The Emperor’s New-Rite Clothes

Fr Hugh Somerville Knapman, OSB, penned a brilliant article at the Catholic Herald. Worth reading. Since the article is behind a paywall, here it is for your reading pleasure.

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The Emperor’s New-Rite Clothes
September 7, 2022

All the sides in the wearying debates on matters from synodality to liturgy invariably invoke a legitimacy deriving—directly or indirectly—from Vatican II. This fact alone signals that reception of Vatican II is neither settled nor even clear-cut. Which version of Vatican II does one accept? The competing versions focus on either the Council’s decrees, or its “spirit.” In all this Vatican II risks becoming an ideological totem, empty of any objective meaning and employed primarily for polemical purposes. The Vatican is adept at this as anyone, but in the current liturgical fracas has it overplayed an already weak hand, and underestimated the laity?

Pope Francis’s two apostolic letters on the liturgy in 2021 and 2022 restrict the use of the pre-conciliar missal while calling for an enhanced liturgical formation of the laity. What the Vatican seems to miss is that adherents of the older missal are generally younger, largely better-informed than their elders, and thoroughly imbued with the democratic forthrightness of expression that the Holy Father has strongly advocated under the banner of parrhesia. Many of them have read the decrees of Vatican II themselves and discovered a marked difference from what has subsequently been done in its name.

Perhaps the intention was that only certain subsets within the Church should employ parrhesia. One assumes, in the context of other strands to Pope Francis’s teaching, that this frankness was encouraged for those on the peripheries. However, the recent swingeing restrictions on the older liturgy, so generously lifted under Benedict XVI in the name of ecclesial communion, have forced a significant proportion of practising Catholics (proportionally far younger than in most parishes) onto a very real periphery. Perhaps this is not what that the Holy Father intended when he encouraged young people to make “mess” in July 2015. Having restricted the older liturgy for the sake of “the concord and unity of the Church,” the result has been the opposite, with many Catholics now experiencing new divisions and hurts. Wounds that had been healing have been reopened.

Ostensibly, the new restrictions were occasioned by those traditionalists who were apparently too outspoken and doctrinaire in their advocacy of the pre-conciliar missal. No doubt some were guilty of this. Yet to punish the many for the misdeeds of a few seems remarkably intolerant, if not totalitarian. This is especially so given that so many of the committed young, with whom the Church desperately seeks to engage, seem to prefer the traditional liturgy. Moreover, the media-savvy young see online, or experience first-hand, grievous liturgical abuses of the new liturgy and ask why there are no restrictions focused on these. The young have an especial sensitivity to inconsistency and injustice.

That the restrictions are explicitly aimed at addressing “non-acceptance of the liturgical reform” serves only to highlight the issue of whether the reform as enacted corresponds to the decrees of Vatican II. In a recent interview with The Tablet Cardinal Arthur Roche said the new restrictions derive from liturgical dicastery’s mission to promote “the renewal undertaken by the Second Vatican Council.” It is not mere pedantry to point out that no liturgical reform was “undertaken” by the Council. The reforms were undertaken by a body called the Consilium, erected on papal not conciliar authority to implement the reforms decreed by the Council.

The reformed liturgy devised by the Consilium often departs markedly from, and exceeds, the decrees of the Council. The “new order of Mass” was indeed radically new, and distinctly post-conciliar rather than conciliar; being enacted in the name of the Council does not itself guarantee that the reformed liturgy conforms to its will. The tepid, even negative, reception given at the Synod of Bishops in 1967 to an experimental celebration of what was substantially the Novus Ordo exposes this fallacy. Many of the bishops did not recognise the experiment as embodying their decrees just three years earlier. Cardinal Heenan observed that if the experimental rites were adopted then he would be left with congregations of mostly women and children. From today’s perspective Heenan appears remarkably optimistic.

Furthermore, Cardinal Roche asserted in his interview that those who disregard “the Council” in the matter of the liturgical reform are putting themselves “sideways, to the edges of the Church. You are becoming more Protestant than you are Catholic”. It is a remarkable claim, and only conceivable if one accepts the enacted liturgical reform as faithfully implementing the decrees of the Council, which Cardinal Roche calls “the highest legislation that exists in the Church.”

This is precisely the contested issue, and here a real problem emerges. Cardinal Roche seems to require that the Church deny herself, and to employ her authority today to negate her authority in former days. Many will echo Benedict XVI in asking how what was holy yesterday—and indeed for preceding centuries—can suddenly be a danger to faith and the Church today. Rome is making a serious mistake in its programme to shore up the practical reception of the reformed liturgy, and in so doing is backing itself into a corner.

The liturgical reforms were expressly pastoral, intended to increase congregational participation. The severe decline in the numbers in congregations since the promulgation of the reformed liturgy over 50 years ago suggests that the reforms have not achieved their purpose. Equating the reformed liturgy—which I celebrate, but which for all its virtues has failed in its purpose—with the will of Vatican II leads logically to the conclusion that the failure is the Council’s when in fact it is the Consilium’s.

The current policy of suppressing dissatisfaction by the restriction and marginalisation of anyone who points out imperial nakedness aligns disturbingly with that of a totalitarian regime desperate to shore up its legitimacy in the face of dissent and dissatisfaction at the failure of its policies. It shocks those who try to hold the middle ground of fidelity to the Church and to reason, but it need not be so. The Vatican could simply continue to allow the old and new liturgical forms to coexist and so allow the people to choose which nourishes their faith and Christian living.

That would treat lay Catholics as adults, but it is precisely this that Rome seems anxious to avoid. On the other hand, in restricting the legitimate expression of the Roman rite to “the liturgical books promulgated by Paul VI and John Paul II” Rome has allowed some room for manoeuvre, and for saving face. The Ordo Missae of 1965 is a post-conciliar reform promulgated by Paul VI which correlates very closely to the conciliar decrees in adapting the old rite more organically to their expanded liturgical vision. It offers a basis for revisiting the reforms that have so patently failed in their purpose, a failure that restrictive legislation will not hide, but only further expose.

Whatever one’s approach to the current crisis, the solution must lie in an approach that entices rather than repels, that includes rather than marginalises, and—if Vatican II must remain the gold standard of Catholic identity—that is manifestly and unambiguously faithful to the decrees of the Council rather than any ideological appropriation of it. This is, in fact, expressly what Pope Francis has urged with Desiderio desideravi. May Rome practise what the Pope preaches.

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