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Are Faithful Catholics Allowed to Question the Liturgical Reform?—A Dialogue

William: My good fellow, I simply can’t go along with your position that the Novus Ordo is inherently defective. A pope could never promulgate a liturgy that was harmful to the faithful.

Terence: Bill, you amaze me! What prevents you from seeing what seems an obvious fact to me and so many other Catholics? Of course a pope can do that, because Paul VI did it in spades, and here we are, wallowing in the mess. The mess is all around us, in the countless boring and banal, if not irreverent and sacrilegious liturgies celebrated every day.

William: That’s only because of the way people have chosen to celebrate it, Terry. There’s nothing wrong with the liturgy in itself—nor could there be. Blame the driver, don’t blame the car!

Terence: Let’s try to step back. Your hesitations proceed, if I’m not mistaken, from an underlying anxiety about what the fallout would be, if one admitted that it had been a mistake for Paul VI to promulgate a new Order of Mass (and a new order of everything he could get his hands on). What would happen to the life or duties of Catholics if one believed that the new liturgy was a deviation, a dead end; that the traditional liturgy preceding it was fundamentally sound and already capable of meeting the needs of ‘modern man’; and that one ought to embrace it again, as much as one could?

William: Yes, quite so. Now that you say it, I believe that the fallout would be considerable. I don’t think we could trust the pope with anything, if we can’t trust him with the liturgy. It might undermine the whole system of Catholic belief and practice.

Terence: It may surprise you to hear that I can’t see any significant fallout for me. Thinking as I do about the liturgical reform, I still profess the Creed and accept all the defined dogmas and morals clearly taught by the Church. I strive to pattern my life after the lives of Our Lord, His Mother, and the long line of saints. I receive and pass on the teaching contained in the authoritative catechisms. I worship God within the apostolic tradition that the Church has handed down in its integrity, as the primary source of her sanctity. Really, the only difference between me and a Catholic of a century ago is that it was easier for him to have access to these things, whereas I must seek them out with determination, in the teeth of the ignorance, error, hostility, and indifference of clergy and laity alike.

William: That’s rather strongly put, but I suppose it makes you not very much different from a sincere Catholic of the Reformation period, living amidst ecclesiastical corruption and doctrinal confusion, working hard to know your faith and live according to it.

Terence: Exactly. Does this mean that I am on a trajectory towards repudiating the office of the papacy or its ultimate authority to define or adjudicate matters of faith or morals? Far from it.

William: Then how do you make sense out of the enormous lapse in papal prudence demanded by your position? Wouldn’t it undermine the reverence we owe the pope, and the confidence we place in him?

Terence: Here we get to the nub of the question. The papal office does not in principle exclude grievous flaws in the prudential order and in matters of non-definitive teaching. Such flaws may include the imprudent approval of a liturgical or sacramental rite defective in its secondary elements (that is, not in its form and matter), which are liable to occasion an inadequate or faulty understanding of the mysteries with which it deals. Scripture, Tradition, and Magisterium have never told us that this is impossible; it is not ruled out by the doctrine of papal infallibility as defined by Vatican I; therefore it is possible.

William: I would need to study Vatican I more carefully to assess your claim.

Terence: In addition to what the Magisterium itself says about its own conditions and limitations, we are also supposed to take seriously the evidence of our reason, our senses, our wits. God is the author of nature as much as He is the author of the supernatural. When we can see a disaster, we are to accept it as a disaster, and react accordingly.

William: I will stick with my usual line: if a layman or cleric comes away from the new liturgy with a misunderstanding about faith or morals, it is his own fault, since it was not required of him that he misunderstand anything—as would occur with an explicitly heretical liturgy like that of the Calvinists.

Terence: That’s not convincing, because the competent authority has a duty to provide such aids to understanding as human nature requires, and to avoid, as much as possible, anything that might readily suggest a false understanding. If vast numbers misunderstand what they have been given, there is a problem in the thing that was given, and the blame for this problem falls squarely on the one who gave it.

William: Be patient with me, as I’m still learning about the ins and outs of this debate. Could you offer some examples?

Terence: The Novus Ordo removes traditional aids to understanding and worshiping rightly—this, after all, is what orthodoxy means: right doctrine and right worship, inseparably—and includes antiquarian or novel elements that suggest a false understanding of the Mass—for example, anachronistically returning to ancient Eucharistic practices that, coming after the development of medieval piety whose effects extended right into the modern world, had and could only have had a modernist inflection and the result of a weakening of faith in the Real Presence. Moreover, the dubious or explicitly modernist opinions of the new liturgy’s compilers are well documented, which establishes that the very ones who put it together intended to remove certain aids and introduce certain novelties.

William: That’s pretty damning, if it’s true.

Terence: It’s well documented by the very people who revised the liturgy in the sixties and seventies.

