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Why Catholics Can’t Sing: Benedict’s Retrieval of “Old” Liturgy as a “New” Liturgical Movement

At  National Catholic Reporter, John Allen has just published an excerpt from Joseph Ratzinger’s (now Pope Benedict) 1997 memoirs entitled Milestones.  Allen is publishing this excerpt as Benedict issues a motu proprio on the “new liturgical movement” he has sought to effect in the church—a new as in back-to-the-future movement which self-consciously and deliberately retrieves the “old” liturgy in the name of making it new again, following Vatican II’s liturgical reforms.

And here’s what strikes me as I read Ratzinger’s reflections on liturgical renewal in 1997, which continue to provide the foundation for his thinking about liturgy today:

1. Ratzinger/Benedict thinks always in terms of dialectics in which either one option or the other is correct, but in which both options cannot be correct.  He thinks, that is, in terms of false dichotomies.  These dichotomies are inevitably designed to retrieve or undergird aspects of church life and tradition that protect clerical power and privilege.

2. And so Ratzinger/Benedict’s thought has consistently pitted modernity against tradition and secularism against faith, as though one cannot be fully modern and welcome the positive gifts of the secular world without turning one’s back on authentic Christianity and faith.

3. When it comes to liturgy, Ratzinger/Benedict typically contrasts old and new liturgy, to the detriment of the new, since the liturgical reforms of Vatican II were designed to emphasize not the centrality of the clerical celebrant of liturgy, but the involvement of all the people of God  as co-celebrants in communal liturgical worship.

4. The old-new contrast turns on another false dichotomy between transcendence and immanence, or between the vertical and horizontal dimensions of Christian life.

5. But the fundamental, core dichotomy that is at the heart of this thinking about the liturgy is, as with everything Benedict writes about ecclesiology in general, a false dichotomy between clerics and the people of God.

6. The “old” liturgy is preferable to the new not merely because it preserves the vertical dimension of worship (which was not really lost sight of at all during Vatican II and afterwards).  It is preferable to the new primarily because it preserves the verticality of church structures: it continues to place the priest above and beyond the people of God in every area of church life, including worship.

7. It is historically and biblically false to claim that the “old” liturgy being retrieved  by the “new liturgical movement” today is retrieving ancient, continuous forms of worship that were thrown away by Vatican II.  In fact, Vatican II returned to ancient forms of liturgical worship that had been discarded by the church at particular moments of history: during the Counter-Reformation period of reaction against Protestantism, and Vatican I’s reaction against modernity.

8. Calling the Tridentine liturgy with its Vatican I accretions the “old” and unbroken tradition of the church artificially elevates a particular historical period of worship to the status of unchangeable doctrine.  It does so because these were moments in the history of the Catholic tradition that accentuated the role of the priest as a mediator in worship, vs. the Protestant notion of the centrality of the community in liturgical worship and vs. modern democratic social philosophy.

9. All evidence we have of the most ancient forms of liturgical worship within the New Testament communities indicate that liturgical worship accentuated the gathering of the people of God to share a sacred meal, with the awareness that the holy presence dwelt within the entire worshiping community, a point that the post-New Testament patristic theologian Origen emphasizes strongly in his liturgical commentary.

10. The demand that the altar have a crucifix and that communion be received on the tongue—demands central to Benedict’s back-to-the-future retrieval of the “old” liturgy—is absurd from a biblical context.  Early Christian celebration of the Eucharist, the truly “old” liturgical form from which all liturgical rites have grown, had no concept of either practice, and could not have had any concept of developments that are far removed from the New Testament in time and cultural context.

Benedict concludes that the church’s practice of the faith is now impoverished because our liturgical practices have become impoverished.  I would suggest, however, that the correlation runs in precisely the opposite direction.  Liturgy has become impoverished precisely because our practice of faith is impoverished.  It is necessarily impoverished when the role of the people of God is primarily to receive truth from above, from the hands of the clerical sector of the church.  Liturgy is impoverished when the people of God are given no ownership in the crucial task of defining doctrinal and moral teaching, but are treated as mere passive recipients of that truth as it is handed down to us from above.

Why can’t Catholics sing?  Because we have nothing much to sing about, in such a church.

Cross-posted from Bilgrimage, 1 July 2010.


29 Responses

  1. Well written, well thoguht out and with very valid points. It is sad that our liturgical structure will return to being a support for the rampant clericalism that infests our faith to the detriment of the people of God.

    • Thanks, Ed. Yes, I agree: it’s deeply sad that in this symbolic area, which touches all Catholic lives (because it involves a liturgy we all share), such top-down, authoritarian retrenchment can occur with the sweep of a papal hand. Since liturgy is the “work” of all the people of God (as the root meaning of the word indicates), it seems it should not be this way. Liturgical change should involve all of us.

  2. The other thing that Benedict does which just blows me away is accuse the ‘other’ side of the exact same thing he himself is about to execute:

    “When liturgy is self-made, however, then it can no longer give us what its proper gift should be: the encounter with the mystery that is not our own product but rather our origin and the source of our life.”

    Whose self made liturgy is he shoving down our throats? Does he honest to God believe as Pope he is not capable of self making, that everything he does truly is God’s will? He’s become the reincarnation of Pius IX.

    • Oops–sorry. This was an email message responding to Michael, which somehow found its way onto the blog as a comment. I’ve now removed it and send it as an email, as I had intended to send it when I wrote it.

    • Excellent points, Colleen. Yes, it’s exceptionally strange that, as he seeks to impose a “new” liturgy on the entire church–against the strong wishes of many sectors of the church–he argues that what was wrong with Vatican II is that it imposed a reformed liturgy on the church from top down!

  3. Dr. Lindsey’s presentation is exquisite! Well reasoned, clear and accurate. Keep up the good, hard work of thinking for an institution that finds it all too easy to abandon theological discourse in favor of fascist polity, as though the latter were the core of the gospel and faith.

  4. Steve, thank you. I especially appreciate the insight that thinking, talking, reasoning, learning are hard work, whereas the fascist impulse–force people to do what you want and dispense with thinking, etc.–is always so much easier.

    And so much more deadly for the institution that permits itself that impulse.

