At the direction of the pope, the name of St. Joseph was added to the canon of the Mass in the Roman rite. The year was 1962. In discussions of liturgical reform up to then, the canon tended to be regarded as the Holy of Holies: do not touch. Its text was assumed to be ancient and unchanged since the pontificate of Gregory the Great in the sixth century.
The emendation that John XXIII made in the twentieth century consisted of six words, to make room for Joseph in an exclusive honor roll of saints: Mary, the twelve apostles, and twelve martyrs of the early church. The insertion of the new name was a small, discreet gesture. It was pious. The precedent thereby established had greater implications, however, than most observers at the time appreciated. “We can’t touch the canon? Of course we can. We just did. So no part of Mass is too holy for us to try to improve.”
Eight years later, after a period of incremental revisions that came at the faithful with shock-and-awe rapidity, the 1970 missal went into effect. To its critics, the new Mass was nothing like the judicious refurbishment originally promised. They lamented this radical “wreckovation,” as they saw it, a functional but jerry-built construction in place of a gorgeous cathedral that had grown up almost organically and stood for centuries, like a redwood. The catastrophe began with Pope John’s presumption in tinkering, though just a little, with the heart of the Mass: that, at any rate, is the history told by some Catholics who love the Latin Mass and protest against its marginalization.
Many of the same Catholics see in the recent change to the Catechism a replay of the St. Joseph episode. In answer to a request from Pope Francis, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has altered teaching on the death penalty by tweaking a few lines, approximately the length of this paragraph, in a vast document of encyclopedic scope. The church shifted its position on only a single question, and then only by an inch. That Rome moved at all, though, when it could have chosen to stand still—that was the problem. What might this incident forebode, in light of the sequence of events that led to the sweeping liturgical reforms of the 1960s?
Not all doctrinal conservatives are liturgical traditionalists, but the two camps merge in their reaction to the news that the Vatican has amended the Catechism. They’re alarmed at the possibility that Rome has laid the groundwork for changes to teachings on marriage, divorce, contraception, the family, and other issues related to sexual morality. And in their understanding of what the church’s adjustment to its teaching on the death penalty may portend for future developments of doctrine, traditionalists and conservatives are joined by some progressives who do want Catholic teaching to change, to conform more closely to mainstream mores in present-day Western societies, and who take encouragement from this news that the Catechism now reflects a little more clearly an international secular consensus against capital punishment.