William: All right, you’ll have to show me some of those sources later. But let’s assume you are right about what the reformers intended to do. How does this implicate the pope?

Terence: Can we get away with saying that a pope who patronizes such a product—a product of questionable theories, suspicious innovations, and manifest departures from the general consensus of the Council Fathers as documented in Sacrosanctum Concilium—and then promulgates it for the Church of the Latin Rite is not, in a real sense, responsible for the deleterious effects that this new liturgy has had on the faithful? Can we say that he is not, in any way, answerable for its defects?

William: I don’t see how we could.

Terence: Both natural reason and the judgment of faith would resoundingly answer No. This pope, Montini by name, is responsible for the evil of rupture; he is answerable for each and every one of the numberless abuses of the rite he promulgated, because in the manner of its redaction as well as in the manner of its very existence and operation, it departs from the sure path of tradition and opens the way to false inculturation, pluralism without end, and celebratory individualism, egoism, and narcissism.

William: I’m uncomfortable with where you’re going, but it’s hard for me to deny it. The pope is responsible for what he promulgates—and if its flaws are built in, so to speak, then he is as much their author as Bugnini or any other member of the Consilium. Or rather, he is even more their author, because he formally adopts the work as his own when he puts it forward authoritatively under his name.

Terence: You’ve got it.

William: But why are you so sure that the results of the reform have been uniformly bad?

Terence: I don’t need to say all bad; just mostly bad. Can anyone seriously doubt that the new liturgy has had the most deleterious effects since its coercive introduction almost half a century ago? Quite apart from the statistics about rapid and devastating declines in Mass attendance throughout the Catholic world (a trend that began in the first fervor of liturgical experimentation in the 1960s and continues to this day, as the relentless closing of churches reminds us), there has been massive confusion about what the Mass is, and whether the Lord is truly present in the Eucharist, and how the priest at the altar differs from the layman, and other basics (basics!) of the Catholic Faith—even among those Catholics who still attend Mass and who are polled with simple questions that a first communion candidate in the 1950s could have answered with ease. Above all, one dare not ask Catholics whether the Mass is a sacrifice. Almost the only ones who will answer “yes” and could offer a simple explanation of their answer are Catholics who attend Mass with the Ecclesia Dei communities, the SSPX, and those few dozen parishes worldwide that have a sound liturgical life.

William: Surely, many if not most of these problems take us back to wayward implementation, bad preaching, and the lack of good Catholic schools?

Terence: You are conveniently sidestepping the fact that the new Mass itself was everywhere perceived as inviting and even requiring a tradition-lite, improvisatory instantiation with storytelling preaching, and that nothing substantive was ever done to prevent this from happening.

William: But there have been so many Vatican documents…

Terence: Oh, don’t start on that! The endless stream of toothless documents, a mountain of inefficacious verbiage, is a sad testimony to the utter failure of genuine pastoral governance—ironic in an age that has adopted the word “pastoral” for its special descriptor. If there was a genuine desire to restore sacrality, reverence, beauty, solemnity, seriousness, good music, and so forth to the liturgy, it would all have come long ago. It has not and never will, because the Novus Ordo isn’t fundamentally, inflexibly, dogmatically committed to the traditional vision of worship, and neither are the popes or bishops who support it.

William: So you think that the Novus Ordo is doomed to fail—that it cannot be turned right?

Terence: There’s no reason to beat around the bush: the simple act of jettisoning the inherited liturgy, which was beloved across the ages and across the globe, and the imposition of a massively different neo-liturgy on a body of faithful that was not asking for such a change, more than adequately explains why it was not blessed by God with the fruitfulness characteristic of the one true Church or the universal acceptance expected for a papal act.

William: Say more what you mean.

Terence: Its bad fruits were immediately apparent, and its lack of acceptance by certain members of the laity and clergy was a poignant sign that something had gone seriously wrong—a sign that has not diminished but grown in the subsequent decades, down to the present. Except in places that had a longstanding rite of their own and held on to it through thick and thin, the Tridentine liturgy was accepted throughout the Catholic world with ever-increasing unanimity. In stark contrast, the new rite of Paul VI generated controversy from the start. It was called into question and resisted by a not inconsiderable number of Catholics, both famous and obscure, in different parts of the world, and never won over everyone for whom it was intended. Each year that passes, more Catholics around the world effectively reject this botched reform in its totality, as they seek to return to the blessings of traditional worship. There has never been anything like it in Church history. That should tell us something about the limits of anyone’s ability—be he the undisputed ruler of the known world, or the plenipotent pope of Rome—to dictate to reality how it must be!

