Some Thoughts about a New Liturgical Reform
and the Suggested Future ‘Common Rite’

June 1, 2011

The Mass is at the center of a priest’s life. It is his principal duty, privilege and honor to stand in persona Christi at the altar and to make present there, by repeating the very words of Our Savior, the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Our Lord Jesus Christ under the appearance of bread and wine.

Any proposal that would effect the celebration of Mass necessarily affects, profoundly and intimately, the life of the priest. And since it is through their attendance at Sunday Mass that most Catholics come into contact with the Faith and receive the sacramental graces available to them, any alteration in the rite of the Holy Sacrifice will in some way alter the laity’s understanding of Church doctrine and discipline.

Cardinal Kurt Koch, head of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity, announced recently during a press conference in Rome that Pope Benedict XVI has initiated a liturgical renewal that is generally called “the reform of the reform”.

This latter phrase is to indicate that the changes in the Mass arising from the Second Vatican Council are not definitive, but are rather a work in progress. It is also a tacit admission that these liturgical changes leave something to be desired.

Cardinal Koch used the occasion of the publication of guidelines for the better implementation of Summorum Pontificum, the papal motu proprio that “freed” the Latin Tridentine Mass, to state that the long-range plan of the Holy Father is not to maintain two rites — the Tridentine and the Novus Ordo, known respectively as the Extraordinary and Ordinary forms — in perpetuity, but to merge the two forms in a new common rite.

No details have been provided, and the common rite at present remains an abstraction that will have to be given concrete form at an unspecified time and in an unspecified way. So it might appear premature to offer an evaluation of this reform of the reform, but a few things can and ought to be said before this proposal goes any further.

First, the fact that this announcement was issued by Cardinal Koch, whose jurisdiction is ecumenism, not liturgy, is significant. It indicates that whatever shape the common rite might assume, it will be designed in a manner that will not hinder inter-religious dialogue. Non-Catholics, it seems, are being assured that the common rite will in no way be a clear-cut reversion to the traditional teaching that the Catholic Church is the one true Church and the sole means of salvation.

Secondly, the Cardinal’s reference to the good fruits — unspecified — of the liturgical reform arising from the Second Vatican Council and the Pope’s recognition of these good fruits appears aimed at allaying the fears of “progressives” that Vatican II’s liturgical innovations are being entirely repudiated.

Thirdly, the Cardinal’s insistence that Vatican II’s teaching does not represent a rupture with tradition places the proposed common rite at the very heart of the Pope’s “hermeneutic of continuity”.

The Holy Father appears to have finally laid all his cards on the table, so to speak. He wants to end the divisions in the Church that grew out of the novelties of Vatican II. He also wants to keep some of those novelties and incorporate them into the traditional teaching of the Church. A common rite of Mass is envisioned as the means of ending internal strife between progressives and traditionalists within the Church.

There are more than a few problems with this concept of a common rite.

The Holy Father affirmed in Summorum Pontificum what defenders of the Tridentine Mass had insisted upon for 40 years: that a rite of immemorial custom cannot be abrogated — abolished — by the promulgation of a new rite. Will the promulgation of a common rite abrogate the Tridentine Mass? The answer is no.

Also, Cardinal Koch acknowledges faults in some aspects of the progressive reform of the liturgy, but he says nothing about faults in the Tridentine Rite. This is doubtless because the Tridentine Rite has no faults — as that fact is defined as an article of faith by the Council of Trent.

Yet, it is proposed that it yield to a new, common rite. Why? So that some elements of the New Mass can be salvaged so as to please the progressives.

There is also this to consider: a common rite will not resolve deep-seated theological differences; it will merely gloss over them and create a false appearance of unity.

And it should be remembered that the Mass is not the property of the Pope to do with as he pleases — as is defined by the Council of Trent. It is the patrimony of the Catholic Church to be zealously guarded and preserved in its integrity.

The necessity for a “hermeneutic of continuity” has arisen precisely because the liturgical patrimony of the Church has been treated experimentally. The truth embedded in the ancient adage, “Lex orandi, lex credendi” — “As we pray, so we believe” — was ignored by the innovators who produced the ecumenical rite of the Novus Ordo Missae and altered the beliefs of millions.

Now, we are to experiment further with a common rite? Under whose auspices? With what authority? Within what doctrinal parameters?

Can a common rite be anything more than a prescription that will only worsen the disease it seeks to remedy?

If such a rite is proposed, what weight will it carry? If the Tridentine Mass cannot be abrogated, it cannot be licitly suppressed. And do-it-yourself liturgists, whose number has become legion in recent decades, are unlikely to treat a common rite with any more respect than they have shown the Tridentine or Novus Ordo rites.

One can appreciate the desire of the Holy Father to heal the deep wounds from which the Church is hemorrhaging. But adhering to the defined doctrine of the Church and making the "Extraordinary" form of the Mass both Ordinary and Universal represent the only possible, practical remedy. For solutions that work must be rooted in truth, not ecclesial politics and disciplinary compromise.

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