The traditional liturgy reduced to being “an abuse”

Par l'abbé Jean-Marie Perrot

Français, italiano

One of the secondary motives for the discontentment created by the Motu proprio Traditionis custodes and by the response to the Dubia launched by the Congregation for Divine Worship is the symmetry they establish between on the one side the traditional liturgy and on the other the liturgical abuse of the novus ordo. This means, first of all, that the vetus ordo in itself is being reduced to the very depreciated status of being an abuse, an incorrect use of the lex orandi; and it is conceivable if we agree, with article 1, that the vetus ordo is not an expression of this law.

The second reason for this discontentment comes from the fact that the denunciation of the liturgical abuse in the celebration of the sacraments, primarily in the mass, according to the liturgical books promulgated by Paul VI, have been a topos since their promulgation, at the same time unresolved and, so it seems, unsolvable. This, today as well as yesterday, places the faithful attached to the usus antiquior in an inextricable situation. Indeed, the attachment to the old liturgy, for many, would come from the fact that “in many places the prescriptions of the new Missal are not observed in celebration, but indeed come to be interpreted as an authorization for or even a requirement of creativity, which leads to almost unbearable distortions”. (Accompanying Letter to Traditionis custodes, quoting Benedict XVI). By default, or through spite, one would have kept or would have turned to the old Missal. But, shouldn’t we be surprised that either through pedagogy, admonitions… or adequate sanctions the scandalous situations were not dealt with, corrected! It is indeed curious that a pope could complain this way some fifty years after the liturgical reform, and after each of his predecessors had already complained themselves. So, how, within the scope of this dispute, can the old Missal be blamed for continuing to be in use? And most of all, the salvation of souls being first, how could the faithful be deprived of their right to go to what they see as more reliable for what concerns their salvation, by this imminent means of salvation found in the sacraments, since nothing is done – shall we dare to say -, except through repetitive declarations to remediate the situation yet denounced?

Half a century of denouncing liturgical abuse to no avail

The list indeed is long of solemn and strong declarations of Roman pontiffs against the abuse. Paul VI already, in an address to the Consilium on 19 April 1967, warned against “arbitrary forms”, the velleity of whimsical experience”. John Paul II many times called for the observance of liturgical rules:

  • Letter Dominicæ Cenæ (24 February 1980): “This subordination of the minister, of the celebrant, to the mysterium which has been entrusted to him by the Church for the good of the whole People of God, should also find expression in the observance of the liturgical requirements concerning the celebration of the holy Sacrifice. These refer, for example, to dress, in particular to the vestments worn by the celebrant. (…) I would like to ask forgiveness-in my own name and in the name of all of you, venerable and dear brothers in the episcopate-for everything which, for whatever reason, through whatever human weakness, impatience or negligence, and also through the at times partial, one-sided and erroneous application of the directives of the Second Vatican Council, may have caused scandal and disturbance concerning the interpretation of the doctrine and the veneration due to this great sacrament.”
  • Letter Vicesimus quintus annus (4 December 1988).
  • Encyclical Ecclesia de Eucharistia (17 April 2003).

This last text had been followed, at the request of the pope, by a long and very detailed document issued by the Congregation for Divine Worship, the “Instruction Redemptionis Sacramentum on certain matters to be observed or to be avoided regarding the Most Holy Eucharist” (25 March 2004). The preamble of this document mentioned that the instruction was a collaborative work with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith; it also affirmed with strength: “it is not possible to be silent about the abuses, even quite grave ones, against the nature of the Liturgy and the Sacraments as well as the tradition and the authority of the Church, which in our day not infrequently plague liturgical celebrations in one ecclesial environment or another. In some places the perpetration of liturgical abuses has become almost  habitual, a  fact which obviously cannot be allowed and must cease.” (n.4)

Benedict XVI, in the Apostolic Letter Sacramentum caritatis (22 February 2007) which was based on the Eleventh general Assembly of the Synod of Bishops gathered in October 2005 around the theme of the Eucharist, was not outdone and wrote in favor of an ars celebrandi which favors the sense of the sacred by “the use of outward signs which help to cultivate this sense (…)” (n.40). But, on the whole, the pope was remaining rather discreet in regards to abuse, the term being mentioned only twice in the text. Most probably, the one who had been Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith at the time the Instruction above-mentioned was written, assumed -mistakenly- that it would be sufficient. Actually, trait of his intellectual affability, he attributed the deviations to ignorance: “Perhaps we take it for granted that our ecclesial communities already know and appreciate these resources, but this is not always the case” (ibid). Should we dare to say, there is such a thing as guilty ignorance…

