Dec 15, 2006

Liturgy and Ritual

Online Edition – December 2006 – January 2007
Vol. XII, No. 9

Liturgy and Ritual
Keynote Address at Fellowship of Catholic Scholars Convention

by James Hitchcock

Liturgical change after the Second Vatican Council was guided by “experts” who implemented it through bureaucratic processes, but, despite the fact that most of those experts were highly educated in matters liturgical, for some reason they ignored the way in which the ritual of the Church is deeply and organically rooted in the mystical community and this ignorance severely damaged liturgical life in ways that are only now being seriously addressed.1

The Liturgical Movement underwent a radical change immediately after the Council, no longer aiming to lead worshippers ever more deeply into the divine mysteries but seeking instead to make liturgy “relevant” by minimizing its mystical elements and assimilating it to a community celebration. While there was some resistance on the part of confused laity, this bureaucratic program largely succeeded, both because it was imposed and because it actually did capture the spirit of the age, offering a liturgy that fit well with a relaxed suburban life style.

The familiar jibe that the difference between a terrorist and a liturgist is that it is possible to negotiate with a terrorist. This is in fact borne out in the history of the Liturgical Movement at its moment of victory, when Father Frederick McManus, soon to become the key liturgical bureaucrat in America, warned against compromise and misplaced solicitude for the concerns of people in the pew2, and another prominent priest-liturgist compared his task to that of a health officer sent to ignorant natives in the tropics. To those who resisted his ministrations he had one stern reminder: “It’s the Law!”3 A layman told a liturgical gathering that existing parishes were “at best harmless rest camps” for people who were incapable of understanding the Gospel, and he thought that “social scientists … would see them in pathological terms”.4

One of the great unexplained ironies of recent church history is how a council that purportedly promised greater freedom to Catholics ended up, with regard to liturgy, setting in motion an iron-fisted authoritarianism that continues to the present day. Apparently the sources do not exist for a detailed history of how the Council’s sparse words about the vernacular, much less its complete silence about the position of altars, were so soon turned into universal laws, enforced with often draconian severity by the very people who themselves ignored or defied those of higher authority than themselves.

A further irony still is the fact that lay resistance to liturgical change now often justifies itself by a rejection of clerical authority that was itself an unintended fruit of the Council. Concerning liturgy, many lay people understand that some of those in authority make unsupportable claims and that somehow they must find their own way.

Many traditional Catholics did indeed approach the liturgy as spectators, or as only marginal participants, and liturgical innovators correctly understood that liturgy is in some ways an expression of the life of the worshipping community. But the innovators had a radically impoverished, essentially secular, idea of what that expression might be, reducing “participation” merely to such things as singing and praying aloud and reducing “community” merely to those people actually gathered for worship at a particular moment, no longer with any sense of membership in the invisible and eternal Communion of Saints, of the Mystical Body.

A new puritanical spirit systematically, even fanatically, changed or discarded the architecture, symbolism, and music that spoke of eternity and transcendence. And, as the poverty of this new spirit came belatedly to be recognized, it sought to create new symbols (dancing, banners) by fiat, not comprehending the way in which genuine ritual has to be deeply embedded in the life of a community over a period of generations.5

This puritanism rested in part on the assumption that modernity is entirely pragmatic, that old things no longer speak to “modern man”. But in their eagerness to be relevant, their determination to purge the liturgy of all its “magical” elements, liturgists drastically misread the direction of the culture, since pragmatic utilitarianism inevitably called forth its seeming opposite, so that such things as astrology, the occult, and even witchcraft suddenly achieved a new respectability, as the moralistic focus on “social problems” gave way to a “counter-culture” that castigated modern man precisely for his pragmatic philistinism. Discarded ritual elements like candles, incense, vestments, and chanting were resuscitated, but in an entirely new context — as servants of a compulsive search for ever more esoteric pleasures, ultimately of the psychedelic “high”. (One priest actually proposed “ritual drunkenness” as an appropriate element of liturgy.6) But such counterfeit ritual looks into the depths of the human psyche, never toward the eternal God, and is in some ways even more inimical to genuine religion than is sheer unbelief.7

The spiritual and psychological effects of all this went so deep that even now they are only imperfectly understood, often reduced merely to the level of personal preference. But uncontrolled liturgical change in effect pitted the liturgy against itself, setting up conflicts that remain unresolved. Liturgists seemed to have no understanding of the deep psychic disturbances caused by sudden, often radical, alterations in ritual life and in fact even lost sight of the elementary reality that liturgy is ritual — symbolic action occurring in sacred time and space,8 heightened sensitivity to symbolic action, an economical condensation of a whole range of symbols.9