    If we doubt this, we have only to look the church today and see what the fascist impulse has wrought in the life of the church in the past papacy and this one.

  5. I feel quite differently about the Reform of the Reform. I find much of today’s present liturgy to actually stifle what was historically meant by Catholic spirituality.

    My feelings, and frustration, for this issue can be fund here for any interested:


    • JD, thanks for the link to your blog posting, which is a thoughtfully written response to mine. You have my name misspelt, unfortunately.

      I certainly agree that, with the liturgical reforms of Vatican II, a certain liturgical beauty often got tossed out. And I am certainly not opposed to retrieving that beauty.

      Where I disagree is with your analysis of the Tridentine liturgy. It definitely is self-consciously clerical, in response to the declericalization of worship by Vatican II. And its retrieval now is another self-consciously clerical move that will be harmful to the church, no matter how much liturgical beauty it retrieves.

      You also seem not to have done sufficient research re: Vatican II and the movement of ressourcement in French theology which preceded it. The ecclesiology and liturgical reforms of Vatican II very deliberately sought to ground ecclesiology and liturgical practice in biblical and patristic scholarship, after a period in which church life had been dominated by negative response to the Reformation and then the emergence of modernity.

      What strikes me as exceptionally odd about the choice to retrieve the “ancient” and “traditional” liturgy of Trent is its arbitrary choice to land on one very discrete moment of history in a much longer and richer tradition. Why that moment and no other? And why is beauty grounded in the experience of the church of the Counter Reformation and no other moment of Catholic history?

      At one level, the theological problem we always have to face when we make that arbitrary decision to canonize a discrete moment of our tradition is that we then have to show how and why this moment is grounded in the scriptural basis of the church more than any other moment is grounded in the scriptures.

      I think you will be hard-pressed in making the theological case that the liturgy of Trent (with its Vatican I) accretions is more faithful to what we know of the roots of eucharistic worship in the scriptures than is the post-Vatican II liturgy. We went back to the scriptures and the patristic era with Vatican II precisely for this reason: Trent and Vatican I had obscured our connection to what always has to norm all theological and liturgical development in our tradition: the Word of God in scripture.

  6. What, in your mind, is intrinsically clericalist about the Old Rite?

    I agree that, for some time, the Roman Church has lost active participation in the Liturgy, and that we really could have looked to the East for an example of this rather than the excessively self-conscious communitarianism that we got instead.

    I don’t think its fair to speak of the Tridentine Mass as merely the creation of Trent, it was a consolidation of many liturgical norms that existed before hand and were already in wide spread practice.(Contrast this with the Novus Ordo that instituted sweeping, synthetic alterations on a scale never before seen in the Church’s life) If your problem is Tren and the Counter Reformation in particular, why not hearken back to the way Mass was said during the time of St. Thomas Aquinas?

    • JD, thank you for your three responses. If you don’t mind, to keep our conversation on track, I will respond to all three in one response.

      You ask what is intrinsically clericalist about the old rite? I’d note the following: it was a deliberate reassertion of the clerical role in the liturgy, at a moment when (due to the Reformation), emphasis was being placed on the communal role of the people of God in worship, undercutting the centrality of the clerical role. The reassertion of clericalism was part and parcel of the rite.

      Hence, the emphasis on sacrifice in which only the priest can perform the hieratic mediating function, vs. the biblically grounded notion of a shared meal that the Reformers sought to retrieve. Hence, the turning of the priest’s back, as he “performs” at the altar, with the people of God reduced to passive spectators at a sacred drama in which they have no role.

      Now your second response: I didn’t say that scripture is the “sole norm” of liturgical development. I said that liturgical development has to be grounded in scripture, as does all theological development in all Christian traditions, if it seeks to be valid. I don’t at all oppose theological and liturgical development. But the process of development in the church must always return to and be grounded in its scriptural foundations to be authentic.

      Your third response: how can the Vatican not be imposing these “reforms” top-down, when 1) the laity are not being consulted (nor are bishops, for that matter), 2) the “reforms” are presented to us as a done deal for which our sole option is to accept, and 3) there’s widespread discontent among many Catholics at the imposition of these “reforms”?

      I don’t deny that, in the name of liturgical reform, some atrocities were done following Vatican II. The problem, I suspect, is that individual priests, acting with clerical privilege and not consulting their parishes, made renovations and removed some pieces of church furniture and iconography in many churches against the will of the people. Two problems strike me in the process: 1) no one really prepared parishes and their pastors for the innovations demanded by Vatican II, and so 2) we continued with the same old clericalism in a new guise, functioning to force Vatican II’s mandates on the people of God.

      On the other hand, if these changes were left entirely to the laity without a process of education, you’d almost certainly end up with churches chock-full of atrocious artwork, statues of saints that have been removed from the canon, gewgaws reflecting the individual taste of each and every parish member. One reason that much of the clutter was removed with Vatican II was to return the emphasis to where it ought always have been: to Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament at the front, center of the church.

  7. Also, I’m not sure we can say Scripture is the sole norm for Liturgical development, so that Liturgy should be forever anchored in the practices of the early Christians. The faith blossoms, does it not?
    And so the Mass as the Divine Sacrifice grew from its seedling forms, where it was always implicit, from the Church’s earliest modes of Eucharistic worship.

    Do not Scripture and Tradition flow as from single fount, together composing Revelation? This idea of making the Roman Mass more primitive seems to me to be the downfall of the Rite as the embodiment of Tradition par excellence.

  8. I also don’t see how Benedict is “imposing” a new Liturgy. Certainly not at this point. Did not the authors of the new rite really impose itself on the rest of the Catholic People at the hands of some “expert” councils (which in my mind is not truly populist)?(Not that I’m suggesting Liturgy should be up for vote.

    I think, as I mentioned before, the fact that my own parish had its high altar ripped out, its side shrines, as well as its iconography painted over speaks to the degree of imposition that happened during the reign of Paul VI.

    I apologize for appearing full of angst. But this genuinely stresses me out as I try to come to grips with the meaning of my Catholic heritage.

  9. The priest had his back to the people long before Trent, no?

    As far as I know, there is virtually no historical precedent for versus populum except in those cases where it was simply a consequence of ad orientem (ie. in St. Peter’s basillica).

