There are at least three levels at which the Ordinary Form can be evaluated, each one bringing with it a new level of instability and indeterminacy.
1. The Ordinary Form can be viewed against the backdrop of what the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council called for in the Constitution Sacrosanctum Concilium when supporting the renewal or restoration of the liturgy—namely, generally modest changes to the inherited Latin liturgical tradition, which was seen as an obvious good to be preserved. The “marching orders” given by the Council were both detailed and limited, so it is easy for us to trace the many ways in which the Consilium’s subsequent work trespassed those details and limits. And yet, as Michael Davies, Christopher Ferrara, and many others have pointed out, the Constitution has enough loopholes to drive several moderately-sized Italian trucks through.
2. Then there is what the authentic text of the Novus Ordo Missae calls for, in tandem with the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (one might call this “the letter of the Novus Ordo”). Here we are already in problematic territory, since even if one stays within the rubrics, there is plenty of room for each celebrant to make himself the master of each liturgical celebration, such that no two Masses need be alike. In contrast, in the traditional Mass the priest was plainly the servant of the stipulated text and its prescribed ritual.
3. Lastly, there is the reality at the parish level. This, as we know, often goes far beyond (or falls far beneath) what is permitted or required either by the Missal or by anything that could be described as Catholic tradition. Here we are dealing with what might be called “the spirit of the Novus Ordo,” which in the past forty-three years has tended in various directions: experimentation, anarchy, laxity, minimalism, sentimentalism, moralistic idiosyncracy.
As we ponder how we got from 1 to 2 and then from 2 to 3, we should reflect on the fact that there is so much more involved in the liturgical crisis than the liturgy itself or any edition of the Missale Romanum.
First of all, many of the clergy at all levels are infected with the mentality of modern liberalism, which exalts freedom and individual expression at the expense of community tradition and law-abidingness. In ages past, there was an instinctive, if waning, tendency to adhere to the larger tradition—“the way things had always been done”—and to follow the law precisely because it was the law. This mindset was already endangered before Vatican II convened. The Council itself offered the Catholic world a pretext for throwing everything overboard in a huge adolescent fit of raw emotional energy.
Consequently, what the Council actually taught meant and still means absolutely nothing for most Catholics, whether laity or clergy. It’s a sad spectacle to see the Vatican, year in and year out, refuting heretics by quoting Lumen Gentium, Dei Verbum, and other conciliar documents, when these heretics couldn’t care less. They never saw Vatican II as a body of authoritative teachings to be carried out; for them, it was (as they explicitly say) an “event” with a “spirit,” a certain program or inspiration or ideology that was meant to be creatively evolved until a new Church came into being. In the area of liturgy, too, the new Missal was, from the beginning, not so much a real concrete path to be diligently followed, as a new attitude, a sounding board, a suggested point of departure for personal and communal self-expression. And this is the innermost problem—a problem of spirituality, of priestly identity and holiness, of the very meaning of the ministerial priesthood in its service of the altar and the people.
Any liturgy requires holy priests, not in order to be valid, indeed, but in order to be edifying and, in the long run, nourishing for the people. Some of us have seen the old Mass rushed through in an unedifying manner. And some have seen the new Mass offered with great reverence by holy priests. Priests well-formed in piety and sound theology will find the new Missal a serviceable resource; they will choose the best options and incorporate traditional elements as much as possible. Unfortunately, not only are many clergy unformed in piety, they are all too often deformed in theology; and even with the best intentions or the best seminary training, there is little obvious public tradition left to which they could adhere with confidence.
I’m not at all a relativist about rites. I find the old rite preferable to the new. I find the new Missal troubling in many details; I think that certain members of the Consilium had a wicked agenda, and it is past denying that they took advantage of Pope Paul VI. Yet in spite of this, I feel certain that the debate is misplaced if we look at rites or Missals in a vacuum. We must take into account the larger context: clerical formation, seminary discipline, episcopal vigilance, and the maintenance of a living tradition, a living praxis. The living tradition of liturgical piety could largely have been carried over even across the rather large divide that separates the old Missal from the new; but at that time, in the 1970s, few wanted to do that. The spirit of the liturgical movement died, just when it had supposedly reached its peak of vigor. It was like a bride dying on the day of her wedding: so much promise, and such a tragedy.
Let’s return to our starting point. It is hard to talk about “the Ordinary Form” with any definiteness because it allows so much creativity and spontaneity. Optionitis is a disease of which the world needs to be rid to make it safe for liturgy. Even when men are well disposed and properly taught, it is expecting too much of human nature to think that they will freely choose the best or the better when given a number of options along the spectrum. Many will succumb to laziness or a false notion of efficiency. Those who are holy and learned can arrive at strange practices that disturb the rhythm and shape of the liturgy. As we know, priests very often avoid the Roman Canon because it’s “too long,” yet always seem to find time for long homilies or the Prayer of the Faithful.