UPDATE: This article is Part I of a series. Part II can be read here. See also our related piece: Et Invisibilium; Why We Can’t Make Rites (or Doctrine).
“Sorry I can’t come to the Thursday study group” she sighed, “We’re going to brunch with the in-laws that morning.”
Wincing, she added: “First we meet for Mass at their parish. Pray for me.”
Her friend nodded sympathetically. She’d been there before.
“Why don’t you politely decline Mass, then meet for brunch after?” she offered.
“Oh, I couldn’t do that… they’ll think I’m judging them, or holier-than-thou, or whatever… They’ll say it’s all just a matter of taste, insist that we’re all Catholic, and tell me to get over myself.”
“But Mass isn’t for them… maybe they’re the ones who need to get over themselves.”
“Well, what can I do? It’s not like I can point to anything flat-out wrong with Mass there, it’s just… it’s just… well, you know!”
DISCLAIMER: Images below depict recent occasions of sacrilege and liturgical abuse, embedded as a slideshow in order to better illustrate the main point of this article. The images are offensive, and may be skipped over without missing the main argument.
“See what things the enemy hath done wickedly in the sanctuary.”
PART I: The Problem
In conversation with good Catholics regarding the liturgical changes following Vatican II, an incredible number of paths for discussion can open out. Some of them are pursued in dialogue form here, but in this series we aim to address one particular line of thought in two installments, beginning with the claim:
The structure and prayers of the Novus Ordo Mass (NO) may be a bit different from the traditional Latin Mass (TLM), but that doesn’t make the NO in and of itself any less holy, orthodox, reverent, worthy of God, etc. Those who prefer the TLM can have it, but the Church made the NO that we have now, and it’s just as good, provided that it is celebrated well.
Having held something like this position for years, we know the good faith involved in such reasoning. Being raised in the NO and taught that Mass is the most important thing on earth, one could scarcely conceive of it being somehow deficient in itself – how could it be? Like so many Catholics raised in the 1980s and 90s, we may have grown up with our share of wincing through casual consecrations, insipid orations, vapid vesture, hackneyed homiletics, and saccharine sing-alongs (some of which we still can’t get out of our heads) – but we strove to focus on the holiness of what was “really going on,” the sanctity of the Mystery veiled before us.
Yet we found ourselves – as many often do – grappling at times with instances of grave “irreverence” in the Novus Ordo; some so glaring as to be almost physically sickening. On such occasions (or upon viewing images like those above), the good Catholic may get up and leave, shake his head in sorrow or disgust, perhaps even with terms like “abuse” or “sacrilege” on his lips. This is a good instinct.
Yet this belies a tremendous difficulty of principle, which we hope to cast into relief by way of this two-part series: If a practice occurs in the NO Mass that we believe is irreverent, upon what can we base this evaluation? Might the practice be otherwise, or must it be otherwise? Could or should?
Let’s attempt an answer by starting with what is often the first good Catholic reaction to many instances of liturgical abuse: “They can’t do that!”
1. A NO Rubric Forbids It
2. Canon Law Forbids It
3. A Vatican Directive Forbids It
4. A USCCB Directive Forbids It
A good opening; but even compiling every rote directive from these sources, one finds only a relatively short list of explicitly forbidden practices. Indeed, one finds that the NO is in fact designed to encourage “pastoral options” and “localized creativity,” having been fashioned under the 1960’s theological framework of the pastoral theory, which maintained that the Mass should primarily be an expression of the faith of the community and their religious sentiments, relevant to the experience of the local assembly, and an aid to their respective faith journeys. Being “designed for options” in this way as a kind of multiple-choice (or fill-in-the-blank) rite, it becomes notoriously difficult to codify precisely what must not be done.
Thus for argument’s sake, let’s pretend that a given practice which we feel to be irreverent isn’t clearly condemned in the above sources – does this make it right? A little sensus fidelium would seem to suggest that no, an “argument from silence” isn’t enough to commend things like demon statues in the sanctuary. “No Rubric Flatly Forbids It” cannot legitimate irreverent praxis.
Still believing a given practice to be wrong, then, let’s attempt some further answers as to why a given thing must not be done in the Mass.
5. The Pastor Forbids It
6. The Bishop Forbids It
Unfortunately, these are even weaker than the first four. One need not review the above images to know that there are priests and bishops aplenty who stand ready to engage in any number of irreverent liturgical acts; even the Pope may do as much (a point we will revisit at greater length in the second installment, but a recent article in a related vein can be viewed at OnePeterFive here). “It’s Okay With Father” cannot legitimate irreverent praxis.
We seem to be running out of options, but let’s attempt another:
7. My Theology Forbids It
A good Catholic education may certainly prove helpful in addressing an irreverent practice. However, philosophically and theologically creative minds (read: sophists) might marshal any host of justifications for irreverent liturgical practices – indeed, this has been the sad legacy of the past fifty years. Yet still, we feel that something is wrong, even gravely so. “It Can Be Explained Theologically” cannot legitimate irreverent praxis.