Church leaders on the whole failed to understand this because traditional Scholastic theology and Enlightenment rationalism alike made it difficult for them to comprehend adequately the nature of ritual and symbolic action, something that the study of the phenomenology of ritual might have provided.10

As Mary Douglas, the most astute critic of liturgical change, pointed out, “If a people takes a symbol that was originally meant for something else, and energetically holds on to that subverted symbol, its meaning for their personal life must be very profound.”11 In the words of Robert Redfield, “Men cease to believe because they cease to understand, and they cease to understand because they cease to do the things that express the understandings”.12

Catholicism has always been rich in ritual gestures and symbols, but after the Council the renewed spirit of puritanism discarded many of those enduring symbols as “meaningless”. In keeping with the rationalist mentality of the reformers, most liturgical change took place only on the conscious level, leading to what might be called the fallacy of explicitness — the meaning of the rituals was didactically explained in such a way as to render the symbols themselves superfluous.

At first the errors caused by this insensitivity were probably not intended. But as it became obvious to what degree change had disoriented the community, many innovators embraced disorientation as a positive good, because it “liberated” Catholics from what was now declared to be an oppressive and burdensome past.13 The “purification” of worship, instead of opening ever deeper wellsprings of spirituality, often created a vacuum that was quickly filled by invasions from the secular culture.14

Sacred ritual always presents itself as divinely ordained,15 but the speed with which liturgical changes were introduced, the confusing and often contradictory things said about them, the way in which they were decreed by committees and bureaucratic offices, the continuing debates, the replacement of sacred liturgical books by discardable leaflets, the wholesale destruction of so much that was venerable, and the endless tinkering all had the cumulative effect of making the liturgy seem an all-too-human activity, not a divine action in which humans were privileged to participate but something that they themselves created.16

The very concept of “experimental” liturgy is destructive, implying as it does that the participants consciously manipulate it for their own purposes, then study the results in a clinical spirit. (Few of these “experiments” have ever been declared failures, even when the patient has been killed in the process.) Pope Benedict XVI has pointed out that the very idea of “creative” liturgy is fallacious, in that it treats liturgy as a human construct.17

Those who have experienced this at the deepest level are perhaps those who line up on opposite sides in the continuing liturgical wars. While most of the laity seem to accept passively whatever changes appear to be mandated, “traditionalists” believe that meaning can be recovered only by a return to the “old Mass”, while liberals also seem to concede that the official rite is now barren and consequently assert an imperative to engage in continuing and ever more radical experimentation, both groups understanding that something profound has occurred.

Two categories of Catholics were especially affected by the post-conciliar liturgical crisis — impressionable young people and priests whose identities were intimately bound up with the liturgy experienced the chaos of the Church’s ritual and organizational life. Adolescents in those years gained little experiential sense of a coherent and binding Catholicism, and many still have not. Although many experimental liturgies were crafted to attract young people, their chief effect was most often to confirm the young in their alienation from the main body of the Church, while on the other side there was a profound clerical crisis, as the sacramental vocation itself was called into question. The apparent unraveling of priestly and religious life probably had far more to do with the weakening of the beliefs of ordinary Catholics than did direct attacks on those beliefs by dissident theologians.

When traditional liturgy was declared to be “meaningless”, the engineers of change in reality often meant that it was meaningful in the wrong way — too “supernatural”, too “vertical”, too “archaic” — and they aimed to use liturgical change to bring about a change of attitude. (For example, one general secretary of the International Committee for English in the Liturgy [ICEL] admitted that the reception of communion in the hand diminished a sense of reverence and quipped with apparent satisfaction that, “The communion has become a cheap commodity, cheaper than pizza, because you have to pay for pizza.”18)

For a while, in accordance with the traditional understanding of sacramental validity, liturgical changes, even of a fairly radical kind, were said not to affect the underlying truth of the Mass itself, so that virtually nothing a priest might do could affect the sacramental reality, so long as he correctly pronounced the words of institution. But it soon became obvious that it is not possible to separate liturgical issues from doctrine. The principle “Lex orandi est lex credendi” recognizes that changes in the mode of worship can affect belief, and it is obvious that Catholics no longer all share the same theology of the Eucharist. Contrary to the facile explanations sometimes offered, radical liturgical change is not, and cannot be, merely a matter of the same beliefs expressed in new ways. The aversion that some Catholics have toward traditional liturgy, and their embrace of increasingly experimental forms, arise precisely from religious doubt, from a desire to reduce religion merely to some kind of spiritual searching.