    I wonder how you feel, for example, of the Eastern Liturgies which never took the venture of scholasticism but hold up the Fathers as their guide?

    Also, what reforms are you taking about? Nothing has changed in my parish on account of any top-down mandate. The new translations?

    • Do you imagine that in the communal setting of a holy meal that forms the biblical roots of the Eucharist, JD, there was a priest-celebrant who had his (or her) back turned to everyone else at the table? And can you not see that the ritual forms that grew gradually in the church, which lost sight of that original ritual act from which the Eucharist springs sometimes lost sight of what is most central of all in the symbolism of the Eucharist?

      The reforms about which I’m speaking are the ones now in the hopper, which have not yet been implemented–but are in the hopper.

  10. …”you’d almost certainly end up with churches chock-full of atrocious artwork, statues of saints that have been removed from the canon, gewgaws reflecting the individual taste of each and every parish member. One reason that much of the clutter was removed with Vatican II was to return the emphasis to where it ought always have been: to Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament at the front, center of the church.”

    I hate to say it, but this is already the case far and wide. I don’t know if its the bad taste of priests or the laity. [Many] Churches are chock full of attrocious art work and many new ones have been built according to a horrendous architecture. The centrality of the Sacrament is lost far and wide. Who believes in the Real Presence? The Tabernacle was uprooted from its place in the centre and shifted to the side. What has become of Adoration and Benediction?

    Personally, I believe more is taught in gesture and symbol than in intellectual formation (which is, by nature, only available to a certain group of people with means) The majority of people payed due homage to the Sacrament because they inherited this sense of its radiation of holiness by way of inculturation in the Church’s sacred traditions.

    I honestly believe the superstitious illiterate peasants burying the Eucharist in their farm soil in 1276 apprehended the Sacrament better than the majority of the bourgeoisie today who eat it from their hands weekly. I think whenever we speak of popular Catholicism, the majority of people have never quite known what we mean by the Eucharist. But framing it a monstrance of gold, ringing the sanctus bells at elevation, parading it in Corpus Christi- this transmits the truth of it by a means accessible to all because it penetrates us at a level deeper than the intellect.

    I DO agree with you that the clericalism of the past has largely been retained, and in that way, I think the reforms only speed the disintegration of the Church structures, which have been rotten for a long time coming. It’s a great tragedy. What a pity we kept the authoritarianism while throwing away so much of what uplifts the soul.

    I, for one, am not at all surprised that the Old Rite will be used in a new game of identity politics. It is the correlative to the imbalance that occured in the post concilliar years. There is more substance there, more historically to draw from, a greater sense of belonging to the past. The new rite has a tough time competing with evangelical worship and the plethora of spiritual options we have in this New Age, its difficult to see why it expresses anything distinct unless one is quite versed in Catholic theology and knows how to start looking for it.

    • JD, you ask, “Who believes in the Real Presence?”

      I do, for one. And I lived through the changes of Vatican II. I believe I may be a tiny bit older than you?

      And because I lived through those changes, I well remember what the churches about which are so nostalgic were really like. They were chock-full of gewgaws, statues, icons, religious art. What got lost sight of among the gewgaws was the centrality of the Real Presence. You couldn’t pay much attention to the tabernacle with all the visual stimuli that were not so much about lifting mind and heart to God, as being sure every niche of popular piety got hit in some way.

      The removal of clutter and detritus from churches after Vatican II was, on the whole, a good thing, if perhaps often effected imperiously by some pastors. And as I’ve noted, I also think that the process also sometimes went too far, and valuable aspects of the decoration or architecture of some beautiful churches were obscured or removed or painted over.

      I have to say that I’m always a bit surprised what younger Catholics nostalgic for the pre-Vatican II church don’t really know about that church, and what it really was like.

  11. Two questions, then, which I have numbered in between my comments.

    1. If ad orientem represents the eclipse of the true meaning of the Eucharistic meal, how long has our Liturgy been growing in this fundamental error?

    Yes, I did not live through the changes, so it is true that you have wisdom in that regard that I could not possess. I admit that I can not go back in time and see really where and how the old Liturgy was deficient in the way that others know.

    However, I think alot of young Catholics like myself are nostalgic for elements of the Church’s past because we do get a sense that something has gone drastically wrong in the implementation of the Council. Again, this is why I think we can not simply blame the Roman hierarchy for the present malaise. What we have is some kind of dialectic of error, where each side seems to scourge the other in the determination to undo what they see as the other’s mistakes.

    It’s not just that some things were lost— a very great portion of what appears to us to be true, beautiful and dear was suddenly and without good explaination repudiated in practice.

    How can we, within one generation, say the Mass is a Divine Sacrifice and in the next, rather merely a sacred meal? The sacrificial character of the Mass is not a Tridentine invention, even if accentuated by the Reformers objections.

    2. I would be interested in hearing what you believe as regards the Mass as a divine sacrifice.

    Personally, I believe there should be no opposition between the altar and the table, yet what I think we see presently in the ‘liturgy wars’ is a possible divergence of the two, and the strange resultant image of a table altar eclipsing a high altar that has become mere decoration (when it wasn’t ripped out).

    The Mass, as the divine sacrifice of Christ, the renewal of His Cross, is not, I think, against Scripture, even if not explicitly found there. It is is the flowering of the meaning of the Eucharistic gift, seeing that:

    The Eucharist is a Sacrifice as well as a Sacrament, even perhaps a Sacrament to the degree in which it is a Sacrifice, the Sacrifice of the Cross in the heart of the Church, that is in our hearts and our lives by the adherence of our entire being to the Crucified Messiah Who gives us for food His Passion” (Maurice Zundel)

    • JD, I think the answer to both of your questions lies in the confusion of the following question, which you place between the two main questions: You ask, “How can we, within one generation, say the Mass is a Divine Sacrifice and in the next, rather merely a sacred meal?”

      I’m not aware that Vatican II or the rest of the church, as it follows the path that this ecumenical council set for the church, has ever repudiated the theological claim that the Mass is a sacrifice, and has substituted for that claim the claim that the Mass is “merely a sacred meal.” Why on earth ought the two understandings of the eucharist be mutually exclusive?

      Or better, why do you yourself want to make them mutually exclusive? I don’t believe you’re hearing me carefully.

