Monday, July 09, 2018

The Ill-Placed Charges of Purism, Elitism, and Rubricism

For over 1,500 years, the Church in the West has sung her readings at Mass in the Latin tongue, in the chant that grew up with the texts and clothes them to perfection. For a long time now, she has read the lesson towards the east and the Gospel towards the north, offering them up as part of the high-priestly sacrifice of the Mass, for the glorification of God and not merely for the instruction of the people (as the Protestants would subsequently maintain). When it was thought desirable to convey the readings also in the vernacular, Holy Mother Church, in imitation of Our Lady, “kept these things and pondered them in her heart”: she did not abolish the Latin chants but gave permission for them to be read aloud in the vernacular afterwards, from the ambo or pulpit. There is absolutely no reason to change the Catholic practice of chanting the Epistle and Gospel in Latin, and every reason to conserve it for the theological and spiritual patrimony it transmits.

When I published my article “Traditional Clergy: Please Stop Making ‘Pastoral Adaptations’” this past June 11, protesting against the manner in which the final pontifical Mass of the Chartres pilgrimage did violence to the Roman Rite in regard to the readings, little did I know what a hornet’s nest I was kicking. Blogs in French and German picked up the article (some examples here, here, here, and here). It was consoling to find that many priests who contacted me agreed that the rubrics should be followed and that this Franco-German custom is an aberration that deserves to be set aside definitively.

However, there were some voices raised in support of such liturgical irregularities. To my surprise and disappointment, one of these voices belongs to P. Engelbert Recktenwald, F.S.S.P., who on June 28 published a column in the major German Catholic newspaper, Die Tagespost, entitled “Zeit, ‘danke’ zu sagen’” (“Time to Say Thanks” — the article is not available online for free), in which he eloquently expresses his confidence in the rightness of the founding of the Fraternity of St. Peter in 1988 and its peaceful role within the Church, but then veers into an attack on a certain category of traditionalists. His paragraphs are worth reading in their entirety (my translation):
Personally, in the meantime, I see an unexpected danger for the traditional movement somewhere else in the Church, that is to say, in a hyperliturgization [Hyperliturgisierung]. Despite all the theological narrowness of which one might accuse Archbishop Lefebvre, he had the zeal of a true shepherd who is concerned with the salvation of souls. To him, the preservation of the liturgy was not an aesthetic end-in-itself. Far more, he saw the liturgical crisis as part of the crisis of faith that was endangering the salvation of many souls. His intention was highly pastoral, in the full Catholic sense of the word. He was not concerned with rubrics, that is, with the letter of liturgical rules, but with their spirit. He was not altogether against reforms, but only against reforms that cloud over the spirit of the liturgy.
          In my first year as a priest in the Society of St. Pius X, on Sundays I served at a chapel where they sang, on alternating weeks, Gregorian chant and Schubert Masses [i.e., Mass paraphrases in German]. No one had thought anything of that. The phenomenon of a liturgical purism that despises German songs in the liturgy, rejects the direct reading of Epistle and Gospel in the vernacular [i.e., without reading/chanting them in Latin], and cultivates an excessive rubricism to the point of a missionary self-gagging, crossed my way much later, especially in lay circles. Thus [outside] critics of the traditional liturgy are offered a target, while newcomers have a more difficult start. One enters upon an oblique path at the end of which liturgy appears to be the hobby of an exclusive club of exotic aesthetes.
          I am grateful to Cardinal Sarah that, at the concluding Mass of the Chartres pilgrimage, he set a sign and gave a reminder about the correct measure of the way one ought to celebrate: “with a noble simplicity, without useless additions, false aestheticism, or theatricality, but with a sense of the sacred that first and foremost gives glory to God.”[1]
There is much that one might criticize in these paragraphs, but I would like to take a step back and consider the eerie similarity between the way Recktenwald is arguing today and the way that Annibale Bugnini and his liturgist comrades were arguing about the “urgent need” to modify the old Mass.

Yves Chiron’s masterful biography of Bugnini details just how willing were the liturgical “experts” of the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s to experiment with the liturgy, as if it was their personal possession. No established rubrics held them back, in spite of nearly constant warnings and reproofs from the popes, from the Congregation for Rites, or from other curial officials. The attitude seemed to be: “If we have a good enough reason to break the rubrics to try something new that we think is a pastoral improvement, then we have sufficient justification.” This attitude, in short, was the very acid that dissolved any notion of a received, inherited rite to which we are humbly subject, by which we allow ourselves to be shaped and guided.

