The Constitution on the Divine Liturgy in the light of the “Reform of the Reform”

Some traditionalist Catholics simply deny the efficacy of Vatican II and the reforms that followed. But the more common trend these days, following the example of Benedict, is to reinterpret the work of the council.
In this way,they move backwards toward a preconcilliar ideal (which many of the neo-traditionalists are, like me, too young to remember) without violating John Paul’s directive that there is “no alternative to Vatican II.”

This “reform of the reform” is meant as a corrective measure. “Yes, yes- we were meant to have a reform. Yes, Vatican II was great. It’s just that you all are doing it wrong.”

My first exposure to this attitude was typical of the young, progressive (maybe slightly heretical) American Catholic that I am: horror and fear. I don’t want to go back. I’ve seen pictures.

But since then, I increasingly have come to realize two things:

  • The neo-trads are right. The reform was in fact handled poorly, and what is being done in the average American Catholic parish is not at all what the council had in mind when it wrote Sacrosanctum Conciliam.
  • What the neo-trads envision is approximately as wrong as what we’ve been doing for the last 40 years, and is also not at all what the council had in mind.

I hadn’t read the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy since high school, so I read it (online!) in light of my recent thoughts concerning the reform of the reform. I’m sorry to say that I couldn’t read it in Latin, it having been 10 years since I last had to translate anything other than ritual prayer texts. I trust the English edition made available by the Vatican itself is of sufficient accuracy.

Upon reading again, it became very quickly obvious that both the progressives (by which I mean, the champions of the vernacular, the lovers of “Guitar Mass” and contemporary music, the glass chalice people, the kumbaya kids… often I include myself here) and the traditionalists (the Tridentine, Extraordinary Form, RotR people), if they bothered to read the document at all, have all cherry-picked the paragraphs and lines that support their own view point while excising the rest either through ignorance or death-by-interpretation. (Hey- at least we’re affording the documents of the council the same respectful treatment usually reserved for the Bible.)

In respect to those I most often disagree with (the Traditionalists) let’s start with what they are right about.

The most obvious point is the Council’s clear desire for the retention of several things which (in most US parishes) have completely vanished. Notably: the Latin language, Gregorian chant, and the large body of Sacred Music. (Less notably, the pipe organ.)

“Particular law remaining in force, the use of the Latin language is to be preserved in the Latin rites.”

The document goes on to specify that the vernacular languages could and should be used, and seems to give a great deal of lee-way to individual regions on exact implemenation. But even within that lee-way, it’s clear that the Council assumed that the Ordinary of the Mass (all those Eucharistic acclamations) would continue in Latin:

“Nevertheless steps should be taken so that the faithful may also be able to say or to sing together in Latin those parts of the Ordinary of the Mass which pertain to them.”

This could also mean, “You can do it in English most of the time, but do it in Latin often enough that everyone is still familiar with it.” Even with this more liberal understanding of the text, we have not lived up to their intent on this point at all.

“The Church acknowledges Gregorian chant as specially suited to the Roman liturgy: therefore, other things being equal, it should be given pride of place in liturgical services.”

Progressives (if they bothered to argue) would probably argue that other things are not equal. And they would be right, I think, to point out that Gregorian chant can be a hindrance to “Religious singing by the people,” which, according to a paragraph just a few lines down from the injuction to use chant, “is to be intelligently fostered so that in devotions and sacred exercises, as also during liturgical services, the voices of the faithful may ring out according to the norms and requirements of the rubrics.”

Still, current practice is a far cry from “Pride of Place,” even after taking into account the desire for congregational singing, and the document’s other calls for simplicity and ease.

“The treasure of sacred music is to be preserved and fostered with great care.”

It’s clear that the “treasure” is the great body of musical literature which the church has accumulated over the centuries, and which the council would like us to not forget or let lapse into disuse. Here again, the Traditionalists are right to criticize. When was the last time you heard Palestrina in Mass? For me, the answer is “never.” In fact, I heard more of Catholicism’s treasure of sacred music while attending an intensely liberal Episcopalian parish for 10 months than I have in 27 years in Catholic congregations.

My fellow progressives say… so what?

For many conservatives/traditionalists, it is enough that they said it- we should follow their directive. But we all know that such Ignation deference to the Church’s will is not commonly found among the Guitar-mass crowd (as much as we like to reference S.C. when it suits us). So- why is it important that we retain Latin and chant and Palestrina?

