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?
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.”