The debates between advocates of the liturgical reforms that followed the Second Vatican Council and advocates of the unreformed rites seem pretty intractable. Why is this so? In part, I think, it is because on both sides people see something they value threatened, and when this happens people tend to dig in their heels and positions grow more extreme. While I realize the People Making Lots of Noise on the Internet are not a representative sample of people in real life, the more extreme voices among them seem to be going all in on intractability.
On the one side this might take the form of claims that the liturgy before the conciliar reforms was, well, bad. And I don’t mean “bad” in the sense of often being poorly done, in a rushed manner, with ugly vestments and terrible music, but rather theologically defective and spiritually malforming. The Council, on this view, was not calling for a simple clarification or renewal of the traditional rites, so as to better express the faith of the Church, but for a fundamental change in them. And, seemingly, this reform was carried out with such penetrating insight and wisdom that no missteps were made, no babies were thrown out with any bathwater, nothing might warrant rethinking. And any desire to let the unreformed rites continue to have any place at all in the life of the Church is a rejection of the Council and its teachings. At best, one might, in Christian charity, let a few old people have unreformed Requiem Masses when they die, but these have a definite sell-by date, after which such sentimental nonsense must stop.
On the other side, intractability might take the form of a complete rejection of the reforms—not simply the reforms carried out by the Consilium, but more and more the reforms called for explicitly by the Council itself (e.g. some degree of use of the vernacular, the inclusion of a “prayer of the faithful,” the creation of a multi-year lectionary). The growing edge of intractability on this side seems to be a desire to go back before the 1962 Missal and Holy Week reforms of the 1950s, which are proleptically tainted by the reforms that followed. Perhaps Pius X’s call for more frequent communion is next (there are clouds on the horizon). In some ways, this side is the mirror image of the other, agreeing that what followed the reforms was fundamentally different than what came before, but seeing this as a Bad Thing rather than a Good Thing. For this extreme of intractability, the only real solution is to put things back to where they stood in 1962…or maybe 1951…or maybe 1570.
Another thing both sides seems to agree on is that the other side is not worth talking with—maybe talking at, but not talking with. And perhaps they are right, But while I am generally on the side that favors the reformed liturgy (it’s really the only one I have ever known), I do think that something might be gained by talking with those who generally favor the unreformed liturgy, or at least think that it has something to offer that might have been lost in the liturgical reforms. But in order for such conversations to go anywhere, certain things need to be agreed on.
- The liturgy prior to and after the reform both express the same faith of the Church. The liturgical reforms after the Council were intended to highlight certain aspects of the Church’s faith that had been particularly important at the Council (e.g. the universal call to holiness and the Church as the People of God), but the liturgy of the Church prior to the Council was not incompatible with these emphases. Likewise, the traditional teachings of the Church regarding Eucharistic sacrifice and Christ’s presence are adequately expressed in the reformed liturgy.
- The liturgy prior to the reform was not perfect and incapable of being improved. The desire for reform was not simply a capitulation to modernity, but grew from a genuine desire to better align the lex orandi of the Church with her lex credendi. The reform was not a Masonic or Protestant plot and it cannot be undone wholesale.
- The liturgical reforms carried out after the Council are not perfect and incapable of being improved. The Consilium was not infallible and it is possible that now having lived for fifty-some years with some of the decisions made in the reforms, we might revisit them and maybe even reverse some of them. Just as the urban planning decisions made in the 1960s and 70s have not proved to be all that their authors might have hoped for, and have in some cases been undone, so too some of the liturgical changes of the 1960s and 70s should be assessed with a critical eye.
- Liturgical stability is not nothing and the desire for liturgical change can succumb to utopian delusions. Oddly enough, it is often the advocates of “tradition” who today are calling for more tinkering with (or wholesale replacement of) the liturgy and who fail to see that the reformed liturgy is for most people simply “the Mass” and, like Catholics throughout the ages, they love it and get upset when it is changed. On all sides it should be agreed that the changes of the 60s and 70s were often carried out in a ham-handed and authoritarian way, and we should be extremely cautious about repeating this, even in the name of tradition or restoration.
I am philosophically committed to the view that it is possible to talk across differences, provided that there is some thin spit of common ground on which to stand. What I suggest above is intended to be such common ground.