Thursday, August 05, 2021

Traditionis Custodes, or Competing Concepts of Unity” — Guest Article by Dr. Tomasz Dekert

We are pleased to publish this insightful essay by Dr. Tomasz Dekert, who wrote the original in Polish and then translated it for NLM. Dr. Dekert is a religious scholar who received his PhD at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow with a thesis on the concept of apostasy in Irenaeus of Lyons' Adversus Haereses. He works as an assistant professor at the Jesuit University Ignatianum in Krakow and is also a member of the editorial board of the Christianitas quarterly, a Polish journal for Catholic tradition. The original text of this article in Polish may be found here.

Mark Searl, a well-known American liturgist, in one of his books wrote that someone who was theologically formed, or more precisely, accustomed to thinking about liturgy in the first place in terms of sacramental “matter and form,” can approach real rituals from the position of one who “already knows what is significant and what is not,” and who views “the rest, whether it be the rite or people, as dispensable.” [1] These words came to mind when I reflected on the Motu Proprio Traditionis Custodes and its background. Well, I have the impression that they say something very important about the deep causes of the present situation, causes that are in no way limited to Rome’s usual reaction to the alleged destruction of the Church’s unity by the presence and development of groups centered around the liturgy in the classical Roman Rite, but that are stuck in a kind of mental alienation of parts of the Church elites, both academic and hierarchical. And not only the present ones, but above all those from half a century ago.
Early critics of the post-conciliar liturgical changes, who, in addition to being Catholic, were also prominent figures in sociology and anthropology – I mean Mary Douglas and Victor Turner – pointed out that from their professional perspective, the way in which the reform was carried out was burdened with the error of misdiagnosing the true needs of the masses of believers in terms of things such as the consistency, repetitiveness, and archaic nature of the ritual. As in the famous case study of “bog Irish” in Douglas’ Natural Symbols, the elites turned out to be insensitive to “dense” and ritualized symbolic communication, which in turn built a whole world of religious references, not necessarily conceptualized, for people from classes of lower cultural capital. Therefore, the changes in the structure of the Catholic ritual system forced by intellectuals and hierarchs constituted, as in the parable of the prophet Nathan, taking the poor man’s last sheep. The point, however, is not to reduce the problem to the relationship between different social classes. It is more about noticing the fact that the beginning of a specific split in the Church lies at the moment when her elites began to think of themselves as omnipotent regulators of the life of this huge and very internally diversified social body, based on their own intellectual competences and possessed power.

In an article from 1969, Yves Congar describes in an almost surprising way the importance of the permanence and traditionality of the liturgical ritual:
The conservative character of the liturgy makes it possible for it to preserve and transmit intact the values whose importance one epoch may have forgotten, but which the next epoch is happy to find intact and preserved, so that it can live from them again. Where would we be if this liturgical conservatism had not resisted the late medieval taste for sensory devotions, the eighteenth century’s individualistic, rational, and moralizing imperatives, the nineteenth century’s critique, or the modern period’s subjective philosophies? Thanks to the liturgy everything has been retained and transmitted. Ah! Let us not expose ourselves to the reproach sixty years hence that we squandered and lost the sacred heritage of the Catholic communion as it is deployed in the slow flow of time. Let us keep a healthy awareness that we carry in ourselves only a moment, the tip of the iceberg in relation to a reality which is beyond us in every way.[2]
I would add one more to these values. Wherever ritual is a widely accepted medium and – at the same time – an object of traditio (a content handed on) in which all members of the community participate, regardless of social class, political affiliation, cultural capital, etc. (which does not mean that it has to be the same everywhere) there the foundations of unity are so deep that they transcend all particularisms that are abundant in such a vast social organism. The necessary condition, however, is not the “uniformity”, that is, by the way, often mythologized in traditionalist thinking, but precisely the traditionality, a certain “organicity” (at least on the perception level) of the relationship between the community and its ritual system. In the circumstances in which this relationship found itself in the Roman Church after the reforms of St. Pius V, the above-mentioned condition required that a possible reform process should not in any way violate the visible and experiential traditional liturgical forms. At the level of the Conciliar Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy Sacrosanctum Concilium, the awareness of this fact was expressed in one of the sentences of section 23: “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.”

As we know, in the end the liturgical reform proceeded in a way that differed greatly from the fulfillment of this condition. Fr. John Baldovin, S.J., an ardent supporter of reform and critic of traditionalist tendencies, expressed it with endearing and at the same time brutal simplicity: 

The implementation of the reform, under Bugnini’s tutelage and involving dozens of experts in the fields of history, theology and pastoral practice, resulted in the complete vernacularization of the liturgy, reorientation of the presiding minister vis-à-vis the assembly, an extensive and even radical reform of the order of Mass, and a major overhaul of the liturgical year, not to mention a complete revision of every sacramental liturgy and daily liturgical prayer.[3]

It should be added that the liturgy subjected to such a total “makeover” could not be introduced in the entire Church solely on the basis of the authority of the professors’ titles or even the cardinal hats of its creators, but it required the involvement of the supreme authority, i.e. the Pope. Paul VI, although there are known cases when he vetoed the proposals of the Consilium, was himself actively involved in the reform process, and willing to use his power to this end. The reformed Roman Rite was proclaimed, and the Church was obliged to accept it, with the simultaneous – administratively ordered and almost non-exceptional – suspension of the functioning of the previous ritual. And this was precisely the situation in which the Church elites, or at least some of the dominant part of them at the time, manifested their sense of omnipotence as regulators of religious life throughout the Church from the position of those who “know better” and “can do more”. The Church as a whole was to embody in her new liturgy a series of concepts and beliefs of a certain particular group of her members about what she and her liturgy were to be.

