The website of Catholic World Report has an excellent interview with Dom Alcuin Reid on the legacy of Sacrosanctum Concilium, published last Friday on the document’s 50th anniversary. Here are a few excerpts (with my emphases):
CWR: SC was the first of the 16 documents of the Council. Why was it the first? Is that surprising, considering that the Council is widely understood as being focused on ecclesiology?
Reid: ... We need to be a bit careful about saying that the Council was “focused on ecclesiology” as if this occludes everything else the Council did. ...A school of thought exists which interprets Vatican II as an “event,” whereby is meant that the Council canonized an overriding and ongoing dynamic process of change—overriding, that is, the specific provisions of conciliar constitutions and the contexts in which they were formulated, and ongoing in that this view insist that these texts must be re-interpreted today in the light of this dynamic: “What would the Council have said now,” etc. This elevation of process into a hyper-hermeneutic is utterly foreign to the historical reality of Council itself. This following of a so-called “spirit of the Council” rather than its “letter” is a way of reading into the Council documents whatever one wishes regardless of what they in fact say.
CWR: Specifically, what does SC say?
Reid: There is no substitute for reading the constitution itself—which would be a good way in which to mark its 50th anniversary. As a guide, firstly it teaches a liturgical theology developed amidst the currents of 20th century theological and liturgical renewal. Let’s be clear that the Council does not define any liturgical dogma: one can respectfully prefer another style of liturgical theology and remain a Catholic in good standing. Nevertheless, it articulates its theology of the liturgy which has much to offer.
Then the constitution articulates its raison d’être: because the Sacred Liturgy is the “the summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed [and] at the same time it is the font from which all her power flows,” a widespread program of liturgical formation and a moderate reform of the liturgical rites are to be carried out in order to facilitate true the participation of all in the Sacred Liturgy. These are its fundamental principles; if we lose sight of them or ignore their interdependence we will interpret the remainder of the constitution erroneously.
It may be surprising to learn that Sacrosanctum Concilium did not ask for, recommend, or order the celebration of Mass facing the people (versus populum). Nor did it call for the inclusion of new Eucharistic prayers in the Mass. These and other sensitive changes to the liturgy were made after the constitution was promulgated and are not directly attributable to the Council itself.
CWR: So why the difference between the constitution and the reformed rites? What happened?
Reid: Pope Paul VI appointed a commission to implement Sacrosanctum Concilium. There was nothing unusual in that—much the same took place after the Council of Trent. But it is a fact that from the moment this “Consilium” began its work in 1964―if not before―there were sharply divergent views as to the direction the reform should take. Personal agendas and ecclesiastical politics played their part—one only needs to read the memoirs of the secretary of the Consilium, Archbishop Bugnini (The Reform of the Liturgy, Liturgical Press, 1990), to learn the extent of them. There were even serious disagreements between the Consilium and Paul VI at times.
There was also a certain opportunism on the part of some of the Consilium’s officials and consulters. It is as if they were seeing “how far they could go,” with the result that the moderate reform called for by the constitution, with its nuanced provisions, was quickly left behind and rites that reflected both personal enthusiasms and political compromises were produced. In his memoirs Bugnini himself boasts that, in respect to the reform, the saying “fortune favors the brave” came true.
These rites were authoritatively promulgated, of course, and they are valid. But it is a more than open question as to whether they are in fact the reform desired by the Fathers of the Council, the organic development of liturgical tradition for which Sacrosanctum Concilium called.