The New Lectionary and the Catholic Wedding

One of the topics most hotly disputed at the synods on marriage and the family, back in those halcyon years of 2014 and 2015, was the possibility of admitting to Holy Communion Catholics who are living in what are euphemistically called “irregular marital situations” — that is, objectively adulterous unions. This dispute took its place beside the longstanding clash among the Church’s hierarchs over whether canon law should actually be followed when it states that notoriously public sinners — for example, politicians who claim to be Catholic but support abortion or sodomitical unions being called “marriage” — ought to be denied Holy Communion.

To me, what is most striking is that we are even having a conversation about matters that were decided at the dawn of Christianity, as can be seen in the New Testament and the Church Fathers. The question therefore arises: are Catholics simply not aware of the teaching of the Gospels, of St. Paul, and of other books of Scripture concerning the grave evil of sexual immorality, including fornication, adultery, and sodomy? Are Catholics not aware of the solemn warning of St. Paul against unworthy Eucharistic communion, which is a mortal sin and which will bring about damnation if not repented of? In services of public worship, are Catholics not regularly exposed to the luminous teaching of Scripture on the goodness, holiness, permanence, fruitfulness, and internal hierarchy of Christian marriage?

Unfortunately, it would seem that, in the world of the Novus Ordo, the answer to these questions is, at best, a weak yes — at worst, a resounding no.

One might reasonably assume that once the compilers of the new lectionary had decided on a three-year Sunday cycle and a two-year weekday cycle, giving themselves twice or three times the amount of space for readings at Mass, they would not fail to include in their new lectionary all of the readings from the traditional Roman liturgy and that, in their march through various books of the Bible, they would not omit any key passages.

Instead, the liturgical reformers made a programmatic decision to avoid what they judged “difficult” biblical texts, whether the difficulty arises from critical-exegetical issues or from the fact that such texts would be “hard for the faithful to understand” [1]. Thus, in the vast new lectionary, the following three verses from 1 Corinthians 11 never appear:

Therefore whosoever shall eat this bread, or drink of the chalice of the Lord unworthily, shall be guilty of the Body and of the Blood of the Lord. But let a man prove himself; and so let him eat of that bread, and drink of the chalice. For he that eatheth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh judgment to himself, not discerning the Body of the Lord. (1 Cor 11:27–29) [2].

This warning against receiving the Body and Blood of the Lord unworthily has not been read at any Novus Ordo Mass for almost half a century.

In contrast, the traditional Latin Mass — that Mass of which it was fashionable to say: “Its selection of readings is too restricted” — proclaims these salutary verses at least three times every year: once on Holy Thursday and twice on Corpus Christi. (If the faithful happen to attend a votive Mass of the Blessed Sacrament, they will encounter them yet again.) Catholics who attend the usus antiquior will be hard pressed not to have these challenging words placed before their consciences.

Another example of omission — or, to speak more accurately, of the encouragement of omission — involves the doctrine of the subordination of wives to their husbands, which is taught repeatedly in the New Testament.

On the Feast of the Holy Family, the second reading in the Novus Ordo is Colossians 3:12–21, but verses 18–21 — “Wives, be subordinate to your husbands, as is proper in the Lord,” etc. — are excluded from the “short form in brackets” [3]. As if by unspoken agreement, the short form is usually chosen. The parallel passage in Ephesians (5:21–32) is read on Tuesday of the 30th Week of Ordinary Time in Year 2, and when it comes up on the 21st Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year B, the verses about wifely submission are, once again, excluded from the short form. The parallel in 1 Peter 3:1–9 is buried in a set of optional readings [4]. Thus, a Catholic who attends Mass every day would hear this doctrine once every two years, while a Catholic who goes only to Sunday Mass might never hear it at all.

An example not so much of omission as of exclusion by default can be seen in the readings for the Nuptial Mass.

The traditional Latin Nuptial Mass always presents two readings: Ephesians 5:22–33 and Matthew 19:3–6. The passage from Ephesians traces the husband-wife relationship back to its exemplar, the eternal and indissoluble union of Christ and his immaculate Bride, proclaiming “the great mystery” of spousal love as it comes to be established anew in each Christian couple. The passage from Matthew declares God to be the author of man, woman, and the marriage covenant, and divorce to be contrary to His law. The Gradual is Psalm 127:3, “Thy wife shall be as a fruitful vine on the sides of thy house, thy children as olive plants round about thy table.” The readings fittingly underline the three goods or blessings of marriage: offspring, fidelity, and sacrament.

The revised lectionary, on the other hand, offers nine O.T. options for the first reading, thirteen N.T. options for the second reading, seven options for the responsorial psalm, and ten options for the Gospel. Although the three traditional readings are included in this smorgasbord of 39 readings, we cannot be too surprised if young couples, perhaps overwhelmed by the number of options and feeling a bit shy when it comes to talk of children, indissolubility, and subordination, tend to choose readings (or have readings chosen for them) that seem more sentimental and upbeat, such as 1 Corinthians 13 or John 15. And yet, living as we are in the midst of liberalism’s throwaway culture and egalitarianism gone mad, has there ever been a time in the Church’s history when the clear and lofty doctrine of Ephesians and Matthew is more urgently needed [5]?

The rare appearance of Ephesians 5 at the ambo weakens two things simultaneously: first, the nuptial ecclesiology that is the touchstone for understanding who Christ is and who we are in relation to Him; second, the theological anthropology that supports the necessarily heterosexual, procreative, indissoluble nature of the spousal bond rooted in this ecclesial mystery. If the doctrine of Ephesians 5 and Matthew 19 is not part of our collective consciousness and our profession of faith, it will be easier to view the Church as a humanistic, bureaucratic institution that caters to the real and illusory “needs” of its individual members, and to view marriage as primarily a matter of sentiment, convenience, and mutual gratification.

