Pope Benedict and the ‘Liturgy Wars’

COMMENTARY: The late Pope sought to restore to pride of place the concept of the Mass as an action of God himself acting in and through the priest to bring the Paschal Mystery into our midst once again.

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI holding the Pascal Candle at the Easter Vigil Mass in St. Peter's Basilica on Saturday, April 7, 2012.
Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI holding the Pascal Candle at the Easter Vigil Mass in St. Peter's Basilica on Saturday, April 7, 2012. (photo: Shutterstock)

The Second Vatican Council affirmed that the Eucharist is the source and summit of our Christian existence. It therefore called for a reform of the liturgy that took place in the pontificate of Paul VI. And since that time there has been a seemingly endless set of debates on the efficacy of those reforms. Recently, these debates have evolved into what can only be described as “liturgy wars” — wars that have led to a polarization and a balkanization in the Church on the liturgical front pitting various groups against one another, rendering the liturgy into an agent of division rather than one of unity. On one side, you have Catholics who remain deeply devoted to the Mass of Paul VI (the Novus Ordo) as it is currently celebrated and who speak as if the “old Mass” came from some strange, esoteric and different religion altogether that we have now happily moved beyond. On the other side, there are the Catholics who are animated by a deep love for the pre-conciliar liturgy, but who often speak as if all that is bad in the Church today can be attributed to the “travesty” of the liturgical renewal.

Then there are also the promoters of what has come to be called the “reform of the reform” of the Mass of Paul VI who affirm the importance of the liturgical renewal and embrace the Mass of Paul VI, but who also think that the liturgy has lost many of the treasures of the older Mass that should now be restored. Pope Benedict seems to have been in this latter camp, and his motu proprio Summorum Pontificum was, at least in part, an effort at creating the kind of cross-fertilization between the “old” Mass and the “new” that could facilitate this reform of the reform.

Benedict was very open about his love for many elements of the older liturgy, and he made the astute, yet seemingly controversial, observation that a liturgy that had been held as sacred for many centuries could not now be viewed as something dangerous to the life of faith. Benedict clearly believed that the liturgical reform jettisoned rashly many of the Church’s greatest liturgical treasures. Further, he thought it had placed too much emphasis on the Eucharist as a fellowship meal.

He sought to restore to pride of place the concept of the Mass as an action of God himself acting in and through the priest to bring the Paschal Mystery into our midst once again. And through his motu proprio, Benedict hoped that this imbalance might be corrected through a natural organic development of the two forms of the Roman Rite coming together.

This latter point is important, since many folks on the more traditional side of the argument have criticized Pope Benedict for not using his authority to enact the changes he desired through papal fiat. But the reason why he did not do so points us in the direction of what is, in my opinion, one of the main points, perhaps the all-determinative point, of his liturgical thinking.

For Benedict, one of the pitfalls of the liturgical renewal — a renewal he knew was needed and which he supported at the Council as a theological peritus — was that the changes that were enacted were so radical and came so abruptly and involved such a decisive break with the past that the impression was given that the liturgy is an endlessly plastic and malleable ritual that is largely a human construct. Therefore, he feared that a similar “abruptness” on his part to restore elements of the older rite into the new would only reinforce this impression and further undermine the liturgy as something fundamentally “given” to us by God, even if the path of that givenness was the path of Tradition in and through the Church.

There is the added problem that in so undermining the concept of the liturgy as something given to us by God via Tradition, one also undermines the already attenuated belief that the Church is the medium of God’s Revelation in Christ in a broader sense. And this was a critical concern of Benedict, who shared with Pope St. John Paul II a deep conviction that modernity is characterized, at least in part, by the “eclipse” of God in the cultural arena of time and space.

In response to this eclipse of God, the Church could be tempted simply to walk away from the world and to retreat into an isolated fortress of some kind. But the Incarnation does not allow us to view Christianity as a Gnostic flight from the world, and the Church is instead, in her essence, as Vatican II taught, the very sacrament of Christ’s presence in that world. And the loss of a sense of God leads to a loss of reason, as well — one of the chief themes of his entire pontificate as we see in the famous Regensburg address. And downstream from the loss of reason is the rise of a purely stipulative iron-fisted “dictatorship” of moral relativism.

Benedict was therefore caught in a bind. On the one hand, the Mass of Paul VI needs to retrieve large elements of the Church’s liturgical patrimony; but on the other hand, if one seeks to do this with diktats from on high, then one undermines the theological weight of that liturgical patrimony as something given by God via the path of organic traditioning.

This result, for Benedict, would have represented the triumph of a certain aesthetic ethos, but at the risk of making the logos that the liturgy makes present seem like an ecclesial plaything changed on a whim. And the priority of the truth about God) over merely aesthetic and cultural structures is a central feature of Benedict’s theology. Looked at another way, we can say that he was concerned with the liturgy as an expression of truth — indeed, as an expression of the deepest truth of all, now threatened with being lost in the thicket of the liturgical debates. Some have criticized his decision to let things evolve under their own steam, so to speak, and think that he should have been more forceful. I disagree.

Furthermore, I have just come from Benedict’s funeral in Rome, and I am struck once again by how wrong the caricatures of Benedict as an authoritarian “Panzer” cardinal and pope truly are; for if that were true, he would not have chosen the path of liturgical renewal that he did. And I for one am grateful for this. May he now rest in God’s peace in the heavenly liturgy.