It Belongs to the Dead

Father Zuhlsdorf has made a pronouncement that Sancrosanctum Concilium, the famous Vatican II document on the Sacred Liturgy is wholly traditional, “wholly ours.”

Being a partisan of the old Latin Mass, I am glad that traditionally-minded Catholics are attempting to impose their meanings onto the document. But if we are to really reckon with what has happened to the Church in the last fifty years we should be clear. And I can’t read Sancrosanctum Concilium without believing that it authorized and most importantly it institutionalized the radical reform of the Roman liturgy we saw. And progressives to this day have a good case that the reforms we saw didn’t go far enough if the intention was to be faithful to the Council.

I would like Father Zuhlsdorf to justify his views at length. The first thing I notice about the document is the ambivalence. It is as if the document records the two sides of the debate while stacking the deck for the eventual winners. Article 36 says that the Latin language is to be preserved. But on the other hand it says that the use of the vernacular is to be expanded without mentioning any limitations on its use.

But in truth, the most important part of Article 36 is not just what it says, but what it institutionalizes. Namely “[I]t is for the competent territorial ecclesiastical authority mentioned . . . to decide whether, and to what extent, the vernacular language is to be used.”

Throughout Sancrosanctum Concilium we find that national “territorial ecclesiastical authorities” are empowered to alter the liturgy to fit whatever circumstances they deem exigent, and only later will these changes be confirmed by Holy See. I cannot come to any other conclusion but that Sacrosanctum Concilium created a vast decentralized (even democratic) liturgical bureaucracy.

It is desirable that the competent territorial ecclesiastical authority mentioned in Art. 22, 2, set up a liturgical commission, to be assisted by experts in liturgical science, sacred music, art and pastoral practice. So far as possible the commission should be aided by some kind of Institute for Pastoral Liturgy, consisting of persons who are eminent in these matters, and including laymen as circumstances suggest. Under the direction of the above-mentioned territorial ecclesiastical authority the commission is to regulate pastoral-liturgical action throughout the territory, and to promote studies and necessary experiments whenever there is question of adaptations to be proposed to the Apostolic See.

For the same reason every diocese is to have a commission on the sacred liturgy under the direction of the bishop, for promoting the liturgical apostolate.

Article 25 tells us “The liturgical books are to be revised as soon as possible; experts are to be employed on the task, and bishops are to be consulted, from various parts of the world.”

Exactly what experts are to be employed, and how great will their revisions be? We are not told. The only thing settled by the Council document itself is that the books will be revised by someone, norms will be governed by a new liturgical bureaucracy in every diocese, and after some time the bishops will ask for the Pope to ratify whatever the process has yielded.

These ecclesial and diocesan bodies were the mechanism by which the liturgical revolution was accomplished. And of course nearly all the changes were later approved by the Holy See, especially if these territorial authorities were persistent. The use of female altar servers, for instance.

From the text it seems that the mandate given by this document is practically limitless. Article 40.2 reads thus:

To ensure that adaptations may be made with all the circumspection which they demand, the Apostolic See will grant power to this same territorial ecclesiastical authority to permit and to direct, as the case requires, the necessary preliminary experiments over a determined period of time among certain groups suited for the purpose.

How can anyone come to the conclusion that Sancosanctum Concilium is conservative or traditional? The above text reduces Catholic worship and Catholic people to the status of a lab-animals. I don’t think Father Zuhlsdorf would ever countenance “experimentation” with the liturgy.

It is also notable that whatever pretend limitations on innovation were placed at the beginning of the document, it is clear that the authors were prepared for a whole revision not only of the prayers of the Mass, but for every aspect of the liturgy. See Article 128:

Along with the revision of the liturgical books, as laid down in Art. 25, there is to be an early revision of the canons and ecclesiastical statutes which govern the provision of material things involved in sacred worship. These laws refer especially to the worthy and well planned construction of sacred buildings, the shape and construction of altars, the nobility, placing, and safety of the eucharistic tabernacle, the dignity and suitability of the baptistery, the proper ordering of sacred images, embellishments, and vestments. Laws which seem less suited to the reformed liturgy are to be brought into harmony with it, or else abolished; and any which are helpful are to be retained if already in use, or introduced where they are lacking.

Nearly everything – including the shape and construction of altars and the placement of the tabernacle was put up for grabs. And once again, these revisions (whatever they will be!) were institutionalized even before they were proposed.

According to the norm of Art. 22 of this Constitution, the territorial bodies of bishops are empowered to adapt such things to the needs and customs of their different regions; this applies especially to the materials and form of sacred furnishings and vestments.

The bureaucracies intended to make the liturgical revolution permanent are beginning to lose their vigor. Now liturgical reform is beginning again by the mandate of Pope Benedict XVI and by a new set of Catholic associations he is empowering to institutionalize the traditional liturgy. For that we can be thankful.

I applaud Father Zuhlsdorf for all his efforts at helping Catholics to recover their liturgy. But we must begin to look at Vatican II as history instead of a robe of authority we must snatch. We must look at these documents with the same dispassion (even disregard) that we give to The Council of Vienne’s mind-numbing case agains the Knights Templar. They contain no canons. They claim no mandate from heaven.

Perhaps I come from a different generation. I do not obsess over Vatican II nor do I want to discover its true meaning with a handy post-hoc hermeneutic. The documents are either unclear (Dignitatis Humane), utterly unintelligible and frankly embarrassing (Gaudiem et Spes) or they worked as the authors apparently intended (Sacrosanctum Concilium) to our great misfortune. The whole generation of seminarians who were indoctrinated in the “implement the Council” mentality have left the Church, ended up in prison, or will be dying any moment now. We have a Church to restore; there is no need to exonerate those who, whatever their intentions, set about its destruction.

I mean, Gaudiem et Spes is good for a laugh. But the idea that  the Church must  pretend in the future  that it is in some way important to Catholicism makes me want to weep.

Comments are closed.