One of the purposes of official ritual is to preserve the beliefs of the worshipping community during times when there is a danger of losing sight of those beliefs, to keep them intact until such times as they are rediscovered.19 Thus a concomitant danger in unauthorized liturgies is that the principle “Lex orandi est lex credendi” can be cited to prove that omissions, such as that of the Creed itself, reveal that such particular doctrines are no longer the teachings of the Church. Among practicing Catholics, it appears that even the concept of God is now weak and confused, encompassing everything from Chalcedonian orthodoxy through deism to a kind of self-deifying pantheism.

Obviously worshippers should be educated, as far as they are able, as to the meaning of the liturgy, should be attentive to the action and join in the prayers. But the degree to which there was already “participation” prior to the Council has been greatly underestimated. If nothing else, worshippers understood that something of eternal significance was taking place on the altar — that Christ Himself was present — and they assisted in a spirit of reverence. Ritual, in order to be authentic, does not require participants to have an emotional experience; often they participate in what may appear to be a routine spirit.20 Most Catholics before the Council valued liturgical symbols highly, even when they did not fully comprehend their specific meanings.

But after the Council, as the inevitable result of insensitivity to the nature of ritual action, “meaningful” worship came to be defined by the congregation’s own subjective experiences and only spontaneous worship could be genuine, an assumption that seemed finally to require that the congregation create its own liturgies.

But, as Thomas Merton had warned,

Secular personalism is a kind of craze for individuality, a rage for self-manifestation in which the highest value is the recognition of one’s own uniqueness…. On the contrary, Christian personalism does not require that the inmost secrets of our being be made manifest or public at all … what is manifested, proclaimed, celebrated and consummated in the liturgy is not my personality or yours but the personality of Christ the Lord…. We sing alike, we pray alike, we adopt the same attitudes. Yet oddly this “sameness” does not wound our individuality.21

Classical ritual theory recognizes that the rites are not an expression of the mundane but are something that stands outside time, situations where man is stripped of everything ordinary and made aware of the powers that sustain the universe.22 The rites embody personal commitments that transcend passing moods, embodying the participants’ deepest understanding of the universe,23 something that, paradoxically, eventually makes such ritual far more “relevant” than the kinds of observances that consciously seek that goal.

Virtually from the beginning, the Catholic Church, like some other great religions, tolerated and even encouraged a folk piety alongside its official worship, a piety that sustained the faithful in their personal lives. While the Mass itself was celebrated quite formally, in accordance with the often-praised spirit of Roman restraint, personal and subjective piety was expressed through private devotions.

But by suppressing those devotions, and attempting, at least for a time, to make the Eucharist virtually the only legitimate form of Catholic piety, the innovators created an emotional hunger that they then inappropriately tried to satisfy through the liturgy itself. The supreme irony of the Liturgical Movement was that it struggled for decades to make Catholics appreciate the Eucharist as the center of their lives but, once it had achieved its stated goals, participation in the Eucharist fell off sharply in almost all communities, one of the principal causes being the war on popular piety waged in the name of the liturgy. Popular devotions had sustained many Catholics in their faith in a personal way, so that, as they were pruned away to allow the Eucharist to stand out in all its glory, regard for the Mass itself declined.24 (The Charismatic Movement then emerged as a new kind of expressive personal piety, but one that had few if any precedents in Catholic tradition.)

The present liturgical conflict is often presented as between “traditionalists” and “innovators”, something that does not, however, pose the issue adequately. Adherence to tradition is of course fundamental to the Catholic faith, but development has always been part of tradition itself, so that in principle liturgists are justified in urging certain changes.

However, perhaps the single greatest liturgical error following the Council was to emphasize discontinuity, to speak continually of the “new” liturgy, and the consequent failure to make people understand how it was continuous with the old, a failure that is largely responsible for the movement that calls itself Traditionalism and that at its extremes has gone into schism.25

Liturgical change after the Council was originally justified as a return to the oldest liturgical forms, a program of “re-form” in which the ultimate criterion was the practice of the Apostles. But innovators almost immediately found this to be inadequate and turned instead to contemporary culture as their primary inspiration. (This ambiguity remains. Catholics who express dissatisfaction with the reformed liturgy may be told either that the Church has returned to its ancient roots or that it has adapted itself to modern needs.)

