I used to think that the Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, was “just fine” if you took it at face value, and that the problem was people ignoring it or implementing it in a one-sided or distorted manner. I used to think that a “reform of the reform” could take its bearings from Sacrosanctum Concilium strictly applied.
Two things happened to wake me up from this pleasant daydream.
The first thing was the discovery of how cleverly the reformatory impresario Annibale Bugnini steered the Sacrosanctum Concilium drafting committee prior to the Council. Employing “the Bugnini Method” (in the words of acclaimed French historian Yves Chiron, who has written the best biography on Bugnini), the Monsignor ensured that the text would never ask for too much, too fast, but would leave things vague enough to allow the extensive work of demolition and reconstruction he and his allies already had in mind. As he said to members of that committee on November 11, 1961 (this, then, prior to the opening of the Council):
It would be most inconvenient for the articles of our Constitution to be rejected by the Central Commission or by the Council itself. That is why we must tread carefully and discreetly. Carefully, so that proposals be made in an acceptable manner (modo acceptabile), or, in my opinion, formulated in such a way that much is said without seeming to say anything: let many things be said in embryo (in nuce) and in this way let the door remain open to legitimate and possible postconciliar deductions and applications: let nothing be said that suggests excessive novelty and might invalidate all the rest, even what is straightforward and harmless (ingenua et innocentia). We must proceed discreetly. Not everything is to be asked or demanded from the Council—but the essentials, the fundamental principles [are]. (Chiron, 82)
At the opening of the first session of the Council, when a cabal of prelates and periti orchestrated a dramatic overturning of three years’ worth of preparatory work and draft documents, Sacrosanctum Concilium was the only document left standing when the dust settled. The progressives saw that it met their expectations and future plans. It could be allowed to remain on the table, which is why it was the first document to be discussed and then promulgated.
The second step in reevaluating Sacrosanctum Concilium was rereading it more closely with the Bugnini Method in mind. A key tool for doing so is Christopher Ferrara’s “Sacrosanctum Concilium: A Lawyer Examines the Loopholes.” I’d read this years ago, but only recently—after Chiron—could it hit me with full force. Any reader with a serious interest in the liturgy owes it to himself to read Ferrara’s analysis, which explains how a postconciliar liturgical reform that seems to depart so egregiously from certain statements in Sacrosanctum Concilium was, nevertheless, a consistent application of the same.
The conclusion: Sacrosanctum Concilium is not only not a safe document, it was the greatest Trojan Horse ever introduced into the Church. I know that it’s painful for many good Catholics to admit that it is a corrupt and corrosive document, but we must judge the tree by its fruits. In a debate broadcast by Radio-Courtoisie on December 19, 1993, Jean Guitton (1901–1999), philosopher and theologian, and a good personal friend of Paul VI, said the following:
The intention of Paul VI with regard to the liturgy, with regard to what is commonly called the Mass, was to reform the Catholic liturgy in such a way that it should almost coincide with the Protestant liturgy… But what is curious is that Paul VI did that to get as close as possible to the Protestant Lord’s Supper… But I repeat that Paul VI did everything in his power to get the Catholic Mass, beyond the Council of Trent, closer to the Protestant Lord’s Supper…
I do not think I am wrong to say that the intention of Paul VI, and of the new liturgy that bears his name, was to require of the faithful a greater participation at Mass, to make more room for Scripture, and less room for all that some would call “magic,” [and] others [would call] substantial, transubstantial consecration, and for what is of Catholic Faith; in other words, there was with Paul VI an ecumenical intention to remove, or at least to correct, or at least to relax what was too Catholic, in the traditional sense, in the Mass, and, I repeat, to get the Catholic Mass closer to the Calvinist mass.
A photo exists of Guitton and Paul VI at the Vatican, working on the book The Pope Speaks: Dialogues of Paul VI with Jean Guitton (a precursor of the Peter Seewald interviews with Benedict XVI). So Guitton is a man who knows what he’s talking about. Bugnini would surely have agreed with the aims attributed to Paul VI, for—concerning severe edits made to the traditional Good Friday orations—Bugnini wrote: “It is the love of souls and the desire to help in any way the road to union of the separated brethren [i.e., Protestants], by removing every stone that could even remotely constitute an obstacle or difficulty, that has driven the Church to make even these painful sacrifices [in the liturgy].”
Conservative Catholics, although a quickly-vanishing breed, continue to repeat the bromides they have been taught, probably because they could not face what they think are the catastrophic consequences of renouncing them. Conor Dugan, in an irenic essay-review entitled “A Deeper Context: Overlooked book provides insight into Vatican II debates,” says the following about Robert Royal’s A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century:
In Royal’s reading, “there is nothing whatever in any document approved by the Council Fathers that countenance[d] [the] radical departures” that followed the Council. Royal backs up his claims by a survey of the key documents. And, like Fr. Nichols’ recent study, Conciliar Octet . . . he concludes that the Council was not the Copernican Revolution of the Church, but reform in continuity.
