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How Much Can the Pope Change Our Rites, and Why Would He?

In discussions of whether or not the pope has the authority to radically change the Church’s liturgy, the claim has been made that “if he can modify the bread from leavened to unleavened and limit reception to one species—which pertain even to the substance of the sacrament!—then of course he can do anything else.” I want to explain why this claim is a gigantic non sequitur.

Before proceeding, I will note that there is no good historical evidence that all ancient liturgies were using leavened bread until at some point a pope flexed his pontifical muscle to say: “No more! From here on out, we will use only unleavened bread.” The comprehensive article on “Azymes” by Church historian Dom Fernand Cabrol in the authoritative Dictionnaire d’Archéologie Chrétienne et de Liturgie (vol. 1, cols. 3254–60) says nothing about such a purported papal change. We need to be careful not to fall into the trap of the common assumption (which in the field of liturgy is totally unjustified) that everything in the East is much more ancient than everything in the West, and that the East never changes; ergo, if the East uses leavened bread, and the West uses unleavened bread, that must be because the older and “original” custom is to use leavened bread, and the West must have changed it. In any case, evidence does not support the idea that any shift that may have occurred was due to simple papal fiat.[1] Early Church history is generally a lot more complicated, confusing, and polymorphic—and, it’s always humbling to remember, a lot less documented—than we, with our tidy scholastic boxes, might wish it were.

Be that as it may, let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that a pope could make such a change of matter in the sacrament, and that he did make it. Similarly, he could choose to permit or not permit Communion under both kinds; he may add or not add the Filioque; and any number of other discrete changes of that sort. The interesting question is: How much does it matter, and what does it prove?

Bread of Life, Bread of Truth

If I receive consecrated leavened bread, I receive Jesus. If I receive consecrated unleavened bread, I receive Jesus. Both types of bread are fitting for different reasons. If I receive communion under two species, I receive Jesus whole and entire. If I receive communion under the species of bread alone, I receive Jesus whole and entire. Nothing is lacking in the divine gift, the Bread of Life. Neither of these cases affects the sacrament of the Eucharist, which is the “axis” or “center” of the Divine Liturgy. Substantially, the two scenarios are the same.

But there is much more to a liturgical rite than the sacrament it houses (in fact, as all are aware, there are liturgies that are not sacramental, such as the Divine Office, which have always been considered of the highest importance in the Church). If we want to understand what is right and wrong in terms of rites—the Bread of Truth, so to speak—we must look at how they convey the truth of the faith, how they impart doctrine, how they doxologize.

Imagine a Eucharistic liturgy that has matured slowly to its full perfection. It lavishes praises on the Holy Trinity and on the Word made flesh. It frequently invokes the Mother of God and the saints. It expresses clearly that the Mass is a true and proper sacrifice, in propitiation of our sins, and for the good estate of the living and the dead. Its orations express all the dogmas of the Faith, without abridgement or embarrassment: they speak of merits, intercessions, miracles, apparitions of the saints; of detachment from earthly goods and the longing for the eternal; of the struggle against heresy and schism, the conversion of unbelievers, and the necessity of returning to the Catholic Church and to unadulterated truth; of God’s wrath against sin and the possibility of eternal damnation.[2] In its readings, the rite does not shy away from difficult sayings of Scripture, including the warning against unworthy Communion with the Body of Christ. Lastly, the rite profoundly venerates the altar, the tabernacle, the crucifix, and the reliquaries, and lavishes signs of adoration on the Most Holy Eucharist, not only at the moment of its consecration, but even in preparing it beforehand and distributing it afterwards. In all these ways, the rite presents the full biblical and traditional doctrine of the Faith, informing the Christian mind and preparing the soul for the worthy and fruitful reception of Christ.

Now, imagine another Eucharistic liturgy that was quickly composed by a committee, using old and newly-invented material filtered through scholarly hypotheses and based on a theory of what people need at a very particular moment in history. This liturgy severely reduced mentions of or gestures toward the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Mother of God, and the saints, whose feasts it heavily diminished. It removed much of the language of altar, sacrifice, and propitiation, preferring table, meal, and community. It adopted a chipper tone in prayer for the dead. Its orations retained only a small fraction of the orations traditionally prayed, and in their place substituted orations that omit fundamental mystical and ascetical themes and downplay distinctively Catholic doctrines deemed difficult or offensive. The Scripture readings were likewise edited to avoid “difficult” passages, such as the warning against unworthy communion. The signs of veneration and adoration were severely curtailed. Overall, the rite does not present the full biblical and traditional doctrine of the Faith. On account of all these things taken together, those who attend this liturgy will not be formed as well in the Faith, or prepared as well for a worthy and fruitful reception of Holy Communion.