William: You are evidently not of the opinion of certain bloggers who think that traditionalism is a short-lived flash-in-the-pan, destined to go the way of Amish irrelevance…

Terence: Leaving aside the fascinating question of how irrelevant the Amish actually are when compared with the last gasps of mainline Protestantism, yes, I don’t share those excessively optimistic views. Despite the vain wishes of its fabricators, the Novus Ordo Missae is never going to be able to establish itself as the only form of the Roman Rite. Communities centered around the traditional Mass are yielding a disproportionately large harvest of priestly and religious vocations,[1] arising from their consistently larger and better-catechized families.

William: You have to admit, though, that Pope Francis and his supporters around the world are doing their level best to stamp out the traditionalists.

Terence: When traditional Catholics are persecuted, as they have been during this pontificate, they do not give up or go away. If the blood of martyrs is the seed of Christianity, something analogous is true of the thrusting aside of traditionalists, which only increases their intense work and prayer for the true reform of the Church, and confirms their assessment of the fundamentally modernist orientation of their enemies, which is not hard to prove in any case.

William: Don’t you think there is a danger of traditionalists developing a martyr complex, and thinking themselves better or more right just because they are in trouble?

Terence: The fact that traditionalists are seen and treated as worse than all other heretics or schismatics because they believe and pass on what every Catholic used to believe for centuries is a glowing sign that they are on the right path, the narrow path that leads to renewal. Renewal always comes from absolute conviction, from total commitment to the truth of divine revelation in the Church. If we look at reform movements, we can see that this is always the work of a few, not of the many. The many are too comfortable in their positions of power or their assumptions about “the way things are.” The few see things differently, envision something better. It is a privilege to suffer as a Catholic from the assaults of Catholics; it is a privilege to suffer for Jesus Christ and the Faith of our fathers instead of giving way to the ersatz peddled by the old boys’ club.

William: We seem to have gone rather far afield from our original question. Do you mind if I come back to it?

Terence: Not at all.

William: Here is what I am committed to saying at all costs. The pope, when promulgating a liturgy, cannot promulgate a sacramentally invalid liturgy or one that contains positive error in faith or morals.

Terence: That’s all your position boils down to? Then there’s no disagreement between us.

William: You have to say more, Terry. Don’t leave me hanging.

Terence: I don’t know whether to call it a matter of faith or a conclusion deducible from a matter of faith, but I am convinced—and I believe that traditionalists in general would agree—that the pope cannot promulgate an invalid liturgy or one that contains positive error in faith or morals. Unpacked, this claim means that any papally-promulgated sacramental rite will contain at least the form and matter required for the completion of that sacrament, and that one would not be able to establish that it expressly denies any article of faith or asserts claims that could only be construed as heretical.

William: So far, so good.

Terence: It does not follow, however, that the whole content of the Catholic Faith would have to be found in a papally-promulgated rite. There is no reason it could not give a gravely inadequate expression to certain doctrines, or contain ambiguities susceptible to heretical interpretation. On the contrary, a valid rite could be defective in expressing the dogmatic and moral content of the Faith, and superficial or ambiguous enough to make heretical interpretation not only possible but probable. It could, in addition, allow or prompt a lack of due devotion, deficient reverence, and even sacrilege.

William: Once again, examples would help. What kind of defects are you referring to?

Terence: One example would be the deliberate omission[2] throughout the Novus Ordo of 1 Corinthians 11:27–29, where unworthy Eucharistic communion is sternly warned against. This is no minor point of doctrine, given that both Scripture and the liturgy connect unworthy reception with the soul’s eternal damnation!

William: I see your point, and concede it.

Terence: Some ultramontanists claim far more than you and I are claiming. For instance, they say that a papally promulgated liturgy is necessarily well-ordered; that it necessarily promotes the good of the Church as a whole; that it is incapable of having deleterious effects on the body of the faithful due to omissions, ambiguities, additions, or other modifications. I’m sorry to have to puncture their pretty balloons, but there is absolutely no way to prove such claims, quite apart from the difficulty of sustaining them in the face of mountains of contrary evidence. Claims of this nature are absurdly overstated and make a mockery of the Catholic doctrine of the papacy itself.

William: Let me summarize, to make sure I understand. The Catholic traditionalist does not assert that the Novus Ordo Missae embodies positive error in faith and morals. He does claim, however, that it is not in continuity with the tradition of the Roman Rite, and that this discontinuity has had catastrophic effects on the actual life of the Church. The practice of the faith has in fact declined due to what was done to the liturgy, and orthodox belief and morals have in fact suffered due to the omissions, ambiguities, modifications, and tolerated abuses of the new liturgy.

Terence: You have summed it up perfectly.

William: All the same, Terry, I still feel you’re being unfair to the Novus Ordo. You assume that it will be done in a flawed manner—which, admittedly, it often is. In argumentation, however, we should assume the Novus Ordo as Paul VI promulgated and intended it.

