Why the “Reform of the Reform” Is Doomed

The question may reasonably be asked: why, after fifty years in which the Novus Ordo has been given ample opportunity to “prove its worth” and has singularly failed to do so — years in which a minority of strong-willed priests, attempting to turn the tide against banality and irreverence, have for their pains been sent to the boondocks, if not the shrink’s couch — why are there still liturgically minded people defending the Novus Ordo or promoting its “redemption” through Ratzingerian improvements?

One can understand a pessimistic pragmatist who believes there’s no other show on the road (even if he would be mistaken in this post-Summorum world, where thinking outside the box has become legal — not that it could ever fail to be legal by natural and divine justice), but it is harder to understand the optimistic idealist who believes that this particular song-and-dance routine deserves to run another fifty years, with careful tweaks to the casting and the pit orchestra.

Perhaps we are dealing here with the final fumes of the conservative attitude or mentality, which I would characterize as follows: “Whatever the Church gives us must be the best for us — or, at very least, adequate for us, and what we need at this time in history.”

But this is quite incorrect.

  1. What the Church gives us is, and can only be, her tradition. Violence done by churchmen working overtime to suppress or blenderize Catholic tradition is another story. What churchmen have given us in the liturgical reform is clearly not the best for us — neither in how it was produced nor in what it contains and presents, nor in how it was rolled out and implemented. There was massive rupture in all of these ways. There is almost no one left at this point who would defend the view, redolent of Woodstock, that, thanks to Paul VI, we have entered or will enter a liturgical Age of Aquarius.
  2. Is the Novus Ordo “adequate” or “good enough”? That is never the way the Church has thought about divine worship. God deserves all that we can give, the best, the holiest, the purest, the noblest — but even more than that, He has a right to receive back from us that which He Himself has inspired among us over many centuries of liturgical prayer. The liturgy developed in depth and amplitude over many centuries under His beneficent divine causality, by His providential care for the Mystical Body. We therefore owe it to Him in justice to make use of the gifts He has given us. To strip away much of the content of our liturgy that nourished countless Christians and then offer Him a weird combination of reinterpreted bits of antiquity combined with rootless novelties is at best a surprising way to beseech His continued blessings and, at worst, an insult to His generosity and kindness.
  3. Are the reformed rites “what we need at this time in history”? Sociology, psychology, anthropology, theology, stand in formidable array to voice their negative answer.

Beyond these points, we should consider the ways in which the “Reform of the Reform” (ROTR) at this juncture in the Church’s history, and to the extent that it has survived the resignation of its principal patron, is harmful to the cause of liturgical renewal.

First and foremost, it harms the cause by reinforcing one of the basic errors of the Novus Ordo: that instead of the content and manner of worship being predetermined by a tradition to which all are equally subject, it requires repeated, deliberate, and somewhat arbitrary determinations on the part of the celebrant. A “beautiful, reverent” Novus Ordo is as much a product of the choices of its celebrant as is a bongo-drum clown Mass or a suburban talk show with a bevy of EMHCs.

The only way around this problem would be if the celebrant made a private vow “always to do the better thing” — that is, to choose always and only what is either traditional or closer to tradition — e.g., always saying “the Lord be with you” and “Kyrie eleison,” always using the Roman Canon, always standing ad orientem, always giving Communion on the tongue, and so forth. However, this would create a world of difficulties for his conscience: what is the better thing in this or that case? Discernments and decisions would still have to be made, sometimes on the spur of the moment, that are foreign to the spirit of the liturgy, which implies receipt of a gift and adherence to a rule. Attempting to act upon such a vow would, sooner or later, trigger some of the parishioners, inaugurating a series of unwelcome phone calls or letters from the local chancery.

A seminarian correspondent put it as succinctly as I’ve ever seen it put:

While we’re out there actively trying to conform the Novus Ordo to tradition, these guys [FSSP, ICRSS, etc.] are simply letting the tradition form them. Seen that way, the NO restorationist, no matter how closely he adheres to traditional beliefs and practices, is still engaged in a self-contradictory project: to be truly traditional, one has to become smaller and smaller; to conform the Novus Ordo to tradition, one has to become bigger and bigger.

