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The Failure of Todaying: Abandon the Passé and Recover Tradition

The following letters are based on a real epistolary exchange.

Dear Dr. Kwasniewski,

It is obvious that things are not at all well with the Catholic Church today. This is true whether we look at the morals of the clergy and the faithful or what they believe (or don’t believe) or how the Mass is conducted in our churches — really anything to do with prayer, doctrine, or way of life. In other words, a comprehensive meltdown, though with some sparkling lights here and there, keeping us from utter despair. Where did this disaster come from? What is the root cause?

* * *

Dear N.,

The fundamental problem of the Catholic Church in the last half-century is the paradigm shift of taking as a guiding principle accommodation to the modern world. The flash word at the Council was aggiornamento, updating; one might even translate it “todaying.”

Two questions were asked only by a few, and those on the outskirts of power. First, should this “today” of ours be the definitive reference point or authoritative measure by which we reinterpret Christianity and renew its presence in the world? Or might this procedure lead to an inversion and perversion of its timeless power to bring illumination and redemption to any time and all times by remaining to some extent aloof from them and even opposed to them? Does not the Gospel have to remain countercultural even as it is wisely inculturated? Second, if we narrowly confine ourselves to “today,” will we not lose our guiding sympathy with yesterday and our freedom to speak to tomorrow with the force of perennial truth? Aggiornamento became the adjournment of the Church’s role in society and in souls; it was an extermination (from ex-terminare, to drive out of boundaries), because it canceled out the defining duty of inheritance from our predecessors and the corresponding responsibility to our successors, seeking instead an ephemeral relevance to ourselves. The hodie of mystery, which transcends time, was replaced with “the latest,” which unfortunately quickly ends up as yesterday’s big news, not tomorrow’s.

This experiment has really been a failure. The Church has not evangelized the world by taking on its complexion; the world has colonized the Church. The event of the Council and the unrelenting “implementation” that has been chugging along now for fifty years gave and continues to give countless fallen human beings the perfect excuse to throw off the gentle yoke of Christ and surrender their freedom to the world, the flesh, and the devil.

The liturgical reform was so deeply mired in this paradigm, caught between rationalism (immediate verbal comprehension as the measure of active participation — an error no Christian prior to the Enlightenment could have been foolish enough to think up) and romanticism (emotional impact as yardstick of engagement — another error, in permanent irremediable tension with the last one), that it is very hard to see how one could actually “reclaim” it or “reform” it. What exactly is there to reform? The new liturgical books are sui generis products of their time, bearing the marks of scissors and paste from avant-garde committees whose brazen scholarly assumptions have been undermined and whose risk-it-all sociological gambles have proved a washout. As Ratzinger said, it’s a dangerous thing to tie the liturgy to pet theories, which change every generation.

It seems to me more and more that the decisive question to ask is this: How do we understand the words of Jesus when He says “the Spirit will lead you into the fullness of truth”? This He says to the Church, His Bride. The realization of His promise was not only the canons and anathemas of Councils, but the organic unfolding of the great liturgies of the apostolic rites. The Roman rite witnessed a magnificent and complex development over many centuries. Any reform, to be legitimate, would have to show the most profound respect for this arc of development — and Paul VI’s did not do so. Rather, it combined inconsistent archaeologism, heavy-handed redaction, and sheer innovation. This is a problem that will not go away, no matter how much “spin” is put on it.

A key part of any healthy Catholic response will be having the courage to criticize what popes and bishops have done to the Church — and I do not mean criticizing in the manner of NCR progressives who want to excuse their violations of the Ten Commandments, but rather as Catholics who really believe those Commandments and value the traditional creed, ethics, and worship of the Church.

Yours in Christ,

Dr. Kwasniewski

* * *

Dear Dr. Kwasniewski,

I have long pondered what it would look like if the Church suppressed the Ordinary Form (O.F.) entirely. In my life, I saw from close up how a bishop drove many practicing Catholics into the Old Catholic schism through his enthusiasm for liturgy and truth — though I did appreciate his willingness to speak the truth and to promote good liturgy. I heard the grumblings of older Catholics over the new translation of the O.F. in the early 2010s. People do not handle change well, which the Church saw after Vatican II when so many people left off practicing. I have tried bringing members of my family to the Extraordinary Form (E.F.) and most of them could care less what their liturgy looks like — though one liberal relative did ask in surprise after a reverent eastward-facing O.F., “What do you like about that?” She could not understand the beautiful mystery of chant, of a liturgy directed toward God. One can always win arguments about the E.F.’s strong points, but I doubt most Catholics actually care about the reverence of the liturgy they attend. It’s not on the radar.

This past summer, we were on a big road trip and had to attend typical banal O.F. Masses along the way. One Mass had three homilies: one from the celebrant, one from the parish priest, and a third from a recent convert about why he converted. The music was what I heard growing up with the St. Louis Jesuits and so on. The priests were chatty, the congregations were as well, and there were ushers that greeted us when we just wanted to slip in and out. The people with whom we attended it loved it. The community there was vibrant. There is a similar parish in my neighborhood with well attended liturgies. I know a lot of young Catholic families that love their O.F. parishes; my relatives sit in the front pews with their families and happily sing the four-hymn sandwich with pastors who put on a show every week. Would these people willingly submit to switching back to the E.F.?

Then there was the case of the priest removed from his parish in Saginaw because he introduced Latin chant to one Sunday Mass, and his parishioners complained to the bishop. I do not think the Church is ripe for bringing back the E.F. exclusively.

The number of young people interested in the E.F. is, nevertheless, a hopeful sign that the traditional mindset will spread and grow. It is going to take time, generations, perhaps, but I am confident that the Tradition will prevail, and that is where I see the Holy Spirit guiding the Church. I have found that telling friends and family about the beauty of tradition does not work — love of this kind has to come from the heart as well as the mind. Perhaps that is the point you are making about rationalism and romanticism — two extremes — when the reality is that, during the liturgy, we need both our reason and our emotions to be open to the profound, beautiful mystery of the Sacrifice of the Mass.

I wonder have you ever attended an O.F. Mass at [a place famous for “Reform of the Reform”–style liturgies]? The preservation of tradition within the O.F. changed my perspective. For the first time I realized that the O.F. could appear to flow from tradition rather than being antagonistic to it; that clergy and vested ministers were capable of doing everything in the sanctuary, without the need to tap random members of the congregation; the Mass looked and felt like a true act of adoration because of the priest, with the people, offering it ad orientem; everyone knelt for communion, and silence prevailed before and after Mass. After going there for a whole year, I was changed: the differences between the E.F. and the O.F. did not bother me so much anymore, nor did I obsess over the rubrics. I was able to pray with the liturgy, regardless of what form it was. I felt healed of bitterness at the liturgical changes because I realized what could have been done and can still be done to implement the Council in light of tradition.

If our young, tradition-minded priests could make their parishes like that, how easy it would be to bring congregations, over time, to a point where they could accept the E.F. once again. I think it’s very important not to mimic the swift, jarring changes of the 1960s. It has to happen “brick by brick,” as Fr. Zuhlsdorf is fond of saying. For healing in the Church to happen, for true tradition to take hold, we who love tradition have to sit back and wait for the Holy Spirit to guide the Church. The usus antiquior will need time to take hold again. This is the way tradition works; this is the way the Holy Spirit moves.

In Christ,


* * *

Dear N.,

It seems to me that the O.F. will not need to be suppressed; there is every reason to think it will slowly decay as time goes on. I say this not with glee, but with a melancholy sense of its failure to hold the younger generations and especially its notorious failure to generate the large numbers of priestly and religious vocations required for basic maintenance. While the traditional movement is tiny in absolute numbers, proportionally speaking, it has larger families and more vocations. It is a movement of youthful energy, not of church closures and mergers, lay-administered parishes, and elderly priests in retirement homes.

Naturally, if the Lord will have mercy on us and send us a genuine reforming pope — a Leo XIV or a Benedict XVII — we could see a rapid escalation in the number of old rite liturgies. All it would take is a requirement (not a recommendation) that all seminarians be trained in both “forms,” and a requirement that every diocese have a certain percentage of old rite centers, or that each parish offer at least one E.F. Mass on Sundays and Holy Days. Right now such a scenario is well nigh unimaginable, but as I like to say, stranger things have happened in Church history.

The reality is that the Church is already in schism. It is a virtual, unacknowledged schism, but no less real, spiritually, for all that. I speak of the difference between “all orthodox believers and confessors of the Catholic and apostolic Faith” (Roman Canon) and those who do not hold this faith unadulterated. This is why certain Catholics get up and leave when someone like Cardinal Burke or Bishop Schneider comes along and speaks the truth. It’s not because he’s speaking the truth; it’s because they do not want to hear the truth and would prefer to leave the Church instead of submitting to it. And it seems to me that no amount of handling the truth with kid gloves will ultimately make a difference. A parish priest can spend weeks or months preparing his people for the return of ad orientem worship, but in the end it will always have the same result: a group a parishioners (usually a tiny minority) will storm out upset and go shopping for a Boomer church they like, and the parish will attract new members who are looking for worship “in spirit and in truth.”

I do not think it matters much that there are “vibrant” parishes which are doing everything the wrong way. Frankly, what is happening here is a drift, slower or faster, into a Protestantized version of Catholicism that will not ultimately be able to survive the onslaught of modernity in its cancer phase. I’m not saying these people will not continue to go to church; but it will be increasingly doubtful if they would be recognized as Catholics by, oh, the Church Fathers or the bishops who subscribed to the canons and anathemas of the Council of Trent. A hot-button issue like Amoris Laetitia’s opening of communion to the “remarried” — though it could just as easily turn out to be any number of other issues, such as, to take an improbable example, idolatry — will become the line in the sand, separating the juring from the non-juring bishops, priests, and laity. When the dust settles, I believe that the Catholics who adhere to sound doctrine and morals, and the Catholics who are celebrating traditional liturgy, will be found to have coalesced into a single group.