Terence: It is completely artificial to talk about some pristine Novus Ordo that measures all others, like the standard meter bar fashioned in the French Enlightenment. If one is hoping to find the new liturgy celebrated in full observance of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal and according to a Ratzingerian hermeneutic of continuity—that is, in Latin for the unchanging parts (as called for by Vatican II), with Gregorian chant (as called for by Vatican II), ad orientem (as the very rubrics of the Ordo Missae presuppose[3]), without lay ministers of holy communion, and so forth—one might as well plan on making a pilgrimage to the Oratory in London, Oxford, or Toronto. You won’t find this rare bird in your neighborhood aviary.

William: But surely this is how it is supposed to be?

Terence: That, my friend, is where you are mistaken. If Paul VI gave the Church something definite, then we can take up your proposal. If he gave us something designedly malleable, subject to inculturation, adaptation, and variation, the almost countless abuses of which are tolerated everywhere, can we even talk about whether “the new liturgy” is a good thing or a bad thing? What are we even talking about? The very fact that it is so indefinite, indeterminate, and intractable is an unanswerable strike against it—a sign either that something is wrong with the form as such or that the hierarchy (including the popes) have been guilty of grave dereliction in their responsibility of watching over the liturgy and ensuring that the faithful have access to it in its integral fullness. Either way, the buck stops there, at the shoes, red or black, of the fisherman.

William: We are talking about what Paul VI himself had in mind and intended.

Terence: Unless you’re a mind reader of extraordinary facility, good luck with Montini’s mind, which seems to have changed depending on the last person who spoke with him. Moreover, are we seriously going to say that it makes no difference what kind of modernist theology the compilers of the Novus Ordo had—as if, once Paul VI promulgated it, all the erroneous assumptions behind it evaporated and the result was suddenly healed, in a kind of papal miracle? As if the removal of the Septuagesima season, contrary to ancient tradition and human psychology, doesn’t matter at all, because once Paul VI promulgated the denuded calendar of 1969, it must be the faithful’s fault if they don’t get out of the streamlined new calendar everything their predecessors got out of the old one?

William: You are always putting so much emphasis on externals.

Terence: Do the aesthetics, the outward signs, of worship[4] have no impact on subjective belief? Or are we going to say, again and again, that any failure on the part of the faithful to get what they should out of the Mass is exclusively their own fault—not the fault of a liturgy stripped of precisely those semiotic elements and ascetical practices that transmitted and reinforced moral and dogmatic truths?

William: Fair enough.

Terence: In a further ventilation of this entrancing logic, we would also have to argue that the cessation from works of penance of the majority of Catholic faithful, in spite of Our Lord’s first words being “Do penance and believe in the Gospel,” has nothing to do with the removal of mandatory Friday abstinence and daily Lenten fasting; it’s just the fault of the lazy faithful, who should have hit upon creative penances instead of following what their forefathers had done for centuries.

William: One would have to be an idiot to think so, I’m afraid.

Terence: When all is said and done, the Novus Ordo’s hyperultramontanist defenders sound increasingly naïve, threadbare, unconvincing, disconnected from reality. Their arguments in defense of a monumental rupture are an insult to the God who created reason and elevated it by His grace, who fashioned our Catholic liturgy over the ages by the breath of His Spirit, who placed on our shoulders the sweet yoke of obedience to His commandments and the light burden of submission to His Providence.

William: I hope you’re not including me among these defenders!

Terence: No, you have a great deal of common sense, which has served you well in these horrid times.

William: What do you think Catholics ought to do, then?

Terence: For God’s sake (truly), let us put aside forced apologetics for the liturgical reform, frankly see it for the stupendous disaster it was, and seek our healing in a return to venerable rites hallowed by centuries of faith and devotion. As a matter of fact, these rites never perished, and today they are taking root in more and more places, as true nourishment for a flock reprehensibly neglected.

William: And what are the implications for the pope? After all, it was the papacy that started this whole conversation…

Terence: When Jesus said solemnly to Peter: “Feed my sheep … feed my lambs,” He was asking him to take that task upon himself. He was not stating “You will feed my sheep and lambs,” as if he would automatically do it, whether he wanted to or not! Every pope—indeed, every spiritual shepherd—subsequently has to give ear to Our Lord and freely choose to follow Him, lovingly feeding the sheep and lambs purchased by His Precious Blood. May our shepherds awaken, if they have not already done so, to the urgent need to restore to full honor and magnificence the traditional worship of the Church, which should never have been despised and set aside.

William: Whatever differences remain between us, Terry, we definitely agree on that.



[1] See my article “Traditional Liturgy Attracts Vocations, Nourishes Contemplative Life, and Sustains the Priesthood.”

[2] See my article “The Omission that Haunts the Church — 1 Corinthians 11:27-29.”

[3] See my article “The Normativity of Ad Orientem Worship According to the Ordinary Form’s Rubrics.”

[4] See my article “Why getting the ‘externals’ of Catholic Mass right is more important than most realize.”

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