Tuesday, January 10, 2023

“Catholicism or Post-Catholicisms?” — Part 1: The Value of an Anthropological Analysis of Liturgical Reform

We thank Dr. Dekert for allowing NLM to publish in parts the original version of a very fine study on the fallout of the liturgical reform. For definitive academic reference, we recommend consulting the published version of it in the journal Religion and Theology 29, no. 3–4 (2022). A PDF of the full study as it appears at NLM may be found here.—PAK

The Effects of Catholic Liturgical Reform Considered in the Light of Roy A. Rappaport’s Theory of Ritual
by Tomasz Dekert

But if a house becomes a mere place of residence, and the temple an oratory or meeting-place, then the “positions” gradually lose their cosmic sacred character. They become merely places to stay in and talk, and it is no longer believed that anything really happens there. —Gerardus van der Leeuw, Religion in Essence and Manifestations
While there are immense differences between pagan and Christian ritual and between “primitive” and sophisticated cultures, ritual, like art, music, and other things incorporated into worship, retains certain common characteristics across those boundaries. While the Catholic liturgy obviously transcends all other rituals, it is assumed here that on one level it can be understood as an example of such ritual and that many of the most serious errors of liturgical reform stemmed from a failure to understand the nature of ritual even on the purely human level. [1]
The foregoing words from James Hitchcock, whose text has served as one of the inspirations for the considerations to be presented here, express something obvious, at least in a sense, to every anthropologist and religious scholar. Simply put, history does not know of a culture without a religious dimension, or a religion without a ritual dimension—and regarding this basic point Christianity is no exception. Therefore, there can be no convincing reason for rejecting the possibility of a comparative analysis of Catholic ritual and the rituals of other religious traditions, or, when it comes to anthropological reflection on ritual, for excluding the former from one’s area of interest in favor of exclusively historical and theological perspectives. [2]

As controversial as it may sound (at least from a Catholic point of view), it can even be asserted—extrapolating logically from Hitchcock’s statement—that just embracing the perception of the liturgy and its meaning as this arises within the socio-cultural system of the Catholic religion, and thus from the “internal” (emic) perspective of academic theology and liturgical studies, carries a certain risk. Approaching it from a broadly construed anthropological perspective, those skilled in the reflective analysis of ritual note, and seek to describe, its close relations with the entire sphere of human thinking and behavior: with sites of communication, the regulation of emotions, interpersonal and socio-structural crises and dramas, the order of displacements within the social structure, the production, maintenance and transformation of meanings, the imparting of meaning to human existence, and so on.

If these approaches capture some truth about the reality of ritual in the human world, then their omission from theological reflection on the liturgy—as something strictly ritualistic, social, corporeal, and formal, and not identical to the universe of pure ideas and academic knowledge—will at best reduce them to idle theorizing, and at worst (if or when this reflection translates into liturgical praxis) engender serious errors and even chaos. [3] It will just be missing reality.

From the theologian’s point of view, this was already noted by Louis Bouyer, who in 1961 described the fundamental idea underlying his reflections:
With the help of the modern sciences that deal with man, we intend to examine what might be described as the anthropological antecedents to Christianity. From this study, the human character of Christianity should emerge with a clarity that would otherwise be hardly suspected… Indeed, the more perfectly we know the human aspects of Christianity, the more perfectly we shall understand that part of it which is the result of divine intervention. This is not to say that the human and the divine should be found in it separated from one another. It is rather that the divine reveals itself in the transformation in what is human. [4]
To some extent, a similar intuition underpins the analyses presented below. They rest on the assumption that theories of ritual—in this case, primarily that of Roy A. Rappaport—can and should constitute an important point of reference for reflection on the liturgy, because they allow for a deeper understanding of its anthropological dimension and determinants. Where I differ from the approach of Bouyer is that I seek to limit myself just to analysis on the anthropological level. This is motivated not only by a desire to maintain the autonomy of distinct disciplines, but also, as I try to highlight in more detail below, by the conviction that entering into the realm of theological interpretations of the liturgical reform (as defined by the very fact of the latter) will for the most part prove fruitless and inconclusive. The present text should therefore be understood in terms of purely anthropological analysis, with all that this entails.