This may explain, in part, why homosexuals find it so offensive to be denied a Church wedding. If they are conceiving of the Church as a religious notary public ready to stamp the certificate of two baptized Catholics, it is offensive to be denied so simple an act of legal approbation. It is like being told that one is not “good enough” to receive congratulations and official entitlements — as if one were a second-class citizen. It is clear, in such cases, that the offended parties have no concept of the sacred mystery that gives meaning to Christian marriage, founded in metaphysical difference and complementarity.

If it might justly be claimed that the Church’s self-understanding, and her clarity and confidence in communicating it, has suffered due to decades of liturgical change and experimentation, it is particularly true that her understanding of herself as bridal and maternal has been weakened — and with it, the married faithful’s understanding of themselves as called to imitate the spousal love of Christ and the Church.

Admittedly, there are many factors in the modern world and in the modern Church that militate against a couple’s internalization of the teaching of Ephesians 5. Yet it would be hard to dispute that the liturgical marginalization of Ephesians 5 cannot possibly help to reverse this problem. What is happening in such lectionary omissions or marginalizations is quite simple. Embarrassed by a divinely revealed doctrine or spiritual attitude, certain members of the Church prefer that it not be mentioned at all.

Catholics who attend a traditional Nuptial Mass will always be challenged by the teaching of Ephesians 5, Psalm 127, and Matthew 19; Catholics who attend an usus antiquior Mass on Holy Thursday or Corpus Christi will hear those startling verses from 1 Corinthians 11. One cannot help wondering whether the Church’s response to so-called “gay marriage” or communion for those living in adultery would now be different if, over the past half-century, she had been consistently reading scriptural passages on the right relationship of the sexes, the indissolubility of marriage, the grave evil of sins against chastity, and the danger of unworthy communions.

The centuries-old Roman lectionary can be said to be characterized by the earnestness with which it repeats fundamental lessons, year after year — aiming not so much at exposure to a wide swath of the biblical story as at the reinforcement of commandments, the inculcation of principles of life and faith. The new lectionary, with its omission of “difficult” passages, multitudinous options, and enormous number of readings, has successfully diluted the transmission of the message of Scripture and distracted the faithful from the fundamental teachings they most need to hear on a repeated basis.

So, the next time someone says to you: “Okay, I get it: the traditional Latin Mass has a lot going for it. But you have to admit that the new lectionary is such an improvement!,” you can respond: “Have you got a minute? It’s not quite as cut and dried as that…


[1] General Introduction to the Lectionary, 76. See Anthony Cekada, Work of Human Hands: A Theological Critique of the Mass of Paul VI (West Chester, OH: Philothea Press, 2010), 265–72. In citing Fr. Cekada, I applaud his careful research but do not share his conclusions about the validity of the Pauline Mass.

[2] On Holy Thursday in the usus antiquior, the Epistle is 1 Corinthians 11:20–32, which is the more complete passage if one looks at the original context in the letter; in the Novus Ordo, it is 1 Corinthians 11:23–26, simply the narrative of the institution of the Eucharist. Given that the General Introduction to the Lectionary claims that the new selection of readings embodies the idea that readings should form one action with and lead to the Eucharist, the omission of 1 Corinthians 11:27–29 from the lectionary could be urged as inconsistent with the reformers’ own account of the purpose of Scripture in the Mass. On the other hand, perhaps it was thought that any talk of damnation in connection with the love feast of the Eucharist is “difficult for the faithful to understand.”

[3] Interestingly enough, there are no optional short forms indicated for Ephesians 5:21–32 or Colossians 3:12–21 in the 1981 Ordo Lectionum Missae (cf. pp. 13, 68). According to Fr. Felix Just, S.J., the short forms were added as options to the second edition (1998) of the U.S. Lectionary (see http://catholic-resources.org/Lectionary/
Differences-USA1970-1998.htm#Shorter-Forms
). It therefore appears that the U.S. bishops (as well as the bishops in England and Wales) at some point asked Rome for permission to insert these short forms into their lectionary as “adaptations” due to pressure from feminists. In 1980, ICEL’s Advisory Committee published a “Statement: The Problem of Exclusive Language with Regard to Women” in which we read: “Some liturgical texts imply the inferiority of women and their natural subjection to men. These texts generally are biblical or biblically inspired and reflect the culture in which they were composed or culturally conditioned theological argumentation. An example would be the subjection of wives to husbands indicated in Ephesians 5 and Colossians 3. The problems that arise from such texts may in some cases be relieved by more careful translation; in other cases particular verses or entire pericopes may have to be deleted from liturgical use, and there is ample precedent for such selectivity” (Eucharistic Prayers: For Study and Consultation by the Bishops of the Member and Associate Member Countries of ICEL, Green Book [October 1980], p. 67).

[4] Reading 740.14.

[5] The Catechism of the Catholic Church itself avoids teaching the subordination of wives to husbands, replacing it with a novel doctrine of mutual subordination (see n. 1642, but also nn. 369–72, 1616, and 1659, eloquent in their omissions). In contrast, the Roman Catechism unambiguously transmits the teaching of Scripture on this point: see the Catechism of the Council of Trent for Parish Priests, trans. John A. McHugh and Charles J. Callan (Rockford, IL: TAN Books and Publishers, 1982), 339, 346, 352. It is this kind of defect, plus papal manipulation, that prompts one to ask: What good is the new Catechism?

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