Desiderio Desideravi: Connecting Some Papal Dots

COMMENTARY: One could make a strong case that the ecclesiology of Vatican II, and not the liturgy, is the real target of the most recent document from Pope Francis.

Holy Mass of the Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul Apostles and blessing of Palliums for new Metropolitan Archbishops at St. Peter's Basilica on Wednesday June 29, 2022.
Holy Mass of the Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul Apostles and blessing of Palliums for new Metropolitan Archbishops at St. Peter's Basilica on Wednesday June 29, 2022. (photo: Daniel Ibanez/CNA / EWTN)

With the issuance of the apostolic letter Desiderio Desideravi Pope Francis has once again, for better or for worse, stirred the liturgical pot. He has shown little interest in liturgy for most of his papacy, but over the past year, and beginning with Traditionis Custodes, he has shown increasing interest in the liturgical debates that have occupied so many in the Church for so long. 

However, one could make a strong case that the ecclesiology of Vatican II, and not the liturgy, is the real target here. Indeed, the Pope himself explicitly makes this claim in Desiderio when he says, concerning the current liturgical debates:

“It would be trivial to read the tensions, unfortunately present around the celebration, as a simple divergence between different tastes concerning a particular ritual form. The problematic is primarily ecclesiological” (31).

I think the Holy Father is entirely correct in that assessment, although I have disagreements with the conclusions he draws from it. 

At first glance, the document comes across as a truly beautiful text containing many wonderful theological meditations on such topics as the importance of symbols, the nature of the liturgy as a Christological invitation, the importance of a lived faith for liturgical reception, the importance of liturgical silence, the importance of Mary for the liturgy and in priestly formation, and the role of liturgy as an expression of our ecclesiology. There is also a wonderful challenge to seminary formators to teach all of theology from within the rubric of a liturgical sapiential approach. In many ways my initial reaction to the document was fairly positive.

But on second glance, the document seems to me to be, ultimately, a big nothing burger. As beautiful as the text is in many places, there is also a sense one gets that the text is talking “around” the central issues without really resolving anything.  Desiderio is proposed as a purely admonitory meditation on some broad theological themes and never seems to land anywhere concrete in a way that actually matters. 

And unlike Traditionis Custodes, which contained very concrete punitive sanctions complete with the micro-managing of what can or cannot be put in a parish bulletin with regard to celebrations of the traditional Latin Mass (how is that for decentralized synodality?!), Desiderio contains no legislation and has no disciplinary teeth with regard to the proper celebration of the Mass of Paul VI. Therefore, one is perhaps justified in concluding that the Pope is more interested in suppressing the old liturgy than he is in cleaning up abuses in the current one. 


Conclusions in Search of an Argument

In many ways the text fails to connect the dots between the theological principles the Pope articulates and the concrete problematic it is seeking to address. And the text also then connects some dots that should not be, which leads me to think that the reasons for both of these situations is that what we have here is a set of ecclesiological conclusions in search of an argument. 

For example, the Pope says that all of the liturgical rubrics should be obeyed. However, where are the sanctions for those priests and bishops who do not obey the rubrics and who instead insist upon interjecting their own idiosyncratic version of the liturgy into its celebration? 

In Paragraph 19 he decries the Gnostic individualism of so many in the Church today and states: “The action of the celebration does not belong to the individual but to the Christ-Church, to the totality of the faithful united in Christ. The liturgy does not say ‘I’ but ‘we,’ and any limitation on the breadth of this ‘we’ is always demonic.” (emphasis added) But what greater example of this demonic distortion of the liturgy is there than a priest who, clericalistically, treats the liturgy as his own possession to do with as he pleases and then ignores the rubrics as pharisaical intrusions into his legitimate creativity? Where are the papal sanctions in this direction? 

The Pope ordered his bishops in Traditionis to restrict severely the traditional Latin Mass. So why could he not order his bishops to severely sanction priests who egregiously and repetitively violate the liturgical rubrics, preach heresy, and who thereby create a hostile environment for any Catholic who just wants the Mass of the Church? 