Changes to the Catholic Ritual

The current liturgical situation of Catholicism surely counts as a highly intriguing one. In the period after the Second Vatican Council, the Church’s institutional authorities undertook a large-scale top-down operation to change the entire system of Catholic ritual. [5] Reconstructing the reaction of the clergy and the faithful to this in its entirety does not seem feasible, especially as it is impossible to generalize from its form in one place or country to what it is like in other areas—these being, after all, very diverse—that also make up the Catholic world.

Roughly speaking, it could be said that such reactions ranged from deep dissatisfaction with, and rebellion over, the insufficiently democratic and liberal nature of the reforms, to a complete rejection of the reformed liturgy, as well as the entire legacy of Vatican II, as heretical. The very fact that the ends of this continuum correspond to such drastically polarized positions indicates the sheer depth of the transformation brought about.

At both ends of the scale, their most extreme forms were associated with deliberate acts of abandonment of the “visible Church” and the formation of alternative groups and communities. [6] Between them stretched a huge spectrum of different and variable, positive and negative reactions. It can be assumed, however, that the statistically dominant one was what the Church’s own documents describe as “accepting the liturgical reform in a spirit of obedience.” [7] One may suppose that within this absolutely heterogeneous group —“obedience,” after all, may cover many widely different attitudes—those who prevailed were, most probably, the Catholics who embraced the new liturgical reality without deeper reflection (whether critical or not), on the basis of the principle that “the authority knows better” or something similar.

The great unknown of this process, at the level of the overall ecclesial community, was the actual extent of departure from the faith and the Church of people who, not being part of the traditionalist opposition, were disgusted or scandalized by the changes taking place, as well as those for whom such alteration to the ritual denoted a falsification of the Catholic system as such. As William Dinges puts it,
liturgical reform left many Catholics with the impression that what had been viewed as heaven-sent and absolute in form and structure was permeable and subject to redefinition and territorial variation. Changes in Catholicism’s core corporate ritual also awakened the troubling possibility that other constitutive elements of the Church were not an objective given, but that they, too, had been (and could be) sociologically and historically constructed and reconstructed. [8]
According to Stephen Bullivant, the author of the latest sociological work devoted to the abandonment of faith by American and British Catholics in our post-conciliar times, the period of continuous variation affecting the liturgy that began back in 1964 closely correlates both with a progressive decline in religious practice and with the numbers of those rejecting their religious identity. [9] In this context, he draws attention to the failure of the reform from the point of view of its own motivations and goals, as articulated in the constitution Sacrosanctum Concilium[10]

Considering the conspicuously drastic decline in liturgical practice among Catholics in Western Europe that coincided with the period of the most radical changes, it is hard not to admit that for a large part of Western Catholics, the processes of reforming the ritual translated into a disavowal of the Catholic faith as such. [11] These people can probably be considered victims of Church modernization: people who, for one reason or another, were incompatible with aggiornamento, and who were simply left behind by the system. [12]

Until the 1980s and, above all, the escalation of the conflict between the Holy See and Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre and his Priestly Fraternity of St. Pius X (whose collateral consequence was to formally assign adherents of the old liturgical forms a place of sorts in the Church), the course officially pursued by the Church seemed to be of a purely one-way nature, with any tendencies or critical attitudes toward reform being treated as, at best, a problem to be solved. [13]

There can be no doubt that, in a descriptive sense, the above-mentioned operation of liturgical alteration succeeded: the new ritual forms have become a common and everyday reality at the level of the entire Church, into which new generations of Catholics have entered, and are entering, as to something already there. On the other hand, the memory of the old forms, if we disregard the relatively few groups of “the maladjusted” still practicing them (and deliberately separating from the post-Conciliar Church or trying to use the meager Vatican indults even more scantily implemented by local decision-makers) has been reduced to the level of a closed chapter in the history of the liturgy, often colored by feelings of resentment, and by a sense of having successfully overcome past mistakes.

This situation lasted until 2007: that is, until Pope Benedict XVI issued the motu proprio Summorum Pontificum (hereafter: SP). In relation to the traditional form of the Roman Rite, this played a role like that of the “Edict of Milan,” as it proclaimed their formal equality with the new forms, thus ending, or at least breaking, the epoch of bureaucratic damnatio memoriae and the treatment of traditionalist Catholics as followers of religio semi-illicita. It was an extremely interesting moment in the recent history of the Catholic Church, the significance of which goes far beyond a favorable gesture towards the hitherto marginalized part of the faithful.

