Celebration Versus Deum Still Applicable Law
The celebration "versus Deum" is - together with Communion in the mouth and the Latin language of worship - not the subject of the "reform of the reform" of the liturgy desired by Pope Benedict XVI, but the implementation of the applicable law. At issue here is the correction of a misguided development after the Second Vatican Council.
Second Vatican Council
Is well known that the Second Vatican Council has made no pronouncement on the direction of celebration. Nor does the constitution on the liturgy Sacrosanctum Concilium prescribe anything about the construction of new altars. The first non-conciliar document, which says something about this, is the instruction Inter Oecumenici of 26 September 1964, which with its norms claims to be a concrete execution of the constitution on the liturgy. The text of the instruction shall here first be given in Latin, and then in [an English] translation:
The Instruction Inter Oecumenici
Præstat ut altare maius extruatur a pariete seiunctum, ut facile circumiri et in eo celebratio versus populum peragi possit..."(Sacra Congregatio Rituum  898, Nr. 91).
"It is better that the main altar is built detached from the wall, in order that one can easily walk around it and celebration versus populum can take place on it."
The main statement of the text is the separation of the altar from the rear wall (a pariete seiunctum).
Two things are striking in this sentence:
1. only a recommendation is made with respect to the separation of the altar from the rear wall (præstat = it is better, it is desirable)
2. only a possibility of the celebration versus populum is mentioned as the purpose of separating the altar from the rear wall (ut ... possit = in order that ... one can). In this case, the ut is interpreted as a final "ut" (in order that). Grammatically, however, a consecutive interpretation is also possible: ut = so that. Then one would have to translate as follows:
"It is better that the main altar is built detached from the wall, so that one can easily walk around it and celebration versus populum can take place on it."
If one therefore takes the ut as consecutive, the walking around and the celebration would be a consequence of the separation of the altar. Through this change in the causal logic of the statements, the reference to the celebration (sc. versus populum) would be further weakened. What matters to the legislator is the possibility of detaching the altar from the rear wall, not the celebration versus populum. The latter remains a minor aside.
Whatever the case, the instruction of 1964 speaks only to the possibility of celebration towards the people. It is therefore on no account a prescription. In other words: the celebration versus populum is allowed by Inter Oecumenici, but not prescribed.
The Missal of Paul VI. (so-called "ordinary use of the Roman Rite")
Thus it is only consistent that the rubrics of the Missale Romanum of Pope Paul VI. ("Novus Ordo") do not assume the celebration versus populum, but the celebration versus orientem (improperly and theologically incorrectly: "celebration with the back to the people") when they say that the priest at the Orate, Fratres, at the Pax Domini, the Ecce Angus Dei and the ritus conclusionis turns to the people. This indication would be superfluous if the rubrics of the Novus Ordo would envisage the celebration versus populum. Thus also the post-conciliar Missal of Paul VI. assumes that the priest celebrates Mass turned towards the altar and not to the people. Before the Communion of the priest it even says explicitly "ad altare versus", turned to the altar. The third Editio typica of the revised Missale Romanum retains these rubrics (Missale Romanum , Ordo Missæ, 515, No. 28, 600, No. 127, 601, No. 132 f., 603, No. 141).
The Institutio Generalis of 2000
Finally, in this context the Institutio Generalis to the third Editio typica of the revised Missale Romanum published for study purposes in 2000 is pertinent. There it says under No. 299:
Altare extruatur a pariete seiunctum, ut facile cirumiri et in eo celebratio versus populum peragi possit, quod expedit ubicumque possibile est.
"The altar shall be built detached from the wall, in order that" or: so that "one can easily walk around it and celebration versus populum can take place on it, which is useful wherever it is possible."
In contrast to the instruction Inter Oecumenici of 1964, the Institutio Generalis of 2000 adds and explains that the construction of the altar detached from the rear wall is useful and beneficial (expedit). The benefit relates to the position of the altar, not to the direction of celebration. Of this it is merely said that it becomes possible by separating the altar from the rear wall (peragi possit). Here, too, therefore, no requirement of a celebration towards the people is being expressed.
But that means: There is no obligation to celebrate versus populum. This also clearly results from a response of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments of 25 September 2000: "It is in the first place to be borne in mind that the word expedit does not constitute an obligation, but a suggestion that refers to the construction of the altar a pariete sejunctum [detached from the wall] and to the celebration versus populum [towards the people]." Then, the Congregation further explains: "The clause ubi possibile sit [where it is possible] refers to different elements, as, for example, the topography of the place, the availability of space, the artistic value of the existing altar, the sensibility of the people participating in the celebrations in a particular church, etc." The Institutio Generalis of 2000 therefore regards the celebration versus populum as a possibility, without excluding the celebration versus orientem resp. towards the altar.
Legally, therefore, the celebration versus orientem is the normal form of celebration. For reasons of space or architectural reasons, it is possible to place the altar separately from the back wall, which makes possible a celebration toward the people, but it must be stressed that on such an altar the celebration versus populum is not mandatory, but is provided for as a possibility.
Rev'd Dr Gero P. Weishaupt
Monday, August 31, 2009
German latinist and canon lawyer Rev'd Dr. jur. can. Gero P. Weishaupt, who was mentioned on the NLM before, was kind enough to send in some legal considerations of the current legislation regarding the direction of the celebration of Holy Mass, which the NLM is pleased to present to you in a translation: