Rorate Caeli

John Lamont on Liturgical Pluralism and the TLM

The following paper was especially written for Rorate Caeli.

Liturgical Pluralism and the Traditional Latin Mass 
John Lamont 

The international federation Una Voce has recently released its sixth position paper, 'Liturgical Pluralism and the Extraordinary Form'. The paper makes assertions and raises issues that call for further discussion.

 Several commenters, including myself, have been hard on this paper, so it should be acknowledged at the outset that it provides a conclusive answer to one objection that has indeed been commonly made against the practice of the traditional Roman rite (abbreviated henceforth as TLM). This objection is that unity among Catholics demands that they share the same form of worship, and hence that it is wrong to allow use of two forms of worship, the TLM as well as the Novus Ordo. The idea that it is the TLM rather than the NO that should be abandoned is taken for granted by this argument, which concludes that only the Novus Ordo should be permitted. The paper shows that the existence of legitimate liturgical pluralism within the Catholic Church means that the first premise of this objection is false – it is not the case that Catholics must all have the same form of worship – and hence it shows that this objection has no value. 

The trouble with the paper is that it does not limit itself to the useful service of providing a purely negative, dialectical refutation of this objection. It goes further; it attempts to argue for a positive thesis, which is that the use of the TLM in the Church can be justified as an instance of legitimate liturgical pluralism. 

It asks: 'the question to be addressed by this paper is whether the existence in the Latin Rite of an extra, ‘extraordinary’, ‘Form’ of the Roman Rite is problematic, and therefore something to be overcome if possible, in the short or long term, perhaps by the creation of a single, amalgamated, Form of the Roman Rite.' It gives an affirmative answer to this question on the basis of an appeal to 'the value of pluralism'.

One can discern a good intention behind this positive answer. It is to fend off the possibility of an attempt at creating a hybrid between the TLM and the NO, which would be presented as the real fruit of the liturgical 'reform' called for by the Second Vatican Council, and then used to replace the 1962 missal currently in use by traditionalists. (The word 'reform' is in scare quotes here because the Latin word actually used by the Council is not 'reformare', but 'instaurare', which means to restore rather than to reform; the English word 'reform' is an interpolation of the English translators of the conciliar text.) The plan of imposing such a hybrid as the sole liturgy of the Latin church is unrealistic, but the plan of replacing the 1962 missal with a hybrid (perhaps closely modelled on the 1965 missal), while leaving the Novus Ordo in place, is a real one that is promoted in some liturgical circles. 

Such a hybrid would be a disaster, so the intention of fending it off is indeed a good one. But I want to argue that the appeal to liturgical pluralism is not the way to go about it. 

The first step in this argument is to clarify the nature of the liturgical pluralism that is to be discussed. One understanding of liturgical pluralism is an abstract one, that simply claims that the number of legitimate forms of Catholic rite is more than one, without identifying any particular forms as being legitimate ones. This abstract sense is the only sense needed to rebut the objection that only one form of Catholic worship should exist. It is legitimate to use in in the negative, dialectical argument mentioned above. 

The other understanding of liturgical pluralism as applied to the Roman rite is a particular one, that claims that both the TLM and the Novus Ordo, while different, are legitimate forms of the Roman rite. It is this particular understanding that is used by the paper to argue for its positive claim. The trouble with this understanding of liturgical pluralism is that if both the TLM and the Novus Ordo are legitimate forms of the Roman rite, it follows that the Novus Ordo on its own is a legitimate form of the Roman rite, and that both the TLM and the Novus Ordo are a 'response of faith to different conditions', and represent 'a treasury of theological and spiritual insights which complement each other'. 

This position is untenable. As I remarked in an earlier comment on the paper, the Novus Ordo was devised on purpose to replace the TLM, because the theological content and general structure of the old mass were judged to be wrong and in need of abolition. Robert Mickens points this out: 

'The old Mass mirrored a vertical hierarchy of truths, a strict discipline, legalism, conformism, and marked separation of clerics from the laity; the New Mass highlighted a dialogical dimension between priest and people, the active participation of the laity, and the possibility of adaptation (although this was often exaggerated early on). The argument was that the Tridentine Rite was not just a different way of celebrating the Mass, but that it was undergirded with a theology and understanding of the Church that was inconsistent with the Second Vatican Council. This was one of the reasons why the vast majority of members and consulters at the Congregation of Divine Worship, of which Archbishop Bugnini was secretary, believed any concession to traditionalists on the old Mass would be harmful to the liturgical reform and the pastoral efforts of the bishops to apply it.' (1)

Whether or not Mickens is right about the TLM being incompatible with the Second Vatican Council, he is certainly right about its being incompatible with the ecclesiology that undergirds the Novus Ordo, and is right about the designers of the Novus Ordo having introduced this incompatibility on purpose, because they disagreed with the ecclesiology behind the TLM. This is only one way in which the Novus Ordo is at odds with the TLM; the importance of the notion of sacrifice in the TLM, and its deliberate and virtually complete exclusion from the Novus Ordo, is another. The liturgist Fr. Joseph Grayland explains the fundamental reason for the differences between the two: 

In the Christian tradition, liturgical rites express the church’s understanding of the ‘how’ of salvation as this is mediated through the ministry, mission and worship of the church. As ecclesial rites, the 1962 missal and the 1970 missal show the believer who can and cannot be saved and it is at this fundamental point that they part company, to such an extent that their difference becomes irreconcilable. These two missals ritualise totally diverse understandings of salvation, damnation and the Church’s role as mediator of salvation. (2)

He points out the implications of accepting both the TLM and the Novus Ordo as legitimate rites: 

In responding to this development, Summorum Pontificum opens up real vistas of possibility in most seminaries, where any request by seminarians to be instructed in the sacramental rituals of the 1962 missal (as well as the 1970 missal) will have to be considered legitimate. The future direction of seminarians’ formation must include a serious debate over the use of two liturgical calendars, two forms of the liturgy of the hours and two forms of confession/ reconciliation-penance. In order to effectively minister as priests of ‘a twofold use of the same Roman rite’ seminarians will require formation in two theologies of church, priesthood, (lay) ministry and salvation.  

