Rorate Caeli

What sort of Mass did 'Vatican II' want?

The Traditional Mass on the Chatres Pilgrimage. Not as off-putting to young people as Pope Paul VI imagined. Photo by John Aron.

Liturgical conservatives and progressives argue endlessly about this. Their argument will never be resolved, both because Sacrosanctum Concilium was and the subsequent magisterium has been self-contradictory, but also because neither side in the debate is willing to be honest about the historical facts. I am sorry to be harsh, but having read the output of both sides of the debate over a number of years, it is time it was said.

First, Sacrosantum Concilium: how is it self-contradictory? It makes few concrete suggestions, but it does make some. It calls for wider use of the vernacular (63); the removal of 'useless repetition' (34), and a more 'lavish' presentation of the Scriptures in the readings, arranged over a 'prescribed number of years' (51). It leaves further details to local initiative and an official commission. On the other hand, it says (23):

There must be no innovations unless the good of the Church genuinely and certainly requires them; and care must be taken that any new forms adopted should in some way grow organically from forms already existing.

It is perfectly obvious that the this double condition is not satisfied by the concrete suggestions the document itself makes. There is no precedent in the liturgical tradition of the Church, in any Rite, for a multi-year lectionary, and to suggest that such a thing could grow 'organically' out of a single-year lectionary is obviously absurd. There is no precedent for a mixing of Latin and the vernacular in the liturgy, or for the liturgy to be translated into dozens of vernaculars for different countries. The principle militating against 'useless repetition' is entirely foreign to the Church's liturgical tradition. And none of these changes could possibly, in advance, be said to be required 'genuinely and certainly' by the good of the Church.

From this fundamental self-contradiction, you can draw any conclusion you like. Perhaps the 'general principle' of section 23 should control our interpretation of the specific examples of reforms; perhaps it is the other other way around. The fact is, there is no coherent programme of reform in Sacrosanctum Concilium. Let's not engage in make-believe. It is a compromise document with provisions pointing in different directions.

It was, however, interpreted by those appointed to interpret it, and the Novus Ordo Missae was signed off by Pope Paul VI. So what liturgical style are we guided towards by the official documents, documents of the 'living magisterium' as the conservatives like to call them, which accompanied and followed the promulgation of the new missal?

Well, these documents too are mutually contradictory. The architect of the reforms, Archbishop Annibale Bugnini, made a great deal of the provision of Sacrosanctum Conciium 34:

The rites should be distinguished by a noble simplicity; they should be short, clear, and unencumbered by useless repetitions; they should be within the people's powers of comprehension, and normally should not require much explanation.

This is his justification for rewriting practically every Latin prayer in the Missal, and then authorising its translation into kindergarten English: projects which were, of course, officially approved and given authoritative promulgation by the Church's Supreme Legislator, the Pope. Where does the 2011 'new translation' come from? It comes from a much later document, the 2001 Instruction Liturgiam authenticam which states (27):

If indeed, in the liturgical texts, words or expressions are sometimes employed which differ somewhat from usual and everyday speech, it is often enough by virtue of this very fact that the texts become truly memorable and capable of expressing heavenly realities

The fact has to be faced: in proposing a 'hieratic', 'sacred' liturgical register, it introduces a liturgical principle for the guidance of translators which simply is not to be found in Sacrosanctum Concilium or in the numerous documents of the 1970s and 1980s, documents like the toe-curling Directory for Masses with Children in 1973. There had been a massive conservative push-back in the 1990s and Liturgiam authenticam was the result. So patent was the contradiction between the two eras that Liturgiam authenticam actually abrogated a whole raft of official guidance from before 1994:

8. The norms set forth in this Instruction are to be substituted for all norms previously published on the matter,

We need to face the fact: the magisterium's own interpretation of Sacrosanctum Concilium is a moving target. It was quite different in the 1970s than it was by the mid 1990s. Who knows where it will be in ten years?

Let me give a couple more examples: on the use of Latin and on Gregorian Chant.

