For the foreseeable future, it won’t be possible to restore the unity of the Roman liturgy: the split between the “ordinary form” and “the use of the 1962 Missal as a forma extraordinaria of the liturgy of the Mass” (as Benedict XVI put it in the motu proprio Summorum Pontificum of July 7, 2007) will be with us for a long time. Whatever we think of it, this split has become part of the ecclesial landscape. And in this case, “extraordinary” does not mean “once in a while”: the pre–Vatican II rite has become the ordinary rite for a considerable number of Roman Catholics.
The spectrum of positions in the Catholic Church about the liturgical reforms of Vatican II is much wider in some countries than in others. The polarization in the United States is absent in Italy, where I come from. If you look at the debate taking place among American Catholics (and, to a lesser extent, Catholics in other English-speaking countries), you’ll find two main positions. On one side are those who favor further development of liturgical reform: more inculturation of the liturgy, dynamic translations of liturgical texts rather than the kind mandated by the Vatican instruction Liturgiam Authenticam (2001), and decentralization of decisions about the liturgy. On the other side are those who think and say that the liturgical reforms of Vatican II must themselves be reformed. When it comes to such questions as inculturation and liturgical translation, they favor the policies implemented by the Vatican since the early 2000s and affirmed in Benedict XVI’s Summorum Pontificum.
During the pontificate of Pope Francis, the critics of Vatican II’s liturgical reforms have received clerical support from Cardinal Raymond Burke and Cardinal Robert Sarah Sarah was appointed prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Doctrine of Sacraments by Pope Francis in November 2014; and he still holds that position despite a series of very public disagreements with the pope—from the thirteen months it took Sarah to accept of Francis’s instruction about allowing women to participate in the liturgy of the washing of the feet to the cardinal’s untruthful statements about the pope’s intentions with respect to liturgical reform.
Pope Francis is clearly not a liturgical traditionalist, and while he has respected the provisions made for traditionalists by his predecessor, his motu proprio Magnum Principium (September 2017) was intended to correct Rome’s recent tendency to “Latinize” and “curialize” liturgy. But while some traditionalists are worried that this pontificate is a threat to the liberties they acquired under Benedict, Francis is not about to abrogate Summorum Pontificum. That means that the two-track status quo is going to remain the status quo for a long time. Theologians often say that, at fifty years, the reception of Vatican II has just begun; one could make the same point about the movement for the “reform of the reform”: it has only just begun.
The actual state of liturgy in the United States is one example of the unintended consequences of Vatican II’s reforms. Those reforms—including the liturgical reforms—were intended to build unity: among Catholics, between Catholics and other Christians, and between the church and the entire human family. Instead, these reforms and the reaction against them have become a symbol of sectarian division. We are well beyond the point when Catholic theologians and liturgists worried about the appearance of a new “bi-ritualism” within the Catholic Church: thanks to Benedict, a bi-ritual Roman rite is now fait accompli. Of course this innovation, which introduced a radical discontinuity in the life of the church, was carried out in the name of continuity with the church’s past, paradox that does not bother most traditionalists.
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