Let me begin with several hooks upon which we can hang some useful ideas as we look down the line at an article from Regis Nichols at Crisis.
First, in April 2017, a preface Benedict XVI wrote for the Russian translation of the volume of his opera omnia concerning liturgy was released. In the preface, Benedict argues that, as a Church, we have placed other things before the worship of God. Hence, we are undergoing a crisis which is subverting the Church. He wrote that “a true renewal of the liturgy is a fundamental condition for the renewal of the Church.” In 1998, in his autobiography Milestones, he wrote, ““I am convinced that the crisis in the Church that we are experiencing today is to a large extent due to the disintegration of the liturgy.”
This has been his position for a long time. It has been my position since my earliest experiences of traditional liturgy and my earliest talks with Joseph Ratzinger about it.
What happened? First, the mandates of the Second Vatican Council were by far outstripped by ideologically motivated experts who had as their goal not just renewal of the liturgy, but changes to the fabric of the Church. The liturgists of the Consilium, who managed to bring Paul VI’s power into their ploys, constructed rites on desk tops, massively changing what the Council Fathers said should not be changed unless there was a true good for the Catholic people and unless those changes came organically from what went before. The result was an artificial rather than organic construct, suddenly imposed from on high on people who had never desired what they got. In the aftermath, our Catholic identity was badly shaken. Along with the abandonment of other aspects of Catholic life, such as fasting, etc., our compasses were smashed. Statistics regarding vocations, schools, Mass attendance, etc., indicate the fruits.
This is one of the reasons why Benedict issued what will be seen in years to come as one of the most important gifts of his pontificate: Summorum Pontificum. This juridical act makes it possible for all Latin Church priests to use both the older, traditional liturgical forms together with the newer, post-Conciliar forms. It was his desire that side-by-side celebrations of the two forms would jump start, as it were, the organic development of our sacred liturgical worship, serving as a corrective to abuses while recovering much of what was lost, but which remains sacred, great and beneficial.
In the decade following Summorum Pontificum, from 2007-2017, the number of places where the traditional forms are celebrated in these USA shot from about 50 to over 500. This indicates something of the fruits of the document. Moreover, the knock-on effect on celebrations of the Novus Ordo is surely taking place as priests who learn the traditional form come to a deeper understanding of who they are – as priests – at the altar. This leaves an impression on congregations, who then begin to participate in the transforming rites in a new way.
Of course all of this has the liberal iconoclasts and the nearly papalotrous camp followers (not to say camp followers) running scared. I have come to view them much as the vendors and hawkers who set up their tables in the Temple’s Court of the Gentiles. They write strings of scare pieces about neo-traditionalism, purposely lying about why people seek traditional forms, attributing to them all manner of mischief.
Next, if we get our liturgical worship of God wrong, then everything else we do will fail. We build on sand. Put another way, familiar to long-time readers here, everything we undertake in the Church must begin with liturgical worship and must be brought back to liturgical worship.
If the virtue of justice governs what is due to human persons, since God is a qualitatively different Person a different virtue governs what we owe to God: religion. The primary way in which we individually and collectively fulfill the virtue of religion is through our sacred liturgical worship. If we screw up on the virtue of religion and our sacred worship, then all our other relationships will be out of harmony. We have to get our worship right. This is so intimate to who we are as Catholics that I constantly say: We Are Our Rites. And because we have an individual and collective vocation not just within the Church (ad intra) but to the world around us (ad extra), we might say even “Save The Liturgy – Save The World”.
But if we don’t know who we are, what we believe, how to act on it and have thin to no strong supports and sources in our sacred worship of God, then we will be ineffective across the board. Why should the world pay any attention to us if we don’t know who we are?
The virtue of religion can be sinned against by idolatry, superstitions, sacrilege, and blasphemy. We creatures must recognize who God is and act accordingly both inwardly and outwardly. When this at last becomes habitual for us, then we have the virtue of religion. A virtue is a habit. One good act does not make us virtuous. If being prudent or temperate or just, etc., is hard for us, then we don’t yet have the virtue.
