Feb 15, 2007

As the "Liturgy Wars" fade… Reflections on Polarization

Online Edition – February 2007

Vol. XII, No. 10

As the "Liturgy Wars" fade…

Reflections on Polarization

by Susan Benofy

“The mainstream liturgical community”, wrote John Allen of the National Catholic Reporter, “should be at the heart of the effort” to introduce new Missal translations to Catholics in the pews. His comments appeared in a column last June 30, “Securing the peace as liturgy wars fade”, following the approval by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) of the new translations of the Order of Mass.

Allen is specific about who is considered “mainstream”:

Finally, both friends and foes alike of the new translation believe it’s important to involve the mainstream liturgical professionals in the United States in implementation efforts, such as the Federation of Diocesan Liturgical Commissions, the Catholic Academy of Liturgy, and the National Association of Pastoral Musicians.

Father John Burton, chairman of the board of the Federation of Diocesan Liturgical Commissions (FDLC), anticipated difficulties with implementing the new translation because, he said, “the Church is polarized right now”.

“Polarization” is a term often used simply as a substitute for division. It implies that in order to eliminate polarization we must eliminate the non-mainstream viewpoint. But the word “polarize” also has a specific scientific meaning describing properties of light. And if we look at it in this sense, a very different procedure for eliminating polarization is suggested.

Shedding Light on Polarization

Light is a transverse wave. Imagine holding one end of a rope, whose other end is kept fixed. Shake your end of the rope up and down. The motion is transmitted down the rope forming a vertical wave. If you shake the rope from right to left, a similar wave will be set up in the horizontal direction. You can set up a wave in any direction (60º or 45º from the horizontal, for example) by shaking the rope along a line in that direction.

A beam of light is a collection of light rays, all of them waves like the one just described. Ordinarily the beam contains waves vibrating in a mixture of all possible directions. This is called unpolarized light. It is possible, however, to block part of the light with a kind of filter called a polarizer, which blocks vibrations in all but one direction.

For example the filter could block all vertical aspects of the waves and transmit only the horizontal aspects. The beam emerging from the filter would then contain only rays vibrating in a horizontal direction. This is called horizontally polarized light. By rotating the filter the polarization can be made vertical. (A familiar polarizer is a lens of polaroid sunglasses. The lens’s ability to block certain directions of vibrations means that it can reduce glare.) Note that to polarize a beam of light it is necessary that parts of the beam be selectively blocked — so the polarized beam is dimmer than the original unpolarized beam.

Vertical and Horizontal Polarizing

Liturgy, like light, has both vertical and horizontal aspects. The vertical element of worship is directed toward God; the horizontal element toward other people. Since the Council, the horizontal aspects of worship have been emphasized, even over-emphasized. In translation, for example, there was a stress on ordinary language; specifically theological and sacral terms were eliminated. As Cardinal George explained at the June USCCB meeting:

But the texts that we have now everyone admits — including old ICEL [International Commission on English in the Liturgy] as well as new ICEL and the Holy See — are not adequate expressions of the Faith. Quite deliberately — and it’s documented — there was an attempt to delete sacrificial language; the theology of grace and merit was excised when it could have been included.

That is, vertical elements were deliberately eliminated from the English translation of the Mass. In terms of the scientific analogy, the original translation of liturgical texts was “horizontally polarized”.

Similarly in liturgical music since the Council, the dominant view focused on music with lyrics all about us (horizontal), effectively eliminating distinctively sacred music, such as chant and polyphony (vertical), despite the Council’s decree that these be preserved.

What John Allen calls “mainstream” organizations — like the FDLC and the National Association of Pastoral Musicians (NPM) — have supported this almost exclusive horizontalism and have consistently promoted and defended it in their publications and conventions. The FDLC has also advanced this agenda in its “position statements” given to the bishops’ conference every year.

However, defenders of the “vertical” dimension — distinctively sacred music, sacral language and architecture — are almost completely absent from “mainstream” publications, do not appear as speakers at “mainstream” liturgical conferences. Their perspective has been systematically, selectively blocked.

Thus, it is these “mainstream” organizations that have been the polarizers of discussions on liturgy. Their members and subscribers get discussions of liturgy with all the “vertical” views filtered out: in other words, they get a horizontally polarized presentation.

Father Burton is correct that “polarization” is a problem. But it is not the Church that is polarized. It is the kind of information on the liturgy that is transmitted by the “mainstream” liturgical organizations. If they are to play a truly useful role in the catechesis on the new translation of the Missal they must, at a minimum, cease to be polarizers — filtering out all positive mention of the vertical dimensions of liturgy.

The new translation of the Missal is meant to restore the proper balance to liturgy by re-instating the sacral language that was eliminated from the earlier translation. It is odd that none of Allen’s sources, if they did include “friends and foes” of the new translation, thought of asking those who have been calling for a restoration of the sacred (vertical) aspects of worship for their suggestions on how the new translation might best be introduced. Why try to make the “mainstream” critics into half-hearted defenders of the new translations, when there are many experienced, knowledgeable people willing to promote these changes?

If we really want a balanced approach to liturgy it is time to unpolarize liturgical instruction. There are scholars, musicians, artists and architects who support the sacral, transcendent aspects of liturgy. They support the reform of the Second Vatican Council, but criticize the overly horizontal aspects of its implementation. But these people are not generally considered “mainstream”.

The “new era of liturgical reform” called for by Liturgiam authenticam requires depolarizing the “mainstream”. The light that can be shed on our understanding of the liturgy by the work of many scholars should not be blocked by the horizontally polarizing filters of the entrenched (mainstream) liturgical establishment.

Liturgy is both communal and transcendent, both horizontal and vertical. We will truly participate fully in the liturgy only when we reach the proper balance of both. We will know the full glory of the liturgy only when all its aspects are fully illuminated in unpolarized light.

Susan Benofy, research editor for Adoremus Bulletin, holds a doctorate in physics, and works with her husband, Les Benofy, who is professor of physics at St. Louis University.

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Susan Benofy

Susan Benofy received her doctorate in physics from Saint Louis University. She was formerly Research Editor of Adoremus Bulletin.