Liturgy by Committee

The banished heart of Geoffrey Hull’s title is the traditional Roman liturgy; his subtitle refers to the present liturgical practice of the Catholic Church; and the purpose of his book is to explain the liturgical revolution that led from one to the other. In Hull’s view, it was “the worst wound ever inflicted on the Mystical Body.”

After an initial chapter that reviews, far too summarily, the process of the liturgical reforms after the Second Vatican Council, Hull sets out the primary assumptions on which his work rests: that in the life of the church the lex orandi, actual worship, has priority over secondary reflection on it, the lex credendi. Until Vatican II, he argues, the development of the liturgy, in both East and in West, was organic and achieved in an immemorial past by the gradual addition of new elements initiated locally, spread by a natural process, and only later ratified by official liturgical books. For Hull such organic growth is not perpetual but reaches an identifiable term of structural maturity, a stage reached for all the church’s rites by the end of the Middle Ages. In the Roman rite it was enshrined in the order published by Pope Pius V, after which only minor, cosmetic, rubrical changes were made. To this rite, “universally considered mature and fixed in its essentials,” no one dared introduce radical changes until Pope Paul VI, that “reckless innovator,” under whom revolution replaced evolution. Then the relationship between the lex orandi and the lex credendi was reversed, as a liturgy by committee was concocted on the basis of incoherent antiquarianism—a “wild goose chase” for “the ideal form of the Roman Mass”—and for the sake of ecumenical and contemporary relevance. The result was a worship perfectly appropriate for “a God of modern devising who makes few demands and refuses to condemn.”

How could this have happened? Remotely, it was made possible by the Western cultural preference for speculation rather than contemplation and by its tendency toward abstraction and desire to subject all aspects of Christian life to theological rationalization. But Hull is particularly unsparing in his criticism of the role of Rome in these developments. Rome’s “predilection for a compulsory uniformity” and “liturgical absolutism” showed itself very early indeed in the church’s history and in the West eventually eroded an earlier ecclesiology, still held by the Orthodox, according to which the liturgy “was not intended to be the object of universal legislation, but rather the outcome of an authentic synthesis of Catholic faith and local culture.” Uniformity in accordance with Rome’s practice became an idol, pursued more vigorously and more widely the more all ecclesiastical authority was considered to derive from that of the pope, the more his authority was conceived and structured in centralizing legislation and action, the more it was considered his will and not the church’s tradition that was the liturgical and disciplinary norm for all the churches. Vatican I’s definitions of papal primacy and infallibility lacked references to objective criteria that genuinely limit a pope’s power. That council’s careful definition was widely ignored and the charism of infallibility was commonly thought to extend to the pope’s governance of the church and even to power over the immemorial form of Catholic worship. At Vatican II and after, Rome-centered institutionalism combined with aggiornamento to permit and even vindicate “a legalistic and arrogant clerical revolt against the liturgical and disciplinary traditions held sacred by the Latin Catholic faithful.”

But why did not more than a few of the faithful react more strongly to “the demolition of the time-hallowed forms”? Hull offers in explanation a Jesuit culture of obedience, which replaced “the spontaneous religiosity of the Middle Ages” with “the regimented and self-conscious Catholicism of the Counter Reformation.” An uncritical ultramontanism trained people in “an instinct of blind obedience to ecclesiastical authority” that “proved stronger than the moral dictate of fidelity to the truth or patrimonial loyalties.” Both hierarchy and laity came to believe that liturgy, too, belonged to the area over which the pope’s disciplinary authority reigned supreme. Pius XII said that the pope “alone has the right to permit or establish any liturgical practice, to introduce or approve new rites, or to make any changes in them he considers necessary.” The precedent he set with the reform of Holy Week led the way to “a new era of heteropractic pontiffs who considered themselves the inerrant arbiters of disciplinary and liturgical tradition rather than its respectful custodians.” A “binomium of papolatry and theological liberalism” prevailed, as “the Roman Church was being undermined by the same virtue of obedience that had once been its strength; the dangerous weapon designed by St. Ignatius Loyola for the use of the champions of Catholic tradition was now, in the wrong hands, being turned on those for whose protection it had been fashioned.”

Meanwhile, post-Reformation changes had alienated the genuine life of the liturgy from the cultures of the people. Rome refused compromises on liturgical language and engaged in “cultural vandalism” of Eastern rites; low Masses became the norm in practice; the breviary was privatized; and in the hearts of the faithful popular devotions replaced the liturgy, which was widely thought of as simply a matter of rubrics and instruction. The century-long liturgical movement sought to replace that approach with the more traditional and cosmic view that was to be enshrined in Vatican II’s constitution on the liturgy, but that it did not deeply affect the faithful and clergy is evident by their failure to resist the “vandalization and virtual destruction” of the Roman rite.

