Wednesday, April 25, 2007

The Place of Custom and Tradition

[Dom Christopher will be recognizable to many of you who read the comments on this site. He is a Benedictine monk in France, and the recent accusations about "Marcionism" in the classical Roman liturgy led him to write the following piece which worked itself out into a general consideration of the self-governing role of custom and tradition in the Church. This is indeed something that has been lost, particularly to the modern mindset and so it makes a valuable meditation and contribution to a wider consideration of that which ails the Church and her liturgy today. -NLM]

Guest Article for the NLM
by Dom Christopher Lazowski, OSB

The discussion here at the NLM about the inept comments about “the” Motu Proprio and the unfounded accusations of Marcionism directed against the Pian Missal, emanating from the committee for Christian-Jewish dialogue of the Central Committee of German Catholics, has touched upon the highly sensitive question of a possible organic development of the classical rite itself. I make no secret of my hope that this will take place in God's good time, following on from adjustments to the Pauline rite itself; however, at the same time I am convinced that my opinion on the subject will have no influence whatsoever on the course of events! I am only a monk. So, nolite timere.

Despite my hope that such an organic development may take place, it seems to me that the negative reactions to the idea of any change whatsoever to the classical rite must be taken seriously. This personal conviction is not based on the idea that “traddy” Catholics need to be reassured and reconciled, won over or even bamboozled, before anything else can be done. Rather, it is grounded on what seems to be the weakness of the idea of tradition in the contemporary mentality. Without a strong sense of the force of tradition, the very idea of change and development in matters liturgical is fraught with danger. Recent history provides ample proof of this. But this weakness is not, I think, a recent phenomenon; its origin lies in the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance.

Thanks to the kindness of William Tighe, I have recently been reading Dom Gregory Dix's The Shape of the Liturgy. This classic survey of the whole history of Eucharistic liturgy by an outstanding Anglican Benedictine and liturgist contains much that confirms me in this judgement. The Shape was published in 1945, at a time when the Church of England was in a state of considerable liturgical disarray, in the years following the rejection by the House of Commons of the 1927 and 1928 proposals for reform of the Book of Common Prayer, years during which general liturgical improvisation became the norm, in the face of the incapacity of both Parliament and the bishops to provide a solution acceptable to the church. One of Dix's goals was to provide material that might help his church find a way out of the impasse, by explaining the formation of the Mass of the Roman Rite in the context of the whole of the liturgical history of the Church, both Western and Eastern, by showing how how the liturgical action is the expression of the faith of that Church, and also by explaining how Cranmer took the “raw materials” provided by the Western rite and turned them into the expression of his own heterodox eucharistic theology, a theology that the Church of England had in fact rejected since 1559, without either coming to a clear and generally accepted understanding of what she actually believed, or being able to reject or modify the rite that embodied Cranmer's personal theories.

In doing so, Dix makes a number of observations about the roles of legislative authority and of custom in laying down, or in handing on the liturgy, that seem to me to be pertinent for the Catholic Church today. The Church of England was incapable throughout most of its history of changing its liturgical settlement because that settlement was based on the authority of an Act of Parliament, the Act of Uniformity. Dix points out that the phenomenon of basing the legitimacy of a liturgical form on human positive law in a recent one, dating from the sixteenth century, and is common to both the Church of England and the Roman Rite. Successive editions of the Book of Common Prayer were imposed by the Acts of Uniformity of 1549, 1552, 1559 and 1662. The 1570 edition of the Roman Missal was imposed by the bull Quo primum, although this imposition obviously did not bring with it the rupture in doctrine and practice the Prayer Book brought, nor was it intended to bring about a strict uniformity in the Western Church. Dix says: “one has only to think of Pope Gregory's advice to Augustine of Canterbury to make his own choice of what seemed to him best from current Roman and Gallican uses, to be aware of a former sanction of the liturgy, not only at Rome and Canterbury, but all over christendom ... It has the authority of 'acceptance of the church and use for her sacramental purpose'. This is a different sort of authority from the authority of any statute passed by a legislator, ecclesiastical or secular. But it was at one time the only sort of authority recognized by the liturgy. One can cite certain exceptions, ... but from the beginning until the sixteenth century, broadly speaking the sanction in the liturgy was not 'law' but 'custom'.” (p. 716)

Dix points out that custom is self-enforcing, and that what safeguards custom against degenerating into license is the faith that custom expresses. Clearly and strongly held belief is the best guardian of the liturgy.

