“Catholics attached to the Latin Mass have suffered a great deal since the introduction of the vernacular liturgy after Vatican II,” Matthew Schmitz complains in an odd piece that appeared today in the New York Times, “The Latin Mass, Thriving in Southeastern Nigeria.”
For Schmitz, senior editor of First Things, the 2007 document of Pope Benedict XVI Summorum Pontificum, which gave universal permission for the celebration of the unreformed pre-Vatican II liturgy, is “a sublime vindication.” Schmitz quotes approving the statement of Benedict XVI, “What earlier generations held as sacred, remains sacred and great for us too.”
Actually, no. It’s the kind of statement that has the ring of truth and sounds right at first, but does not withstand critical scrutiny.
Sorry, Pope Benedict. I do not contest the Pope’s authority to readmit the preconciliar Mass or the canonical authority of Summorum Pontificum. But as a theologian I claim my right to examine the arguments offered in support of that papal decree. I don’t believe they entirely hold up.
Every new sacramentary and missal produced in the last thousand years or so has replaced its predecessor, which immediately fell out of use in the place where the new version was implemented. Yes, the older version remains sacred and great, but it’s superseded. I am not free to go to the library of my university and pull an order of Mass off the shelves from the 11th or 14th or 18th century and use it to celebrate Mass. It doesn’t work that way.
And as an aside, just why is it the 1962 missal that is permitted, but not the 1911 or 1957? Are the earlier editions not sacred and great? Then why are they now prohibited? Why does Summorum Pontificum bind priests to that edition of the missal immediately before the Second Vatican Council which has simplified rubrics, a simplified calendar and ranking of feasts, and a massively reformed Holy Week? The differences between 1962 and previous editions are not that great for the most part. But they are just great enough to instruct us that the “Mass of All Times” has been evolving for some 2000 years, and that the 1962 missal was seen by its producers as a temporary measure of reform in view of coming greater reforms.
To be sure, there is a much greater contrast between the last missal before issued Vatican II in 1962 and the reformed missal of Paul VI in 1970 than there is between any historic missal and its immediate successor. The changes throughout history were generally more gradual and hardly perceptible to most worshipers. (But not always! The melodies in the reformist 1908 Graduale Romanum are a clear rupture with the inferior melodies they replaced. The same pope, Pius X, who issues that chant book also turned completely upside down the order of psalms prayed in the Roman office in 1911.)
The ruptures after Vatican II (alongside lots of continuity too, of course) came about because that’s what the Council called for. At least Pope Paul VI was convinced of this point. Paul VI labored mightily to unite the Church behind the reformed liturgy, based on his firm conviction that the liturgical reform was faithful to the Second Vatican Council. Here is what Pope Paul VI said about readmitting the preconciliar liturgy:
“Never. This Mass … becomes the symbol of the condemnation of the council. I will not accept, under any circumstances, the condemnation of the council through a symbol.”
Back in the days of my association with founding First Things editor Fr. Richard John Neuhaus – this was back when he was giving generous financial support to make possible the founding of the National Catholic Youth Choir in Collegeville – I recall a discussion of liturgy in his apartment in Manhattan. Some of the young people on his editorial staff had come over for drinks with the visiting Benedictine from the Midwest. A young woman began expressing outrage that her bishop was not allowing the traditional Latin Mass to be celebrated. (This was before Summorum, back when you needed to get the bishop’s permission.)
Fr. Neuhaus, always a supporter of Pope John Paul II, shook his head in disapproval of that bishop’s narrowness, and this after John Paul II had asked bishops in 1988 to be generous in granting permission for the old, unreformed rite. Some few people were still attached to the old rite and had not yet come to accept the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, and the pope had wisely and generously reached out to them in pastoral solicitude. Why couldn’t bishops see that?
“But it’s not the future,” Fr. Neuhaus intoned. The young woman was stopped dead in her tracks. I sensed she was ready to roll out her defense of the old rite, but she bit her lip. Neuhaus was adamant that the liturgical reform was a good thing and was the future of the Catholic Church. To be sure, Neuhaus rallied behind Benedict and strongly supported Summorum when it came out. But the old Mass was never really a cause for him, and his heart was with the reformed liturgy.
Between the founding editor of First Things, Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, and the current senior editor of First Things, Matthew Schmitz, a great gap is fixed when it comes to liturgy. The changes around liturgy at First Things are a sign of a deeper problem in the Catholic Church after Pope Benedict, a problem Pope Francis (and probably several of his successors) will have to contend with.
Schmitz, and his piece today in the New York Times, are a sign of the tragic legacy of Pope Benedict in the area of liturgy. Benedict had so much wisdom to offer the Church on liturgy, such a profound vision of the beauty of God’s love made near to us in the sacred liturgy. If only he hadn’t taken such a dire view of the state of postconciliar liturgy that he felt the need to question the Council and the Council’s liturgy by resorting to an extreme measure like Summorum Pontificum. If only he had found a better way to appeal to the idealism of devout Catholics, many of them young, so as to channel their passions into a more worthy celebration of the reformed liturgy.
It may well be that Schmitz, and many like him who have made the old Mass their cause since 2007, will never come around to what I think was the position of Fr. Neuhaus.
But here’s my prediction. The Catholic Church will have to live with the incongruity of a small but fervent minority at odds with its own liturgical vision, probably for decades. But long term, it can’t last. The arguments don’t hold up. The principles of the Second Vatican Council will not go away and will ultimately prevail.
If I’m right, the real contribution of Pope Benedict, ironically, is that he called the question in a dramatic and pointed way which can only help the Church clarify its commitment to the Second Vatican Council. That clarification will take time, and a lost generation or two of zealots may be a casualty of the pope emeritus’s miscalculation. But one must hope that it will ultimately be clarified that the Second Vatican Council and its liturgy are, as Fr. Neuhaus believed, the future.