Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Dr. Alcuin Reid at the Toronto Oratory

Dr. Alcuin Reid, the well known liturgical scholar, author of The Organic Development of the Liturgy recently spoke at the Toronto Oratory this past Wednesday, February 18th, as part of their "Wednesday Evenings at the Oratory" series.

The setting for the talk was a filled to capacity hall at the primary church of the Toronto Oratory, Holy Family. Approximately 150-200 people filled the hall, which included the presence of the Archbishop of Toronto, Thomas Collins, and Fr. Jonathan Robinson, provost of the Toronto Oratory and author of The Mass and Modernity: Walking to Heaven Backward. Also present were a number of seminarians, religious, and many laity, young and old.

The paper delivered was Continuity or Rupture: The Second Vatican Council’s Reform of the Liturgy - Some Preliminary Questions. The basic question approached is as follows: "Was the liturgical reform of the Second Vatican Council a rupture or was it in continuity with the liturgical tradition of the ages?" The question is not new, but it is one which has stirred some quite strong responses both for and against in recent decades and not always where one might expect. Consider for example the thought, quoted by Reid, that

The real radicalism of the 1960’s was represented by the revolutionary reforms of Vatican II. Breaking with a tradition that stretched back almost 1300 years...

This quotation does not come from a traditionalist or reform-of-the-reformist critic, but rather from a commentator in a "progressive" liturgical journal who is quite favourable to the whole idea. Similarly, Fr. John Baldovin, S.J., in his recent work, Reforming the Liturgy: A Response to the Critics, suggests that it is his view that what occurred was a “radical reform of the liturgy” which represents a “radical shift in Catholic theology and piety” and that this was desirable. (One is also put to mind of the now famous sentiment of another Jesuit writer, Fr. Joseph Gelineau, where he suggested that the Roman rite as it had been known had been "destroyed.") All this simply suggests, of course, that this idea is not the sole preserve of only one side of the liturgical spectrum or another, and this might be something that will be otherwise assumed.

Some might find the question of continuity or rupture rather uncomfortable to approach lest one, as Dr. Reid noted, be accused of denying the Second Vatican Council. Fortunately, times are slowly but surely changing, and more earnest, penetrating questions might begin to be asked with less fear of such reactions -- though as recent events have shown, it is still a very central issue to some parties who wish to defend a, heretofore, monopolized interpretation and implementation of Vatican II.

We sit now nearly half a century from the close of the Council, and while these penetrating questions will challenge some indeed, they are quite necessary as part of the exercise of taking stock. As Reid notes,
...it is necessary that the liturgical reform be examined critically, for if we are to make progress with the reinvigoration of the liturgical life of the Church―and with its correction where necessary―we must do so on the basis of a clear understanding of what the liturgical reform of the Second Vatican Council in fact was, for good or ill.

To pursue this critical examination, Dr. Reid examined the following questions in his paper:

What competence or authority does an Ecumenical Council of the Church have in respect of the reform of the Sacred Liturgy?

What may be said about the principles of reform in the Constitution Sacrosanctum Concilium?

What may be said about the specific reforms ordered by the Constitution Sacrosanctum Concilium?

To what extent, if any, did the work of the Consilium exceed the wishes of the Council, and on what authority?

What is to be said of the liturgical books promulgated by Pope Paul VI in the light of the above?


It was in the context of this framework that Reid's paper was delivered; these form the basis of his preliminary considerations of the subject -- considerations that are forming the basis of a forthcoming book on this same subject.

It is important to note first, however, that these are preliminary considerations on the part of Alcuin Reid, and so they should be taken in that light.

With that caveat aside, the first significant question raised in the paper was that of the authority of a Council in relation to the reform of the sacred liturgy. After a consideration of the various activities of Councils in relation to the sacred liturgy down the ages, Reid noted that their "authority is not positivistic: Councils do not re-make the Sacred Liturgy in their own image and likeness or indeed in that of some ‘straw modern man.’" What they have done, he suggests, is correct abuses, make prudential decisions about the correct manner of its celebration, and adjust the liturgical tradition proportionately for serious reason. He proposes that this aligns to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which makes note of the fact that even the supreme authority of the Church may not arbitrarily change the liturgy. (para. 1125)

How then does this mesh with the principles enunciated by the Second Vatican Council? Reid notes that Sacrosanctum Concilium identifies a number of very sound liturgical principles, such as the idea that the liturgy is “culmen et fons” (source and summit); the principle (whose source is to be found in the teaching of St. Pius X) surrounding “actuosa participatio” (active or actual participation); it also generally sought to promote a liturgical piety, taking its cues from the 20th century Liturgical Movement. All of this was primarily “to be achieved by means of the improvement of the liturgical education and formation of the clergy and the laity.” In each of these, there is no rupture to be found, and Reid proposes that these principles are of fundamental importance to properly understanding the rest of what Sacrosanctum Concilium proposes; they are, as might be said, interpretive keys.

