Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Byzantine Ressourcement #2: How Did They Reform the Liturgy and Avoid Ugliness and Rancor?

Subsidiarity: the key to a peaceful transition to the best liturgy for the Roman Church?

I recently posted an article on the reforms of the Eastern Churches (Eastern Catholic and Orthodox) called Byzantine Ressourcement? Liturgical Reform In The Orthodox Churches, As A Model For The Roman Rite, in which I described how the non-Roman, Apostolic Churches - I used the generic descriptive ‘Eastern’, but as readers pointed out, the picture applies to other non-Roman Churches as well - had, strangely, reformed in accordance with the ideas of the Roman Catholic liturgical reformers of 20th century, and in many ways in accordance with what the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council had hoped to see in the Roman Church.

Some readers felt compelled to comment on the merits of the reforms themselves (many, it seemed to me, were Roman Catholics who seemed unhappy with what had happened to their neighbors on the other side of the garden fence).

I don’t want to revisit that discussion here because this was not actually the main reason for my writing the first article.

The main thrusts of my article were:

First, regardless of what we feel about those changes, the Churches themselves seem largely happy with what they have (even if some of their Latin cousins are not), and this has been achieved with minimal, or in most cases zero, input from Vatican II and without the strife and liturgy wars seen in the West.
Second, the fact that a fragment of a single sentence of instruction, in the case of the Eastern Catholic Churches, and zero instruction from the Council, in the case of Orthodox Churches, can bear such fruit in both cases, undermines a criticism of Vatican II made by some - that it was deliberately written in a tone of aggressive ambiguity in order to sow confusion. This phenomenon of peaceful and gradual reform elsewhere suggests, on the contrary, that there was more than sufficient detail addressed to the Roman Church. The mistake was in assuming the good intentions of those who were charged with implementing it.
The evidence of the reform of the Eastern Churches is that if one accepts the arguments behind the proposals and takes the trouble to understand the reasoning behind them, then the result will be as the framers intended. If on the other hand, people are disposed willfully to misinterpret or ignore the texts of the Council, no matter how clearly articulated, they will do so. And this, I believe, is what has happened in the West. In other words, the Council is largely irrelevant to what has happened - given the intentions of the architects of the mess we have today, it would have happened anyway.  
My thought is that this is worth examining so that we can consider a mechanism by which the Roman Church can move peacefully towards a general dominance of the best liturgy - whatever you may feel that is.

If I have painted a reasonable picture of the pattern of reform in the Eastern Churches (and I had several letters sent to me privately by members of these Churches telling me that I have), the next question is, why? Why has the situation in regard to the liturgical change been so different in the two lungs of the Church? One seems to be inhaling and exhaling freely and developing, dare I say it, ‘organically’; while the other is suffering from chronic COPD.
A clue to the answer, it seems to me, might come from the comments made by those readers of the article who did not dispute the general picture that I painted - that reforms had occurred and the Churches themselves were largely happy with what had occurred - but did point out, quite rightly, that the ‘Schmemann effect’, was not universal either. Some Churches, on the more conservative side, for example, had rejected change altogether, while others, a small minority, had introduced the liberal reforms all too familiar to us in the Roman Church (e.g. female altar servers). But while acknowledging that this is a patchwork quilt of differing ideas of what the liturgy ought to be, the general picture is that Schmemann has had a broad effect due to the free adoption of his ideas.

The answer as to why the pattern of reform is so different, it seems to me, relates to a difference in governance. In the East, the authority to change the liturgy is much more dispersed according to the principle of subsidiarity- maximized local freedom - while in the West, authority is far more centralized, with the focus of that authority in Rome. Consequently, what we have now in the West, again painting a broad picture, is the result of a top-down imposition of a reformed liturgy in the manner of the ‘suburban rite’ Novus ordo, while in the East the process has been more bottom-up. The unity of the Eastern Churches, in this regard, is the pattern of activity that emerges from many freely chosen actions. (For those that are interested in this idea of how order emerges as a pattern for the whole by the free action of the individual parts, here are some thoughts of mine on the subject in an earlier article called Does Order Come Out of Chaos, Or Chaos Out of Order?).