Apart from its many other implications, it must be said that SP created the right conditions for the realization that the shape of contemporary Catholicism was marked and determined by an event of ritual change. It is, of course, not just a simple assertion of the obvious fact that the post-conciliar reform had brought about very far-reaching changes in the liturgy, and thus, necessarily, that Catholicism after these changes is—in a descriptive sense—different from before. Rather, the consequences of this historical situation are much more complex.

(To be continued.)


[1] James Hitchcock, “Liturgy and Ritual,” Adoremus Bulletin Online Edition 12, no. 9 (2006), note 8, https://adoremus.org/2006/12/liturgy-and-ritual/.

[2] In the Polish context, which is the one that I myself am best able to comment on, reflection on the Christian liturgy and its reforms from an anthropological perspective is almost completely absent—not counting certain very general and secondary references in the special issues of ColT, known collectively as the Biuletym Odnowy Liturgicznej (Bulletin of Liturgical Renewal) (see, for example, Jerzy Grześkowiak, “Desakralizacja liturgii?,” ColT 45, no. 1 [1975]: 76–81). Such reflection has developed, though, in the West, within the framework of theological studies, and occasionally also in anthropology and religious studies. (For an overview of this issue and related methodological considerations, see Martin Stringer, “Liturgy and Anthropology: The History of a Relationship,” Worship 63 [1989]: 503–21; John D. Witvlied, “For Our Own Purposes: The Appropriation of the Social Sciences in Liturgical Studies,” Liturgy Digest 2, no. 2 [1995]: 6–35.) One of the first works to creatively transform the inspirations and impulses flowing from the perceptions of ritual within anthropology was Le Rite et L'Homme: Sacralité naturelle et Liturgie by Louis Bouyer (Paris: Editions du Cerf, 1961). The post-conciliar liturgical reforms provoked the critical reactions of two renowned anthropologists (and Catholics), Victor Turner and Mary Douglas, who approached it from the theoretical perspective of their discipline (see Mary Douglas, Natural Symbols: Explorations in Cosmology. New York: Random House, 1970; Victor W. Turner, “Passages, Margins and Poverty: Religious Symbols of Communitas,” Worship 46, no. 7 [1972]: 390–412; 46, no. 8: 482–94; “Ritual, Tribal and Catholic,” Worship 50, no. 6 [1976]: 504–26). Criticism of the reforms, albeit from a more sociological perspective, was also put forward by Kieran Flanagan (Sociology and Liturgy: Re-presentations of the Holy [New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1991]). These critical voices, unsurprisingly, did not have any noticeable effects at the level of the reform process (understandably, given the actual chronology of the relevant events). However, they did become, on the one hand, an inspiration for some other Catholic critics (James Hitchcock, Recovery of the Sacred: Reforming the Reformed Liturgy [San Francisco: Ignatius Press 1974]; Aidan Nichols, Looking at the Liturgy: A Critical View of Its Contemporary Form [San Francisco: Ignatius Press 1996]) and, on the other, a subject of polemics—polemics, that is, on the part of both postmodern theorists of ritual (Catherine Bell, “Tensions: Tribal and Catholic,” Studia Liturgica 32 [2002]: 15-28; “Ritual, Change and Changing Rituals,” in Foundations in Ritual Studies, ed. Paul Bradshaw and John Melloh [Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007], 167–76) and pro-reform liturgists who, in their criticisms, were partly dependent on the former (John F. Baldovin, Reforming Liturgy: A Response to the Critics [Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2008], 90–104). In 1973, a collective work was published entitled The Roots of Ritual (ed. James D. Shaughnessy [Michigan: Eerdmans, 1973]) containing texts by such authors as Margaret Mead, Jonathan Z. Smith and Robert Bellah. The point of departure for the authors of this project was the goal of seeking to better understand the ritual dimension of the liturgy (see Aidan Kavanagh, introduction to Shaughnessy, Root of Ritual, 7–8). The same purpose, albeit cast more in terms of academic research on the liturgy, was to be served by a collection of texts on the ritual representing various theoretical and methodological approaches, edited and published by Paul Bradshaw and John Melloh (Foundations in Ritual Studies). The works of such Catholic authors as Aidan Kavanagh (“The Role of Ritual in Personal Development,” in Shaughnessy, Roots of Ritual, 145–60), Mark Searle (“Ritual,” in The Study of Liturgy, ed. Cheslyn Jones, Edward Yarnold and Paul Bradshaw [London: SPCK, 1992], 51–8), David Torvell (Losing the Sacred: Ritual, Modernity and Liturgical Reform [London: T & T Clark, 2000]) and, most recently, Uwe Michael Lang (Signs of the Holy One: Liturgy, Ritual, and Expression of the Sacred  [San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2015]), form part of a tendency that involves reflecting on Catholic religious practice from a “classical” (in the sense of the second half of the 20th century) anthropological and sociological perspective. Meanwhile, Anton Usher (Replenishing Ritual: Rediscovering the Place of Rituals in Western Christian Liturgy [Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 2010]) approached the problem of the contemporary shape of the liturgy from a slightly different, though compatible perspective, while Nathan D. Mitchell (Liturgy and the Social Sciences [Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1999]) set out a critique of this “classical” paradigm and its use in the context of liturgical thinking, along with a proposal for bringing to bear on it the postmodern critique of ritual theory. The most recent major works that still adhere to this tendency—in that they reject the “permanent and fixed” and “confessional” concepts of the ritual and at the same time seek to develop a methodology of “liturgical ritual studies” adequate to the current state of Christian worship (in a very broad sense)—have been those of Benedikt Kranemann and Pul Post, eds., Die Modernen Ritual Studies als Herausforderung für die Liturgiewissenschaft. Modern Ritual Studies as a Challenge for Liturgical Studies, Liturgia Condenda 20 (Leuven: Peeters, 2009) and Marcel Barnard, Johan Cilliers and Cas Wepener, Worship in the Network Culture: Liturgical Ritual Studies. Fields and Methods, Concepts and Metaphors, Liturgia Condenda 28 (Leuven: Peeters, 2014).