One point identified as problematic, though not so much in its own regard as by how many post-conciliar liturgists have interpreted it, is article 21 of Sacrosanctum Concilium which notes that there are changeable elements in the liturgy which may and ought to be changed if “they have suffered from the intrusion of anything out of harmony with the inner nature of the liturgy or have become unsuited to it”. Reid notes that Pius XII made a similar distinction (though without the “ought”) in his liturgical encyclical, Mediator Dei, but he also notes there is something of a post-Tridentine positivism that undergirds it. Still, the entire context of the document, as well as the articles which follow article 21, make clear that this was not a license for rupture, nor the arbitrary changing of the liturgy for the sake of “pastoral expediency”. A further point comes up from this matter of article 21 and the “changeable” parts of the liturgy, which is the matter of an interpretation which diminishes the importance of the outer aspects and forms of the liturgy:
Behind various interpretations of this distinction lurks a large issue in sacramental and liturgical theology: what efficacious role to these ‘non-divine’ liturgical elements have? Are they “mere externals”?

Reid’s response:
There is much more to be said about the efficacy of all elements of the liturgical rites, and therefore about the probity of their being changed: in Catholic theology they cannot be regarded as “mere externals”!

A further point which Reid wishes to emphasize is that we must also be clear that these principles are theological in nature rather than dogmatic and accordingly, one can put forward prudential disagreements with them, without, in point of fact, denying any doctrine of the Church, and without any necessity of damaging communion with Her – though he is also careful to point out that they must be given serious consideration, and further, even if one disagrees with certain particular reforms, one must always act in accordance with liturgical law.

Continuing on in a consideration of Sacrosanctum Concilium Reid also made note of a point that Aidan Nichols, O.P. raised, which is that through the means of some rather innocuous language in Sacrosanctum Concilium might be found “the seeds of its own destruction” – that is to say, the openings which allowed things to happen which can be understood as contrary to the will of the Council Fathers, using their very own document. This of course leads us to the ever-controversial (though ever more frequently asked) question of the “Consilum” – the body that was charged with the post-conciliar implementation of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy – and whether it went beyond its mandate. Reid proposes that in addressing that question, study is needed of these activities effected by the Consilium :
- the wholesale vernacularisation of the liturgy
- the radical reordering of the Ordo Missae when the Council Fathers had been assured both verbally and in writing before voting on article 50 that “The current Ordo Missae, which has grown up in the course of the centuries, is to be retained.”
- the introduction of new Eucharistic prayers: a substantial innovation which the Council had neither discussed, considered nor approved
- the revision of the formula for the consecration of the Chalice.
- the theological reordering of both the proper prayers of the Mass formularies and to parts of rites such as the offertory at Mass.
- the abolition of the ancient Octave of Pentecost and of the season of Septuagesima
- the radical recasting of the calendar of saints, rather than its simplification
- the substantial reforms to the rites of the Roman ritual

A substantial list of considerations to be certain; one demonstrative of just how extensive the revisions of the Consilium were -- and thus, indeed, why there is such an urgent need for a critical appraisal.

Beyond the matter of the Consilium however, Reid further proposed that it is necessary that there be consideration of the limits of the power of the papacy to introduce substantial reforms, something Benedict XVI himself made note of on May 7th, 2005:
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.

So then, with all of these matters put forth, what then is to be made of the post-conciliar liturgical books? To return to the original question, was the liturgical reform of the Second Vatican Council a rupture or was it in continuity with the liturgical tradition of the ages? The question, as one would expect given that these are simply preliminary considerations, is left unanswered for the present moment, and equally up in the air is what should be done to address the matter if it is found to be so. What is not left unanswered however, and Reid is very clear on the point, is that the present rites, whatever else might be found, do have the approbation of papal authority and are most certainly valid.

But of course, it must be said that mere validity is not the only important matter. In concluding, Dr. Alcuin Reid urged that “I hope that you will agree that it is indeed urgent and necessary to address [these questions]. I hope also that you can see something of the complexity of the task. Simple answers do not suffice: many necessary distinctions must be drawn and I would encourage you to further their study and discussion.”