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Can a Case Still Be Made for Reforming the Reform?

The following is based on a real exchange of letters.


Dear Dr. Kwasniewsi,

I read your article “Why the ‘Reform of the Reform’ Is Doomed” and would, in a spirit of truth-seeking, like to present some objections that might be made to it.

To start with, I do agree that the Novus Ordo is “ungraftable” onto the living tradition of the Roman liturgy, considered liturgically (as opposed to juridically, etc.). One of the great benefits of the admittedly awkward situation of “two forms”—a situation that continues to exist after Traditionis Custodes and shows no signs of going away in general—is that, in principle, a simple “return” to the usus antiquior is possible and, in some sense, already exists in many places. In a couple generations there will be, at the current rate, a strong minority of those who know and love the old Mass and have only the most remote experience, if any, of the new rite. In addition, many of the younger generations who are not die-hard devotees of the older rites are nevertheless free from the ideological bitterness against anything pre-1970 and are open to “big-picture” traditional practices, e.g., ad orientem, communion while kneeling, Gregorian chant, beautiful vestments, and the like.

That being said, one might argue that there’s something impractical, and something unfitting, about the tradition-minded simply abandoning the Novus Ordo.

Impracticality. The Novus Ordo is not going away any time soon, and many people, even who are otherwise open to tradition, are not willing to abandon it. Thus, it seems like a more effective strategy would be to add more traditional elements to celebrations according to the new books—not just in the Order of Mass (the Judica me, the Offertory, etc.) but in the temporal calendar and orations. While we both agree that this is no more than an interim measure, and one that is generally unpleasing, this is nonetheless a way to get people used to the idea of traditional liturgical praxis in a way that is not jolting.

I find it hard to believe that someone who comes to love a “traditionalized” Novus Ordo will not be drawn further into the sources and richness of the Roman tradition. Many people I know (myself included, and apparently you, as well) who have come to embrace an “integral” practice of traditional Catholicism first went through their “ROTR phase,” perhaps because it is an easy way to be traditional while also remaining squarely within “the establishment.” One might even point to Pope Gregory I’s letter to St Augustine of Canterbury regarding the Saxon shrines: people will be more at ease in a familiar environment while their mores are slowly converted, and in due time, once the dispositions are there, one can build new shrines and “go all the way.” Here is what St. Gregory wrote to Abbot Mellitus, who was about to join St Augustine:

Tell Augustine that he should be no means destroy the temples of the gods but rather the idols within those temples. Let him, after he has purified them with holy water, place altars and relics of the saints in them. For, if those temples are well built, they should be converted from the worship of demons to the service of the true God. Thus, seeing that their places of worship are not destroyed, the people will banish error from their hearts and come to places familiar and dear to them in acknowledgement and worship of the true God.

Analogously, it seems that applying one’s talents to the best Novus Ordo possible, via use of the Graduale Romanum, Msgr. Peter J. Elliott’s rubrics, and the like would actually serve the traditional Mass in the long run.

Unfittingness: Intrinsically, the Novus Ordo is pleasing to God, due to the objective confection of the Eucharist, juridical approval, and the presence of many objectively wholesome elements (and the absence of directly unwholesome ones). To my mind, the defects of the Novus Ordo lie instead in what it represents, namely, a rejection of the inherited tradition, and in what it omits, such as certain “hard teachings” of the Faith. Nothing is objectively false in, say, the second Eucharistic Prayer; rather, its circumstances of composition and the fact that it virtually displaced the Roman Canon are what make it truly objectionable. If the text as we have it were a received text from antiquity and preserved in some obscure autocephalous rite, I do not believe that its mere existence would pose a problem to which anyone should object (again, abstractly speaking). As a result, it would seem unfitting, by means of a policy of abandoning the Novus Ordo “to its own devices,” to relegate the vast majority of liturgical worship to virtually inevitable mediocrity.

I understand that traditionalizing the Novus Ordo would likely extend its lifespan. Still, to draw others into a positive experience of tradition, and the corresponding increase in rendering glory unto God, would seem to trump any tactical considerations when it comes to attaining the end goal which you and I share: the complete restoration of the Roman tradition.

Best regards,

Inquiring Incrementalist

*          *          *

Dear Sir,

Thank you for your thoughts, which I welcome. We are all wrestling with these huge questions and we know that our particular theories, however valid or not, will make probably a lot less difference than our pride would care to admit.

That being said, here are my thoughts in return. I do think it is not to the benefit of the Church that a faulty lex orandi, namely, that of the Novus Ordo, be perpetuated under the guidance of a good lex orandi, that of the Tridentine rite. This approach is a bit deceptive, as it seems to depart from the clear intentions of Paul VI and of those who created the Novus Ordo, who made no attempt to hide that they wanted to replace the Tridentine rite with something quite different, which they believed would be more suitable for Modern Man.TM (I talk about this in detail in my book The Once and Future Roman Rite.)

And there are manifestly aspects of the new rite that cannot be done in a spirit of continuity with the old rite, so a priest attempting to follow the “hermeneutic of continuity” to its logical end either runs up against a brick wall, or takes matters into his own hands. The classical Offertory is a perfect case in point: either the Mass will be lacking it, which is a major defect against the backdrop of the mighty developments that took place in both Eastern and Western Christian rites, or the priest will insert the traditional Offertory ad libitum, which seems like a more extreme example of the vice of optionitis.