[3] In this context, a remark made by Mark Searle stands out as striking. The latter, while writing about the collective character of the liturgy, somewhat casually and implicitly admits that someone who is theologically educated (accustomed to thinking in terms of sacramental “matter and form,” etc.) may approach the liturgy 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.” Mark Searle, Called to Participate. Theological, Ritual, and Social Perspective, ed. Barbara Searle and Anne Y. Koester (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2006), 20.

[4] Louis Bouyer, Rite and Man, trans. M. Joseph Costelloe (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1962), 2.

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

[6] For example, the “underground Church” in the USA, see Mary Henold, “Breaking the Boundaries of Renewal: The American Catholic Underground, 1966–1970,” U.S. Catholic Historian 19, no. 3 (2001): 97–118; Kathleen Kautzer, The Underground Church: Nonviolent Resistance to the Vatican Empire (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2012). On the opposite side, one encounters sedeprivatist and sedevacantist groups, see PierLuigi Zoccatelli, “The Current Status of Catholic Sedevacantism and Antipopes.” https://www.cesnur.org/2009/plz_sedevacantism.html.

[7] John Paul II, Apostolic Letter Vicesimus Quintus Annus on the 25th Anniversary of the Promulgation of the Conciliar Constitution Sacrosanctum Concilium on the Sacred Liturgy 12, https://www.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/apost_letters/1988/documents/hf_jp-ii_apl_19881204_vicesimus-quintus-annus.html. When citing Church documents, the numbers given here will refer not to the page numbers, but to the numbered paragraphs of the texts.

[8] William D. Dinges, “Ritual Conflict as Social Conflict: Liturgical Reform in the Roman Catholic Church,” Sociological Analysis 48, no. 2 (1987), 142–3; cf. Lang, Signs of the Holy One, 151.

[9] This period was associated with the hyperactivity of “experts,” meaning pastors and liturgists who were trying to make the liturgy “relevant” in relation to the dominant culture, “the needs of modern man,” etc. As Philip Lawler (2008, 72) puts it, “Only rarely did the ordinary Catholic have any control over the liturgical innovations that occurred in his parish; more typically he would learn about the latest changes only when he arrived in church on Sunday morning. From week to week, year after year, bewildered parishioners did not know what to expect at Sunday Mass, and the experiments would continue whether or not they approved.” Philip Lawler, The Faithful Departed: The Collapse of Boston’s Catholic Culture (New York: Encounter Book, 2008), 72. For more detailed descriptions of the activities of these experts, see Hitchcock, Recovery of the Sacred, passim; Michael Davies, Pope Paul’s New Mass (Dickinson: Angelus Press, 1980). This problem is analyzed by Dinges (“Ritual Conflict,” 152–3), who places it in the context of wider changes to the social processes of distribution of authority (paying attention to the nature of the liturgical movement).

