The Church, the world, the liturgy

July 22, 2007

In his recent motu proprio decree Summorum Pontificum, Pope Benedict liberalized the celebration of the liturgy according to the pre-Vatican II rite. This rite, now called the “extraordinary form” of the Latin rite, had been the standard prior to Vatican II, but was suppressed in 1970 to make way for the Novus Ordo liturgy, now the “ordinary form”, which is what one encounters today in most parishes. The Catholic press and blogosphere has been all astir about the decree for the past few weeks. My purpose here is not to try to assess the tenor of that chatter, nor even to offer my own thoughts on the matter — though I may well do that before I’m through — but instead to reflect for a few minutes on Vatican II itself. What did it try to change, and why?

I’m aware that my theme, as stated, is too vast to handle, so I intend to restrict my scope in two ways: first, by making special reference to liturgy, which is, after all, the locus of the recent changes; second, by drawing on a very interesting recent essay by James V. Schall entitled The Culture of Modernity and Catholicism. Fr. Schall is a Jesuit who teaches political science at Georgetown. This essay is in fact a lengthy review of a book called Culture and the Thomist Tradition: After Vatican II by Tracey Rowland. The book, and the essay along with it, is an inquiry into the roots of modernity, modernity’s relationship to Catholicism, and what happened to that relationship at Vatican II. Vatican II, you will recall, was a call to “open wide the doors and windows of the Church”, to initiate a new conversation with modern culture in the hopes of advancing the evangelization effort of the Church. The questions asked by Schall and Rowland are, “How has that call been interpreted?” and “What have the consequences been?” What has really happened to the Church and her relationship to modern culture in the intervening forty years?

Both Schall and Rowland contend, and there are many reasons to agree with them, that the “open door” policy the Church adopted with respect to modernity has hurt her. Catholic culture in the western world has suffered serious attrition, not least inside the Church herself. We have seen a catastrophic decline in religious vocations. Catholic schools, hospitals, universities are now rarely run by priests or religious, and many have largely forsaken their Catholic roots. Ignorance of Catholic traditions and history is high, and little wonder, for people see no evidence of it around them. Even so strong a marker of Catholic identity as the Friday fast has disappeared almost entirely. Our ecclesial calendar has given way to the secular calendar, such that we no longer celebrate our major feasts — or we lazily transfer them to the nearest Sunday where they can pass without being noticed. For those who love the Church these things are painful to behold. Have we seen compensating advantages in other areas to balance these setbacks? It could perhaps be argued that the Church, through the papacy, has a more prominent voice in debates over political and moral issues than was the case previously. But how much of that is a result of modern media’s need for a sound-byte from somebody, and does that voice translate into real influence? It may be so; I’m not sure. But my eye is drawn back to the sufferings of the Church in her inner life. Why has this happened?

The answer given by Schall and Rowland is that when the Council Fathers opened the Church’s doors and windows to modernity, they misunderstood the deep grammar of modernity and underestimated the extent to which it was not capable of accepting the truths the Church offered. Modernity, in their telling, is in its foundations hostile to Catholicism, and the attempt to translate Catholic teachings into language native to modern thought cannot be done faithfully. Rather than help modernity to understand the Church and the revelation of which she is steward, the effort has damaged the Church’s own ability to understand herself. As Schall puts it:

… modern culture is not neutral but replete with customs, laws, ideas, and assumptions that either are difficult or impossible to reconcile with classical Catholic orthodoxy. This conclusion means that the famous project of “opening” the Church to specifically “modern culture” did not and could not result in any new evangelization or success in making Catholicism more acceptable to the modern mind. In fact, this opening to modern culture undermined many of the basic assumptions by which understanding and living the faith was possible… “To what is it to which Catholics are bringing themselves ‘up-to-date’?” Karl Barth wanted to know of Vatican II, in a query again often cited by Rowland. Within it, the culture did not have the basic operative principles capable of accepting the intellectual coherence that is the faith if properly spelled out. As John Paul II was to point out in Fides et Ratio, the faith cannot be supported by just any philosophy, but only by a true philosophy.

And modernity is not true. To claim so is hardly revolutionary: Nietzsche announced it a century and a half ago. Modernity’s attempt to reject Platonism and Christianity, founding itself on reason alone, was incoherent, for, as Nietzsche argued, reason itself derived its transcendent authority from God, and when he died, so did it. Of course, the death throes have been prolonged, and we are living through them as best we can. This is why we find ourselves in a world increasingly unable to recognize the existence of goods external to the individual will, much less to reason about those goods to discern their bearing on human action. Modernity acknowledges no governing order above or outside of the immanent sphere of action. Our theorists declare that moral principles are projections of preferences, gurgling up from our emotions and unconscious, or merely asserted for our own benefit. It is a system beset by intellectual and moral poverty.

