Monday, November 14, 2011

A Problem of Interpretation?

Reports are coming in that Bishop Olmstead of Phoenix has promulgated a policy on Communion under both species much less restrictive than a document released earlier. It will be interesting to see if the Diocese of Madison will follow suit. “There has been much needless hurt over this issue,” Auxiliary Bishop Eduardo Nevares has stated.

But should this episode not lead us to ask the question, “What is the ultimate origin of this hurt?” Many were quick to blame Bishop Olmstead for the hurt because of enacting a policy, which, although it has now been retracted, is entirely permissible according to the Church’s liturgical law.

People all over the blogosphere were quick to turn to Church documents to support their positions for and against Olmstead’s now reversed decision. I was one of them, and even posted some of the pertinent documents in a post on Chant Café. As I watched the commentary on this issue develop, I came to realize something which frankly makes me quite uncomfortable. Everyone could appeal to authoritatively binding Church documents, without modifying or falsifying their meaning, for their position.

So this begs the question: what is the proper hierarchy of documents related to the liturgy? Theologians before the Second Vatican Council often used a system to rank the relative gravity of theological propositions: de fide divina, de fide ecclesiastica, and so on. That system has disappeared, and so there is a lack of clarity as what the weight of a papal encyclical is as opposed to, oh, for example, a note of the Vatican dicastery Iustitia et pax, or a comment made by the Pope in an interview on an airplane and an instruction of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

This is not just a question for theology or liturgy nerds. Its answer is vital to communion in the Church. Now that Pope Benedict XVI’s principle of the hermeneutic of continuity has become the cornerstone for what some see as a proper interpretation, not only of the Second Vatican Council, but of everything in the life of the Church, we have to ask: how do we establish that hermeneutic?

Where the principles of establishing that hermeneutic are reversed, that reversal is going to be played out in ways which can engender confusion and ill will. When the Visitation of female Religious in America was announced, there were some Sisters who said that religious life had to be interpreted according to Gaudium et spes, while others said according to Perfectae caritatis. The Sisters who honestly reformed their communities according to the former have been treated with suspicion for not conforming to a certain interpretation of Perfectae caritatis. We can argue over how the reform of religious life was carried out, but was either principle false?

In liturgy, these tensions can be seen. Is Redemptionis sacramentum to be seen in the light of Sacrosanctum concilium or vice-versa? Is the Missal of Paul VI to be seen in the light of the Missal of St Pius V or vice-versa? If the Missal of Paul VI does not tell you how to incense an altar, can it be presupposed that you do so in the manner of the Missal of St Pius V? I have heard both sides on all of these questions. And these questions can be multiplied ad nauseam.

It would seem to me that, if we view Church documents as becoming more explicit as time goes on, then precedence should go to the most recent document. One assumes that with each successive document, the Church becomes more specific. If we take this to be the case, then the permission in MR 2002 for Communion under both species has to take into account 2004 Redemptionis sacramentum, which places Communion under both species in the context of the prohibition against the unnecessary multiplication of extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion, that also hearkens back to the 1997 document On Certain Questions Regarding the Collaboration of the non-Ordained Faithful in the Sacred Ministry of the Priest. Then the question becomes: which is more important: that the faithful receive under both species or the avoidance of the unnecessary multiplication of extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion?

(An aside: Yet seeing the most recent Church document as more explicit, and thus the driving force for interpretation, would mean that the Missal of St Pius V should be seen in the light of the Missal of Paul VI, and not vice-versa, contrary to what seems to be the thrust of Summorum pontificum and Universae ecclesiae. So which is it?)

Different people come down on different sides of the priority of MR 2002 vs, RS 2004 question, and that drives their response to what Olmstead did originally in Phoenix. The question of priority of document drives the answer to alot of questions.

I am reminded of the fact that, outside of the United States, both Communion under both species and extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion are comparatively rare. The Roman Pontiff in his Masses employs neither. Do those two facts have any meaning at all, or are they aberrations from what should be the norm? And if they are aberrations, why are they allowed to continue?

Against the bewildering plethora of liturgical documents in different times and places, with no discernible ranking as to their weight and authority, we have several levels of actual practice, which are in turn sometimes enshrined in law. We have the practice of the Roman Pontiff, we have the norms of the Universal Church, the norms of the Episcopal Conferences, the norms of individual Ordinaries, the policies and praxis of individual pastors, then of individual celebrants, and then the idiosyncracies of all of them. In turn, again, we have the multiplication of endless options in the liturgical books themselves for everything under the sun, and then the reality that there are many priests and communities that just do whatever they want.

There are some who argue that this is how the Church is supposed to be. The nature of the Church and the liturgy is such that all of this diversity is part of her constitution. The Church and the liturgy must be in eternal flux, just as the human experience itself.

But, does it not seem, that with every option, every nuance, every legitimate possibility at an increasingly differentiated number of levels, the possibilities for misunderstanding, hurt and the impairment of ecclesial communion increase exponentially? If the Second Vatican Council in Lumen gentium was all about helping us to discover the Church once again as Communion, which Joseph Ratzinger’s theology so eloquently argued that it was, then is it possible that the liturgical reform after Sacrosanctum concilium has hidden within it germs which threaten that very same communion?

There will be those who will gloat over Olmstead’s retraction of a policy barring Communion under both species. Who knows to what extent popular pressure or guidance from other Bishops or the Vatican had something to do with that volte-face. But in essence, it seems to me to be a Pyrrhic victory at best. The liturgical reform at present is a collection of competing rites, books, authorities, documents, and personalities. Those who see the retraction as a vindication of their position, and those of us who maintain that both the previous proposed and the now current policy are legitimate exercises of episcopal authority under the present liturgical law, do we not have to ask ourselves a more pressing question? Why does this situation exist, in which so many possibilities exist which are all equally legal and valid, and consequently set us all at each other’s throats?

The answer to this question cannot be discovered in denunciations of clericalism or papal authority, or appeals to one theological idea over another. We have to go back to basics: What is the point of the liturgy and how does it build up the communion of the Church? Guided by the Holy Spirit, may the entire Church, under the guidance of the hierarchy, untie the knots the liturgical reform has wrought in the life of the Ecclesia orans.

We are almost fifty years out from Vatican II. It is time for the growing pains that inevitably come with change and reform to stop. It is time for the heresy of formlessness which has characterized the last fifty years of liturgical chaos to be anathematized. It is time that we find a way in which the entire Latin Church can actually celebrate the liturgy in a way which respects diversity, but does not at the same time threaten the bonds of communion within the Church.