Moreover, the ROTR prolongs the agony of the Church and of the people of God. Just as one does not give more alcohol to someone already drunk, or more of a drug to someone whose only hope of survival is quitting the drug, so one must not continue to use, even with the best of intentions, the very rite that marked a rupture with Catholic tradition and perpetuates that rupture. Even if, after many decades, something more like the Tridentine rite could be reassembled within the context of the Novus Ordo, would it not have been simpler, safer, and better for the faithful and for the priest to have taken up the gold standard from the start and left aside a rite so defective? Why pursue the ROTR if each step brings us closer to the authentic liturgy we already had and still have? I am reminded of a painfully true metaphor I saw online:

reform of the reform meme

Thus, for example, one hears of priests celebrating the Novus Ordo who recite Psalm 42 during the procession from the sacristy, recite the “Aufer a nobis” on the way to kissing the altar, quietly mutter some of the old Offertory prayers during a silent preparation of the gifts, choose the Roman Canon and say it in a somewhat lower voice, hold thumb and forefinger together until the ablutions, and so forth. I used to be totally sympathetic to this kind of “enrichment” — until I saw that it reinserts, by an act of private volition, elements that were deliberately removed by papal absolutism. It fights one abuse by another of the same sort, as if they will cancel out algebraically.

Adding “smellz-n-bellz” is good and important, as far as it goes, even as toppings on a pizza make it more appetizing and probably more filling; but if there is something wrong with the dough, or if the sauce is missing or the cheese is low-quality, something more basic needs to be done. Heaping on more pepperoni is not the solution.

A sign that this is really how things are is that no one, at the end of the day, is really satisfied with the ROTR Novus Ordo. Those who are already well acquainted with traditional liturgy cannot help but find it inadequate compared to the “real McCoy”: it is just so lacking in its texts and ceremonies. Yet the same attempt at an ROTR Mass often sorely troubles and irritates laymen who are accustomed to the reformed liturgy. The unexpected “traditional elements” cut against strong and universal expectations about the “goods” that the Novus Ordo is supposed to deliver, especially the direct and easy comprehension of words and a certain modern sensibility. Joseph Shaw has called this problem “falling between two stools”: it’s not traditional enough for some, and way too traditional for others. The liturgy becomes, once again, a battlefield when it is supposed to be a haven of peace and unity. The TLM cannot be blamed for being what it must be; you take all of it or none of it, inflexibly, stably, and…peacefully.

A priest friend of mine who belongs to a religious order whose priests normatively celebrate the TLM but on rarest occasions will do the NO (if requested) once said to me: “Being accustomed as I am to the old Roman missal, I find it unbearable to use the Roman Canon when I say the new Mass. So much of the liturgy is different that it seems bizarre, even irreverent, to take up this great ancient prayer at the heart of the old missal, which perhaps more than anything else shouts Tridentine Mass.”

That may seem slightly perverse, but I understand perfectly why he is saying it. If the priest were to celebrate the new Mass “in continuity,” he would be fostering an illusion of continuity that largely does not exist, whether one views it euchologically, ceremonially, or phenomenologically; he would be artificially extending the lifespan of an entity that is better off dying. Yet if the same priest were to celebrate the new Mass “in discontinuity,” letting it “be itself,” he would thereby contribute to the breakdown of Catholicism’s internal identity and the custodianship of its inheritance. In short: damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

* * *

One will sometimes hear a person say that the Novus Ordo is “traditional” because it has been around for 50 years. Someone recently wrote to me: “You should stop calling it ‘the new Mass’ because it’s not new anymore.” But age makes no difference in the theory of Enlightenment rationalism. The United States of America will soon be 250 years old, but its genesis in an 18th-century blend of social compact theory, Deism, Freemasonry, and Protestantism abstracts from and precludes incarnational culture and tradition-based rationality, so the USA might as well be yesterday’s lovechild or an embalmed Pharaoh.

Similarly, the Novus Ordo has neither a natural birth nor a natural lifespan, just as a machine has no birthday, infancy, childhood, youth, and maturity. It simply ages the way a rock or a piece of metal ages. Catholic tradition, in contrast, is something alive in the practice of the Faith and in the continuity of paradosis or handing down from generation to generation, therefore its venerable wisdom is directly proportional to its length of days. It has diachronic vigor rather than chronic lethargy.