Well- the most obvious reason is retaining a common Catholic culture across liguistic, political, and cultural borders. I have read that during World War I, Catholic soldiers on opposing sides of the conflict were able to celebrate Mass together in Latin. (That anecdote would be better if they didn’t then go back and kill each other, but I still think it’s pretty cool.) With a common foundation in Latin, multilingual parishes would have a common language for the most relevant parts of the liturgy. And, most importantly, Catholic tourists would be able to go to Mass anywhere in the world.

Gregorian Chant (which is properly in Latin) likewise provides (or could provide) a common musical heritage allowing people to worship together regardless of musical background.

Additionally, as many regularly point out, humanity loses something when it loses it’s art. You wouldn’t toss out the Mona Lisa or the Pieta just because you’ve created something else new. But with music, it’s not enough that the manuscrupts sit in a library or museum. If no one sings it, it might as well not exist.

To those common arguments (cultural universalism and the need for preservation) I would add this in regards to chant: It is simple.

At several points in the document, as progressives like to point out, the Council calls for liturgies to be simpler. What we usually won’t admit is that Gregorian Chant is clearly the simplest musical option. To get more basic, you’d have to just speak the text. While I love contemporary music, and think that modern styles certainly have a place in Mass, it can wear me out after a bit.

Use of Gregorian Chant (in Latin) or an adapted chant setting of the English texts is a much less cluttered approach to the Mass. With all due respect to the composers of some really great Mass settings, I especially feel that chanting the Ordinary would be both spiritually useful and in line with the intent of Sacrosanctum Concilium. (And would make a whole lot of angry neo-trads a whole lot less angry).

Another, less obvious, point is the use of the Divine Office.

“Pastors of souls should see to it that the chief hours, especially Vespers, are celebrated in common in church on Sundays and the more solemn feasts. And the laity, too, are encouraged to recite the divine office, either with the priests, or among themselves, or even individually.”

I grew up having somewhat regular experience with what I knew as “the Liturgy of the Hours,” and I know that it played a big part in my spirtual growth. And I’ve met many other progressives (usually of the intellecual-liberal set- the kind of people who go to Lay Pastoral Ministry Institutes and such) who have likewise had excellent experiences with the Divine Office. A few of them have even made gret strides in introducing this “public prayer of the church” to their home congregations. But it’s the Traditionalists who seem to be the most active and vocal about championing this means of sanctifying “the whole course of the day and night.”

It’s been almost 50 years since the Council encouraged us to revive this “ceaseless prayer,” but most parishes (as far as I am aware) don’t do it, and most Catholics don’t even know what it is. This is especially striking considering that the Divine Office is a perfect prayer form for progressive parishes: liturgy which can be led by lay people, even women.

So, have we done anything right in the last 40 years?

Or should we all subscribe to the NLM blog, find ourselves a good Extraordinary Form Mass, and burn our Gather Comprehensives?

Well, no- of course not. The progressive’s understanding of SC isn’t as far off the mark as the Reform of the Reform people would like us to think. For today, let’s stick with the subject closest to my own heart- musical style.

“Other kinds of sacred music, especially polyphony, are by no means excluded from liturgical celebrations, so long as they accord with the spirit of the liturgical action.”

Clearly, the Council had no intention of restricting us to Gregorian chant alone. And polyphony is not the only style “not excluded,” simply the only one important enough to mention. SC does not prescribe a style or set of styles, and (thank God!) so far no other Vatican decree has done so. The only requirement being that any piece of music be “in accord with the spirit of the liturgical action.” Many Traditionalists (especially the particularly conservative and angry ones) will try to set themselves up as arbiters of what music is and isn’t “in accord with the spirit of the liturgical action.” But if the Bishops of Vatican II didn’t feel it appropriate to make a list of approved songs, composers, and styles, neither should disaffected laypeople.

Further, the musical styles that have become prevalent in the English speaking world are “covered,” so to speak, by the text:

“In certain parts of the world, especially mission lands, there are peoples who have their own musical traditions, and these play a great part in their religious and social life. For this reason due importance is to be attached to their music, and a suitable place is to be given to it, not only in forming their attitude toward religion, but also in adapting worship to their native genius.”

