Big Ben’s new counter-reformation?

While it is hard to explain to outsiders, one of the most fascinating battles in the American Catholic church today is the one that pits the kneelers vs. the non-kneelers. I refer, of course, to the issue of whether bishops should — bowing to the modernization of ancient rites — attempt to prevent the faithful from kneeling before the altar as they receive Holy Communion during the Mass.

Let me explain: If people are allowed to kneel, that would mean that the Latin Mass is coming back and the next thing you know the pope will be seeking draconian student-life codes on Catholic campuses that prevent student funds from being used for activities that directly attack Catholic doctrine. It would be like the reforms of the Second Vatican Council never happened (or the spirit of the council has been quenched or something like that). Horrors. Then again, I am Eastern Orthodox, so I am biased.

This liturgical war is the subject that looms behind this fascinating, but consistently shallow, Washington Post piece that ran under the headline, “Pope’s master of liturgy helps Benedict restore traditions.”

The bad guy in this piece is Monsignor Guido Marini, the relatively young Master of Pontifical Liturgical Celebrations for Pope Benedict XVI. The good guy is Archbishop Piero Marini, who held this post for two decades. The young man is into all (or most) things ancient. The older man is into all (or most) things modern and progressive.

The battle ground? The sights, sounds, smells and rubrics of the rites celebrated by the man who sites in the throne of St. Peter. Why does this matter? Change the words and the rites and you eventually change the doctrines. Both Marinis know that. Using the most loaded of images, the Post even suggests that the young liturgist is, with this pope, attempting a “counter-reformation.” Is that with our without a large “R”?

Here’s a sample of the warfare:

Since the Marini II era began in October 2007, the papal Masses clearly have a stronger traditional element. Guido Marini, who has degrees in canon and civil law and a doctorate in the psychology of communication, caused considerable consternation among some progressive Catholics in January when he talked to English-speaking priests about a “reform of the reform.”

In an interview Thursday, he argued that the changes should not be seen as a liturgical backlash to modernity but as a “harmonious development” in a “continuum” that takes full advantage of the church’s rich history and is not subject to what he has called “sporadic modifications.” Liturgical progressives, like Bishop Donald Trautman of Erie, Pa., are concerned that Marini considers the reforms of the 1960s ecumenical council known as Vatican II as being among those sporadic modifications.

At most papal Masses, a large crucifix flanked by tall candles is now displayed on the altar, even though many progressives say the ornaments block the view of the priest and the bread and wine. They argue that this obstructs the accessibility urged by liturgical reforms associated with the Second Vatican Council. Marini responds by saying that the crucifix reminds the faithful of who is really front and center in the Mass. He also says that the pope cannot sit in front of the altar when it bears the crucifix because “the pope can’t give his back” to sacraments on the altar.

Keep reading. It’s all here — Gregorian chants, fancy vestments, a few Latin rites, etc.

What is NOT here is the crucial third level of the drama. The story demonstrates that a battle is going on and even gives a few insights into what the battle is about. What is missing? That would be voices on the left or the right (but mainly the right) who can explain what the symbols represent. Readers are not allowed to listen to the doctrinal debates that add substance to the symbols.

In other words, what do these liturgical changes MEAN? Why are these fights packed with so much substance and emotion? Take this passage for example:

Piero Marini, who stepped down in 2007 after serving as the master of celebrations for 20 years, has championed the Vatican II reforms, including the simplification of rites that he believes facilitates active participation.

In the name of “inculturation,” or integrating church rites with local customs, the silver-haired Marini in 1998 accepted the request of local bishops to allow a troupe of scantily clad Pacific islanders in St. Peter’s Basilica to honor the pope with a dance during the opening liturgy of the Synod for Oceania. During John Paul II’s visit to Mexico City in 2002, Marini likewise granted a local bishop’s wish to let an indigenous Mexican shaman exorcise the pope during a Mass there.

Now that is a quick glimpse of true substance, a window into the third layer of the issues addressed in this news report.

Note: A practitioner of another religion — Catholic, polytheistic or some fusion of the two? — is allowed to exorcise demons from the pope, during a Mass. The Post flies right by this. Where are the voices that interpret the meaning of this extraordinary moment? Which divine power is casting out evil forces from the leader of the Catholic faith?

Methinks that the discussions behind closed Vatican doors about the theology built into that act probably lasted for more than a few moments. This was not idol chatter.

This is a great subject for a story. It contains many details linked to topics that are genuinely newsworthy. But where is the substance, other than the old theme that nasty people locked into the past still want to crush the brave voices of the new?

Print Friendly

About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Jerry

    I might surprise someone but I agree with you. Too much news coverage is like listening to a boxing match on the radio. We hear play by play as blows are traded back and forth but that’s it. Someone once challenged me to read a headline and then the story looking for anything meaningful in the story that was not already summarized in the headline. It’s a depressing exercise, perhaps, but I have reduced the time I waste reading news stories quite a bit. Occasionally I spot a story with some depth to it but too often the coverage is superficial whether it be religion or even political.

  • tmatt


    A key point: Even though I think the story assumes that the left is right and the right is wrong (if B16 can truly be called “right” on the issues at hand), I was sincere when I said that we are not even told the left’s INFORMATION about why it believes what it believes about specific issues in the rites. I mean, “It’s an attack on Vatican II” is a kind of reason, but it’s a straw man answer. I have heard sharp, knowledgeable voices on the Catholic left give real answers on, say, the kneeling question and on Latin rites. There are real answers and real debates ON BOTH SIDES. That content can be written in public media, not the old straw people shadow boxing.