Ritual embodies the entire history of a people and does so in such a way that their history remains alive, no matter how dimly they may understand it. In the words of Mary Douglas,

We arise from the purging of old rituals simpler and poorer, as was intended, ritually beggared, but with other losses…. Only a narrow range of historical experience is recognized as antecedent to the present state. Along with celebrating the Last Supper or the simplicity of fishermen-apostles, there is a squeamishness about ancestors … the anti-ritualists have rejected the list of saints and popes and tried to start again without the load of history.

The destruction of ritual “deprives men of the ability to articulate the depth of past time”.26 Pope Benedict has noted that, by appealing exclusively to the “early church” for justification, liturgists negated centuries of organic development and rendered those centuries irrelevant to the present.27

For some Catholics the past of the Church has thus come to be a mere burden, even something shameful, and the seemingly irrational reactions of some people against anything traditional in liturgy — the compulsion to destroy old churches, for example — is an expression of that sense. Such things as Latin prayers, Gregorian chant, baroque polyphony, and gothic architecture arouse unease and even antagonism among some people, precisely because they speak of things that are mysterious, transcendent, and divine, demanding awe and reverence.

Authentic ritual has something about it that even appears archaic, which is not the equivalent of dead,28 because such ritual is the experience of sacred time, of timelessness inside time.29 While experimental liturgies purport to express human creativity — control over the world — in reality they reflect man’s unfree place in that world because, in freeing themselves from the burdens of the past, modern men simply deliver themselves to the tyranny of history, often acting as though they have no right to live other than in accordance with the spirit of the times. Among other things, ritual embodies the deepest sense of order — the order of the cosmos itself — and when the rituals are in disarray the universe is experienced as disordered and man as trapped by the vagaries of chance and history.

The severing of continuity with tradition, whether deliberate or inadvertent, has had the result of throwing self-consciously modern Catholics entirely back on their own spiritual resources, which is a terrible kind of spiritual impoverishment. There is a direct link here to the heresy of Modernism, so named by Saint Pius X because it is the only heresy in the history of the Church to impose a temporal obligation. All previous heresies laid claims to eternal truth; only Modernism demanded submission to the spirit of the age.

The experience of chaos is close to the heart of modernity, and the governing spirit of the broad cultural movement called Modernism can be defined as precisely the necessity of doubting even the possibility of ultimate transcendence, which makes the very idea of “modern” worship problematic. Many highly praised modern church buildings, for example, strike people as cold and empty. However impressive as architecture, they seem to speak not of God but almost of God’s absence, of man as disoriented and embarked on some vague quest for “meaning”. History shows that some ages are more creative than others, and it is inherently improbable that a self-consciously secular — in many ways even irreverent — culture like that of the present can create new religious forms of lasting value. Thus until new forms of authentic liturgy reveal themselves, Catholics will of necessity look to the past, albeit not in that spirit of “restoration” or “retro” that substitutes for authentic tradition in our culture.

This rejection of the “burden” of the past not only leaves the individual imprisoned in the present, it also drastically truncates the worshipping community itself. No longer is the Mass celebrated in the presence of all the angels, as part of the Communion of Saints; it now becomes merely the activity of a particular group of people gathered in a particular time and place.

Not irrelevantly, there appears to be a steep decline in the practice of praying for the dead, due to a greatly diminished sense that living and dead are bound together in an eternal community. Ironically, the insistence that funeral liturgies be joyful celebrations of resurrection occurred at the moment when many people were losing their belief in personal resurrection, so that in practice Catholic funeral liturgies are now often mere celebrations of the life of the deceased, essentially secular memorial services inserted within the framework of a religious ritual.

Because the past is experienced as dead, the structure of the Church is of necessity also experienced as oppressive, so that “meaningful” religion necessarily involves the progressive rejection of doctrines and practices considered to be impositions on the self.

In times of radical change ritual and symbol become sources of discord rather than of unity.30 Instead of serving as an expression of a community’s life, a ritual that is overly “relevant” can instead function as a further source of division.31 After the Council both old things like Latin, Gregorian Chant, and novenas and newer things like banners and guitars became bones of often rancorous contention.

