Two “Disobediences” Compared

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Take the well-informed young priests of today. They know, thanks to studying Benedict XVI and other authors, that the Novus Ordo has serious flaws and lacunae, to which the TLM can supply remedies. There was, after all, this “mutual enrichment” idea, although it tends to flow in one direction. So, they set about fixing what is broken.

Some try to fix it on a modest scale by wearing an amice and maniple, observing canonical digits, incensing in the old manner, and keeping their eyes down when looking toward the congregation. (This, in addition to doing what is already allowed, such as using Latin and chant, praying ad orientem, and giving communion on the tongue to kneeling faithful.)

Others go further, introducing major “Tridentinisms”: they add back certain silent prayers, such as those at the Offertory; they genuflect after the consecration rather than only after the elevation; they say the Canon almost inaudibly; they receive the Eucharist prior to turning around and showing It to the congregation. The epitome of this Tridentinizing approach was given by Fr. Richard Cipolla in his “A Primer for a Tradition-Minded Celebration of the OF Mass” published at New Liturgical Movement in 2017. In 2018, I defended this approach at NLM in an article entitled “Two Attitudes toward Ordinary Form Rubrics: Kantian Duty and Aristotelian Epikeia.”

The trouble with this last approach (and, indeed, with some of the earlier modest points) is that, strictly speaking, none of it is allowed. It is all against the rubrics and Vatican directives. Notitiae in particular stipulated that nothing beyond what is specifically mentioned in the new rite may be done; i.e., you can’t import stuff from the old rite (see texts here). So, these priests, though undoubtedly motivated by the best reasons, are being “disobedient” in the name of a higher obedience to what their conscience dictates as “dignum et justum” for the celebration of the Holy Sacrifice.

As a result of the foregoing conflict of principles, other priests quite reasonably reach a point where they realize: “All that I’m doing is trying to turn the Novus Ordo into something rather like the TLM or at least with its best features. This is ultimately impossible and, in any case, a thankless and pointless task. Why not just take up the TLM and be done with it?” That was the point I made in “Restoration, Not Reform, Is the Only Way Forward.” It should hardly surprise anyone that many priests and parishes that used to offer a “fancy” NO switched over at some point to the “Real McCoy.” The traditional elements themselves have a way of pushing one in that direction, since they all came from the great liturgical tradition and readily cohere together in their proper context, namely, the old rite. While there is something exceedingly awkward about a Latin Gradual chant in the NO, it fits smoothly and elegantly into the TLM. Such examples could be multiplied by the dozens.[1]

The quest for the “perfect NO” is about as elusive as the hunt for Red October—actually more so. Once one realizes that every “good NO” is the result of about a hundred moving pieces having been put together in “just the right way” by several individuals all of whom could change at a moment’s notice, and once one intimately experiences the old Roman rite as something permanent and beyond messing with, then one is brought to the certain knowledge that one path is a dead end, the other, a highway for our God. Some priests will, in due course, arrive at a certainty deeper than mathematical or metaphysical certainty: “I can’t abide that travesty, and I’m not leaving this treasure.”

In the era after Traditionis Custodes, these priests are likely to be told at some point that they are “not allowed” (or no longer allowed) to say the traditional Latin Mass. But they know that the war against the TLM stems from ill will and lacks legitimacy, and that no pope or bishop on earth has the authority to abolish or prohibit what was, and cannot cease to be, the immemorial liturgical rite of the Church of Rome. So these priests will continue to say the TLM, come what may. They will be blamed for their “disobedience,” even as all conscientious objectors are blamed for resisting structures of sin, but they know in their conscience that they are acting in the name of a higher obedience to the common good of the Church and of the People of God, which is inseparable from the offering of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and of the other sacramental rites in the way that is “dignum et justum.

Let us now compare these two scenarios.

Is not the second “disobedience” more coherent and more defensible than the first? The first, which makes a custom house-blend of novus and vetus elements, is hard to justify within the context of a liturgy already radically changed by its ideological innovators and political abusers, a liturgy already non-liturgical in its “optionitis.” The second, however, is easy to understand and to justify, because it is founded on the solid rock of a praiseworthy, supremely venerable lex orandi.

There is a certain willfulness or arbitrariness in the first scenario that is absent in the second. In the first, one could ask a priest: “By what authority do you make this or that modification to Paul VI’s missal?,” and any answer he might give would sound subjective; there is no objective way to know if a Novus Ordo has become “traditional enough” or “reverent enough” or “Roman enough.” In the second scenario, one could ask him: “By what authority do you offer Mass with the old missal?” The answer: By its inherent goodness, rightness, fittingness, authenticity; due to its continual reception and approval by the Church of every century in the course of its gradual growth, culminating in the missal St. Pius V “canonized” in Quo Primum, a missal (and a mentality) that was handed down faithfully through the 1920 editio typica. This answer would be as objective and as stable as the endless reformatory experiments are subjective and unstable.

There is a curious passage recorded only in the Gospel of Mark (8:22–25). Jesus is healing a blind man, and, instead of healing him all at once, as He often does other times, carries out the healing in stages:

Some people brought to him a blind man, and begged him to touch him. And he took the blind man by the hand, and led him out of the village; and when he had spit on his eyes and laid his hands upon him, he asked him, “Do you see anything?” And he looked up and said, “I see men; but they look like trees, walking.” Then again he laid his hands upon his eyes; and he looked intently and was restored, and saw everything clearly.

It was only when Our Lord laid His hands upon the man’s eyes a second time that the man’s sight was fully restored. The initial cure was partial; the definitive cure took another round of divine work. This parable could be and has been given many possible (and compatible) interpretations, but it strikes me as an apt allegory for the two stages described above.

The man in need of healing is the modern Catholic, and especially the modern cleric: blind to Tradition, to reverence, to beauty, to continuity—even, at times, to truth itself. The Lord begins to heal this blindness, but the first step—conservatism—is still a topsy-turvy world, where things are not as they seem; where, for example, a novel liturgy, the modern product of a modern committee, is treated as if it were traditional and in continuity with Tradition.

In the patient divine pedagogy, the Lord completes the healing. At last, the man “looks intently”; he is “restored”; he “sees everything clearly.” Such is the priest, such the layman, who is given the grace to look intently at the ways things really are; who is restored to his own inheritance, which he then seeks to restore for others; who sees clearly where the call of obedience should, and should not, take him.

This article has been updated.

Photo by Allison Girone. 

[1] It’s true that there are aesthetically appealing celebrations of the Novus Ordo. I myself spent over twenty-five years as a choir director doing my utmost to elevate the NO with chant and polyphony (I did this simultaneously with providing music for the TLM). The difficulty is that the “smells and bells” dimension is only one layer, the first and most obvious. The second layer is the very content of the rites, in their texts and rubrics. At this level, a profound difference appears between the old and new forms of the Mass, to the point of making it impossible to maintain they are just two versions of the same Roman Rite (in spite of Benedict XVI’s rather clever canonical move to declare them so, as a temporary band-aid). When a person realizes that the Tridentine rite has authenticity (which I would define as never being able to say exactly when and where the rite began, as it is a continuum from the mists of early centuries until the 1950s) and the Novus Ordo does not (since it originated quite obviously with the Consilium in the period 1963–1969, with a committees of experts through whose filter everything had to pass), he loses whatever appetite he may have had for the Reform of the Reform.

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