Thursday, July 20, 2023

Paul VI Against the Council: The Censorship of the Psalms in the Divine Office

The other day, I noticed that the problem of the psalter in the post-Vatican II Liturgy of the Hours was being mentioned again on social media. To reiterate: three psalms were removed entirely from the psalter in the reformed Office (57, 82 and 108), with parts of nineteen others also deleted (see here for a full list). It seems an appropriate moment, therefore, to demonstrate that this censorship of the Psalms goes directly against the intentions of the Second Vatican Council, notwithstanding the desires of a tiny minority of the Fathers.
Shortly after Pope John XXIII announced the Council, a letter was sent out to all bishops and prelates asking them for their suggestions about what should be discussed. Over two-thousand responses were received; these are collectively known as the vota, and make up the antepreparatory (or pre-preparatory) part of the Acta of Vatican II. In my contribution to the 2019 Fota International Liturgical Conference, “The Proposals for Reform of the Roman Breviary in the Antepreparatory Period of Vatican II”, I noted that the omission of the imprecatory psalms from the Roman Breviary was mentioned in only three vota:
  • “That it be examined whether some psalms (e.g. the imprecatory psalms) that are difficult for Christians to fruitfully pray may be omitted from the Divine Office”. (Julius Cardinal Dopfner: Bishop of Berlin, Germany: ADA II.1, p. 588)
  • “Regarding the Breviary… that several Psalms, full of curses, be substituted [for others].” (Amerigo Galbiati, P.I.M.E., Bishop of Jalpaiguri, India: ADA II.4. p. 149)
  • “That in the Breviary the whole of sacred scripture in the New Testament be included; and from the Old Testament, the books of Moses, the historical books, and the four major prophets. Omit the [accounts of] wars and the imprecatory psalms.” (Gaspar Lischerong, S.J., Apostolic Administrator of Daming, China: ADA II.4, p. 568)
Three vota out of over two-thousand is a vanishingly small proportion. However, this idea that some psalms were not suitable for modern prayer would actually be discussed in some detail at the Council’s Central Preparatory Commission, when the draft constitution on the liturgy was being considered in the spring of 1962. This is mostly thanks to the remarks made by Arcadio Cardinal Larraona in his relatio (presentation) of chapter 4 to the Commission, in which he claimed that the omission of the imprecatory psalms was a possibility justifiable by what was then art. 71 of the constitution:
For art. 71: In the arrangement of the psalter, these things need to be revisited… that some psalms which seem less in keeping with the spirit of evangelical charity may be omitted, or recited less frequently… (ADP II.3, p. 331)
In the subsequent discussion by the members of the Commission, Ernesto Cardinal Ruffini gave Psalms 55, 58, 83, 109, 129, 137 and 140 as examples that could be omitted from the psalter in whole or in part (ADP II.3, p. 338), and Carlo Cardinal Confalonieri declared that he had no objection to omitting verses from imprecatory or long historical psalms (ADP II.3, p. 342). In the voting on chapter 4 of the draft constitution, Valerio Cardinal Valeri, Giovanni Cardinal Montini (who would, of course, be elected Pope Paul VI in 1963), Archbishop Victor Bazin and Bishop Johannes Suhr, O.S.B., declared their agreement with Ruffini, with Paolo Cardinal Marella agreeing with both Ruffini and Confalonieri (see ADP II.3, pp. 360-362). Abbot Benno Gut, O.S.B., was alone in his defense of the preservation of the whole psalter in the Breviary (ADP II.3, p. 368). 
The issue of the imprecatory psalms would also be mentioned at the Council itself, with Cardinal Ruffini being the first to raise the issue, just as he was at the Central Preparatory Commission. At the Council’s 14th General Congregation (7 November 1962), Ruffini proclaimed:
However, in the recitation of the Divine Office, especially in the vernacular or by the people—at least by nuns and laity—I think that some psalms should be omitted: those that are called “imprecatory”. Indeed, there is none who does not see how sharply they can pierce souls: e.g. vv. 23-29 of Psalm 68, in which the psalmist calls for the chastisement of enemies… also, almost all of Psalm 108… Saint Thomas Aquinas, with the wisdom and clarity for which he is famed, best interprets and explains the imprecations in the psalms… Nevertheless, because the people are not well-versed in biblical exegesis, many would easily fall into wrath and curses against their neighbours. (AS I.2, p. 329)
Two days later, at the 15th General Congregation (9 November 1962), Antonio Cardinal Bacci would also declare that, in his opinion, various psalms—in fact, almost a third of the psalter!—should be omitted from the Breviary, because the imperfect revelation in the Old Testament has been perfected and fulfilled by the “law of charity and mercy” of the Gospel:
There are not a few psalms which reflect the particular condition of the Hebrew people, and so contribute little to our piety, as well as those which look to the law of retaliation, in force at that time. I give only two examples: Psalm 136… and Psalm 108… Those psalms which are either imprecatory or refer to the particular condition of the Hebrew people are about a third of the psalter. In my opinion, it is appropriate that all these psalms, that are in other respects divinely inspired Sacred Scripture, and consistent with the particular conditions of their times, should be expunged from the Breviary, which is primarily a book of sacred prayer and sacred meditation. Let us recall what the Divine Redeemer said: “You have heard that it was said to those of old… But I say to you.” The law of the Gospel is the perfection of the Old Testament, and in the present-day the law of retaliation is no longer valid, but rather the law of charity and mercy. (AS I.2, p. 409)
