Last year, Pope Benedict licensed the celebration of the old Latin Mass in France. He is reportedly deliberating whether to allow it to be more widely practiced. Some imply that this is a step towards the reversal of the liturgical changes that followed Vatican II. But if we examine his earlier writings on liturgy, we find more complex and interesting questions posed.
The Pope has long-held and passionate convictions about liturgy, sketched in many of his books. In his understanding, the rites, both of East and West, belong first of all to the whole Church. The different families of rites structure the ways in which Christians worship, think and act. Like the great declarations of Christian faith, they are a gift to the Church and grow organically within the Church. Christians of any period are shaped by them, and do not shape them. Indeed, not even Popes are free to do as they will with rites.
From this perspective, the extensive changes to liturgy that followed Vatican II are problematic. Cardinal Ratzinger believed that the Bishops at the Council wanted an evolutionary change that would continue the work begun by Pius X and Pius XII. This would free the rite of its Baroque additions. Their desires were reflected in the 1962 revision of the Roman Missal. But after the Vatican Council, liturgical experts carried through a more revolutionary change, leading to the new order of Mass in 1965. The Cardinal implied that their changes were inspired by historical scholarship and not by a theology centred on the Church.
In the Cardinal’s account, the changes were accompanied by essentially “uncatholic” theologies. These included the Reformation emphasis on the local congregation at the expense of the universal church, on the priesthood of all believers at the expense of the ordained ministry, and on the Eucharistic meal at the expense of Eucharistic sacrifice.
For Cardinal Ratzinger, the revolutionary nature of the liturgical changes after the Council was embodied in the prohibition of the older form of the Roman rite. He believed that this violated the principle that rites grow organically, and that it had confirmed many Catholics in their alienation from the Vatican Council.
Cardinal Ratzinger’s approach to liturgy, like that of any Christian, is not solely theological. It also reflects a passionate personal sense of what is well-done liturgy. His childhood in Bavaria, in which the life of the town was integrated with the liturgy of the Church, and where good music flourished, surely influenced him. Other people may find that the kind of liturgy celebrated in Cathedrals and Abbeys does not help them to pray. But the Cardinal’s insistence that liturgy is a celebration of the whole Church means that his and others’ personal taste is of secondary importance.
Cardinal Ratzinger’s writings on liturgy displayed an intellectual gift for binding a range of phenomena into a coherent and formidable theology or anti-theology. The antics of a few clergy, the bad ideas of a few congregations, the theological barbarities of a few writers, and the slogans of a few debaters are organised into a coherent system of theology and practice. The risk of such synthesising is that it can be too easy - you can always put together examples of bad theology, rash practice, and overweening rhetoric from proponents of any church practice. To decide whether they are significant, or indicative of something larger, is a much more delicate task.
Cardinal Ratzinger’s account of the development of liturgy through Vatican II is also personal view. It deserves respect because he was involved in the Council as a young theological expert. Many Catholics have accepted it as authoritative, but in my judgment it needs to be supported by more careful historical research.
Assuming that he continues to hold the views he expressed as Cardinal, we may assume that Pope Benedict will want to allow the celebration of the older Roman Rite. He believes that the decision to forbid it was in principle wrong; to reverse it might perhaps win back people alienated from the Church.
The Pope’s own theological principles, however, make the restoration of the old rite delicate. He believes that rites are an expression of the universal Church. This means that when we celebrate, we celebrate in union with our local Bishops who today represent the apostles, in union with Peter. Our celebration of liturgy is an act of reception of liturgy and Church, not an act of choice.
Many French bishops have recently opposed the free use of the old rite precisely on these grounds. They consider that it will enshrine individual and sectarian choice: the choice of a form of Catholicism that rejects the universal Church as expressed through its local Bishops and in the documents of Vatican II.
The Pope’s challenge, then, is how to ensure that the old rite unmistakeably expresses the unity of the universal Church. Cardinal Ratzinger, thinking aloud, spoke of anchoring it in particular abbeys, churches or a personal prelature. The last option echoes the “flying bishops” created by the Anglican Church to solve similar problems.
It would be simpler, of course, to abrogate the changes of 1965 and make the old liturgy mandatory for everyone. But the changes have now been grafted into the Western rite and have grown organically. Pope Benedict will no doubt ask himself whether even a Pope could make such a revolutionary change.