UE TO THE PONTIFICATE of Benedict XVI, a steadily increasing number of Catholic clergy and faithful are increasingly likely to implement or request changes in the celebration of the liturgy so as to bring it more manifestly into continuity both with the great Catholic Tradition and with the obvious teaching of Vatican II and numerous postconciliar instructions. And predictably, there are members of the preceding generation who want to blow the whistle and say “Stop! You can’t do that. Even if you were right in what you’re asking for, we don’t want to alienate Catholics by suddenly changing the way things are being done.” And even the sympathetic will say: “We don’t want to make the same mistake as happened 40 years ago, when so many things were suddenly changed.” And perhaps now there will begin to be some who find in Pope Francis’s ars celebrandi a certain justification for the same attitude.
While one can certainly sympathize with a desire not to alienate or confuse, and while one must be gradual in making changes and careful in explaining them, it does seem that one must reject, lock, stock, and barrel, the underlying premise. To say “we don’t want to make the same mistake as happened 40 years ago by suddenly changing things” would be defensible if we were talking about indifferent matters, where the change is not from worse to better. But if what needs to be changed is itself an abuse, then the logic becomes: “We should not go from abuse to good use because it will alienate people, just as they were alienated when we went from good use to abuse.” Or: “Now that we are used to bad habits, we should not move too quickly back to good habits.” Good habits are meant to be made, bad habits are meant to be broken. The alcoholic does not benefit from toleration but from intolerance.
To not form people in a hermeneutic of continuity is to form them in a hermeneutic of rupture. There is no via media between continuity and rupture: you are either striving to follow all the teaching of the Council, the rubrics of the Ordinary Form, and documents such as Redemptionis Sacramentum, Sacramentum Caritatis, and Summorum Pontificum, or you are not so striving. To not act in favor of tradition is to act in favor of novelty, or at very least to allow novelty to prevail. Indeed, not acting is itself an action—at least an action of toleration or apparent approval. In this way, as the spiritual masters always tell us, not to be making progress is to be regressing. My argument about the liturgy is the same: if we do not correct abuses and improve our practices in accord with the mind of the Church, we are encouraging the permanence of those abuses and supporting ignorance or contempt of the mind of the Church.
“If we correct abuses and implement what Vatican II really asked for (such as that the faithful should be able to sing or say together in Latin the prayers of the Mass that belong to them), we will risk alienating some of the faithful!” Were bishops and priests worried about alienating the faithful back in the late sixties and early seventies? What of the large number of Catholics who simply quit going to church, either because they were disgusted by the changes, or felt that the whole thing no longer mattered, since it was all changing? In reality, what matters is the truth of the faith, not public opinion or approval. Catholics who are serious in their faith will understand the explanations given to them by their pastors and will remain Mass-goers; those who have a false understanding of the Church or of their place in it may, in fact, leave and never come back.
Have we, as a Church, forgotten what happens in chapter 6 of the Gospel of John? What did Jesus do when many left him because of his “hard sayings”? Did he run after them and plead with them that they should stay, because he didn’t really mean what he said? No, he let them go; indeed, he challenged the apostles: “Will you, too, leave me?” He was ready to let everyone go rather than compromise on the truth. It was Saint Peter who replied boldly that they would not leave him, for He has the words of everlasting life. Here we have the contrast between those who are Catholics for the right reason and those who are Catholics for the wrong reason. The liturgy is the most defining element of our very identity as Catholics. If it is messed up, our identity is messed up, our faith is messed up. When it is right, then it is that our faith and identity can be right.
Catholics have a right to a liturgy that is in accord with the mind of the Church and her tradition. In the long run, the Church is not built up and strengthened when her pastors ignore her conciliar teaching, repudiate her tradition, violate her rubrics and instructions, and merrily accept the status quo in all its mediocrity and disobedience. We see the Church thriving where she lovingly cultivates the memory of her Lord and of her life with him over the centuries, where she is stalwartly faithful to her laws and ideals, where she is sincere and consistent in practice, and where she gives herself body and soul to the demanding but liberating “work of God,” the sacred liturgy. Here is where renewal will begin, and nowhere else.