Thursday, July 19, 2007

Catholics’ Quandry: Will Latin Masses Be Liturgy or Idolatry?

On May 4, 2007 I posted some thoughts on Rome’s plan to allow more Latin Masses. Theologically, the conclusions remain sound:

“Greater availability of the Latin Mass cannot be used to absolutize it or any version of the eucharistic liturgy. But it can be the occasion to remember again that alternatives to the normative language can be a healthy expression of religious humility and devotion—and that the alternatives should include not only older liturgies that have been replaced but also authorized experiments that can lead eventually to surpassing the liturgies that are normative today.”

The guidelines and cover letter made public at the Vatican July 7th include several statements which bolster my conclusions. I’ll gladly highlight them here.

However, other statements and omissions in those documents—and, just days later, Rome’s new pronouncement trying to back-pedal significantly on Vatican II’s Decree on Ecumenism (see my post of July 12th)—have changed the context in which sound theology must compete.

Whether sound theology prevails, or something else, ultimately will be determined by the decisions, assertiveness and perseverance of Catholic communities over the next few years—and whether theologians and church officials are responsive them or to a minority cult which wants to deny that Vatican II ever happened.

My position is bolstered above all by Benedict XVI’s stand that what has been characterized historically as the Roman Rite for celebrating the eucharist has included a multiplicity of usages, expressions and forms. This is critical to the assertion that no one version of the eucharistic liturgy—past, present or future—can be absolutized.

The pope regards the post-Vatican II eucharistic prayers issued by Pope Paul VI in 1970, “translated into the various languages of the world,” as normative. The English texts of his documents refer to them variously as the eucharistic liturgy’s normal form, forma ordinaria, and ordinary expression.

I have not seen it mentioned elsewhere, but he is so serious about this that he forbids priests and communities who prefer the old Latin Mass from refusing to celebrate the 1970 versions.

He says in his cover letter: “Needless to say, in order to experience full communion, also the priests of the communities adhering to the former usage cannot, as a matter of principle, exclude celebrating according to the new books. The total exclusion of the new rite would not in fact be consistent with the recognition of its value and holiness.”

This is a blow to those adherents of the 1962 ritual who claim, without theological basis, that it and its different liturgical calendar and church-sanctuary architecture, constitute the only valid Catholic liturgy, to which all others must conform.

(I had focused previously on the normativity of the four eucharistic prayers published in 1970. An article, “Opinion Divided on Mass Decision,” in the print edition of the National Catholic Reporter dated July 20, 2007, reminds us that there are more. Sacred Heart Sister Kathleen Hughes, a scholar in residence at the Collegeville Institute at St. John’s University in Minnesota, counts nine official prayers. These include two additional ones for masses of reconciliation and three for children. A eucharistic prayer website that I have recently linked to here even counts 13 eucharistic prayers, by including four more official prayers for various needs. Actually the four share lots of common sentences, but with four variable prefaces and four variable prayers of intercession. At any rate, all this further diminishes the importance of the 1962 ritual relative to the normative ones.)

To stress that the Roman Rite has always involved a multiplicity of expressions, Benedict cites liturgical reforms by Popes Gregory the Great and Pius V in prior centuries, and in the 20th Century by Popes Clement VIII, Urban VIII, Pius X, Benedict XV, Pius XII, John XXIII and the Second Vatican Council.

He calls the 1962 Latin Mass a forma extraordinaria or an extraordinary form of the liturgical celebration, “one of the liturgical books of the Roman Rite” (italics mine). Extraordinary here does not mean superior, better than ordinary, or the best. It means unusual, out of the ordinary, infrequent. Note too the use of “a” and “an.” The Latin Mass is not THE extraordinary form of the liturgy, but one of several that can be so characterized.

Interestingly, the pope never says that a priest celebrating the 1962 Latin Mass has to have his back to the people. This is the way the Latin Mass was celebrated historically and the way proponents prefer it today. But in an explanatory note issued on July 9th, the Holy See Press Office observed, “The 1962 Missal…says nothing concerning the direction of the altar or of the celebrant (whether facing the people or not).” This is not the kind of flexibility the most traditional Catholics want the priest to have. But it is in fact what the pope has decreed, and another indicator that the post-Vatican II liturgies remain normative.

It is instructive too that he never refers to the old Latin Mass as the Mass of St. Pius V—as the most traditional Catholics do and would like him to do. He makes a point, repeatedly and consistently, of referring to “the Roman Missal published by Blessed John XXIII in 1962.” This puts emphasis on both the multiplicity of Roman liturgies and the church’s right to reform them, add to them, and diminish some in importance from time to time.

Despite these cogent, healthy remarks, there are other statements in the documents which are historically or linguistically inaccurate—and two topics the documents should not have ignored. If that is allowed to prevail, the documents will encourage an idolatry of the old Latin Mass, rather than liturgically sound worship of the living God.

One is the claim that the old Latin Mass and the 1970 eucharistic prayers are “two usages of the one Roman rite” or “a twofold use of one and the same rite.” Thus Benedict says, “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.” Yet the liturgy was reformed (and the old Latin version restricted) precisely because it reflected an inadequate theology of the church that sometimes did harm.