The Pope fails to connect the dots here and my hunch is that it is for ecclesiological reasons. Namely, that as clericalistic as it is for priests to change the rubrics on their own, most of the priests who do so evince a pastoral style and an approach to Vatican II that the Pope prefers, which is why he strongly restricts and disciplines traditionalist priests as to their preferred liturgical form, while merely “tut-tutting” toward Father Rainbow Unicorn and his idiosyncratic liturgical contortions. The Pope views the ecclesiology of the traditionalists as a threat to Vatican II. He apparently feels no such threat to the ecclesiology of Vatican II from the anti-rubricists, even if he disagrees with their insouciance toward such things, and therefore sees no need to actually rein them in through disciplinary action. 


‘Presiding Styles’

Another example of a failure to connect the dots has to do with the Pope’s comments on the different kinds of priestly “presiding styles” at the Eucharistic liturgy. He states, “In visiting Christian communities, I have noticed that their way of living the liturgical celebration is conditioned, … by the way their pastor presides in the assembly” (54). He then goes on to list different presiding styles that are excessive in various directions and do not match up with his view of what constitutes proper celebration. And yet he offers not one word on the fact that these differing styles are the direct result of versus populum worship and that the solution to this problematical situation is to remove the priest’s personality from the liturgy by turning him around to face the Risen Lord in prayer along with his entire congregation. Because the differing presiding styles the Pope derides are not so much the result of deliberate and artificial affectations adopted by priests as they are merely a function of that priest’s personality, and are thus ineliminable to a great extent from the liturgy so long as the priest faces the people.


Realm of the Symbolic

A third area where the Pope fails to connect the dots is in his observation that modern people have lost their capacity for appreciating the entire realm of the symbolic. He correctly notes that this is perhaps the biggest obstacle to a proper appreciation for the liturgy since the liturgy is, from top to bottom, a symbolizing action. Indeed, it is the Church’s claim that in the Eucharist the symbol makes real and present that which is symbolized. It’s hard to accept this when one has no antecedent appreciation for symbols in the first place. 

Nevertheless, the glaring omission in the Pope’s analysis here is the fact that the fault for this situation does not merely fall upon cultural agents outside of the Church, but that it also falls in great measure on those prelates and priests inside the Church who openly and warmly embraced the metaphysical flattening of modernity and its emphasis on horizontalist worldliness at the expense of all things transcendent. They warmly embraced it — stripping the liturgy of the bells and smells, all the age-old, universal symbols of sacred worship — as a liberation from the Church and the liturgy that came before and set about the project of replacing it with a Church of worldly philanthropy, forced pseudo-fellowship (“Hi, my name is Larry. I love you”) and moral relativism in a deeply secular register. 

As Pope Benedict XVI noted long ago, there is an eschatological deficit in the Church that chokes off the Divine life within her at its source. Thus, if Pope Francis thinks the deepest problem with regard to the liturgy is our loss of a sense of the symbolic, then he needs to expand his analysis here and extend it to a critique of the clerical, cultural quislings who brought us to this place.


Favored Prelates

However, when one looks at the Pope’s favored prelates most of them are cut out of the same latitudinarian cloth when it comes to liturgical “experimentation.” 

For example, Cardinal Blase Cupich’s Chicago is a wonderland of liturgically freewheeling priests who seem unbothered that they are injecting their clericalistic “I” into the liturgical “we.” And the cardinal does nothing to stop such abuses even as he comes down hard on both the traditionalists who like the older liturgy, and the priests who want to do the new liturgy ad orientem. And so we see the sanctioning of priests who simply want ad orientem worship in the Novus Ordo, all the while “Pride” Masses proliferate and a host of other liturgical abuses carry on with impunity. 

Cardinal Cupich’s silence on the egregious public examples of liturgical abuse in Chicago is, in fact, a green light. His silence is loud. And yet,  he is one of the Pope’s most favored prelates. He is a member of three Vatican dicasteries, one of which is the Dicastery for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments! And insofar as the Pope’s actions are often more clarifying than his words, I take it that the elevation of Cardinal Cupich to this office is a sign of the Pope’s approval of his liturgical sensibilities, especially in the light of other similar episcopal appointments to high office under this pontificate. 

