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Custom and the Force of Law

Something missed by Catholics enamored of the post-Conciliar mentality—that dangerous blend of modernism and ultramontanism—is that, in the past, custom was as good as law. St. Augustine could not have been clearer on this:

The customs of God’s people and the institutions of our ancestors are to be considered as laws. And those who throw contempt on the customs of the Church ought to be punished as those who disobey the law of God (Ep. ad Casulan. xxxvi).

St. Thomas Aquinas concurred: “When a law is changed, the binding power of the law is diminished, in so far as custom is abolished.” Cardinal Newman, in a sermon cited in Dom Alcuin Reid’s The Organic Development of the Liturgy, harks back even to the apostolic age wherein Jewish custom was maintained in many respects in order to ensure the Church’s continuity with the devotion of former Jews; indeed, the thought of a major deviation from ancestral worship would have been inconceivable. Even St. Paul, after all, shaved his head in fulfillment of a vow of the kind Jews would make, and he had St. Timothy circumcised. Newman has a beautiful line: “Precious doctrines are strung, like jewels, upon slender threads.”

These slender threads have been acknowledged and conserved throughout the liturgical history of the Church, and even in places here and there where some have tried to sever them, piety stood strong against their destruction. Our history shows us clear precedents for bad liturgical reforms corrected by subsequent authorities.

  1. Cardinal Quiñones’s radically new breviary, imprudently promulgated by Pope Paul III in 1536, was subsequently changed by Paul IV in 1558 and banned outright by St. Pius V some thirty years after its introduction.
  2. Urban VIII’s meddling with the breviary in order to satisfy Baroque admirers of classical Latin (among whom Urban himself could be counted) was never accepted by the monastic orders and was, after a very long time, quietly scuttled by (of all people) Paul VI, whose Liturgia Horarum, in one of its few positive moves, restored certain ancient hymn texts.
  3. The liturgical innovations promoted by the Synod of Pistoia in 1786, inspired in part by the liturgical innovations of the French church, were resisted—in a way akin to the way traditionalists today resist the reforms of the twentieth century—by Pope Pius VI in his bull Auctorem Fidei (see here for a refutation of the frequent hyperpapalist abuse of this document). It is scandalous, to say the least, that such pastorally helpful censures have yet to be reiterated by church authorities of our time, who have sided with the Pistoians against inherited tradition.

Custom is an irreplaceable element of social life and has usually been respected as such even by the popes. However, we have seen the development in the West of a bizarre “two-track” theory of liturgical law: while acknowledging the traditional view of custom, Catholics also appear to accept that the pope possesses a nearly unlimited authority to legislate on liturgical matters—even, it would seem, to abolish the most ancient or longstanding customs, if he so desires. How this is compatible with a healthy philosophical, theological, psychological, sociological, or legal understanding of custom is entirely beyond the purview of human reason.

Papal authority should be recognized and obeyed until and unless it despises or acts contrary to the objective (dare one say, invincible?) liturgical tradition of the Church, in which case it may be ignored or disfavored due to its lack of prudence in undermining the strength of custom. Roman centralization, albeit not initially detrimental to the liturgical integrity of the Church—quite the opposite, it could function as a conservative safeguard against its ruin, as we see with St. Pius V—has inflated Rome’s sense of control over the liturgical piety of her subjects and, most grievously, has decoupled papal authority from any sense of loyalty to other sources of law and the law-abiding spirit. Papal positivism may not be necessitated by ultramontanism, but undoubtedly it is enabled and encouraged by it.

Fr. Louis Bouyer related the following: “After all (said an Englishman in a recent article), the supreme authority of the Church is not bound by anything and could freely give us an entirely new liturgy, answering to today’s needs, without any further concern for the past” (“The Word of God Lives in the Liturgy,” in The Liturgy and the Word of God [Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1959], 65). If this is true—I have not yet been able to source the text, but I have seen similar statements elsewhere—then we can clearly see the fuzzy thinking that paved the way for the Bugnini-Montini dyarchy. Fr. Bouyer himself found the idea frankly preposterous.

