A Divisive Approach to Liturgical “Unity”

Published December 30, 2021

The Catholic Thing

This past summer, as you no doubt are aware, Pope Francis curtailed the use of the old Roman Rite (the rite formerly known as the Extraordinary Form) with the stated goal of fostering greater unity within the Church. The Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments has since clarified the Holy Father’s motu proprio in a manner that has dismayed devotees of the older rite.

I can count on one hand the times in my life I have attended Mass in the old rite. Which is to say, I have no particular attachment to that rite. But that is a bit like saying that I have no particular attachment to my great-grandfather, who died before I was born. It is true in one sense, but impiety in another sense.

I have been many times to Mass in the Novus Ordo form, at which the priest insists on making himself, rather than the sacrifice he offers, the center of attention. I have been to too many Masses in which all hint of transcendence is intentionally masked, and the entire celebration seems contrived to convince anyone in attendance that what is happening there is either profoundly silly or utterly pointless.

Mercifully for me, in my own parish, liturgy is sublime. The Novus Ordo in my parish soars. One reason for this is that my pastor, like several pastors in parishes nearby, have celebrated the old rite for many years. The manner in which they celebrate the Novus Ordo reflects a distinct continuity with the older rite. In short, my parish is a concrete example of what Pope Benedict XVI hoped for in promulgating Summorum Pontificum: “the two Forms of the usage of the Roman Rite can be mutually enriching.”

So when Traditionis Custodes was issued by Pope Francis, I was saddened; not because the old rite itself is particularly dear to me, but because I know that it has been a boon to my parish and to many Catholics who hold it dear. I also know that for many Catholics, the only practical alternative to their Traditionalist liturgies is not the sort of liturgy envisioned by the Sacrosanctum Concilium and Second Vatican Council (i.e., what the Council actually said, not what later figures say it said), but the sort of liturgy that constitutes a near occasion for apostasy.

On Christmas Day, Cardinal Cupich of Chicago issued a policy for his archdiocese in light of Traditionis Custodes and the responsa ad dubia from the Congregation for Divine Worship. Like the Holy Father and the Congregation for Divine Worship, Cardinal Cupich’s point of departure is fostering unity within the Church:

The guiding principles for receiving and implementing this Motu Proprio must be the unity of the Church and the recognition that the Second Vatican Council and its reforms are not only an authentic action of the Holy Spirit but are also in continuity with the Tradition of the Church.

To which I say, “Amen!”

As for the policies themselves? Celebration of the old rite is now prohibited on Easter, Christmas, Pentecost, and first Sundays of the month; permission to say Mass in the old rite – even privately – must come expressly from the archbishop; the locations at which the old rite may be celebrated are tightly controlled; celebration of other sacraments according to older rites is proscribed. These policies constitute a maximalist reading of Traditionis Custodes, but are not out of line with what Rome had indicated. But Cardinal Cupich goes further, placing additional restriction on how the Novus Ordo can be celebrated.

“Mass is also ordinarily to be celebrated versus populum, unless permission is granted otherwise by the archbishop.” I’ll leave it to liturgists and canonists to decipher whether mandating versus populum is within the authority of the local ordinary when the Council itself seems to have allowed for ad orientem. The significant point is this: the restrictions in Chicago extend not only to the old rite, but to celebrations of the Novus Ordo that too closely resemble the old rite. That’s a very strange way to emphasize the continuity between the rites.

It’s not only the prerogative, but the duty, of the local bishop to govern the liturgical life of his diocese and ensure the unity of his flock. And I would argue that neither the Novus Ordo nor the Second Vatican Council are themselves to blame. But the consequences for the Church of ultra-mundane and aggressively banal liturgies are impossible to deny.

Millions upon millions of Catholics have walked away from the liturgical inanity on offer at too many American parishes, never to look back. The strain that puts on the unity of the Church dwarfs whatever (alleged) harm Traditionalists have done. And nothing poses a greater threat to the acceptance of the Second Vatican Council by ordinary people – those who see the carnage first-hand – than the uncritical and disastrous embrace of the Zeitgeist so often perpetrated in the name of the Council itself.

These days, most American Catholics can’t be bothered to go to Mass at all. Given this state of affairs, families who are willing to travel long distances to attend a Mass that will deepen their children’s faith rather than turn them into ex-Catholics don’t strike me as being what’s wrong with the Church. At least not in the parts of the vineyard where I’ve been.

In the end, responsibility for the liturgical life of the Church falls to the pope and the bishops. That’s a burden I am glad I don’t carry. Turning the liturgical life of the Church into an ideological battleground is loathsome – regardless of whether it is done by traditionalists or by progressives or by anyone else. If the decades since the Council are any indication, marginalizing the old rite in this heavy-handed way seems unlikely to check traditionalist skepticism about the continuity of the Second Vatican Council with the Tradition. Nor is it likely to revive liturgical life for the rest of us.

Stephen P. White is executive director of The Catholic Project at The Catholic University of America and a fellow in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

Photo by Luis Núñez from Pexels

Stephen P. White is a fellow in the Catholic Studies Program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Mr. White’s work focuses on the application of Catholic social teaching to a broad spectrum of contemporary political and cultural issues. He is the author of Red, White, Blue, and Catholic (Liguori Publications, 2016).

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