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The One Thread By Which the Council Hangs: a Response to Cavadini, Healy, and Weinandy

Above: photos of (left) Requiem Mass for Pope Benedict XVI at the Monastère Saint-Benoît, provided by the monastery, and (right) Mass in Mexico, by marianaarias of CathoPic.


“Don’t touch that! If you do, everything will collapse!” The warning is clear enough. Any sensible person would rapidly desist, lest their one seemingly minor act bring everything crashing down, undoing the work of many days, weeks, years or even decades.

I am not sure whether these were the exact words used by a number of bishops at the beginning of the pontificate of Pope Benedict XVI, but, whatever words they chose, these bishops forcefully conveyed to him their opinion that he could not under any circumstances permit a wider use of the older liturgical rites without perilously detracting from the authority of the Second Vatican Council. “Don’t do it,” they insisted, “or the Council will seem to have been reversed and will lose its authority.”

Of course, Benedict XVI did “do it” with his motu proprio Summorum Pontificum (7 July 2007)—having first spent a cheerful morning or two telephoning many of the bishops who had previously shouted at him, in order personally to ‘explain’ that they had little or nothing to worry about. The world did not come to an end. The Church did not implode, and the Second Vatican Council’s true authority was not undermined.

At least, not in the minds of those who understand the Second Vatican Council to be a valid Ecumenical Council of the Catholic Church which occupied itself with pastoral aims—principally how the Church could more effectively preach the Gospel in the modern age—and who know that it defined no dogmas and decreed no anathemas, but outlined policies which were judged to be expedient at the time and which were to be interpreted in a hermeneutic of continuity with the Church’s Tradition, including the dogmatic definitions of the other twenty Ecumenical Councils of the Church.

But in the minds of those for whom the Second Vatican Council did in fact define a dogma—indeed, a super-dogma—Pope Benedict’s actions most certainly risked undermining the Council and bringing its entire edifice crashing down in ruins. The dogma it supposedly defined?—that “Vatican II changed all of that, radically, irreversibly,” where “that” stands for any previous liturgical, doctrinal, moral, or pastoral teaching or practice that is deemed inapplicable (read “inconvenient”) to contemporary man.

This super-dogma has been applied to every area of the life of the Church in subsequent decades, from catechetics to cathedral choirs, from seminaries to Catholic schools, from missionary territories to the minefield of morality in the modern world, from relations with non-Catholics and non-Christians to its dealing with increasingly secular states, etc. But nowhere is this super-dogma more clearly visible, indeed nowhere is it more tangible, than in the liturgical rites promulgated by the pope in the decade or so following the Council’s close in 1965. The “new Mass” is just that; it is not the old one. The old one is gone—and forbidden in the minds of those for whom “Vatican II changed all of that, radically, irreversibly.” And their emotional and psychological attachment to this super-dogma runs very deep indeed.

If you doubt this for one minute, take a young priest, have him catechise his people on the patristic, spiritual, and pastoral value of celebrating the (new, vernacular) Mass ad orientem—with the priest and congregation facing together towards the [liturgical] East—and have him announce the date on which he shall commence the practice. Then borrow his telephone. The chancery or even the bishop will call promptly enough to forbid him. You see, “Vatican II changed all of that,” even if in 2016 Pope Francis’s own choice as Prefect of the Congregation of Divine Worship had the temerity to explain that, in fact, it did not. (He, too, got a telephone call.)

The Grip of the Super-Dogma

When we recognise this super-dogma for what it actually is—a lie upon which generations of clergy and laity have built their ecclesiastical careers (by no means am I referring to “simple layfolk” who just want to love and serve God and get to heaven)—we can begin to understand the manic severity that is meted out to those who refuse to subscribe to it and, indeed, we can begin to comprehend the extreme lengths to which its devotees will go in propping up and jealously defending everything that they have built upon this foundation, most especially the reformed liturgy. For the new liturgy is the touchstone of Vatican II. It is the single thread by which (in the minds of many) the Council (of their own conception) hangs.

This explains the grave concerns expressed by ecclesiastical authorities about whether or not those who wish to celebrate the unreformed liturgical rites “accept Vatican II.” What, in fact, is there to accept? The prudential judgements of the Council in respect of pastoral policy? One may be a faithful Catholic and have different opinions about their value, particularly with some sixty years of hindsight, surely?

