Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Liturgical versus Theological Arguments

The late Laszlo Dobszay, and many other traditionally inclined liturgists following in his footsteps, speaks of the flaw in standard traditionalist arguments of confining critiques of the liturgy to the realm of doctrinal meaning. Usually, traditionalists criticize the Novus Ordo for having obscured or suppressed true Catholic doctrine on the Mass. But Dobszay argues that this is not a sufficient basis for understanding the liturgical crisis – or even for understanding liturgy in general. The liturgy has its own inner structure, logic, rules, and traditions, which are distinct from doctrine and scientific theology (though not necessarily unrelated). It is on the basis of these criteria that a true and traditional understanding of the liturgy is to be had, and a substantial and well-rounded view of the newer liturgy to be developed.

Although I am one traditionalist who favors doctrinal arguments to a great extent, I have to say that Dobszay’s approach appeals to me very much, as I see in it a huge potential for restoring the authentic liturgical tradition of the Church. And yet in many ways, I still find his approach very difficult to understand. What are these inner liturgical laws, distinct from doctrinal meaning? Why are they important? Dobszay himself admits the grave difficulty in answering questions like these, and purposefully refrains from even giving a precise definition of this inner liturgical standard. I suppose I just want to see such a definition actually formulated, and I want to see the argument for its importance in the Catholic Church.

The mistake of modern Catholics – even, alas, of many traditionalists – is in viewing the liturgy almost solely as a means of teaching right doctrine. Maybe this is not always expressed as an explicit principle, but that it is how the liturgy is often treated. Certainly, the liturgy does need to contain the truth of faith, and must not defective in its presentation of that truth of faith; but the solution to that is not to treat the liturgy as a textbook or a theological manual. The liturgy is prayer; speculative truths of faith come into the liturgy primarily insofar as it is prayer. Good prayer cannot exist without a right understanding of the truths of faith, certainly; but a right understanding of these truths can exist without good prayer. Technically speaking, it does exist even in the new liturgy. As hard as many traditionalists have tried, they have never quite succeeded in convicting the new liturgy of any doctrinal falsehood. Certainly, doctrinal arguments can be made concerning the motivations and the ideologies manifested in the manipulation of certain concepts expressed in the liturgy - I have often made such arguments - but ultimately there is no doctrinal falsehood per se in a liturgy formally approved by the Church, nor do I think there could be. But there may indeed be other defects, even serious ones: for the liturgy is not the same thing as doctrine, and its value as liturgy is not determined solely by whether it is doctrinally orthodox. It is very possible to pray badly while maintaining true doctrine. I suspect that this is what Dobszay and others of his line of thought are getting at: the new liturgies are primarily defective not because they corrupt doctrine per se, but because they are poor precisely as liturgy.

So I think some work needs to be done in defining precisely what it is about liturgy, that allows us to distinguish between good and bad liturgy – regardless of true or false doctrine. What is that inner logic proper to liturgy that determines its value as such? What are those rules that must be followed in order to have good liturgy? And further, why is it necessary that these liturgical standards are found primarily in tradition? What is liturgical tradition?

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