Two of the Fathers would say similar things to Cardinal Bacci during the same General Congregation. Bishop Fidel García Martínez (emeritus of Calahorra y La Calzada, Spain) suggested that readings from the Old Testament, including some of the psalms, are difficult to understand because of their incomplete revelation of God, and thus the bulk of the readings in the revised Breviary should be from the New Testament (AS I.2, p. 439). Rev Fr Aniceto Fernández Alonso, O.P., the Master General of the Dominicans, thought that it would perhaps be better to delete the imprecatory psalms from the Breviary. These psalms, he said, are obviously the inspired word of God, and can be read according to their correct interpretation, but “their expressions represent the very imperfect revelation of the Old Testament and reflect the very imperfect morality of that time”, giving the examples of Psalms 68, 108, and 136. Such psalms, according to him, are “less suitable in our day for fostering and expressing the sublime effects of charity.” (AS I.2, pp. 461-462)
Psalm 108 in the 9th century Utrecht Psalter, fol. 64r
Three other Fathers mentioned the possible removal of the imprecatory psalms from the Breviary in their written submissions to the Conciliar Liturgical Commission:
  • Bishop Anton Reiterer, M.C.C.I. (Lydenburg, South Africa), wanted to “remove from the Breviary all the psalms which cannot be properly said, namely: historical and imprecatory psalms” (AS I.2, p. 560);
  • In his comments, Rev Fr Mariano Oscoz, E.C.M.C. (Prior General Emeritus of the Camaldolese Hermits of Mount Corona), expressed the same logic as others (i.e. the imperfect morality of the Old Testament), and suggested it would be “sufficient” for the Council to “approve the general principle” of the removal of the imprecatory and other obscure psalms; in fact, Fr Oscoz used the Rule of Saint Benedict (RB 19.7) as justification for this! (AS I.2, p. 555)
  • Archbishop Domenico Luca Capozi, O.F.M., in a slightly more vague manner, asked for the breviary psalms “to be selected in such a way that they are not too long, and those that do not foster piety are abandoned.” (AS I.2, p. 505)
Contrary to this, a number of Fathers defended the principle of the entire psalter being prayer in the Breviary. Again, at the Council’s 16th General Congregation, Abbot Jean Prou, O.S.B. (Solesmes), stated that it was “most desirable that the entire psalter be preserved in the sacred liturgy, not excluding the so-called imprecatory psalms, which can be more easily understood in a spiritual sense”. He also mentioned the fact that similar material in the New Testament and the liturgy would have to be deleted (he cites the Book of Revelation and the introit to the Mass formulary Intret in conspectu, in the Common of Several Martyrs outside Easter: see AS I.2, p. 446). Bishop Emilio Guano (Livorno, Italy) stated that “In my opinion, it is preferable to preserve the entire psalter, including the so-called imprecatory psalms, over one week, so that more and more priests, religious and the Church are imbued with the prayer of the Old Testament and of Christ himself.” (AS I.2, p. 458)
Abbot Benedikt Reetz, O.S.B. (Beuron), in a written intervention, forcefully defended the integrity of the psalter in the Breviary, contra Cardinal Ruffini:
I see no reason at all why one or the other psalm should be excluded from the Divine Office because of curses and imprecations, as proposed by His Eminence Cardinal Ruffini… The whole psalter belongs to the treasury of the sacred Scriptures, and we believe it is also inspired in those parts which are not fully understood by us now because of the fragility and weakness of our intellect. Who claims the right to exclude certain psalms from the Divine Office, and what will be the criteria for this exclusion? … For nearly twenty centuries, the Catholic Church has sung all 150 psalms in their entirety, and there is no reason why she should deviate from this tradition in the 20th century. (AS I.2, p. 559)
It is this latter group of Fathers who would prevail in the discussion. When the revised chapter IV of the constitution on the liturgy was presented to the Council Fathers on 21 October 1963, Bishop Joseph Martin (Nicolet, Canada) gave the relatio explaining the various changes made. In these remarks, he also explained that the Conciliar Liturgical Commission had considered the suggestions that the imprecatory and historical psalms should be removed from the Breviary:
However, another question of no small importance, which does not derive its origin from the text [of the Constitution], has arisen concerning the psalter. Some of the Fathers wish to expunge from the breviary those psalms which express imprecations and vengeance, or even those which provide insufficient revelation about the latter, or, indeed, historical psalms or those that ‘foster insufficient piety’. Other Fathers rejected these opinions, and our Commission adheres to this rejection: the whole psalter belongs to the treasury of the sacred Scriptures, and we believe it is also inspired in those parts which are not fully understood by us now because of the fragility and weakness of our intellect. In such an arbitrary selection of the psalms, one might perhaps indulge ‘rationalist’ tendencies; moreover, we fear that such a thing would be astonishing to the brethren who have separated from us. ‘For whatever was written was written for our instruction’ (Romans 15:4) Otherwise, those parts of the sacred liturgy, taken also from the New Testament, which speak of the same things would have to be expunged. (AS II.3, pp 136-137, emphasis mine).