      What I’m saying–again–quite simply is the following: in the history of liturgical development, the sacrificial notion of the eucharist (with its strong emphasis on the hieratic mediating role of the priest) overtook, and sometimes obliterated, the most fundamental symbolism from which the eucharist grows, that of a shared meal. The sacrifical notion with its heavy emphasis on the mediating cleric overtook the shared-meal aspect for all kinds of historical reasons.

      These include (and this list is not exhaustive): the post-Constantinean amalgamation of church and state, in which the “officers” of the church began to adopt the official garb of state officials, iimporting that garb into liturgy; the lack of education of most layfolks from the early middle ages up to the high middle ages, with clergy maintaining education and therefore attaining status above the rest of the people of God as a result; the medieval requirement that clerics be celibate, which, again, removed the clergy from the people of God in another way; the gradual development of a sense that the Host is too holy for ordinary people to touch or consume, so that liturgy became spectacle, at which the laity watched the priest touch God on their behalf; the strong penitential sense developed in the church during the era of the Black Plague, in which the sense that people are sinful and distant from God grew even more, confirming the passive role of the laity at liturgy; and, above all, the clericalist reaction to the Reformation, which issued in Trent and the Tridentine liturgy.

      The theological problem with which such developments left us is that of explaining how the notion of liturgy which grew up through these developments is rooted in the biblical evidence re: the eucharist. As I’ve noted, that evidence shows that at the very heart of our eucharistic worship and its symbolism is a shared meal. The word “shared” implies communion–the union of the faithful at worship, as we all participate in the act of worship, in the liturgy (a word whose Greek words mean “work”).

      The form of liturgy that grew up through the medieval period and the Counter-Reformation reduced the role of the laity to passive spectators in a divine drama involving the priest and God. This passivity undercuts the notion that litiugy is the shared “work” of the people of God. It undercuts the notion of com-(m)union, of shared worship, shared work, both fed by the shared body of Christ.

      None of this denies the sacrificial understanding of the eucharist. The sacrificial and shared-meal aspects of liturgy are not mutually exclusive. But no matter what path we take, vis-a-vis the two emphases in our eucharistic liturgy, our fundamental challenge remains–as with any theological development–always to show how that path flows from the biblical evidence.

  12. It’s sad to see how members of a certain generation can’t see the liturgy in anything but political terms. Sure, the Old Rite has a greater danger of clericalism…but any aesthete worth his salt can look past that and see that it is simply an artistic masterpiece. Does anyone sincerely think a Wilde would have found anything appealing about the Novus Ordo?

    The Left of a certain generation (in fact, the toxic politics of that generation in general) is so strident and destructive, as joyless and ideological as the Right. What’s the point of living in the drab-olive world of that sort of “progressivism”??

    People can idealize early church love-feasts all they want; at the end of the day, put in the modern context…that logic ends with the ahistorical iconoclasm of the Novus Ordo. Which is nothing more than the dead cult of the Pax Americana. If anything is resisting the world’s current hegemon in a fashion comparable to how the early Christians’ values were persecuted by Rome…it’s the Old Rite. The New, on the other hand, is entirely sold-out to that Whore of Babylon.

    Besides, changing the liturgy didnt fix clericalism. They got their reforms all wrong. They needed (and need) to change the feudal structures of authority within the Church (mainly by massively reforming the clergy; and the place to start is with mandatory celibacy and the conception of the priesthood as a full-time paid position).

    Instead they changed the liturgy. So now they’re as bureaucratic and authoritarian as ever…but with ugly liturgy. They should have kept the liturgy (any reforms should only have been directed toward restoring the medieval zenith of its development) and reformed the clergy. Messing with the externals didnt really change anything…but they were apparently able to pull the wool over the eyes of the generation at the time who care more about big empty gestures than substance.

    They’ll die soon enough, JD, don’t worry, and when they do, we’ll have a Requiem said for them, Dies Irae and all.

    • I agree, AlsoHomoTrad: “It’s sad to see how members of a certain generation can’t see the liturgy in anything but political terms.”

      Yes, I wholeheartedly agree: I’m sorry that a subset of younger Catholics is completely politically fixated, when it comes to understanding the liturgy.

      It seems to me that my generation, which lived through Vatican II, has somehow failed to educate the current generation of young Catholics. I have to remind myself, though, that you have grown up in a world in which many political (and religious) developments conspired to undercut your education. You grew up in a world in which the troglodytic political views of Reagan and Thatcher were taken for granted, in which John Paul II and Benedict dominated the church with their program of “restoration” (which has required the silencing and driving off of good theologian after good theologian). You grew up in a world in which politically disaffected and radicalized Catholic parents removed their children from Catholic schools and home-schooled their children, assuring that their children would not receive a broad and balanced education, but a narrow, politicized one.

      You have grown up in a world of instant media messaging that has not helped you deal with ideas and the nuances of thought in a critical way, but which urges you simply to internalize the latest fad du jour. Those of you who are gay or lesbian grew up in a world in which you can take certain rights and freedoms for granted precisely because your gay and lesbian elders–whom you appear to disrespect and for whom you have no gratitude–battled hard to obtain those rights and freedoms for you.

      And, saddest of all, with your rejection and ridicule of a whole generation of older people, you seem not to have learned a lesson that was part of my own training and education as a youth, as it was part of my parents’ and grandparents’ training: to respect and venerate the elders, since those who live long almost always acquire wisdom in the process. And as George Washington Carver famously said, “How far you go in life depends on your being tender with the young, compassionate with the aged, sympathetic with the striving, and tolerant of the weak and the strong — because someday you will have been all of these.”

      But I don’t suppose the home-schooling curricula make much of that poor old African-American man, do they? More’s the pity. We have much to learn from the wisdom of communities beyond our own narrow little worlds. I wish you and your generation well as you remake everything anew, while jettisoning the wisdom of your elders (well, except, of course, for Reagan, Thatcher, John Paul II, Benedict, etc.).

  13. How ironic that someone of your generation, who promoted the whole youth-revolution, speak-truth-to-power thing (in fact, the basic gist of this post is that Benedict is trying to overturn those “achievements”)…is talking to traditionalists about venerating the wisdom of the past!! Do you not know how absurd that seems? We respect the past generations, just not the one immediately prior which was a fluke, an aberration, a blot on history…and we’re getting back on track with all the other generations.

