Monday, December 04, 2023

Bishop Restores, Develops Traditional Theology of Liturgy

A sitting bishop who knows the Roman liturgy, and teaches with authority

Today is the sixtieth anniversary of the promulgation, on December 4, 1963, of the Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium. (At my Substack I have published a commemorative piece entitled “Bombed Out and Rebuilding,” which you may read over there if you are so inclined.)

The question may rightly be asked: Have any two people ever agreed on what this document means, what it requires, what it rules out, and what it was supposed to accomplish? It seems to me that one of the great problems introduced by the last Council was the creation, within ecclesiastical discourse, of a sort of giant cloud of verbiage that allows one to see, or not see, or invent, a nearly unlimited number of shapes and forms. This is a harmless activity when done lying down on the grass, looking up at the puffy clouds as they drift by, but it is destabilizing as a method of church governance.

Sixty years after the passage of this constitution, we look around in vain for a coherent treatment of the Roman liturgy on the part of the Roman episcopate in general and of the bishop of Rome in particular. One could compile a gigantic book of highly conflictual and inconsistent teaching and pastoral directives from these wearisome decades. With a sigh, one utters melancholy words: “Is there no one who will teach clearly about these matters, from first principles to sound conclusions?”

To be sure, there is no shortage of presentations on the sacrament of the Eucharist. Nor has there been any dearth of programs and events intended to bolster our attendance at Holy Mass — although the quality of such initiatives often leave something to be desired (if not openly questioned, as Fr. Robert McTeigue pointed out recently), and the prohibition of Mass as “non-essential” during the lockdowns contradicted the same.

However, at the intersection of sacramental and moral theology, there sits a pair of considerations that have been almost unaddressed by bishops since 1969, trained as they have been (and more recently, admonished) to uphold the Novus Ordo Missae as the “unique expression of the Roman Rite.” We might frame these twin considerations as questions. First, the theoretical, theological question: What is the Roman Mass as a discreet act of divine worship? Second, the practical, moral question: What are a Catholic’s duties in regard to this specific ritual act?

As I have described at length elsewhere, the reason that these questions have been left without cogent answer by local ordinaries since the 1960s is due to the near-universal adoption of the Pauline Missal “put official approval on the idea of liturgy as a permanent workshop of change, accommodation, inculturation, and open-ended participation—to be defined as meaning whatever those in charge want it to mean.” Bishops that embrace a revolution of liturgical formlessness cannot in principle defend any ritual act in itself, much less the venerable Mass of the Ages.

It is therefore of historical and theological moment to observe that, for the first time since Sacrosanctum Concilium, a living bishop has chosen to address the two above questions directly, in print, and in a way that is both coherent and profound.

Last month in Rome, Robert Cardinal Sarah and several others joined Bishop Athanasius Schneider for the international launch of his book, Credo: Compendium of the Catholic Faith (Manchester: Sophia Institute Press, 2023).

Although many have already hailed this work as a timely and monumental “catechism for our times” (myself included) and have defended it against its critics (as I did here), today I should like to comment upon the particularly lofty liturgical vision offered in Credo — a vision which, I maintain, reclaims a lost thread of the Church’s traditional doctrine of liturgy, and proffers a legitimate development of that same doctrine.

Although the topic comes up in many places, Part 3, Chapter 15, is where Credo contains exceptional teaching on the sacred liturgy. After correctly defining liturgy as “the many official rites and ceremonies of the Church’s public worship, through which she glorifies God and sanctifies man,” [1] the author insists:

The Church was established to offer right worship. It continues the work of Our Lord, the eternal High Priest, “prolong[ing] the priestly mission of Jesus Christ[.]” [2]

In Credo, one immediately sees that the Church could never be mistaken for “a kind of non-governmental humanitarian aid organization.” [3] Rather, it stands out as existing precisely for the right worship of God.

As such, Catholic liturgy shines out as “primarily for the glorification of God.” [4] Such an assertion could not be farther from the notion that liturgical “participation by all the people is the aim to be considered before all else,” [5] generally interpreted since Vatican II as license to adopt any number of novel practices in Catholic worship if they serve more favorable outcomes for the congregation — a dynamic often described as “relevance.”

With the general nature of worship introduced, the reader of Credo suddenly finds himself in the midst of what are perhaps the most remarkable three pages of the entire book, if not the most striking three pages of formal episcopal teaching on liturgy in the last century. Under the unassuming subheading “History of Liturgy,” Credo develops a central principle that has been almost entirely ignored for decades: namely, that our liturgical rites are first revelatory, and therefore morally binding.

The teaching of Credo in this area is so succinct and well-formulated, and so admirably arranged, that it warrants direct quotations:

  1. What is the origin of the liturgy? It originates in the eternal exchange of divine charity between the three Persons of the Blessed Trinity, which in turn is the object of ceaseless adoration in heaven (see Isa. 6, 1–3; and Apoc. 4, 8).
  1. What is the origin of the liturgy on earth? Like religion itself, earthly liturgy goes back to the dawn of human history, developing gradually under the careful providence of God. … In anticipation of the coming Redeemer, God formed a chosen priesthood and gave precise directions for the sacrifices, feasts, and ceremonies of the Old Law (see Leviticus). [6]

From this divine and transcendent origin, the Catholic learns that liturgy has only ever existed in one historical “stream” of acceptable worship; revealed by God in the beginning of history, gradually developed and codified, and finally perfected in and through Jesus Christ. [7]

For those familiar with them, these considerations will sound much like the formulations of other catechisms in our celebrated tradition. [8]

The liturgy belongs to the whole body of the Church

What comes next, however, is truly amazing:

764. Who has ensured the integrity of Catholic liturgy across time and space? The entire body of the Church; but chiefly the apostles and their successors, whom Our Lord empowered to safeguard the liturgy and oversee its development with the guidance of the Holy Spirit. [9]
In this compact formulation, I maintain that we are witnessing what is possibly the first coherent theology of ritual development from the ordinary magisterium of the Church. “The entire body of the Church” is here maintained as the guarantor of integrity in the Church’s liturgy: i.e., the Church as a corporate entity.

