Saturday, December 13, 2014

Gathering a Sense of the Lay of the Liturgical Land : The contemporary context

Forward: I present this as I wrote it. Unfinished and likely to never see any additional development. It is exceedingly difficult to continue writing on a topic I continue to care less and less about.


The Missale Romanum of Paul VI is THE liturgy of the Roman Church. It seemed best to state that right out of the gate so no time is spent belaboring well exhausted and practically irrelevant points about the circumstances surrounding its implementation and the controversies that followed. To reiterate: these points are irrelevant and now excessively documented. Time and ink has been spent on regurgitating the same points, all under the illusion of inaugurating a reform of the reform or a restoration of the old missal. There is nothing to be said against the Missal and Breviary of Paul VI, there is no criticism no matter how intelligent, that was not argued at some point or another in the 1970s. Furthermore, the majority of the contemporary critics have more often than not refused to research the motivations of the members of the Concilium aside from Bugnini, who, rightfully or wrongfully, has functioned as suitable nemesis for certain groups.

Expectations that the liturgy of Paul VI will be abolished or so heavily redacted that its Missal and Breviary resemble the Tridentine models needs to be tempered by several facts that point towards the more-or-less permanent status of the Pauline liturgy.

  • The Pauline liturgy bears the mark of John Paul II. The late bishop of Rome presided over the addition of new feasts and revised Mass formularies from the previous editions and a third typical edition of Missal. Indeed, the Pauline liturgy, in virtue of the restoration of suppressed feasts that apparently had some connection to his own piety (and perhaps mysticism), may be said to reflect, in certain areas, aspects of his spirituality. This is to say nothing of the impact of the man on a whole generation of Roman Catholics whose very idea of Roman Catholicism is intimately entwined with his pontificate.
  • Benedict XVI never intended to displace the Pauline liturgy. Contrary to the proof texting of Traditionalists, a thorough review of Ratzinger's liturgical work does not support a contention that he sought to abolish the Pauline liturgy or in manner rejected it. As a cardinal, Ratzinger was well aware of the difficulty caused by such a sudden overhaul of the Roman Rite and the manner in which it was imposed. Yet, when discussing the Pauline liturgy itself, Ratzinger was, barring minor criticisms, content with the new Missal and, by all available evidence, completely adopted the Liturgia Horarum as his canonical prayer. This is significant; in the context of Roman ecclesiology, the most authoritative voice cited by Traditionalist cannot be either hold or teach their position.
  • The Roman Church's demonstrable growth is occurring outside or a Western context that has little to no cultural memory of the Tridentine liturgy. Denying that such a drastic reform of the Roman liturgy contributed to the decline of the Roman Church in Western Europe and North America is a basic denial of a phenomenon that is demonstrable in recorded history: when religious or cultural rituals of an immemorable quality (meaning that there is no real cogniscance of when the ritual concretely took form and was applied), the previous modes of social, religious and cultural cohesion evaporate. Historically, only a firm exercise of authority, with the ability to exact extreme penalty upon any dissent, is able to act as the cohesive force that reconstitutes those dispersed modes of unity. Paul VI, having instituted such a revolution in the Roman Church, did the natural thing by being so stringent with Traditionalists. This is the normative response of authority to retain cohesion. Yet, such methods were ineffective in a post-modern Western context in which the autonomy of the individual is an intellectual and cultural presumption. Thoroughly recasting the Roman liturgy had the effect that similar ritual reengineering has had thorought history. The better part of Roman Church in the West lost is social, cultural, and religious coherence. For its part, the hierarchy did not have the political leverage to exercise authority in such a way so as to force cohesion. This is not a critic of the theological content or spirituality of the new liturgy. Rather, it is sociological argument drawn from the historical examples we have of such similar ritual recasts. Whereas this was the experience in the West, in Africa and Asia, the sources of Catholicism's growth, the experience was the opposite. The Tridentine liturgy could not be said to have much cultural memory for those continents. If the Tridentine liturgy had any cultural memory in these areas, it was largely associated with colonialism, as the ritual imposition of a conquering power. Again, this is not a theological or spiritual critique; it is a sociological argument. The Pauline liturgy, conversely, is viewed as Africa's liturgy, Asia's liturgy. It has embedded itself as the liturgy of cultural memory in these two areas where Catholicism continues to show the most growth and, in the case of Africa, the most stringent adherence to theological orthodoxy. Furthermore, Africa is leaving its impact on the Roman liturgy. This can be seen in the localization of the Roman Rite for Zaire and the Kenyan edition of the Liturgy of the Hours, a project that is largely considered to be Cardinal Arinze's liturgical legacy.
The above being noted, this is not to say that there are no intellectually valid criticisms of the Novus Ordo - there are. However, the time to raise such criticisms and tenaciously argue for them was when the first Missa normative was demonstrated in 1967. Practically speaking, the valid criticisms of the Novus Ordo have no real relevance. The Roman Church has no real option of going back and undoing what was done or restoring excised elements. Rather, the most feasible option is to work with the framework that was instituted (or imposed, depending on one's point of view) in 1970. This option presents both prospects and challenges that will likely only be resolved through the passage of time.

