Archbishop Alexander K. Sample of Portland, Oregon, celebrates the Eucharist in the extraordinary form with Benedictine monks at the San Benedetto in Monte monastery overlooking the town of Norcia, Italy, October 27. (CNS photo/courtesy Populus Summorum Pontificum)

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.

Thanks to Benedict, a bi-ritual Roman rite is now fait accompli

This new bi-ritualism is not, for the most part, an accommodation for those who grew up with the old Latin Mass; it’s aimed at a new generation of traditionalists, born after 1964, who grew up with the novus ordo. The disputes between the advocates of the liturgical reform of Vatican II and advocates of the extraordinary form are—another paradox—disputes between an older generation advocating the new and a younger generation advocating the old. These disputes have wounded the sense of communion between Catholics. The rancor of this conflict in the United States was a painful surprise for me when I first moved to this country.

In Tradition and Traditions (1960), Yves Congar wrote: “You cannot properly understand another Christian until you have seen him at prayer in his own community, and—with all due respect to the laws forbidding communicatio in sacris—attended his place of worship to pray with him.” Congar was writing about ecumenism, but today his words also apply to relations between Catholics with different liturgical sensibilities. Congar helps us understand what happened with this new bi-ritualism in the Roman liturgy: “The liturgy is ‘the principal instrument of the Church’s tradition.’” Quoting Dom Prosper Gueranger’s Institutions liturgiques (1840­–1851), Congar continued: “‘It is in the liturgy that the Spirit who inspired the Scriptures still speaks to us; the liturgy is tradition itself, at its highest degree of power and solemnity.’” Congar wrote about the very high position of the liturgy among the instruments of tradition, which is more than a mere “dialectic arsenal.” Writing before the beginning of Vatican II, Congar described the special ability of liturgy both to clarify and to comfort: “Through the liturgy’s quite special character, a mass of questions are resolved in a sane, Christian manner sometimes before they are even put, or at least without being accompanied by tensions and difficulties: perhaps somewhat like the peaceful solving, within the calm of a normal family circle, of questions full of discrepancies and conflicts, for example, authority and freedom, persons and community, continuity and innovation, tension and relaxation, etc. It is the liturgy which gives to the Church the fullness of its family atmosphere; in this it rejoins Tradition, which is, as we have already seen, something very similar to what education is in the succession, the solidarity and the renewal of the generations.” More than fifty years later, Congar’s optimistic description of the liturgy’s role in peacefully mediating the tensions in the Church now reads like an ominous warning: symbolically, the two rites are now like two separate “family circles.” The two are formally in communion with each other, but they rarely meet to talk, to pray together, and to share the meal that signifies their communion.

One wonders if, under the surface of unity, Catholicism in America is not fragmenting in a way that parallels the divisions in contemporary Judaism. There is a Traditionalist Catholicism (corresponding in some ways to Orthodox Judaism), which celebrates the Mass in Latin and treats the development of doctrine as having ended at some point between John Henry Newman and Pius XII. Then there is a kind of ressourcement Catholicism (corresponding roughly to Conservative Judaism), which is rooted in the theology of Vatican II, with its understanding of tradition as dynamic. And, finally, there is a Progressive Catholicism (corresponding to Reform Judaism), for which the tradition is mostly a relic of the past and Vatican II is just a springboard for future developments.

The bi-ritualism of the Roman liturgy is an emblem of the polarization of the Church in the West. It is, to be sure, a lopsided polarization. Only on the internet do the two sides appear to be roughly equivalent; on the ground, the vast majority of Catholics have accepted the liturgical reform, while only a small minority has challenged it. But the polarization will continue, I believe, and it will remain an important problem for the church, whether the minority grows or shrinks as a percentage of Catholics.

In any case, the needed reconciliation between different kinds of Catholics cannot take place only through political, theological, or intellectual debate—urgent and necessary as such debate is. There can be no reconciliation between Catholics that does not involve some kind of liturgical reconciliation, given the liturgy’s primary position in the life of the church. The polarization of American Catholicism is a disease that began with socio-political differences and went on to involve theological differences. We are now reaching stage III of the disease, in which the differences extend beyond the theological into the Eucharist itself. That should concern Catholics on both sides of the great divide.

Massimo Faggioli is professor of theology and religious studies at Villanova University. His most recent book is The Oxford Handbook of Vatican II, co-edited with Catherine Clifford (Oxford UP). Follow him on Twitter @MassimoFaggioli.

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