USCC Watch: Creating Tradition


June 1, 1994

At the June meeting of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (NCCB), a new batch of revised texts proposed by the International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL) will be discussed, as will the issue of altar servers. Given the lineup of speakers chosen, there is little cause for hope that the bishops will reverse the progressive desacralization of Catholic worship.

A principal presenter for the bishops’ discussion on liturgical revisions is Father Anscar Chupungco, OSB, a Filipino liturgist who is president of the Pontifical Liturgical Institute in Rome and a specialist in “inculturation.” He is also a consulter to the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship and executive secretary of the Philippine Episcopal Commission on the Liturgy. (Last summer the Philippine bishops approved the first segment of ICEL’s revised Sacramentary, Ordinary Time.)

In Father Chupungco’s view, bishops have virtually absolute authority over liturgical matters, and the Holy See is required to give assent to anything the bishops’ conferences establish. (This is the view implicit in the recent ruling on “altar girls” by the Pontifical Council on the Interpretation of Legislative Texts; see last month’s USCC Watch). According to this reading of canon law, even papal authority over the worship of the Catholic Church seems to be limited, ultimately, to ratifying whatever bishops request.

Chupungco advocates “dynamic equivalency,” rather than literal translation, following the controversial 19 69 “Instruction on the Translation of Liturgical Texts” (Comme le prevoit). He also applies this principle to “inculturation” of the sacraments in his 1989 book, Liturgies of the Future: The Process and Methods of Inculturation. (He cites an Indian rite approved 20 years ago which permits readings at Mass from “Indian scriptures” in addition to canonical Christian ones.)

According to Father Chupungco, the drafters of the Vatican II document on the liturgy, Sacrosanctum concilium, intentionally diminished the authority of the Holy See over the liturgy, with a “far-reaching effect on ecclesiology”:

The third paragraph of Sacrosanctum concilium 36 underwent an amendment with a far-reaching effect on ecclesiology. In the final text proponere [to propose] was changed to statuere [to establish, settle a principle or point], so that the conferences of bishops, instead of merely submitting proposals to the Holy See, would be empowered to decide whether and to what extent the vernacular is to be used. The role of the Holy See would be to confirm the decision reached by the local authority regarding this matter…. In other words, within the limits set by law the local churches determine their rule of life, create their traditions, and develop their form of worship. The Holy See confirms them, that is to say, puts on them the seal of universal approval.

Others chosen to address the bishops’ meeting on liturgical questions include:

• Father Michael Himes, who teaches theology at Boston College and was one of two official priest-spokesmen who, like Sister Theresa Kane, challenged Pope John Paul II on celibacy, the role of women in ministry, etc. during a papal visit to the United States.

Father Himes said in a 1991 interview on the sacraments that it is a mistake to believe that “if we say the right words and do the actions correctly, somehow or other God arbitrarily will attach grace to them,” and warned that this is where superstition lurks. Sacraments “signify something that is always there, but only becomes present to us when someone or something points at it.” He used baptism to illustrate his point:

Baptism does not “give” grace. If the child were not already engraced, he or she would not exist. What is really happening in baptism is that the community—predominantly the parents, friends, parish and beyond that the whole Christian community—is accepting and celebrating the fact that this child is engraced.

If Father Himes is right, and no objective change is effected in a person by receiving the sacraments, if the sacraments do not transcend every time and every culture, then the Catholic Church has been wrong from the beginning. Nevertheless, his opinions are common among Catholic liturgical revisionists who aim to conflate all “empowering” sacraments into baptism (e.g., confirmation, penance, orders).

Implicit in both Father Chupungco’s and Father Himes’ view is that the Church’s liturgy derives its meaning essentially from the assent of the gathered community. This makes the entire liturgy subject to endless innovations that are justified as the “creation of traditions,” a dubious notion in itself—traditions arise and are conformed to; they are not self-consciously created—as well as a temptation to rule according to the passing whims of the assembly and/or professional liturgists.

• Father Philip Murnion, director of the National Pastoral Center in New York, and vigorous advocate of “base communities” as a model of the Church, an idea drawn from Marxist-inspired liberation theologies of Latin America.