In general, and perhaps counter-intuitively, a bottom-up approach which recognizes local authority tends to give us more stability, and less radical change, and when reforms do occur by this mechanism, those changes that are good are more likely to predominate, while those that are bad are more likely to wither on the vine. The bottom-up implementation also allows for differing but valid local interpretations of what is good: differences don’t always indicate error. So we see a rich variety of local implementations of Schmemann’s ideas and different degrees of reform that sit alongside each other happily.
A top-down approach to implementation, on the other hand, which overrides natural local authority, tends to result, ultimately, in the predominance of what is bad. In the case where there is a single central authority, when innovation goes bad it lacks an internal mechanism for change and we are stuck with it. It is always possible that what is good might go bad in the future, but it is likely that what is bad will remain so.
Here’s why it happens this way, in my opinion:
Imagine, hypothetically, that every parish is free to decide how it celebrates the liturgy. It is likely that some will make bad decisions. However, others will likely exercise their freedom faithfully. In this situation, the ones that choose well will flourish and become beacons of the Faith, while others that choose badly will not. But, those places that get it right and flourish will inspire vocations, will attract the faithful, and will influence their neighbors by example. Those that get it wrong will continue to hemorrhage parishioners and in time die out.
It is analogous, in some ways, to what one might call Jesuit vs Oratorian styles of organization. When you have a very strong central organization, as the Jesuits have if the center goes bad, the whole organization suffers and it is very difficult for it to recover, for there is no natural mechanism for self-correction, except yet more powerful and yet more centralized authority. As a result, the best hope for redemption in the Jesuit-style organization, if it goes wrong, is a miracle!
However, if you have more distributed authority, so that separate houses are autonomous, as Oratorian houses are, then some will flourish and persist while others will decline. However, those that succeed will become mission churches that attract the laity, encourage vocations, and influence the founding of other Oratorian houses by the example of their success. This way even a few successes can be beacons of light that become good examples to inspire many. This is, I believe, the best mechanism also for an organic and authentic development of the liturgy.
The one drawback with this dispersed pattern of authority in the perception of many is, paradoxically, precisely the source of its strength in practice, namely that no part can directly control what any other does. Each autonomous unit has authority only over itself and may have to accept that a neighbor does things differently. If my mindset is such that my main concern is over what others ought to do, then I am less inclined to give others freedom in case they fail to do what I want them to. The liturgy wars then become more than simply debates about right and wrong, they become a struggle for political control of centralized power.
How localized is the natural authority for freedom to implement liturgical changes in the Roman Church? I am happy to be guided by canon lawyers on this, but I believe, historically at least, it resided with bishops (and from what I can tell theoretically does still does so today, although it is not often exercised in practice). If this were so, each diocese would not feel bound by Congregations in Rome or national councils of bishops, and each could choose to exercise the authority given to them and the situation would begin to right itself. Even better, each bishop might choose to allow parishes freedom too.
There is one aspect of the liturgy in which some authority for participation as one chooses lies within individual parishes and even laypeople, and that is with the Liturgy of the Hours when practiced in, for example, the domestic church. (I discussed the possibilities of people exercising this freedom well in a recent blog post entitled, Will the Domestic Church Grow as the Institutional Church Shrinks?). The ideal, it seems to me, is that at every level, all members of the Church take the initiative to exercise their natural authority for the good.

The need for subsidiarity is the argument made by Adam DeVille in his book, Everything Hidden Shall Be Revealed which I reviewed here. He addresses a different problem within the Church (corruption and the sexual abuse scandal), but the argument regarding subsidiarity as a solution is the same. He argues that if dioceses chose their bishops, as they used to do, and parishes are accorded freedom by their bishop, then this would encourage still further the right exercise of free autonomy.
To be clear, this is not an argument against papal authority as traditionally understood and as reflected in the First Vatican Council. Rather it is an argument for greater recognition of a natural local authority that is already present, but not always exercised. Nor is it the encouragement of license. Full freedom, as we know, is a choice free of constraint or restraint, but directed towards a right end. So the fullest freedom is in the choice to do what is good. However, it is not freedom if there isn’t the possibility of people exercising it poorly. In most situations, there are different opinions on what is good, and sometimes what is good for me is not the best for you. So, in this model each local authority decides, in good faith, what they believe Vatican II meant in regard to the degree or nature of reform, one taking a maximalist line, while another a minimalist ‘organic development’ approach to reform, and yet a third might reject change altogether and stick to the 1962 Missal. We can’t predict which approach will flourish and effectively become the Church, but in faith, we trust that the good will win out, even if some making the choices are bad actors.
In my experience, many pious Roman Catholics are not inclined to believe that subsidiarity is a good thing in this regard. I used to be skeptical too; I was reluctant to believe that giving people freedom to choose will facilitate the emergence of what is truly best, fearing that the opposite would happen and everything would eventually default to the lowest common denominator. What I yearned for, therefore, was a centralized authority to impose on the whole Church what I wished to see in my local parish.
However, happily, not all are as I used to be. I do see some recognition of this idea of subsidiarity even amongst devotees of the Traditional Latin Mass, (and contrary to the ultramontanist outlook that one might expect). For example, I read recently an article in which one was encouraging an even more radical dispersion of local autonomy than I am, by suggesting that individual priests might be justified in celebrating the Latin Mass even if it meant disobeying their bishop’s wishes.
Some, at the other end of the scale, have more ultramontanist instincts, will worry that this is a prescription for anarchy. I would say no, it is in fact a prescription for freedom. And freedom is always a good thing, for the pattern of freedom is dynamic and self-regulating. What can’t be guaranteed, however, is that the pattern that emerges ultimately will be the one that I would like it to be. I have to have faith that whatever predominates is the best, even if it is not what I would have liked.
And for many, therein lies the rub.
Photos above, top to bottom: St Margaret Mary, Oakland; The Brompton Oratory; The Birmingham Oratory; Holy Family parish, which is run by the Toronto Oratory; a private home altar; and Star of the Sea, San Francisco.

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: