Monday, June 25, 2018

A Brief Dialogue on Liturgical Development and Corruption

The following dialogue occurs between a traditionalist and a Catholic of good will who has started attending the old Mass but is still trying to understand the traditionalist’s position.

Oliver: I've often hear you say, Charlie, that the Novus Ordo represents a huge rupture with the preceding liturgical tradition. But you never comment about other changes in the history of liturgy, like the development of the whispered low Mass, that also break with preceding tradition — I guess because traditionalists are okay with these things. So what’s the difference? When is a new direction not truly a rupture? Or is it a “development” if you happen to agree with it, and a “rupture” if you happen to dislike it?

Charles: Great question. I would say that developments come in two basic “flavors”: those that flow forth in harmony with something profoundly within the liturgy, like a flower from a tree, and those that are imposed from without in a mechanistic way, like a prosthetic limb.

Oliver: Could you illustrate your distinction in reference to the low Mass example?

Charles: The liturgy is certainly meant to be sung in its solemn form — you, of all people, know I’ve defended that many times. However, the mystery of the Mass also allows for and invites the priest to an intense mysticism of intercession, oblation, and communion. Thus, it is easy to see how, especially in monastic settings with an abundance of priests, the private daily Mass emerged in contradistinction to the conventual or parochial Mass. This need not be seen as a problem, unless it becomes the norm for communal Mass and edges out the sung liturgy.

Oliver: But how would you defend the proposition that this change was incidental and not substantive?

Charles: One might say that the same Mass exists at different levels of execution, like the difference between a Shakespeare play read quietly to oneself, the same play read aloud by a group of friends, and the play fully acted out in costume on the stage with props and so forth. It is the same play, but realized more or less fully according to its essence as a play. Any of those actualizations of the play are based on one and the same play. Think how different it would be if, instead of this, you had a modernized redaction of Shakespeare that purged Catholic references so as not to offend Protestants, changed the vocabulary to contemporary English, and changed the gender of the starring roles! In the latter case, even if the play was given the same title, it would no longer be the same reality — no matter how well you acted it out on stage.

Oliver: I see what you’re getting at. But here’s something that’s bothered me. How long does it take until something can be considered part of ecclesiastical tradition? If a parish has communion in the hand for 40 years, does this then become part of tradition? Imagine if — God forbid! — altar girls are the norm for the next hundred years. In the year 2118, can one look back and say “this is not and never has been ecclesiastical tradition,” or would one say “this is a tradition, but it’s bad and we should change it”?

Charles: Let’s take up the question of communion first. When the Latin Church shifted in the Middle Ages to communion under the species of bread alone, given on the tongue to faithful who are kneeling, it was for good reasons: it fosters a spirit of humility and adoration, and, on a practical level, is easier and safer. It is, in other words, completely in accord with the letter and spirit of the liturgical action, something that emerges from a deeper grasp of the mystery of the Holy Eucharist. Therefore, there could never be a compelling reason to undo this development, unless we wanted less safety, less humility, and less adoration. But that could only come from the devil.

In fact, Paul VI himself recognized that communion on the tongue was superior and reasserted it, although he then allowed the abuse of communion in the hand to sweep over the Church because he was an indecisive and confused shepherd — even his best decisions still have something of Hamlet mixed in with them, as when he called a commission to look into contraception, which raised false hopes among the progressives. But I digress…

Oliver: So you don’t buy the argument that it was good to restore communion in the hand because “it’s what used to be done in ancient times”?

The right way
Charles: This both begs the question — why did the custom change if it was so good to begin with? — and contradicts the teaching of Pope Pius XII that we should avoid antiquarianism, i.e., returning to an older practice just because it is older. When an early custom was universally left behind and another put in its place, we should see this as a recognition of a superior line of conduct.

Oliver: Would this apply to the Novus Ordo as well, since it was universally put in place of the old rite of Mass?

Charles: Of course not. First, thanks to the protection of the Holy Spirit, Paul VI, who wanted to abolish the old liturgy, never successfully abrogated it, as Pope Benedict XVI later acknowledged. So the old liturgy has always remained legitimate (and, indeed, it could never be otherwise). Moreover, while the Tridentine liturgical books were eventually received universally, the Novus Ordo was resisted from the beginning by an intrepid number of clergy and laity, and this refusal to accept the rupture has not faded away but has actually grown over the decades. In this way it is simply a fact that the Novus Ordo, while unfortunately the predominant rite, cannot be said to have supplanted and replaced the old rite, whereas communion on the tongue to kneeling faithful totally replaced any other manner of reception in the Middle Ages. Thus one cannot, in principle or in practice, make the argument that the more recent rite is superior to the more ancient rite. But one would have to say quite a bit more on this matter, and maybe we are drifting from the main point...

Oliver: Let me ask a general question. Why don’t you think there should be continual change in the liturgy — you know, different things for different ages and peoples?

Charles: I recognize that there can and will be small changes, like the addition of new feasts or saints to the calendar, or new prefaces, but not large-scale changes. Church history shows that development starts out at a more rapid pace and slows down increasingly as the liturgy reaches perfection. In a way, it is like molten lava that erupts from a fissure and gradually cools to become solid. In the same way, the liturgy gushed forth from the heart of Jesus on the Cross, and solidified over the centuries as holy men and women continued to pray it, showing great reverence to what they inherited from their predecessors.

Oliver: The Byzantine Divine Liturgy, for instance, has changed very little over the last several centuries, and the great majority of Eastern Christians see no need to change it, since it accomplishes so well what it exists for.

Charles: Exactly. The traditional Roman liturgy grew to its mature grandeur more slowly than did the Byzantine, but the same progressive solidification and the same conservative instinct can be seen in it. The Roman Canon was complete by the start of the seventh century; then most of the remaining ceremonies by the early Middle Ages; and finally the prayers at the foot of the altar and the Last Gospel in the late Middle Ages. At this point it no longer needed to evolve and could remain solid and stable for almost 500 years (from 1570 to 1962). Those who use it today see no need to “develop” it further; on the contrary, they unanimously wish to keep the Mass in its fullness, prior to the corruptions introduced by Pius XII after 1948.

Oliver: I know that some people compare the process you are describing to the way a human being develops. Do you think that analogy holds? It seems like one would run into the problem of aging and senility…

Charles: Rightly understood, this analogy works. A child changes tremendously on the way to adulthood, but the pace of change becomes less as time goes on. Everyone knows that one year of time means something very different in the first 10 years of life, the second 10 years, and the remaining decades. Time, for organic things, is not simple and undifferentiated. And if we were not fallen beings, we might remain adults at approximately age 33 for our entire lives. The liturgy grows to maturity and then remains at maturity, without fail, until the second coming of Christ. Hence, a strange custom that arises in the 20th or 21st century cannot lay claim to being a natural development but is more like a cancerous tumor in a body. It is like an infantilization, a rejection of maturity.

Oliver: But what do you make of my altar girl example? What if we had them for over a century?

All made up and nowhere to go
Charles: As St. Athanasius says, even if the whole world agreed that Christ was not God, the handful of Christians who still worshiped Him as God would be correct; they would be the Church. “They have the buildings, you have the Faith,” he famously said to the small band of anti-Arian Catholics. Similarly, even if we were to have altar girls for 200 years, they would always be an aberration of the Western liturgical tradition, and never an organic development. A machine is a machine; it will never turn into an organism. Schizophrenia will always be a disorder, no matter how long one has it. A man is a man and a woman a woman, regardless of what the confused gender-ideology of the day wants to say about it.

Oliver: That makes a lot of sense.

Charles: And by the way, you have to resist a lie that has gained a great deal of ground, namely that matters of liturgy are on a different plane than matters of doctrine. Someone might say, disputes about the divinity of Christ are one thing; disagreements about the liturgical discipline of altar servers is quite another. Don't lump together Arius and Bugnini, or Honorius and Paul VI. But in reality, every liturgical question stems from and resolves to a doctrinal question. Nothing we do in our worship is doctrinally neutral or irrelevant or inconsequential.

Oliver: That certainly seems true, if you just look at the shift in the beliefs of ordinary Catholics from preconciliar to postconciliar times. The next logical question, I guess, would be this: How do we know what stage of development the Church is in right now? I could imagine the faithful in the 15th century saying: “A strange custom that arises in the 15th century cannot lay claim to being a natural development but is more like a tumor.” And are not some innovations, such as the centralized tabernacle on the altar, considered to be a non-tumorous change even though it did not come about until rather late?

Charles: Perhaps the solution to this conundrum is to look at why people make the changes they make. In the 15th century — or, for that matter, any century — liturgy is developed in the direction of expansion. People add processions, litanies, extra prayers, repetitions. They do this out of devotion. It is rare that such things are pruned, though it does happen from time to time. However, what is absolutely unprecedented is for very many things to be cut back simultaneously and as a result of utilitarian, rationalist, and activist presuppositions, as occurred in the 1960s. So I think one can see a crucial difference between earlier phases of development, which involve positive growth, and the contrary motion of corruption, which is opposed to that growth and in fact tends to hate it and attack it iconoclastically — always a sign of the Evil One. When altars got bigger and grander, it was a development. When altars were jackhammered and dumped, it was a rupture.

Oliver: How is one to know that some change ought to be made?

Charles: Anything that belongs to the practical order will involve the exercise of the virtue of prudence: we are making a judgment about what it is prudent to change. But always with a tremendous, even fearful respect for all that has been received in tradition! That is why the Second Vatican Council, in one of its more sober statements, said: “There must be no innovations unless the good of the Church genuinely and certainly requires them; and care must be taken that any new forms adopted should in some way grow organically from forms already existing” (Sacrosanctum Concilium 23). The Council Fathers were mostly pastors of souls, and they knew that too much change at any time, for any reason, is a bad thing, as St. Thomas explains when discussing why even laws that are imperfect should not necessarily be replaced with better laws, because it weakens the confidence people have in habitually following laws in general.

Oliver: Of course, bringing back the old Latin liturgy is a change of custom for most Catholics, so it, too, could weaken their sense of ecclesial stability or trust. What do you say to that?

Charles: The only justification that can be given for such a big change is that the good of recovering liturgical tradition overwhelmingly outweighs the evil of disturbing people’s habits. Besides, churchmen since the Second Vatican Council have given us so many reasons to distrust their decisions that it’s rather silly at this point to suggest that we can be destabilized more than we have already been by all the doctrinal confusion, moral laxity, and liturgical chaos of the past five decades. The return of tradition means a return of dogma, holiness, and right worship — all stabilizing factors. It’s like going from anarchy to government, or from a starvation diet to a royal banquet. Only a cruel person would say: “The poor are so accustomed to malnutrition that we should just let them stay at that level, even though we are capable of providing them with abundant nutrition.”

Oliver: Your arguments make me wonder about the use and abuse of Church authority. Would you say there was a similar (although not nearly as bad) problem when the Council of Trent suppressed rites? It seems to me that after Trent the idea of what the liturgy is in relation to the Vatican undergoes a shift.

Charles: Yes, Trent, or perhaps I should say St. Pius V, does introduce a new dynamic. He did not abolish any rite older than 200 years, but the way the new missal was imposed showed a tendency to overreach.

Oliver: One can sympathize; it was a centralized response to the centrifugal force of Protestant experimentation and diversity.

Charles: For sure. I don’t deny that. But in 1570, for the first time in history, a pope took upon himself the role of officially promulgating a missal for the Latin rite Church. It’s quite striking, isn’t it, to think that Catholicism endured for 1,500 years with a rich liturgical tradition that had never been administered or validated by the Vatican?

Oliver: The only thing more striking, one could say, is that Paul VI was audacious enough to introduce a new missal, which Pius V would never have done, or even conceived of doing. His 1570 missal was, for all intents and purposes, the same as papal curial missals had been for centuries before.

Charles: You are provoking me, aren’t you, to take up the question of whether or not Paul VI’s manufactured liturgy can seriously be called the Roman Rite, and whether this talk of “two forms” can really be defended. That’s a longer conversation, for another day. But this much should give us pause: never in the history of the Catholic Church had there been a new missal, until 1969.

Oliver: Whatever the answer may be, it won’t change where I’ll be heading for church on Sunday. See you at the High Mass for the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost!

Charles: You bet.
*          *          *
(NLM readers may be interested in another dialogue that took place one day between two other friends, Terence and William, on whether faithful Catholics are permitted to question the liturgical reform.)

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