 … To view the reinstatement of the 1962 missal as just a liturgical change, offering another equally valid option for ‘saying Mass’ indicates, at least to me, a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature and role of liturgical worship in the life of the Christian Church. Those who will have no problem with this development will do so, because their understanding of worship is essentially ritualistic, not ecclesiological, and not liturgical. What is rejected and reinstated here are not two forms of religious ritual but two entirely distinct, and in my opinion, two irreconcilable theologies of how the Church mediates salvation sacramentally and pastorally. This development cannot be reduced to a crass competition between liturgical traditions or equally valid ritual gestures, as if the significant issue lay at that level. What is at stake here is the Church’s self-understanding of her role in the work of God’s salvation and how that role is mediated theologically through the Church’s liturgical worship.  

 As a Church, we are left with the reality that Catholics may now view the divergent theologies of salvation and sacramental-liturgical mediation as simply additional choices available to them as ritual-consumers. As long as they suspend their understanding of liturgy as being more than just ritual then worshipping according to one rite or the other will not constitute a choice by the worshipper for one understanding of salvation and sacramental-liturgical mediation over the other. This would then be, as Mark Francis observes, to ‘have succumbed to…relativism’ and to have created the ultimate expression of ‘the ‘Catholic cafeteria’’ (Mark Francis, ‘Beyond Language’, The Tablet, London 14 July 2007, p. 6). (3)

Fr. Grayland thinks that the theology of the Novus Ordo is correct and the theology of the TLM is wrong, but his analysis of how and why the two are incompatible is entirely correct. The incompatibility of the two rituals is well known to both traditionalists and non-traditionalists, and beyond reasoned dispute. And clearly the existence of two liturgies that have not only different but incompatible presuppositions and approaches, presuppositions and approaches that are incompatible on purpose because one liturgy was judged to be wrongheaded by the designers of the other liturgy, cannot be an example of legitimate liturgical pluralism. At least one of them must be wrong. 

The paper might be defended on this count by its being pointed out that nowhere does it explicitly state that legitimate liturgical pluralism includes the Novus Ordo; it only claims that such pluralism applies to the TLM. But unless this legitimate pluralism is understood to include the Novus Ordo, at whom is the paper aimed? A response to this objection that appeals to legitimate pluralism must have in mind more than one legitimate form of the Latin rite. If there is not more than one, there is no pluralism to appeal to. But the different forms of the Latin rite that are in question here cannot be the traditional forms that existed alongside the Roman liturgy. No-one is objecting to the traditional Roman rite being accepted as a legitimate form of worship among other traditional forms of the Latin rite, such as the Mozarabic or Ambrosian rites; such an objection would be totally absurd to everyone. So the legitimate liturgical pluralism that is being defended can only be understood as the existence of both the TLM and the Novus Ordo as legitimate forms of the Latin rite. And that is untenable for the reasons given. 

Of course a defence of the TLM that involves rejecting the Novus Ordo will attract great hostility from ecclesiastical authority and make life difficult for traditionalists. But Una Voce has encountered such difficulties before and survived. Michael Davies, the most important English-speaking critic of the Novus Ordo, served as the president of Una Voce for years without disaster ensuing. Leo Darroch's obituary of Michael Davies in Mass of Ages states; 'Perhaps [Davies'] most telling intervention [as president of the International Federation Una Voce] was in 2000 when he informed the [Ecclesia Dei] commission that moves to adapt the Missal of 1962 to include changes introduced in the 1960s would be rejected in their entirety by the traditional movement worldwide. The proposed moves were dropped.' (4)

Davies' example indicates that firmness is the right course to take with respect to attempts to hybridise the 1962 missal. But this firmness needs to be backed up by arguments, as it was by Davies, and the most important argument is precisely based on rejection of the Novus Ordo. Traditionalists have to argue that the Novus Ordo is based on bad principles, and hence that any moves to make the TLM more like the Novus Ordo are themselves bad and must be rejected. If this argument is not made, and the Novus Ordo is accepted as an example of legitimate liturgical pluralism, then there cannot be anything wrong with the Novus Ordo in itself, and there thus cannot be anything intrinsically objectionable about changes to the TLM that bring it closer to the Novus Ordo. The paper's positive argument from liturgical pluralism thus completely undermines its purpose of resisting such hybridisation. It could be objected that such changes would diminish the extent of legitimate liturgical pluralism, but as long as the hybrid was noticeably different from the Novus Ordo – which seems to be the intent of proposed hybrids - this argument would be extremely weak. The differences between the hybrid and the Novus Ordo would mean that liturgical pluralism had been preserved in the Latin rite. On this question the International Federation Una Voce needs to return to the correct stance of Michael Davies.


(1) The Tablet, 18 June 2005.

(2) Fr. Joseph Grayland, 'The Tridentine Mass again: Can the Church celebrate in two rites?', Compass: A Review of Topical Theology 41/3 (Spring 2007).

(3) Grayland (2007).