The new Missal, “a missal which is way, plural, indicative and facultative

We pointed out that nothing has been done, or so little and without much results. Yet, Benedict XVI in his letter to the Bishops accompanying the motu proprio Summorum Pontificum, did write again: “Many people who clearly accepted the binding character of the Second Vatican Council, and were faithful to the Pope and the Bishops, nonetheless also desired to recover the form of the sacred liturgy that was dear to them. This occurred above all because in many places celebrations were not faithful to the prescriptions of the new Missal, but the latter actually was understood as authorizing or even requiring creativity, which frequently led to deformations of the liturgy which were hard to bear. I am speaking from experience, since I too lived through that period with all its hopes and its confusion.  And I have seen how arbitrary deformations of the liturgy caused deep pain to individuals totally rooted in the faith of the Church.”

Fourteen years later, when Francis thinks he can judge “the Summorum pontificum experience” a failure, the Pope makes at the same time, as we mentioned earlier, the identical assessment regarding a liturgical reform tarnished in time by grave abuse, unbearable, and this “in many places”.

But, it brings us back to the main indictment contained in Traditionis custodes against the vetus ordo and those who are attached to it. In the end, what can we say about it? Either the symmetric accusation is of pure form, rhetorical, for what concerns one branch (the Missal of Paul VI), because there is no intention to change what we pretend to denounce: the reasoning overall is thus dishonest. Or, other possibility, the sincerity is real, with Francis and among his predecessors, but then it is an indication that the movement towards abuse appears irrepressible, which brings one question: Isn’t this a recognition of the failure of the novus ordo?

Paul VI, John Paul II and Benedict XVI have mentioned, in this regard, the strength of modern individualism, marked by a mistrust of the objectivity of the norms and an over-evaluation of the subjective dimension. All three of them point out this peculiarity among some of the actors of the liturgy, but none of them point out the liturgy itself. As it is, it seems the question must be raised in this way: Aren’t there deficiencies in the very norms of the new liturgical books which, if they do not necessarily encourage abuse, make this concept of abuse blurry, and thus increase its probability? In view of the situation described, it appears that the most appropriate definition of the word abuse is: “the result of improper use; injustice introduced and set by custom” (Merriam-Webster). It is not enough indeed to speak of occasional ill-uses, we must also manifest the recurrent character of this quasi ordinary reality, agreed upon or even endorsed; what falls under the word custom. To place the responsibility on individuals or particular communities is very expeditious and it shows unwillingness to face the specificity of liturgical books. In this regard, a quotation will give some insights, without the opportunity here for further study. In a publication which shortly preceded Summorum Pontificum, Father Cassingena-Trévedy wrote about the vetus ordo: a missal which is reflection… plenary… normative and preceptive… a missal which is form… Catholic… a missal expressing the Presence”; and regarding the novus ordo he wrote: “a missal which is a way… plural… indicative and facultative… a missal which is a space… Catholic (and) consequently ecumenical… a missal expressing Philanthropy”[1] (id.). Thus, on the one side a liturgy that is “ ‘absolute’… Heaven on Earth”, and on the other side a liturgy “ ‘relative’… Heaven for the Earth”. Is it playing with words to warn that in our time what is relative can lead to relativism or at the minimum go along with it?

As a last remark: the motu proprio Ecclesia Dei afflicta and Summorum Pontificum – especially the latter – kept a link between the two missals, of which one dimension was certainly to make the new one benefit from the traditional stability of the old one. This had been perceived by some and thus they had filled the absence of norms of the novus ordo with the vetus ordo’s prescriptions or customs. Because of its radicalness, Traditionis custodes makes impossible such profitable relation. Therefore, we fear that the idea highlighted in the accompanying letter of a “full, conscious and active participation of the whole People of God in the liturgy”, could be nothing else but camouflage for more creativity.

Father Jean-Marie Perrot

[1] François Cassingena-Trévedy, Te igitur, Ad Solem, Geneva, 2007, 94 p ; here p.87, then p.94