Amidst the post-conciliar changes few mantras were intoned with as much reverence as “community”, the achievement of which was said to be the chief purpose of change and the absence of which one of the chief failures of the pre-conciliar Church. But a living tradition is a vital part of every authentic community, so that the abandonment of so much tradition undermined the very goal that reformers ostensibly sought to achieve. The more the ideal of community was extolled, the more elusive it remained, to the point where for some people the local parish itself could no longer function as a community and they gathered for worship only with people of like mind, their refusal to participate in the ordinary rituals of the Church, their desire to find specialized celebrations (in either “liberal” or “conservative” versions), becoming a continuing symbol of the fragmentation of community.

Strong ritual, whose validity is implicitly accepted by everyone, is found in strong communities with a clear sense of their own boundaries — of how they differ from other groups — so that the weakening of community and the weakening of ritual symbiotically reinforce one another.32 As traditionally understood by Catholics, community was not primarily a human entity but participation in the Communion of Saints, and the loss of that belief means that the inadequacies of particular communities cannot be transcended. As worshippers are urged to turn primarily toward one another, all divisions are magnified, to the point where only homogeneous communities are possible.

Once again a promise of freedom has led merely to a different kind of bondage, as the worshipper finds himself constrained not by the prescribed liturgy of the universal Church but by the arbitrary demands of a particular diocese or parish. Thus in the diocese of Orange, California, parishioners in one parish have been told by their pastor that they commit a mortal sin by kneeling during the time of communion, a pronouncement supported by official diocesan spokesmen.33

The celebrant of the Mass is now often called the “presider”, in order to minimize his hierarchical role and the idea that he represents Christ in some special way. But ironically, this has led to a new and exaggerated clericalism. In the traditional liturgy the identity of the celebrant was largely irrelevant. But, as Max Weber pointed out, in times of confusion and destruction, authority shifts to the personality of the “charismatic leader”, who appears to understand the movement of history and offers the guidance that established structures no longer provide.34 As many commentators have noted, a possibly unintended effect of the celebrant’s facing the people at Mass is to emphasize his personality and his “style” of celebration.

Interestingly, one of the first people to question the wisdom of this practice was the determinedly avant-garde communications theorist Marshall McLuhan, who warned that:

A continuous confrontation of the audience by the celebrant reduces the occasion to a merely humanistic one…. ”Putting on” only the congregation as his corporate mark of dignity deprives the celebrant of any compelling power or charisma.35

Josef Jungmann, the magisterial historian of liturgy, pointed out that it would be appropriate for the celebrant to face the people if the Mass were purely an act of instruction or celebration but not if it were “an immolation and homage to God”,36 and the obscuring of the Mass as sacrifice has been perhaps the chief doctrinal danger posed by liturgical change. Pope Benedict himself has pointed out both the historical and theological fallacies of the “versus populum” position.37

Of all the deformations imposed in the Council’s name, the most fundamental was the attempt to transform the essentially “vertical” act of worship — practically everything in the text of the Mass is directed to God, very little to one’s neighbor — into a ritual of community fellowship, a prime example of Mary Douglas’s “subverted symbol”.

The ultimate root of liturgical disorder is a kind of popular, only half-understood version of the modern age’s besetting heresy — Pelagianism — a denial of human sinfulness, as in the recent defiant assertion that worshippers at Mass should proclaim “Jesus, I am worthy to receive you, help me to be more like you” and the equally defiant claim that official liturgy merely aims to “control” people.38 While theological arguments can be made for standing during the most sacred parts of the Mass, many people now consider it actually demeaning to kneel in the presence of God.

Pelagianism expresses itself not only in such obvious ways but in a desire to make liturgy entirely a human creation, an emanation from the self, yet another manifestation of the individual’s “creativity”. Thus the “style” of liturgy must now be elaborately and contrivedly casual, interlaced with attempts at humor, with exchanges between celebrant and congregation replacing the homily, everything coordinated to effect an informal atmosphere in which people do not experience awe at being in the presence of the Almighty and above all in no way feel themselves to be under judgment. For many people the greeting of peace, while a merely optional part of the liturgy, is nonetheless the high point of the celebration.39 The ideal modern liturgy is celebrated in a secular space chosen merely for its convenience, with little that is distinctively religious — metal folding chairs, few if any sacred symbols, a minimum of priestly vestments, music scarcely distinguishable from what is heard on television, Eucharistic vessels brought from the kitchen.