America has its own musical traditions that play an important part in our religous and social life: shape note hymns of early Protestantism, Black Gospel and Spirituals, and (yes) contemporary folk, rock, and pop styles. The directive to include native styles doesn’t only apply to mission lands, just “especially” to mission lands. And besides that- given the current religous demographics of this country, the U.S. might even qualify as a “mission land.” (That is, if you really mean “a country in need of mission work,” instead of using the phrase as a code for “a place full of non-white people.”)

Further, the Council clearly hoped for the continuing creation of new music and art for the liturgy:

“Composers, filled with the Christian spirit, should feel that their vocation is to cultivate sacred music and increase its store of treasures.

Let them produce compositions which have the qualities proper to genuine sacred music, not confining themselves to works which can be sung only by large choirs, but providing also for the needs of small choirs and for the active participation of the entire assembly of the faithful.”

“Active participation” here can only mean “congregational singing,” which means that the Church doesn’t just want more great pieces for the Schola, but rather music (presumably in the vernacular) that the whole congregation can sing. With due respect for the Mass Propers, where but the four customary “song slots” is this music supposed to go?

As to the contention that certain styles, regardless of quality, are simply more suited to the Roman Liturgy:

“The Church has not adopted any particular style of art as her very own; she has admitted styles from every period according to the natural talents and circumstances of peoples, and the needs of the various rites.”

That paragraph is from the section on Sacred Art and Furnishings, so it is addressed specifically to visual art. But, in light of the other statements made about music, it seems this is the attitude we are to take towards all artistic endeavors, including music.

So, what then?

Does there need, then, to be a Reform of the Reform?

Probably, but not the one that is currently in motion. And also not one handed down from a group of men in another country. The right RotR will happen organically if The Institution (and lay leaders and influencers) embark on a sincere campaign of education and formation. It will happen organically if we acknowledge and appreciate everything that has gone so well over the last 50 years, as well as what we did poorly. It will happen if Progressives and Traditionalists spend more time talking to each other in love rather than in debate. It will happen if Guitar mass people get a chance to experience really great chant, and if Extraordinary Form people can hear authentically executed contemporary music. It will happen if we rely on the guidance of the Holy Spirit instead of our own inventive whims. It will happen if we learn that some of our inventive whims are the nudge of the Spirit.

And what would this RE-reformed liturgy look like? Well, I have a preference, and an idea. Certainly, there would be more Latin, more chant. Certainly the very best of the contemporary music would be retained and some of the dross would be left behind. Maybe we’ll stop holding hands for the Lord’s Prayer. Hopefully priests will continue using Gothic style chausibles (they’re so pretty!).

Beyond that, while I do have a plan in mind (if it were my job to implement these things), but for now I think it best to leave the rest up to your religous imagination. Guided by the Holy Spirit, it is that imagination which will ultimately determine the form of those things which are “subject to change.”

8 thoughts on “The Constitution on the Divine Liturgy in the light of the “Reform of the Reform”

  1. Hi Adam,

    I saw your comments at Roma locuta est and have read your post.
    I’m a convert from the Episcopal Church where, for the last few years I was there, we sang from the OCP Music Issue. But as I’ve learned more, I’ve also learned that there is a selective interpretation of S.C. that is not valid. for example, you state:

    “Active participation” here can only mean “congregational singing,”

    this is quite wrong; active participation is achieved by “entering into the liturgy” and at times is done in complete silence; music at the wrong time can actually prevent active participation. At a recent funeral mass at a very liberal parish, I was privileged to join a small schola and sing the Dies Irae as well as the Missa de
    Angelis responses, and other fine bits of traditional music. After, one
    parishioner said that at first she was upset that she couldn’t sing along too, but then stated that she noticed that, in so many words, she entered a place of depth in the mass which she’d never experienced before, and was truly grateful and appreciative of being given that experience. In her own words, she described what “active participation” means!

    An excellent resource is Joseph Ratzinger’s “The Spirit of the Liturgy” – I suggest you obtain it and read it with an open mind.

    2. “Inculturation” was never meant by S.C. to refer to places like the US. That is an interpretation which is an abuse of the document.

    3. "112. The musical tradition of the universal Church is a treasure of inestimable value, greater even than that of any other art.

