Cardinal Kurt Koch is president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, but he has a habit of speaking out on liturgical questions. He did so again this weekend in Breisgau, as reported by the Religion department of Austrian public broadcasting. The occasion was a conference on the theology of Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI).
In Koch’s view, the readmission of the celebration of Mass in the preconciliar form is “only the first step,” but “the time is not yet ripe” for further steps. Rome can take further actions only when there is readiness among Catholics to consider new forms of liturgy “in service of the Church.”
According to Koch, “the pope suffers from accusations” that he wishes to go back on the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). On the contrary, the pope wishes to take up statements of the Council on liturgy which have not yet been implemented.
Koch maintains that not everything in today’s liturgical praxis can be justified by the texts of the Council. He named as an example the priest facing the people during the celebration of the Eucharist, about which the Council said nothing.
In Koch’s opinion, further development of liturgical forms is necessary for an inner renewal of the church. “If the crisis of church life today is above all a crisis of liturgy, then the renewal of the church must begin with a renewal of the liturgy,” he said.
The cardinal’s remarks provoke several reflections.
It is not the case that the Second Vatican Council exhaustively defined the parameters of liturgical reform. Much of this was left to the Consilium to carry out after the Council closed. The Council never mandated versus populum (priest facing the people), nor has any Church document since the Council, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that the practice an illegitimate development. Scholars such as Fr. John O’Malley have demonstrated that there is a “spirit of Vatican II” opening up new vistas for the Church. It is to be expected that responsible and creative implementation of the Council would lead to possibilities not yet foreseen at the Council itself. Whether versus populum is one of these can remain an open question. Which is to say, the fact that it isn’t mentioned by the Council doesn’t really answer the question.
I suppose it’s inevitable that any interpretation of Vatican II will emphasize some passages more than others. Ratzinger and Koch and others can point to a few statements of the liturgy constitution (Gregorian chant is to have pride of place, Latin is to be retained) to buttress the claim that they wish to implement the Council’s statement that have been ignored up until now. Fair enough – but specific directives of the Council have to be ever reevaluated in within the broader context of ongoing liturgical development. Within this context, it is difficult indeed to see how the Council fathers ever intended that an unreformed rite of Mass would remain in use alongside a reformed rite. And there is no denying that Liturgiam authenticam, the 2001 Roman document on translation, introduced centralism and thereby undoes the explicit directive of the liturgy constitution that translations are to be prepared and approved by bishops (not Rome).
Finally, I would be very interested in the cardinal’s thoughts on liturgy and ecumenism, not least because he is the head of the Holy See’s ecumenism department. How does he understand his liturgical proposals to contribute to the work for church unity? Some theologians believe that Roman decisions in recent years have been a setback for the cause. What would Cardinal Koch say?