In addition, we mustn’t forget that we’re not looking at the Mass alone, but at all the sacramental rites, the divine office, the blessings, all of which have been deconstructed and dumbed-down past any substantive resemblance with how the Church used to offer them. “But they’re valid!” or “they still have some positive content!” comes the by-now tired and slightly despairing counterargument. Yes—but should we be serving a delicious meal and the finest wine (metaphorically, the content of a sacrament) on styrofoam with plastic cutlery and in paper cups? Should we be trying to perform a symphony on kazoos, harmonicas, banjos, and washboards? No. The authenticity and fittingness of our worship hugely matter when it comes to impressing the faith on our souls and offering to God the best He has given us and the best we can give Him. Priests who say the old Mass but pray the Liturgy of the Hours, or who say the new Mass but pray the old Roman Breviary, quickly see the huge disconnect: it’s like two different worlds. It’s even more dramatic if one compares the new rite of baptism to the old rite: there is no possible evolutionary path from old to new, and no possible reformatory path from the new back to the great tradition.

However, relatively speaking, and in particular cases, I know that a “Tridentinizing” approach to the new rite has led many Catholics back to tradition. It has acted as a bridge. It has consoled clergy who have been bullied into compliance with TC or who believe (whether rightly or wrongly) that they must obey the anti-TLM rulings of their bishop. It has undoubtedly saved some vocations.

So, I will candidly admit I am torn between building bridges and blowing up bridges. I wouldn’t be surprised if the majority of traditionalists are conflicted in mind about the ROTR from a practical point of view. Sure, we want Catholics exposed to good things even in the Novus Ordo… but the environment in which those good things occur has a dismaying fakeness to it at the end of the day. It remains a construct of modern liturgists acting on the basis of false or dubious theories and utterly ineffective at doing what its architects claimed it would do for the Church, and the “good use” of it is a conquest of taste, not an inheritance received whole and entire like other traditional inheritances. By using the new liturgical books we are not doing what our forefathers gave us (and gave us for good reason); we are extending the lease of Paul VI’s abuse of power, and, while we’re at it, validating Francis’s abuse of power. Are we delaying the longed-for and long-overdue mucking out of the stables?

The new missal, after all, has its own “spirit”: a spirit of simplicity, directness, and clarity. That’s what it was designed to optimize. So a priest is probably doing a disservice to people in a different way if he starts doing a lot of the new rite in Latin, and adds stuff in from the TLM that isn’t there in the rubrics. He is building his own semi-Tridentine personal rite. However, on one point I can be adamant: every priest should go ad orientem. That is non-negotiable. After all, regardless of Paul VI’s own preference for versus populum, the rubrics of the Novus Ordo and all other relevant documentation very obviously allow for ad orientem and indeed presuppose it.

Is this position of mine—that it would be better to abandon the new rite in favor of the traditional rite, but at the same time, attempts should not be made to Tridentinize the new rite and put old things back into it—self-contradictory? No, because the rites have their own design, their own way of doing things and the goals that go with it, and mixing them in either direction may not result in mutual enrichment but in mutual muddiness. A TLM in the vernacular would be as inappropriate, given what it is and how it “works,” as a Novus Ordo in whispered Latin, given what it is and how it works. I blame this mess on Paul VI: he created the unprecedented conundrum, and we are living in its chaotic aftermath.

I suppose one difference between us is that I have come to think it objectively wrong for the Church to cease to offer to God the orthodox prayers and rituals of reverence that He led her to embrace over many centuries of piety. Years ago I used to think that the Novus Ordo was free from objectionable material in itself while characterized by the privation of good and too prone to easy abuse on account of deficient rubrics. After further study, it became clear that its architects, who held views incompatible with the Faith, designed a product that cannot but mislead the faithful, unless they are unusually well educated and zealous to make up for its deficiencies. Many books converge on this conclusion, but I will mention two in particular: Lauren Pristas’s Collects of the Roman Missals: A Comparative Study of the Sundays in Proper Seasons before and after the Second Vatican Council and Michael Fiedrowicz’s The Traditional Mass: History, Form, and Theology of the Classical Roman Rite.


It’s not possible to read this pair of books (or others like them) and not see intellectually and feel viscerally the magnitude of the crisis created by the liturgical reform—a crisis that will never be overcome until the modern rite is finally repudiated and the traditional rite is restored in its fullness. Each priest will need to decide, before God, in his own conscience, and well prepared by study and prayer, what this crisis demands of him personally. There are many paths that converge on tradition—muddling along as best one can with the occasional TLM or the souped-up NOM; petitioning to join the FSSP or other such community; going into early retirement and helping discreetly on the TLM underground circuit; imitating heroes of the faith like Fr. Yves Normandin who brought the TLM to countless faithful across Canada in the dark days; accepting the generosity of traditional laity in return for provision of the traditional sacraments; and so on. What is clear, in any case, is that both the reform and the reform of the reform have led to the same place, namely, a dead end. It’s time to turn around.

Cordially in Christ,

Dr. Kwasniewsi


Photo by Everett Bartels on Unsplash

This article has been updated.

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