Online Edition – Vol. IV, No. 1: February/March 1998
A New Song For the Lord
Review by Kenneth Whitehead
So much of what Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger publishes in book form
lately seems to consist of collections of occasional articles
or lectures by him or interviews with him. No doubt his duties
as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith
in Rome prevent him from producing more sustained work.
Nevertheless he remains one of the most
original and perceptive Catholic theologians of our day. Nothing
that he produces is insignificant. This is notably true of the
present collection, which consists of a number of essays by him
written between 1975 and 1995 on the general subject of the relationship
between faith and liturgy. The individual topics range from "Jesus
Christ Today" (a remarkable essay) through liturgy and Christology
and the meaning of Sunday to important questions of Church architecture
and, especially, of Church music (one of the chapters on this
last topic appeared in three successive issues of
between October and December, 1996).
All of the chapters in the book merit close
study by anyone interested in the liturgy today. The cardinal’s
penetration in to the problems which currently beset our liturgy
is profound. What he has to say about faith and liturgy is especially
pertinent because some of his pronouncements on the subject of
the "fabrication" of liturgy by "experts"
and on that of the priest facing the people at Mass–statements
perfectly valid in themselves–have been picked up by some Tridentine
Mass people and used to imply that the cardinal believes that
Vatican Council II’s liturgical reforms were fundamentally mistaken
and that he favors a simple return to the Tridentine Mass.
This is not the case. Cardinal Ratzinger
deals with the liturgy on a level far deeper than superficial
disputes about "rites". He is only too well aware,
of course, that the liturgical reforms mandated by Vatican II
have been somewhat less than an unqualified success overall.
Nevertheless he also knows very well that, in his words, "the
alternative between traditional forces and reformers is oversimplified"
and that "those who think we can choose only between old
and the new" are wrong (p. 132).
A syllogism that is still very much alive
in some traditionalist circles is that Vatican II bore bad fruit
and must therefore be uprooted and cast into the flames; we must
return to the
statu quo ante
, that is, to the Tridentine
Mass, as if the Council had never taken place. Although this
idea may appear tempting to some, it fails to reckon with the
fact that perhaps the most untraditional thinking that it is
possible to imagine about the Catholic Church, for anyone knowledgeable
about her real history, is that she ever would–or could–go
back on or abrogate the authentic acts of one of her general
(or ecumenical) Councils. Vatican II was the twenty-first such
Council in the long history of the Church, and it has to be axiomatic
for Catholics today that we must go forward from there, not back.
Cardinal Ratzinger takes this for granted;
indeed he seems curiously only dimly aware of the deep-seated
"traditionalist" problem that, in fact, continues to
fester in the Church, while his ideas are sometimes used by traditionalists
for their own purposes. At the same time, though, he is quite
definitely aware of the true nature of our current liturgical
dissaray–as much so as any theologian or liturgist currently
Cardinal Ratzinger understands in particular
that the crisis in the liturgy today fundamentally goes back
to the current widespread crisis of
today. It is on this subject that this book speaks most eloquently;
the cardinal sees clearly that it is the contemporary crisis
of faith that has to be confronted and dealt with before the
problems of the liturgy can be entirely remedied. Liturgy is
not manipulable, nor is it something that can be fabricated by
it is an expression of the
Church’s faith. "Every liturgy is a cosmic liturgy,"
the cardinal writes, beautifully. It is "a stepping out
of our pathetic little groups into the towering communion that
embraces heaven and earth" (p. 175).
The essays in this book consistently illuminate
not only the deep sources of both faith and liturgy but the necessary
relations between them; properly understood, these studies help
to see why a "reform of the reform" is not only necessary,
but is the only way to go.
One minor irritant concerning this book
must be mentioned, and it is that the translator (or the publisher)
unwisely decided to give us a version of moderate "inclusive
language" in the translation of the cardinal’s original
German (though the translation is otherwise clear and readable
enough); the book also, unfortunately, uses the New Revised Standard
Version for the quotations from Scripture included in it. All
this is more than a little ironic considering that it was the
very Roman Congregation which Cardinal Ratzinger heads that insisted
upon withdrawing ecclesiastical approval from the NRSV translation
of the Bible, just as it was this same Congregation that insisted
upon having the inclusive-language translation of the Catechism
of the Catholic Church re-done — and just as it continues to
insist today that liturgical translations too must be faithful
to the original Latin, not distorted in the interests of a radical
Kenneth D. Whitehead is the translator
of twenty-one books, and writes from Falls Church, Va.