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Should Traditional Catholics ‘Move Past’ the Liturgy Debates?

Editor’s note: We share the following exchange to show the widening rift between two liturgical camps in the Catholic Church, what exactly that rift entails, and what might be done to fix it. Our goal is to shed light on the truths of the Catholic faith, even when those truths are uncomfortable.

Dear Dr. Kwasniewski,

Over the years I have enjoyed your articles and your book Noble Beauty, Transcendent Holiness. I was moved to write because of your article “Twelve Reasons Not to Prefer the Novus Ordo.”

I attend Mass in both the Old Rite and the Novus Ordo, and I was bothered by the almost competitive approach you took to the two rites of the Mass. You even went so far as to imply the Novus Ordo should not be preferred by anyone. I don’t believe it’s an either/or choice, and according to his motu proprio on restoring the usus antiquior, neither did Pope Benedict XVI. I am concerned that you are fueling a paradigm that places orthodox Catholics who attend the Novus Ordo in competition with fellow orthodox Catholics who attend the TLM. Far too often I have encountered snobs on either side who see their differently-minded brethren as the “B team.” Shouldn’t orthodox Catholics move past such squabbles, especially in today’s ecclesial climate?

I am blessed to live near a very orthodox parish that celebrates Mass in both rites. Both liturgies are beautiful. Because they are said properly and according to the rubrics, they are edifying vehicles of God’s grace. No liturgy said badly or not in conformity with rubrics is a good thing. Trust me, I’ve seen TLMs over the years sloppily done. Wouldn’t it be far more productive to encourage a reverent embrace of both liturgies at their best, and to encourage what Pope Benedict tried to do with the “reform of the reform”?

My fear is that your article might encourage a surrender of the Ordinary Form to ideologues who would indeed love to continue using it as a vehicle for radical change to the liturgy and doctrine of the Church (as we are seeing with the Amazon Synod working document). In other words, the center must hold. Articles like yours risk pushing TLM-attending Catholics farther into a cul-de-sac that isolates them and deprives the wider Church of their important contributions.



* * *

Dear N.,

Thank you for your heartfelt letter. I understand where you are coming from. I used to share your views.

However, I no longer think it right to defend a liturgical rupture of so vast a scale. One can add copious “smells and bells” to the reformed liturgy, but it will always remain a committee-manufactured product that is at odds, on far too many points, with our prayer-saturated, theologically profound heritage slowly developed over the ages.

I do not believe that the Novus Ordo is worthless. Nothing that bears any sound Christian content, much less the sacramental graces Christ promised to give His Church until He returns in glory, can be worthless. But it is nevertheless a profound evil in the Western Church that we have turned our backs on centuries of organic development, and even rejected some of the most ancient features of our corporate worship — e.g., the normative use of the Roman Canon, the old lectionary, Ember Days and Rogation Days, Septuagesimatide, the orations about fasting and despising earthly goods, the Good Friday orations, the baptism-centered Pentecost vigil and the Pentecost octave, the minor clerical orders — the list could go on practically forever. It is, in truth, a different liturgy we are talking about in concreto, with some general points of overlap in abstracto.

What disturbs me in lists of “things I like about the Novus Ordo Mass” is the central position occupied by I like — the unspoken premise that our personal preferences in liturgy are normative, rather than what is most pleasing to God, in accord with how He inspired God-fearing generations to glorify Him on Earth. Many devout Novus Ordo Catholics will make remarks critical of the TLM: “I just can’t follow the Latin,” “I think it’s too ornate,” or “I find the congregation too stoic.” At the heart of everything they have said is “I”; it’s about their own comfort. To me, this epitomizes the spirit of Vatican II, in which the cult of man is exalted over the cult of God. It is a huge problem to start with the idea that liturgy is about me and my little world. That’s a perfect description of a “millennial” perspective, a potent distillation of the egocentricity of fallen human nature. Former generations knew how to mortify the ego, subordinate it to a heritage, a common good, a tradition that is seen as taking precedence, opening out to the broad and deep world created by God and redeemed by Christ.

Note that the author I was criticizing had nothing to say about the Novus Ordo’s being more spiritual or expressing greater homage to God. It was all about being better for humans (at least according to the judgment of some) — missing the point that the Mass is first and foremost the worship of God, hence we should decrease as He increases, in keeping with the excellent policy of St. John the Baptist, who gives away his heart and loses his head. Paradoxically, it is better for humans that we be totally oriented to God, that we honor, reverence, and adore Him in fearful rites, in mystic signs, received from our ancestors. The strangeness and differentness of the old liturgy, its pre-modern and pre-revolutionary content, turn out to be better for us than something that was designed specifically for us.

The reality is that many Catholics simply do not want to know what is wrong with the Novus Ordo. The evidence abounds, but they close their eyes and stop their ears. Who can blame them? We are all averse to hearing bad news that will change our lives decisively, requiring of us a second conversion from the comparatively shallow Catholicism of postconciliar officialdom to the richer, more complex hardcore Catholicism of twenty centuries’ slow growth. In my own life, it took me a long time to become acquainted with the full magnitude of the rupture and to face up to the doctrinal, moral, and spiritual schizophrenia into which it has propelled the Church. One of the “severe mercies” of God during the pontificate of Francis has been to tear off the polite garment hiding this schizophrenia, exposing it to the gaze of all. The project of fitting the square peg of traditional Catholicism into the round hole of the conciliar experiment, which has been tried at enormous expense, has failed and continues to fail.

Where does this leave us? There is an either/or situation between the two rites, because their books embody two different euchologies reflective of two different theologies of liturgy, of history, of ritual, and of the Church. The more one studies the principles, methods, and results of the liturgical reformers, the more one can see an abyss stretching between the two “forms.” Abyss may call out to abyss, but, as in the parable of Dives and Lazarus, there is no crossing between them. One may think for a time that it is possible, but experience and study prove otherwise. It is a bitter awakening — “for in much wisdom is much grief, and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow” (Eccles. 1:18) — but it frees one from torturous internal and external contradictions, and in that way leads to a peace that the world, including the world within the Church, cannot give.

This does not mean that everyone has to abandon the Novus Ordo immediately, which may not be prudent or charitable or even possible in a given situation. But it does mean that there comes a day of reckoning. One cannot evade the deeper questions forever. The “Oratorian solution” is admirable but temporary. The center cannot hold. Or rather, it is being held by sheer force of will, not by the real identity of the things in question.

Cordially in Christ,

Dr. Kwasniewski

* * *

Dear Dr. Kwasniewski,

I understand your position and it’s one I sometimes share, especially when I journey outside what I admit to be my liturgical bubble of the Novus Ordo said in strict conformity to the rubrics and in the spirit of Tradition. I know I’m blessed to live near a large city that offers every available liturgical approach within easy driving distance.

I’m sure we could go back and forth on the mistakes/purposeful omissions of the Novus Ordo reforms. However, we are still left with the practical reality that this is the Mass attended by 99.9% of Roman Rite Catholics, and the only one many have access to. Barring some miraculous intervention (there are precedents!), it seems that the Novus Ordo is here to stay. How, then, do we move the implementation of it to something more in keeping with Catholic liturgical traditions? I’ve seen it done, and I’m sure you’ve seen it done: it was slowly starting to happen with the “Benedictine arrangement” on the altar, the new English missal translation, etc. Unfortunately, it was largely put on the shelf with his resignation.

It’s not the small TLM communities I’m worried about; they’ll find their way. It’s the rest of my fellow Catholics. As someone who attends both rites, I have enjoyed the simplicity of the Novus Ordo; when said properly, it can be a worthy offering to God. Yes, a level of preference is there in that statement, but that, too, is found amount TLM attendees. You and I both know that TLM attendees can be picky when it comes to vestments, musical arrangements, etc.! I think for both the TLM and Novus Ordo, it’s the spirit of humility and worship that matters, and while I’ll grant you that this spirit is built into the bones of the TLM more than the Novus Ordo, there’s no reason it can’t be there in the latter. This speaks to a wider spiritual ailment in the Church: all of the reformers, as you know, were raised in and conversant with the old rite. I’m afraid the ailment must go far deeper than liturgy.

As a religion teacher, I get to work with ordinary lay people. I’ve seen the complete re-education the liturgical reform has done to my fellow Catholics. When I mention to my colleagues that I attend Latin Mass or prefer the reformed Mass said ad orientem, I get looks of complete bafflement or comments like “why would you go to a Mass where the priest has his back to you?” (A few weeks ago I blew my students’ minds when I told them that the priest isn’t talking mostly to them at Mass; he’s talking to God. It was as though a light went on when they heard that.) How strange that Catholics have been taught, implicitly and explicitly, to disdain the way their ancestors worshipped for centuries! You’re right about the rupture.

All the same, the likelihood of a pope in the near future suddenly abrogating the Novus Ordo and restoring the TLM is almost zero; and if he did, I think it would be such a shock to the system that it would spark a schism. I’m at a real loss as to what we can do. On my darker days, I think the Roman Rite and the whole way of being Catholic that went with it is pretty much dead and will never come back. It will exist in vigorous little pockets of faithful, and that’s it. Some days I think we should just go Byzantine. I worry that as my right-believing fellow Catholics run for the doors during this pontificate to the TLM, the Eastern rites, or the Anglican Ordinariate, the majority of Catholics in the pews will be left to the wolves.



* * *

Dear N.,

Everything you say resonates with me. I have the same concerns about the vast majority of practicing Roman Catholics who do not avail themselves of traditional liturgical rites.

In point of fact, the mainstream Church in the Western world is falling apart before our eyes. Most Catholics contracept, and an ever-increasing number accept the entire post-1968 platform of sexual libertinism. As we have seen, many high-ranking clergy are either homosexual or heterodox or both, and the remainder seldom show courage or even discernible signs of consciousness. Churches will be closed more and more (although some new ones will be built in the suburbs, with Spanish Masses on the schedule). Lawsuits will bankrupt many dioceses. The modernist agenda of Pope Francis will split the Church into those who are apparently Catholic and those who are actually Catholic, and the latter will be a minority. As St. Athanasius said in an analogous situation: “They have the churches, but we have the faith.” I believe that you are right to say that Roman Catholicism — the way of being Catholic founded on the distinctive theology, canon law, liturgy, and art forms of the Latin Church — has perished in any form that would be recognizable as continuous with its own history, surviving only in small pockets of people holding on by their fingertips. Never was the prophetic word more true: “Behold, the eyes of the Lord God are upon the sinful kingdom, and I will destroy it from off the face of the earth; only I will not utterly destroy the house of Jacob, says the Lord” (Amos 9:8).

What happened before, during, and after Vatican II? How could it all have collapsed so quickly?

I think there are multiple answers. The first is that tradition seems to have been taken for granted. It was always there; it would always be there. And so people got lazy with it. I discuss this subtle but important psychological aspect here. (Part of this discussion recurs in Noble Beauty; see here for an excerpt.) When tradition turns into mere custom, it can quickly lose its standing when challenged.

Second, there was an overzealous application of good principles. A priest who was a young religious in the 1950s once related that everything in his house of formation was done in Latin — not just liturgies or theology classes, but recreation, kitchen work, chore charts, haircuts, you name it. While one can admire the wish to achieve fluency in Latin, it was probably an extreme, and one extreme has an explosive potential to prompt the opposite.

Third, we should not underestimate the spiritual devastation wrought by World War I and World War II, which led to a mentality of combined optimism (we can build a better Europe, a better world, through the democratic participation of all!) and deep pessimism (the heritage of Christendom is gone and buried forever; we must modernize as rapidly as possible, or we will perish!). Both of these mentalities fed heavily into the liturgical reform. Then the revolution of 1968 blew apart what remained of a coherent Catholic worldview, and there were born three movements: the radical “progressives” who essentially concurred with the ’68ers; the radical “traditionalists” who saw in 1968 a revelation of the demonic aggression or lust for destruction latent in modernity, and sought to repudiate it; and then whatever one wishes to call the folks who thought they could take a middle line (conservatives? moderates?), of whom Joseph Ratzinger became, in a sense, the patron and spokesman. But I am convinced that no middle way is sustainable in the long run. The words of Our Lord come to mind: “No man can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other.”

Finally, let us not forget how much good can be destroyed in a short period, if the power and the motivation are present, and if the Lord permits it in His inscrutable will. Henry VIII destroyed a flourishing ecosystem of monasteries and convents, extinguishing the flame of a rich Catholicism that had flourished in England for many centuries. The Protestant Revolt took away whole nations from the Faith in a matter of decades. The communists in the Soviet Union destroyed tens of thousands of churches and monasteries, while the communists in China destroyed a millennia-old Confucian imperial culture. One can cite other such examples. We saw how quickly the roof of Notre Dame perished in flames. It took a century to build the great Gothic cathedrals, but a well-placed terrorist attack could reduce them to charred hulls in moments. So we should not be too surprised — especially if Satan and his angels are sleeplessly involved, as they surely are — that something as visibly burgeoning as the Catholicism of the 1950s can fall to pieces almost overnight. What happened in the ’60s and ’70s was a kind of collective hysteria, a spiritual Bubonic plague.

I take very seriously the oft-quoted saying: “God does not call us to be successful; He calls us to be faithful.” We will work out our salvation, and help others to work out theirs, by being faithful to Catholicism in the fullest form in which it can be received, believed, and lived, without watering down, without compromise, and without useless modernization. We must rely on Our Lord to save us when He wills and as He alone can do. “I will restore the fortunes of my people Israel, and they shall rebuild the ruined cities and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and drink their wine, and they shall make gardens and eat their fruit” (Amos 9:14).

Tuus in Domino,

Dr. Kwasniewski


A rewritten version of this exchange has become chapter 16 in my book Reclaiming Our Roman Catholic Birthright: The Genius and Timeliness of the Traditional Latin Mass (Angelico Press, 2020).

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