The vernacular is both a prospect and a challenge. Plainly, it is not going away, but it has raised dilemmas for which a satisfactory response has yet to be posed. Traditionalist arguments for Latin often times ring with tones of superstition. There is no intrinsic quality to Latin, linguistically speaking, that makes it most suitable for liturgical use. This is the science of language speaking, not piety. There is nothing in the key texts of the Missale Romanum (old or new) that cannot be presented in the vernacular. ICEL, of course, defended its medicore translation of the 1970s on the grounds that the Roman Canon was too difficult to translate. Traditionalists ran with the notion. In reality, the Roman Canon has been accurately translated in a variety of languages. As this traditionally most important component of the Roman liturgy, there is little justification for arguments affirming the intrinsic superiority of Latin - linguistically, it just isn't there.

The collections  of euchological texts and hymns prove to be slightly challenging to the above position. In both instances, subtle allusions are made in the Latin text that are not at times captured by the vernacular. This said, the allusions are of such a quality that a) most people with a working knowledge of Latin would not pick up on them and b) it is debatable if they make any appreciable impact on their greater liturgical function and meaning. The hymns are of a particular concern. They have been largely left untranslated in the current English breviaries and there is still little certainty of how well they will function in a vernacular translation and chant setting. With this in mind, it must be admitted that the greatest argument for Latin is its treasury of artistic expression. Some chant settings designed for Latin cannot be adequately reproduced in the vernacular. In such instances, however, it is not the language per se` but the laws of music composition which determine the value of retaining Latin.

Afterward: So there we end it. It does little good to continue with the now tired analysis of the Pauline liturgy of the Roman Church. Years ago I wrestled with this issue. I began by trying to simply make sense of the changes, then argue against then changes, defend the changes, and then simply continue my own private study of the history of the Western liturgy.
It does little use arguing against the liturgy of Paul VI. Rome rarely changes its mind, especially on matters that could cause it to lose face. Additionally, there is the simple matter of historical precedent. Pius X, not Paul VI, got the ball rolling on the deconstruction of the historic liturgy of Latin Christianity. This is the paradox of the current liturgical climate in the Roman Church; the debate centers around 20th century mutations of the Latin tradition that progressively divorced the Roman liturgy from the Latin tradition, the Missal of 1962 included.
This being said, there is a very real matter that must be considered and given due respect. It is this: the majority of the Roman Church, the overwhelming majority, has accepted the liturgy of Paul VI. It is a very simple fact that Traditionalists and historians of the Latin liturgy are both prone to glance over. The mutations of the Roman liturgy that gradually divorced it from the historic Latin tradition have settled and the liturgical form for the Roman Church going forward has largely been defined.
Those fixated on the Missal of 1962 often do not see how it was, in its own time, a considerable departure from the Latin liturgical tradition, nor how the 20th century reforms, beginning with Pius X, were all steps in a thoroughly accepted thesis (even within the papacy) that a comprehensive liturgical reform was desirable. Indeed, the Concilium understandably viewed itself as brining the work of Pius X to completion, so long had the discussion of a comprehensive liturgical reform floated around the halls of the Vatican. Thus, for anyone "in the know", anyone who has access to the streams of historical data or thoroughly lives in the internal Vatican culture that cultivated the prospect of liturgical reform in the 20th century, the liturgy of Paul VI is the consummation of a long process, the end point of a trajectory begun by the first "mega pope" of modern history.
Of course, a constant in this trajectory is the authority of the Roman pontiff in the context of Roman Catholic ecclesiology. The concept of the papacy that emerged in the post-Tridentine period created a figure who was scarcely answerable to anyone; in all matters, the Roman pontiff became the law himself. How the eventual definition of papal infallibility led to such a thorough disregard of the ancient Latin law of prayer remains a scarcely tapped area of research. To my knowledge, only Gregory Hull has really made any efforts in the area, although one may argue Alcuin Reid has alluded to it. Yet, this remains a serious question that Roman Catholics (responsible ones at least) and all persons concerned with the survival of the Latin tradition (or Traditional Catholicism) ought to concern themselves. The answers may well be more difficult than the question, depending upon the role the cultus of the papacy has in one's concept of the Church.