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Seattle Catholic
A Journal of Catholic News and Views
18 Jan 2005

Tilting at Liturgical Abuses

by Peter Miller

Statue of Don Quixote
Statue of Don Quixote

"Our liturgies are completely faithful to the reforms of Vatican II," was one of the more concise responses from my pastor years ago. It was only some time later that I would realize how right he was.

Initially, his brevity was somewhat disappointing given the work put into the case I presented to him. For I had become a self-taught scholar of "liturgical abuse" and arming myself with Inaestimabile Donum, other documents from the Congregation for Divine Worship (CDW) and selected Q&A responses from some of the more conservative Catholic periodicals, I thought I had presented what was an incontrovertible case.

Particularly since in this case, the parish in question was, by my estimation, the "best" in the archdiocese inasmuch as the liturgies had the fewest number of what were then considered "abuses" — items expressly proscribed by some Vatican document — although it was still not all that close to an "abuse-free" Mass. Using a recent list prepared by the editor of Crisis magazine, this "best" parish of mine could still only boast thirteen of the "23 Ways To Identify a Faithful Parish."

Due to the relative conservative nature of the parish combined with my extreme naiveté, I was surprised that the pastor did not even offer a defense or pretend to be concerned with the points that were raised. It turned out my being "right" didn't matter, since no one with any authority — in the parish, archdiocese or Rome — was going to take action. The liturgical regulations I was hoping to be enforced were not taken seriously by anyone except for a handful of informed laypeople — that is, by no one that mattered. The pastors and chancery-employed liturgists knew well something I had not fully understood — that only the most carelessly extreme defiance would ever garner undesired attention or perhaps in extraordinary cases, disciplinary action. Most every other act of defiance would actually come to be rewarded in the future with a sanction or even mandate.

I have since ceased my quixotic quest for an "abuse free" Novus Ordo Mass. Although I'd heard that such a thing could be found in different parts of the country or on television at times, it was for all intents and purposes a myth. Add to this the fact that "abuses" kept being redefined as legitimate or even recommended options and that even a "pure" Novus Ordo Mass would still contain elements quite objectionable (yesterday's "abuses"), my efforts were redirected toward the Latin Mass, which was much more resistant to such chaos. Later studies into the nature of the liturgical reforms cemented my decision and made it difficult to consider the modern liturgical innovators at odds with, rather than continuing the work of, the initial framers of the New Mass.

Even such, like reading news reports from a hometown, it interests me to keep track of the latest goings in the Novus Ordo Mass. In most recent version of the General Instructions to the Roman Missal (GIRM), it was somewhat amusing to read that a number of items on my list of "abuses" (or at least signs of disobedience) a few short years ago, now show up as allowable options (although perhaps "not recommended" for now — a functionally meaningless qualification). These include options to modify or ad-lib an introductory greeting at the start of Mass, the priest roaming the church during the Homily, or doing the same to greet parishioners during the "sign of peace." As was previously the case in 1994 with the CDW's announcement of the official approval of "altar girls", the list of "abuses" with which to audit the New Mass had been further diminished by a document described by some as a "crackdown".

Disobedience or Trailblazing?

For a variety of reasons, the issue of female altar servers was once considered the ultimate "liturgical abuse". In the 1980's, it was a de facto litmus test for fidelity to Rome and at the top of any list of "how to spot a faithful parish." Because the use of altar girls was a pet cause of feminist and dissident organizations who threw their weight behind the propagation of the practice, countering its legitimacy became a cause taken up by conservatives. Arguments against altar girls could not only be made from authority, but also tradition, theology and basic common sense. The use of female altar servers, it could be argued, was not only illicit but it was a novelty with potentially destructive consequences for both the liturgy and vocations. Once a reinterpretation of canon 230§2 found room for altar girls, such objections lost their impact.

Dissident groups lobbying for the "ordination" of women and defiant liturgists across the U.S. and Western Europe declared victory. Although there have been some minor adjustments to the details of the permission and some ineffectual acknowledgements of the rights of bishops and priests who choose to forego this newfound liberty, the outcome had been decided in what was for years considered to be a battle that symbolized the struggle between conservative and liberal liturgical views. For their defiance of Church regulations concerning the liturgy, the liberal dissidents were rewarded with official approval of their actions. They learned the lesson well and shifted the targets of their efforts to other ways they could continue the devolution of the liturgy through selective defiance.

A more recent example occurred in 2002 when several American bishops decided that an option to stand during Communion deserved to become a mandate. The liberal crusade against kneeling during Mass is another highly visible and symbolic battle between contrasting viewpoints on the liturgy. Many parishes have long-since eliminated kneeling from any part of the Mass, some going so far as to remove kneelers from the backs of pews to dissuade anyone from entertaining such anachronistic notions of piety. In responding to inquiries regarding the reasoning behind these new posture mandates, at least two bishops offered the explanation that standing during Communion was already the custom in many parishes. Again can be seen the advantage of defiance. Given the track record on such things, what possible argument could be made to dissuade liberal liturgists against such future experimentations? A newfound appreciation for discipline and authority that scarcely exist?