The founding sin of the breakdown of unity, for which Francis declares such concern in Traditionis Custodes, is the very fact of the reform understood and carried out in this way. Introducing into the bloodstream of the Church rituals that are “non-traditional” in a very visible and experiential way, but enforced by the power of the highest authority (in fact, as a result of the transition from a certain range of self-steering to manual control, this act made the rites dependent on this authority and its bureaucratic agendas) has practically abolished the “naturally” and profoundly unifying influence of the liturgy. In a sense, the liturgy itself was problematized; it put before each of the faithful the need to respond to the proposal of a new ritual submitted to him – albeit in an “irrefutable” mode.

Of course, for a large part of the members of the Church, the mandate of the papal seal was enough for them, and the fact that today they participate in rituals other than the day before yesterday, became the order of the day. Many elements of this new liturgical reality were attractive to some Catholics, and even gave a sense of a new quality of participation. But there were also those who deeply understood and felt the meaning and importance of the traditional Catholic liturgy, and who saw in the Vatican’s “proposal” a number of things that were dubious or even wrong, and the fact that, as Archbishop Bugnini argued, the actions of the reformers were accompanied by “the scrutiny of hundreds of experts and of the Church’s hierarchy,”[4] and that everything had been approved by the Pope, did not provide sufficient justification in the eyes of tradition-loving faithful. Here, in fact, we have a whole spectrum of attitudes, from trust in Church authority, saturated with deep sadness and the more or less rationalized submission to authority’s orders, to the complete refusal of such submission in the name of the “true Roman Church” and other products of overwhelming cognitive dissonance. Finally, there were those who could be described as victims of the Church’s modernization process, that is, people who simply drifted away in the post-conciliar period, or at least stopped attending church. It is not known just how many people in this large crowd who, during and after the Council, in one way or another departed from the Church[5] did so because of the liturgy. In this very group the motivations were certainly varied. Some people were affected by the loss of the sense of the Church’s credibility, others by fatigue with destabilization and permanent fluctuations, others by disgust due to the invasion of pop culture in the liturgical space or other such phenomena. Some of the faithful have also fallen victim to the discouragement resulting from an excessively progressive approach (interestingly described by James Hitchcock),[6] that is, the inability to find “something” appropriately “relevant” in ever new experimental para-ritual forms. Nevertheless, although the post-conciliar losses of the Church have never been comprehensively established, it is difficult to imagine that the liturgical factor would be irrelevant here; in fact it seems to have played a key role.

Since history is written by the victors, the dominant narrative in the post-conciliar Church makes reform a providential, even theological movement, and a great pastoral success, proclaimed in probably every subsequent document on the liturgy. There is no doubt that, in the scale of the entire Church, the reform campaign was successful. As a result, a new face of “unity” was obtained, which is not rooted in the organic totality of the traditional ritual – this is practically non-existent in the reformed liturgy – but which is based on trust and obedience to the ecclesiastical authority (especially the Pope) and the post-conciliar liturgical order introduced by it. In the victors’ narrative, the fraction of the dissatisfied or dissenters and their activity are either ignored in silence or accused of schism, that is, for nothing but active disobedience. However, from the perspective of the above-presented argument, one has to look at it differently. Opposition does not simply arise from disobedience, as if the opponents were just rude brats or prideful hotheads, but from a different understanding of the fundamental principle of unity itself. And the fact that there has been a radical change in this area and the controversy it sparked was not caused by “traditionalists,” but by the post-conciliar reform itself. It was what destroyed, or at least greatly violated, the foundations of the unity of the Church. This fact tends to be overlooked in current Catholic discourse.

Traditionis Custodes consciously operates within the strictly narrowed framework of the above-mentioned new face of “unity,” which it elevates to the rank of absolute, central value. The projects of the “post-conciliar” Church and liturgy, precisely because of their foundation in acts of power, are understood here as a reality without alternative – ultimately (“in due time”, as Francis puts it in his letter to the bishops), one who will not accept them (= who will not obey), has no right to be in the Church and call himself Catholic – even if he or she was baptized, believes in all dogmas, leads a full prayer life and sacramental life, tries to do works of mercy and live the gospel. Sounds absurd? But that’s what the Pope announced to us.


[1] Mark Searle, Called to Participate. Theological, Ritual, and Social Perspective, eds. Barbara Searle, Anne Y. Koester (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2006), 20.

[2] Y. Congar, O.P., „Autorité, Initiative, Coresponsabilité”, La Maison-Dieu 97 (1969), 55.

[3] John F. Baldovin, “The Twentieth Century Reform of the Liturgy: Outcomes and Prospects,” Institute of Liturgical Studies Occasional Papers 126 (2017): 4–5.

[4] Annibale Bugnini, “The Consilium and Liturgical Reform,” The Furrow 19, no. 3 (1968): 177.

[5] Two sociological works on France and the English-speaking world, respectively, have been recently devoted to this topic: Guillaume Cuchet, Comment notre monde a cessé d'être chrétien. Anatomie d'un effondrement (Paris, Éditions de Seuil, 2018, 95-141); Stephen Bullivant, Mass Exodus: Catholic Disaffiliation in Britain and America since Vatican II (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019)

[6] See James Hitchcock, Recovery of the Sacred: Reforming the Reformed Liturgy (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1974).

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