Once this erroneous attitude had established itself, it was relatively easy to discard the entire rite in favor of a fabricated one. Why not? It’s all about what we want to do. The Novus Ordo was simply the crown placed on decades of liturgical experimentation rooted in rationalism, voluntarism, and pastoralism. In some ways, it was the archetypal expression of a council that claimed to be not dogmatic but pastoral, a council that was content with rambling texts that tack to and fro like a sailboat trying to catch the wind, just as the so-called Tridentine rite in its majestic solidity and stability is the perfect expression of the genuine pastoral concern and luminous dogmatic teaching of the Council of Trent, valid for all time, all places, all cultures.

In their myopia, partisans of the later phase of the Liturgical Movement thought that they, and not the providentially unfolded tradition of the Church, knew best what Modern Man™ needed. To them, it was evident that he needed as much vernacularization as possible. That is why Latin was eventually thrown out of the window completely. They also thought we needed to simplify, always to seek a greater and greater simplification — be it in vestments (away with the amice and maniple and biretta), in furnishings (away with six candles, antependia, and thuribles), in the texts of the Mass (away with the Propers, second or third orations, Psalm 42, Prologue of John, Leonine prayers), in the ceremonies of the Mass (away with osculations, signs of the cross, genuflections, ad orientem), in its music (away with ancient chant).

A television Mass versus populum, for Modern Man

It never seems to have occurred to the Liturgical Movement that quite possibly what an increasingly secular and materialist age needed was precisely a movement in the opposite direction — towards greater liturgical symbolism, a richer pageantry of ritual, a fuller immersion in Gregorian chant with its incomparable spirituality, and so forth.[2] What modern man needed most of all was to be rescued from the prison of his own making, namely, the rationalist anthropocentrism that defines modernity and that, to our shame, made its home in the Catholic Church through the liturgical reform, in its many intended and unintended consequences. In this sense, the proposed cure turned out to be more of the same disease, which is why, predictably, it has made the patient worse, not better.

The accusation of “hyperliturgization” made by Pater Recktenwald is therefore ironic. Priests who defend departures from the rubrics — often nationalistic departures from the universal Roman tradition — are the ones who deem themselves competent to make improvements or adjustments of the liturgy. They are the hyperliturgists. Those who wish to attend a Roman Mass that, at least as regards what is specified in the liturgical books, is the same everywhere in the world, even as the Catholic Faith is the same, are not hyperliturgists; they are not even liturgists. They are faithful Catholics. They are Catholics who believe that what the longstanding tradition of the Church offers them, such as the chanting of the readings in Latin, is going to be spiritually superior to some “adaptation” or “inculturation” that this or that priest, or group of priests, may happen to think is better. We are called to dwell in the house of the liturgy as grateful guests, not to re-engineer it as project managers.

Those who make changes like this in the liturgy are no doubt acting in good faith. But they are not acting with humble trust that there are always many layers of meaning in the liturgy that go beyond what we might understand to be the purpose of some ceremony or text or music or vestment. They are acting, in short, by their own lights. But what we must do, especially today, is to act by the light of Catholic tradition, until we have learned again, like children in grammar school, why it developed in the first place. We need to learn our ABCs again before we dare to make our own contributions, whatever those might be (and may God preserve us from “creativity”).

A relic of the past, a danger in the present

Some have curiously accused me in this connection of “rubricism,” a charge repeated, as we have seen, by Fr. Recktenwald. The reason I say “curiously” is that it is perfectly obvious that I am not a rubricist. The phenomenon of rubricism occurs when the liturgical or theological rationale for a given practice is forgotten, and all that one has to stand on is a rubric, a prescription of positive human law. If one cannot say why a practice is right and fitting but simply shouts “That’s the rubric and we must follow it!,” or if one breaks out into a cold sweat at 3 in the morning because one suddenly realizes that three manuals disagree about how many inches apart the items on the credence table should be, then perhaps one might be called a rubricist. But if one looks at what I wrote about why the Chartres abuses should be avoided, one can see a liturgical-theological rationale in addition to a reminder that the rubrics rule them out.

The reason rubrics are good is that the practices they guarantee are themselves good and right and fitting. It is not the other way around, namely, that something is good because the rubrics dictate it. That is legal positivism. No. The Church under the guidance of the Holy Spirit learns the best way of doing something — best either in practical terms, or for theological/spiritual reasons, or both — and then she formulates it as a rubric and enforces its observance. For example, the custom of holding the thumb and forefinger together arose as a custom, gradually spread, and was finally taken up into the rubrics enjoined on all.[3] That is usually how such things develop. A great problem of 20th-century Catholicism was that rubrics had become a cottage industry. The Congregation for Rites, followed in turn by the Consilium, were cranking out new rubrics year by year, leading to a weariness and annoyance with the whole business. Forgotten was the theological and spiritual meaning of the rubrics, the reason they developed in the first place.

