Browse Our Articles & Podcasts

How to Obey the Church

Monday within the Octave of Corpus Christi


Among the familiar phrases of the debate on the liturgy are ones involving obedience to the Church. “The Church asks us…”, “we must obey the Church…” and the like, generally employed by supporters of the liturgical reform. It is not immediately clear what they mean. What are these people saying when they refer to “the Church”?

When theologians want to discern the “teaching of the Church” they may be able to pick out some “extraordinary” act of the magisterium, such as an ex cathedra definition by the Pope, but very often there isn’t one available. This being so, they go to Scripture and Tradition, as containing the Deposit of Faith: they will tell us what the Church teaches. The Fathers and Doctors are witnesses to the Tradition and also draw out its implications. This is the “ordinary” magisterium of the Church, and the ordinary way in which the Church passes on the teaching which has been entrusted to her by our Lord.

This is how, ordinarily, God has chosen to reveal Himself to us; this is how, ordinarily, the Holy Spirit speaks to the Church: through what has been passed down. When people are moved to overturn established Tradition in favor of a radical new reading of Scripture, perhaps inspired by a private revelation, we can expect to hear some heresy.

This I hope is not controversial, but when it comes to the liturgy a very different attitude often takes hold. Liturgical progressives tell us that the Spirit has called them, or is calling the entire Church, to adopt some liturgical innovation: to take just one example, consider the service of the altar by females (altar girls). This overturns a tradition of only men and boys serving at Mass going back as far as the records go, which is the late 4th century (see canon 44 of the Collection of Laodicea).

The unanimity of the liturgical tradition here is impressive, but it is brushed aside for two reasons. One is that it is not a dogmatic but a disciplinary matter; the other is that at a certain point the legal apparatus of the Church permitted us not to follow the tradition (at least, in the reformed version of the liturgy of the Western Church).

These two arguments are besides the point, however, if we accept that the Holy Spirit habitually speaks to us through the Tradition of the Church. If the Spirit tells us about the doctrine God has revealed through Tradition with a capital “T”, it seems very strange to say that we should ignore a liturgical tradition, when it tells us about how God wishes us to worship Him. Of course liturgy is not doctrine; nevertheless there is an obvious parallel with the ordinary magisterium. God has revealed a certain amount about how we are to worship in Scripture, and it would be strange if this were not supplemented by the liturgical writings of the Fathers and Doctors and by the practice of the Church.

The role of liturgical traditions in communicating God’s will to us about how we should worship is supported by the idea that the liturgy is a “theological source,” and also directly by the magisterium. We read in Pius XII’s 1947 encyclical Mediator Dei that the development of the liturgy over the centuries was guided by Providence:

Just as obviously unwise and mistaken is the zeal of one who in matters liturgical would go back to the rites and usage of antiquity, discarding the new patterns introduced by disposition of divine Providence to meet the changes of circumstances and situation.

This idea is echoed by the Memoriale Domini, the 1969 Instruction forbidding (with the inevitable exceptions) the reception of Holy Communion in the Hand. These two documents were defending developments in the liturgy against those who wanted to make use of what they claimed was an older custom. When it comes to an issue in which there has been no development that we can see, when the practice of the Church has been continuous and unchanging from the earliest records that exist right up to the 1990s, when priests were permitted to use female servers for “specific local reasons” (Notitiae 30 (1994) 333-335), the case is that much stronger. God is surely telling us, by means of this tradition, that the service of the altar by men and boys is something He wants. How could that message be set aside?

One alternative approach would be to say this. The liturgy is the creature of the Church, continually subject to change by legislative fiat, and yet it is also a theological source, and conveys to us God’s will: which is to say, what the liturgy tells us is no more or less than what our superiors, those with authority over the liturgy, want to tell us, and God is speaking through them. (It should be noted that we are not necessarily talking about the Pope: until Trent bishops and religious orders had extensive authority over their liturgy; the Eastern Churches have a high degree of autonomy; and so on.)

This is a positivistic conception of the liturgical tradition: the liturgical tradition just is whatever a legislator with the appropriate legal authority tells us it is. However, it is one thing to accept that various people had or have legal authority over the liturgy; it is another to suggest that this amounts to a new organ of the magisterium. The point of saying that the liturgy is a theological source, a witness to the Tradition alongside, if subordinate to, Scripture and the Fathers, is that it is the product of organic development, under divine providence, and has in a certain sense the approbation of centuries of use in the Church. If it turns out to be the product, instead, of the arbitrary whims of particular office-holders, then the idea that it is a theological source becomes impossible to maintain. Those office-holders may have magisterial authority, and if so they can exercise that authority in the normal way. The point of according special significance to the liturgy is that it is a different source, not simply another version of the authority held by bishops and popes.

When we talk about what the liturgical tradition, as a theological source, tells us, the reformed liturgies of the 1960s naturally have less weight than liturgical traditions stretching back millennia, not because the latter were established by legislators with greater authority, but because they were used in and approved by the Church over these vast stretches of time. What “the Church” is telling us to do, liturgically, is not a matter of looking at the most recent legislation, but at what Providence has impressed on countless generations of Catholics.

The Church tells us things in a range of ways, and these things may even be in tension with each other. The liturgical tradition, nevertheless, has special authority to tell us how to worship: that, surely, is its core competence. If we accept that “the Church” has anything more than mere human regulations to guide Catholic worship, then we must look at the broad and deep tradition: even when this may make for uncomfortable reading.

Popular on OnePeterFive

Share to...