So, to reiterate: the Council Fathers were told by the Conciliar Liturgical Commission that it was in no way envisaged that the constitution on the liturgy would justify the omission of certain psalms from the Divine Office. Sacrosanctum Concilium did not mention this, and the Commission explicitly excluded the possible interpretation or use of article 91 to justify it. This is important, because for many other specific suggestions for the future reform of the liturgy, the Commission told the Fathers that they would be referred to the “post-conciliar commission” to deal with, since the constitution was intended mainly to give the general principles of the reform. [1] In this instance, however, the Council Fathers were specifically told that the provisions in SC 91 did not envisage or allow for any psalms or parts of psalms to be deleted.
How, then, did we end up with a reform of the breviary in which parts of the psalter have been arbitrarily removed due to “certain psychological difficulties” (General Instruction on the Liturgy of the Hours, n. 131)? The blame for this lies almost entirely with Pope Paul VI. Both the consultors and members of the Consilium ad exsequendam voted numerous times in favour of keeping the entire psalter in the revised Office. [2] Paul VI ignored them. The 1967 Synod of Bishops voted overwhelmingly to keep the entire psalter in the revised Office — 117 placet, 25 non placet, 31 placet iuxta modum. [3] Paul VI ignored them.
It is true to say that the secretary of the Consilium had a hand in Paul VI sticking with his decision, as Bugnini attached his own observations to the Consilium’s final vote in favour of retaining the whole psalter, in what has been described as “bold and unwarranted interventions against the majority opinion of the Consilium.” [4] Equally, however, as we have seen above, Paul VI seemed to have had already made up his mind about censoring the psalter years before he was even elected Pope. And, ultimately, the final decision was his and his alone.

I don’t think it should be controversial — though in the current climate of the “unique expression of the Roman Rite”, it may be politically incorrect! — to say that Paul VI was wrong here: wrong to go against the specifically expressed intentions of the Council, wrong to go against the vote of the Synod of Bishops, and wrong to go against the majority of the members and consultors of the Consilium. As Gregory DiPippo has written elsewhere, “The Church lives as it lives now very largely because Paul VI rejected and did not fulfil the will of the Second Vatican Council” and I would certainly concur with that.
I would also concur with many others that the full psalter needs restoring to the post-Vatican II Liturgia horarum as a matter of urgency. As I have demonstrated above, this is in fact an issue of fidelity to the Second Vatican Council. It is also a corrective to the incredibly flawed notion that it is somehow ‘psychologically’ or ‘spiritually’ impossible to pray the full psalter in the modern world. The danger with continuing to censor the psalter in this manner is well-expressed by Trevor Laurence in his recent book, Cursing with God: The Imprecatory Psalms and the Ethics of Christian Prayer (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2022), published just last year:
The sanitized liturgies of many modern churches fail to accurately reflect the realities of life in this kind of world… the community that does not learn together through Scripture’s psalmic script how to bring its wounds and the wounds of the world before God, cultivate a rightly ordered anger, and plead in prayer for the justice of divine judgment will be uncertain whether their longings for justice belong in the presence of God at all and will risk inadvertently shaping its members to nurse wounds, vent anger, and pursue justice after the pattern of the world—contributing to, rather than confronting and challenging, the seemingly perpetual cycles of violence. (pp. 5-6)
Realistically, however, the reintroduction of the integral psalter to the post-conciliar liturgical books won’t be happening, at least any time soon, as the logic of both Traditionis custodes and Desiderio desideravi (in particular, nn. 31 and 61) mitigate against any such notion of this “reform of the reform.” Even though Pope Francis has (albeit obliquely) critiqued this censoring of the psalms, those that pray the post-Vatican II Liturgy of the Hours will have to live for the foreseeable future with Paul VI’s personal opinion that the Roman psalter should be deformed. Still, there’s always the traditional Breviarium Romanum, or the traditional monastic offices, and also the Ordinariate’s Divine Worship: Daily Office, which preserves the whole psalter in course, spread over one month at Mattins and Evensong.
[1] See, e.g., AS II.3, p. 274, where the details of what feast days will be on the revised calendar is left to the “post-conciliar commission”; AS II.4, p. 26, where details about sacred art are left to the “post-conciliar commission”; AS II.2, p. 307, where a whole list of specifics is left to the “post-conciliar commission”, etc.
[2] See Stanislaus Campbell, From Breviary to Liturgy of the Hours: The Structural Reform of the Roman Office 1964-1971 (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1995), pp. 151-154.
[3] See Annibale Bugnini, The Reform of the Liturgy 1948-1975 (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1990), p. 507.
[4] Campbell, From Breviary to Liturgy of the Hours, p. 71.

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