Of course, authorities are more specific in their demand: one must accept the legitimacy of the liturgical reform of Vatican II. Here we get to the crux of the matter. Every Catholic must indeed accept the validity of the liturgical rites duly promulgated by the pope (and which do not contravene the divinely instituted elements of the rites—no pope or council can substitute bread and wine at Mass with cola and cookies). But with greatest respect to the authorities—who repeat this demand often—that is as far as it goes. That the liturgical and historical travesty known as “Eucharistic Prayer II” validly confects the Eucharist is undoubtedly true. But whether it should be (or ever have been) placed in any Roman missal, or for that matter, in any liturgical book, is very much open to legitimate debate. Even Protestant scholars recoil from the embarrassing way in which it came into its present form and use. And this, very worryingly, is quite possibly the Eucharistic Prayer that practicing Catholics most often encounter at Mass.

You see, if you don’t “accept” this reform—or worse still, if you question it, or habitually avoid it by frequenting or celebrating the unreformed liturgical rites—you are classed as a “Vatican-II denier.” And in the contemporary Catholic Church which boasts of its mercy, inclusivity, accompaniment, its listening and its openness to diversity, there is little if any place for you—regardless of the fact that you have never once denied the reality of the Second Vatican Council or that it was a legitimate Ecumenical Council of the Catholic Church and you accept each and every one of its solemn doctrinal definitions (all none of them). Once labelled a “Vatican-II denier,” a “traditionalist,” or whatever, you are beyond the fringes—because you have dared to touch that one thread on which, many hold, the Second Vatican Council hangs.

Cavadini, Healy and Weinandy

In an article in which I have been requested to respond to “A Synoptic Look at the Failures and Successes of Post-Vatican II Liturgical Reforms” by John Cavadini, Mary Healy, and Thomas Weinandy (originally published as a series of five articles, gathered into one on December 1, 2022), I have taken a long time getting to the authors’ writing itself. However, I make no apology for the length of the introduction above. Once the issues and realities outlined there are understood, one can begin to assess what they write. I hasten to add that I do not accuse them personally of holding all of the positions I have highlighted. But with their series they have wandered—somewhat recklessly I would say, even with the best of intentions—into the minefield at the heart of the “liturgy-wars” that have been reignited by the new Prefect of the now “Dicastery” of Divine Worship, his cronies, and those whom they have been able to influence.

There are many, many things that could be said in respect of their more than 20,000-word foray and, if they are to be taken at their word (and there is seemingly no reason to doubt them), they are sincerely trying to grapple with the problem of the liturgy of the Roman rite that has once again reared its ugly head, and quite violently, since Pope Francis’s motu proprio Traditionis Custodes (16 July 2021) and exacerbated by Archbishop (now Cardinal) Roche’s responses to questions over the motu proprio (18 December 2021) and underlined by the pope’s apostolic letter on liturgical formation Desiderio Desideravi (29 June 2022).

The gist of all of these documents—one might reasonably say that it is their raw political aim—is the reassertion of the reformed liturgical books published after the Council as the sole form of worship in the Latin Rite of the Catholic Church, brusquely rescinding the freedoms established by Pope Benedict XVI for the use of the older liturgical rites. These documents don’t quite go as far as to set a date for everyone to be voluntarily enclosed in a liturgical straitjacket (perhaps yet another document is on the way? If so, it will only further harm and divide the Church) but their gist is that Eucharistic Prayer II and all the rest are here to stay and that everyone shall like them, no matter what.

Cavadini, Healy, and Weinandy are honest in seeing that this poses quite a problem when there is at least one generation of Catholics, young and growing in number, for whom the reformed liturgical rites are practically unknown. They have discovered or even have grown up with the usus antiquior—the older liturgical rites—and they are now raising their own children accordingly, having been assured by popes and prelates across the world—even by the likes of the then Archbishop Roche[1]—that this was perfectly acceptable and did not in any way damage the communion of the Church; indeed, that it enriched it as an expression of that legitimate plurality that is part of the One Church of Christ. These generations, who have produced numerous vocations to the priesthood and religious life and whose young people have formed faithful and fruitful marriages, see no need for the reformed rites. They will have nothing to do with a Stalinist liturgical re-education ordered from on high to ensure that everyone really does like Eucharistic Prayer II.