    • Thanks for your reply, HomoTrad. Yes, there’s irony in abundance at work in this exchange.

      I generally don’t find these generational discussions very enlightening–far more heat than light. But since you set our discussion off on that footing, I replied in kind, noting the glaring irony of your apparent belief that, whereas the generation of Vatican II was “political,” you yourself are a political virgin. Pristine and pure in all your motives and perceptions.

      And so I turned the irony towards you, hoping you could see your face in irony’s mirror. And recognize that you yourself are as political as you imagine those you’re ridiculing to be. There is no place apart from political meaning, political engagement, and political choice. Every choice we make has political implications.

      That includes our aesthetic choices. Above all, aesthetic choices. Nothing is more time-ridden and riddled with political significance than what one generation happens to regard as beautiful. There is nothing at all self-evident about beauty, nothing that automatically lifts this beautiful object out of the realm of history and makes it forever beautiful, and which resigns that beautiful object to the dustbin of history and makes it self-evidently ugly.

      And so the claim that the Tridentine Mass is inherently beautiful and the liturgy that flows from Vatican II’s reforms is ugly is screamingly ironic in all kinds of ways. It turns on the claim that this Mass is ths “old” Mass when it’s not old at all, in terms of the history of the church. And it rests on the claim that those who appreciate ecclesiastical frou-frou like long, flowing cappae magnae have taste, whereas their taste-challenged philistine brothers and sisters have no taste at all.

      There’s further screaming irony in the choice of a group of younger gay Catholics to latch onto this particular form of worship as “the” beautiful one, when it is being handed to them by ecclesiastical dignitaries who are, quite frequently, closeted gay men who do everything possible to make the lives of other gay men miserable. And by a pope who has not distinguished himself by defining those who are gay and lesbian as intrinsically disordered.

      There’s always irony, throughout history, when those who have everything to gain by challenging oppressive authority structures collude with those structures to deepen their own oppression. Tragic irony, when some Jews chose to do that in Nazi Germany. Tremendous irony, when women throughout history have risen to power by stepping on the backs of their sisters, at the behest of the men who control them.

      In this case, further irony when a younger generation of gay men taunts their gay elders with remarks such as your concluding remark in your first posting–“They’ll die soon enough, JD, don’t worry, and when they do, we’ll have a Requiem said for them, Dies Irae and all”–while claiming that you’re all about respecting the past.

      And astonishing irony, when you taunt the generation before you for being utopian and having thrown away respect for the past, while you yourself claim to have found truth, beauty, and “real” tradition all at once, with no help from those who have gone before you, and are building a brave new world de novo, all with your own hands.

      I’m sorry you fail to see the irony, HomoTrad. But, then, it does often take having lived long to see clearly and deeply. I’m also sorry that you are setting yourself up for a whopping karmic experience, should you yourself live long. There may come a day in your life when some fresh youngster who hasn’t been taught to weigh his words and respect the feelings of those who are older tells you that you’re no longer wanted or needed, and will die soon enough–and good riddance, as we say our prayers over your body.

      George Washington Carver encourages us to think about that karmic possibility while we’re young, and to live so that we won’t welcome it into our lives by treating the generation before us as pathetic detritus. In my experience, though, the wisdom of the past doesn’t reach younger folks sometimes–because they haven’t lived enough to decipher it, and also because (in the generation in which you grew up) people are not educated broadly enough to give them multiple perspectives on problems, so that they respect the multivalent solutions to any challenge.

  14. Well, it’s now been four days since this deeply uncharitable comment was made in this discussion –

    They’ll die soon enough, JD, don’t worry, and when they do, we’ll have a Requiem said for them, Dies Irae and all –

    and we’ve yet to see an apology. When I come across a comment of this nature, I tune out and lose interest completely, since it is clear we are no longer in the realm of genuine spirituality or authentic religion but in the realm of pure ego and tribal religion, and I have little energy to waste on such puerile attitudes. William, however, who has far greater reserves of patience and charity than I do, continues his heroic efforts at communication.

    I wish I could respond to this discussion with pictures. The most profound sacred space of any Catholic Church I’ve ever seen is the chapel at the Camaldolese Hermitage in Big Sur, California. It is shaped somewhat like a Y. One enters through the bottom trunk, which constitutes the ante-chamber for the Liturgy of the Word. Two rows of pews facing frontwards in conventional style. With the beginning of the offertory, however, the entire congregation, monks and retreatants (and the occasional cat) move into the large central area of the Y, which is shaped like an octogan, and which is not completely visible from the antechamber. It really is a completely separate space. The beautiful stone altar is in the center with a carved crucifix hoving over it, hanging by a chain which rises high into the air, suspended from the peaked roof which has a skylight at the very top. In the day time, the light shines down on the central altar piece, while the back area of the octagon is shrouded. All of us, celebrants or not, stand in a circle around the altar. The walls are stripped bare, but the power of the church lies in its very simplicity. I have never seen a sacred space which so effectively combines the sense of mystical sacrifice with the equally moving sense of inter-communion. We are all one in our celebration of this profound act. The upper left of the Y is the chapel of Our Lady, a single large icon with a standing candle, the right of the Y is the Chapel of the Eucharist. Simplicity, profundity, peace, sacrifice and prayer, it is a work of architectural genius. There simply are no passive observers of this sacred rite, we are all participants in the mystery of sacrifice.

    Ironically, however, my favorite church here in the Czech Republic is the baroque church of the Assumption of Our Lady in Stara Boleslav, some 30 minutes outside Prague. It houses the “Palladium,” which is a sacred icon of The Virgin and Child and is the most important religious object in the fashioning of Czech identity. The entire church exudes an aura of great sacredness and charismatic power, but it is very much old style Catholicism. Every single space on the walls has been filled with iconography, every single bare space, and yet…through artifice, whimsy, mystical design, it all works. How it works is a complete mystery, but you wouldn’t want to remove a single item. (And I certainly wouldn’t say this of all churches of this nature). Of course, there is that powerful mystical pull towards the grand high altar in the center, where the golden Icon of the Divine Mother is housed. Everything in the church, all of the gobbledygook and ornate rococo design, the numerous crucifixes and paintings on the walls, why aren’t these a distraction, why instead do they all seem to serve to orientate one towards the one mystical center of the church? I don’t have an answer for that, it’s definitely a mystery, but somehow it all works and I wouldn’t want to change a thing. Perhaps it’s because the pull of the icon is so powerful it offsets and counterbalances the splendorous iconography on the wall. I don’t know.