• Father Walter Burghardt, S.J., of the Woodstock Theological Center, Washington, D.C., and for many years editor of Theological Studies during which time it was the principal organ of theological dissent in the United States.

• Susan Muto of Pittsburgh, writer of several drafts of the “women’s pastoral” and specialist in spirituality.

• Sister Linda Gaupin, associate director of the Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy, who led the bishops in reciting the Daily Office (using the Revised Grail Psalter) at last November’s NCCB meeting.

• Monsignor Joseph Champlin, a pastor from the diocese of Syracuse and former regular columnist for the National Catholic News (now CNS). Affiliated with the Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy from 1968-71, he wrote in an article on “The Injustice of Archaic Catholic Marriage Courts” that, “In doubt, let the presumption be in favor of the person who will benefit by a second marriage, rather than in favor of an abstract and long-since broken bond. In the present system, a marriage is presumed valid unless proven otherwise. We must replace doubts about a marriage with a certitude that the original marriage was invalid.”

• Father Virgilio Elizondo, rector of San Fernando Cathedral in San Antonio, a liberationist who recently told an audience that “White people … see themselves as God’s gift to humanity and their cosmovision as the only one capable of seeing and knowing God. There is a blind arrogance about the unquestioned righteousness of their ways of knowing and speaking.” In the same talk he said that the “language of the Church will be the imagery, expressions, anecdotes, and slang of the poor of today…. The language of the early movies of Cantinflas are excellent [examples] of the new evangelical language which is needed today to recapture not only the message but also the language of Jesus.”

• Margaret O’Brien Steinfels, editor of Commonweal, a journal well known for “challenging” virtually every Church teaching. (Other press representatives are barred from this NCCB meeting, incidentally.)

Conspicuous by their absence from the list of speakers is any theologian or liturgist known for supporting liturgical or doctrinal traditions. Ironically, the chairman of the Ad hoc Committee that planned this Special Assembly is Bishop Harry Flynn (newly appointed co-adjutor of St. Paul), who publicly upheld the Church’s tradition with respect to altar servers only days before the now-famous change of policy was leaked to the press. Other members of the organizing committee are Bishops Howard Hubbard (Albany), Robert Morneau (Green Bay), Ricardo Ramirez (Las Cruces), John Vlazny (Winona), and Donald Wuerl (Pittsburgh).

To most people in the pews, and probably to many bishops as well, most of the proposed revisions in the Church’s worship appear arbitrary, unnecessary, and confusing. The effect of 30 years of continual tinkering with every aspect of Catholic worship by liturgical reformers—most of all, their relentless chipping away at the objective efficacy of the sacraments, the very foundation of the Church—not only does not foster the development of any kind of community; but, in fact, makes it difficult for established communities to flourish. Can a truly Christian community be built on the shifting sands of any political ideology? Can any local Church thrive without having as its base—its foundation—the sacramental reality of the Church arising only from the salvific act of Christ?

Cardinal Ratzinger, speaking of the sacrament of baptism and the catechumenate in Principles of Catholic Theology, points out that “the Church is not a club that makes her own statutes and rules and whose activities are limited to the sum of the activities of her individual members…. She lives from the word that is given her; she lives from the sacraments that she cannot institute but can only receive” (emphasis added).

Whatever one makes of the logical paradox of “creating new traditions,” history shows that destabilizing the worship of the Church obscures truth, erodes belief, and imperils souls.


  • Helen Hull Hitchcock

    Helen Hull Hitchcock is founding director of Women for Faith & Family and editor of its quarterly journal, Voices. She is also editor of the Adoremus Bulletin, a monthly publication of Adoremus - Society for the Renewal of the Sacred Liturgy, of which she is a co-founder. She is married to James Hitchcock, professor of history at St. Louis University. The Hitchcocks have four daughters and six grandchildren, and live in St. Louis.

Join the Conversation

Comments are a benefit for financial supporters of Crisis. If you are a monthly or annual supporter, please login to comment. A Crisis account has been created for you using the email address you used to donate.

tagged as:
Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Signup to receive new Crisis articles daily

Email subscribe stack
Share to...