This is why a traditionalist is consistent in saying that rubrics must be followed, but also that some rubrics are better than others, because of what they require and why they require it. Indeed, some rubrics are bad, such as the Novus Ordo rubric that during Mass no one should genuflect to Our God and Lord Jesus Christ, really present in the tabernacle, even when passing in front of it. Let us not beat around the bush: this is stupid and wrong. It is “on the books,” but much in the same way that any bad law is on the books.[4]

A rubricist is one who insists on the rubrics for their own sake. A traditionalist insists on the rubrics because they protect and promote something important — something that one first has to understand theologically and spiritually, after which the rubrics are seen to be right. Rubrics have legal force because they are promulgated by legitimate authority, but they have their intrinsic force from the nature of the thing itself.

“Pastoral” priests who ignore or contradict the sound rubrics of the old missal are demonstrating not “flexibility within rules,” but an antinomian mentality that is characteristic of the modern period, with its habit of calling traditions into question and giving first place to utilitarian and pragmatist considerations. When a priest sees a traditional rubric not as the guardian of a theological or spiritual truth but as an arbitrary dictate of law, he will be all the more willing to violate it whenever he thinks he has a better idea.

This whole question of how readings are to be done is more important than it may seem, because it is not an isolated issue. It is one among several Trojan Horses by which selfless and tireless reformists may enter the traditional movement and turn it — or at least geographical portions of it — into a recapitulation of the Consilium’s descent into insatiable tinkering, modifying, expurgating, reinventing, archaeologizing, and ultimately transmogrifying the liturgy, all in the name of “pastoral improvements.” This, and not loving care for the traditional ars celebrandi, will be the “self-gagging” we need to avoid.


[1] German original:
Ich persönlich sehe inzwischen eine unvermutete Gefahr für die traditionelle Bewegung in der Kirche ganz woanders, nämlich in einer Hyperliturgisierung. Bei aller theologischen Engführung, die man Erzbischof Lefebvre vorwerfen mag: Er hatte den Eifer eines wahren Hirten, dem es um das Heil der Seelen geht. Die Bewahrung der Liturgie war für ihn kein ästhetischer Selbstzweck. Vielmehr sah er ihre Krise als einen Teil der Glaubenskrise, die das Heil vieler Seelen gefährdet. Sein Anliegen war ein höchst pastorales im vollen katholischen Sinne des Wortes. Es ging ihm nicht um Rubriken, also um den Buchstaben liturgischer Vorschriften, sondern um den Geist. Er war nicht gegen Reformen überhaupt, sondern gegen Reformen, die den Geist der Liturgie vernebeln.
          In meinem ersten Priesterjahr in der Piusbruderschaft versorgte ich sonntäglich eine Kapelle, in der abwechselnd an einem Sonntag Gregorianischer Choral, am anderen die Schubertmesse gesungen wurde. Kein Mensch hatte sich etwas dabei gedacht. Das Phänomen eines liturgischen Purismus, der deutsche Lieder in der Liturgie verachtet, den direkten Vortrag von Lesung und Evangelium in der Landessprache ablehnt, einen exzessiven Rubrizismus bin hin zur missionarischen Selbstknebelung pflegt, ist mir erst viel später begegnet, vor allem in Laienkreisen. So wird Kritikern der traditionellen Liturgie eine willkommene Angriffsfläche geboten, Neulingen der Zugang zu ihr erschwert. Man hat eine schiefe Bahn betreten, an deren Ende Liturgie als Liebhaberei eines exklusiven Clubs exotischer Ästheten erscheint.
          Ich bin Kardinal Sarah dankbar, dass er beim Abschlusshochamt der Chartreswallfahrt ein Zeichen gesetzt und das richtige Maß für die Weise angemahnt hat, wie man zelebrieren soll: “mit edler Schlichtheit, ohne unnötige Überladungen, falschen Ästhetizismus oder Theatralik, aber mit einem Sinn für das Heilige, der Gott zuerst die Ehre gibt.”
[2] This is one of the insights that made Catherine Pickstock famous, and I gladly acknowledge my debt to her.

[3] See the final installment of my series on the holding together of thumb and forefinger.

[4] Fr. Zuhlsdorf has discussed this unfortunate rubric many times. Fr. Ray Blake mentions it here as part of his observation that the Novus Ordo does not seem to be concerned very much with latria, except in words (sometimes). This, of course, is pertinent to the tendency to see the readings as having only a didactic value, without a specifically latreutic function within the liturgy.

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