Can it be denied for a moment that a transition from the first liturgy to the second one—even if both are valid—is much more drastic, much more influential, than the transition from leavened to unleavened bread, or from two species to one? The liturgical rite is where the theological reality and moral-spiritual implications of the Bread of Life are made clear: what we must believe and profess about it, how we must behave toward it, how we are to prepare for communing with it. The type of wheat bread or the species under which it is distributed means far less than the totality of prayers, gestures, readings, chants, incense, etc., that tells us what we are actually doing.

A liturgical rite that inadequately expressed the faith of the Church—an inadequacy that could result from a number of causes: omissions, ambiguities, excessive material, lack of useful repetition—could lead over time to the loss of the orthodox faith among the people. The attenuation of dogma, the silence on difficult truths, the wimpy testimony to the Real Presence—all these things would undermine the faith that is foundational to active participation and fruitful reception of the sacraments.

How to Sabotage the Catholic Faith

In order to pursue the argument further, it’s time for a thought experiment.

If a team of saboteurs wanted to undermine faith in the Real Presence of Christ, they would set about decentering the Mass from the Eucharist and re-centering it on the “celebrating community,” on the “presider” and the “assembly,” so that it was no longer apparent that everything is focused on Him at the altar.[3] The awesome silence of the Roman Canon that helps everyone to be aware that something extraordinary and supernatural is taking place would have to go, too, on the excuse that “everyone should hear and understand everything.”[4] Under the specious excuse of “removing useless repetitions,” they would cut down on the number of kisses made to the altar, the number of genuflections toward the Blessed Sacrament, the many bows and signs of the cross, the threefold “Lord, I am not worthy…”, the many prayers said by the priest to prepare himself for communion. Under the pretext of “simplifying the rites” (is it because modern man is too busy and impatient to be in church, or too stupid to follow something complex and non-linear?), they would cut out the many poignant passages of Scripture found throughout the Order of Mass that accentuate the seriousness of the act of worship, from Psalm 42 at the beginning to the Prologue of John at the end. With the excuse of “returning to ancient practice,” they would jettison one of the most vivid signs of faith in the Real Presence in the Western liturgy, namely, kneeling at the altar rail to receive the Body of Christ on the tongue—something we would never do for ordinary food or a mere symbol. Instead, they would insist that all remain standing and take the wafer into one’s hands and then feed oneself, an irresistible juggernaut of desacralization.[5] If they wanted to undermine faith in the Mass as the mysterious re-presentation of the Sacrifice of the Cross, they would strip the liturgy of mentions of sacrifice, oblation, immolation, victim, propitiation, and the like, so that it would not be able to offend a broad-minded Calvinist.[6]

The foregoing paragraph could be extended into a book describing all the changes that saboteurs of the Catholic Faith would make if they wanted to destroy the traditional faith of Catholics as dogmatically defined at the Council of Trent.

Fortunately, this has already been done, and more than once. I will mention only three: Michael Davies, Pope Paul’s New Mass; Anthony Cekada’s The Work of Human Hands; and Michael Fiedrowicz’s The Traditional Mass. For the sobering reality is that the liturgical reform after Vatican II did every one of the things mentioned above. Even before the Novus Ordo went into effect, the courageous Cardinals Bacci and Ottaviani had put their signatures on a cover letter to a short study of its theological deficiencies—the famous “Ottaviani Intervention”—and showed how it could not avoid leading Catholics astray, how it failed and would fail to transmit the Church’s faith. One might say Bacci and Ottaviani had predicted well in advance that, under the Novus Ordo regime, faith in the Real Presence would erode, as we can see in the 2019 Pew Research Study that showed the vast majority of U.S. Catholics do not believe in the Real Presence (and surely the same results, or worse, would be found if people were asked whether the Mass is a true and proper sacrifice). The reaction to this study should not have been wide-eyed surprise and Barron hopes for better and slicker video catechesis, but ashes and sackcloth, widespread book-burnings, and Latin Mass training sessions.

Let us not forget, too, that the first and most basic form of active participation is the physical bodily presence of faithful in the pews. During the period of volatile liturgical change, the faithful began their exodus from the churches, and, despite Paul VI’s papal insistence that the new rite would renew the People of God, the hemorrhaging has never ceased, as fewer and fewer show up for the “full, conscious, active participation that is their right and duty” (SC 14).