    I will make the observation that most of the music I hear at church is so far below this “inestimable value” that I’d rather have a mass with no music at all. Now when SC declares the high value of the Church’s musical tradition, it is clear that most Catholics today do not value it very much, if at all.

    "But the Church approves of all forms of true art having the needed qualities, and admits them into divine worship."
     the key is “having the needed qualities” – it’s not a wide open door. what are the needed qualities? I would suggest that in order to understand what S.C. is calling for, notice that
    S.C. refers to the leadership of Piux X (in 112). Tra le Sollecitudini will help your understanding.

    From there let’s go 100 years forward and we find:


    The text of the Constitution Sacrosanctum Concilium in which it is declared that the Church “approves of all forms of true art which have the requisite qualities[7], and admits them into divine worship”, finds satisfactory criteria for application in nn. 50-53 of the above-mentioned Instruction Musicam Sacram[8].

    if we look there,


    we find the description of what fits the criteria for admission to the liturgy
    (nos 50-53):
    50. It is quite obvious that what We have said briefly here about Gregorian chant applies mainly to the Latin Roman Rite of the Church. It can also, however, be applied to a certain extent to the liturgical chants of other rites – either to those of the West, such as the Ambrosian, Gallican or Mozarabic, or to the various eastern rites.

    51. For as all of these display in their liturgical ceremonies and formulas of prayer the marvelous abundance of the Church, they also, in their various liturgical chants, preserve treasures which must be guarded and defended to prevent not only their complete disappearance, but also any partial loss or distortion.

    52. Among the oldest and most outstanding monuments of sacred music the liturgical chants of the different eastern rites hold a highly important place. Some of the melodies of these chants, modified in accordance with the character of the Latin liturgy, had a great influence on the composition of the musical works of the Western Church itself. It is Our hope that the selection of sacred eastern rite hymns – which the Pontifical Institute of Oriental Studies, with the help of the Pontifical Institute of Sacred Music, is busily working to complete – will achieve good doctrinal and practical results. Thus eastern rite seminarians, well trained in sacred chant, can make a significant contribution to enhancing the beauty of God’s house after they have been ordained priests.

    53. It is not Our intention in what We have just said in praise and commendation of the Gregorian chant to exclude sacred polyphonic music from the rites of the Church. If this polyphonic music is endowed with the proper qualities, it can be of great help in increasing the magnificence of divine worship and of moving the faithful to religious dispositions. Everyone certainly knows that many polyphonic compositions, especially those that date from the 16th century, have an artistic purity and richness of melody which render them completely worthy of accompanying and beautifying the Church’s sacred rites.

    I think it is clear that nothing is there to back your claims that the sort of music we hear, even the better stuff, is admitted to the liturgy by S.C.

    OK, that’s a lot of stuff, but
    we’re all learning, thanks be to God!
    God bless,

  2. Thanks so much for your thoughtful response! I have subscribed to your blog and will be reading it prayerfully going forward.

    Respectfully, I have to quibble with a few points here and there…

    When I said “active participation here can only mean congregational singing” I didn’t mean that active participation ALWAYS means congregational singing. Only right there in the text did it mean so. What I was getting at is that S.C. is clearly asking composers to write music not only for “large choirs” and “small groups” but also for the congregation to sing.

    I would also strongly disagree that S.C.’s call for inculturation does not extend to the U.S. To claim that some countries and cultures should be treated differently than other countries and cultures is prejudiced, condescending, and racist.

    Further- and I know this isn’t enough for many traditionalists- the USCCB uses the same logic and interpretation that I do in their statement on liturgical music, Sing to the Lord. Jake points out that the USCCB’s statement doesn’t carry magisterial weight. But the Bishops do have authority over these matters in their jurisdictions, and the Vatican hasn’t made any move to rescind, challenge, or otherwise abrogate the Bishop’s statements. Even the USCCB’s approval of the hymnals currently in use in most Catholic parishes suggests that “the Church” or “the hierarchy” approves of the use of these styles of music, and those songs in particular. To claim that the USCCB’s statements carry no weight doesn’t seem to be very… what’s the word?… obedient.