“The whole development of the classic liturgies is by continual liturgical experiment. Every church had its 'customary' way of doing the liturgy, which was 'customary' only because it adequately expressed that church's mind and belief as to what the eucharistic action is and means. Whenever an idea which seemed to enrich that conception was encountered, whether in the teaching or in the devotional experience of that church itself, in the rites of other churches or in the works of theologians, it could be and was incorporated into the customary rite. If, after the only trial of which such things are capable, a period of actual use at the altar, it was found that it did more fully express the eucharistic action, it was absorbed into the local eucharistic experience as something which had become that church's own, and permanently incorporated into the local eucharistic tradition. If it did not serve, then ultimately it fell out of use again.” (p. 178)

“Continual liturgical experiment” sounds appalling, but Dix is most certainly not talking about sitting on beanbags, passing the chalice around, or inviting laymen to give the homily. If he were writing today, he would most likely have used an expression like “continual organic development.” Even this may not sound terribly appealing just now, although what Dix says is, I think, historically true. There is a strong case to be made that what we need at the moment is a retreat from ill-considered liturgical change! However, the next paragraph contains much food for thought.

“The depth and breadth and allusiveness of the classical rites [by which he means all the historic Catholic rites of both West and East] comes just from this, that their real author is always the worshipping church, not any individual however holy and gifted, any committee however representative, or any legislator however wise. The results in every tradition were codified from time to time by men with a gift or a taste for this sort of work. But all these men were working within a tradition, with materials supplied them by the immense experience of the whole worshipping church of the past, of other churches as well as their own. And when their work was done, the church came after them again, commenting, adding, altering, improving, sometimes spoiling, enriching, adjusting perpetually to her own contemporary mind and life and needs. We have seen what the church did with the work, for instance, of Gregory or of Alcuin after their time. It was right that it should. No one man is great enough or good enough to fix the act of the Body of Christ for ever according to his own mind and understanding of it. The good liturgies were not written; they grew.” (pp. 718-719)

At the moment, we seem to have the worst of all possible worlds. The abandonment of custom for law as the guardian of the liturgy was probably inevitable in the context of the doctrinal instability and uncertainty introduced by protestantism. However, it has had the effect of those metal rings that are inflicted on certain African women to lengthen their necks; when the rings are removed, the women risk dying of asphyxiation, since their neck muscles have atrophied. Paul VI's 1969 constitution Missale Romanum went beyond Quo primum by “suppressing” a legitimate and ancient liturgical rite and imposing one that had been substantially re-written by a committee, thus attempting to bring about a uniformity that St. Pius V never sought. The many churches and religious orders that were under no obligation to adopt the Missal of 1570, but which in fact did so, acted of their own free will, much in the manner Dix describes above. The protestant reformers attacked Catholic faith in the Eucharist, and Catholic unity in communion with the pope. So the historical context favoured the idea that in order to safeguard Catholic faith in the real presence and in the sacrificial nature of the Mass, as well as the unity of the Church in communion with the Vicar of Christ, it was preferable for all Catholics to worship God in only one manner, the manner used by the Roman church; however, liturgical impoverishment was an unintended consequence, an impoverishment that we may surely regret. What had once been the local rite of the Roman church came to be the Western rite, and local traditions of unimpeachable orthodoxy that that were still well able to contribute to the richness of the Church's liturgy were forgotten. Paradoxically, Missale Romanum, despite its avowed intention to impose the Pauline Missal on the Western church, also coincided with period of de facto liturgical experimentation, or indeed anarchy, which has done untold damage. This was caused in part by contamination from secular ideologies that had no business in the sanctuary, and was facilitated by our having become used to the strict guardianship of the law; we had lost the self-discipline of obedience to custom. However, this is not just the Church's problem. It goes far beyond the Church; is the problem of the whole of Western society and its relation to the past. Our society has lost a sense of respect for the past and for tradition. Lord Salisbury wrote in The Spectator recently, “ Early 21st century man prefers, like Chairman Mao, to let the past serve the present. If he stopped making jejune moral judgements about his ancestors and tried to understand what made them tick instead, he might make less of a mess of his own times.” Similarly, if we had more respect for our liturgical past, we would be less inclined to make a hash of our liturgical present. In the liturgy as in the rest of life, to attempt to liberate one's self from the past by rejecting it outright is the best way to become its unwitting prisoner.

Another unforeseen consequence of the abandonment of custom in favour of law as guardian of the liturgy was to give the legislator the idea that he could replace one rite by another, by legislative fiat. The Holy Father when he was still a cardinal pointed out that this had never happened before in the whole history of the liturgy. But without the change of approach that became the norm after Quo primum, it is difficult to imagine how this could ever have come about. The law had come to be seen as the mistress of the liturgy, not as its servant. I would not deny that Paul VI had the right to proceed as he did. But I do think that it is legitimate to ask if he was wise to do so.

What then is the way forward? One of the reasons I wrote this was the hope that it might provoke a discussion that might shed some light on the problem. My own direct experience of the classical liturgy is limited to serving Mass a number of years ago for a monk of Le Barroux who spent a few days here when they were looking for a place to make a foundation, and my reservations about the Pauline missal are all over questions of detail. But I am nonetheless convinced that the restoration of full “civil rights” in the Church for the classical Roman liturgy, and a stop to its marginalisation, is an essential step on the way to a proper realisation of the liturgical reform called for by the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council. I am equally convinced that before we can be fit instruments of organic development, we need to rediscover a sense of docility to living tradition.

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