Contra Gentiles: Revisiting The Liturgy Question


Contra Gentiles: Revisiting the Liturgy Question

W. H. Marshner

Vol. VII No. 10
December 1972

Since the definitive promulgation of the Novus Ordo, the liturgical situation in America has known several dramatic developments. It may be useful to recall these in concise form.

The first development was an open schism on the “right.” Moving beyond mere contempt for the vernacular, the schismatics refused categorically to accept the New Ordo as valid. Nobody knows how many people have gone this route, but there have been enough to make Tan Books a large profit.

The second development was the deeper burrowing of the self-styled underground church. One has to say “self-styled” because, in fact, this movement lived and moved in the full glare of publicity. L. Brent Bozell, writing in these pages in 1967 (“The Coming American Schism”), pointed out this above-ground character and predicted that it would become even more brazen. In some respects the prediction has been borne out; but at the same time, the most radical of the undergrounders have had to go deeper underground. The Liturgical Conference has fallen into disfavor and isolation; the groovy, floating communities are now further from the surface of parish life than they were five years ago.

The reason for this recession of the hard-core underground is complicated. Sex is in it, and so is socialism; but there is also a liturgical ingredient to the underground’s evanescence, and it is our third development. Namely, everything has been tried. All the assumptions about the nature of liturgy which dominated the American scene after the Council were carried to their logical and practical conclusions by the floating communities, and the result, when everything had been tried, was not the expected rebirth of intense liturgical experience but final and irremediable boredom.

Fourth development; the great middle of the American Church is also bored (but perhaps not irremediably). The numbing, desensitizing effect of a liturgy based on the post-conciliar assumptions has devastated the pews but not to the same extent as in the underground, where the dosage was stronger. Certainly the average parishioner does not enjoy the new liturgy, but (more importantly) he is too uninterested by now in all liturgical questions to head either for the underground or for the Latin schism. The quiet of the great majority, in other words, is the quiet of the grave as far as liturgical “renewal” is concerned. The great divide, in the next few years, will be between those who, exhausted by the one-time ferment, are now prepared to leave well enough alone and those who seek, on carefully reconsidered grounds, to reopen the liturgical debate.

Finally (fifthly), within the past year signs have appeared of a new willingness to talk about this situation honestly. Last spring Donald Thorman, of all people, confessed his good impressions of a Latin High Mass, which he had attended on Palm Sunday in England. He acknowledged that it is time for the renewed liturgy to find some way (back) to grandeur and solemnity. During the summer, the executive secretary of the ICEL, of all people, admitted to the pages of Worship magazine that the new liturgy is excessively wordy, boring and “pseudo-patristic.” Then in September, as if to reinforce this revisionist thinking, Worship solicited and printed an article by the brilliant, University of Chicago anthropologist Victor Turner, whose researches into the nature of ritual have been milestones in the scientific study of man as a religious animal.

Turner strongly repudiates the liturgical changes of recent years, including the use of the vernacular. Basing his remarks exclusively on the natural dynamics of religious expression, Turner then goes behind these changes to criticize the theoretical assumptions that justified them. He rejects the structuralist, positivist, and behavioralist paradigms which the Council periti took to be scientific conclusions. Special censure is passed on the notion that liturgy is a function of social structure and ought, therefore, to vary as the structure changes. According to Turner, liturgy is naturally an expression of anti-structure, that is, an opportunity for people to step outside of secular roles and their mindset of socio- political “relevance.” People are bored and frustrated at the “new liturgies” precisely because this opportunity is denied them. Thus Turner refutes the whole theoretical framework of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy. Nothing could make one more relieved that Vatican II was not a dogmatic council than this scholar’s demolition of its most highly touted document!

So, ten years after the start of the Council, the liturgy question is back to square one. A new dialogue, and (one hopes) a much more dispassionate dialogue, is about to get underway. Those of us who have steadily disagreed with the trends of events have an opportunity, once again, to make ourselves heard. But it will be uninteresting and counterproductive to crow over those whom events have proved wrong. Our contributions will be only as good as our research, our aesthetics, and our theological sophistication make them. It is time to put aside, once and for all, kooky readings of Quo primum and strident nonsense about pro multis, if a genuinely Catholic and pastoral solution is to be achieved. We have excellent prospects, if our charity and our scholarship are up to the challenge. And when I mention charity, I hope it goes without saying that I do not have in mind that tolerance of humbug which often usurps the name.

I shall examine some individual aspects of Dr. Turner’s bombshell in my next few columns, because I think each facet of his argument will be crucial in the coming debate. But I should like to end here with the observation that non-scholars and non- specialists will also have a role to play in restoring liturgical sanity. Creating an atmosphere of reverence and prayer at Mass never was and never can be the work of theoreticians. It is the work of the Catholic people as they act upon their own natural (and supernatural) instincts. Everybody can help renew the liturgy by the simple expedient of bringing a rosary to the pew.

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