The following is reprinted from the January 11, 2001 issue of "Commonweal."

The Liturgy as Battlefield:
What do "restorationists" want?

by Rembert Weakland, O.S.B., Archbishop of Milwaukee

Complaining about the liturgy is a favorite—and probably healthy—pastime of Catholics, lay and clerical alike. Few dispute the fact that the liturgical reforms of Vatican II have been implemented with mixed results. There is a widespread sense that the liturgy can be improved and that the quality of liturgical practice is crucial to the life of the church as a whole. What many lay Catholics may not realize is that the welcome desire for better liturgy has, in some quarters, taken a highly polemical and potentially divisive turn. Some proponents of this new wave of criticism like to describe their plan as a "reform of the reform," or more accurately, a restoration, a return to the Vatican II documents and a new start at implementation. I fear, however, that the liturgical restoration envisioned by these proponents threatens the unity of the church as well as the coherence of our common worship. Some of their thinking, however, is now pervading Roman liturgical documents.

Recent documents and decisions of the Congregation for Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments call for a new reflection on the restorationist movement in liturgy. Many of the current controversies concerning the translation of liturgical texts center around the instruction Liturgiam authenticam (March 2001) from the Congregation for Worship. It is a clear rejection of Comme le prévoit, the instruction on translations of liturgical texts published in 1969 by the Consilium for the Implementation of the Liturgy. Hand in hand with this change has come a reorganization of the "mixed commissions" which were set up in 1969 so that nations speaking the same language would use the same translation of liturgical texts. This reorganization has been seen as a criticism, if not a repudiation, of the work of ICEL (International Commission for English in the Liturgy). Although criticisms of ICEL's work have not been lacking through the years, most of these dealt with the lack of a poetic and elevated style in the translations. Now the criticism involves a thrust toward more literalism and a concern for orthodoxy. In March 2000 a new version of Institutio Generalis Missalis Romani (General Instruction of the Roman Missal) appeared, supplanting that of 1975. The controversies here center around more restrictive positions concerning the placement of the tabernacle, the gestures of the faithful, the involvement of the laity in the distribution of Holy Communion, the nature of the sanctuary (now called in these texts the "presbyterium"), and so on.

The congregation is now evidently operating on a different model from the one we have been using since Vatican II. Liturgiam authenticam states it without equivocation: "This instruction therefore envisions and seeks to prepare for a new era of liturgical renewal, which is consonant with the qualities and the traditions of the particular churches, but which safeguards also the faith and the unity of the whole Church of God" (7). The church is said to be starting a second phase of renewal after the council, but it is not yet evident what the underlying theology of this second "reform" entails.

The restorationist movement
How is the restorationist movement affecting liturgical renewal? Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger offers the key to understanding the direction this pontificate has taken over the last two decades with respect to Vatican II in general and liturgical renewal in particular (see especially his book-length interview with Vittorio Messori, The Ratzinger Report, Ignatius Press, 1985). The cardinal does not like the word "restoration" and yet his own words seem to justify the term as a label for this new development. He responds to Messori's question on whether a restoration is in motion in the church by saying: "If by 'restoration' is meant a turning back, no restoration of such a kind is possible … But if by restoration we understand the search for a new balance after the exaggerations of an indiscriminate opening to the world, after the overly positive interpretations of an agnostic and atheistic world, well, then a restoration understood in this sense (a newly found balance of orientations and values within the Catholic totality) is altogether desirable and, for that matter, is already in operation in the Church. In this sense it can be said that the first phase after Vatican II has come to a close."

Ratzinger implies that the restorationist movement rejects not the documents of Vatican II but only the optimistic interpretation of the period when they were implemented. The bark of Peter—now better described as the "ocean liner"—somehow got off course because of this "positive" interpretation. A restoration involves a shifting of its ecclesiastical rudder to set the Church again on the right course intended by the council.

This restorationist movement should be distinguished from the ongoing search for liturgical renewal according to the norms already established. Liturgists who were involved in the first liturgical reforms after the council consider that the renewal was halted in midstream and agree that many valid criticisms of the present state of affairs are in order. For example, in citing the low quality of some translations, they call for a more elevated and poetic style. They seek a closer examination of the selection of texts for the lectionary cycles and a broader debate about the way passages, in particular from the Old Testament, have been selected.

The use in the liturgy of many biblical texts in a transferred meaning that goes back to patristic times must also be clarified. Studies still abound about the placement of the Kiss of Peace, the redundancy of the opening rites, and other structural issues in the Mass. Above all else, the quality of the music used in the liturgy has come under the sharpest criticism. But these and many other observations are seen as refinements of the first directions given in the postconciliar years and should not involve a total change of direction that would cancel out the earlier documents. The restorationist movement talks instead about a new beginning.

Messori devotes a whole chapter of his interview with Cardinal Ratzinger to the theme of liturgical renewal. He writes that in Ratzinger's view it is precisely the area of liturgy where one finds "one of the clearest examples of the contrast between what the authentic text of Vatican II says and the way in which it has been understood and applied." In 1996 the cardinal took up this theme again in The Spirit of the Liturgy (Ignatius Press). To understand what lies underneath this "second phase" or "reform of the reform," I have turned to this book and to Aidan Nichols' Looking at the Liturgy: A Critical View of Its Contemporary Form (Ignatius Press, 1996). These two carry a certain weight because of the intellectual acumen of their authors. Other writings on the liturgical restoration seem derivative. I will refer also to Eamon Duffy's thoughtful lecture "Tradition, Reaction, and the Liturgy in Catholicism and Its Past" (The Albert Cardinal Meyer Lectures, Mundelein, Illinois, 2000). Select passages in Duffy's work might seem to lend support to some aspects of the restorationist cause, but Duffy explicitly distances himself from the restorationist movement, which as he says, is "doomed to eccentricity."

Continuity or organic growth?
The first theme or norm that emerges from restorationist authors is "continuity." The Church, in this view, moves not by leaps but through a natural growth where essential elements are not discarded but clarified. The restorationists assert that the liturgical implementation after Vatican II was not in continuity with the tradition that preceded it. Ratzinger says clearly: "There are no leaps in this history, there are no fractures, and there is no break in continuity."

In The Spirit of the Liturgy this principle is developed at great length. Sacrosanctum concilium of Vatican II is cited as the source for this concept: "Care must be taken that any new forms adopted should in some way grow organically from forms already existing" (23). Those involved in the reform after Vatican II would have seen themselves preserving the basic core of the Roman rite, as they pruned back some of the historical accretions that kept that core from shining through.

This postconciliar renewal is criticized by the restorationists for having depended on "archeologisms" that did not grow organically out of more immediate pre-Vatican II forms. Most restorationists, thus, have tried to recover much from the medieval, baroque, and Romantic periods. The major question that must be posed to the restorationists about the history of liturgy is: What are the precise criteria by which one can judge which elements of the past must be retained and their growth fostered? Without such criteria, continuity becomes a vague and subjective process. Moreover, there have also been periods of discontinuity in the history of the liturgy—from synagogue to Christian assembly with the moving of the day of worship from Saturday to Sunday, from home Eucharists to Constantinian basilicas, from local diversity to Carolingian uniformity, from Renaissance polyphony to Baroque monody, and so on.

Even Cardinal Ratzinger, after making a strong and forceful plea that the church must go back to facing East in the celebration of Mass, concedes that this would be too jolting a change now and not in continuity with the immediate past. Thus, to the dismay of his disciples, he settles for everyone just looking at the crucifix.

Enlightenment thinking
The lack of continuity can be blamed, the restorationists claim, on the influence of Enlightenment thinking, that is, on rationalism. Restorationists point to those passages in Sacrosanctum concilium that talk of intelligibility as examples of influence from the Enlightenment. For example: "The Christian people, as far as it is possible, should be able to understand them [texts and rites] easily and take part in them in a celebration which is full, active, and the community's own" (21). "The rites should radiate a noble simplicity. They should be short, clear, and free from useless repetitions. They should be within the people's power of comprehension, and normally should not require much explanation" (34). Nichols and Duffy expound at length about these influences from the Enlightenment.

One cannot deny that our present culture has been affected, both positively and negatively, by the Enlightenment, but not all influence has been bad. Concerning the liturgy, however, the position taken by Abbot Boniface Luykx in "The Liturgical Movement and the Enlightenment?" (Antiphon 3:1, 1998) is correct: "But this whole thesis of a relationship with the Enlightenment is, in my opinion, without foundation. The truth is rather the opposite … If ever there was a movement in the church the radical opposite of the Enlightenment, it was the liturgical movement."

The origin of the passages cited in Sacrosanctum concilium had nothing to do with Enlightenment rationalism. These passages were based on the thesis of Edmund Bishop, renowned English liturgical scholar working at the turn of the twentieth century, whose essay on the nature of the Roman rite was much discussed at the time and became very influential in the thinking of subsequent liturgical scholars such as Josef Jungmann. Bishop's lecture, titled "The Genius of the Roman Rite" and first presented in 1899, was reprinted many times after and can be found in his complete works, Liturgica Historica (Oxford, 1918). In the much-quoted lecture Bishop attempted to articulate what he called "the native spirit animating and penetrating" the Roman rite and what differentiated it from others, "Gallican or Gothic, Greek or Oriental." He wrote: "The genius of the native Roman rite is marked by simplicity, practicality, a great sobriety and self-control, gravity and dignity." Or again: "If I had to indicate in two or three words only the main characteristics which go to make up the genius of the Roman rite, I should say that those characteristics were essentially soberness and sense." I can personally attest to the fact that these ideas as expressed by Bishop found their way into the thinking of those who wrote the liturgical document of Vatican II and who were involved in its early implementation.

Moreover, this principle of "rationalism" or Enlightenment thinking presents a special problem for the restorationists since they claim this rationalism can be found in Sacrosanctum concilium itself. Thus they must reject that conciliar document and not just its implementation. This rejection puts them at odds with the definition of restorationism outlined by Cardinal Ratzinger. In this case they accept that the church went wrong, not just in the implementation of the council, but in one of its very documents.

Rejection of modern culture and art
One of the characteristics of the "reform of the reform" or the restoration is its rejection of anything modern. This rejection is based on the conviction that modern culture is incapable of bearing the transcendent. Modern architecture, modern literature, modern music are seen as secular, atheistic, and lacking those elements that make possible the symbolizing of the transcendent and the holy. Such a rejection then forces the restorationists in the field of liturgical renewal to look for past expressions of the transcendent while eschewing the modern or the contemporary. No one would deny the transcendent beauty of Gregorian chant, the majesty of Gothic cathedrals, the classical clarity of Mozart and Haydn Masses.

But even here restorationists seem to be selective. Seldom do they speak of Renaissance religious paintings or saccharine devotional compositions of the French Romantics. The influence of the Enlightenment on such composers as Mozart is also forgotten. The main thesis, however, postulates the inadequacy of modern art, because of its intrinsic secular nature, to carry the liturgically transcendent symbols.

My own position is more positive and asserts that the modern can indeed bear the weight of the transcendent. There are examples to prove this in every field. The problem is not with the material used but with the alienation of the artists from the church. Gregory Wolfe, in "Art, Faith, and the Stewardship of Culture" (Image, Winter 1999–2000), put his finger precisely on the difficulty: "It is my conviction that the Christian community, despite its many laudable efforts to preserve traditional morality and the social fabric, has abdicated its stewardship of culture and, more importantly, has frequently chosen ideology rather than imagination when approaching the challenges of the present." He also lists many of the authors, artists, and musicians of our times who have indeed been able to show how the transcendent can be carried in religious works of our day. He cites in music, for example, composers like Arvo Pärt, John Tavener, and Henryk Gorecki. One could add many more.