Latin: for. Sacroscantum Concilium
36. 1. Particular law remaining in force, the use of the Latin language is to be preserved in the Latin rites.
101. 1. In accordance with the centuries-old tradition of the Latin rite, the Latin language is to be retained by clerics in the divine office.

Pope John Paul II: Dominicae Cenae (1980) 10:

[Latin is] an expression of the unity of the Church and through its dignified character [it] elicited a profound sense of the Eucharistic Mystery. ...The Roman Church has special obligations towards Latin, the splendid language of ancient Rome, and she must manifest them whenever the occasion presents itself.

the Council is far from having banned the use of the Latin language. Indeed, it did the contrary. Thus the systematic exclusion of Latin is an abuse no less to be condemned than the systematic desire of some people to use it exclusively. Its sudden and total disappearance will not be without serious pastoral consequences.

Latin: against. Pope Paul VI, Nov 26 1969
No longer Latin, but the spoken language will be the principal language of the Mass. 

If the divine Latin language kept us apart from the children, from youth, from the world of labor and of affairs, if it were a dark screen, not a clear window, would it be right for us fishers of souls to maintain it as the exclusive language of prayer and religious intercourse?

Dozens of official references to the allegedly beneficial effect of putting the liturgy in the vernacular, as something done by the Council, could be cited.

Chant: for. Sacrosanctum Concilium
116. The Church acknowledges Gregorian chant as specially suited to the Roman liturgy: therefore, other things being equal, it should be given pride of place in liturgical services.

Pope Paul VI: Sacrificium laudis 1966 (to religious superiors)
One can also wonder whether men would come in such numbers to your churches in quest of the sacred prayer, if its ancient and native tongue, joined to a chant full of grave beauty, resounded no more within your walls.

Paul VI Voluntati Obsequens 1974
... the liturgical reform does not and indeed cannot deny the past. Rather does it "preserve and foster it with the greatest care." It cultivates and transmits all that is in it of high religious, cultural and artistic worth and especially those elements which can express even externally the unity of believers.

Chant: against. Pope Paul VI, Nov 26 1969:

We will lose a great part of that stupendous and incomparable artistic and spiritual thing, the Gregorian chant.

Instruction Concerts in Churches 1987:
Any performance of sacred music which takes place during a celebration, should be fully in harmony with that celebration. This often means that musical compositions which date from a period when the active participation of the faithful was not emphasized as the source of the authentic Christian spirit are no longer to be considered suitable for inclusion within liturgical celebrations.

There is a way of reading these documents which minimises the tension, for example by saying that Latin and Chant be used in a few places, but not for 'most' of the Mass: Paul VI mentions the singing of the Creed and the Our Father. But the attitudes underlying these documents make perfectly reasonable the more extensive application pushed by conservatives and progressives, in opposite directions.

If Latin and Chant are powerful and profound, if they exemplify unity and foster vocations, and if the reform was not about breaking with the past but 'fostering' our traditions, why not have Latin propers chanted, and why not have the Canon, or indeed the whole of Mass, in Latin?

On the other hand, if participation requires comprehension without, usually, any explanation, and if the former liturgical practice failed to appreciate this - if it was like a 'dark screen' - then Latin and Chant have no place in the Mass at all.

Those seeking, in Conciliar and post-conciliar documents, guidance on liturgical principles, with a view to the way Mass should be celebrated, and perhaps with a view to future reform, should stop right here. There is no single, coherent, vision of the liturgy in these documents. There is, instead, a debate. In the end, one side of this debate must win, and the other side must lose.

I would like to appeal to the 'reform of the reform' writers, and to the progressives on Pray Tell and elsewhere: stop accusing each other (and traditional Catholics) of contradicting authoritative documents and the 'real' principles of Vatican II. On this subject, arguments from authority will get us nowhere.

The only way to think with the Church on the liturgy is to take a longer view: to look at what the Church has done, not over a few decades, but over millennia. The very idea of doing this, of course, contradicts the claim that everything up to 1965 was bad. But it is that idea, rather than an honest appraisal of the modern liturgical documents considered here, that is really troubling for the doctrine of the indefectability of the Church. If the Church was wrong up to 1965, why pay any attention to what she has said since then?