The endless debate over liturgical music is not merely about taste or quality. Quite early, advocates of the new music explicitly acknowledged that they intended to bring about an entirely new understanding of the nature of worship itself.40 Although liturgists extol the necessity of “modern” music, in fact they ignore virtually the entire modernist movement in classical music — the pious Russian Orthodox Igor Stravinsky, for example — because such music is in many ways strange and demanding and does not provide the sense of cozy familiarity that comes from “folk music”.

Overall, worship in the vernacular has been a benefit to the Church. But, along with a sense of sacred time, space, and gesture, a sense of sacred language has been one of the casualties of liturgical change. As the current debate over translations shows, liturgists for the most part ignore the fact that formal worship, in perhaps all the great religions of the world, has always been carried out in a sacred language, a language not necessarily incomprehensible to the worshippers but more formal and more archaic than their everyday idioms.

The poverty of post-conciliar liturgical language is not the result of mere insensitivity; it was designed to make the liturgical experience as mundane as possible. Even a general secretary of the International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL) at one time acknowledged that the translations were “feeble and hackneyed versions of the more powerful originals”.41

In the end, eager participants in self-consciously “modern” liturgies want to hear only echoes of themselves, confirming Emile Durkheim’s claim that religion is finally the community objectifying and worshipping itself.42

The studied casualness of so much contemporary liturgy is itself an expression of fragmentation, because rituals of “solemn grandeur” must be performed in order to command the adherence of the entire community,43 whereas casualness expresses the prevailing zeitgeist and severely weakens the binding power that the ritual ought to have. If the prescribed liturgy of the Church is scrupulously observed in even the smallest communities, the worshippers are thereby united to the entire Communion of Saints.

The ultimate logical goal, toward which liturgical change has been moving with fits and starts for over forty years, is the suppression of ritual entirely, in the sense of structured symbolism, and its replacement by home-made, semi-spontaneous celebrations in which each community chooses the readings it finds most relevant to its needs and composes its own, possibly extemporaneous, prayers. Anything short of this cannot help but seem compromising to those who have interiorized the governing spirit of modern liturgy.

Along with this is a syncretism in which elements from a variety of traditions are cobbled together with little regard for their inherent significance, primarily in order to provide yet another “meaningful experience” for those who are alienated from their own traditions and for whom subjective experience alone retains the power to move. As Cardinal Francis Arinze has pointed out, in Africa ceremonial dance is not an expression of subjective “creativity”, as it is likely to be in the West, but a formal and solemn ritual.44

The Liturgical Movement insisted that liturgy had to be relevant to life and hoped that liturgical reforms would undermine social evils, although the connection was seldom adequately explained. Liturgical renewal would prove itself in part by transforming Catholics into agents of social change.45

Immediately after the Council, in the fevered environment of “The Sixties”, attempts were made to bring this about in direct ways that in effect denied the transcendent meaning of worship altogether, through homilies, unauthorized readings, and symbols directly related to social issues — efforts that fragmented the Liturgical Movement and persuaded some Catholics that worship itself was an irrelevant idea that distracted from social action. As Mary Douglas pointed out, once ritual has been declared meaningless and replaced by subjective experience, a move toward mere humanist philanthropy is inevitable, which means that “the symbolic life of the spirit is finished”.46

But there is an even more fundamental question — why, within the context of certain influential schools of modern theology, should people feel bound to worship at all, in anything like the traditional sense, when such things as social action, the enjoyment of nature, or community celebrations might be more “meaningful” ways to God, however “God” is understood?

However, if human beings have an obligation to worship their creator, it follows that such worship is not ultimately validated by the worshippers themselves but must be a divine action they enter into, which in turn means that contemporary ideas of “meaningful” liturgy are in fact obstacles to authentic worship.

The time now seems ripe for the “reform of the reform”, as Pope Benedict has called it, a process that looks hopeful both because the Holy Father seems prepared to place the authority of his office behind it and because at long last a majority of the American bishops not only seem to recognize the seriousness of the problems but seem no longer willing to rely on the “experts” who caused most of those problems and tenaciously cling to the same mistaken ideas. Liturgy is the chief and most direct responsibility of the bishop — the principal manifestation of his office — and it is highly inappropriate that it should be delegated to bureaucrats. However, the liturgical bureaucracy is well-entrenched and has some episcopal support, as shown by the public resistance to the new liturgical translations.