The Genie is Out of the Bottle

Here we arrive at the first major problem with Cavadini, Healy, and Weinandy’s series of articles. The fact is that the liturgical genie is out of the bottle, and attempts to get it back inside are futile. Their articles may be cathartic to write and satisfying (for some) to read, and by publishing them they may be happy to be supporting the draconian measures ordered by Rome, but they will convince no one. Indeed, they will fuel (and they have fuelled) more trenchant exchanges across the increasingly deeply drawn partisan lines of the liturgy wars.

Certainly, bishops can close down Masses celebrated in the older form and forbid access to the Sacraments. They can bully and threaten fiscally dependant clergy into submission and hiding, but they cannot convince them. The generation of Catholics born and formed during the pontificates of St John Paul II and Benedict XVI are not going to rush to establish an International Society of St Paul VI to promote his liturgical rites any time soon, even if some are forced to celebrate them. Why? Because the intellectual and pastoral argument about the theological, liturgical, and most especially the pastoral superiority of the reformed liturgical rites has long since been lost. And here we run into the gaping holes in Cavadini, Healy, and Weinandy’s series.

Intellectually, because it is a well-established fact that the new rites promulgated by Paul VI after the Council were not the modest, organic development of the heretofore Roman rite for which the Council called (see Sacrosanctum Concilium 23) but were a radically new product of the body entrusted by Paul VI to implement the Council’s liturgical Constitution (the Consilium). Both proponents and opponents of the new rites accept this reality. The Consilium intentionally went beyond the Constitution—with, in the case of many of its members, the best of intentions, and certainly, in the end, with the backing of papal authority. As anyone who studies the Council itself will rapidly learn, the Council did not intend the liturgy to be entirely in the vernacular; it mandated no new Eucharistic Prayers; it insisted that Gregorian chant should have pride of place; it never said a word about the priest turning toward the people; etc., etc.

All of this is to say that it is intellectually false to assert that to question or reject the reformed liturgy is in some way to “undermine Vatican II, as our three authors, and others, would have us believe. (Note the fear here that the super-dogma will be denied.) The reformed liturgy is a set of prudential judgments made after and not at the Council by enthusiasts and experts in the hope of producing rites that would be pastorally effective in the modern era. The Council’s liturgical Constitution was viewed by the Consilium as a starting point, not as a set of terms of reference. Fact. One can question the judgements made liturgically and historically without in any way denying that the Council was legitimate as a Council and, indeed, that it rightly took up questions of liturgical reform. Fact. (There was a time when Eucharistic Prayer II was not. Fact.)

Pastoral Judgements and Re-evaluations

One can also question the judgements made by the Consilium and Paul VI pastorally, and it is here that we find the next gaping hole in this series of articles. Pastorally, as repeated statistical studies from various countries demonstrate, the reformed liturgy has simply not delivered the ecclesial renewal promised. Promised? Yes: the assumption that guided (“motivated”? “sold”?) the introduction of the new rites was that if the liturgy were simplified, modernised, made more contemporary, then people would participate in it more fruitfully and a new springtime in the life of the Church would be ushered in. Alas, the opposite has proved to be true.

That is not to say that there are not many good, committed people who find in the modern rites the source and summit of their Christian life and who receive many graces therefrom (but, of course, the same is true of those who frequent the usus antiquior), nor is it to deny that the dramatic decline in liturgical practice in Western Catholicism is due to many and varied factors. But it is to say, very clearly, that the modern liturgical rites have not of themselves proved to be part of the solution; of themselves they have not retained, let alone attracted, people to the practice of the Faith. Today we may, then, legitimately raise questions about their pastoral utility and about the wisdom of following the policies of sixty years ago that led to their production.