Like the pope’s recent claim that Vatican II made no change in the official understanding of the church, this one is preposterous. It tortures fact and language. Yes, the 1962 Latin Mass and the 13 normative eucharistic prayers have some characteristics in common. But they also have many significant differences. Only a self-serving nominalism (“reality is what I say it is”) can justify insisting that the Roman Rite is identical in all of its forms. By trying to do so, the pope encourages those who want everyone to revere the 1962 version as THE Roman ritual.

Related are the provisions that pastors may also use the 1962 Missal version to administer the sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation, Marriage, Penance and Anointing of the Sick, instead of the post-Vatican II versions, and also to bury the dead. Allowing these parallel sacraments plays down the multiple models of church that Vatican II officially endorsed, and it disputes Vatican II’s overwhelming judgment that the monolithic view of church in the 1962 Missal was in need of reform.

In contrast to this, Kathleen Hughes notes in the same NCR article the many advantages of the newer sacramental practices: “the variety of patterns of reconciliation, the rediscovered unity and order of the sacraments of initiation, and the recovery of the sacrament of the sick for those who are seriously ill though not at the point of death.” In contrast to the doom and gloom of old Catholic funerals, she also cites "the revised funeral rite which includes different texts for those who die as infants or in old age, those who die by suicide or violence, or after a long and suffering affliction."

There is also a widespread concern that the documents weaken the local bishop’s authority over the liturgy, in favor of centralized decision-making by Rome. In his cover letter, the pope specifically denies doing that. Yet the guidelines say that groups of the faithful who cannot find a pastor who’ll provide the 1962 Latin Mass, should inform their local bishop. The guidelines then say, “If he cannot arrange for such celebration to take place, the matter should be referred to the Pontifical Commission 'Ecclesia Dei.'”

The guidelines do not say who does the referring. But several press accounts have already assumed it could be the aggrieved laity, and not necessarily the bishop.

The document also does not say what rules the Pontifical Commission will use to address the matter. The danger is that the local bishop will no longer have the last word. This could be especially troublesome if the bishop felt the need to deny the Latin Mass to a particular group of worshippers because they were making it the end-all and be-all of Catholic liturgy, or insisting that their priest never celebrate a different eucharistic prayer. It would be an abuse of authority for the Pontifical Commission to overrule the bishop in such circumstances.

Then there is the documents’ total silence on two significant issues.

First, the documents do not address how parts of the 1962 Roman Missal seriously offend Jews. They told Benedict while the documents were in preparation that they found the Missal’s Good Friday prayers calling for Jews “to be delivered from their darkness” and converted to Catholicism a slap in the face, at odds with decades of Jewish-Catholic dialogue and conciliatory statements from several popes. And yet there was nothing in the cover letter or the press office clarification to acknowledge the legitimacy of their concerns, let alone speak to them.

The guidelines have an odd provision that might limit the harm of the Good Friday language. But it’s hard to tell if that was the intent, or just a happy accident. It says that priests who celebrate the liturgy without the people present may follow the 1962 Missal except during the Easter Triduum (Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday). A related provision says people who ask may be admitted to such liturgies—which would rule out the Missal’s Good Friday liturgy for them. But the more lengthy provisions on liturgies normally celebrated with the people present make so such distinction, and it seems to be the pope’s intent that laity who can have the Latin Mass can also have the 1962 Good Friday liturgy. Since it is normally a single service between noon and 3:00 p.m., how an individual parish would handle the mechanics of two simultaneous Good Friday liturgies is difficult to envision.

Second, the documents give very short shrift to the value of additional liturgical novelty. It is arguable that the 13 eucharistic prayers which are normative today would not have come about without considerable experimentation in controlled settings in the years leading up to Vatican II and just after it. The pope’s only reference to such creativity is pejorative.

He says that some of the traditionalists’ opposition to the new eucharistic prayers arose “because in many places celebrations were not faithful to the prescriptions of the new missal, but the latter actually was understood as authorizing or even requiring creativity, which frequently led to deformations of the liturgy which were hard to bear. I am speaking from experience, since I, too, lived through that period with all its hopes and its confusion.” Of course, the traditionalists were not offended by such liturgies from attending them. They based their antagonism on second-hand reports, and their only interest was in portraying liturgical innovation as the bad fruit of Vatican II's misguided reforms.

At least Benedict does not claim that experimentation always led to deformations of the liturgy! In fact, as I noted in my May 4th post, creativity was allowed for a period of time after Vatican II, when liturgical experts offered experimental eucharistic prayers that followed the structure of the approved ones but offered language and rituals that many small congregations found more beautiful and more inspirational than the official language. Short of relying exclusively on non-Catholic Christians for liturgical innovation, there is no other way for the Catholic Church to improve upon the liturgy presently in place.

By relativizing the importance of the Latin Mass that used to be normative, Rome must realize sooner or later that the current normative liturgies must also be open to future revision. God and his worship cannot be frozen in any single ritual henceforth and forever. To forget that is to worship ritual rather than God.

That is the continuing lesson of the church’s liturgical history—a lesson which Vatican II learned very well, but which church officials since keep trying to forget. Whether they get it sooner rather than later is up to thousands of believers, around the globe.

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