Over at the National Catholic Reporter, Tom Reese has a piece on Francis’s recent Motu Proprio in which be exploits the metaphor of liturgy as software that gets periodic upgrades. He also makes some concrete suggestions regarding the next “upgrade” that the liturgy should receive. Some of these suggestion might be good ideas (considering a re-visit of 1998), some seem like bad ideas (a preface for every Sunday of the year “that would pick up themes from the Scripture readings of that Sunday so that the congregation would see a connection between the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist”? Talk about tying the hands of the homilist by treating the liturgy as bound to a “theme”!). But what interests me more is the very metaphor of liturgy as software that gets upgraded.
I find the metaphor disturbing because it presumes that liturgical change is driven by a kind of technical advance, whereby every upgrade is presumed to be an advance over what came before, offering more ease-of-use or new features that can accomplish more. But is liturgy really “advancing” in that way? It is a technical activity that accomplishes a task with greater or less efficiency? Do we worship God with greater facility and effectiveness that people did in the day of Gregory the Great or Thomas Aquinas or Charles Borromeo or Dorothy Day?
Also, even though software upgrades often do offer genuine improvements, a lot of the impulse to upgrade is market-driven–the need to offer a product that you simply must have, even though the old product still serves your needs quite well. The impulse to upgrade is driven by a restlessness that may be a kind of Ignatian semper maior, but also may be the Augustinian restlessness brought about by alienation from God. Do we really want to think of liturgy in this way?
Fr. Reese does seem to consider the possibility that not everything new is good—that in addition to real advances like Windows xp we also have turkey’s like Windows Vista. His example of such an unfortunate upgrade is the 2011 translation. But couldn’t one argue equally well that the reformed post-Vatican II Missal is the real analogue to Widows Vista, and that the 1962 Missal is the gold standard to which we should return, and from which all future upgrades should be made? In other words, once you introduce the idea of upgrades that are not good, you need to argue the merits of each individual upgrade—being new is not enough to make something good. But then how do we argue those merits? If we’re going to stick with the software analogy, it seems as if we are going to have to make our argument in terms of functionality. But, as I suggested above, I am not sure that liturgy is “functional” in the way that software is. It seems to me that whatever sort of evaluation is involved in liturgical reform, it cannot be based on the idea of “continuous quality improvement” or even “upgrading.”