Righting the Rites

This thoughtful and judicious book by a prominent American liturgical scholar reports on and evaluates several now familiar critiques of the reform of Catholic liturgy promulgated by Vatican II. John F. Baldovin, SJ, professor of liturgy at Boston College School of Theology and Ministry, is well placed to undertake this ambitious task. Baldovin’s voice is respected in the academy and the church, both nationally and internationally. Because his work has generally been associated with progressive ideas and institutions, the analysis and opinions he expresses here—which are broadly sympathetic to conservative concerns and issues—will interest a wide variety of readers. Although I will focus on what I find to be problematic in Baldovin’s assessment of the liturgical landscape, anyone interested in these questions should read this book.

Baldovin starts by debunking the naive assumption that the liturgical reform can be limited to what is found in the pages of the Second Vatican Council’s liturgical constitution, Sacrosanctum concilium. Innumerable decisions had to be made by those charged with its implementation. One may debate how faithful these decisions were to the vision of the liturgical constitution, or how successfully they were carried out, but not whether they were legitimate.

Next he offers what he calls a “brief chronicle of opposition” to the reform. This turns out to be mainly an acknowledgement of the early opposition, however, as detailed in Piero Marini’s book A Challenging Reform. Baldovin does not present the critics he discusses in chronological order, nor does he offer a history of their opposition. I found this regrettable. One naturally wants to know more about the linkages among the critics, the historical contexts out of which their views arose, and how much or how little their concerns have resonated with the wider church or scholarly community.

Baldovin does not discuss all the critics of the reform. He addresses only those “who mainly consider the Vatican II reform to have gone too far or to have betrayed the tradition of Roman Catholic worship.” His tour through the literature of discontent is organized according to disciplines: philosophy, history, theology, and ritual studies. By engaging thinkers as diverse as the Cambridge postmodernist philosopher Catherine Pickstock, the late Msgr. Klaus Gamber of the Institute of Liturgical Science at Regensburg, Australian liturgical historian Alcuin Reid, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, and the late Victor Turner, a Scottish-born cultural anthropologist who taught for many years in the United States, he presents a broad picture. Baldovin finds something to affirm and to appreciate in each critique. Yet he also points out problems and gaps in the thinking of these writers and others, and in some places disagrees with them directly.

The strongest chapter is the one devoted to history. Baldovin is self-critical concerning his own discipline, and readily admits the occasions when important liturgical historians, such as Josef Jungmann, have unfairly dismissed as degenerate the liturgical forms of the late Middle Ages and subsequent periods. Yet because Baldovin knows the sources and the literature so well, he is discerning. Point for point, he convincingly challenges several of Klaus Gamber’s objections to the reformed rites. He explains why the idea of the “organic” development of the liturgy, so dear to Gamber and others, will not hold water. He also defends changes to the Lenten lectionary, which complement the restoration of the catechumenate, and which have been attacked by Alcuin Reid and others.

Perhaps the least persuasive chapter is the one that focuses on Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI. The shortcomings of Ratzinger’s theology of the liturgy are not really engaged. Baldovin notes that Ratzinger held that it is appropriate to say that Christ died “for all” rather than “for many,” and that he defended the practice of receiving Communion standing and in the hand. But that was in the late 1970s. As pope, he has been responsible for the decision to translate pro multis as “for many” rather than “for all,” and has promoted the practice of receiving Communion kneeling and on the tongue. Baldovin says that “Ratzinger has no desire to return simply to the pre–Vatican II liturgy,” but the fact remains that the pope has done more to rehabilitate and encourage the use of the pre–Vatican II liturgy than anyone in authority since the council. Benedict may be “critical of the ‘Tridentines,’” but he has bent over backward to accommodate them.

At the end of the book, Baldovin presents his own recommendations for “a way forward” through the thicket of controversies that have rendered the liturgical scene more like a war zone than an occasion for worship. The way forward, in his opinion, is to be found in an agenda advanced by Msgr. M. Francis Mannion, called “recatholicizing the reform.” The “recatholicizing” agenda, in Mannion’s words, is devoted to “a vital recreation of the ethos that has traditionally imbued Catholic liturgy at its best—an ethos of beauty, majesty, spiritual profundity, and solemnity.”

These are lofty sentiments, but what do they portend in practical terms? Baldovin eschews “the kind of free experimentation that became common in the late 1960s and the 1970s,” but no one today advocates free experimentation. He calls Denis Crouan (who favors Latin and a general return to the practice of the priest facing the same direction as the congregation during the eucharistic prayer) a recatholicizer, so one might assume Baldovin favors the same things. But then he writes, “The current state of Roman Catholic liturgy—in the United States at least—does not call for a return to Latin or the eastward position.”

Instead, Baldovin argues for “a deeper appreciation, savoring if you will, of the liturgy,” and for a spiritual approach to the rites. But can one expect gratitude or “savoring” from those who regard our present rites as illegitimate and disastrous for the church, as many of the critics do?

As a Catholic who has been worshiping according to these rites for more than forty years, I find troubling the suggestion that we need a movement to “recatholicize” them. It seems to me they are Catholic already. Mannion, who coined the term, denies that it casts doubt on the catholicity of the reform. But it stands to reason that you cannot recatholicize something unless it has first been decatholicized.

The one radical suggestion Baldovin makes is to change the rubrics so that the priest is forbidden to say anything ad libitum, except during the homily, announcements, and prayer of the faithful. This would cut down on didacticism and useless verbiage, which distract from liturgical prayer. “Were the liturgy to achieve some real stability by the elimination of off-the-cuff remarks and invitations, this would go a long way toward alleviating this situation,” Baldovin writes. That may be right, but I am also aware that any move to cut down on the freedom of the clergy is unlikely to win favor.

Reforming the Liturgy: A Response to the Critics is a fascinating book, and one that is well worth reading. But for “a way forward,” I’m still waiting.

Published in the 2009-04-24 issue: 

Rita Ferrone is the author of several books about liturgy, including Liturgy: Sacrosanctum Concilium (Paulist Press). She is a contributing writer to Commonweal.

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