By Jonathan Mitchican

One of the biggest intellectual challenges to my journey into full communion with the Catholic Church was the idea that doctrine develops. Anglicanism at its best nurtures a love for the early Church Fathers, but like many High Church Anglicans, I had allowed that love to turn into a fetish. No teaching of the Church could be legitimately required to be believed, I reasoned, if its truth had not been immediately apparent to those who lived before the sixth century. After all, the faith was “once delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3). St. Thomas Aquinas did not assent to Mary’s immaculate conception, which the Catholic Church now holds as a dogma. Could Pope Pius IX really know better in 1854 than Aquinas did in the 1200s?

Well, as it turns out, yes, because the Church does not exist in a bubble outside of the messiness of history. The Church exists to sanctify the world, not to escape from it. As St. John Henry Newman argues in An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, this means that the Church’s teaching must of necessity become clearer and fuller over time. “In a higher world it is otherwise,” says Newman, “but here below to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.”

Fr. Jay Scott Newman summarizes the earlier Newman’s argument this way:

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An acorn never grows into a Bassett Hound or a Ford Explorer; it always becomes an oak tree. Between the little seed and the towering tree there is organic continuity standing underneath all the visible changes, but everything the mighty oak will ever become is contained within the acorn. And when time, sun, and rain are added to the acorn, the mature oak is the result because that is its nature.

Perhaps this is so for doctrine, but can it be equally true for liturgy? The way we celebrate the sacraments is not doctrine per se, but it also is not a matter of indifference. The Mass is not something we invented. It comes to us from Jesus. Every Mass has within it the same fundamental reality of Christ’s divine presence that was first experienced on the night of the Last Supper. Yet it would be preposterous to say that the Mass has not developed since that night in the upper room. The liturgy develops as surely as doctrine does, which means that the question is not whether the liturgy has changed but what the nature of those changes is and how we know when they are legitimate.

My friend and fellow Ordinariate priest Fr. Sam Keyes has some questions on this score regarding the post-Vatican II reform of the Roman rite. He stresses that he does not consider the current rite illegitimate, but he believes it marks a profound discontinuity with what came before it. He calls the process by which the post-conciliar Missal developed “completely unprecedented in the history of the Church,” and he suggests that it represents a massive change in the Church’s doctrine, though from what to what is not entirely clear to me. He further says the Vatican fails to acknowledge the seriousness of the rupture that reforming the Mass produced. “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 sympathy for some of what Fr. Keyes argues. The last half-century has brought massive cultural shifts across the world, and the Church has been affected by these shifts. Liturgical abuses were rampant in the 1970s and 1980s, and they are still not uncommon today. Pope Francis acknowledges much of this in his apostolic letter Desiderio desideravi. As I wrote recently, I believe our battles over liturgy in the Church today would be much more fruitful if we followed the lead of the recently deceased Pope Benedict XVI in recognizing that the liturgy is a revelation of God to be discovered more than a human effort at reaching towards the transcendent. But Fr. Keyes is certainly not the first to wonder whether the post-conciliar reform of the Mass is more the latter than the former. To put the matter plainly, is the so-called “Novus Ordo” a legitimate development, or is it a completely new invention with only tangential connections to what came before it?

Newman can be helpful in answering that question. He lays out seven principles for assessing whether a doctrinal development is legitimate. The first is preservation of type. The later development needs to fit recognizably with what came before it. “Young birds do not grow into fishes.” In some ways, this is the hardest of Newman’s tests to apply to the new liturgy, because there are obvious material differences. But those differences are not merely between the “Novus Ordo” and the “Tridentine Mass.” We can see vast differences between the current Missal and any number of other unquestionably legitimate forms of the Mass: the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, the Maronite liturgy, even Jesus’ own celebration of the Last Supper. All of these differ from one another greatly, but they share certain things in common too: bread and wine, the words of the Lord in consecration, prayer, scripture, etc. Surely enough elements of similarity are present to presume that the type of the Last Supper has been preserved in its children, including the current Mass.

Newman’s second and third criteria have to do with principles and culture. Continuity of principles means that, while teachings develop and evolve, their underlying principles must remain the same. Power of assimilation means the Church must be able to take in what is good from the surrounding culture while keeping out those things that are contrary to the truth. On both of these marks, the current Mass passes easily. Critics may feel that certain aspects of the Mass do or do not accentuate particular truths of the faith adequately, but no one can seriously claim that the Mass as written is centered on anything but the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, who gives himself to us fully and substantially in his body and blood. Cultural elements that have been absorbed might include things like the use of the vernacular or the expansion of musical choices, but these things are not absolutes and are not by themselves inherently erroneous.

The next three of Newman’s notes have to do with the way in which the development takes place. Logical sequence determines whether a reasonable progression can be seen from the original idea to the developed form, while anticipation of its future tells us that we should be able to see the seeds of the developed idea even in the earlier one, the way you might look at a picture of a child and see the small, burgeoning features that will become fully formed in adulthood. Likewise, the developed doctrine must come out of a Conservative action upon its past, meaning the changes will not completely reverse what has come before but retain what is good while gently and gradually removing what is bad.