Circling back to Ratzinger, and his thesis about genuine and artificial worship, he once said in an address in 1985 at a music conference, that artificiality in worship brings false, human productions into play, which, given the description of religion, above, smacks of, opens the way to, idolatry and sacrilege.
He also said:
It has become evident that the primacy of the group derives from an understanding of the Church as institution based upon a concept of freedom which is incompatible with the idea and the reality of the institutional. Indeed, this idea of freedom is no longer capable of grasping the dimension of the mysterium in the reality of the Church. Freedom is conceived in terms of autonomy and emancipation, and takes concrete shape in the idea of creativity, which against this background is the exact opposite of that objectivity and positiveness which belong to the essence of the Church’s liturgy. The group is truly free only when it discovers itself a new each time.
We also found that liturgy worthy of the name is the radical antithesis of all this. Genuine liturgy is opposed to an historical arbitrariness which knows no development and hence is ultimately vacuous. Genuine liturgy is also opposed to an unrepeatability, which is also exclusivity and the loss of communication without regard for any groupings. Genuine liturgy is not opposed to the technical, but to the artificial, in which man creates a counter-world for himself and loses sight of, indeed, loses up feeling for, God’s creation. The antithesis are evident, as is the incipient clarification of the inner justification for group thinking as an autonomistically conceived idea of freedom.
BTW… “autonomy”, for Ratzinger, across the years of his writing is nearly almost a negative.
Take note of his point about being closed in, not truly free, a group discovering itself. This is why he argued for ad orientem worship which opens outward rather than creating a closed circle. That’s another issue.
This brings me to the piece by Regis Nichols in Crisis. He writes about The Desecration of God’s Temple in three different modes.
Nichols uses the images of the desecration of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem for how the Church today is being desecrated. First, in 167 BC by Antiochus Epiphanes, which prompted the Maccabean Revolt. Next, the violation of the Court of the Gentiles, which was dramatically cleared by the Lord. Also, as Peter describes, we are the living stones that build the new temple. Nichols plays that out:
Jesus’s table-turning reaction caused a momentary stir, but his stinging reproach, “My house will be called a house of prayer,” propagates out to the present generation.
In the Church age, God’s house is made up of believers who are, in the words of Peter, “like living stones, being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.”
As the temple of the living God, the Christian church is not a commercial enterprise, but it is vulnerable to commercial pressures. For instance, in the face of stagnant or declining membership, how do churches respond?
Do they up the “wow factor” of worship with foot-tapping praise music and “relevant” sermons perfunctorily linked to biblical texts, or does it remain faithful to traditional forms of worship?
Do they back off or water down the historic Christian teachings, or do they proclaim them boldly and unapologetically?
Do they host more bingo nights and youth events featuring pizza, Coke, and movies, or do they invest in a structured, life-long process of catechesis to create a transformative community of Christ-like Christians?
A church obsessed with Wall Street indicators—bodies, bucks, and buildings—and Madison Avenue strategies—increased relevance and entertainment value—is a church that has filled its sacred spaces with marketplace kitsch. And like the temple court that Jesus happened upon 2000 years ago, it may be full of activity and people, but a divine eyesore bereft of true worship and worshippers.
Remember what Ratzinger said, above? Groups closed in and rediscovering themselves… and only themselves. That’s not true freedom and what they bring into the sanctuary is idolatry. In another work, Spirit of the Liturgy, when Ratzinger talks about how people are imbued with immanentism, he describes how the Jews made the Golden Calf, not because they really thought it was a god, but because it was easier.
Let me end this rant.
Speaking of easier, Nichols ends with a sobering quote from Richard Niebuhr, which I cannot help but connect to the logorrhea of Faggioli and a recent ridiculous offering at Fishwrap by a CTU teacher.
This suggests that another gospel (an abomination) has found its way into our sanctuaries—one that, in the words of Protestant theologian Richard Niebuhr, famously tells of “a God without wrath who brings men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.”