I wish I could believe this (indeed, I once did believe it). But having come to see that the first document approved by the Council—the only one where the preconciliar draft was retained because it was considered the least controversial!—is already chock-full of problematic statements and loopholes big enough to drive a fleet of Mack trucks through, it is impossible to live in the fantasy world of Catholic conservativism any more. D.Q. McInerny well describes this problem in an article published in the Christmas 2019 issue of Latin Mass Magazine:
A characteristic of Sacrosanctum Concilium, and the other Council documents as well, is their adoption of a peculiar “yes … but,” “certainly … maybe” mode of literary expression. A specific mandate is laid down, or a particular directive stated, and then almost immediately thereafter, in more cases than not, there follows a number of qualifying adjustments, relating to what has just been said, which have the effect of rendering a mandate not really mandatory after all, and making a directive sound as if it were little more than a suggestion, representing one possibility among others. This is what happens in Sacrosanctum Concilium. The effect of such an approach is to create an aura of ambiguity regarding a particular issue which allows for, or even invites, a variety of divergent interpretations, some so divergent that they are mutually contradictory. This is something which has been amply demonstrated over the last several decades.
No sooner is it specified, in Sacrosanctum Concilium, that Latin is to be preserved in the Latin rite than permission is granted for the vernacular to be used in the Mass and in the administration of the sacraments, and, tellingly, that “the limits of its employment may be extended.”…Given the vacillating manner in which the subject of Latin is handled in Sacrosanctum Concilium, I think it a fair judgment to say that the anti-Latin party can legitimately find greater backing in the document for their position than can those who wish to uphold tradition. What happened to Latin was the result of careful calculation.
The reason we got the Novus Ordo in all of its reformation glory is that its future architects rigged the conciliar document to open the way to it, and admitted that they did so, as we have seen. If Sacrosanctum Concilium is the green wood of the Council, what about the dry?
The Royal reading of Vatican II cannot hold a blessed candle up to Roberto de Mattei’s The Second Vatican Council—An Unwritten Story for a carefully documented reading of what actually transpired at the Council. The beautiful blossoming of Catholic intellectual life before Vatican II cannot cancel out the machinations of the progressives and soft modernists who steered the internal discussions and drafts more or less as they wished. They saw their chance, and they took it boldly.
Why, then, did nearly every prelate at the Council, including Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, vote for Sacrosanctum Concilium—a whopping 2,147 against 4? Fr. Hunwicke suggests that they were naïve about the ultimate goals of the radical Liturgical Movement and thought they were opting for a gentle modernization of the traditional worship; they were lied to about what the plan would actually be, since the debates at the Council suggested moderate reform; and, not least, they acted by a herd instinct, which, in the midst of such an inefficient and laborious meeting as the Council was (we have many private records complaining of dreadful tedium), allowed the key players to fuel documentary finalization with the gasoline of impatience.
And why, then, did they obediently implement all the changes afterward? Ah, therein lies a different tale. Even the bishops who had serious doubts about the reforms (and there were more than a few) felt they had no choice but to “obey” whatever the pope decreed. A pope’s word is God’s word, isn’t it? A long-ingrained sheepish ultramontanism masquerading as piety prevented even the shepherds from protecting their flocks against revolutionary harm. Fifty years of deformed parochial worship, a global network of clerical immorality, and a pope who treats the Church’s faith as malleable clay are the three strikes by which hyperpapalism has at last exited the batter’s box—although some are still catching up on the news.
Does the foregoing critique of Sacrosanctum Concilium count as “dissent from the Magisterium”? No. That document has two ingredients: a speculative account of liturgy, which is patient of an orthodox interpretation, and a long list of practical decisions about how the liturgy should be reformed. The traditionalist critique aims at the latter ingredient, which, of its nature, concerns prudential judgments made about particulars. Such judgments about what is best to do here and now can never be infallible and are in themselves subject to reevaluation over time, modification, and even rejection if that is seen to be advisable.
The same process has happened with the disciplinary measures of many earlier ecumenical councils, some of which were never even implemented or fairly quickly became moot. Put simply: the plan of action to which the Council Fathers agreed can and must be judged by its fruits and against the backdrop of changing circumstances and is not an object of religious assent. A mistaken plan of action is well within the possibility of an ecumenical council even according to the most robust interpretation of the status of a universal synod.
As St. Thomas Aquinas argues, following St. Augustine and other Church Fathers, God would not permit an evil unless He would bring forth from it a greater good. While none of us can see in full the good He will bring from the evils attendant on the Council and its subsequent liturgical reform, I think it is past dispute that we have learned hard lessons that have helped us over the decades and will continue to help us in the future.
We can have—and an ever-growing number do, in fact, have—a better understanding of why the traditional Roman Rite is just the way it is, and functions well the way it is, and should not be changed in any significant way. Its perfection in texts, chants, and ceremonies has never been as evident as now, when it stands out in sharp contrast against a backdrop of liturgical manglement, mediocrity, and malaise. Those who care about the liturgy care more about it; those who love tradition, as all Catholics should, love it more. These are the necessary preconditions for a flourishing of divine worship in the Church—the font and apex of the Christian life and the heart and soul of Christian culture.
Yves Chiron, Annibale Bugnini: Reformer of the Liturgy, trans. John Pepino (Brooklyn, NY: Angelico Press, 2018).
The citation from Guitton was printed in an Abbey Newsletter by the Very Rev. Dom Gerard, O.S.B., Abbaye Sainte-Madeleine, Le Barroux, with a translation likely by Paul Crane, S.J. in Christian Order 35.10 (1994), 454.
D.Q. McInerny, “Reflections on the Loss of Latin, Part I” in Latin Mass Magazine, 28.4 (Christmas 2019), 33–34.
[Photo: Annibale Bugnini and Pope Paul VI]