[10] Stephen Bullivant, Mass Exodus: Catholic Disaffiliation in Britain and America since Vatican II (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019), Nook version, 223–4.

[11]  Paweł Milcarek, Historia Mszy. Przewodnik po dziejach rytu rzymskiego (Kraków: Wydawnictwo AA, 2009), 271.

[12] The very problem of sacramental and liturgical abuses was noticed by the highest Church authorities early, practically in parallel with the beginning of the reform process (not counting the encyclical of Pius XII, Mediator Dei from 1947, where one can already see a reaction to certain views on the liturgy of that time, which the Pope considers inappropriate). The first official statements on this matter are the Paul VI’s encyclical Mysterium fidei (September 3, 1969), the letter of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith Cum Oecumenicum Concilium (July 25, 1966) (both documents directed primarily against errors regarding the theology of the Eucharist) and the common the declaration of the Consilium and the Congregation of Holy Rites (December 29, 1966) stigmatizing arbitrary liturgical experiments (“family Eucharistic feasts,” “Holy Masses with unusual and arbitrary rites, costumes and forms, and sometimes with the accompaniment of music of a completely secular and worldly character” – cited by: Milcarek, Historia Mszy, 196). In the following decades, the Holy See issued many documents, wholly or in part, devoted to the fight against liturgical abuses – see CDW instruction, Liturgicae Instaurationes (September 5, 1970), Apostolic Letters of John Paul II, Dominicae Cenae (February 24, 1980) and Vicesimus Quintus Annus (December 4, 1988), interdicasterary instruction Eclessiae de Mysterio (August 15, 1997), encyclical of John Paul II, Ecclesia de Eucharistia (April 17, 2003), CDW instruction Redemptionis Sacramentum (March 25, 2004), Benedict XVI’s exhortation, Sacramentum Caritatis (February 22, 2007); to this list can also be added the letter of Pope Francis to the bishops, attached to his motu proprio Traditionis Custodes (July 16, 2021), where there is a desideratum that the bishops should watch that “every liturgy be celebrated with decorum and fidelity to the liturgical books promulgated after Vatican Council II, without the eccentricities that can easily degenerate into abuses.” It is significant that none of these documents reflects on the possible structural connection between the stigmatized practices and the fact and character of the official reform. This also applies to those of them that note the potentially destructive impact of abuses on the faith of Catholics (such as John Paul II’s letter Dominicae Canae 12 or the encyclical Ecclesia de Eucharistia 52). Typically, abuses are “simply” blamed on individual or group disobedience to liturgical regulations, excessive creativity, or possibly a faulty understanding of the principles of reform. Meanwhile, the time coincidence of the reforming process and the eruption of liturgical abuses indicates that there is a correlation between these phenomena, and perhaps a more direct (causal) relationship. The very meticulous separation of them from each other in church documents can be read as an element of a kind of “sacralization” or “tabooization” of the reform. Beyond this aspect, it is of course understandable in an economic sense, so to speak. Church institutions, from the Vatican down to the parish level, as well as some committed lay faithful invested enormous forces and resources – not only, and not primarily material, but those related to the authority of the hierarchy, intellectual, pastoral, etc. – in the implementation of the reformed liturgy. Admitting, therefore, that the reform in the shape and manner in which it was carried out could have entailed in many places a process of de(con)struction of the cult, would be to discredit the whole large-scale effort.

[13] See Congregation for the Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments, Quattuor abhinc annus Indult for Use of Roman Missal of 1962.  https://www.ewtn.com/catholicism/library/quattuor-abhinc-annos-indult-for-use-of-roman-missal-of-1962-2155; cf. also Alcuin Reid, “The Usus Antiquior – Its History and Importance in the Church after the Second Vatican Council,” in T & T Clark Companion to Liturgy: The Western Catholic Tradition, ed. Alcuin Reid (London – New York: Bloomsbury T & T Clark, 2016), 456–68.

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