The strong and uncompromising negative evaluation of our culture on the part of the restorationists is shared by many outside the field of liturgy and has become one of the clearest marks of a current tension among Catholics today. This difference in evaluating modern culture is perhaps more central to the divisions in Catholicism here in the United States than most would want to admit. It certainly is influencing the reform of the liturgy.

Nature of the assembly
In the implementation of Sacrosanctum concilium special attention was placed on the nature of the worshiping community. "It must be emphasized that rites which are meant to be celebrated in common, with the faithful present and actively participating, should, as far as possible, be celebrated in that way rather than by an individual and quasi-privately. This applies with special force to the celebration of Mass [even though every Mass has of itself a public and social character] and to the administration of the sacraments" (27). Pope John Paul II on several occasions developed the theme that the document on liturgy anticipated the dogmatic constitution on the Church, Lumen gentium, seeing a close connection between the two.

One of the striking aspects of the restoration is the total absence of any theological discussion of the role of the assembly. Cardinal Ratzinger does not deal with it at all, even when he cites the writings of Romano Guardini that are so explicit about the nature of the worshiping community. Nichols as well omits any mention of this theology of the role of the assembly. Since this aspect of the liturgical renewal is countercultural, one would expect that it would be eagerly embraced by the restorationists.

This absence may be due to a fear that the accent on the role of the assembly came from the Enlightenment and its emphasis on reason, the personal subject, and the democratic principle of the sovereignty of the will of the people. Moreover, the restorationists hold to the position that the origins of the liturgical movement are to be found in Germany in the 1930s, thereby diminishing the importance of the work of scholars in other countries like Belgium, England, France, or the United States itself. Perhaps they see then in the liturgical movement and its emphasis on the prominent role of the laity a reference to the Volksideologie of the Third Reich. (James Carroll in Constantine's Sword, borrowing from these restorationist sources, makes this explicit connection, even going so far as to relate—in an extremely bizarre way—this Nazi Volksideologie to the American "folk Masses" after Vatican II!)

Whatever the source of the omission of any clear theology of the People of God in the liturgy, the restorationists are allergic to it. They freely accentuate the hierarchical nature of the liturgy as a mirror of the hierarchical nature of the church itself but subordinate the role of the people to their pre-Vatican II liturgical position. This way of de-emphasizing the role of the People of God assembled spills over into architecture as well. The Institutio Generalis Missalis Romani–2000 rightly tries to bring these two aspects, hierarchical and communal, together: "The people of God assembled at Mass possess an organic and hierarchical structure … The general plan of the sacred building should be such that in some way it conveys the image of the gathered assembly" (294). After speaking of the role of the priest celebrant, the deacon, and the other ministers, the document adds: "Even though all these elements must express a hierarchical arrangement and the diversity of functions, they should at the same time form a deep and organic unity, clearly expressive of the unity of the entire holy people" (294). The omission of a theology of the assembly gives the impression that the restorationists, in the area of liturgy, are simply accommodating to one of the worst aspects of modern culture, namely, its deep-seated individualism.

By their fruits …
Liturgical restoration is also animated by the felt need to correct certain tendencies toward doctrinal error which, it is asserted, have crept into the Church since the council through new liturgical practices. Concern about these errors is one of the driving forces of the reform. Because there is a close relationship between prayer and doctrine, more vigilance, it is felt, is needed on how the postconciliar liturgical reforms have led to, or at least tolerated, false or "fuzzy" doctrine. Of all the concerns one could list, two major examples suffice: belief in the Real Presence and the blurring of priestly identity.

Many restorationists believe that there is today among the faithful a significant loss of belief in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist and they put the blame on the implementation of the liturgical documents after Vatican II. Attempts to dispel or at least reduce this blame by pointing out other possible causes have not been successful. For example, it can be shown that the first surveys done in 1992 and 1994 were not accurately worded. Moreover, there are no statistics from the pre-Vatican II period about the beliefs of the faithful to which recent surveys can be compared. That other factors may also have been at work is disregarded.

