzinger (before he was pope) argued in The Spirit of the Liturgy that the council’s highest liturgical goal, active participation, was always intended as a spiritual reality in which the faithful lift up their hearts and minds in union with the central action of the rite. It is by no means straightforwardly apparent that the Novus Ordo somehow makes that action more accessible. I suppose for some people it might. But this is, again, a very experiential question. If anything, in practice, it has made the action more ambiguous.

For instance, the authors argue quite forcefully for the superiority of celebration versus populum. They provide us with the admirable goal of looking together to Christ, who becomes present on the altar in our midst. But it never becomes clear exactly why ad orientem fails in this regard. For example, quoting the General Instruction for the Roman Missal, they note that the altar “is to be positioned such that it can be the focus of both the priest’s and the people’s singular attention.” Was the altar not the singular focus of attention in the old rite? The logic of these comments is rather muddy. In the end, it appears that it all comes down to the ability of the faithful to see what happens on the altar. But here we fall again into pure subjectivity.

Perhaps a show-and-tell approach to liturgy, resonant with a kind of dramatization of the celebrant-priest in persona Christi, visibly speaking to the congregation (“given up for you” as he gazes around the room in a very sincere tone), appeals to some people. But to others this no doubt comes across as phony theatricality. Perhaps in the old rite it is quite possible to avoid the central focus of the action, but it would be hard to argue that it is unclear what the action is.

When I say the essay in question falls short in its historical assessment, I mean not that it misunderstands the spirit of liturgical reform, but that it misunderstands and fails to recognize the true devastation resulting from its implementation. I say this not because I am a traditionalist who thinks the Novus Ordo poisonous or evil or invalid. I am a Novus Ordo priest in every sense: I was ordained in the revised rites; I use the revised rites (often in a further revised form); and my theology is completely indebted to the work of Vatican II, without which I cannot imagine being a Roman Catholic.

But it is not sufficient to recognize that the implementation of reform had problems and abuses without a willingness to see the relation of those problems and abuses to the reform. If we could make such a clean division, the reform would never have been necessary. As the authors point out quite well, the pre-conciliar liturgy had certain natural tendencies that needed to be addressed. It is therefore fanciful to imagine that the post-conciliar liturgy has been somehow magically purified of any bad tendencies. If the council concluded that, to address problems, the rite needed to be revised, why are we forbidden from wondering whether there might be some issues with the reformed rite? Those who reject as “rigidity” a strict adherence to the old rite all too often approach the new rite as if it were the true “Mass of the Ages” that will live forever.

More importantly, though, the spirit of reform, however admirable and worthwhile its goals, failed to recognize the limitations of its authority. As Ratzinger laments in The Spirit of the Liturgy, the impression arose after the council that “the pope really could do anything in liturgical matters, especially if he were acting on the mandate of an ecumenical council.” But in the end “even the pope can only be a humble servant of its lawful development and abiding integrity and identity.” Amid the arguments about “the reception of Vatican II,” I submit that we are still dealing with the aftermath and reception of Vatican I and its definition of papal infallibility. The modern papacy swings between various contradictory visions of what popes have the authority to do. Surely this is not especially reassuring to those considering communion with Rome from the outside.

This is not the place to fret about questions of authority in liturgical revision. But to say that a pope, with the theoretical backing of a council, did revise the liturgy does not mean we must say, with Cavadini et al., that this is in some simplistic way “the work of the Holy Spirit.” That is just bald ultramontanism; backing it with the claim that “the pope said it” only makes it worse.

Free, therefore, to use our basic rational powers of observation, we might wonder if the radical character of the reformed Missal of Paul VI, apparently not envisioned by the council fathers, attempted far too much. In other words, if the council desired to foster active participation, imposing an entirely new and largely unfamiliar rite seems a rather strange way to do it.

Whatever we think of the motives behind the reform, the Novus Ordo is the result of academic and ecclesiastical committee work. It claims to restore this and that. It insists that certain ritual and ceremonial practices that once were endowed with great meaning are now no longer meaningful. But it does so with the attitude that there is “nothing to see here” and everything is just as it was. This kind of change is completely unprecedented in the history of the Church. Even when Pius V promulgated the Roman Missal in 1570 — a watershed moment in Roman conformity — he gave all bishops the option to adopt it in place of older custom. Yet in 1970 the reform was aware of no limits.

Who can blame an increasingly educated laity that responds with either (1) the Church has changed its doctrine, hooray, or (2) the Church has changed its doctrine, alas. To tell people that the doctrine has not changed, or that they should not ask such questions, is a kind of spiritual doublethink. What we are dealing with in 2022 is not, I submit, simply a conflict over whether to accept the council’s reforms. We are dealing rather with decades of liturgical and doctrinal trauma.

