Liturgical Options and Catholic Unity

The recent decision by the dioceses of Phoenix and Madison to bring the practice of Holy Communion under both species into greater conformity with the directives of the 2002 General Instruction of the Roman Missal in the light of the 2004 document Redemptionis sacramentum on the eve of the advent of the corrected English translation of the Roman Missal has occasioned no lack of blogospheric ink spilling. The controversy has highlighted the development of two schools of liturgical thought. The first welcomes such initiatives as an example of a hermeneutic of continuity which emphasizes the reading of the Ordinary Form liturgy in the light of the text and practices of the Extraordinary Form. The second questions the prudence of such initiatives as evidence of an intention to betray the reforming instinct of the Second Vatican Council. The two developing schools propose very different solutions for the problem of unbelief and the decline of Catholic practice, both with reference to the liturgy. While some of their proposals overlap (such as an insistence on the liturgy as source and summit of Christian life, for example), some of them are directly opposed to one another.

Many proponents of both schools are sincere in their contention that their school represents the way forward for the Church, and are also equally frank in challenging each other’s projects. What is very clear is that many identify their Catholicism with the solutions they propose, and somehow see the Catholicism of their opponents as somehow lacking.

Are the current liturgical debates just another manifestation of an underlying creative dynamic which undergirds apparent disunity? Are they not unlike the various theological schools of the Middle Ages which fiercely debated theological topics while nonetheless adhering to the same doctrine? Or are they evidence of two entirely different religions, one of which has nothing to do with the other, which inhabit the same “space” called the Catholic Church? Are they not proof of a profound disunity within the heart of the Church?

The frank dialogue over these questions continues. But is the way this dialogue carried out a threat to the unity of the Church? Are the conclusions reached by those who participate in this dialogue, whether it be at a parish supper or in the hall of a synod of bishops, a threat to the unity of the Church? I think that we must be very careful in attempting to discover the answer to that question. In one sense, the authority of the Church as guided by the Holy Spirit provides the essential answer to these and so many other questions. But, it is also important that the authority of the Church be used to preserve unity among her children, which is why it is important that the shepherds of the Church be able to communicate in an intellectually and pastorally convincing way the truths which we hold in the bonds of communion with each other.

In this essay, I would like to explore the effect of liturgical options on the unity of Christians. These thoughts are mine alone, and I offer them, for what they are worth, for engagement by those who read them. As I do not claim the charism of infallibility, I do not pretend they are anything other than my opinion.

Many people argue that, around the Council of Trent, the Catholic Church had to find ways to make her unity manifest in the face of the threat to unity posed by the Protestant Revolution. The organic way in which the Sacred Liturgy has grown up all over Europe was corralled by a singular act of Pope St Pius V, who in his famous bull Quo primum in 1570 extended the Missal as used by the Roman Curia to the entire Western Church. The adoption of this Roman liturgy was welcomed in most places, as it was seen as one way to ensure the unity of the Church.

Now, as we know, local uses and some other rites did continue, but the imposition of the Roman Missal on the entire Latin Church was a huge success, if seen from the point of view that it stamped upon the Catholic consciousness a visible manifestation of the Church’s unity in so many places.

Four hundred years later, it was seen fit to introduce a bit more flexibility into the Church’s worship, ostensibly in the face of a different situation for believers than that which obtained in the sixteenth century. This was accomplished by the introduction of a new Missal by Pope Paul VI in 1969. One of the salient figures of this new Missal, as well as the many liturgical documents which were issued by the Church after it, was options.

Up until this new Missal, the Church had been profoundly shaped by what was in many ways a uniform identity related to the way in which the Mass was celebrated. There were always some options, even then: low Mass or high Mass, chant or polyphonic propers, and so on. But in the way the faithful perceived the Mass, they could go anywhere in the world and experience the same Mass. They all heard the same texts on any given Sunday in Latin. They all, if they came to Holy Communion, received under one species, kneeling, and on the tongue. They all were expected to abstain from meat on Fridays and marry in the Church. The identity of Catholics was shaped by the liturgy.

During the Liturgical Reform, options were allowed, not only in the texts of the Mass, but also in the way that Catholics received Holy Communion. Even today, in any one parish, there are those who do not receive Communion at all, who come up for a blessing, who receive under one species, who receive from the chalice, in the hand or on the tongue, kneeling or standing, bowing or genuflecting or doing nothing as a reverence before or after receiving. In most cases, liturgical law has given these options, not to the celebrant, but to the recipient. And where the options are available, the faithful have availed themselves of these options in different ways.

At the same time, many Catholics have begun to identify themselves and their Catholicism with these practices. “I’m the kind of Catholic who kneels at a Communion rail and receives by intinction” or “I stand and receive in the hand because I am an adult and not a child” or any other combination. The practice of options on the part of the recipients of Holy Communion has brought about at the same time a polyvalent approach, not only to how Catholics receive Holy Communion, but how they view a whole host of other issues related to their Faith. And all of that goes on against the backdrop of a dizzying array of options allowed for by the liturgy and those just invented by celebrants and worshipping communities that were never allowed by the Missal.

Also at the same time, the Church’s documents have made it clear that the individual diocesan Bishop has the right to extend, limit or re-envision the discipline of the Church surrounding the liturgy, including the reception of Holy Communion. On the one hand, this wide latitude given to the diocesan Ordinary is a necessary corollary of a theological truth about the episcopacy. The Bishop is not a vicar of the Pope. He has ordinary jurisdiction in his diocese, and in the realm of what it is permitted to him by the liturgical books he implements in his diocese, makes prudential decisions about how liturgical discipline is to be maintained.

