Thursday, July 1, 2010

Why Catholics Can't Sing: Benedict's Retrieval of "Old" Liturgy as a "New" Liturgical Movement

At  National Catholic Reporter, John Allen has just published an excerpt from Joseph Ratzinger’s (now Pope Benedict) 1997 memoirs entitled Milestones.  Allen is publishing this excerpt as Benedict issues a motu proprio on the “new liturgical movement” he has sought to effect in the church—a new as in back-to-the-future movement which self-consciously and deliberately retrieves the “old” liturgy in the name of making it new again, following Vatican II’s liturgical reforms. 

And here’s what strikes me as I read Ratzinger’s reflections on liturgical renewal in 1997, which continue to provide the foundation for his thinking about liturgy today:

1. Ratzinger/Benedict thinks always in terms of dialectics in which either one option or the other is correct, but in which both options cannot be correct.  He thinks, that is, in terms of false dichotomies.  These dichotomies are inevitably designed to retrieve or undergird aspects of church life and tradition that protect clerical power and privilege.
2. And so Ratzinger/Benedict’s thought has consistently pitted modernity against tradition and secularism against faith, as though one cannot be fully modern and welcome the positive gifts of the secular world without turning one’s back on authentic Christianity and faith.

3. When it comes to liturgy, Ratzinger/Benedict typically contrasts old and new liturgy, to the detriment of the new, since the liturgical reforms of Vatican II were designed to emphasize not the centrality of the clerical celebrant of liturgy, but the involvement of all the people of God  as co-celebrants in communal liturgical worship.

4. The old-new contrast turns on another false dichotomy between transcendence and immanence, or between the vertical and horizontal dimensions of Christian life.

5. But the fundamental, core dichotomy that is at the heart of this thinking about the liturgy is, as with everything Benedict writes about ecclesiology in general, a false dichotomy between clerics and the people of God. 
6. The “old” liturgy is preferable to the new not merely because it preserves the vertical dimension of worship (which was not really lost sight of at all during Vatican II and afterwards).  It is preferable to the new primarily because it preserves the verticality of church structures: it continues to place the priest above and beyond the people of God in every area of church life, including worship.
7. It is historically and biblically false to claim that the “old” liturgy being retrieved  by the “new liturgical movement” today is retrieving ancient, continuous forms of worship that were thrown away by Vatican II.  In fact, Vatican II returned to ancient forms of liturgical worship that had been discarded by the church at particular moments of history: during the Counter-Reformation period of reaction against Protestantism, and Vatican I's reaction against modernity.

8. Calling the Tridentine liturgy with its Vatican I accretions the “old” and unbroken tradition of the church artificially elevates a particular historical period of worship to the status of unchangeable doctrine.  It does so because these were moments in the history of the Catholic tradition that accentuated the role of the priest as a mediator in worship, vs. the Protestant notion of the centrality of the community in liturgical worship and vs. modern democratic social philosophy.

9. All evidence we have of the most ancient forms of liturgical worship within the New Testament communities indicate that liturgical worship accentuated the gathering of the people of God to share a sacred meal, with the awareness that the holy presence dwelt within the entire worshiping community, a point that the post-New Testament patristic theologian Origen emphasizes strongly in his liturgical commentary.

10. The demand that the altar have a crucifix and that communion be received on the tongue—demands central to Benedict's back-to-the-future retrieval of the “old” liturgy—is absurd from a biblical context.  Early Christian celebration of the Eucharist, the truly “old” liturgical form from which all liturgical rites have grown, had no concept of either practice, and could not have had any concept of developments that are far removed from the New Testament in time and cultural context.

Benedict concludes that the church’s practice of the faith is now impoverished because our liturgical practices have become impoverished.  I would suggest, however, that the correlation runs in precisely the opposite direction.  Liturgy has become impoverished precisely because our practice of faith is impoverished.  It is necessarily impoverished when the role of the people of God is primarily to receive truth from above, from the hands of the clerical sector of the church.  Liturgy is impoverished when the people of God are given no ownership in the crucial task of defining doctrinal and moral teaching, but are treated as mere passive recipients of that truth as it is handed down to us from above.

Why can’t Catholics sing?  Because we have nothing much to sing about, in such a church.