The first two of these are easily met by the current form of the Roman rite. The major theme of the reform was the call made by the Second Vatican Council for active participation in the Mass. Henri de Lubac’s retrieval of the idea that “the Eucharist makes the Church” brought focus back to the image of the Church as the body of Christ, in which all members have a vital role. Through the recovery of celebration in the vernacular, the prayers of the faithful, the homily, and so on, the Mass was reformed in order to foster the participation of all Christ’s members. At a minimum then, we can say that the current form of the Mass is at least attempting to follow the pattern that Newman sets out.

But can we really say it is a conservative reform? Fr. Keyes refers to the “radical character” of the reform. For many of the faithful, it certainly felt like a radical change. The implementation of the reform was at best uneven. In many places, the move from the old Mass to the new happened practically overnight. Likewise, the introduction of the reformed Mass was accompanied in many places by other changes that were called for neither by Vatican II nor the Missal. These changes, which appeal to the “spirit of Vatican II” while ignoring the letter, cannot reasonably be charged to the reform. Nothing in the rite countenances or requires felt banners, priests acting as entertainers, banal music, or an abandoning of traditional liturgical accoutrement like proper vestments, incense, holy water, and the like. In fact, nothing in the reformed rite requires the move from ad orientem to celebration facing the people. On the contrary, the General Instruction of the Roman Missal and the rubrics still anticipate an east-facing celebration, though this is no longer a common practice.

The aim of the reform was to keep continuity with the best of what came before. While it is a matter of opinion just what falls into that category, certainly the essentials of the Eucharist are intact. Much of what changed in the new Mass was not by invention of something new but by restoration of things that had been lost over time. For this reason, the attribution “traditional Latin Mass” sometimes used for the Mass in use before Vatican II is misleading. In many ways, the post-Vatican II reform was like washing away a thick layer of dirt to reveal the gold that lies underneath.

The last of Newman’s criteria is Chronic vigour, meaning that the development has staying power. It does not just appear and disappear. “Duration is another test of a faithful development.” Only time will tell. It has been a mere five decades since the promulgation of the Missal of Pope St. Paul VI. While it seems unlikely to me that a new council or pope will come along any time soon demanding extensive reform, it is always a possibility. As Fr. Keyes rightly points out, we should be able to assess the current Mass with a critical eye. That is part of the Church’s responsibility, to measure what has been given against the sensus fidei. This does, however, take some time to sort and can only really happen in the practice of celebrating and experiencing the reformed Mass in its most robust form, not in an atmosphere in which the reform is simply an item on the menu.

Critics of the current Missal are quick to point to the decline in Mass attendance in the last 50 years as proof of the insufficiency of the “Novus Ordo.” At the same time, since Pope Benedict XVI opened the unrestricted use of the pre-conciliar Mass in 2007, many communities have developed around that Mass, with growing numbers especially among young families. This, it would seem, is a point in favor of returning to the previous Mass. But that argument relies entirely on a correlation fallacy. Many things have changed in the last 50 years, not just in the Church but in the world at large. It is impossible to isolate a single factor in the decline, let alone to attribute it to the reform of the Mass. Even though communities that exclusively celebrate the pre-conciliar Mass have seen a great deal of growth in the last decade, their numbers are still quite small when compared to the number worshiping each week in the ordinary form.

One of the problems inherent in this comparison is that it is apples to oranges. It compares the best version of the old Mass, celebrated by small, strong, dedicated communities of faith, with the worst of the new Mass, poorly instituted and carried out in a generic fashion in many places. A true comparison would need to look at the best of both forms, focusing not merely on sociological shifts but on the rite itself, referring back to the question of active participation that was the fulcrum upon which the reform rests in the first place.

There is simply no way of telling what the long-term staying power of the reform will be other than to live with it, but in the short term we can say that many people have found great blessings in the current form of the Mass, including the many saints who have been produced in the last two generations. Five different popes have now governed the Church with the current Mass at the center of her worshiping life, and none saw reason to strip it down and start again. When the Mass in the current Missal is celebrated well, with dignity and reverence, it evokes the same beauty of holiness that can be found in other forms of the Mass, including in the best versions of the pre-conciliar Mass.

The Mass as it exists in the Roman Catholic Church today is certainly very different from what existed before the Missal of 1970. There is much that still needs to be done to encourage a deeper, richer experience of the reformed rite throughout the Church as intended. Nonetheless, the best way to understand the post-conciliar reform of the Mass is through the lens of development rather than change qua change. This is not a bug of Catholicism but a feature. The truth of the Catholic faith is enduring and unchangeable, but not static. The Mass must never be allowed to become a boutique experience, something to quell our fears and anxieties about life in the modern world. The Mass is dynamic and alive. It is where we meet the living Lord who transforms the world by transfiguring us into the image of his Son.

About The Author

Fr. Jonathan Mitchican is the chaplain and Theology Department Chair at St. John XXIII College Preparatory in Katy, Texas. He writes about prayer, theology, and Catholic teaching at https://contemplativeapologetics.substack.com/

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Robin Luethe
18 days ago

Doctrine and dogma ought not to be like common law: kludge built upon kludge. We can and ought to honor the formulations of previous generations and centuries. So much of current doctrine/dogma is a kludge in that it generally is built upon all of the superstructures of prior formulations. Better to honor the past, but then build more upon the gospels and other New Testament writings. If that testimony was not so current with the life and times of Jesus and the apostles we might excuse it. Fortunately we are blessed the the biblical testimony mostly dating to well within… Read more »