I have not even mentioned the crisis over clerical abuse in the church or the recently reported sense that priests generally do not trust bishops. But they relate to the liturgy wars quite directly in that they reveal the overall crisis of trust in the Church. What I describe as liturgical trauma is surely part of this big picture. It is why Traditionis custodes had the effect of an explosion happening in an already full hospital waiting room.

When Pope Benedict issued the motu proprio Summorum Pontificum, which allowed greater freedom in using what he called the “extraordinary form” (establishing the status quo that Traditiones custodes reversed), he established a vision of the two forms: not as two competing rites, better and worse, but as two expressions or forms of the same rite. Rather than simply offering a concession to a group of cranky anti-reform faithful, he saw himself as attempting to treat the issue of liturgical trauma at its base — not primarily as a problem of how to implement the reform, but a misunderstanding of reform’s nature. For Benedict, the problem was not so much in those who liked the older form of the Mass; the problem was in those who saw the new as a radical break with the old. Allowing the two forms to flourish side by side, he proposed, might at the same time correct the abuses of the new and the old, paving the way (perhaps) to a more united Roman liturgical experience in the future.

I am in no position to explain the why and wherefore of Pope Francis’s liturgical magisterium or the administrative decisions of his curia. But it does strike me as simply true that reversing Pope Benedict’s provision reopens previous wounds because it sees the problem differently. Pope Francis, like Cavadini et al., seems convinced that the problems of the last five decades lie in an incomplete implementation of the council. But this concern, right as it may be on the surface, still ignores the trauma. It ignores the ineffable woundedness of a church whose voice was, almost overnight, taken away from her and replaced with another. (To say that the new Mass was both licit and valid misses the point.) It also ignores enduring questions from clergy (including popes) and laity alike about the new Missal’s ability to represent the depth of a theological and spiritual tradition that started long before 1970.

We are no longer in the 1950s. Cavadini et al. seem to acknowledge this in their recognition that Extraordinary Form worshipers are often fully Vatican II “compliant” in their full, active, conscious participation. Yet the authors seem stuck in the idea that this is not good enough, that they should somehow remake themselves more in the image of the “participation” of the 1970s — or at least the 1970s as they should have been. Is not the chief law of the Church the salvation of souls? Does the Church really think that every individual’s spirituality needs to look the same?

It is this insistent drive toward liturgical uniformity that most troubles me. As a member of the Ordinariate, with our unique form of the Roman Rite (the Divine Worship Missal), I have at times heard people suggest that there is no point in being different and that we should join the “normal” Catholic Church. Anglicanorum coetibus, one person confidently told me, was like an entrance ramp to the Catholic highway. We were never meant to stay on it. It was, it seems, just a temporary tool to lull me into a sense of familiarity before bringing me to full assimilation. Cavadini et al. seem to think of Summorum Pontificum and Ecclesia Dei in similar terms. Never mind that this reinforces the caricature of Roman primacy as the forced uniformity of all people under a dictatorial semi-divine pope.

On the one hand, they’re right. I’m not sure this particular moment of liturgical history is sustainable as it is. The fissures run deep, and only time will tell. But I do not think this excuses the personal and pastoral harm of the attitude. As Benedict wrote in Summorum Pontificum, “what earlier generations held sacred, remains sacred and great for us too.” Organic liturgical development can and should happen, but it should happen within the Church’s worship as it is, rather than as it might be piously imagined by a group of experts. Perhaps it is true that our entrance ramps have become too wide, our field hospitals for sinners too stable. But this strikes me as a much more natural development than the liturgical committee work of the 20th century. If, as Cavadini et al. remind us in the end, “the sacred Eucharistic liturgy here on earth only finds its perfection in the heavenly liturgy,” we might be forgiven for thinking that, while we seek that final perfection here on earth, multiple forms and expressions of it will live, grow, and nurture us toward that life that is to come.

About The Author

Sam Keyes serves as Professor of Theology at John Paul the Great Catholic University in Escondido, California, and a priest in the Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter.

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2 Responses

  1. C R SEITZ

    Thank you. Though not your intention (and you know this terrain), the essay tracks with similar attitudes re: 1979 BCP and the 1928 Prayer Book within Anglicanism. At least the 1979 BCP sought to create a kind of continuity via Rite 1. But why it was necessary to make the 1928 book off-limits breathes the same spirit you describe here. It also gives one the sense that there is some kind of transformative power inherent in rites qua rites. Anglicans can drift into this mentality very quickly, given the lack of other controls (black letter canon law; a consistent episcopal self-understanding; etc). The rite becomes a salvific sine qua non. ‘Cranmer gave us an identity via a rite.’ Etc. Over time this is proving less than durable as a crucial self-identifier, since a proliferation of rites (helped by the internet and the printer) is a fact on the ground. (And see the confusion at the most recent General Convention, concerning the status of the BCP itself).

    Sorry to move this into Anglican terrain but thank you for your thoughtful and important essay.


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