Jesus Christ founded his Church on the Rock of St. Peter’s faith, whom he appointed as the leader of the Apostles and the most important of his vicars here on Earth. He promised St. Peter that he would give to him the Keys of the Kingdom of Heaven, the power to bind and to loose, and that the gates of Hell would not prevail against him and the Church he shepherded. This same authority is given to all St. Peter’s successors, the bishops of Rome – today we call this man the Pope. It is essential for Christ’s Church to have a Supreme Pontiff, the sign of the Church’s unity, and that he be preserved from error in matters of faith and morals. The doctrine of Papal Infallibility goes back to at least the fifth century (see the Tome of St. Leo), and arguably back to the Apostolic Age, but a formal definition thereof did not appear until the First Vatican Council in 1870. The deliciously brief and now famous declaration of the dogma reads as follows:
“We teach and define as a divinely revealed dogma that when the Roman Pontiff speaks ex cathedra, that is, when 1) in the exercise of his office as shepherd and teacher of all Christians, 2) in virtue of his supreme apostolic authority, 3) he defines a doctrine concerning faith or morals to be held by the whole Church, he possesses, by the divine assistance promised to him in Blessed Peter, that infallibility which the divine redeemer willed his Church to enjoy in defining doctrine concerning faith or morals. Therefore, such definitions of the Roman Pontiff are of themselves, and not by the consent of the Church, irreformable. So then, should anyone, which God forbid, have the temerity to reject this definition of ours, let him be anathema.
Notice the mention of the Pope’s “supreme apostolic authority”. The Pope, even when not speaking infallibly, has a certain primacy of authority over the whole Church. This is all fine and good, and I do not dispute it. However, just because the Pope can do something by virtue of his supreme authority does not mean he necessarily should. All things are permissible but not all things are beneficial. As a Catholic thoroughly Byzantine in my predispositions, I am perhaps more skeptical than most of some of the Pope’s less dogmatic roles within the Church. Sometimes central Papal authority works out great (like in the definitions of dogmas and in judging who counts as schismatics – case in point the various Orthodox Churches who cannot decide even amongst themselves who is in schism and who is not), other times not so much. One area in which Roman abuse of authority is strangling the Catholic Church’s ability to evangelize is the Liturgy.
The Liturgy is the work of the people, the most sacred action of the Church on Earth, which makes Christ present to us in this veil of tears. Without the Liturgy we have no Eucharist, which is the source and summit of the Christian life. It is a common saying among trads in the Latin Church, “save the Liturgy, save the World.” There is much truth to this saying. Everyone knows that the Roman Mass as celebrated in most Latin parishes these days is stripped down, banal, boring, and thoroughly modern. There is little sense of mystery, little reverence, and the music is gawdawful. No wonder the Latin Church is hemorrhaging members. The priests who perpetuate and preside over these ugly circuses seem to be doing their best to make the Church as unappealing as possible to those in the pews. Sitting through your average Novus Ordo is an exercise in patience, and I’ll admit I’ve been tempted to nod off from time to time listening to “Gift of Finest Wheat” or whatever silly song they happen to be playing.*
However, there is something more objectionable at work in the destruction of the one-beautiful Roman Liturgy than simply aesthetic blindness. The problem with the Ordinary Form of the Roman Liturgy is not even that it removed some prayers or changed some rites of which we trads are fond. The biggest problem with the Ordinary Form is that it was imposed upon the Church by the bishop of Rome, and did not develop organically. The Mass of Paul VI was foisted upon the Latin Church by Blessed Paul VI in 1969 in response to the call of the Second Vatican Council to foster better and more faithful Liturgy. Instead of allowing the Liturgy to develop naturally from the Church itself, a new Mass was mandated to be celebrated in all parishes around the world, regardless of that parish’s background or aesthetic sensibilities or local customs. It was certainly in the hermeneutic of rupture which Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI is so fond of talking about.
