Liturgy and Church Reform?

Latest actions show church is unreformable” is the judgment in an article in the Irish Times by Patsy McGarry on May 12, 2011, as I write this article. The article refers to difficulties church authorities are reported to have in co-operating a review of protection practices by the National Board for Safeguarding Children. The review was commissioned by those same church authorities. Chairman of the Board, John Morgan, is quoted as saying, “The whole problem here is clericalism. There has to be a new relationship between the clerical caste and lay people.” The Irish Conference of Bishops, in a statement of April 19, 2011, said: “The use of a new edition of the Missal is not simply about words or translation. The new Missal will enable us to come to a deeper understanding of the Eucharist, which is the source and summit of the life of the Church.”

This is a worthwhile objective. It could help also towards a renewal in the church in Ireland and worldwide. Our celebration of the liturgy can be a transforming experience, with the gradual result that those sent out at the end of each Mass will be an embodiment of the Word of Life and will be Bread of Life broken for the life of the world. Since the publication of reports about abuse of children in the church in Ireland, there have been many calls for such reform and renewal.

Yet nothing that I can see so far has commenced to bring about that reform and renewal. It remains to be seen whether the new English translation of the Missal to be introduced later this year will help towards this. I wrote in the March issue of The Furrow of some difficulties in the new translation which seem to present serious difficulties to the realization of the hopes of the bishops. The die is now cast. Here I will not revisit problems which may be perceived with the new translation; I reflect on the process as I have observed it, so that it may offer some useful material for reflection on some aspects of how we can approach the necessary reform of church life.

As the March Furrow was appearing, a group (of which I was one) from the Association of Catholic Priests met with members of the Worship Commission of the Conference of Bishops as they were beginning their Spring General Meeting in Maynooth on February 28, 2011. We were courteously received, and invited to present our input on difficulties we perceived with the new English translation. Following that, there was a short discussion; the Commission assured us that our input would be presented to the general meeting of the hierarchy, and that we would receive a response.

The response, dated March 14, came from the Executive Secretary of the Bishops’ Conference. The letter to the Association of Catholic Priests seems significant to me, not for what it said, but for what it did not say. It was offered as a response to the points put to the bishops by the group from the Association. Yet it does not address any of the genuine concerns which were put to them. The letter gives no indication that the Association even pointed out difficulties with the translation. The input from the Association has been effectively passed over.

The statement of the Conference of Bishops on April 19 announced that the new translation would come into use between September and November 2011. It lists resources to help prepare for the new translation. Those I have examined contain good material. They also address particular issues like “and with your spirit”; “consubstantial”; “for many”. They acknowledge, of course, the difficulties associated with changeover – these would exist whatever the quality of the new translation. Both the statement and the resources seem to avoid dealing with more fundamental problems with the translation. I do not know whether the Conference of Bishops has a protocol similar to that of “cabinet confidentiality” in the government, and we have no indication of what discussion took place. I would be surprised if there were total unanimity in the Conference about the overwhelming merits of the new translation.

Instead of avoiding the issues raised by the Association, the response from the Conference could have addressed the difficulties pointed out. It could even have given some insight into the debate in the Conference of Bishops. Would such a response have been damaging to the Church? It seems to me, rather, that it would be a step towards a renewal and reform in the church, and would better promote the growth of communion in the Church.

The Association was not being mischievous in requesting an opportunity to make the points. Canon 212 §3 states it clearly: “(The faithful) have the right, indeed at times the duty, in keeping with their knowledge, competence and position, to manifest to the sacred Pastors their views on matters which concern the good of the Church”. “Qui tacet consentire videtur, ubi loqui debuit et potuit” –whoever is silent is seen to consent, where one should and could speak. The Association was very clear that the problems should be named. The silence on the part of the Conference of Bishops seems to convey quite a different message. As Pope Benedict might say, “Keine Antwort ist auch eine Antwort” – (to give) no answer is itself an answer.

In a different field, what has happened bears a similarity to what happened when cases of abuse of children were reported. There is the appearance of responding, but without in fact dealing with the issue. Whatever the merits or problems in the new translation, the way the new translation is being introduced may be experienced as an abuse of power by the church. Others may argue that the bishops are fully within their rights in acting in this way. Yet it is a fact that a significant number of people experience it as an abuse. We need to ask why. Last February the Conference of Bishops approved the document From Crisis to Hope from the Council for Justice and Peace, addressing “the current economic, social and political crisis on the island of Ireland”. On page 12 we read: “we are acutely aware that the Catholic Church is one of those core institutions in which there has been a breakdown of trust in Ireland in recent years. As we present this statement calling for the development of a culture of hope towards a more equitable society, we do so conscious of the need for the Church to take account of its own failings and to put into practice the principles of social justice that we teach. We commit ourselves to addressing the wrongs of the past and ensuring that they will not be repeated.” Breakdown in trust can poison relationships. The way the new English translation has been processed over many years does not help build trust. Nor does the failure to respond to what the Association of Catholic Priests put to the hierarchy.

If there is substance to the difficulties pointed out in the new translation, the failure to acknowledge them will not help the celebration of the Liturgy. Catechesis is always welcome, to deepen our full conscious and active participation in the Liturgy. Catechesis, however, is directed at the participants, and does not deal with problems in the text itself.

I recognize that the Irish bishops may not have had an easy decision in the matter of the new translation of the Missal. But was it necessary for the bishops to close ranks here for the good of the church? Is the failure by political leaders and bank directors to acknowledge problems to be emulated? Is communion within the church really so weak that the question of difficulties with a translation of the Missal cannot be discussed openly between bishops and people? The early church as presented in New Testament openly portrays differences among Christians, including leaders. The Church of Ireland and the Presbyterian and Methodist Churches in Ireland have their synods and assemblies where such matters can be discussed candidly. Is that a source of damage or of strength for them? Would Catholics in Ireland have their faith weakened if they discovered that the hierarchy is not actually a monolith, and that they are willing to respond to genuine concerns raised by the people? Is there a sign of the times to be discerned here? This something which can point to an area of renewal for the church? A more open and participative exercise of authority would help bring about the renewal of the church and promote communion.

Looking beyond Ireland, to Rome, we need to identify factors which will lead to renewal there also. What is the source of the deep mistrust in the Congregation for Divine Worship of the decisions of the bishops of the English-speaking world, which led to the rejection of considerable work from 1982 to 1998 to produce a new translation of the Roman Missal? Bishop Maurice Taylor, Bishop of Galloway in Scotland, president of ICEL from 1997 to 2002, remarkably gives an account of this in his 1999 book It’s the Eucharist, Thank God. In the April 19 statement from the Irish bishops, there is a section on “Background.” This only takes up the story from 2000, as if the vast work on a new translation from 1982 to 1998, accepted by Conferences of bishops but rejected by the Congregation for Divine Worship, never happened.

What motivated the use the Latin language as an instrument of control in the production of Liturgiam authenticam in 2001? What kind of insecurity led to the rejection of previous cooperation with other Christian churches in the work of translation? It is a strange understanding of what “catholic” means. The process we have seen does not seem a good basis on which to develop trust and true communion in Jesus Christ. Jesus showed extraordinary trust in his disciples when he entrusted the mission to them, knowing that they would have a lot to learn.

However we deal now with the introduction of the new translation of the Roman Missal, reflection on the process of its introduction must be instructive in underlining areas where reform is urgent. Deeper understanding of the Eucharist, which is the source and summit of the life of the Church, has implications for all, including those who serve in positions of authority. I do not agree with the judgment of Patsy McGarry quoted above that the church is irreformable, but it is certainly a challenge. The challenge was also expressed by John Morgan: “The whole problem here is clericalism. There has to be a new relationship between the clerical caste and lay people”. This problem has been named frequently, but I see no signs yet that the lesson has been learned. The question mark in the title of this article is intentional.

When we find ourselves in a locked room, we need to recognize the living presence of Jesus there, and know that he breathes the Spirit on all his people as he sends us forth in mission, just as his Father sent him, so that all his people may have life and have it to the full.

Pádraig McCarthy
from The Furrow, June 2011


  1. So long as we also realize it’s just as clericalist for presiders to substitute their own personal judgment for the actual judgment of their flock without obtaining a broad consensus in favor of that from the flock at large (not just pastoral councils and liturgy committees, which are very vulnerable to the problem that, over time, people who agree with the priest will self-select in by volunteering and those who don’t will self-select out by declining to volunteer). The next stage of Vatican II does not begin in Rome, but in the parishes. Presiders who decide what is best for their congregations without that kind of consensus are merely mirroring Rome in their own way.

      1. What a novel idea.However, the Church is not a democracy. I would venture to guess that if you put 50 Catholics in a room you would never get consensus on anything. It would be even worse with the clergy.

      2. Consensus is not the same as unanimity. It’s not a binary process, and it’s more about finding the fulcrum point of balanced coexistence, rather than adversarial persuasion and victory/defeat.

  2. Karl – think I understand what you are trying to say but do not agree with your conclusion at all. Every pastor has an overriding responsibility to save “souls” and to bring the gospel and the eucharist to the people of God. If, in good conscience and after much consultation and feedback, a pastor carefully arrives at a judgment to make modifications so that the parish’s liturgical life and experience are the best that is humanly possible, that pastor has a duty to do this. To blindly follow a law (e.g. LA and the new translation) is to put legalism above the faith of the community. Legalism is not liturgy; legalism is not our goal.

    Guess what I am trying to say is that your analogy or comparison does not work. Why – because the translation and its process is based upon poor ecclesiology, poor liturgy, poor translation/scriptural reasons. To say that a wise pastor or presider may not make changes in the face of this process because they would be doing the same as Vox Clara is to compare apples to oranges.

    1. I believe this argument dramatically underestimates the power of rationalization to cloak the clericalist impulse.

      Moreover, there is this reality that it fails to address: priests come and go, but the flock is left to pick up the pieces. It needs much more of a voice in affirming or not affirming actions (or omissions) by priests that can draw chancery or curial lightning, among other things.

    2. Unless the pastor develops a consensus and makes changes with the support of the parish, the changes will alienate souls, not bring them to God. I’ve seen it happen. A good man sabotaged himself by imposing from above rather than convincing people change was needed.

    3. What is to say that any pastor or priest who decides to make editorial changes to the new translation is making them based on GOOD ecclesiology, GOOD liturgy, GOOD translation/scriptural reasons? We cannot generalize that priests who amend this new translation will be doing so properly and for the right reasons.

    4. I suppose I would argue that there needs to be some underlying unity in all liturigcal celebrations. That is the role of liturgical law. To ignore or deny it totally would be liturgical abuse. I find that many have never read the praenotandas of the rites and therefore do not understand the law is the foundation of the celebration. That includes the theology, rubrics, and ars celebrandi.
      One thing very absent from all of the discussions here is that liturgy has the power to not only express the depths of our faith , but it has the power to bring about what it celebrates. As Taft says all Liturgy-not just the Masss(the favorite term here) but the Sacraments, the Liturgy of the Hours. the Rite of Chrisitan Funerals, and the Rites of Religious Profession all dance around the same pole. That pole is the Paschal Mystery-the saving life, death and resurrection of Christ. Its very simple, but profound.

  3. Bill, it seems to me that you are not addressing Karl’s actual point, not that I necessarily agree with him. I sounds to me like he is saying that pastors should not institute liturgical changes without consulting parishioners, just on their own authority as pastors.

    Karl, the problem I have with your comment is that it says nothing about the level of relevant education in either the pastor or the congregation, not anything about introducing changes following or accompanied by sufficient information as to their bases or sufficient education about the changes themselves.

    Your remarks, if I read them correctly, leaves pastors with liturgical training and skills limited to the lowest common denominator or most effective political organizer of the parish.

    1. Rather, it puts pastors in the fulcrum of cultivating their flock.

      It is a great deal of work, I admit, but it’s work that needs to be done.

      Unfortunately, I’ve seen too many priests whose liturgical formation is skewed or stunted and their own self-conceit allows them to rationalize too much. (And now that also is appearing in younger priests whose liturgical formation is skewed by the cherry-picked arguments they find in Reform of the Reform blogs, among other things….)

  4. I think I agree with Karl. I think to a lot of the people in the pews, the selections and changes a priest makes to the liturgy come off as either arbitrary or according to his own preferences. I really don’t think most people feel consulted and explanations aren’t really even given for why Fr X’s Mass is different from Fr Y’s Mass.

  5. The concept of “concensus” in a parish environment (if there actually is such a thing) is very different form the concept of concensus in a secular-corporate or public-policy environment. That a Pastor should work to build a true concensus in the implementation of decisions that are the right decisions is a given…that is the role of the Pastor. However, the idea that because a group of the laity (or even in some cases, a group of clergy) reaches a concensus about some particular issue that such a decision is therefore the “right” decision…that is little more than abdication of moral authority. Sometimes the two will come together such that it will appear that the process works. But in the end, there needs to be some criteria other than “concensus” to make a decision or policy the “right” decision or policy.

    Traditionally, we have turned to the Church’s teachings to guide such decisions. When a “concensus” is reached that is in conflict with Church teachings, it may be time to consider that one has gone down the wrong path.

    1. Even in such a situation, the existence of the consensus (and what it consists of and rests on) will be invaluable information that should not be ignored.

      The fear of this situation is what prevents the gathering of this valuable information.

      1. So true Karl;

        My fear (and a well founded one) is that too often “majority” is equated with “right” …particularly in the US where there is a strong democratic impulse. The point is to discern what thigs are right for the parish as guided by the teaching of our faith, and then BUILD concensus for those decisions.

      2. By the same token, the existence of the consensus may be an indicator that the explanation of the teaching is missing something important.

    1. I’m not quite sure how to “enjoy” either liberal catholicism or its failure, but it’s hard to deny some sense of relief that the restoration of authentic Catholicism is finally underway.

      1. I have a feeling that the label “liberal Catholicism” is like “activist judges”. It is a term for people who think or act in ways with which we do not agree. The same is true of authentic Catholicism. It is a term for something you really can’t define but includes people and ways of being Catholic that are not comfortable to you. I find labels both in society and the Church to be very divisive.

      2. Mike…

        I really don’t want to beat a point to death, but the fact that we don’t like this or that label doesn’t mean that they aren’t descriptive of truth. There is such a thing as “liberal” (or “progressive”) Catholicism and those who practice their faith according to that set of views and assumptions should (proudly) take on that label when appropriate. Same goes for “Traditional” or “Conservative” Catholics… the designations are not always needed, but nonetheless apply when they are.

        As an add on, I have found that those who wish to “avoid labels” are generally “progressives”, both in the religious and political arena. I have yet to hear a traditionalist or conservative object to being so labeled…

    2. Quite the slugfest in that exhaustive essay, James.
      The “black racist Malcolm X” jab was way below the belt, which gives pause as to whether the author is a studied pugilist, or a brawler.
      And it is arguable that our bloghost here was quoted out of context in a serial sequence and thus misportrayed and lumped together with others clearly not of the ilk of those who attracted the author’s ire such as McBrien.

      1. Charles – most of what Hitchcock writes is second or third hand “sound bites” based on his own copy/pasting. It is a form of gossip boxed up neatly to appear as a scholarly article.

        He gives no footnotes; he quotes out of context in almost every section/paragraph in order to make his point.

        The most obvious example of this for me is his reference to Michael Rose’s Goodbye Good Men which is filled with innuendo; outright lies and half-truths, and mis-characterizations but which he notes as factual and true. Rose has been confronted by some on a number of his articles and projects – at times, he has promised to make retractions but never follows through (he has admitted publicly that some of his allegations are not independently verifiable). The focus of Rose is that a “lavendar or gay mafia” has taken over seminaries and created corruption in the clerical ranks.

        Hitchcock picks up on this but slightly revises his focus/thesis so that any “liberal” (read gay) groups have created corruption in the church. He picks up on the famous talk by Cardinal George in the late 1990’s when he posited the “death of catholic liberalism.” George – who can’t quite seem to manage abusers in his archdiocese; who was instrumental in running over the USCCB with the new translation.

        For a faculty member at St. Louis University to quote and reference Rose as if his statements are factual and to disparage noted Catholics in the public eye via rumors and half-truths is despicable (does Hitchcock give any verifiable evidence for what he claims? He uses discredited information as if it is a reliable which only lessens his overall credibility).

        As a historian, his comments have little to do with the profession of historal study, writing, and interpretation. Citing comments from the likes of the New Oxford Review website; Rose’s in editorials in various publications; and Crisis Magazine do not lend much objective weight to Hitchcock’s half-cocked allegations

  6. No one is speaking to the points made in the article: the eccelsiology which says the bishops don’t count compared to a central office; the ungenereous and frightened rejection of cooperation in English speaking countries with the other Christians who also use English; the idea that the English used by folks who speak it must be latinized. Fussing over a local pastor who makes changes on his own (and I don’t think that’s usually good at all) is to run away form the real issue of central control, based on fear of the world around us.

    Besides, Latin has a relative importance (huge) for historical reasons. Does Latin has an absolute importance in Christianity itself? So that to be authentically Christian, our English language of today must be baptised into Latin?

    Be not afraid. . . of the English language!

    Mark Miller

    1. Mark,
      That is why the principle of dynamic equivalence seems to work better when translating the latin nto another language. Formal equivalence can pose problems especially when the translating into the language of different cultures.. There are language differences that can sometimes not be met by a more “literal” translation” of the latin.

  7. Henry I find your assertion that we have not heretofore been living “authentic” Catholicism because of some undefined “liberalism” ( which I suspect means anything not in accord with your personal taste) to be offensive. I’m quite sure I disagree with you profoundly on a number of issues liturgical and theological, however I reject your implication that this ipso facto makes me some sort of inferior or heterodox believer. As an historian and theologian, I would call Vatican II and its implementation a restoration of authentic Catholicism.

    1. As understandably unpalatable to you as Mr Edwards’ opinion may be, don’t you really repeat the insult by deeming Vatican II as a “restoration of authentic Catholicism”? When did Catholicism cease being authentic and become inauthentic?

  8. One can make a case for many inauthentic periods – think end of 19th century and anti-modernism; think early 20th century and the campaigns that silenced many theologians who later emerged as periti at Vatican II – just a short list of inauthentic catholicism.

  9. Point taken. I will amend my comment. Vatican II affirmed a critical historical consciousness in the study of liturgy, and infused a less stilted and clericalist sense of ecclesiology. Doctrine, genuine doctrine was authentic before and after the Council obviously, but I still hold the Council to be a desperately needed shot in the arm to Catholic culture. Thanks for the fraternal correction.

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