This brings me around to your claim that most Catholics don’t care what the liturgy is like. That is correct: they are no longer liturgical Catholics. What passes for liturgy in most parishes is a maudlin prayer service, a pious fraud, or a sacramental sacrilege. Catholics in this way have been de-catechized and de-liturgized. No wonder so many will not be capable of responding warmly to a majestic Latin Mass or even an Oratorian Novus Ordo. However, there are always the exceptions: the ones who see a truly Catholic liturgy and are captivated by it, whose reaction may be summed up as: “Why didn’t someone show me this before? That’s what I was looking for without even knowing it!” Those who are looking will find Catholic tradition again, because it is the Real Deal.

I certainly agree with you that “love of this kind [viz., of tradition] has to come from the heart as well as the mind. … [W]e need both our reason and our emotions to be open to the profound, beautiful mystery of the Sacrifice of the Mass.” Absolutely. I see every conversion — whether to theism, Christianity, Catholicism, or the traditional liturgy — as God’s grace finding a welcome in a soul that has been furrowed to receive the seed. The furrowing can take all manner of forms: suffering, loneliness, a philosophical disposition, a passion for the arts, a deep relationship of love with another person who can open one’s eyes to see new things. Straightforward verbal apologetics generally don’t accomplish as much as we wish they did (I know — an ironic admission for a professional writer and speaker to make).

If you will allow me to say so, I was surprised to read your paragraph about the “traditional Novus Ordo parish,” which ended on a note of almost universal benevolence and tolerance. Habituation to liturgy rightly celebrated will tend to make a person more sensitive to and offended by abuses and banality than the opposite. Sometimes people will say “the Mass is the Mass is the Mass,” but we know this isn’t true in several very important ways.

First, as Catholics we have an obligation to receive our liturgy from tradition with deep veneration, as all of our forefathers in the Faith have done. When we fail to do this, we fail in moral, intellectual, and theological virtues. Moral, because the virtue of religion gives to God that which we owe Him, and we owe Him what He has inspired us in our tradition to give Him. Intellectual, because the formation of a Catholic mind leans on and learns from the accumulated wisdom of our predecessors. Theological, because faith is nourished on the intensely worshiped mysteries of faith, hope aspires to unseen heavenly beatitude, and charity clings to God above all and sees the neighbor in relation to Him — precisely what traditional liturgical rites embody, exemplify, and entice from us.

Second, we should not participate in a form of prayer that deprives the Lord of the reverence that is due to Him. The Novus Ordo systematically does this by having removed dozens (one might even say hundreds) of ways in which the Church showed her profound reverence for the Word of God and the holy mysteries of Christ. It’s one thing if you’re a Christian in the third century and your liturgy is simple because it hasn’t matured; it’s another if you already have a fully developed liturgy and then turn your back on it. This is what the reformers did — and what we also do, inasmuch as we go along with their scaled down service.

Third, serious proponents of the Novus Ordo do everything in their power — the more serious they are, the more energetically — to restrain or marginalize the traditional Latin rites that were honored and celebrated for so many centuries. This shows that they are very well aware that the difference is palpable and powerful. If “the Mass is just the Mass,” it should make no difference, right? If we are all playing on the same team, why make such a fuss?

Ultimately, the problem for thoughtful Catholics is the rupture that is “baked into” the Novus Ordo. Its euchology or corpus of prayers is a mishmash of antiquarian and novel sources (e.g., only 17% of the orations of the old Roman missal survived intact in the 1969 missal); its calendar is in some respects hardly recognizable as Roman; its lectionary is an unwieldy novelty that selectively edits the message of Scripture; its openness to celebrant-driven options and versus populum, which has become virtually obligatory, makes it not so much a liturgical rite as a modular matrix for the realization of a community project. One could go on, but the fundamental point is that the Novus Ordo cannot be “done well.” Sure, it can be dressed up like the Infant of Prague, festooned with smells and bells, but its internal DNA is genetically mutated. This is why we should return with a calm conscience and a grateful heart to our traditional rites, which were not defective and did not need to be replaced.

I do agree with you that the restoration of the traditional Latin rite is likely to take a long time. Only the all-knowing, all-powerful Holy Spirit — usually in quiet ways but occasionally in more dramatic ones, like the motu proprio Summorum Pontificum — can leads us out of our liturgical Babylonian captivity. May He strengthen our hands and hearts for whatever work and suffering He desires from us.

Cordially in Christ,

Dr. Kwasniewski

A rewritten version of this exchange has become chapter 15 in my book Reclaiming Our Roman Catholic Birthright: The Genius and Timeliness of the Traditional Latin Mass (Angelico Press, 2020).

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