Consider, for example, poor catechesis during this postconciliar period or special difficulties contemporary people, especially youth, encounter with traditional explanations because of the way some words and concepts are used differently in modern physics. But even if all this would be accepted, the "reform of the reform" in liturgy would still be highly influenced in its rhetoric and practice by the desire to emphasize the Real Presence and the reverence it is due. The placement of the tabernacle, the gestures of adoration (especially kneeling during the whole Eucharistic prayer), and the renewal of perpetual adoration are all based on the desire to reinforce belief in the Real Presence.

The problem, from a pastoral point of view, may indeed be a real one, but the inner laws of liturgy should not be altered for contemporary catechetical purposes. One fears that we are substituting adoration of the species for participation in the Eucharist as the prime liturgical role of the faithful.

The blurring of the role of the priest is also a concern. Among the restorationists there is an attempt to downplay the priesthood of the faithful and to emphasize the role of the priest as acting in the person of Christ the head. Documents treating lay distributors of Communion that restrict the now customary postconciliar role of the laity have their origin in these concerns. A clearer delineation of the sanctuary as the reserve of the clergy is also a part of this renewal of the renewal. It is felt that vocations will continue to dry up if the unique role of the priest is not emphasized and if a greater distinction between that role and the role of the laity is not accentuated. (One would hope that we would not return to putting priests again on pedestals, treating them as a superior caste, and hoping in this way to attract a larger number of vocations.)

Other concerns raised by restorationists include the observation that the eschatological dimension of the liturgy is not given its proper place in contemporary liturgical catechesis. This cultural phenomenon is indeed evident in contemporary liturgy where the emphasis is often placed only on the worshiping community in the here and now and not its connection to the heavenly liturgy that it mirrors. Here it is not so much a question of reform as it is of catechesis.

The desire for more inspiring and uplifting liturgical music and for a better understanding of the role of beauty in its relationship to liturgical prayer is another concern that many, even those not advocates of the restoration, feel is valid. The desire to rid the liturgy of the banal and the trite is a common quest. Here the differences center on how this can be done. As mentioned, the restorationists most frequently hold to the position that this can be accomplished only by reverting to former liturgical and artistic sources, especially musical and architectural. Others want to seek such expressions also in contemporary idioms.

The 'reform of the reform'
What is the position of Pope John Paul II? On the twenty-fifth anniversary of Sacrosanctum concilium in 1988 he sent a letter to the bishops and priests of the world on liturgical renewal. There he outlined the good things that have come about because of this conciliar document and the problems yet ahead. Although he does not minimize the difficulties encountered and the abuses that arose, he is most positive. He sees the postconciliar implementation as fulfilling the wishes of the council, that it "was undertaken in accordance with the conciliar principles of fidelity to tradition and openness to legitimate development, and so it is possible to say that the reform of the liturgy is strictly traditional and in accordance with the 'ancient usage of the holy fathers.'" Yet we know that the pope opened the door to the Tridentine usage, sending an ambiguous signal to the whole church. Its promoters now seek to enlarge that usage, hoping it will again dominate in the church.

Although it is now time to examine objectively and scientifically the implementation and the renewal started at Vatican II, the restorationists are not interested in such an examination or in perfecting what was begun. Nichols, for example, is unequivocal: "Our first task is, I am afraid, a negative one, namely, to prevent the further erosion of the liturgical patrimony of Western Catholicism, to forestall, that is, any further dose of reform in the same direction as that of the postconciliar one, though this be the medicine that some highly placed liturgists are determined to administer to us."

What is most unexpected about the restorationist movement in liturgy, however, is the conclusion that these scholars have reached. Cardinal Ratzinger is the most cautious about more change, hesitant to create another rupture with the immediate past. Others are considerably more bold. Eamon Duffy puts it this way: "Conservative liturgical discussion is increasingly characterized by advocacy of a necessary pluralism." This concession to modernity seems to fly in the face of all that was just said about the restorationists and contemporary culture, but it is the only way in which they can attempt to return to pre-Vatican II and Vatican II sources without at the same time repudiating totally the council and the papally controlled implementation that followed it or declaring both to be aberrations.