    Then again, there is the very simple and powerful church in Medugorje, stripped bare of all excess, pale peach pastels walls, beautiful but simple stained glass windows high above, the central tabernacle, a simple stature of Our Lady, and that’s it. The church is filled with light.
    I have no conclusions to draw from these ruminations, except to say that if I had to choose (though I would hate to be forced) I would have to go with the simplicity of Medjugorje and the chapel of the Camaldolese, for the clarity and focus they both bring to the sacred mystery they are designed to honor and celebrate. But pictures would have been better.

  15. I thought Arturo Vasquez wrote an excellent and short piece on the problem of tradition in late twentieth and early twenty-first century Catholicism here, which captures well the complexity of our present sitation:


    Arturo is a unique voice, one which resonates with me. In my case, the appeal of traditional Catholicism emerged, among multiple reasons, as I brushed up against the imagination, stories and praxis of my grandmother, an immigrant woman who grew up in a small village in Slovenia and who spent her life here in Canada as a farmer on the vineyard where I still presently live. My experiences going out into the world, living on my own, my spiritual experimentation, lead to a reflection on the question of the role of tradition in my family life and in the formation of my own spiritual sensitivities.

    For me, all of this is not a question of simply siding with “the conservatives”, but it about the life-blood of a kind of family life that is increasingly quite rare, the wisdom it held and how its all seemingly being lost in a lapse of creative transmission and reception.

    • JD, thank you for the link to Arturo Vasquez’s article. It is well-written, and raises important questions.

      I share Vasquez’s notion that, to be authentic–and whole and human–the present must be rooted in the past. That insight was instilled in me as someone who grew up in the Southern U.S. Our literature revolves, almost always, around Faulkner’s notion that “the past is never dead; it’s not even past.” As with many people among whom I grew up, my upbringing was full of stories about great-grandparents and great-great grandparents, stories told by grandparents I was raised to revere, and to whose stories I was expected to listen. And I listened with delight, because through the memory of my grandparents, I could reach far into the past, as they told me stories handed down to them by their own grandparents.

      And so I completely understand the search for that chain of continuity in our lives of faith. I have not concluded, as some Catholics have done, that Vatican II represents a break in the chain. Indeed, because I’m a theologian who was trained to read the documents of Vatican II carefully, searching for their theological roots, I’m aware that the council moves back beyond a brittle, historically conditioned form of Catholicism that had predominated in the period from Trent to Vatican II, which hardly represents the long chain of continuity in our tradition at all. The council builds on the work of magnificent theologians such as Congar, de Lubac, and Schillebeeckx, who belonged to the French ressourcement movement, which sought to revive understanding of the New Testament and patristic period, and to re-connect the jejune theology that grew up in reaction to Protestantism and modernity with the rich biblical and patristic roots from which our tradition flows.

      Vis-a-vis Vasquez’s essay, I’m struck by the following powerful insight:

      While such aspirations [i.e., to find “thick” tradition in niche parishes] are legitimate, they must be tempered by the realization that these efforts do not necessarily create an organically traditional Catholicism, but rather can be yet another manifestation of American consumerism on the religious level.

      I’m struck by this insight because I think Vasquez is absolutely right here. What many Catholics in reaction to Vatican II are seeking, as they seek to return to “the” “authentic” Catholic past today in movements of liturgical reform, is something akin to the alluring images offered to us by American marketing agencies. It’s glitzy, romanticized, and absolutely artificial. It’s a moment of Catholic “time” captured in amber, as it were, and venerated in its amber casing as though it is all Catholic time, tout court. Like an image presented to us by a marketer playing on our hope to return to a “morning in America” that never existed at all, at least, not in the romanticized way the marketers present it to us . . . .

      I have thought long and hard about this liturgical movement because I have to do so. And here’s why. My partner’s deeply Catholic family in the American Midwest has been split apart by the movement. Among his siblings, two are gay and feel unwelcome in any church. Two are agnostic. Four more have remained comfortable, more or less, in the church.

      Of those four, however, one will attend only Latin Masses, which are hard to find in farming communities of northern Minnesota. She and her family refuse to eat meat on Friday. When her father died several years ago and his funeral occurred on Friday, she and her sister sought to strongarm their mother into seeing that no meat was served at the lunch in the church basement following their father’s funeral. As we all stood in line at the lunch, waiting to serve our plates, she and her husband hollered back down the line to their children and pointed at food that had meat, shouting, “Meat! Meat!” Needless to say, the display caused consternation among the whole group gathered to remember her father at his funeral.

      Another sister will go to the parish Mass, though she regards it as quasi-schismatic (her other sister sees all post-Vatican II Masses as schismatic, and is not even sure the papacy following Vatican II remains in continuity with the “real” papacy). But she has insisted that, at her own personal request, the parish create a chapel of perpetual adoration, which has become, as it were, her own personal chapel, in which she can worship “traditionally” and in the “right” form–a tiny pristine church inside a larger, impure church.

      For my partner’s birthday last July, this sister sent him a birthday card that said, essentially, happy birthday, you are living in sin, but I love you. This sister home-schooled all of her children (as does the other one), and sent those who wanted a college education to Steubenville. One Steubenville-educated niece (who belongs to another of my partner’s siblings) refused to invite me and the partner of the other gay brother to her wedding last August. When her two gay uncles protested, she informed them that marriage is about the marriage of a man and a woman, and having gay couples at her wedding would dilute the holy symbolism of her one man, one woman Catholic marriage.

