Thursday, November 04, 2021

Traditions, Liberation, and Meaning

St Teresa of Avila said she would be prepared to die for "the least of the 
ceremonies of the Church". This is the "minor elevation": Corpus Christi, Maiden Lane.

My latest in the European Conservative.

I wish to place a recent development in the Catholic Church into the context of the wider cultural and political debate. The development is the publication, on 16th July, of a document called Traditionis Custodes, and an accompanying Letter to Bishops, by Pope Francis. These documents seek to restrict, and ultimately abolish, the celebration of the Church’s older form of liturgy.

This may look like an obscure internal dispute, but the Catholic Church, today and in terms her place in history, is large enough to be the arena for an important conflict. For the Church is not simply old: in a certain way it preserves the past. It is a feature of the Catholic worldview to take seriously, within certain limitations, her own past practices and to regard them as action-guiding, normative, for the present and the future. This has long been ridiculed by the Church’s opponents as a matter of doing the same thing as has always been done simply for the sake of it, even when the reasons for the original practice are no longer applicable or have been forgotten. Both the practice of treating tradition as normative, and the criticism of this as obscurantism, are very clearly on display in the history of the Catholic liturgy, though the Church’s legal system, theology, and many other aspects of her governance and culture could also provide examples. 

To give an example, there is a tradition in the Catholic liturgy that the priest, when saying the holiest prayers of the Mass, the Canon, inaudibly at the Altar, breaks the silence to say aloud a single phrase of the text he is reading: “nobis quoque peccatoribus” (“to us sinners, also”). In his 1949 The Mass of the Roman Rite, we are informed by the great liturgical historian Fr. Josef Jungmann SJ, who was also an advocate of reform, that in some century distant from our own this custom was established as a signal for some other liturgical functionaries to do something. Developments since that time have been such, however, that this signal is no longer necessary.

Jungmann’s proposal is in itself perfectly plausible. The question is whether it debunks the meaning of this custom as understood by the worshippers of later generations. Thus, St. Albert the Great points out that the priest’s raising of his voice serves to draw attention to his act of confession: a confession of unworthiness, on the part of the clergy, which is frequently underlined in this liturgical tradition.

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