It is true in various aspects of life that it is far easier to get permission for something that is already happening. While it is relatively easy for an authority to refuse to give permission to something while it is still an idea, it is a much harder task to undo something that has been done (defiantly or otherwise) for years. In which case, the one in a position of authority needs to weigh the logistics, costs and other consequences (foreseen and otherwise) to undoing what has already been established.

The current cause célèbre at the forefront of revolutionary liturgical efforts seems to be the utilization of plain-clothes nuns and laypeople to deliver "homilies" during Mass. Although currently prohibited by the Vatican, further attempts to minimize the role of the priest during Mass via the utilization of "lay preachers" is becoming more and more common in parish churches as well as cathedrals — and its proponents more and more outspoken. Rather than the smug silence typical in such situations, objections sent to the local chancery on this issue have been responded to with a multi-page canonical dissertation printed on archdiocesan tribunal letterhead.

While most of the document offers a Clintonian interpretation on how a prohibition is really a license if you know where to look for loopholes, the case in support of using substitute homilists consists of two main arguments: (a) that the spirit of the liturgical reforms trumps the letter of the law; and (b) the practice has been allowed in some occasions, including papal or Vatican-approved liturgies, so it is clearly acceptable when deemed appropriate.

Canon Law & Liturgy

The first argument represents an attitude popularized and advanced by John Huels, an influential and widely cited canonist. On a number of liberal liturgical practices from "inclusive" language to altar girls to liturgical postures, Huels has written arguments encouraging the "correction" of laws by, among other tactics, the creation of a new "custom" — or the intentional defiance of a law until it is forced to be changed. As noted by Helen Hull Hitchcock of Adoremus:

A key principle is that if he finds a particular law unpersuasive, the canonist's objective is to find justifications for interpreting the law in such a way as to legitimize a change in practice, which may conflict with the actual law. This is the "make a path by walking on it" principle of changing or reversing laws one finds objectionable. If confronted with an unwanted law, Huels repeatedly advises, create a new "custom".1

This approach can be seen in Huels' objection to following the instruction in the Roman Missal to wash the feet of men ("viri" in Latin) on Holy Thursday:

"When a human law is perceived within a society as violating the principle of the equality of the sexes, it is not a good law in that context; it no longer is in the service of the church there. It is then necessary to correct the law in that local church by an appropriate remedy, such as dispensation or the development of a contrary custom (canons 85, 24)." 2

His overall impression on how to consider laws that pertain to the liturgy is clear:

"[A] standard principle in the science of canon law today is that church laws must be interpreted in light of the teachings of Vatican II. For the interpretation of liturgical law, the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy has paramount importance. A major emphasis of the constitution is that the liturgical reforms are to encourage and enhance the full, conscious and active participation of the people in all the liturgical rites" 3

and later:

"...the exact and literal fulfillment of the rubrics and other laws ought not to be the only consideration of the liturgical minister but, rather, how the law can be understood and enfleshed in ways that enhance the worship experience of the assembly." 4

It should come as little surprise that the views of John Huels on liturgical legislations — that restrictions should be strictly interpreted or disregarded, while liberties should be liberally applied and expanded — only selectively apply in instances that conform to his ideology. In 2001, he wrote an advisory opinion for the Canon Law Society of America arguing for an "exact and literal" interpretation of Ecclesia Dei and a maximum of restrictions on the use of the Latin Mass.

Due in part to the influence of John Huels, the idea that the liturgical legislations currently in force are just one of a number of considerations and are of much less importance than the most progressive interpretation of Sacrosanctum Concilium, has become the overriding doctrine of the "liturgical experts" that currently staff chanceries across the country. In such a framework, even the diminishing list of "liturgical abuses" is irrelevant, since nothing could objectively be considered an "abuse". If any canonist, liturgist or parish priest can claim that overt defiance of a law is really an act of obedience to Vatican II inasmuch as it is judged to better encourage "active participation," the notion of "liturgical abuse" loses all meaning.

Papal Liturgies

While canonical gymnastics give liturgists argumentation in favor of their actions, they still need to face objections that their interpretations are "wrong" and they are at odds with the "right" interpretations of those in the Vatican. To which a liturgist need only refer the conservative plaintiff to any of a number of papal liturgies that have taken place over the past few decades. If a conservative interpretation of Vatican II, the Roman Missal and CDW regulations is "right", how is one to explain that the most well-attended, televised and popular Masses in the world — authorized and attended by the Pope himself — contain elements typically considered to be "liturgical abuses"? Should a local parish be held to a higher standard than the Pope? If these things were really that bad or against the wishes of the Vatican's intent, wouldn't the Pope do something about it?

