An Orwellian Reform of Worship: “We Have Always Been at War With Liturgica”


“October 18th was a memorable day in the long history of the Roman Church. On that day, fifty years ago, Pope Paul VI celebrated Mass according to the unique rites of the papacy for the very last time. Papal Mass, which synthesized the primitive Roman tradition with the international Gallican praxis, remained virtually unchanged since the age of St. Gregory VII. With a stroke of the pen on September 28th, 1964, Pope Paul, through Inter oecumenici, outdated the form of Mass Abbé Franck Quoex called the standard of the Roman tradition.” 

— “A Belated Anniversary: The Last Papal Mass

“You know then how to discern the face of the sky: and can you not know the signs of the times?”

— Matthew 16:3

Here’s a glimpse of the Papal Mass mentioned above:

last papal mass canonization Offerings

And another:

last papal mass altar


I would ask you to keep those images in the back of your mind as my argument proceeds.

The first point to be noted is that Holy Mother Church has the authority to modify aspects of the liturgy. According to the Council of Trent (Session XXII chapters iv and v):

[S]ince it is becoming that holy things be administered in a holy manner, … the Catholic Church … instituted many centuries ago the holy canon, which is so free from error that it contains nothing that does not in the highest degree savor of a certain holiness and piety and raise up to God the minds of those who offer. For it consists partly of the very words of the Lord, partly of the traditions of the Apostles, and also of pious regulations of holy pontiffs.

And since [man] cannot without external means be raised easily to meditation on divine things, holy mother Church has instituted certain rites … [and has,] in accordance with apostolic discipline and tradition, made use of ceremonies … whereby both the majesty of so great a sacrifice might be emphasized and the minds of the faithful excited by those visible signs of religion and piety to the contemplation of those most sublime things which are hidden in this sacrifice.

Even more pointedly, in Canon vii the Council declares:

If anyone says that the ceremonies, vestments, and outward signs which the Catholic Church uses in the celebration of masses, are incentives to impiety rather than stimulants to piety, let him be anathema.

There is no evidence that the respect owed to the Church concerning the administration of her worship ceased to be binding some time after Trent.

As such, the basis of the so-called “liturgy wars” is not so much canonical as it is semiotic. Semiotics is the formal study of signs meaning, language, and their correlations. It’s a broad field, because almost everything in life is a sign. Catholicism is a profoundly semiotic religion. The Creation is a sign of God’s power and wisdom. The miracles which Christ performed were unique “signs” of God’s will. Above all, Our Lord’s death upon the Cross as Calvary was a sign of God’s boundless love for all of fallen humanity. In turn, it was from His pierced side that the Sacraments flowed as outward and visible signs instituted by Christ to give grace.

As for the celebration and protection of the Sacraments, the universality and clarity of Latin is a sign of the Church’s unity and sagacity, while again the harmony of her liturgical forms is a witness of her beauty and sanity. (I leave it as an exercise to the reader to imagine what message the deterioration of those liturgical signs sends about the Church.) Being Catholic means taking signs very seriously. Therefore, I propose that the “liturgy wars” avoid focusing so much on canonical and dogmatic disputes about the liturgical reforms wrought by the Second Vatican Council, in favor of discussing the semiotic impact of that Council.

Any honest observer would agree that the Conciliar reforms were implemented extremely poorly. What is harder to admit is that, even prior to their botched implementation, the reforms themselves rested on conceptually shaky ground. This is because the reforms were drafted in a compromised way because the Council Fathers too often deferred to the overweening zeal of the periti (i.e., theological experts) that they had invited. As Douglas Woodruff reported on November 27, 1965, “[I]n a sense this Council has been the Council of the periti, silent in the aula but so effective in the commissions and at the bishops’ ears.”[1] Likewise, as John Cardinal Heenan explained about the Council proceedings, “A determined group could [easyazon_link asin=”0895551861″ locale=”US” new_window=”default” nofollow=”default” tag=”onep073-20″]wear down opposition[/easyazon_link] and produce a formula patient of both an orthodox and modernistic interpretation.”[2]

Rahner & Ratzinger

Frs. Karl Rahner and Joseph Ratzinger, whose choice in clothing sent signals of its own to a watching world.

Inverting ecclesial authority in that way was a powerful sign not only that things in the Catholic Church were in for big changes, but also that Big Changes were now a perfectly acceptable principle in the Catholic life. Thus Vatican II signaled as much a liturgical as a semiotic revolution in the Church. The long-term victory for pertinaciously progressive periti was not the content of the reforms as much as it was the signal that had been sent about how ecclesial authority may be manipulated and/or snubbed. By deferentially compromising their right authority–even if only by telegraphing that it was on an equal footing with “the experts”–the Fathers of Vatican II established a dangerous precedent that the tail of theological research and physical science wags the dog of the Church’s judgments on Apostolic Tradition and right order.

If, by a welter of compromising and confusing signs, you can convince The People that the liturgy is just Pastoral Play-Doh, you can not only do with that original organ of orthodoxy what you like, convincing the masses that messed-up and mismatched Masses are better than “the old ways.” As Dom Gregory Murray, O.S.B., put it, “The pleas that the laity as a body do not want liturgical change, whether in rite or in language, is, I submit, quite beside the point. … [It is] not a question of what people want; it is a question of what is good for them.”[3] 

Although it may sound cliche, Murray’s candid assessment of liturgical hope and change betrays an Orwellian disdain for “the masses” for the higher good of the party cause. In George Orwell’s famous novel, 1984, the expression “We have always been at war with Eurasia” is a slogan deployed to rally the populace behind the endless war effort. Anyone who challenged the centrality of the political party/war-engine–or even merely tried to maintain or revive cultural traditions from before the rise of the party–was condemned as an enemy of the state. In Orwell’s dystopia, language was subjected to a relentless cleansing and distorting process in order to maintain unified submission from the populace, which amounted to a form of semiotic mass hypnotism.

Hence, while the liturgy, among other things in the Church, admits of development and alteration, once we shift from tolerating such changes to promoting them, the Magisterium finds itself in a death struggle with the Orwellian temptation. To extend the metaphor, asserting that the imaginary country called “Liturgica” — which represents the Church’s longstanding liturgy and discipline — has always been a source of chaos and constant change is not merely false: it is a species of temporal totalitarianism I label Liturgical Modernism.

Viewed in this broader perspective, it was not merely the authority of bishops which was undermined by the proceedings at Vatican II — whereby the Council Fathers were hoist by their own petard — but also the legitimate scope of the sensus fidelium. Liturgy is the grammar of the Church; it is that abiding semiotic structure which enables the diverse members to communicate as one. If this universal grammar is subjected to rapid change and provincial pluralization, the only result can be the internecine chaos and vernacular estrangement that befell the Tower of Babel.

If in the new semiotic age in the Church, what mattered most was getting the backing of the leading experts, in order to effect the best pastoral adaptations on an ongoing basis, then it could only follow that life in the average parish and diocese would become as ideologically contested as in a series of ongoing political elections. Once the bishops are perceived as the administrators of an Expertise Oligarchy, mob rule among the faithful is all but inevitable. Call it “pew warfare.”


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In any event, to return to the idea of how reforms operate as signs, I was recently in a discussion where I proposed an analogy about the significance of the introduction of the Novus Ordo Missae in 1969: “The 1996 Romeo + Juliet is to Shakespeare’s original script what the Novus Ordo is to the Vetus Ordo.”

My off-the-cuff proposal fomented some interesting replies. (Be warned: my friends’ parents weren’t very creative.)*

Friend A said, “No discussion. Fact.”

Friend B added, “My wife’s analogy was the comparison of Hallmark greeting cards to Shakespeare works.”

Then Friend C: “It’s a reboot that sought to become mainstream and alienated the original fan base instead.” “Kind of like how George Lucas superimposed all that treacly CGI on the reissued Star Wars trilogy,” I asked C.

Lastly, another friend recommended some remarks made by Frank Schaeffer, himself no friend of Catholicism, on the authenticity of liturgy as opposed to the opportunism of liturgical latitudinarianism–which is to say, on the too often ignored gravity of signs in proclaiming and maintaining the integrity of the Gospel. Schaeffer’s key points last from about 28:00 until 34:00.


“I guess it’s better to read … Hamlet as retold by some second-rate educator than not at all.”

And then I had an epiphany:

Semiotic Seismology: How To Explain The Liturgical Revolution (or, Pontifical Perestroika) In Two Pictures

1) Semiotically, Vatican II has brought us from this:

Fistula 2The last papal Mass according to the old rite. Pope Paul VI receives the Precious Blood through a golden straw called a “fistula”.

2) To this:

Pope Francis drinks Mate from a silver straw offered by someone in The Crowd. (He is fond of sharing mate and other drinks with Evangelicals, his unprecedented sense of pontifical unity with whom is expressed in this remarkable address to the Ark Community.)


The contrast could not be clearer.

A generation ago it was the hallmark of the papacy to express the pinnacle of liturgical worship and Eucharistic piety, whereas now the trademark of a good pope is to be seen as a man among other men.

Viewed through this semiotic lens, the dawn of The Conciliar Age signaled the subtle shift the Magisterium has made from being a reporter of the dogmatic news to being a maker of it, from being a stolid pastor to being an “attractive” media presence among other such entities. Insofar as it seemed that Catholicism was not “trending” in the eyes of a secular audience, They thought, it would be more “effective” (and certainly more “pastoral”) to tailor the Catholic “news feed” to the tastes and “needs” of the contemporary audience. (That’s What The Experts Say!) Tethering the pillar of truth (1 Timothy 3:15) to the relentless engine of untruth known as The World necessarily means that the pillars will be shaken and weakened as at the hands of a chained and blinded Samson.

Stat crux dum volvitur orbis — or is it now the other way around, semiotically speaking?

After all, according to Pope Francis, God is “a God of surprises” who is “not afraid of change.”

How far we have come in this respect is clear in light of these words by John Henry Newman:

[I]t is one of the reproaches urged against the Church of Rome, that it has originated nothing, and has only served as a sort of remora or break in the development of doctrine. And it is an objection which I embrace as a truth; for such I conceive to be the main purpose of its extraordinary gift.

Well, that was then, I guess.

This Is Now.

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If anyone seriously looks into the Church’s (Roman) liturgical tradition, and then compares it to the liturgical jalopy that the Vatican II Fathers (unwittingly? haplessly? innocently?) valorized, the latter comes off looking very poorly indeed. Metaphors and semiotic mashups are well and good, but is there any substance to the idea that the Reformist Agenda genuinely results in the cheapening and fragmentation of the Church’s first witness (i.e. her liturgy)?

I think there is.

In spades.

Consider was Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger said in his 1998 autobiography:

I am convinced that the crisis in the Church that we are experiencing is to a large extent due to the disintegration of the liturgy … when the community of faith, the worldwide unity of the Church and her history, and the mystery of the living Christ are no longer visible in the liturgy, where else, then, is the Church to become visible in her spiritual essence? Then the community is celebrating only itself, an activity that is utterly fruitless.[4]

The diagnosis is disturbing enough, but what of the etiology?

In article 21 of Sacrosanctum Concilium, we read that “the liturgy is made up of unchangeable elements divinely instituted and elements subject to change.” As Michael Davies notes, “This is perfectly correct–but it does not follow that, because certain elements could be changed, they ought to be changed. The entire liturgical tradition of the Roman rite contradicts such an assertion.”[5]

Davies explains:

[SC] takes a different view, so startling and unprecedented a break with tradition that it seems scarcely credible that the Council Fathers voted for it. Article 21 states that elements which are subject to change ‘not only may but ought to be changed with the passing of time if features have by chance crept in which are less harmonious with the intimate nature of the liturgy, or if existing elements have grown less functional.’ These norms are so vague that the scope for interpreting them is virtually limitless.[6]

Again, in the same vein Davies writes (emphasis added):

In September 1968 the bulletin of the Archdiocese of Paris, Présence et Dialogue, called for a permanent revolution in these words: ‘It is no longer possible, in a period when the world is developing so rapidly, to consider rites as definitively fixed once and for all. They need to be regularly revised.’ … Once the logic of Article 21 is accepted, there can be no alternative to a permanently evolving liturgy.[7]

I have heard claims from some Catholics that Vatican II introduced something they colloquially term, “Novusordoism.” Some have gone so far as to assert that this tertium quid — neither simple anti-Catholicism nor meat-and-potatoes Catholic orthodoxy — is a different religion. I am not prepared to go that far, but I will offer my “anti-Novusordoist” friends a sympathetic analogy:

The letters “i-m-p-o-r-t” can be pronounced in two ways, either as the verb “imPORT” or as a noun, “IMport.” Materially and verbally they appear to be the same thing; yet functionally and semiotically they are two different kinds of things. So, while I will not say that Vatican II spawned a new “Novusordoist” religion, I grant this much: as Davies demonstrates, the logic driving those at the Council who agitated most vigorously for the reforms betrays a fundamentally different semiotic account of what the liturgy is — and, by extension, Catholic Tradition as a whole.

In the classical mind of the Church, the liturgy functions as a noun; it has substance, staying power, and permanence. By contrast, in the mind of the agents of change — those hoary Liturgical Modernists — who wormed their ideas into the conciliar texts, the liturgy functions as a verb; it is something that is never settled, never quite fixed, always restless, and perhaps always in need of new thrills. In that sense, therefore, I grant that there is a ‘thing’ called “Novusordoism” which has befogged the mind of far too many in the Church for far too long.

The takeaway is that, while we must submit to the Magisterium as the chief mouthpiece of the mind of the Church and as the supreme authority in matters of faith, morals, and discipline — and, of course, must accept all things in the spirit of Romans 8:28 — we are still well within our rights to complain to our Heavenly Father and His Son’s Vicar that the liturgical licence is too damn high, that we are tired of the liturgical schizophrenia which the Novus Ordo/Vetus Ordo cleft propagates, and that we prefer the original Shakespeare to any inferior adaptation.

Let there be peace in Liturgica at last!

Liturgical Modernism must die!

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[1] The Tablet, p. 1318 (as cited in  Michael Davies, Liturgical Time Bombs in Vatican II [Rockford, IL: TAN Books, 2004], p. 24).

[2] The Tablet, May 18, 1968 (as cited in loc. cit.).

[3] The Tablet, March 14, 1964, p. 303 (as cited in op. cit. p. 38).

[4] Milestones (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1998), pp. 148-149 (as cited in op. cit. p. 37).

[5]  Liturgical Time Bombs in Vatican II, (Rockford, IL: TAN Books, 2003), p. 42.

[6]  Loc. cit.

[7]  Ibid., p. 44.

* Perhaps you have your own analogy; I’d love to hear it.

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