Since the beginning of his pontificate, it has been widely understood that Pope Benedict XVI is working on a “reform of the reform” of the Catholic liturgy. The pope’s statements suggest that his intention is to clear up many of the distortions of Vatican II with regard to the liturgy, to combat widespread liturgical abuses, and to promote greater reverence and beauty in Catholic worship. This is a development that all Catholics should be eager to participate in.
Those who are inclined to look at such developments as a potential “step backward” are missing the bigger picture. There is a crisis in the Catholic Church that has developed on many levels, and the distortions and abuses of the liturgy are both caused by and contribute to this crisis. At the root of the “progressive” view of the liturgy is the belief that it must be constantly updated and revised to remain relevant to the people. The world is changing, we are told, and Catholics will be shut out of it unless they change with it.
But looking at the history of the Church — in her capacity as a provider of food and medical care for the poor throughout her 2,000-year history or, more recently, in the development of her social teaching in the late-19th and early-20th centuries — one cannot help but notice that no radical liturgical experimentation was required to motivate both clergy and lay people to get involved in social issues. The allegedly ‘worn out’ and ‘closed off’ traditional liturgy did not keep the Church from playing a key role in the legitimization of organized labor and opposition to totalitarian regimes.
Today, the Church is still involved in politics, though not all of this involvement is good — as with the Catholic Campaign for Human Development scandal, or some of the recently exposed associations of the USCCB. On a broader scale, there is a widespread crisis of indifference to the teachings of the Church — beginning at the highest level with nominally Catholic politicians, and cascading down to the electorate. Much of this indifference or outright defiance can be traced back to the fallout of the sexual revolution, but its enduring success these past four decades has been secured by the deterioration of the liturgy in parishes across America.
Whether or not it is a coincidence that leading clergymen and theologians decided that the Church needed to “adapt” to the world in an unprecedented way just as the world was beginning to lose its collective moral bearings, one cannot say. If ever there were a time in the history of Western civilization that Christians needed to be reminded that they were of, but not in, the world, it was surely then. Yet precisely the opposite took place, and, as Pope Paul VI put it, “the smoke of Satan” had entered the Church. A recent interview with Virgilio Cardinal Noè confirmed that what Paul VI was referring to was
all those priests or bishops and cardinals who didn’t render worship to the Lord by celebrating badly (mal celebrando) Holy Mass because of an errant interpretation of the implementation of the Second Vatican Council. He spoke of the smoke of Satan because he maintained that those priests who turned Holy Mass into dry straw in the name of creativity, in reality were possessed of the vainglory and the pride of the Evil One. So, the smoke of Satan was nothing other than the mentality which wanted to distort the traditional and liturgical canons of the Eucharistic ceremony.
It may be that some priests and bishops are overly-eager to establish their credibility with secular authorities and, worse yet, secular political movements. Or perhaps in some cases of liturgical abuse, such as when a pastor parades around in a Barney costume, there is a misguided but sincere belief in the goodness of novelty.
Whether we look at the shrinking number of people identifying as Catholics today or the qualitative aspects of the liturgy, it seems impossible to deny that this experiment has been a failure. And what else could have been expected? Despite the efforts of some of her members, a Church with a divine mission can never truly be of the world. Such a Church will derive its greatest strength and courage from its defiance of those tendencies that rule the world — from the fads and trends in aesthetics to the selfishness and irrationality in morality and politics.
Christ warns us that we will be prosecuted by the world; the experience of the apostles bears it out. When faced with genuine persecution, the apostles proclaimed: “We ought to obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). When faced with the prospect that some Catholics were bored with the Mass, some influential minds within the Church chose to jettison some of her greatest liturgical treasures. It is sometimes hard to know what is worse: that Gregorian chant is missing from the liturgical experiences of the vast majority of Americans, or that the few who are lucky enough to experience it wonder why they have been deprived of it.
The official directives of the post-conciliar commissions in Rome rarely reached most American priests. They knew only the commentaries on them provided by the liturgists both nationally and on the diocesan level. As a result, the altars of most American churches were turned versus populum; choirs were disbanded; Gregorian chant was prohibited; Latin was forbidden for celebration of the Mass in many dioceses; church furniture and statuary were discarded. These innovations which distressed untold numbers of Catholics were thought to be the orders of the Second Vatican Council. Rather, they were the results of a conspiracy whose foundations and intentions have yet to be completely discovered and revealed (23).
While assenting fully to the right of the Church to modify and update her teachings and practices as deemed necessary, we must also understand that much of what we witness today at the level of the local parish was not, is not, and (God willing) never will be mandated by the official leadership of the Church. It may be the case that some Catholics, having been raised in this pseudo-Catholicism, will defect when the reform of the reform occurs. But that works both ways: A Church that stands firmly on tradition, often in defiance of what is popular at the moment, will attract to herself converts from all walks of life who are seeking authentic spirituality and true moral principles.
That’s a trade worth making.