The Rite is the Locus of Catholicity

Given my analysis above, no one should be surprised at this result—or at the parallel phenomenon of growing Latin Mass congregations. If the new rite lowers our horizon to the horizontal, it will have no staying power against secular culture, which far more successfully appeals to our (fallen) humanity. If the other rite draws us up “vertically” into the worship of the transcendent Triune God and compels us to pay homage to Christ our King, it woos and wins the heart longing for the divine and for redemption from this world of sin.

Why, during the period of COVID panic and lockdown, was it primarily the traditional priests who kept Masses going, even in secret if necessary, and the traditional faithful who went out of their way to get to Mass—while the Novus Ordo world (again, generally speaking) went into hibernation? Why were the laity attached to tradition ready to go to Mass in person and yet, if the bishop had forbidden Communion on the tongue, equally ready to not receive the Body of Christ, out of deepest regard for what is right and fitting? Why, when the bishops said everyone was freed of the Sunday Mass obligation, did traditionalists still try to go to Mass, often at great inconvenience? And why, once the dust settled and the obligation was reactivated, did the mainstream churches not recover their pre-COVID congregations, while the traditional communities pulled out folding chairs for the overflow?

The Novus Ordo, product of simplification and banalization, lends itself to cancellation. The logic of reductionism is severe and indiscriminate: all who take the scissors will perish by the scissors. Regarding centuries-old prayers as useless repetitions will lead to regarding private Masses as useless repetitions and ultimately to regarding the sacramental life itself as a useless repetition.

We are looking here at concrete practical results of two different liturgies: one of them manifestly centered on the Holy Sacrifice and the Real Presence, the other decentered from both. Clergy believe and behave as each liturgy forms them to, and the same is no less true of the laity. In the hour of trial, instincts and habits formed over the decades showed themselves. “Breeding will tell.”

If you change the rite of Mass—the content of its prayers, its ceremonies, its music and silence, and so forth—you will change the faith of the people: what they believe Mass is, and what they are doing (or not doing) at Mass. This is exactly what happened in the 1960s and 1970s, and the fallout has not subsided, nor has the obvious remedy changed.

Looking Past the Surface to the Common Tradition

In the course of my life I have assisted frequently at the Byzantine Divine Liturgy. Superficially it is very different from the traditional Latin Mass that is my home and heritage as a Roman Catholic. In the Byzantine rite, I receive Communion standing, after making a profound bow—but the priest (and only he) delivers the precious Body and Blood, under the form of leavened bread soaked in wine, directly into my mouth, on a spoon. In the Roman rite, I kneel to receive on my tongue the Body of Christ under the form of a host of unleavened bread. In both cases, I receive my Lord and my Savior, for the forgiveness of my sins and for life everlasting.

What became utterly clear to me over time, however, is that the traditional rites of East and West, be they ever so different in appearances, are profoundly united in their traditional qualities: in the seriousness and solemnity of the act of worship as communicated in the texts, music, and ceremonial; in the resounding orthodoxy of the prayers; in the obvious theocentricity of the rites, the offering of a holy sacrifice to God, and the priority of His Kingdom breaking into our world. That’s why I spoke, in a popular article at New Liturgical Movement, of “The Byzantine Liturgy, the Traditional Latin Mass, and the Novus Ordo—Two Brothers and a Stranger.”

In any traditional rite, we worship God in the beauty of holiness, in the truth of orthodoxy, in the adequate (not perfect—that is saved for heaven) expression of the mysteries we are enacting and receiving. I came to realize over many years that, tragically, this is not what is happening with the Novus Ordo. It is inherently and fundamentally lacking in the traditional qualities of the liturgy as practiced by apostolic Christianity; worse than that, it is fashioned in such a way as to act as a solvent, over time, of the faith of the people, unless heroic supplementary efforts are made to fill in the gaps from the outside.[7]

My own “pew research” was conducted from the pews (or, more often, the choir lofts) I inhabited for decades, and it brought me to a conclusion and a resolution several years ago: whatever others may choose to do, I can neither actively promote nor lend my passive approval to an ersatz liturgy that undermines the Catholic Faith. There is, and there must only be, traditional worship. And no pope has the authority to abolish it.

It is, consequently, a much bigger deal for a pope to radically change a liturgical rite—the lex orandi that enshrines and instills the lex credendi—than it would be for him to change the type of wheat bread or the species under which Communion is distributed. And that is why it doesn’t follow that just because the pope may have the authority to do the latter, therefore he would have the same to do the former. The pope’s authority is for edification, not for destruction.


Photo by Allison Girone, used with Permission.

