The Second Vatican Council was not implemented correctly, we hear. The “spirit of the 60s” (or is it the Age of Aquarius?) took over and somehow blinded everyone to what the council really meant. The liturgical reform, contrary to the directives of Sacrosanctum concilium, brought a rupture into the liturgical life of the Church. But Sacrosanctum concilium intended that any liturgical reform grow organically from what went before.
Archbishop Annibale Bugnini, head of the Consilium that carried out the liturgical reform, is the handiest scapegoat. Almost singlehandedly did he wreck everything. If you want to be polemical, throw in words like “Freemason” or “Protestant” for good measure. Bugnini represents everything that is wrong with Catholic liturgy today. As Pope John Paul II’s biographer once wrote snidely to me, “Happy 12th Sunday in Bugnini Time.”
A sharp distinction is drawn between the spirit and the letter of Vatican II. The “spirit of the council” of the 1960s liberals (don’t forget to point out that they’re aging, in wheelchairs, or dead by now) is attacked for its unfaithfulness to the council. Ad fontes! Back to the real council! As a conservative friend once said to me about Vatican II, “The spirit killeth but the letter giveth life.”
Pope Benedict XVI, displaying a nuance missing in some of his loudest supporters, but still fudging the data in my view, contrasts a “hermeneutic of rupture” with a “hermeneutic of continuity.” The first is the damnable “spirit of the council” that the experts, contaminated by the spirit of the age, invented. The second – also but less frequently called the “hermeneutic of reform” – is the alternative now being pushed.
I propose that we call this “hermeneutic of continuity” by its rightful name. It is just one more “spirit of the council.” Despite its claims to go back to the letter of the council, this hermeneutic is clearly a product of our era. It could only have been produced by those who had a couple decades of negative liturgical experience under their belts. Bugnini made possible this “hermeneutic of continuity”: it is more about being anti-Bugnini than being pro-Sacrosanctum concilium.
We have, then, two spirits of the council: the First Spirit of the Council which allegedly broke the laws of organic growth by using human ingenuity to manufacture new rites and texts, and the Second Spirit of the Council which dislikes this manufactured product and longs for what got lost in the process.
The Second Spirit of the Council is seemingly based on a few selected passages from Sacrosanctum concilium. We’ve heard these phrases so often that we know them by heart. The principal ones are:
- SC 23: “There must be no innovations unless the good of the Church genuinely and certainly requires them; and care must be taken that any new forms adopted should in some way grow organically from forms already existing.”
- SC 36: “Particular law remaining in force, the use of the Latin language is to be preserved in the Latin rites.”
- SC 54: “Steps should be taken so that the faithful may also be able to say or to sing together in Latin those parts of the Ordinary of the Mass which pertain to them.”
- SC 116: “The Church acknowledges Gregorian chant as specially suited to the Roman liturgy; therefore, other things being equal, it should be given pride of place in liturgical services.”
These passages allegedly show that Bugnini and the reformers went beyond the council’s brief and failed to do what the council mandated.
But it is not difficult to cite other passages in Sacrosanctum concilium, and they are far more numerous, which suggest or justify far-reaching reforms. These passages are typically ignored or underemphasized by the Second Spirit of the Council. I will comment on but a sampling, limiting myself here to the introduction and chapter one of the liturgy constitution.
- SC 1 lists, among several aims of the council, “to foster whatever can promote union among all who believe in Christ.” “Whatever” could in principle include liturgical adaptations making our rites more similar to those of Eastern Orthodoxy, Anglicanism, Lutheranism, and the various Protestant churches.
- SC 14: “In the restoration and promotion of the sacred liturgy, this full and active participation by all the people is the aim to be considered before all else.” First, “restorations” are not always gentle. They can bring about greater or lesser changes from what went before. Second, this article seems to mean that active participation (however that is understood) is more important than preserving Latin or Gregorian chant or tradition. In principle the door is opened to massive ritual changes if that is thought better for achieving the highest goal of active participation.
- SC 21: “The liturgy is made up of immutable elements divinely instituted, and of elements subject to change. These not only may but ought to be changed with the passage of time if they have suffered from the intrusion of anything out of harmony with the inner nature of the liturgy or have become unsuited to it.” The study of the liturgical history shows that very, very little of the words and rites of the liturgy is of divine institution, and the larger part by far grew up in the course of the centuries. The council did not say that everything not divinely instituted should be changed. But in principle any of the human elements of the liturgy are questioned as to their suitability.
- SC 21: “In this restoration, both texts and rites should be drawn up so that they express more clearly the holy things which they signify; the Christian people, so far as possible, should be enabled to understand them with ease and to take part in them fully, actively, and as befits a community.” The wording suggests thoroughgoing change of the texts and rites – they are to be “drawn up” according to the criteria given.
- SC 23: “As far as possible, notable differences between the rites used in adjacent regions must be carefully avoided.” This article suggests that there will at time be differences between rites in adjacent regions when it states that the differences should not be “notable.” This can only mean that the Roman rite will not necessarily be uniform in all the regions of the world.
- SC 31: “The revision of the liturgical books must carefully attend to the provision of rubrics also for the people’s parts.” Considering that the pre-Vatican II order of Mass had not one single rubric regarding the people, it is difficult to see how the “careful provision” of such rubrics could be anything but a rupture with the past.
- SC 34: “The rites should be distinguished by a noble simplicity; they should be short, clear, and unencumbered by useless repetitions; they should be within the people’s powers of comprehension, and normally should not require much explanation.” The rites of the pre-Vatican II liturgy are anything short, clear, and unencumbered by useless repetitions. It is difficult to see how SC 34 could be carried out in continuity with the preconciliar liturgy or without introducing a rupture.
- SC 38: “Provisions shall also be made, when revising the liturgical books, for legitimate variations and adaptations to different groups, regions, and peoples, especially in mission lands, provided that the substantial unity of the Roman rite is preserved.” The call is for unity, not uniformity, and the door is left open to local variations.
So what did the council really intend? Here the reader might be expecting that I reveal the real meaning of Vatican II, the letter of it, above and beyond the first, second, or any other spirit of the council.
Nope. Not possible. I doubt that the fathers of Vatican II had a clear vision of a reformed liturgy in mind. I mean no disrespect when I say that, frankly, I think the bishops had no idea how the reforms would be carried out. Led by the Holy Spirit, they affirmed the liturgical tradition they knew and loved, and also affirmed a whole host of revolutionary principles, without knowing how all this would fit together.
The council left a wide berth for the implementation of the reform after the council. The liturgical reformer could have been much less revolutionary, or much more revolutionary, and still have fallen well within the mandate of the council.
As for those who do not approve of what the reformers did, it is their disapproval that gradually gave rise to the Second Spirit of the Council. I leave it to others to flesh out all the ways in which the Second Spirit of the Council could only have arisen since the 1980s, and how the Second Spirit bears marks typical of the late-twentieth century and early-twenty-first century church and society.
Fair is fair. If there can be a First Spirit, there can be a Second Spirit. Every era puts its stamp on the liturgy. But in the interest of accuracy, I propose that we be careful to call the currently ascendant liturgical agenda what it is: the Second Spirit of the Council.