In this light it is interesting, and very welcome, that our authors are open to considering a reform of the liturgical reform. They are, perhaps, unaware that in recent decades merely to broach this possibility was utterly forbidden in the Congregation (now Dicastery) of Divine Worship, even under Benedict XVI. According to the partisans who controlled its corridors, the new liturgical books are “irreformable”—even if the Sovereign Pontiff (at the time) thought otherwise. That Cavadini, Healy, and Weinandy are open to considering such questions and to making an honest appraisal of the weaknesses of the liturgical reform is to their credit, though it will probably not gain them any new friends in the Roman Curia at present.

For the Curia currently follows the party line found in a late summer 2017 speech by the Holy Father in which he affirmed “with certainty and with magisterial authority that the liturgical reform is irreversible.” (24 August 2017). This is a curious use of “magisterial authority,” not only because a speech is an unusual and very low-ranking form of pontifical utterance for the serious exercise of magisterial authority, but also because unless it means the liturgical reform in all its specifics, it can mean nothing at all. Hence Eucharistic Prayer II (and all its friends) are irreversible; they could never be changed or abolished. Ultimately, this seems to be a somewhat cheap use of the term “magisterium” that only serves to undermine the value of the currency.

The problem with such a papal claim is that modern and ancient liturgical history prove exactly the opposite. If Summorum Pontificum (2007) can be abolished by Traditionis Custodes (2021) and if the Breviary of Cardinal Quignonez published under Paul III in 1535 could be repudiated several popes later in 1558, the Missal of Paul VI could—legitimately, in whole or in part—be abolished or reformed, most particularly in an era when a pernicious political papal positivism seems to be the main criterion in play. Suddenly abolishing the new missal would be a draconian act and would be pastorally insensitive and harmful (as is Traditionis Custodes), but it could be done. (There may yet be a time when Eucharistic Prayer II is not.)

Pneumatological Enthusiasms

But for the partisans of the Mass of Paul VI, this is unthinkable—even academically. And to protect themselves from even its discussion, the authors we are considering assert, quite incredibly, that opposition to the reformed liturgy “inherently denies the validity of the liturgical renewal as a genuine work of Holy Spirit in the contemporary Church,” and that a return to the older rites “is contrary to the entire Spirit-anointed liturgical renewal that culminated in Vatican II’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy.” Put simply, their argument is that to critique or to reject the reformed liturgical rites is tantamount to blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, because the new rites are the direct result of His activity in the Church.

To put it politely, our authors are suffering from a little too much enthusiasm here, for they are practically making the liturgical reforms themselves a matter of faith, of Divine Revelation, to be believed in by all the faithful. But the reforms are not. They are the product of prudential judgements of men, submitted to a pope who promulgated them. Certainly, these men did (we hope) fervently invoke God the Holy Spirit to assist them in their work—and in this life we shall never know to what extent He did so assist them. (Could God the Holy Spirit really have been personally responsible for all the errors that resulted in Eucharistic Prayer II?)

It is therefore not the sin of blasphemy to question the liturgical reform any more that it is blasphemy to assert that the College of Cardinals is perfectly capable of invoking the Holy Spirit at the beginning of a conclave and then of electing a truly bad pope, as any history of the papacy more than clearly demonstrates. That a man is the pope and acts with the requisite authority is a matter which can be legally verified. That a man is the choice of God the Holy Spirit is something that one may personally hold, but it is not something that may be asserted as a truth of the Faith. This applies mutatis mutandis in respect of liturgical reforms.

Indeed, scholarship increasingly shows that there were many other influences at work in the liturgical reform following the Council—just as there are in papal elections. Personally, I am no fan of the maligning of the reform through ad hominem attacks on the reformers themselves: the new rites should be critiqued on liturgical grounds and in the light of the principles of Sacrosanctum Concilium—and there is more than enough material here to show their defects!

Paradoxes in Participation

Cavadini, Healy, and Weinandy rightly underline the centrality to the liturgical reform of participatio actuosa (of real, conscious, fruitful participation) in the Sacred Liturgy. This had been the desire of popes and of the twentieth-century Liturgical Movement for decades prior, and the prominence given it by the Council is unquestionably apposite. It’s not a doctrine of the Faith, but it is a pastoral orientation/policy which is, arguably, fundamental for the good of every baptised person.