      The family is a mess. Maybe all families are a mess. But this family is a mess precisely because several family members think they have found the only real, the only authentic Catholicism, and all the other family members are sinners bound for hell or are living a heretical form of Catholicism. For their father’s funeral, the two sisters insisted that the “real” crucifix be returned to the wall behind the altar, rather than the “unreal” Resurrection crucifix that was placed there after Vatican II. They also demanded the “old” and “real” black funeral pall for the casket, at which the parish priest balked, telling them that the church uses white palls to signify resurrection and joy–and that the black pall is as historically conditioned as is a white one.

      Not only does all this create many divisions within a large, extended Catholic family, it has also significantly divided the parish. It has done so in a gnostic way, in which a few parish members really believe they are the only people holding on to the “real” “old” tradition, and that the rest have given it up for a mess of liberal pottage. The internal family dynamics that have grown up over these liturgical issues are now replicated in the parish: gays and lesbians are sinners headed for hell and shouldn’t be welcome at all; those who have remained Catholic but who don’t seek out Latin Masses are lax Catholics who don’t really care about the truth; those who do not try to exclude family members who have married outside the church are doing the devil’s work, and so on.

      Meanwhile, in this one parish, as in parishes all across the nation, there’s a mixed bag of people, young, old, educated, uneducated, gay, straight, affluent, poor, trying to love one another, live together in unity, and worship together in a way that reflects and builds up their community. And that, to my way of thinking, is and always has been the goal of church life: to affirm and bring everyone in, as Noah did with the animals on the ark. A tiny church not of gnostic saints who have the absolute truth, but a big church full of saints and sinners alike, all striving to find God together.

      When the liturgical reform movement results in division after division, with ever smaller, purer groups claiming that they alone have found “real” “traditional” Catholicism, and when those small groups then condemn the rest of the church, with all its foibles, as the untrue church, something seems very much awry to me. Movements like this destroy the very thing they claim to be restoring: catholicity.

      (And the question that has to be asked: what sociological forces are driving this movement to rebuild the “true” church in Catholic farming communities and small towns in places like the American Midwest? A fear of rapid social change that the people in these areas can’t control? A growing sense of marginalization as the economic life of these regions dries up? Fear of the Other as Latino immigrants move in to do the farm labor no one else wants to do any more? The belief that they are looked down on by family members who have gone off and gotten educations they themselves haven’t gotten? I see all these and more sociological forces at work in these families’ 1) return to an “old” Catholicism that is essentially gnostic, 2) hardening of political views, so that it becomes anti-Catholic to vote for anyone but a Republican, 3) attempts to build small subcultural enclaves that accept only the pure and exclude the impure.

  16. A fine and sensitive article, JD, and i sympathize with the dilemma and your ‘angst,’ as a young Catholic searching for the mystical depth and wisdom of the tradition. Let me just say – in this short comment – that I grew up in the pre-Vatican II Church, entered Maryknoll Junior Seminary in the final years of Pope Pius XII, loved the rosary, exposition of the Blessed Sacrament, many of the old customs, but at the same time, even as a young boy of 14, I ‘knew’ in my heart that something was terribly wrong about the tradition, though I had no way of articulating what that might be. For all of my love of the old devotions, there was something stultifying and constricting about the old faith, something out of balance that was inherently harmful and destructive. You cannot imagine the impact upon us, then, of the charismatic holiness of Pope John XXIII, who epitomizes for me the very best of the Old Catholicism, because through the old ways he had contacted the inner mystical core of the faith and through that contact found the wisdom to trust in the movement of the Holy Spirit in convening Vatican II. Some very holy men and women, who had suffered much injustice at the hands of the church, were vindicated by the Council. Yves Congar, Henri de Lubac, Teihard de Chardin (posthumously). Yes, much was swept away in the aftermath of the council, and such is human nature, there were excesses and acts of vandalism towards elements of folk Catholicism, which a wiser tact would have found ways of preserving. But for those of us growing up in the Old Church, the sense of interior freedom, psychological health and balance, and spiritual liberation brought on by the Council was simply overwhelming. Peace is the fruit of Holy Spirit and that profound joy and peace that we experienced during those years was simply too much of a positive sign of the fruits of the Spirit. In my 66th year, I find myself perfectly capable of combining the best of the old and the new. Here in the Czech Republic, which experienced 40 years of cultural and spiritual repression under Communism, many of the old customs continue. Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament is common, devotion to the Infant of Prague is a special charism of this city, and the church where it is housed, Our Lady of Victories, is one of my favorite churches in the city. A campy devotion in the opinion of outsiders, but walk inside the church and kneel beside the statue decked out in its finery and you will be shocked by its spiritual power and its radiant peace. The very epitome of folk Catholicism and the “gayest” statue in Christendom, and here it is in Prague. There is something wonderful about seeing these old customs and devotions still continuing in this ancient city (with a mostly agnostic population), yet for all their spiritual beauty and authenticity I would never, ever want to return to the pre Vatican II church, with all of its psychological repressions and imbalances. Vatican II was a liberation of the Holy Spirit, an extraordinary gift of Providence, and whatever the faults of its most enthusiastic supporters, respect must be paid.

  17. Certainly my hope is not to see the undoing of Vatican II. It is only as far as liturgy and tradition are concerned, that I truly believe what we have presently can not be said to be congruent with the vision of the council fathers. Regardless of the noble intentions of the resourcement school, (and I myself have no particular attachment to scholasticism), the practical effect of the liturgical reforms, insofar as their extremities, was the manufacturing of a rite that betrays an artificial mentality. For its very historicism it became ahistorical, and exemplifies, therefore, a surprising hubris characteristic of our age: here, at the summation of history [the modern], everything stands beneath us like little flowers to be picked into our bouquet, with the mistaken belief that to pluck something from this age or that, from this culture or that people, is to, for trying to capture its external form, snatch the essence of the practice itself.

    It is here that I really do agree with Benedict’s diagnosis: that the Liturgy, with tradition being its very life-blood, is to be considered organically if it is to continue to enfold us in its catholic embrace, bearing the ages and shaping in us the kind of Marian receptivity in which the seed of faith was first received. The role of the hierarchy in the shaping of Liturgy is akin to gardening. Some things should be encouraged to grow in one direction or another, other things pruned. What happened after the Council regarded little of the laws of organic growth that make the Liturgy the sacramental tie that binds from generation to generation. Instead, it was treated like a machine with faulty parts, to be fixed in an hour’s time. The Liturgy should never be so instantaneous.