I think very few people engaged in discussion over matters liturgical in the Catholic Church deny the Bishop the right to do so. I think very few people deny the right to the Apostolic See to further arrange, implement and revise liturgical books and discipline. But there are many now who question the ways the Apostolic See and some Bishops are going about doing this.

So why is the authority of the Church not sufficient to settle these questions? I have thought a lot about this. It is easy to just charge the questioners with disobedience and accuse them of disloyalty to their Bishops and the Pope. But they are seeing what we are all seeing: from one diocese to the next, from one parish to the next, from one celebrant to the next, from one person to the next, the options for just about everything associated with the liturgy have multiplied exponentially. And people have begun to identify themselves, their Faith, and their relationship to the Church with the options they exercise, and in contradistinction to the options others exercise.

Yet, does any of this endanger the unity of Christians? After all, the Church existed before Trent without such rigid uniformity and people still lived, moved and had their being in a context where they identified themselves with the liturgy in a pluralistic liturgical environment.

Pope Benedict XVI is much decried (or celebrated) as a liturgical traditionalist and a restorationist. There are those who are convinced that he is intent on bringing the Church kicking and screaming back to a status quo ante Vatican II. But those who have spent much time reading his rich theological works on the liturgy and ecclesiology before his election as Sovereign Pontiff might suggest otherwise. It seems that Pope Benedict is acting entirely in consonance with the way as Ratzinger the theologian he elaborated the theology of the episcopate, the Petrine ministry and liturgy.

For Pope Benedict, the Church has a nature given to her by Christ, which is a communion of the baptized. The hierarchy has a place to play in that communion, particularly to safeguard the handing on of the deposit of faith and the unity among Christians. Everything in the Church’s life goes back to that standard. The Apostolic See, Bishops, pastors and the faithful each have a place in the discipline of the liturgy. That place is not arbitrary, but comes from the nature of the liturgy itself, as an encounter with the LORD.

Furthermore, Pope Benedict has observed that there is nothing intrinsic to liturgical pluralism per se which threatens the unity of Christians, as long as that liturgical pluralism is read against the backdrop of the handing on of the deposit of faith and unity among Christians. This explains why he has done some of the things he has done (such as Summorum pontificum). It also explains why he has not done other things (such as revoking indults for Communion in the hand). And in all of this, he has done so, not on account of his authority as Sovereign Pontiff, but by making clear the consequences of the nature of the liturgy as lived in the Church.

In the meantime, though, tension has begun to build among those Christians who belong to the two schools mentioned above. Catholics have begun to identify themselves with how they worship. From one point of view, this is natural and even desirable. Lex orandi, lex credendi, lex agendi. But the sheer omnipresence of options has also led to the autodivision of many believers into opposing camps based on them.

A solution for this phenomenon cannot be found in multiplying more options. Again, the issue may not be the options themselves, but in how the options are appropriated by the faithful in their relationship to the Church. A solution also cannot be had by the mere imposition of authority in an eccentric and individualistic way, because the subjects of that authority can always point to another diocese, parish or person at variance with the decision of the criticized authority.

Pope Benedict XVI has called for a Reform of the Reform. It seems that he will not impose it by his own authority alone. Even the question of what such a Reform would look like has not been asked or answered in any specific form. But it is clear that current liturgical praxis in the Church has to be seen insofar as it answers two questions: Does it hand on integrally the deposit of faith? Does it foster unity among Christians?

The activity of the hierarchy in communion with Theology and a healthy sensus fidelium can answer the first question, I think. The second question, however, is a bit more complex. Can the unity of Christians in the twenty-first century be best served by a continuing pluralism of options or must it be tutelaged by greater uniformity in liturgical practice?

I would offer the following observation. If Catholics identify so closely themselves, their faith, and their relationship with the Church with how they worship at Mass, then greater unity in the way they worship at Mass will produce a greater identification of Catholics, not only with their faith and the Church, but also with each other.

There are many Catholics out there who are concerned about the preservation of Catholic identity, of what makes us unique and different from others. Perhaps it is time to consolidate ways in which Catholics can identify with their faith, in such a way that it is not opposed to that legitimate engagement with the world which is part of the mission of evangelization. The mission of Peter, of the Papacy, is to encourage unity among Christians. Maybe today, when that unity is threatened by a weakness of specifically Catholic identity, that unity can be symbolized and produced by all Catholics of the Latin Rite receiving Holy Communion in the same way. (It might also be accomplished by fewer options in the liturgical books and the use of the Graduale Romanum at Mass.)

That of course, is purely the prerogative of the Apostolic See. But we can all start by spontaneously adopting the practice of the Holy Father in giving Holy Communion at his own Masses (or how the Mass is celebrated by him in Rome), and freely abandoning all of the options which are legitimately ours, all in the name of unity with Peter who is the guarantor of unity, under Christ. At the time of Trent, many people welcomed a greater liturgical uniformity because they saw the bigger picture of how it helped preserve unity among the faithful. They ceased to exercise the options that were theirs. Even before Trent, all over Europe, people looked to the practice of the Holy Father in Rome as somehow a model, even when there was nothing wrong with the how they celebrated Mass where they were. And they chose to follow Peter’s example, that of the local Church of Rome. Why can’t we do that now?