But our authors get bogged down in a quagmire of activity rather than actuality, emphasising the many things people do in the modern rites, almost as if this activity is an end in itself—an assumption that has proved to be the quicksand that has swallowed up any possibility of liturgical participation in many souls. How many children who have been made thus to “participate” in Masses in their schools or parishes no longer practice the Faith, having never in fact been introduced to Christ, the principal actor in the Sacred Liturgy? For if we are not formed in “the spirit and power of the liturgy,” all this activity is futile, as the Council itself stated bluntly in the same article (Sacrosanctum Concilium 14) that calls for participatio actuosa.

They really should re-read (and study the Acta and the contemporary commentaries on the Constitution) article 36 (which they quote): “To promote active participation, the people should be encouraged to take part by means of acclamations, responses, psalms, antiphons, hymns, as well as by actions, gestures and bodily attitudes…” (emphasis added). This is one of the most misunderstood articles of the Constitution: participatio actuosa can certainly be promoted or fostered by the activities mentioned, but it itself is something else, something deeper—something of the mind, heart, and soul that is accessible even if it is not one’s turn to read or serve or perform any other ordinary or extraordinary ministry at Mass; indeed, even if one never has or could. The fact is that liturgical activity has been increased, whilst we still await the Council’s desire for full, conscious, actual participation by all.

Interestingly, Cavadini, Healy, and Weinandy note, correctly, that those who attend celebrations of the usus antquior today do so with a “Vatican II mindset”; i.e., they expect to participate in the older rites. Of course, when you arrive for Sunday Mass in the usus antiquior you don’t run the risk of being press-ganged into doing the second reading, taking up the Offertory procession, or filling in for the extraordinary minister who has called in sick. You may well have a public ministerial function, but more often your ministerial function will be to exercise the priesthood conferred by your baptism in co-offering the Sacrifice of Christ re-enacted on the altar by His ministerial priest, through a full, conscious, and actual participation in the liturgical rites that doesn’t involve that much external activity. Indeed, the relatively unbusy ambience of even solemn celebrations of the usus antiquior is highly conducive to participatio actuosa, which is something essentially internal, indeed contemplative.

This is of the uttermost importance. For if, as our authors rightly assert, this participation was what the Council desired above all, and if, as they implicitly acknowledge, it can be (as indeed it is) found in contemporary celebrations of the usus antiquior, then the ritual liturgical reforms that followed the Council are not of themselves necessary to achieve the aim of the Council itself.

This belies their spurious assertion that “for the Council Fathers, what is now termed the ‘ordinary form’ would become the sole form of the liturgy celebrated in the Roman rite of the Church.” Firstly, the Council Fathers did not and could not foresee the “ordinary form” as it was promulgated six (very charged) years after they voted on the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy; secondly, a number of them reacted with disappointment when it appeared; thirdly, and most importantly, if participatio actuosa could be achieved without all the fuss, as it were, they would have been utterly content.

To be fair, the formation in the expectation of participation with which younger generations arrive at celebrations of the usus antiquior is indeed a fruit of decades of that very expectation, inaugurated by the Council. But the fact that the Council’s most fervent desire can and is being realised some sixty years later in celebrations of the unreformed rites is more than telling. One might even speculate that this could be something of “what the Spirit is saying to the churches” (Rev. 3:22) in respect of liturgical issues in our day. This, in the present author’s opinion, is a reality with which our authors and the authorities they seek to serve have yet to comprehend, let alone respect. It is crucial that, in all humility and without delay, they attribute it the respect it commands.

What Threatens Communion?

There are many other observations one could make about Cavadini, Healy, and Weinandy’s articles, including the paucity of their liturgical history and the lack of a range of sources in their footnotes. Their constant reference to “the eucharistic liturgy” is annoying and narrow—the Council sought to broaden people’s understanding of the Sacred Liturgy beyond the Mass alone—and their blithe assumption that “immediately prior to Vatican Council II” the norm was “inadequate theological understanding and deficient liturgical practice” is simply insulting: the same charge could, in fact, be made of most worshipers today, perhaps with even more grounds.