    Clearly, nothing in either the Vatican documents or the USCCB’s statements allow for the gross indignities piled on the Liturgy by my fellow modernists: pre-recorded music, secular songs, dance, invented prayers, tacky banners, dramatic interpolations, cheap vestments, rampant casualness, ugly carpet, “children’s homilies,” gameshow banter…

    Nor should we have tolerated the wholesale removal of the Latin language or the traditional music of the Church.

    For those reasons, I’m very sympathetic to the Traditionalists. For many people, all they have seen is the worst of the mangled reforms. Lots of parishes are doing bad music, and their doing it badly. Lots of parishes still have those awful banners from the 70’s (with the felt letters). Lots of parishes think Liturgical Dance is a good idea, altar servers shouldn’t wear robes, crucifixes are too ugly, chant is too boring, and the text of the Sacramentary is only a suggestion.

    But I believe there is a middle way. Within the framework of the Liturgy- without breaking it or bending it to our wills- we can worship and sing in a way that is culturally relevant to people in any time and place. And I believe that the Fathers of the Council thought so, too. This is not some willy-nilly “spirit of Vatican II,” liberality- this is both my understanding of the actual documents and (apparently) the understanding of the Bishops in my country.

    I will agree that most parishes aren’t there. And I appreciate the work of the Traditionalists, especially those working on the revival of traditional sacred music (especially Gregorian Chant). But I think their hardline stance against contemporary music is both incorrect (as I’ve tried to show above) and unwise- it’s difficult to win friends and influence people when you tell them how wrong they are over and over, when you denigrate the worship that has formed them and the music they love.

  3. I tend to be doctrinally traditional and liturgically “progressive” by the RofR crowd, although I prefer a traditional-style liturgy with more contemporary music (I also appreciate and play more traditional music)…

    One point that should be made is that most parishes celebrate more than one Mass per weekend. Why not offer a more traditional-music Mass and a contemporary-music Mass, both with reverent, by-the-book liturgical action?

  4. “Traditional style liturgy, with more contemporary music.”
    That’s about how I’d characterize my taste, although lots of people would argue that I don’t know what “traditional” means.

    I have mixed feelings on having different styles of Masses, but I think it could work if done in a sane, pastorally appropriate way. Unfortunately, the RotR people don’t want to stop at having Masses they prefer- they want to force their opinions on style and appropriateness on everyone else too. They seem to think they are better at interpreting the Vatican than their local Bishops are.

  5. I’m an odd duck. I am completely at home with both the Mass of Glory and Plainchant (although I know you prefer the latter). I love the reverence of the Mass with solemn Gospel processions, incense, altar servers that are reverent, and am equally at home with All Creatures of Our God and King, You are Mine, and Your Grace is Enough. There’s plenty of room in the Church for all musical styles, as long as they are done well (which is, I think the major problem in Church music today, is that it is often not done well) and is done in service to the liturgy, not as a spectacle or a show.

  6. Mike-

    I think you and I are pretty much on the same page. I love all the music you mentioned, and I think there is “plenty good room in my Father’s kingdom” for all of it.

  7. Pingback: Music for Ascension Sunday | Music For Sunday

  8. Church history did not start with Vatican II. Perhaps you can research and write a post entitled “The Constitution on the Divine Liturgy in the light of the documents that came before it”? Reading a series of documents in chronological order is very beneficial.
    I really would like to know your thoughts on SC after completing the 1903-1963 exercise, and will check back for same.

    the USCCB’s statement doesn’t carry magisterial weight.

    This is correct; STTL does not carry weight. -> English -> Roman Curia -> Congregations -> Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments -> 2004-apr-23 Redemptionis Sacramentum -> # 28

    But the Bishops do have authority over these matters in their jurisdictions,

    Yes, the individual bishop, in his diocese.

    and the Vatican hasn’t made any move to rescind, challenge, or otherwise abrogate the Bishop’s statements.

    Because that is not how it works. USCCB statements LACK force until they have been both submitted and approved (recognitio). I watched the Nov 2007 USCCB meeting (EWTN online feed) and the bishops made it very clear that they would NOT submit STTL for recogitio, then they voted to accept it. Perhaps a video or a transcript is available online somewhere; it would be enlightening for more people to know how this got done.

    the USCCB’s approval of the hymnals

    The USCCB has NOT approved any hymnal. The approval is from the bishop of the diocese (or his delegate?) in which a publisher creates a hymnal. The question is whether or not his approval extends beyond his diocese.

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