Friday, 9 January 2015

Vatican II and the Origins of the Liturgical Reform

The Second Vatican Council
There has been some discussion recently on the connection between Vatican II and the reform of the liturgy that produced the Novus Ordo. Monsignor Charles Pope wrote this article in which he argues that the Novus Ordo ought not to be linked so closely with the Council as it tends to be by most "traditionalist" Catholics. Msgr. Pope has several reasons for making this argument, some which he calls "pastoral," others which are historical. 

Mr. Louie Verrecchio responds to Msgr. Pope's argument at Harvesting the Fruit of Vatican II. Mr. Verrecchio, though he is not affiliated with the Society of St. Pius X, has lately become a proponent of views about today's crisis which closely resemble those of the Society. Consequently, he frequently criticizes the Second Vatican Council for being the source and origin of so much of the current debacle in the Church, including the liturgical crisis.

My own opinion on this subject has undergone some development, as might be evident just from the archives of this blog. I have floated between conventional traditionalist ideas like those held by the SSPX, and the more moderate views like those of the late Msgr. Gamber, who thought that Sacrosantum Concilium could have been applied, as it was originally meant to be, in harmony with tradition. My position now, however, is not like either of these. Although, like Mr. Verrechhio, I do have issues with some of the documents of Vatican II - whence I disagree somewhat with Msgr. Pope's "pastoral" arguments - I am in agreement with Msgr. Pope's historical arguments: that the liturgical crisis we are witnessing today does not stem primarily from the Second Vatican Council, but from earlier causes. The Council was merely one stage - a late stage - of the process. The process of reform which produced the Novus Ordo was already underway long before the Council was called. It began during the pontificate of Pope Pius XII, with a definite precedent even earlier, under Pius X. Pius X had radically reformed the breviary in a way that did away with centuries of meaningful tradition, though its spiritual effects were less radical than later reforms. The spiritually and theologically problematic reforms began under Pius XII, with the new Holy Week of 1955. Pius XII had appointed a commission to reform the Roman liturgy which consisted of many of the same men who would later create the Novus Ordo itself. While these men may have operated largely unknown to the Catholic world at large, it is quite likely that Pius XII himself was not unaware of the process and its principles, and he would at least implicitly sanction them in his promulgation of the new Holy Week, in 1955. The resulting rites were radically different from the traditional rites, destroying much of their traditional symbolic and theological meaning, and introducing several innovations which were problematic on many levels. This was only one in a series of steps towards the general reform of the Roman liturgy. Many other changes occurred in this period, affecting both the Mass and the Breviary in different ways. A significant overhaul was almost certainly being planned by the now corrupt liturgical movement, with the protection of papal approval. (Whether Pius XII knew what he was doing or not is a different question - some say he did indeed.) When the Second Vatican Council came along, it was merely used as an excuse to "officially" justify the steps of the reform which followed; but in fact it had little to do with the reform itself. The reform had already begun long before the Council; the Novus Ordo was simply the final product. Had the Council not occurred, it is very likely that something like the Novus Ordo would still have been produced. The overthrow of the liturgical tradition was in the works.