Although Pope Benedict XVI assured us that the old Roman rite (but let us be frank: the only authentic Roman rite) had never been abrogated, advocates of absolute papal monarchy believe that it could be abrogated. The embedded irony of Paul VI’s 1969 Apostolic Constitution Missale Romanum is that, in positivistically promulgating a liturgical book dissevered from organic development and driven by hypothetical pastoral expediency and speculative opinions, it thereby prevented any actual liturgy from being constituted, since, if anything is obvious from history, it is that liturgy was never a mere posited entity and was never yoked to a momentary vision of temporal utility or academic theory.

(Mr. Praytell LaCroix is shifting and muttering over in the corner: “How silly of you to speak so favorably about the crusty old liturgy of the Tridentine church, for, as we all know, it was a terribly corrupted liturgy… God had taken His hands off the ecclesial wheel for those Dark Ages—for over a thousand years—before reasserting His Holy Spirit in the 1960s. And he did it through His Vicar on earth, the mouthpiece of the same Spirit—even as Francis is today! Henceforth, we can rest assured that God won’t take his hands off the wheel again, or withdraw His Spirit as He did for most of Church history…”)

In all seriousness, what a tremendous insult it is to the Holy Ghost—however sophistically argued by “liturgists”—to maintain that the Roman rite as constituted, lived, and transmitted over so many centuries by the piety of our ancestors could be rife with defects, errors, clericalism, inadequate ecclesiology, and could become an impediment to the Church’s mission or the faithful’s sanctification! That is the ultimate insult that can be aimed at Christ and His Church. Have we forgotten that a dogmatic council of the Church dealt precisely with these deadly ideas—where, instead of “pastoral expediency,” they were simply known as “Protestantism”?

Beyond being able merely to acknowledge the impiety of these ultramontane-positivist ventures of modern popes—whether Pius X’s abandonment of the traditional Roman cursus psalmorum, Pius XII’s revamping of Holy Week, Paul VI’s library of new liturgical books, or nearly the sum-total of Francis’s pontificate—are we able to say that these ventures are anything more than absurd? For as long as these acts are considered legitimate or licit, where does this leave the simultaneous reality and legal normativity of liturgical tradition? Does custom survive as anything more than an attenuated shadow of its former self?

Sacramental validity is the “low bar” demanded by the Church’s indefectibility; and this indefectibility does not, strictly speaking, require anything more than that. (Here I take seriously Newman’s principle that one should interpret ecclesial claims or demands in a minimal way, not a maximal way.) When traditionalists insist that the products of last century’s Montinian tyranny are valid, we show more charity to our detractors than they do to us—and, incidentally, we show more faith in the Church—since they reject most of the Church’s traditional practice as normative (and seek to prohibit us from continuing it), whereas we accept both it and the validity, but not the legitimacy, of the attempted supplantation. The pope’s supreme legislative authority exists to protect the Church’s dogma and liturgy, not to obfuscate, dilute, or shatter it. Manifestly, the Church’s common good may be wounded by the reckless imprudence of specific exercises of papal prerogatives. While the Pauline Missal is not evil per se, that is, nothing actually false or blasphemous is stated in it or required by it, it is nevertheless abhorrent in how it wounds the Church peripherally and accidentally. That is why a traditionalist cannot accept its legitimacy and will find its licitness to be at least questionable.

While we acknowledge the primacy of organic development, what should we make of institutional initiatives, which may look like “seismic shifts,” and how should these initiatives be evaluated? After all, there was a point when Christian Latin was sufficiently refined that the popes of the fourth century could successfully accomplish a transition from Greek to Latin—not to “adopt the vernacular” in a twentieth-century sense but to establish the new faith more firmly in the aristocratic and literary world of the evolving Christian Roman Empire (as I have discussed here).

Liturgical innovators will point to such precedents as evidence that “seismic shifts” may and should take place throughout Church history, but this view relies on a Newtonian notion of absolute space and time, in which all temporal periods of the Church are to be taken as equivalent to each other: there is no essential difference between the first, the fifth, the thirteenth, or the twentieth century as regards the right relationship between tradition and development, inheritance and innovation. That is why they can accuse the centuries between Trent and Vatican II of “immobilism”: there should have been changes, they maintain, as occurred in earlier times, and the lack of those changes indicates something has gone wrong.