The elevation of prelates like Cardinal Cupich also undermines the credibility of a document on the liturgy among many conservative Catholics, especially in places like Chicago. I know it does not serve the reigning narrative among the Pope’s supporters but the disgruntled are not merely, or even most especially, the so-called “restorationists” that the Pope apparently thinks are everywhere in the Church in the United States. Most of these Catholics are merely the simple devout folks who desperately want to believe that the beautiful words from the Holy Father in Desiderio on the Eucharist actually mean something concrete and that maybe we can hope for a new springtime of the liturgy. I am not talking here about the angry, rad-trad, internet pitchfork brigade who thinks the Church went off the rails after St. Pius X died. Those types are a minority even among traditionalists. I am speaking instead of those Catholics of whom I have spoken before. Namely, the millions of traditional “John Paul II/Benedict XVI” Catholics who accept Vatican II and the Novus Ordo with full-throated approval and who are devout, orthodox, and deeply committed, and who are not the “rigid pharisees” and “hypocritical legalists” caricatured so often by this Pope’s supporters, and who simply want the liturgy of Paul VI prayed as the Church intends it to be prayed. 

These Catholics do not represent a recrudescence of contractual, forensic Catholicism and they seek the very vibrant experience of faith the Pope so often speaks about. It is these Catholics who have been gradually worn down, some being red-pilled by Francis into a radicalized traditionalism, but most of whom are now simply demoralized and disillusioned and are now retreating in resignation into a quiet, defeated, and anguished defiance. All they want is a sane and beautiful liturgy, sound homiletics and priests who actually believe in the Church and her teachings. Is that too much to ask for? Apparently, in Chicago, it is.

The Pope’s words in this new text would seem to give them hope for that. But then there is the paradigm, that is the Chicago of Cardinal Blase Cupich. Pope Francis has said “reality is superior to ideas.” Well, Desiderio Desideravi is chock-full of ideas, and many of them are really good ones. But then there is the reality of Cardinal Cupich, Cardinal-designate Robert McElroy, Cardinal Kevin Farrell and Cardinal Matteo Zuppi and … well, you get the picture. 


Connecting Dots That Should Not Be

Finally, even as the Pope fails to connect the dots in key areas, he also connects dots that should not be. 

For example, In Desiderio the Pope has reiterated his intention to essentially eliminate the traditional Latin Mass and to double-down on the Novus Ordo as the “unique expression of the lex orandi of the Roman rite.” I am not a Latin Mass partisan, although I do attend an Ordinariate parish and probably for many of the same reasons that folks go to traditional Latin Mass parishes. Therefore, I support Summorum Pontificum and I do not think Traditionis Custodes was pastorally wise. Nevertheless, I fully accept that the Pope has the right to do what he is doing and if it is the will of the Holy Father to herd us all into the Mass of Paul VI then I will do so if required. 

But as a theological scholar, I utterly reject the notion that a Mass that was the lex orandi of the Church for centuries can now be summarily dismissed through papal fiat, as contrary to the “new ecclesiology” of Vatican II. Because such an idea is itself a paradigmatic expression of a legalistic and forensic understanding of the Church and of her magisterium. Thus, he connects Vatican II to the Novus Ordo in a tight ecclesiological linkage while also making the claim that the old liturgy cannot carry the weight of Vatican II’s ecclesiology. I think this is theologically questionable. 

Do not get me wrong. The Council did indeed call for the reform of the liturgy and I agree with that. I think Mass should be in the vernacular and so on. However, that is different from a simple assertion that what the Council called for is what we actually got. And to say that the development of the Novus Ordo was of the Holy Spirit and therefore it cannot be touched is an argument that falls on its own sword since, one assumes, the older rite was also the product of the Holy Spirit, and yet the Pope seems to have no trouble in questioning its formal constructions.

In other words, I can accept the Mass of Paul VI because I accept the authority of the magisterium of the Church. And I can accept the decisions of Pope Francis in this regard and for the same reasons. But if I had one minute with Pope Francis I would say: 

“Dear Holy Father, please do not leave your flock as liturgical orphans. If you want us to pray the Mass of Paul VI, then give us prelates who will promote its proper celebration rather than prelates who turn a blind eye to its desecration. Give us prelates who will promote the very things you write about in this new and frequently wonderful document. We, like you, want liturgical silence, and respected rubrics, and excellent music and homilies, and repristinated symbols, and an evangelical encounter with the Paschal Christ who beckons us via invitation to his Kingdom banquet. Yes! But if you want us to accept that you are serious about all of this, then please respect us as part of your flock, too. We are not rigid pharisees. Please send us episcopal shepherds who will not dismiss us as such. Holy Father, at the end of this document you ask us to get beyond polemics in these matters and to follow the Holy Spirit. An excellent suggestion. You go first please.”