As the Holy Father has also noted, a sweeping kind of reform, even if it moved in a good direction, would itself have a deeply upsetting affect on the community of the Church, comparable to that which followed the Council.47 In the practical order it appears that the Church at this point has no alternative except to tolerate a kind of liturgical pluralism — continuing to insist on the obligation to observe the official rituals but within those limits allowing a variety of “styles”, from the Tridentine rite to the “guitar Mass”. But although such a solution may be necessary, in this, as in other areas, the Catholic Church now seems driven to adopt what is really the Anglican solution of attempting to minimize profound differences. For centuries the Church has encompassed a variety of rites, but the non-Roman rites were carefully circumscribed within particular communities with long traditions behind them, and Catholics were never permitted to join a particular rite merely on the basis of personal preference.

However indirect the process of renewal may turn out to be, our goals must remain clear, so that over what will probably be a period of decades rather than of years the movement of authentic reform may succeed. There is at present no grounds for exuberance, perhaps only for the dry comfort that Winston Churchill offered the British people in 1942: “This not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But perhaps it is the end of the beginning”.



1 How the goals of the classical Liturgical Movement in effect became reversed — whether liturgists were already planning a revolution before the Council, or whether their agenda was transformed in the frenzied atmosphere that immediately followed — is unclear. For clues see Kathleen Hughes, The Monk’s Tale (Collegeville, MN, 1991), a biography of the strategically situated Benedictine liturgist Godfrey Diekmann.

2 The Revival of Liturgy (New York, 1963), 208, 211-2, 218.

3 Gerard Sloyan, Worship in a New Key (New York, 1965), 16-7, 22-5,68-9, 71, 139, 172-8.

4 Landon G. Dowdey, in Worship in the City of Man, ed. Daniel O’Hanlon, S.J. (The Liturgical Conference, 1966), 163, 167.

5 Victor Turner, “Passages, Margins, and Poverty,” Worship, XLVI, 7 (September 1972), 398.

6 Francis W. Mahoney, M.M., “The Aymara Indians: Model for Ritual Adaptation,” Worship, XLV, 67 (Aug.-Sept. 1971), 407.

7 In particular see the “spirituality” of the former Dominican Matthew Fox — On Becoming a Musical, Mystical Bear (New York, 1972) and Creation Spirituality (San Francisco, 1991).

8 A.R. Radcliffe-Brown, Structure and Function in Primitive Society (Glencoe, Ill, 1952), 157. While there are immense differences between pagan and Christian ritual and between “primitive” and sophisticated cultures, ritual, like art, music, and other things incorporated into worship, retains certain common characteristics across those boundaries. While the Catholic liturgy obviously transcends all other rituals, it is assumed here that on one level it can be understood as an example of such ritual and that many of the most serious errors of liturgical reform stemmed from a failure to understand the nature of ritual even on the purely human level.

9 Mary Douglas, Natural Symbols (New York, 1970), 1-2, 8, 11, 47.

10 Concerning the clerical mind on these matters, see Ibid., 50.

11 Ibid., 9, 38.

12 The Folk Culture of Yucatan (Chicago, 1955), 363.

13 See for example the numerous examples in James Hitchcock, The Recovery of the Sacred (New York, 1979; San Francisco 1994).

14 For a description of how the effort to “purify” religion can lead to its weakening, see William A. Christian, Person and God in a Spanish Valley (New York, 1972), 161, 178, 184-7.

15 Clifford Geertz, “Religion as a Cultural System,” The Religious Situation: 1968, ed. Donald R. Cutler (Boston, 1968), 642.

16 On this point see Douglas, Natural Symbols, 147.

17 The Spirit of the Liturgy, tr. John Saward (San Francisco, 2000), 168. See also Cardinal Francis Arinze, “Liturgical Norms and Liturgical Piety,” Adoremus Bulletin, XI, 3 (May 2005).

18 Gerald Sigler, quoted by William McKaye, in The Washington Post, Nov. 16, 1973, D18. Sigler later left the priesthood.

19 Louis Bouyer, Liturgical Piety (Notre Dame, In., 1954), 8; Turner, “Passages, Margins, and Poverty,” 400.

20 Emile Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, tr. Joseph Ward Swayne (New York, 1961), 41; Redfield, Folk Culture, 311. See also Arinze, “Liturgical Norms”.