But I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge the “dishonourable mention” accorded to myself in the last of their articles.[2] They attribute the reasoned stance taken by our monastery in celebrating much-needed ordinations, long since overdue, last year outside the normal channels[3] to “the desire to celebrate the pre-conciliar rite” and of thereby establishing our monastery as a “church apart from the Church.” Ecclesiology 101 please, dear professors! Not even the Society of St Pius X are accorded such a status—the Holy See has for decades regarded their situation as a disciplinary matter within the Catholic Church. And our (clearly argued, conscientious) disobedience to canonical norms did not involve episcopal consecrations. Rather, it involved our decision to accept a life-line when it was offered instead of accepting the involuntary euthanasia being forced upon us because of pressure on our bishop from the Holy See—as subsequent events have clearly demonstrated.

Ours was also, apparently, “an act of disunity, ripping apart the communion of the Church in order to celebrate the pre-conciliar rite.” No, it was an act of conscientious disobedience in order to survive and live our vocation in an integrity hitherto approved by the Church and which was under grave threat of extinction through no fault of our own. Perseverance in one’s vocation is what is owed to Almighty God, and it is not a fault or an ecclesiastical crime.

Cavadini, Healy, and Weinandy’s overreaction here is illustrative: “Don’t touch that! If you do, everything will collapse!,” they are shouting. Are they afraid that others shall follow suit? If the draconian implementation of Traditionis Custodes continues, or if even further measures are enacted against the usus antiquior and those who celebrate it, some may well follow suit. And it will be these measures and those who enforce them—not those persevering in fidelity to their vocation and their ministry—who will be ripping apart the communion of the Church in order to impose a uniformity that is simply not necessary in order to be a member of the Catholic Church that Our Lord Jesus Christ founded.


It is only a matter of time before the one thread by which the Council as understood by many (“Vatican II changed all of that, radically, irreversibly”) snaps, and the whole edifice built upon this false premise—including its supposedly untouchable and purportedly divinely-inspired liturgical reforms—comes crashing down. One could be tempted to say that the sooner this happens, the better for all concerned. But such a crash will traumatise, if not even scandalise, many for whom this false assumption is indeed a super-dogma. Falsehood must be refuted, as St Paul insists (cf. 1 Tim. 1:3; 2 Tim. 4:2–5), but those entrapped in its snares must be rescued, not lost. (There may even be valid pastoral reasons to permit the occasional use of Eucharistic Prayer II.)

Pope Benedict XVI attempted such a rescue. He sought to lead the Church along the path of interpreting the Council according to a hermeneutic of reform-in-continuity, not one of rupture, and, in seeking a greater reconciliation within the Church and a greater reconciliation of the Church with her own tradition, he decreed that the older liturgical rites were free to live and breathe and influence the life of the Church in our times. He imposed nothing. He forbade nothing (not even Eucharistic Prayer II). He permitted much and gently left the rest to God the Holy Spirit.

Unfortunately Pope Benedict’s inclusive policies have been reversed with a cold severity that has profoundly scandalised people, particularly in its demand that all must now bow down before the new liturgical rites, which have been set up—let it be said clearly—as nothing less than an idol. So-called “traditionalists” have often been charged with idolising the older liturgical rites, but their attachment to them doesn’t even approach the rigid exclusivity with which Traditionis Custodes, Cardinal Roche’s Dubia responses, or Desiderio Desideravi are replete.

The thread from which all of this hangs is old, thin, and worn. It will break soon enough. In the meantime, in respect of “what earlier generations held as sacred [and which] remains sacred and great for us too, and… cannot be all of a sudden entirely forbidden or even considered harmful” (Benedict XVI, Con Grande Fiducia, 7 July 2007), as St Peter and the apostles stated before the High Priest’s Council (cf. Acts 5), “we must obey God rather than men.” Those in ecclesiastical authority and those who, including our three authors, are enthusiastically promoting their repressive policies, might like to read further in that chapter of the Acts of the Apostles and ponder the advice of Gamaliel: “Keep away from these men and let them alone; for if this plan or this undertaking is of men, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them. You might even be found opposing God!”


[1] See his 14 October 2015 interview “Connect 5: Archbishop Arthur Roche on the Liturgy Wars,” Salt and Light Media.

[2] I accepted the task of writing a response to the series before the final installment had been published.

[3] Details published here: Statement–Communiqué.

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