[1] The Catholic Encyclopedia entry under “altar breads“ includes this passage, which gives a sense of the variety of opinions out there: “It is probable that Christ used unleavened bread at the institution of the Blessed Eucharist, because the Jews were not allowed to have leavened bread in their houses on the days of the Azymes. Some authors are of the opinion that down to the tenth century both the Eastern and Western Churches used leavened bread; others maintain that unleavened bread was used from the beginning in the Western Church; still others hold that unleavened or leavened bread was used indifferently. St. Thomas ([Sent.] IV, Dist. xi, qu. 3) holds that, in the beginning, both in the East and West unleavened bread was used; that when the sect of the Ebionites arose, who wished that the Mosaic Law should be obligatory on all converts, leavened bread was used, and when this heresy ceased the Latins used again unleavened bread, but the Greeks retained the use of leavened bread.”

[2] Here I am following some of the language of Michael Fiedrowicz, “They Do Not Even Know What Has Been Taken from Them.”

[3] The reason Christ deserves to receive all the attention is that He alone is the One who makes us the Mystical Body in our union with Him. If we were not worshiping Christ and He did not truly come among us, we would just be a bunch of people doing some kind of community-building self-help therapy that terminated on a natural level. Which, come to think of it, is how a lot of modern worship services look.

[4] Not paying regard to the reality that almost nothing in the Mass is capable of being perfectly understood by us, so why foster an illusion—unless you want to undermine faith in the supernatural and convert Christianity into a natural religion of pure reason?

[5] No one has better explained the reason for this destructiveness than Martin Mosebach: “Kneeling was medieval, they said. The early Christians prayed standing. Standing signifies the resurrected Christ, they said; it is the most appropriate attitude for a Christian. The early Christians are also supposed to have received Communion in their hands. What is irreverent about the faithful making their hands into a ‘throne’ for the Host? I grant that the people who tell me such things are absolutely serious about it all. But it becomes very clear that pastors of souls are incredibly remote from the world in these matters; academic arguments are completely useless in questions of liturgy. These scholars are always concerned only about the historical side of the substance of faith and of the forms of devotion. If, however, we think correctly and historically, we should realize that what is an expression of veneration in one period can be an expression of blasphemy in another. If people who have been kneeling for a thousand years suddenly get to their feet, they do not think, ‘We’re doing this like the early Christians, who stood for the Consecration’; they are not aware of returning to some particularly authentic form of worship. They simply get up, brush the dust from their trouser-legs and say to themselves: ‘So it wasn’t such a serious business after all.’ Everything that takes place in celebrations of this kind implies the same thing: ‘It wasn’t all that serious after all.’ Under such circumstances, anthropologically speaking, it is quite impossible for faith in the presence of Christ in the Sacrament to have any deeper spiritual significance, even if the Church continues to proclaim it and even if the participants of such celebrations go so far as to affirm it explicitly” (The Heresy of Formlessness: The Roman Liturgy and Its Enemy, rev. and expanded ed., trans. Graham Harrison [Brooklyn, NY: Angelico Press, 2018], 14–15).

[6] See Sharon Kabel, “Catholic fact check: Jean Guitton, Pope Paul VI, and the liturgical reforms.”

[7] Since we know that “God desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2:4), we also know that He will find or create ways to lead the faithful back to the truth if the official Church has misled them, and ways back to the means of salvation if these are being neglected. This, it seems to me, explains several phenomena characteristic of postconciliar Catholicism. Because the Novus Ordo was patently inadequate to remind the faithful of the Sacrifice of the Mass and unite them to it, Divine Providence made use of the Divine Mercy chaplet: “Eternal Father, I offer to Thee the most precious Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity, of Thy dearly beloved Son, Our Lord Jesus Christ, in atonement for our sins and those of the whole world”; “For the sake of His sorrowful Passion, have mercy on us and on the whole world.” These prayers cultivate a sense of seriousness about the central mystery of salvation history and thereby keep alive a belief that the liturgy is not correctly transmitting. Similarly, the Luminous Mysteries brought the wedding feast at Cana and the institution of the Eucharist to the fore, both of which are negligently treated in the new liturgy (see here and here). In the same way, the rediscovery and growth of Eucharistic Adoration outside of Mass was a heaven-sent means of sustaining faith in the Real Presence when the liturgy itself was doing a disgraceful job of it. There are reasons to criticize some of these paraliturgical devotions (or, more typically, the manner in which they are pursued at times), yet we should not fail to see how they have been used by God to maintain the faith in spite of the official Church’s deviations.

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