21 “Liturgy and Spiritual Personalism,” Worship, XXXIV, 9 (October 1960), 503-5

22 Turner, “Subjectivity and Objectivity in Theology and Worship,” Worship, XLI, 3 (March 1967), 160. Although Worship published several of Turner’s critiques of liturgical change, there is no evidence that his ideas were ever heeded.

23 Geertz, “Religion as Cultural System”, 643, 649-50.

24 For a remarkably candid acknowledgement of this, see Ralph Keifer, “Ritual Makers and Poverty of Proclamation,” Worship, XLVI, 2 (January 1972), 69-75. Keifer was general secretary of ICEL. One of the minor mysteries of the post-conciliar period is the fact that, although from time to time Worship itself published perceptive analyses of liturgical fallacies, none of these seem ever to have made the slightest impression on the architects of change.

25 The movement can be followed in the pages of the newspaper The Remnant.

26 Natural Symbols, 19-20.

27 Spirit of Liturgy, 82-4.

28 Turner, “Passages, Margins, and Poverty,” 391-2.

29 Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane, tr. Willard R. Trask (New York, 1961), 68, 85, 89; Turner, “Passages, Margins, and Poverty,” 399.

30 Geertz, “Ritual and Social Change,” American Anthropologist, XLIX, 1 (February 1957), 32-54.

31 Turner, “Passages, Margins, and Poverty,” 398. In the Orange controversy (see note 33), Bishop Tod Brown pointed out that, while some parishioners protested the liturgical rules decreed by their new pastor, others welcomed them as overdue.

32 Douglas, Natural Symbols, 13-4, 19, 30, 33, 35, 139, 141.

33 The pastor subsequently amended his pronouncement from “mortal sin” to “an objectively serious matter.” While acknowledging that it was improper to characterize kneeling as a mortal sin, Bishop Tod Brown scolded parishioners for their liturgical intransigence and regretted that the diocese had erred in the past by treating them overly indulgently. (See the Los Angeles Lay Catholic Mission, Sept.-Oct. 2006, for a detailed account of the controversy. Bishop Brown’s letter to the parish appears on for September 14, 2006.) For Pope Benedict’s justification for kneeling at Mass, see Spirit of Liturgy, 184-5.

34 The Theory of Economic and Social Organization, ed. Talcott Parsons (Glencoe, Ill, 1947), 361

35 “Liturgy and Media,” The Critic, XXXI, 4 (Mar.-Apr. 1973), 70.

36 The Mass of the Roman Rite, tr. Francis A. Brunner, C.Ss.R. (New York, 1959), 181-2

37 Spirit of Liturgy, 63-7.

38 Joe Droste (letter), National Catholic Reporter, July 28, 2006, 20.

39 For examples of extreme attempts at “creative” liturgies, see Hitchcock, Recovery of the Sacred, especially 48-9, 61-2.

40 For example, Robert W. Hovda and Gabe Huck, “Music: We Must Learn to Celebrate,” Liturgical Arts, XXXVIII, 2 (February 1970), 4.

41 Keifer, “Squalor on Sunday,” Worship, XLIV, 5 (May 1970), 293.

42 Elementary Forms, 474-9.

43 Bronlislaw Malinowski, Magic, Science, and Religion (Garden City, N.Y., 1955), 67.

44 “On ‘Liturgical Dance’”, Adoremus Bulletin, XI, 3 (May 2005).

45 This was, for example, the strongly held position of Dom Virgil Michel, O.S.B., the founder of of Orate Fratres (later Worship) magazine. See Paul Marx, O.S.B., Virgil Michel and the Liturgical Movement (Collegeville, Mn., 1957)

46 Natural Symbols, 7, 31, 42.

47 Spirit of Liturgy, 83.


James Hitchcock is professor of history at St. Louis University and author of Recovery of the Sacred among many other works. This address to the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars Convention in Kansas City on September 22, 2006, appears here with Dr. Hitchcock’s permission.



James F. Hitchcock

James F. Hitchcock, emeritus professor of history at St. Louis University, which he attended as an undergraduate, received his masters and doctorate degrees from Princeton University. An archive of various articles of his can be read here. Dr. Hitchcock has authored several books, including The Supreme Court and Religion in American Life; The Recovery of the Sacred; What Is Secular Humanism; Catholicism and Modernity: Confrontation or Capitulation?; and History of the Catholic Church: From the Apostolic Age to the Third Millennium