Fr. John Hunwicke once wrote likewise at his blog. Here are some enlightening excerpts:
I suppose a common analysis of what happened in the 1960s might be: The Council mandated a fairly light revision of the Liturgy; however, particular interests subsequently gained control of the levers of liturgical power and pressed things to extremes. [Or there is the view of SSPX Catholics, which Fr. Hunwicke does not mention, that the extremes themselves resulted from the Council.] I suggest that something really quite different happened, realisation of which might have its embarrassments both for Trendies and Traddies.
The fontal point is this: The process of change was already firmly in place. I do not think that the Council, in fact, made any real difference whatsoever...
...Remember, also, the extremely radical nature of the 'restored' Holy Week. I venture to say that it is, if anything, more radical than the post-Conciliar changes to the Ordo Missae itself. 1951 and 1955 were simply two stages of which 1969 was the logically coherent third stage. The changes to Holy Week were only less radical than the later changes in that they affected merely one week of the year ... and services which were not of obligation ... and services which, in fact, for the most part, comparatively few people attended....
Pius XII had initiated the process of radical alteration, using the same people who were to be prominent after the Council, such as Annibale Bugnini, before and without the mandate of an ecumenical Council.
I suggest the Twentieth Century liturgical changes would most appropriately be called the Pian-Pauline Reforms. They are changes based on exactly that notion of papal power which Benedict XVI so acutely criticises: that the Pope can do anything. The process of liturgical 'reform' has, from the beginning, been the product of the maximalising Papacy of Pius XII. The 'Council' has only been an episode in that process.
It is my belief that many traditionalists adopt a too simplistic understanding of today's crisis, as if prior to the Council the liturgical condition of the Church was fine and dandy. In reality, the liturgical crisis has its roots far before the Council. Reliable historical evidence shows that the liturgical state of the Church was far from perfect before the Council. While the reform itself began in the 20th century, its origins might be traced back even further to a situation that began to grow during the Counter-Reformation, in the aftermath of the Council of Trent. (Was there a "Spirit of Trent" like the "Spirit of Vatican II"?) This was period of growing liturgical minimalism, and otherwise distorted approaches to liturgy. The Divine Office had come to be seen as a private priestly prayer, rather than public liturgical worship, and its importance alongside the Mass became vastly under-appreciated - this is still the case today. Private devotions began to take the place of liturgy, and the riches of the liturgy ceased to feed the regular spiritual lives of the faithful. The liturgy was now just one among many devotions, and one among many sources of doctrinal teaching. The spirit of the liturgy was dying away; Masses and the Office were no longer sung regularly, contrary to the custom of ancient Christian worship. Low Mass became the norm, Sung Mass the exception. Eventually the sense of the sensible beauty and grandeur of the liturgy was lost. Tradition in general lost the importance it once had in the minds of the faithful. This resulted in poor liturgies in practice, even while the official forms in the books remained theoretically intact. A hyper-devotion to the cult of the saints sprang up in the Counter-Reformation, resulting in the cluttering of the Roman calendar, and the disappearance of the entire weekly Psalter. Pope Pius X rightly sought to resolve this problem, but his solution involved sacrificing other aspects of the liturgical tradition. His reform gave rise to the notion in the mind of priests and faithful that the liturgical forms were subject to the authoritative decisions of the pope, who was thus the supreme arbiter and even creator of Catholic liturgies - an idea completely alien to the traditions of liturgical development. This was made possible by the growing prominence of the papacy ever since the Council of Trent, paving the way for the complete authoritative overhaul of the liturgy later in the 20th century, by Popes Pius XII and Paul VI. Already in the 20th century, still before the Council, priests were turning the altars around towards the faithful, moving tabernacles to the side, introducing innovative forms of concelebration, celebrating in hideous modern Churches, introducing the vernacular, etc. The crisis was already in the early stages of its viral growth.

The blogger Rad Trad wrote a six part account of the causes and origins of the liturgical reform, in which he explains much of what I have written above in much more detail. Recommended reading. The account differs significantly from the standard accounts given by traditionalists, and has very little to do with the Second Vatican Council. There is a whole history stretching back to the Council of Trent which prepared the way for this crisis, and the process of reform itself began with Pius XII, having a strong precedent in Pius X in 1911.
Reasons for the Reform of the Roman Rite Part I: Feasts
Reasons for the Reform of the Roman Rite Part II: Low Mass Culture
Reasons for the Reform of the Roman Rite Part III: Devotionalism
Reasons for the Reform of the Roman Rite Part IV: Separation of Liturgy and Doctrine
Reasons for the Reform of the Roman Rite Part V: Centralization
Reasons for the Reform of the Roman Rite Finale: Ideas Going Forward

Of course, in this whole discussion it would be useful to examine in some depth the actual reforms of Pius X and Pius XII in order to properly evaluate them, and thus their connection to the Novus Ordo. The Rad Trad has much discussion of those subjects on his blog (the above article on "Feasts" discusses Pius X's breviary), and a certain minority of traditionalists and liturgical scholars have been becoming aware of these subjects. Fr. Steven Carusi wrote a detailed article criticizing the Holy Week of 1955, and the blog of St. Lawrence Press presents the results of close study of the differences between the 1962 missal and its predecessors. A certain Paul Cavendish published a two-part study of the 1911 breviary reform of Pius X in the journal Usus Antiquor in the year 2011, showing how radical and extensive a reform it really was. And one cannot forget to mention the late Laszlo Dobszay, whose book on The Bugnini Liturgy and the Reform of the Reform contains a substantial treatment of the Divine Office, including its incarnation under Pius X, and many other subjects pertaining to the liturgical reform, all with deep insight into the historical and spiritual aspects of the liturgy. The aforementioned Msgr. Charles Pope wrote another article recently on the side effects of Pius X's reform, and its implications for the relation of papal authority to the liturgy (to which, likewise, Mr. Verrecchio also responded here; I am, of course, in agreement with Msgr. Pope on this one as well).