As I have refuted this view at length in my book The Once and Future Roman Rite, I will make only a few remarks here. In the Church’s hazy apostolic origins, the Church miraculously ascended like a rocket up to the summits of the Roman Empire, and grafted this Empire into Christ’s Mystical Body. The early Church was graced with a special charism of effectiveness in preaching and miracle-working precisely to overcome the disadvantage of its small size and as-yet undeveloped culture. One of the young Church’s charisms was the power to develop Christian liturgical rites, which experienced prodigious growth early on, and tapered off as the first millennium wore on, as they achieved their fullness of form. This, indeed, was in God’s Providence: that later generations, in their admiration of earlier ones populated with saints, would humbly take what they received from them. Fixity of form is a natural outgrowth of the divine guidance of the Church.

Much later on, the Church could have no possible need to radically alter those fixed forms; in that way, later centuries are not equivalent to earlier ones, and it is only under the influence of modern philosophy that one might believe them to be of the same status, or even that modern times will be in a superior position to design liturgical rites vis-à-vis ancient or medieval times. The lowlier position of modernity together with the momentous decline the Church is suffering—an inversion of the ascent of antiquity—is a double reason why modern Catholics have no business concocting new rites to insert haphazardly into our liturgical patrimony.

If we had not already lost that privilege thanks to the providential differentiation of times and seasons, we would have lost that privilege thanks to the betrayal of Christendom by its own representatives. Christendom’s decadence, manifested terribly in two World Wars, so far from endowing churchmen with a right to “make their own contribution” to the liturgical treasury, deprives them of any moral authority to do so—particularly if their contribution consists in burying some of the treasure out of sight, pawning off the rest, and adding costume jewelry. Providence says to them, as it were: “Don’t flatter yourself. You don’t deserve to reform that which you are unwilling to venerate and unworthy to celebrate.” The question of authentic institutional initiatives is immaterial for us today. How can we possibly develop the liturgy—much less initiate it!—when we are simultaneously all too busy repudiating the patrimony that gave it meaning?

The Liturgical Movement originally sought to replenish a Catholic spirit in attendees of the liturgy, in the hopes that a newfound appreciation of our traditional worship would remedy the no-doubt widespread situation of the Mass of the Ages appearing, because of our countless sins, offenses, and negligences, as an empty shell, a routine, a box to check off. It was not the liturgy that needed correction, but souls.

With this in mind, the positivism of Paul VI appears all the more sinister. Right at a time when a decisive confrontation with widely welcomed modern errors would have been needed, the liturgical reform took the path of accommodation to the norms of a liberalized, decadent Christendom, already pickled in the brine of false modern philosophies. Is the Church and her liturgy indefectible? Yes. But has much been omitted from the new rite that would serve as a tonic, a remedy, and an antidote? Are hordes of the faithful being denied armor and weapons with which to combat the Evil One? Most regrettably so. If this is a price one were willing to pay so that the pope could be an absolute monarch whose will is law, who can identify, shape, and break liturgical tradition as he pleases, it would be too high a price—too high, that is, for anyone still in possession of the twin powers of faith and reason. To return to our earlier remarks about custom, such papolatry, being irrational and destructive, could not be of God.

Never can we despair. Christianity, in its cruciform beauty, contains always the promise of triumph over death. All the same, suffering and dying, however triumphant their issue, cannot but be painful. God, in His Providence, is permitting His Church to be crucified. Such torture the Church has endured many times, and from the concentration of faith engendered in those chaotic periods came her fiercest glories. Sacred Tradition asserts itself most of all in moments when the Mystical Body is under attack, either from without or from within. How satisfying to come out on the other end with the invincible tradition of the Church fresh in hand, like a sword that was just waiting to be sharpened and wielded anew! It is not for us to know the times or the seasons which the Father hath put in His own power (Acts 1:7). It is our privilege to remain faithful to the deposit of faith and the treasury of Tradition we have inherited from the Church of all ages, from the saints, from the popes in their totality, and to defend it against anyone who pretends to be its lord and master.


Photo by Mika Baumeister on Unsplash

This article has been updated.

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