When, later in life, John Henry Newman looked back on his youth as a highly principled and nobly minded Anglican, he had only these sobering words to say:

I looked at her [the Catholic Church]; — at her rites, her ceremonial, and her precepts; and I said, “This is a religion”; and then, when I looked back upon the poor Anglican Church, for which I had laboured so hard, and upon all that appertained to it, and thought of our various attempts to dress it up doctrinally and aesthetically, it seemed to me to be the veriest of nonentities. (Apologia Pro Vita Sua, Appendix)

How similar is the experience of so many Catholics — especially music directors, catechism teachers, and others who have a more direct involvement in typical parishes — when they shift from the NO to the TLM. “I looked at the classic Roman Mass, its rites, ceremonial, and precepts, and I said: ‘This is worship’; and then, when I looked back on the poor Novus Ordo, for which I had labored so hard, and though of our attempts to dress it up, it seemed to me to be the veriest of nonentities.”

When Newman was a young preacher at Oxford, the Anglican establishment had already existed for about 300 years (1534–1830s/40s). This is six times longer than the Novus Ordo has lasted — and in spite of that duration, which is pretty impressive by human standards, Newman describes the Anglican Church as “poor … the veriest of nonentities.” So it is, and so it shall remain, no matter how many more centuries it may endure. The same is true of the Roman Consilium Rite.

History never repeats itself — but it rhymes again and again.

As I was reading Roy Peachey’s 50 Books for Life: A Concise Guide to Catholic Literature — you know, one of those books about books that a person reads in order to feel a little less illiterate — I came across a passage on the poet Richard Crashaw (c. 1613–1649) that startlingly reminded me of the well intentioned but doomed spirit of the ROTR and the contemporaneous revival of the TLM:

A significant minority in the Church of England, including William Laud, who became Archbishop of Canterbury in 1633, had become disillusioned with mainstream Protestantism and were searching for a way to restore “the beauty of holiness” to the Church without having to burn their bridges entirely by returning to Rome. After becoming a fellow of Peterhouse, Cambridge in 1635, Crashaw quickly emerged as an important figure in this High Church movement, restoring what were widely felt to be Catholic devotional objects to Little St Mary’s, the church next door to Peterhouse, when he became curate there. (58)

This might be rewritten by analogy: “A significant minority in the Catholic Church had become disillusioned with the Bugnini liturgy and were searching for a way to restore ‘the beauty of holiness’ to the Church without having to burn their bridges entirely by returning to the traditional Roman rite.” (A certain former Anglican blogger might even come to mind, bent on “restoring what were widely felt to be Catholic devotional objects.”)

But then the inevitable backlash came:

He didn’t get away with his actions for long. With the start of the Civil War raising tensions, Laudian Cambridge became a target. Parliamentary commissioners ransacked Little St Mary’s in 1643, tearing down crucifixes and other objects of devotion. Crashaw was forced out of Cambridge and shortly afterwards left the country, emerging in Paris three years later, by which time he had converted to Catholicism. Traveling to Italy, he became canon at the Santa Casa di Loreto, which enshrines the house where Our Lady was said to have been born and received the Annunciation. He died a few months later at the age of 36. (Ibid.)

The parliamentary commissioners who ransacked Crashaw’s Little St Mary’s are reminiscent of the papal commissioners tasked with suppressing traditional and even conservative religious communities, often the only sign of vibrant Catholicism in their dioceses or regions (the latest one here). Soon the Laudian curate fled to a truly Catholic country, embraced the faith of the ages, and died in communion with tradition.

It may seem that stepping from the Novus Ordo to the TLM is less momentous, less radical, than stepping from Anglicanism to Catholicism. In important ways, that is true. But those who have delved deeply into the liturgy know from intimate experience that the classic Roman rite and the modern Roman rite look, sound, and feel very much like expressions of two different religions. It is no exaggeration to say a conversion is necessary — a conversion from the novelty of rupture to the integrity of tradition. Even as Newman called liberalism a halfway house between Catholicism and atheism, we may say the same of the Reform of the Reform: it is a halfway house between full tradition and liturgical relativism.

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