Rorate Caeli

Op-Ed: "The Conversation that must be had: a genuine Theological debate about the Church and the World"

by Fr. Richard G. Cipolla

[Rorate note: This is intended to be the beginning of a conversation among Rorate's contributors about the Reform of the Reform and its future..]

What is so sorely needed in the Church today is genuine theological debate about important issues both within the Church and also within the world.  And this debate is sorely needed within the Traditional movement within the Church.  What is at stake is the very concept and understanding of the Tradition of the Church that encompasses both Scripture and the teaching of the Church to the present time.  For the Catholic, Scripture cannot be divorced from the Tradition, which must include the teaching of the Church and its binding nature.  You notice I did not invoke the term “Magisterium” with respect to the teaching office of the Church.  The Magisterium, as understood today, did not, at least in an explicitly defined sense, exist before Vatican I.   I would submit that the concept of the Magisterium as consisting of the Pope united with the bishops and the levels of Extraordinary and Ordinary teaching is a rather modern concept. This is not to say that this concept is in error or that it is not useful.  But this understanding of the teaching role and office of the Church defined in this narrow and legalistic way impoverishes the meaning of the Ecclesia Docens by overlooking the role of the Liturgy and of the piety of the people in the teaching of the Church as embodied in the Tradition. The omission of the role of the Liturgy and the piety of the people in the concept of the Magisterium is one of the chief reasons why we find ourselves in the parlous situation of the Church today. 

I am not aware of a groundswell of the faithful who asked for a new liturgy in the 1960s.  What happened after Vatican II had little to do with the People of God. What happened was from the top down. It was the imposition of a rite on the people by liturgical brahmins of a certain time and place, with a certain flawed scholarship (as is all scholarship), with a certain breathless desire to be with the times: and this imposition was made possible by the belief that the Magisterium, and specifically the Pope, has the power and the authority to this. 

And this is what must be debated among those who love the Church and her Tradition:  what is the basis of this power and authority to essentially change the Tradition of the Church in the form of the Liturgy?  In the case of the Pope, is it the definition of Papal Infallibility at Vatican I?  Is it from the Catechism that speaks of the Extraordinary and Ordinary Magisterium with regard to the Pope and the bishops?   When Pius X signed off on the radical revision of the Roman Breviary and promulgated the revision as the Roman Breviary (at least Paul VI called his revision by a new name), where did this authority come from?  When Pius XII, despite his own warnings about archaism in liturgical scholarship, initiated the post-1955 Holy Week rites, what was the basis of the authority to change the Tradition embodied in the Liturgy?  When Paul VI at the stroke of a pen brought a New Liturgy into Being and assumed that the Mass of the Tradition was now a thing of the past to be discarded and never to be part of the Church again, is this when this power and authority came into being?  Was it when the Pope assumed the authority to change the words of Consecration on the basis of making them more biblical and eliminating “Mysterium Fidei” because no one understood why those words were there in the Consecration of the wine to the Precious Blood? Or was it when St. John XXIII decided to add St. Joseph to the Canon of the Mass?  Who could object to this?  But what was the basis of his authority to do such a thing?   As the Chief Shepherd whose jurisdiction of the Church is absolute?  And the further questions about the relationship of Canon Law to Liturgical Law and what the source and meaning of Liturgical Law is and its relationship to Tradition: all this needs to be talked about and debated in a faithful and intelligent manner.

Men and women who love the Tradition are now upset over Pope Francis’ edict that changes the rubrics of the Roman Missal of Paul VI to allow for the feet of women and girls to be washed as well as men and boys.  My esteemed colleague, Augustinus, writing for Rorate Caeliunderstands the latest development in the ongoing liturgical development that has marked the post-Vatican years as “inevitable” . And he is right. Just as Pope Francis is inevitable.  But underlying this sense of inevitability is the profound legalism that undergirds the very understanding of the Liturgy itself.  There is no question of the need for liturgical law.  But the fact is that liturgical law was powerless in the face of the innovation of saying Mass facing the people. It was powerless in the face of the un-Traditional practice of receiving Communion in the hand, a practice born in disobedience. It was powerless in the face of countless abuses in the Mass, abuses that still are part of the “normal” celebration of Mass today.  And this is where I disagree with my colleague when he says:  “As long as the ‘Reform of the Reform’ is not embodied in clear legislation that is vigorously enforced by the very top, it will never take off the ground and will never be more than the hobby of a tiny minority”. 

I would say that surely those of us who love the Tradition and bemoan the present state of the liturgical life of the Church have learned that legislation of any type is not the answer.  A bishop I know and respect said to me recently:  “We are priests. We are not policemen.”.  The breakdown of the liturgical life of the Church cannot be fixed by legislation.  How it will be fixed is in the deepest sense by the sheer grace of God.  How we can co-operate with this grace is a subject for conversation.  But the most important thing right now is to initiate the debate about papal authority, its basis, its nature and its limits.  And like all debate within the Church of Christ, it must be done by listening to each other in charity.