As reported over the past few years by John Allen Jr. of National Catholic Reporter in his The Word From Rome column, much of this has to do with Piero Marini, the former secretary to Annibale Bugnini and Master of Ceremonies for papal liturgies since 1987. In recent years, the papal Masses he has produced have pushed the limits of "inculturation" by including explicitly pagan elements like rituals, blessings and dances. Such efforts have drawn an increasing degree of criticism from both the CDW5 and Cardinal Ratzinger.6

This source of this conflict was illustrated during the Pope's visit to Mexico in 2002 for the canonization of St. Juan Diego. As John Allen reported at the time:

When the pope pronounced the words of canonization for Juan Diego, conch shells began to blow, and the hundreds of indigenous persons present began to shake rattles they had brought for the occasion. Then native music began to thump out, as 11 dancers in Aztec costume slowly twirled their way down a specially prepared runway. As they snaked their way towards the pope, incense was burned and candles lit, while flower petals were strewn in their path. Finally red confetti was fired over our heads. It was an electrifying moment, and left the people inside the basilica cheering like it was Game Seven of the NBA finals. As we were filing out to catch the press bus, a colleague from one of the American TV networks, a non-Catholic, said to me: "Hell, if they did Mass like this all the time, I'd come!" ...

Perhaps most remarkably, Indian women bearing smoking pots of incense brushed branches of herbs on the pontiff, Cardinal Norberto Rivera Carrera and other prelates in a limpia, or purification, ceremony. The common Indian blessing is believed to cure spiritual and physical ailments by driving off evil spirits. ...

I had a pair on binoculars with me, and I kept my eyes on John Paul on day two as the native dancers and mariachi bands did their thing. There was little response at first, but as the performance built up a head of steam, I saw the pope smiling broadly and tapping out the rhythm of the music. As papal endorsements go, it was indirect — but unmistakable.7

In a later column which featured an interview with Marini, Allen noted:

Marini said inculturation normally means integrating three elements: music, language, and physical movement. I pointed out that this is not always uncontroversial. During John Paul's visit to Mexico last summer, for example, one liturgy featured a limpia, or purification, ceremony. The Indian blessing is believed to cure spiritual and physical ailments by driving off evil spirits. Indian women bearing smoking pots of incense brushed herbs on the pontiff, Mexico City Cardinal Norberto Rivera Carrera and other prelates. Some theologians I spoke with afterwards felt this had gone too far, that it in effect amounted to an endorsement of pagan worship.8

Having such highly-visible liturgical events undermine rather than reinforce the decrees coming from the various Vatican dicasteries is naturally a cause for tension, as more people are apt to witness a papal liturgy than read a CDW document. The significance of such Masses is by no means lost on Marini:

More people have watched Masses planned by Marini than by any other liturgist in the world, which gives him enormous power to shape the public idea of what Catholic worship is all about. ... He told me he's conscious of how much responsibility his office bears for setting the liturgical tone.

"The liturgy of the pope has always been imitated," he said. "In the early centuries pilgrims came from the north and took notes from what was happening in Rome, and these collections are the so-called Ordinis Romanae. So the papal liturgy has always been a point of reference for the entire church." 9

With "inculturated" liturgies receiving approval from the highest ranks of the Church, it is difficult to make an argument that a diocesan liturgist's attempts to bring elements of a feminized, democratic U.S. culture into the liturgy are inappropriate and constitute an "abuse" of the liturgy.


Ironically, the same "liturgical abuses" I once battled against, I now consider myself indebted to, since my efforts led me to something truly worth fighting for — the Tridentine Mass. Like a number others I've talked to since, the initial attraction was not born of an innate preference for the Latin language or attachment to the 1962 Missal. I even at the time entertained some haughty notions regarding the superiority of a vernacular Mass and the virtue of some of the earlier post-conciliar liturgical reforms. But it was the depressing state of the New Mass each and every Sunday morning that made the Latin Mass the only practical refuge.

Now, years later, an occasion I find myself witnessing a New Mass is like visiting a foreign country. Whether the liturgy itself has further degraded or I have been too insulated from it (probably both), the liturgy is even harder to bear, and the stream of "abuses" that had so occupied my concerns seem today so laughably insignificant.

It makes little difference whether there are altar girls or extraordinary ministers or guitar solos or girls in robes giving homilies or liturgical dancers or anything else not yet formerly approved by Vatican documents. Focusing on what were identified and scrutinized as "abuses" was merely a distraction from the real issue at hand. The "abuses" were but symptoms of a much larger problem with the liturgical revolution itself, and its fruits which have become the natural result of what was at its inception and remains today — to borrow Cardinal Ratzinger's term — a "fabricated liturgy."



1 Hitchcock, H.H., "Influential Priest-Canonist is Abuser of Member of Bishops Review Board" Adoremus Bulletin - Online Edition - Vol. VIII, No. 6: September 2002 []
2 Huels, J., "More Disputed Questions in the Liturgy" LTP, 1996
3 Ibid.
4 Ibid.
5 Allen Jr., J.L., "The Word from Rome", National Catholic Reporter (February 22, 2002) Vol. 1, No. 26
6 Magister, S., "New Liturgies. Bishop Piero Marini doesn't like TV", L'espresso - www.chiesa (July 21, 2003)
7 Allen Jr., J.L., "The Word from Rome", National Catholic Reporter (August 9, 2002) Vol. 1, No. 50
8 Allen Jr., J.L., "The Word from Rome", National Catholic Reporter (June 20, 2003) Vol. 2, No. 43
9 Ibid.
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