What, then, are we left with?
Ah yes, the old holdout:
8. My Conscience Forbids It
But alas, the trump card of conscience gets us no further than a personal justification to “shop elsewhere” when it comes to liturgy. We may feel that a certain practice is irreverent, but there are others who feel differently, no? Other consciences are involved, other needs, other (more prayerful? better-formed?) opinions… and if these inveigh against us, it seems we are left with no discernibly objective answer to the problem of irreverent praxis, other than the relativist’s favorite aphorism: “It’s wrong for me, but right for you.” Such a position does legitimate irreverent praxis.
Or rather, it eviscerates the notion of reverence altogether, supplanting it with the tenets of Modernism (see Pope St. Pius X’s rigorous exposition and condemnation of that heresy here) tending finally to religious indifferentism: Reverence is what we make it, because religion is what we make it, and it’s all good.
Thus it would appear that there’s nothing to say a given practice must not be done in liturgy; indeed, any number of irreverent practices could be applauded, like the Hindu idol processed into a Catholic Marian shrine earlier this year, or the inclusion of pagan ritual elements at Masses in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. It should be evident by now that the engagement of “irreverences” in the NO, when limited to the above lines of argumentation, must always reduce to one of two options:
“Liturgical positivism”: it’s only wrong if current authority clearly forbids it
– OR –
“Liturgical preference”: it may be wrong for some people, but not for all
In our contemporary Western milieu, awash in consumerism, individualism, relativism, etc., we submit that most good Catholics today are laboring under this second mindset of liturgical preference, albeit perhaps with some sense of its insufficiency as a principle, especially the very devout: “There’s got to be more!”
There is. Deo gratias.
First, note how neither of these two positions admit of a practice being “wrong, period,” wrong in its very nature, wrong in its object (The work of John Paul II on objective moral norms is worth the lengthy read here); yet we find this to be a real possibility even in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, as it mentions the objective evils of blasphemy and sacrilege, among others (cf. n. 1756, 2120).
“But how?” splutters the good Catholic forced to sit through too many tambourine Masses, “How can I claim that something is irreverent in a given Mass, even a sacrilege? I’ve tried all of the arguments above, and none of them seem to bear it out… some people just think differently, there’s no arguing taste, and even if I think a certain practice is bad, what can I do about it if others disagree?”
Without doubt, one of the saddest aspects of the liturgical devolution since Vatican II is this: We “Catholics in the pew” have almost entirely lost any standard of measurement when it comes to the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, precisely as a result of the proliferation of worship options; not only from the dizzying options built into the NO itself* but also in the bare fact of having this schizophrenic “two forms of the same rite” available, we have lost any ready means for comparison, any concept of what right worship is or ought be. We are (often literally) totally disoriented, “lacking an East.” We may feel that a given practice is an “abuse” – but an abuse of what?
We return, then, to the original question:
If a practice occurs in the NO Mass that we believe is irreverent, upon what can we base this evaluation?
We need a Catholic measuring stick, a norm, a way out of this disorientation.
That measuring stick is tradition.
*A brief word on “options” in the NO: Among numerous examples of the truly impious handling to which the prayers of the TLM were submitted during the creation of the NO, doubtless one of the most tragic is the fate of the Roman Canon.
Although the Roman Canon well predates the sixth century (a number of Church Fathers held that it was given verbatim by Christ to the Apostles), it was clearly fixed by the time of Pope Saint Gregory the Great in 590, left untouched in its original Latin for a millennium, enshrined at the Council of Trent as “so pure from every error that nothing is contained therein which does not in the highest degree savour of a certain holiness and piety, and raise unto God the minds of those that offer,” unaltered over centuries of devout use, and is still prayed at every TLM.
Yet the Consilium architects of the New Mass – first attempting to excise the Canon completely – sidestepped it in the NO by introducing a host of options for the Eucharistic Prayer (as of the 2011 English edition there are ten, down from the earlier thirteen). Infamous now is the account of how one such option (Eucharistic Prayer II) was cobbled together in a single night at an Italian diner, by two Consilium members who were late for a submission deadline. I hope the coffee was good.
Here’s a concluding excerpt from another NO Eucharistic Prayer; one that may bring back cringing memories from Catholic gradeschool days:
…God our Father, you have brought us here together so that we can give you thanks and praise for all the wonderful things you have done. We thank you for all that is beautiful in the world and for the happiness you have given us. We praise you for daylight and for your word which lights up our minds. We praise you for the earth, and all the people who live on it, and for our life which comes from you. We know that you are good. You love us and do great things for us. So we all sing/say together: Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might, heaven and earth are full of your glory. Hosanna in the highest… (EP I for Children)
This! After the “highest degree of holiness and piety”!