Wednesday, March 13, 2024

The Root of the “Liturgical War”: Guest Essay by Mr Kevin Tierney

We are extremely grateful to Mr Kevin Tierney for his permission to republish this very insightful essay, which appeared yesterday on his Substack. He is also on Twitter at

Back when he was the head for the Congregation of Divine Worship, Cardinal Robert Sarah thought long and hard about the role the liturgy played in forming Catholics. He spent time not only reflecting on the fruits of a proper liturgical formation, but how the liturgy, when approached wrongly, could form Catholics in an unintended way. At a 2017 liturgical conference in Cologne, the prefect warned of a liturgy that was

“an occasion for hateful divisions, for ideological confrontations, and for public humiliations of the weak by those who claim to hold authority, instead of being a place of our unity and our communion in the Lord.”

In this, Cardinal Sarah was discussing the dreaded “liturgical war” that has been going on, with differing degrees of intensity, in the Roman Rite since the promulgation of the Novus Ordo Missae by Paul VI in 1969. Among some of the most fervent Catholics, the liturgy became not a tool of worship of God, but a battle line in a larger battle over how the Church approaches the sacred. Like so much trench warfare, very little is accomplished by it other than casualties. Nobody likes the liturgical war. Yet despite this unending hatred of it, the liturgical war is as nasty in 2024 as it was in the 1990s and 2000s. Why?
In laying out such a theory, I am going to adopt a position that might annoy some traditionalists. I am going to take the position that most of the individuals involved in the creation of the Novus Ordo (with some exceptions) were well-meaning but misguided individuals. I am going to hold (with some exceptions) that actions by the Popes since the Council were sincere, but since they relied upon a flawed gamble, sincerely wrong. That might not be for you. So be it.
My theory of the liturgical war is based not on “which one is superior” but on something decidedly non-liturgical. Paul VI and others around him believed that the fruits of the new liturgy would be self-authenticating. The reform would be an obvious good that everyone would love, even if it took a few years. As part of encouraging that love, Paul VI ordered priests to burn their ships when they set foot on the new world. He functionally barred every priest in the Roman Rite (with some exceptions) from celebrating with the old missal. There would be no turning back, no introspection, no review of whether the reforms worked or didn’t. To even suggest that such reforms should be measured was to call into question the Pope’s ability to guide the Church on worship. The Pope did not formally suppress the Latin Mass. Why is anyone’s guess. I am of the position that it is a dicey canonical proposition to suppress, for everyone, something lawful and celebrated by the Church for centuries. To enter into that discussion stands the purpose of church law, and church discipline, on its head. So he tried other matters to obtain acceptance. To be clear, acceptance is what he got.
Pope Paul VI celebrates the first ever Papal Mass partly in the vernacular on Mar. 7, 1965, at the church of All Saints on the via Tiburtina in Rome.
The overwhelming majority of Catholics accepted the new mass. They understood it was now the Mass they would attend every Sunday. What they never did was embrace the New Mass. The liturgical reforms did not lead to a Catholic faithful participating in the Mass more deeply. It did not lead to a deeper understanding. It did not lead to greater fervency. In short, the things it claimed would be improved over the Latin Mass did not happen in substance. What was left was personal preference. The reforms became great not because of what they delivered, but because of what they allowed: greater personal expression, a crafting of a Mass towards the desires of the faithful. By “desires of the faithful”, I mean the desires of a liturgical bureaucracy who believed they were the holiest generation of Catholics ever, and the world must experience their brilliance. Whether they wanted to or not.
The New Mass survived solely based on papal fiat. To the revolutionary who wanted more change, such fiats meant little. For many Catholics who just wanted to find a moment of peace and solitude to encounter God on Sundays, that papal fiat didn’t mean much either. The New Mass existed. It wasn’t going away. Yet it was never loved. Since it was never loved, that also meant the Latin Mass was never going away either.
Faced with this reality (and it was a reality they encountered within a decade of 1969), the Church had struggled to deal with the fact that a prediction of the papal office, with the full might of canonical authority, didn’t happen. At this point, the Church played for time. They granted indults to a few in England and Wales. Individual arrangements were made. Priests in ambiguous canonical situations were frowned upon, but many times left alone. In 1984, Rome issued rules for indults, grounded in the firm belief that within a generation, those wanting the Latin Mass would be dead. By 1988 with the excommunication of Marcel Lefebvre, this situation became impossible. By this point, the status of the Latin Mass was no longer under the control of the Church and her bishops. Yet the Church also couldn’t admit that her gamble was wrong. If it was wrong, then the liturgical reform itself could be questioned in a fundamental manner.
They then tried addressing the aesthetical criticisms by advocating a “reform of the reform”, which tried to add back many of the things that for decades the pope, bishops and liturgical advisors had demonized as belonging in a museum or a graveyard. All reform of the reform did was bring up the fundamental question: if we can have Latin, ad orientem, and communion while kneeling at the rail, why can’t we just have the Traditional Latin Mass?
By the time Benedict XVI ascended the throne, he understood that the Church could not answer these questions, the Latin Mass wasn’t going away, and the number of faithful who turned to it was growing. Meanwhile with equal intensity the desire to ban the Latin Mass was evaporating. How to do this without admitting a mistake? Here the brilliant theologian stumbled upon a great loophole. Since Paul VI simply set aside the Traditional Latin Mass, he would unset it aside. It would exist alongside the Ordinary Form, and the faithful and priests could decide for themselves. He wanted to solve the discussion by walking away from it entirely. He declared victory, not for one form or the other, but for liturgical diversity, and then subsequently went home.
If I sound insincere, I do not intend it. It takes a remarkable man to admit that previous attempts by the papacy to solve this question have only made it worse, so I’m not going to do it. Joseph Ratzinger was easily the most gifted theologian of the 20th century, and that knowledge made him aware of the limitations of the Church, and of his person. While it was not a perfect decision, it was a ceasefire in the liturgical war, with a temporary peace negotiated. Let the world catch its breath, and then we’ll negotiate a further peace.
The problem with this approach is that there was a school of individuals in the Church who wanted to continue the offensive. All this talk of peace was misguided. If you make peace with the past, the past will return. If you allow the past as an acceptable option, it will always be there, waiting to be adapted to modern times, as an alternative to whatever it is the present is doing. While we do not know if he was always of this school, by 2019, it was clear that Jorge Bergoglio, now Pope Francis, was converted to this worldview. His generation was dying. He himself was dying. Their star was on the decline. What happens when they die, and that past which Paul VI tried to force people away from still exists? When Francis asked the bishops of the world if they understood the threat the Latin Mass presented to the unity of the Church, the majority shrugged. So he issued Traditionis Custodes, to try to force them to see the threat. When they still didn’t, he tried increasingly coercive measures to make bishops and the faithful see it. Yet the fundamental problem remained: nobody loves the alternative. They accept it. They build their lives around it. The New Mass is part of the 9-5 Catholic experience. Yet they don’t love it.
This is the real root of the liturgical wars. A generation of leaders (from the pope on down) operated on a gamble. They continued to raise the stakes, finally going all in. They lost, and now must come home and explain to the family why they no longer have a car or a house, and how they will just have to adapt to the family losing their shirt. Don’t worry, you’ll learn to like it. (Or as one popular Catholic author once said, we sinners deserve an ugly liturgy.)
Are you inspired?

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