Neither John Paul II nor Benedict XVI is spared criticism. The former, so far from recognizing that the liturgical reform had been “a catastrophic mistake,” enthusiastically presided over public ceremonies that flouted basic rubrics and displayed serious liturgical abuses. He pandered to “the mood of an age”; his liturgies mingled pagan rites with secular vulgarities; his huge World Youth Days were “Catholic Woodstocks,” of doubtful effect on the spiritual lives of young participants. He kissed the Qur’an, condemned the death penalty, shared Balthasar’s heretical views on hell. “Attempting to raise to sainthood an individual whose policies and conduct caused such scandal and spiritual sufferings to the faithful” could have very serious consequences, Hull writes. “The existing gulf between the Vatican and the conscientious traditional minority would widen irreparably and convince not a few that the arguments of sedevacantists were right all along.”

Hull finds the current pope inconsistent and self-contradictory in behavior. Although Benedict XVI has said that the Pauline rites were artificial, manufactured, he has not moved to the logical conclusion that they ought to be abolished. It is offensive that he considers the traditional liturgy and the concoction of the 1960s two forms of a single rite and even more calls the latter the “ordinary” form. He has not hesitated on his own authority to change the ancient prayers for Jews in the Good Friday liturgy; once again, a novel lex credendi is allowed to dictate the lex orandi. Pope Benedict, “a right-of-center liberal committed to Vatican II both as a monument and as a charter for reform,” is at war with himself: “The Peter in the complex personality of Benedict XVI attempts to release the traditional liturgy from quarantine while the Simon within proclaims his solidarity with the revolution.” One of the few times Hull pulls his punches in his treatment of the last two popes is when he leaves in Greek characters the saying “A fish starts to stink from the head down.”

Geoffrey Hull is a linguist associated with Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia. Here and there in the book his particular interest and expertise in regional and local dialectics is brought to bear on his argument, not least in the premise that embodied culture is the primary bearer of the faith from generation to generation. He is leery of “secondary theology” because of its tendency to rationalize, as if from a superior position. He is a champion of a religious culture immemorial in origin and organic in development, initiated from below and spreading naturally in a process believed to be inspired and guided by the Holy Spirit and therefore, in its essentials, beyond the ability of its heirs to tamper with it. The Eastern Orthodox Churches have understood this, and their liturgical traditionalism is regularly contrasted favorably with the catastrophe visited on the Western liturgy.

While Hull’s argument is developed with examples taken from the whole of Christian history, his control of his material is greater for the second millennium than for the first, where a good deal of his sources are second-hand and very dated. He does not deal in sufficient detail with the work of the consilium that revised Catholic rites after Vatican II, and counted among its members most of the finest liturgical scholars in the church; and he does not always avoid the temptation to contrast the worst of postconciliar liturgy with the best of the preconciliar. He caricatures the council’s teaching on religious freedom, and his sweeping statements about American culture and its baleful influence on postwar European Catholicism are no more convincing than his effort to find the psychological roots of the mistakes of Vatican II churchmen and theologians in their “guilty conscience” over the horrors of the twentieth century. Most serious, on a theological level, is Hull’s regular counterposing of theocentric and anthropocentric approaches to faith and to worship.

Hull might be thought of as a theological Romantic, believing with Wordsworth that “Our meddling intellect / Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things:— / We murder to dissect.” It will reveal my Western mindset if I propose that underlying this question is the more general one: whether, without being compromised, a religion may be made the object of reflective and critical thinking. That Western Christianity since the patristic period has thought it could be subjected to critical reflection needs little demonstration, nor can it be denied that it has at times proved to be a dangerous undertaking. Clearly the self-reflection, self-criticism, and self-reform undertaken at the Second Vatican Council were unprecedented and produced changes in everyday life and worship that were unforeseen by the protagonists of the council. Why reform became in many areas revolution is a very good question, and, despite his trying to cover too much ground and his indulgence in sweeping generalizations, Hull does take it on and contribute to an answer.

Finally, Hull does raise a point worth considering with regard to the lex orandi–lex credendi relationship. The old adage gave a priority to the lived worship of the church whose spontaneous development was thought to be guided by the Holy Spirit and so could serve as a norm of belief. But does the adage hold when the development is no longer spontaneous but directed from on high, or when worship has become the object of theological reflection and the latter suggests or dictates changes in it, or when, as after Vatican II, a certain liturgical theology authorizes drastic changes in the very law of worship? In these cases is it not a lex credendi that is dictating the lex orandi? Does the ancient adage any longer apply?

Published in the 2011-07-15 issue: 

Rev. Joseph A. Komonchak, professor emeritus of the School of Theology and Religious Studies at the Catholic University of America, is a retired priest of the Archdiocese of New York.

Also by this author

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Must Reads