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Among the Most Important Books of 2023

Building for a Future Generation

Although the year is still young, it has already seen the release of what will quite possibly prove to be one of the most important books published this year: Joseph Shaw’s The Liturgy, the Family, and the Crisis of Modernity (Os Justi Press, 2023). This book offers not only a formidable apologetic for traditionalism, but also profound reflection on a number of key topics affecting present-day Catholicism at large. In this article, I will focus on Shaw’s treatment of the liturgy, with which the book opens; I have already treated elsewhere of his diagnosis of the family in modernity with which he concludes this book.

In his introduction, Shaw places his treatment of liturgy in the context of modernity’s “transformation of culture.” “This transformation means that, for those of us on the wrong side of it, a special effort is required to understand the traditional Mass.” Shaw’s “special effort” here consists of six chapters, in which he addresses such themes as what it’s like to discover the Latin Mass, its history, the idea of “participation,” and the “Enlightenment argument,” namely “whether destroying tradition liberates or impoverishes us.” Let’s look at a few of his key contributions to these questions.

Chapter 2, “What Is the Liturgy For?”, confronts several questions which are often forgotten as the source of fundamental differences in concepts of liturgy. Do you see liturgy “primarily in terms of sacramental validity?” Or primarily to sustain a sense of “fellow-feeling and of human community”? Or as a “privileged opportunity of making contact with God”? Shaw comments: “The peculiar nature of our current situation is that the third view is not so much rejected, as simply incomprehensible, to many Catholics.” Yet it is this third view which is the traditional view of the Church, reflecting a correct theology of the Mass. Shaw goes on in this chapter to explore “obscurity” and “comprehensibility” in the old and new liturgical rites, drawing on a variety of sources including Bugnini, Lewis Carroll, and Ratzinger. His is an excellent case for a certain kind of “obscurity” that actually contributes to comprehension and accessibility—once one realizes that what the liturgy is trying to communicate isn’t a normally communicable reality.

“Understanding the History of the Liturgy” is the title of Chapter 3 (originally a talk presented under the title “The Concept of Tradition” and published here for the first time). Although Shaw emphasizes the “modesty of my project in this chapter,” it is a remarkable treatment of the topic. A perfect introduction to those floundering in the deep waters of the controversy, even experts should find it a helpful summary and elucidation of the issues involved.

An important feature of this third chapter is the way Shaw addresses the objection that choosing the 1962 missal (or any other edition for that matter) as the “gold standard” of liturgy is arbitrary since that missal is itself the product of liturgical changes made by previous generations (such as St Gregory the Great or popes of the 4th century). A common traditionalist response to why the changes of the 1960s were problematic while those of previous generations were not is to say that the pace or extent of change was unprecedented. But Shaw sees such a response as insufficient by itself. If the same kinds of changes that led to the Novus Ordo had happened over a longer period of time, or if they had been different sorts of changes but just as extensive, the reform would still be problematic. Shaw concludes that trying to defend “the idea of the givenness of the liturgy as a matter of degree” is “dangerous.” To find a solution, Shaw takes the reader on a delightful quest to rediscover the “pre-modern understanding of what adhering to a tradition means” (emphasis original), in which he uses the realm of folk tales as emblematic of a tradition that remains constant while still allowing for changes. His conclusion is that the difference between a modern approach to “tradition” and a pre-modern approach is this: that a pre-modern liturgist (like the teller of folk tales) passes on “the whole of what I have been given, insofar as it is in my power to do so: both what I understand and appreciate, and also things I do not understand fully,” while the modern says “I will pass on to the future those parts of what I have been given which I choose” (original emphasis). Obviously, change is still possible in the pre-modern scenario, but it is not one motivated by pride, since the abiding purpose is to communicate the same thing to others.

Exploring the different ways of developing a tradition, Shaw goes on to investigate four main types of change: elaborating, abbreviating, borrowing, and inventing, and how each of these have been legitimately exercised at different times in the development of the Roman liturgy without contradicting the “givenness” of the liturgical tradition. In response to the objection that at least in the early church there must have been great creative freedom, Shaw points out that the early Church was born of two intensely traditional societies and obviously drew extensively on the traditions of both: “There is a vast difference between these two cultures [of Rome and Judaism], to be sure, but a reverence for tradition on a level entirely beyond the comprehension of many people today is something they had in common.” Thus, from the very first, “liturgists”—including Our Lord and the Apostles—“had much traditional material to draw on, including the liturgy of the Temple and the Synagogue.”

As the book progresses, Shaw zooms out from the liturgy to view the Church in general. I particularly appreciated his chapter “What Vatican II Did to the Church,” in which he demonstrates that the progressive agenda of the reformers of the seventies effectively denied the secondary causation of the “human culture” of Catholicism in passing on the faith to future generations. As one continues through the well-researched pages of this book, Shaw penetrates the mists of liturgical debates in chapters on “participation,” the Enlightenment attitude towards tradition as restrictive, and the crucial place of ritual in psychology. Parts 2 and 3 of the book, “Crisis” and “Family,” are just as insightful. These ground his discussion of traditional liturgy in a wider context of history and culture, as his chapter titles testify: “Liturgy and Orthodoxy”; “Sex Education and the Ethics of Consent,” and “Understanding the Feminisation of Christianity,” to name a few. As mentioned above, I’ve shared some of his insights on the family at Crisis. For now, it is sufficient to say that Shaw’s synthesis of a refreshing variety of sources, including the research of secular sociologists, produces an analysis constructive for Catholics in every state of life. While nearly every chapter hits a home run on its particular topic, it is also important to note that Shaw’s style requires the reader to slow down a little. His logical cursus unfolds over the course of paragraphs rather than sentences, and his diction, while delightful, requires adjustment to lengthier subordinate clauses that most of us are used to.

Shaw’s book starts and ends with a stirring reference to “the project of restoration.” In his first chapter, he references the post-Christian world of which T. S. Eliot writes in Choruses from “The Rock.” The condition of cities having no meaning, streets no end, and food no taste “can be experienced not only in the secular world, but in aspects of the institutional Church, which has been invaded by the world.” This worldly emptiness cannot be confronted until the church has been rejuvenated in “the physical churches, the people one finds in them, the liturgy celebrated in them, the books used or sold in them: all the things people encounter when spiritual hunger drives them to seek out the Mystical Body of Christ.” The fact that this task of restoration is enormous, writes Shaw, should not discourage us: rather, he takes “comfort from it, because it means that there is something for everyone to do: even those of us with a very deficient Catholic education and limited natural gifts.”

One sees the meeting of philosopher and father in Shaw when he continues: “I may not be a second St Thomas Aquinas, but I can teach my children the old catechisms, and help arrange the odd pilgrimage. In these simple tasks I can be confident that I am doing something pleasing to God, and perhaps even irreplaceable in my little corner of the world.” Whatever else is the case, it is my hope that the impact of this new book of Shaw’s will not be limited to one “little corner of the world.” Rather, it has the potential to help each of us build (in the words of Eliot which Shaw quotes) “Without delay, without haste… A Church for all / And a job for each.”


The Liturgy, the Family, and the Crisis of Modernity, published 2023, is available in paperback, hardcover, and ebook directly from Os Justi Press for those in the USA, and internationally from all Amazon sites.

Editor’s note: see also the recent interview by our allies at CFN (below) and Shaw’s talk at the book launch in London

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