But avast, this is not going to be just another screed against the absurdities of the post-conciliar Liturgy. This is an indictment of a much more ancient problem within the Latin Church. Trads like me who love the Traditional Latin Mass ought to take a moment to remember their history. The Liturgical reforms of Paul VI did not materialize out of nowhere. The Mass celebrated by most Latin Mass-going Catholics is the Missal revised and promulgated by St. John XXIII in 1962. Before that there was conservative poster-boy (and one of my personal favorites) Pope Pius XII who revised the Roman Missal constantly throughout his Papacy. It was he who first allowed celebration of the Mass facing the people, allowed the use of the vernacular, and mandated the restoration of the Easter Vigil and Holy Week Liturgies (this last was one of the better developments of the 20th-century Liturgical movement). Pius XII was not exactly the traditionalist he is remembered as.
We must also remember that the Tridentine Mass, which we all love for its connection with the ancient Church, was itself foisted upon the Latin Church by St. Pius V after the Council of Trent, in much the same way as the Novus Ordo was foisted upon us after Vatican II. The mandate that all Western Churches celebrate the Roman Rite snuffed out a millennium of legitimate Liturgical development in Western Europe. The Tridentine Mass suppressed, among others, the Celtic Rite, the Sarum Rite, and the Gallican Rite (not to mention almost all of the Liturgical Rites peculiar to the various religious orders of Western Europe), while severely limiting the celebration of others still in use today (the Ambrosian and Mozarabic Rites). If trads had been as vocal in the 16th-century as they are now, one can imagine they would have felt the same way about the Mass of St. Pius V as they do about the Mass of Paul VI. There is a long tradition of autocratic Liturgical tinkering in the Roman Church which unfortunately favors uniformity and stricture rather than organic development and the flourishing of tradition.
This is perhaps the most obvious area in which top-down authority has hobbled the Catholic Church. In the Eastern Churches, both Catholic and Orthodox, the lack of central authority has been perhaps the one thing that has preserved the Byzantine Liturgy over the years. Emperors and Popes have done their best to destroy it, but the Orthodox people have never allowed it. Christians in general are suspicious of change and won’t hear of it unless it is imposed upon them by force (as was the case in the West during the 16th- and 20th-centuries). Far from allowing ecclesiastical chaos to take root, the lack of a centralized Liturgical authority in the East has allowed them to maintain their ancient traditions while still being attentive to the needs of the faithful in the present moment. I dare any priest to try to foist some kind of sweeping Liturgical reform on a congregation of Eastern Christians. Those old Ukrainian women would ride him out of town on a rail.
All this simply proves the point that the central plan never works. It is the same in governments and in the Church. People are more or less capable of policing their own backyard. They don’t need the cops to tell them to get out of bed int he morning and they don’t need the Pope to tell them which prayers are orthodox and which are heretical. It is no surprise, to me at least, that though the Catholic Church at large is shrinking every year, those groups Catholics who celebrate many and various rites farther from the overreach of Rome grow every year – the Weird Catholics, if you’ll pardon the expression. It’s Eastern and Oriental Catholics, over whom the Pope has no Liturgical authority, who draw flies with honey by the beauty of their Liturgy and the soundness of their doctrine. And it seems to me we hear more and more every year about Catholics of the Anglican Use, like my friend Gabriel Blanchard**, who celebrate the Roman Liturgy according to the traditions of English Christianity. Surely there are plenty more minority rites in the Church of which I am painfully unaware.
Liturgical variety does not harm the Church, nor does it weaken doctrine or cause disunity of faith. Allowing legitimate traditions to develop on their own, without the heavy-handed guidance of Rome, strengthens the doctrines of the faith because they are found in the Liturgy, not in catechisms and encyclicals. Allowing Liturgical Anarchy brings Catholics together to celebrate the great universality of the Christian religion. The more hierarchically-minded among us are probably having waking nightmares of a Catholic Church filled with repeats of that notorious Call to Action “Mass”. All I can say is, heretics gonna heretic. But allowing the orthodox believers to cast off the tyranny of clericalism will provide away for the flourishing of more orthodox and traditional praxis. Liturgical rubrics obviously haven’t been able to stop Clown Masses and Halloween Masses from happening, but they have been used to suppress ad orientem worship and the use of Latin, among other good and venerable traditions.
Hopefully one of these days the faithful will finally say “no” to the constant tinkering and meddling of Rome. Let’s get a little punk with the Liturgy now and then.