An SSPX priest celebrates Low Mass in a private chapel
at St. Peter's Basilica, in un-liturgical red and with
un-vested servers in sneakers.
Much of this discussion would assume an even more fundamental common ground of understanding about the nature and importance of the liturgy and its traditions in the first place, which I fear even many traditionalists today do not have. Those who pin the latest reforms primarily on the Second Vatican Council fail to understand the true causes of the debacle because they do not understand that the traditions of the liturgy had in many ways been seriously violated already. Indeed, many traditionalists have themselves been influenced in large part by the same tendencies that led to the current crisis (quite ironically), such as the replacement of liturgy with private devotion, a hyper-ultramontanist attachment to the figures of the popes (at least the pre-conciliar popes such as Pius X and Pius XII), an under-appreciation of the Divine Office and sung liturgy, etc. Moreover there is a certain carelessness (largely unintentional and quite innocent, no doubt) with which the traditional liturgy itself is celebrated in some traditionalists communities. I have attended Mass at a local, small chapel served by the SSPX, and many of the liturgies remind me only too well of the Novus Ordo itself, ironically, so improvised they were in many respects. I am sure this is not universally the case in traditionalist communities, but my impression is that it is not uncommon. As long as the text of the Mass is the traditional one, with its emphases on the doctrines of the Real Presence and the propitiatory sacrifice, traditionalists are happy; but the external rituals, symbolic elements, and deeper meanings of the liturgy are overlooked. Modern Catholics have lost the sense of the liturgy as an action which allows us to relive the mysteries of faith by encountering them contemplatively. Instead, the liturgy is more like a didactic text. The complex interaction of text and ritual and the symbolism of the liturgy are no longer understood. The Novus Ordo came about through precisely such a loss of understanding of - and/or reverence for - the spirit of the liturgy. This misunderstanding is a serious one, which it will take quite some work to dispel from modern Catholic minds. (I myself am somewhat a novice to the proper understanding of the liturgy; on this blog I am demonstrating my efforts to improve that understanding. Bloggers like The Rad Trad have already contributed much to these endeavors.)

In short, the Council had little to do with the liturgical reform, either as the source of its defects or the original call for it to occur. The reform had already gotten off to a bad start, before and independently of the Council. The stage was being set for the reform ever since the time of the Council of Trent, when, slowly but surely, the value and nature of the liturgy became less and less appreciated and understood. The traditional liturgy was slowly dying. The reforms that occurred after Vatican II were only the proof of its having finally died; only its cadaver remained. Modern traditionalists too are largely influenced by the distorted understanding of the liturgy that had gradually emerged prior to the Council, which is why they have such difficulty seeing past the Council itself as the origin of the current crisis.


  1. Personally, I am coming to the opinion that the Council was the last act of a reform process that originated years earlier within the Vatican, a reform process in which the liturgy is a main character and his development is a key plot line.

  2. While I agree with you that the liturgical revolution was the culmination of a trend over several decades rather than being initiated by the Second Vatican Council, I think the Council nevertheless played a significant role in that revolution. As has been written by many commentators (notably Michael Davies), the Council not only brought together many people of the same mind, but also provided the mechanisms that enabled them to work in concert and exercise influence beyond their number - This is confirmed by Father Wiltgen in his account of the workings of the Liturgical Commission in The Rhine Flows into the Tiber (Ch. The Second Session). Thus, although the Council was not the efficient cause of the liturgical revolution it did institutionalize the principles of ongoing liturgical innovation and lent it an authority it would not otherwise have had, and in doing so it blinded those in authority to the detrimental effects of the innovations. Of course, the thinking that shaped the Council did not occur over night any more than than that which specifically shaped the liturgy, therefore your main contention is largely correct.

    1. I suppose I shouldn't want to create the impression that Council had nothing to do with; rather just that it was not the big cause that many people these days believe it to be. Perhaps it would be more moderate to say, as you do, that it had an influence at the later stage; but it wasn't the driving force. Previous changes, such as that of Holy Week, did not need a Council to have "authority," as it was sanctioned by Pius XII. Perhaps the Council was needed to help justify such a reform in the eyes of the faithful at large, and perhaps it had other influences. But yes, my main point is that not only the thinking behind the reform, but also the corrupt reform process itself, began before the Council.