Nichols is bold and provocative. He would at once permit any priest and congregation to face East during the Eucharistic prayer if they so wished. He would advocate a return to the 1962 Roman Missal but with the possibility of accepting an updated Sanctorale and new prefaces. The readings would be left in the vernacular but the present cycles would be altered to obtain more continuity. The Novus ordo of Pope Paul VI would be not abolished but permitted in three cases: (1) as the source for the development of new ritual families in some parts of the Church with a "higher culture" (his phrase); (2) for those Anglican and Lutheran groups that would seek unity with the Catholic Church in some corporate way; and (3) "in those parishes and religious communities of the Latin church that do not wish to recover the historical and spiritual patrimony of the Latin rite in a fuller form." Nichols adds the following caustic sentence: "The mistake to which poor advice led Paul VI of depriving many of the faithful of a hitherto canonical, indeed mandatory, rite to which they were attached must not be made again."

This pluralism, of course, is contrary to the clear policy of Pope Paul VI who saw the Novus ordo as a renewal of the Roman rite in its totality and not the creation of a new rite. He feared that diversity of usages within the Roman rite would lead to divisions. This concern does not surface among the restorationists. The pluralism they are now forced to espouse is seen as the burden to be tolerated, the concession they must make to modernity, if they are to be able to return to the modified Tridentine usage they aspire to.

The urgent question is: Has the curia, specifically the Congregation for Worship, bought into the restorationist movement as it affects liturgy? If one looks at Liturgiam authenticam with its talk about a "new era of liturgical renewal," the answer is a clear yes. Moreover, it never mentions—not even once—Comme le prévoit of 1969, which it sets out to replace. Instead, it cites ten times Varietates legitimae, a document on enculturation from 1994. But has the same congregation accepted this solution of pluralism? My answer is that it has not. The centralizing forces so characteristic of our current-day Roman scene would make the acceptance of such a pluralism impossible.

But it is not clear how the Congregation for Worship will go about accomplishing its objectives. Perhaps its members, convinced only that a change of direction is needed, are perplexed about the direction the "reform of the reform" should take and how fast it should be implemented. They may not want to create a visible and abrupt rupture from the changes put into motion by the council and Pope Paul VI. My guess would be that they would foster an enlargement of the Tridentine usage with a judicious introduction into that usage of the elements Nichols mentioned and then hope that, in time, the whole Latin church would swing to a more conservative, pre-Vatican II direction, being ever so gradually but firmly nudged by more and more restrictive documents. In this way the rudder would be altered and the whole ship more slowly moved into a new position. In this regard, we can only wait for clearer signs of their intentions. One thing is certain: the restorationist movement will soon have to articulate a clearer theology if it is to be successful. It cannot remain just a negative rejection of the postconciliar liturgical reforms. Otherwise it is doomed to foster only subjective pick-and-choose liturgies. As Eamon Duffy has so clearly put it: "Too much water has flowed under the bridges of the Tiber for calls to reverse the liturgical flow to be realistic, even if they were considered desirable, and the cultural moment which would allow the reimposition of a unitary and overarching liturgical culture of the whole Catholica has passed."

Instead of fomenting acrimonious controversies over "renewal" versus "restoration" with the heightened and unfortunate rhetoric that has accompanied these disputes, the Congregation for Worship might instead attempt to arrive now at a consensus in the church on what has been truly beneficial about the renewal and what is valid about the criticisms leveled against it. This approach seems more in keeping with that articulated by Pope John Paul II.


Archbishop Rembert Weakland, O.S.B., was appointed by Pope Paul VI as a consultor (1964) and then a voting member (1968) of the Consilium for the Implementation of the Liturgy after Vatican II. This article was first published in the January 11, 2002 issue of Commonweal. It was also published in February 2, 2002 issue of The Tablet, under the title, "The right road for the liturgy."

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