Monday, September 18, 2023

Cardinal Sarah on Joseph Ratzinger’s Liturgical Theology and Francis’ Departure from It

New Liturgical Movement has many times featured the name and writings of Cardinal Robert Sarah, whom Benedict XVI chose to be his close collaborator in the sacred liturgy, and who was sidelined during the early years of the present pontificate.

Cardinal Sarah has never ceased to bear clear witness to the priority of the liturgy in the life of the Church, and of the dire need for a return to sane liturgical praxis after the maelstrom of the Council. He has spoken with particular clarity since the release of Traditionis Custodes.

It is therefore of considerable interest to note that he has published a major article in the journal Communio entitled “The Inexhaustible Reality: Joseph Ratzinger and the Sacred Liturgy” (vol. 49, Winter 2022), which has been made available for free by the publication (here). Although the entire article is worth a read, I would like to draw particular attention to the following passages.

On pp. 639-40:

One of the “unnoticed” but important contributions of [Joseph Ratzinger’s] The Spirit of the Liturgy is its reflection on authority—specifically papal authority—and the sacred liturgy. Noting that the Western liturgy is something that (borrowing the words of J. A. Jungmann, SJ) “has come to be,” that is “an organic growth,” not “a specially contrived production,” “something organic that grows and whose laws of growth determine the possibilities of further development,” Cardinal Ratzinger observes that in modern times “the more vigorously the [Petrine] primacy was displayed, the more the question came up about the extent and limits of this authority, which of course had never been considered. After the Second Vatican Council, the impression arose that the pope really could do anything in liturgical matters, especially if he were acting on the mandate of an Ecumenical Council. Eventually, the idea of the givenness of the liturgy, the fact that one cannot do with it what one will, faded from the public consciousness of the West. In fact, the First Vatican Council had in no way defined the pope as an absolute monarch. On the contrary, it presented him as the guarantor of obedience to the revealed Word. The pope’s authority is bound to the Tradition of faith, and that also applies to the liturgy. It is not 'manufactured' by the authorities. Even the pope can only be a humble servant of its lawful development and abiding integrity and identity. . . . The authority of the pope is not unlimited; it is at the service of Sacred Tradition.” [1]

In this assertion of the objectivity of the sacred liturgy in its developed ritual forms, and of the duty of the highest authority in the Church to respect this reality, [2] Cardinal Ratzinger laid the theological foundations for the consideration of a reform of the liturgical reform, or even for legitimately leaving aside the reformed rites in favor of their predecessors. Uncritical obedience to papal authority—already something long since abandoned in many places, but clung to by others as the guarantee of orthodoxy in turbulent times—was dealt a blow, at least with respect to the liturgical reform, by one of the highest ranking prelates in the Church (albeit writing in a private capacity).
Again, on pp. 643-45:

Pope Benedict’s most famous act of liturgical governance was, of course, his motu proprio Summorum pontificum (2007), “On the Use of the Roman Liturgy Prior to the Reform of 1970,” establishing that the older liturgical rites were “never abrogated” (1) and could therefore be freely used, and indeed that the requests of groups of the faithful for their celebration must be accepted. Bishops could no longer a priori exclude their celebration. Pope Benedict’s regulation of these principles was permissive, marking a sharp change to the parsimonious approach of too many bishops up to that point.

His accompanying “Letter to the Bishops on the Occasion of the Publication of the Apostolic Letter ‘Motu Proprio Data’ Summorum Pontificum on the Use of the Roman Liturgy Prior to the Reform of 1970” of the same date, dealt deftly with the loud opposition that this measure had attracted even before it appeared; he noted the pastoral reality that “young persons too have discovered this liturgical form, felt its attraction and found in it a form of encounter with the mystery of the most holy Eucharist, particularly suited to them” [3], and appealed to the bishops: “Let us generously open our hearts and make room for everything that the faith itself allows.” The pope stated clearly,

“In the history of the liturgy there is growth and progress, but no rupture. What earlier generations held as sacred, remains sacred and great for us too, and it cannot be all of a sudden entirely forbidden or even considered harmful. It behooves all of us to preserve the riches which have developed in the Church’s faith and prayer, and to give them their proper place.”

Again, for those who knew the liturgical thought of Joseph Ratzinger, this stance is no surprise. His openness to the realities concerned—historical, theological, and pastoral—is clear. But for those who shared neither his vision nor his openness, these were retrograde acts calling into question the Second Vatican Council and its liturgical reform.

The argument, such as it was, was won over time by what has come to be known as “the liturgical peace of Benedict XVI,” wherein the “liturgy wars” of previous decades which had established “old rite” and “new rite” factions subsided and, certainly thanks to many of the younger generation of bishops, gave way to a peaceful coexistence, tolerance, and even a degree of mutual enrichment between the liturgical forms that lasted well beyond the end of his pontificate, repairing the unity of the Church to some extent and enhancing it while respecting legitimate differences of expression within the Church of God.

It is profoundly to be regretted that the motu proprio Traditionis custodes (July 16, 2021) and the related Responsa ad dubia (December 4, 2021), perceived as acts of liturgical aggression by many, seem to have damaged this peace and may even pose a threat to the Church’s unity. If there is a revival of the postconciliar “liturgy wars,” or if people simply go elsewhere to find the older liturgy, these measures will have backfired badly. It is too early to make a thorough assessment of the motivations behind them, or of their ultimate impact, but it is nevertheless difficult to conclude that Pope Benedict XVI was wrong in asserting that the older liturgical forms “cannot be all of a sudden entirely forbidden or even considered harmful,” particularly when their unfettered celebration has manifestly brought forth good fruits.
Notes (from the original Communio article)

[1] Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy, 165–66. As Pope Benedict XVI, he would develop this theme with respect to the wider Petrine ministry in his homily on the occasion of taking possession of the Chair of the Bishop of Rome at the Basilica of St. John Lateran, May 7, 2005.

[2] A reality taught by the Catechism of the Catholic Church, §§1124–25.

[3] Benedict XVI, Letter to the Bishops on the Occasion of the Publication of the Apostolic Letter “Motu Proprio Data” Summorum Pontificum on the Use of the Roman Liturgy Prior to the Reform of 1970 (Vatican City, 7 July 2007). I also can testify to this reality from many encounters with young people―lay men and women, religious, seminarians, and priests―whose vocations in the world either to Christian marriage or to the religious or the apostolic life are grounded in and nourished by the older liturgical forms in a truly life-giving way. In this respect, I can never forget my visit to the Paris-Chartres Pentecost pilgrimage in 2018: what hope these young people give to the Church of today and of the future!
Visit Dr. Kwasniewski’s Substack “Tradition & Sanity”; personal site; composer site; publishing house Os Justi Press and YouTube, SoundCloud, and Spotify pages.

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