A corollary follows immediately:

765. May the Catholic hierarchy therefore create novel liturgical forms at will? No. Liturgical continuity is an essential aspect of the Church’s holiness and catholicity: “For our canons and our forms were not given to the churches [only] at the present day, but were wisely and safely transmitted to us from our forefathers.”

766. Isn’t any form of worship inherently sacred? No. Only traditional rites enjoy this inherent sanctity — liturgical forms that have been received from antiquity and developed organically in the Church as one body, i.e., in accord with the authentic sensus fidelium and the perennis sensus ecclesiae (perennial sense of the Church), duly confirmed by the hierarchy. [10]

Here, from the pen of a living bishop, and under the imprimatur of another (and the episcopal endorsement of several more), we have a clear and principled answer to the weary decades of liturgy wars, in plain black and white.

It is not — and speaking historically, it
never has been — the mere “fiat” of ecclesiastical officeholders that “makes” the sacred worship of the Church. Rather, the essentially traditional character of our rites itself stands as the demonstration of this sanctity, rooting them in manifest continuity with their supernatural origin and continuous development.

again, with a most ringing elucidation of this point:
767. Why is this link to antiquity so essential for the sanctity of right worship? God has revealed how He desires to be worshipped: therefore, this sanctity cannot be fabricated or decreed; it can only be humbly received, diligently protected, and reverently handed on. This is the guiding apostolic principle: Tradidi quod accepi, “I handed over to you, what I first received” (1 Cor 15:3). “So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter” (2 Thess 2, 15). [11]
This paragraph alone merits hours of reflection and focused prayer. “God has revealed how He desires to be worshipped.” This means that the “link to antiquity” is not only essential, it is itself the badge of orthodoxy — a term most accurately translated from Greek as simultaneously “right worship” and “right belief.” Only by her corporate maintenance of particular ritual forms, first received from God, is “the Church’s holiness and catholicity” preserved.

Concrete ritual forms: Bishop Schneider vests for pontifical Mass (photo by Allison Girone)

Such a transcendent view of the traditional rites of the Church is the only thing that makes sense of that rubrical care that has always been paid to her ceremonies, on pain of the sin of sacrilege. As
Credo reminds us:
Every ceremony of the Holy Mass, however small or minimal, contains in itself a positive work, a real meaning, a distinct beauty…. For this reason, St. Teresa of Avila declared: “I would rather die a thousand times than violate the least ceremony of the Church.” [12]
Indeed, no other justification could be marshaled (and none other is needed) for asserting that the highest earthly authority — the Roman Pontiff — has no power to abolish the Ancient Mass; and that, should this be attempted, no cleric or layman can be obliged to comply with such an order:
771. Can a pope abrogate a liturgical rite of immemorial custom in the Church? No. Just as a pope cannot forbid or abrogate the Apostles’ Creed…neither can he abrogate traditional, millennium-old rites of Mass and the sacraments or forbid their use. This applies as much to Eastern as to Western rites.
772. Could the traditional Roman Rite ever be legitimately forbidden for the entire Church? No. It rests upon divine, apostolic, and ancient pontifical usage, and bears the canonical force of immemorial custom; it can never be abrogated or forbidden.

And from earlier in the book: 

478. Must we comply with the prohibition of traditional Catholic liturgical rites? No. … The rites of venerable antiquity form a sacred and constitutive part of the common patrimony of the Church, and not even the highest ecclesiastical authority has power to proscribe them. [13]
With this simple and eminently logical sequence of principles and applications, a path has been paved toward a full restoration of the Church’s liturgical theology, as well as a legitimate development of the same.

Nevertheless, a number of related questions arise:

Is it theologically possible for the Church’s hierarchy to promulgate a liturgy that is deficient in itself? If so, would Catholics be bound to offer or attend it? Does the hierarchy have authority to ever suspend the public offering of Mass altogether, e.g., due to public health concerns?

These and a great many more topics are raised and directly answered in the pages of
Credo: Compendium of the Catholic Faith — a book which will continue to warrant attention and careful study for years to come, and which should be under every Catholic’s Christmas tree this year.

A book published in 1967. How’d you guess?


[1] Credo, 312.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., 213.

[4] Ibid., 312.

[5] Second Vatican Council, Constitution Sacrosanctum Concilium, no. 14.

[6] Credo, 313.

[7] Ibid.

[8] E.g., the venerable bishop Richard Challoner’s catechism of 1737, The Catholick Christian Instructed: “The servants of God, from the beginning of the world, [have] been always accustomed to honor Him with sacrifices…. in view of the sacrifice of Christ, of which they all were types and figures” (see Tradivox Catholic Catechism Index [Manchester: Sophia Institute Press, 2021], 3:125–126).

[9] Credo, 313.

[10] Ibid., 314.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid., 312.

[13] Ibid., 315, 185.

Visit Dr. Kwasniewski’s Substack “Tradition & Sanity”; personal site; composer site; publishing house Os Justi Press and YouTube, SoundCloud, and Spotify pages.

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: