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An Anti-Traditionalist Rants—and a Traditionalist Responds

I once received a humdinger of a piece of anti-fan mail from a lady in Europe who was quite incensed by the lecture at Steubenville that became chapter 1 of my book Noble Beauty, Transcendent Holiness. Recently re-reading it, I thought it might be interesting to share what she wrote, and then my response to her. For what it’s worth…

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Dear Dr. Kwasniewski,

If you want to recycle the claim, admittedly put about by Cardinal Ratzinger, that the new Mass was created by a committee, then you need to think through what he meant. All rites of Mass, in the end, have to pass through committees in Rome before they get an approbation! If you read Buginini, whom you did not mention, or Lauren Pristas, who has published extensively on the Collects and proves they were brought out of the riches of the old liturgies, not created out of thin air, the claim can no longer be seriously maintained that the Church produced a “botched” rite. You recycle old canards instead of submitting them to critical scrutiny.

The received wisdom is that the liturgy reflected the turmoil in the world in 1968. Things have changed since then. The liturgy has settled down. I am an example of someone who fell in love with the old rite in 1997 but finds prayerful Catholics, prayerful priests, and devout liturgies throughout the world as I travel. Your caricature of the Novus Ordo cannot be found in churches in the real world. It is part of a mythology in the service of quasi-schism. The problem is not the Mass; the problem is poorly educated Catholics, out of their depth about their duties. We need arguments about truth, the nature of God, why Christ loves us, etc.! Stealing people for these minority pressure groups may, in some cases, be a way forward, but you err wholly in implying, if not stating, that the old rite per se or alone can supplement for the real work, which is setting a good example everywhere I go. That, too, was the Council. How else can we turn the statistics round if Catholics only want to operate in enclaves where everybody agrees with one another? The point is to move out and on and get onto the streets where the problems are.

Pope Francis has moved the conversation forward. It is about works—who is an authentic Christian in the sacrifices they make for others? The reason why non-Christians or lapsed Christians love this pope is because they know he is getting at the heart of the Gospel. He comes to the aid of people in need.

In order to sustain your insinuations you have to bracket out the fact that many of the new movements like Emmanuel—in every country of the world, and much more full of young people than the old rite Masses I attend—have contemporary music for all the sections of the Masses. These are prayerful, moving, and appealing to the next generation, in far more serious numbers than anything done with the old rite. One does not have to have Gregorian chant to be transported. Your definition of beauty is narrow. Your definition of tradition is narrow. The Church is always of its day as well as for eternity, otherwise we would all have to hate Tiepolo and cling to Fra Angelico.

All blessings for your future.

Yours sincerely,


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Dear N.,

I think there may be some fundamental misunderstandings in your reactions to my lecture.

The liturgy reaches us by being handed down with veneration and received with trepidation. Yes, it can be elaborated, augmented, and refined, and very occasionally pruned, but it has never been a committee product. A committee advised St. Pius V, but the missal he promulgated was, in all essentials, that which the church in Rome had long been celebrating. Sequences were removed and the calendar was simplified. This is like a gardener clipping off a few branches of an already mature tree.

What happened in the 1960s under the Consilium, on the other hand, had absolutely no historical precedent in either its scope or its outcomes. Anyone who has studied the history of the liturgy seriously cannot dispute this point for a moment. Dr. Lauren Pristas herself establishes it in her book on the Collects. Who cares if the revisers plied their scissors and paste on old liturgical codices? What they did was artificial and egotistical. They had no trust or love for the inherited rites. It’s as if the gardener cut down half the tree, spliced in several other species of trees, injected genetically modified cells, and painted the trunk a different color.

The crisis in the liturgy is caused by an Enlightenment rejection of the inherent authority of tradition over our minds. We want to be the creators and judges of tradition, which we are not and never will be. We can either humbly and gratefully receive it, or arrogantly assert control and mastery over it. Our attitude must be either Aquinas’s or Descartes’s. Even the reform-minded Louis Bouyer came to see this point before his death, and regretted the devastation that had been wrought in the name of “pastoral liturgy.” In his Memoirs, he refers to the Consilium’s work as “the abortus we brought forth” (Angelico ed., p. 224). In that sense, the problem is the Mass, not to mention the rest of the revised sacramental rites, the Liturgy of the Hours, the “Book of Blessings,” the Rite of Exorcism, and whatever other products have rolled off the assembly line.

You speak of the liturgy as having “settled down.” This indeed it has done—into a routine of mediocrity, banality, and superficiality. If you have only ever found devout people led by priests who reverently celebrate the sacred mysteries, your travels have been fortunate indeed. Perhaps you need to travel some more in the United States, South America, and other places where liturgical abuses have become institutionalized and clergy can be persecuted if they challenge the status quo.

Yes, of course the Novus Ordo can be celebrated “well,” in a hermeneutic of continuity: one might think of the Oratory in London or in Oxford. But an approach that is completely faithful even to Vatican II’s Sacrosanctum Concilium is as rare as an error-free airplane interview with Pope Francis. Besides, the problems with the Novus Ordo go much deeper than that. It seems odd to speak of “recycling” old canards, when my position, like that of many who came before me (Michael Davies, Klaus Gamber, László Dobszay) is based on a close study of the violence visited upon the Roman liturgy by self-styled reformers in the grip of ideologies that prejudiced them against nearly everything medieval and Baroque. Evidently they did not agree with Pope Pius XII that the slow development of the Church’s liturgy over time was part of the Church’s being led “into the fullness of truth” by the Holy Spirit, as Jesus promised.

In addition to whatever good qualities he may have, Pope Francis has brought confusion and anguish. Whether he intends it or not, he has been undermining much of the good accomplished by John Paul II and Benedict XVI. It goes without saying that I pray for him every day, as every Catholic should. Nevertheless, in a time of crisis, I say let there be a good fight, as there was during the early Christological and Trinitarian controversies, in the iconoclast period, at the time of the Reformation, or in the early twentieth century against Modernism. Indifference, lukewarmness, and false peace are the bane of the Church in every age, but especially ours.

I am familiar with the “new movements”—I have had personal and positive experiences with several of them—yet I believe that they would bear more and better fruit if they rediscovered Catholic Tradition, as Bishop Marc Aillet and other members of the hierarchy have suggested. We find vitality here and there because God will never let His Church perish. But, like a genetic defect that causes deformities in an otherwise healthy organism, there are human errors mixed in with these movements that have caused and will cause a greater or lesser number of aberrations. The Neocatechumenal Way comes to mind as an example of a movement characterized by profound theological deviations and liturgical distortions.

In regard to music, it seems that you have a difficulty not with me but with the Magisterium of the Church, which repeats dozens of times, often quite emphatically, that Gregorian chant, as the music proper to the Roman liturgy, should have the chief place (principem locum), and that the pipe organ is the sacred instrument par excellence. Naturally, the majority of Catholics ignore such things, just as they ignore the teaching on contraception, on the non-ordainability of women, on the evil of usury, or on the social kingship of Our Lord Jesus Christ.

The Lord bestowed on you a special grace when He led you to discover the riches of the Church’s traditional liturgy. There is no need to attack those who are explaining, promoting, and defending that immense liturgical treasury against the barbarians and mad scientists of our era.

Cordially in Christ,

Peter Kwasniewski

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