    And, in fact, what we have the impression of being left with is something manufactured by historians and experts [not that they should have no say], with their certain, possibly now defunct philosophies of history— something pieced together with disparate parts. A new rite, a novus ordo seemingly overnight, bearing overwhelmingly the stamp of a single generation’s mode and mood of thought. So characteristic of the age, we could find such a thing everywhere in post-Industrial society.

    Simply put, it is impossible for one generation to create what is the Tridentine rite. Its very nature speaks of our contingency and openness, the contingency of one generation upon the countless previous ones before it, whereas the new rite is in grave jeopardy of capitulating to the modern myth of self-sufficiency and self-legislation, at least, certainly on the level of psychology. The old rite is forged like a diamond, as it were, in the heavy press and organic weight of history. The new leaves [many of us] the suspicion that its tag could read “made in China”.

    It is not that I am unduly attached to the Tridentine, the baroque, to the magnae capae or any one particular thing that can be picked up and used as a rallying point for still yet more identity politics. It is not that I am opposed to anything new, to any change. Rather, my problem is, on the whole, the psychological posture that the differing rites betray- their relationship to history, their philosophy about the manner in which the meaning of a given historical moment’s reception of the Gospel can be passed on. One believes that we can, at will and at our choosing, recover whatever it is that we need to edify the [not un-noble] theological persuasion of the present moment. Like a manner of surgery, that we can operate like doctors on the deadened body of history and remove an organ for the transplant. Whereas the other believes it must come from hand to hand, from lips to ear, from living face to living face.

    The latter is, in my estimation, evidently more Trinitarian.

    I was raised in the Catholicism of the 90’s. I am not quick to denigrate what I learned from my parents and grandparents, where my Christian spirituality was first shaped. I am so thankful to that period of formation in my life, where I heard not a word about the “wicked Protestants” and was never given over to the mentality of having a host of enemies. Also, where I learned about charity, compassion and tolerance for people’s differences. As a gay man, I could not ask for better parents- to have a father take his son to see Brokeback Mountain or a mother who would act as a mother to any number of my gay friends who suffer at the intolerance and often cruelty of their own families.

    Were it not for Vatican II, I wonder if I would have become Catholic again during my undergrad. Having had my first adolescent spiritual awakenings in a Protestant context, and having taken a degree in the study of Religion and Culture and explored my spiritual sense amid various world traditions, Nostra Aetate was an incredibly relieving document contrasted with, say, Unam Sanctam.

    But tradition, once dead, is dead, as Arturo says. The liturgical reforms not only did away with too much, but unlike any other phase of liturgical reform, they may have irreparably damaged the sacramental- historical consciousness of the Western Church. The door is closing. Many things are already lost and can never be recovered. However, some groups have preserved the Tridentine rite without rupture. And, in the wider consciousness of the Church, some elements have been suppressed, but still linger.

    I for one, will do what I can while there is still time. I realize this leaves me in a peculiar place.

    • I appreciate that you continue trying to help me understand your points about liturgy, JD. And I truly am trying to understand.

      I’m also happy to hear that you have had supportive experiences as a gay person, from family members who share your theological and liturgical penchants. It’s not always that way. You’re fortunate.

      If I understand aright, you situate yourself among those who see Vatican II as bringing a hermeneutic of discontinuity and disruption into the church, though you do not want Vatican II to be undone (unlike some of those who press the hermeneutic of discontinuity thesis). And it’s at that point–at the point of fundamental starting points–that I think we disagree strongly.

      In my view, those who have pressed the hermeneutic of discontinuity thesis in the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict do, in fact, want to stop what Vatican II started, and they do, in fact, want to undo what Vatican II has done. And in the process, they have simply misrepresented what the council stood for, said, and effected.

      When I read descriptions of the process of liturgical change following Vatican II by members of that school of thought, I recognize nothing at all of what I remember about Vatican II and the liturgical changes–through which I lived. I see ludicrous, false caricatures of a process of change that was nothing like what these caricatures are describing.

      I do understand that a subset of younger Catholics has grown up hearing this rhetoric, and when that subset of Catholics didn’t live through the changes being described, how are they to understand what changed and how it was changed? I also recognize that the suppression of open, free theological discourse that has gone hand in hand with the restorationist movement has left many younger Catholics woefully uneducated, so that they do not understand the historical and theological reasons that the changes occurred–or how deeply rooted they are in a tradition much longer and more ancient than that of Trent and Vatican I.

      I can certainly grant–and have done so in this conversation–that the liturgical changes enacted since Vatican II were far from perfect. I can grant (and have done so) that much that was beautiful in our liturgical traditions was discarded with Vatican II, and what was substitued in its place was far from aesthetically appealing.

      But I remain entirely unconvinced that the path to changing this lies in a return to the past. What moment of our long, complex, diverse, contradictory, rich tradition will we light upon as “the” moment when we had it right, for all time? If Trent and Vatican I, why those two moments? How can any developing tradition arbitrarily fix on one moment in its history as the moment at which all change must cease? As Newman said, to live is to change, and to live long is to change much.

      Change, development show that we’re alive. A living church has to change and develop, or it becomes a museum. Of course, it doesn’t discard its past, its rich traditions, as it changes and develops, any more than a family does, or a university, or a nation or state. At the same time, it doesn’t cease all development at one particular moment and declare that moment the end of history. It can’t so unless it wishes to choose life over death.

      I’m glad that my grandmother chose to cut her hair after my grandfather died, though he insisted that it is natural and biblically ordained for women to have long hair. I’m glad that she broke with a tradition that imprisoned women of her generation and culture, though her mother and grandmother and so on back in time had held that tradition as sacrosanct. I’m glad that in doing so, she opened a door for her daughters to keep what was good in their family tradition, while moving into the 20th century in other respects–obtaining educations, taking jobs, refusing to permit themselves to be treated as objects by their husbands.

      I would encourage you to try to inform yourself about 1) what actually happened with the liturgical changes of Vatican II, and 2) why those changes were made–why an ecumenical council, speaking with the authority of the whole church, called for those changes to be made. There are very important theological reasons that convinced the council fathers to take that step, and we ignore (or misrepresent) those theological reasons at our peril.

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