Schall illustrates the modern quandary using the concept of human rights. In the Catholic understanding, human rights are reflections, in human subjects, of the objective order of the world. Humans are endowed with rights by virtue of what they are, and on the authority of some power or reality that precedes them. But modernity cannot affirm this view of rights, founded as it is in transcendence. Modern philosophy has tried to found rights in reason, but according to Nietzsche, and according to Schall, it has failed. It has rejected both metaphysics and revelation, has concluded that reason is merely instrumental, and has largely rejected the view that the world has a normative “nature” that defines it. And so rights, not being something derived from outside ourselves, can only become something derived from inside ourselves: they become something that we will. In fact, rights are what we will for ourselves, or what some temporal authority wills to grant us. But on this account rights cease to be universal. People go on talking about “universal human rights”, but they have to be careful not to inquire too closely into what they really mean, lest the incoherence be uncovered. This kind of thing can continue for a while, but eventually it will fail. The point to make now is simply this: the Catholic understanding of rights and the modern understanding of rights are not the same. They are founded on profoundly different premises. When the Church begins to use the language of modernity and is not sufficiently wary, she exposes herself to those contrary premises, which act as a corrosive agent on her own thought and self-understanding.

This is but one example, but it serves to make the point. If the post-Vatican II project was to make Catholicism “more acceptable” to modernity, the precise sense in which that is true needs to be very clear. Too often it has meant accommodation to secular culture, and that at the very time when the weak foundations of modern culture are ever more apparent, even, or most especially, to her leading thinkers. There is a kind of sickening humour to the situation. But deep down it is not funny, for if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again?

In all honesty, I don’t understand the cultural history well enough to be confident in the story that Schall and Rowland tell. I don’t even know how much I can trust Nietzsche. I wish I did, but the issue is just too complex and many-sided for me to see it all clearly. Yet I can see that for some reason the influence which Catholicism is to have on secular culture is running, too often, in the wrong direction.

We see the effects in the liturgy (to bring the discussion around again to the topical subject). When the liturgical changes of Vatican II were promulgated, they were widely misunderstood. Or perhaps “misunderstood” is too generous, for I don’t see how the changes that occurred could have been honestly derived from a careful reading of Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Church’s Constitution on the liturgy. But however it happened, the Council was said to have decreed that the liturgy be made more “relevant” to ordinary people. In practice, in this part of the world, this has often meant a erosion of reverence, as though we had forgotten that the liturgy does not exist to appeal first to ordinary people, but, in the words of Pope Benedict, “to offer a worthy ritual to the Divine Majesty”. Relevance should not be an overriding concern. As Rowland puts it (citing, to my pleasure, G.K. Chesterton):

What Chesterton understood was that it was precisely one of the great graces of the Catholic Church that she makes it possible for people, poor as well as rich, to transcend their cultural limitations, to rise above their cultural poverty and be citizens, or rather subjects, of an eternal city. The effect of the Church on the culture of the world, and in particular on the life of “common man,” ought to be ennobling, ought to be affirming of an aristocratic status as a child of God, as a member of a royal priesthood, a people set apart. This does not happen when mass culture is “baptised” by its use in the liturgy or when its idioms are taken to wrap the Church’s doctrines. Contrary to the rationale behind such pastoral projects, their ultimate effect is not to make the Church relevant to the modern world, but to make it indistinguishable from the modern world, and this in turn makes it completely irrelevant.

All of which seems to me quite correct. Where, then, does this leave us? I will not endorse the view that Vatican II was somehow misguided in its conception. The Church is always called to preach and serve within the wider culture, whatever it may be. But it is possible that it is unwise to open the doors and windows when the air is noxious. When openness to discussion results in the Church losing contact with her own traditions and self-understanding, something is wrong, and steps must be taken to salvage and restore that great heritage, for without it we have nothing to offer.

It is in this context, I think, that we should understand the Pope’s recent decree Summorum Pontificum. It is about the recovery of a tradition that has nearly been lost, and it is to be hoped that, in time (for we mustn’t expect any immediate changes), it will help the Church to restore her balance by reminding her of where she came from, and how she spoke, and how she prayed. Perhaps in a few days I’ll have something further to say about the document itself and what it portends. For now, I think I’ve said quite enough, or even more.


The links in this post to Summorum Pontificum are to an unofficial English translation. At the present time the only official text is in Latin.

Tracey Rowland’s book has been issued by Routledge as part of their “Radical Orthodoxy” series. Radical Orthodoxy is a theological “movement” or “program” attempting to do something rather similar to the aim of Vatican II: to engage modern thought theologically, largely by drawing on resources from pre-modern thought. I recommend a very interesting interview with two of the founders of Radical Orthodoxy that aired on CBC radio a few months ago. (You may want to grab the file for yourself; I’m not sure how long it will remain available.)

2 Responses to “The Church, the world, the liturgy”

  1. […] The Church, the world, the liturgy […]

  2. Sandra Says:

    Interested to find your site.Having tried to take an intelligent interest in the Catholic faith,which I joined ill informed post Vatican two, you cover topics I have need. for now I am being prayed for , and follow my conscience as best I can

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