Friday, March 2, 2012

An old argument that should have been put to bed sixty years ago...

Every so often one finds an acute case of the poverty of western liturgical theory and praxis. While the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council was awash in liberal access, the Western or Catholic liturgical theory and praxis now faces the access of an equal and opposite reaction.

Parties calling for a "new liturgical movement" are prone to ignore certain aspects of history, such as the correlation between liturgy and social responsibility touched upon in a prior post. One interesting tenant of this movement is the notion of liturgical Latin as a hieratic language. The idea was proposed by Mohrmann in the 1950s and revived by Lang in recent history. Els Rose has published, to the best of my knowledge, the two most recent articles critiquing this theory and, implicitly, its revival. Proponents of liturgical Latin as a hieratic language, an artificial synthesis unique to the Christian liturgy and not readily understandable when compared to spoken Latin limit themselves to a comparatively small textual liturgical and manuscript pool with which to work in order to make their argument. In particular, proponents of such a theory ignore the Latin liturgy as it was practiced and written down in the wide swath of local contexts throughout medieval Europe - be it the Roman rite itself, a variant of the Roman style of liturgy, or one of the other families of Latin liturgy.

Rose offers us fine textual work with which to examine the hieratic argument, however, often times the Latin language itself is the best argument. The Latin hymns, collected in the Liturgia Horarum and the Monastic breviary are themselves great examples of simple, terse and direct Latin. The hymns of the brevairy in the original form are not on the level of Ovid. See any of the hymns we can reasonably attribute to Ambrose for an example. Furthermore, even where liturgical Latin is good, it is often not great - it is, in many respects, a much more simple form of the language when compared to classical Latin. Liturgical Latin, by comparison to some of the authors contemporary to many of our older liturgical texts is readily comprehensible and fairly straight forward.

Strangely, though, certain sectors are getting attached to this theory of liturgical Latin as hieratic. It always comes down to the same motivation: if you can establish liturgical Latin as hieratic, then you can argue for hieratic English, normally meaning the type of English found in the King Jams Bible and Book of Common Prayer. There's nothing intrinsically wrong with that type of English, although the argument based upon Latin doesn't make that much sense, at least when looking at the language itself.

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