Monday, August 11, 2014

Loftus on liturgical orientation

Facing the Lord, in solidarity with the Faithful.

In an on-line article in the Scottish Catholic Observer, Mgr Basil Loftus repeats some absurd claims he has made before:

But when the Emperor Constantine started to build churches ... he was fooled by the forged Apostolic Constitutions, and in obedience to them had all churches built with the people facing West, and the celebrant facing East.

Which way they faced didn’t matter, but they had always faced one another. This is what Vatican II set out to recapture in its document on Liturgical reform. And that was most decidedly not a forgery.

Hang on a second: the Vatican II document on the liturgy doesn't even mention celebrating Mass facing the people, let alone mandate it.

However, in these lines Loftus is so far out into the realms of fantasy that it is hard to imagine anything in the real world making any impact on him. Not even Fr Michael Lang's 2004 book Turning Towards the Lord, which was published with a Foreword by Cardinal Ratzinger, which patiently explains that orientation, facing East, was of enormous significance in the Early Church, and that it is an incontestable fact that priest and people did face the same way in a great many early churches. 

...which makes it possible to contrast the occasions on which the priest is supposed
to turn to face the Faithful.
The weirdest thing about Loftus' position is that it is the Constantinian basilicas, such as St Peter's in Rome and the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, which are held up as great early examples of the celebrant facing into the nave. He is rubbishing the significance of the churches which actually support his claim. However, it must be said that the peculiar needs of these basilicas, to incorporate a shrine beneath the Altar, makes them less significant than they might appear. Those churches copying them, as a number of basilicas in Europe and North Africa did, aren't necessarily copying a pre-Constantine approach to church building.

Talking of fraud, Loftus is correct that it has been used for ideological ends on this topic: or at least a reading of the evidence so influenced by the preferred conclusion as to be meaningless. Fr Lang discusses a hugely influential study of early church buildings by Otto Nußbaum (or Nussbaum) (Turning Towards the Lord pp5960).

Nußbaum is at pains to decide in favour of a celebration versus populum as often as possible and fails to consider how little space would remain for the celebrant between the altar and the apse wall or the raised platform for the clergy. Sometimes he says some three feet (one metre) would be enough, sometimes even less, for example in the church of Borasi in Dalmatia, where he allows less than one and a half feet (forty centimetres). Thus Nußbaum arrives at the conclusion that in 192 of the 560 churches he examined, the altar can be used facing the people. By contrast, [the later scholar] Metzger shows that this is the case some twenty of the buildings in question.

Clearly, Nußbaum thought that priests were very thin in the early centuries.

It is almost never, of course, impossible in these churches to worship the other way round: facing the apse, with the people. We simply don't know what actually happened in those 20 churches.

Nußbaum's case for the prevalence of Mass 'facing the people' in the first four centuries is based, at best, on wishful thinking.

Such it is with so many of the confident claims of 'experts' whose ideas were set in concrete by the post-Conciliar reforms. Loftus must be aware that the concrete is beginning to crack: this happens pretty predictably with a scholarly consensus, what did the reformers expect? Although it must be said that the concrete in this case was like the cheap stuff used to build many tower blocks of the same era, which has had the good grace to fall down even earlier than planned.

Loftus' response? Just keep repeating the original claims over and over again in the hope that at least a good proportion of readers haven't heard anything to the contrary. 

The last word in housing in 1971, in Manchester.
By 1975 the residents were begging to leave.

This is why we need to encourage open-minded Catholics to watch the latest LMS video, on this topic, and if possible to read the Position Paper.

Support the work of the LMS by becoming an 'Anniversary Supporter'.


  1. This article actually appeared in the print edition of the SCO about five years ago; I remember writing a letter in response, which they published. Why they are digging up old Loftus articles and posting them online is beyond me. Perhaps the surprising fact that Msgr Loftus has been invited out of retirement and put in charge of a parish has given his supporters new heart.

    1. Here, for what it's worth, is the text of my letter:

      In arguing that priests ought always to celebrate Mass facing the people, Msgr Basil Loftus (SCO, August 6, 2010) is wrong on every point. There is no archaeological evidence to support the idea that a ‘primitive’ practice of facing the people was superseded by a ‘corrupt’ practice of priest and people facing the same way (‘ad orientem’). At almost any date in the early centuries of church-building, we find some churches arranged for Mass ‘ad orientem’, and others where the priest faced the nave. A positive preference for celebration facing the people is expressed by no writer earlier than the Protestant reformers. Msgr Loftus is uncharacteristically vague in his final reference to Vatican II’s Constitution on the Liturgy, because the Constitution did not in fact mention the priest’s orientation at the altar. If there is an argument for preferring the priest to [face] the people, neither Christian antiquity nor Vatican II can be called as witnesses in its support. As it happens, the last time I saw Msgr Loftus himself celebrate Mass, he did so ‘ad orientem’; I was edified by the sight of the priest standing as if at the head of column of pilgrims, leading his people along the royal road of Christ’s sacrificial return to the Father. Perhaps this image is more helpful than the Monsignor’s analogy between the Mass and a pantomime.

      Ben Whitworth

    2. In charge of a Parish? Surely not?

  2. "Hang on a second: the Vatican II document on the liturgy doesn't even mention celebrating Mass facing the people, let alone mandate it."

    And if it had been put up for a vote at the Council, it would have been rejected in a landslide. Does Msgr Loftus even read the conciliar documents any longer?

    P.S. Great letter, Ben.