  • Henry

    Fascinating. I’d say the exorcism thing merits a separate article, although it wouldn’t be of interest to a large portion of the Post’s readership. In addition to what you mentioned, I would love to hear more about that bishop who wanted to let the Pope exorcised and what his rationale was.

    PS sorry to always be the typo police but you might want to fix “with -our- without a large R”

  • Jeffrey

    The bad guy in this piece is Monsignor Guido Marini, the relatively young Master of Pontifical Liturgical Celebrations for Pope Benedict XVI. The good guy is Archbishop Piero Marini, who held this post for two decades. The young man is into all (or most) things ancient. The older man is into all (or most) things modern and progressive.

    I’m mystified by this critique. Could you be more specific about how so-called good guys and bad guys were staked out in the piece. I just don’t see it.

  • Paul Moses

    It’s pretty rare for a daily newspaper to write about liturgical controversy, even though it matters to the people in the pews more than other religion subjects that get far more coverage. It’s not an easy story to do for a general audience. The reporter has succeeded in getting two Vatican officials with contrasting views to speak on the record at some length, no easy feat. The Post and its reporter should be thanked for running this story, not treated this way. Your analysis is harsh.

  • Julia

    Liturgical progressives, like Bishop Donald Trautman of Erie, Pa.,

    Couldn’t resist passing on to GRistas that the very P.C. Bishop Trauman has earned the nickname Bishop Fishperson.

    caused considerable consternation among some progressive Catholics in January when he talked to English-speaking priests about a “reform of the reform.”

    In an interview Thursday, he argued that the changes should not be seen as a liturgical backlash to modernity but as a “harmonious development” in a “continuum” that takes full advantage of the church’s rich history

    The “reform of the reform” and the emphasis on maintaining a “continuum” with the church’s history are notions from the new Marini’s boss – namely, Benedict XVI. How can progressives be shocked at Marini carrying out his boss’s intentions.

  • Rev. Michael Church

    You are right that the story doesn’t include much by way of interpretation. It would be good to be told what either Marini (or Benedict) believes the symbols mean. Obviously, there is a disagreement about what constitute the “essential things,” in the younger Marini’s words.

    On the other hand, I’m not sure how much of that a newspaper can handle. The fact is that the liturgical arguments can get technical very fast, and is likely to overwhelm most readers. Does every article on, say, a Tea Party event need to include sidebars on tax policy and Constitutional history?

    Either way, I agree with Paul Moses, above: it’s very, very hard to find the “good guys / bad guys” typology that you seem to think is written into the story. Maybe the line about liturgy “as God intended it” could be read as a bit of snark – but maybe not. (And I guess the reference to a paisley chasuble in the final paragraph, maybe. Maybe.) If you really think there’s clear bias in the story, rather than just failure to put meat on the bones, could you spell it out a little for us?

  • Bern

    Julia, thanks for the newsflash Julia on Bishop Trautman’s “alias”. How kind and utterly beside the point.

  • Julia

    “Fishperson” is only mildly beside the point.

    Bishop Trautman has relentlessly pressed gender neutrality and other types of politically correct and simplified language in the new Mass translations. These new translations are aimed at restoring historical continuity that the current translations have covered up – such as Biblical references.

    Baltimore, Md., Nov 18, 2009 / 04:27 pm (CNA).- On Tuesday, a motion from Bishop Donald Trautman of Erie, Penn. to reject the new liturgical translations failed to garner sufficient votes from the U.S. bishops. The prelates went on to approve the new liturgical texts which will be implemented in the U.S. beginning in 2010.

    Bishop Trautman, who has headed the bishops’ liturgy committee in the past and is a strong supporter of gender-neutral translations, tried to stop the vote on the new liturgical texts by arguing that handing the translation of antiphons for the Psalms to the Congregation for Divine Worship at the Vatican was in violation of Church laws.


  • Bern

    OK, bringing up Trautman and his views on the new so-called English translation of the Mass could be relevant but name-calling is juvenile, whether it’s the lefties and the “Panzer Pope” or the righties and “Bishop Fishman”. No wonder the MSM likes to target the RCC: we give them all the ammo they need to make us look stupid.

    Bishop Trautman is not alone in his criticisms of the texts, but the coverage from CNA is no more balanced than that of NCR. For anyone interested in seeing a side-by-side on the texts here is the US Conference of Catholic Bishops’s side-by-side comparison of most of the texts:

  • Passing By

    The Post story illustrated well the stupidity of applying the liberal/conservative political model to Catholic (or other religious) matters. I was Catholic nearly 20 years before I realized that all concerned Catholics argue about the liturgy because it truly is the core of our common experience.

    The story also suffers from a failure to recognize that the actual liturgical changes are more a function of post-council activities than the Council itself. If one pays attention to the texts of Vatican II, as opposed to the ethereal Spirit of Vatican II, one realizes that Benedict’s “Reform of the Reform” (itself a concept at least 15 years old) is not a reversal of the Council at all.

  • Julia

    “Bishop Fishman”.

    It’s Fishperson – don’t want to leave out fishes other than trout or persons other than men. I didn’t invent the moniker, but it got my attention b/c it’s a much more light-hearted jibe than Panzer Pope.

    Actually, I think many of Bishop Trautman’s positions & criticisms are accurate.

  • Kristen McGuire

    Part of what makes this news in the US is that the liturgical translations of the official Mass in English will be changing in Advent of 2011. These changes were mandated from the Vatican and are intended to ensure that the English more precisely matches the Latin. However, the changes are very upsetting to some who view the “right” wing of the Church as imposing their liturgical preferences upon the mainstream.

    For my part, I echo Augustine – lex orandi, lex credendi. We believe the words that we pray on a regular basis, in fact, I would say that we become what we pray. And, the more precise words of the new translation do have their detractors and adherents. This is the problem with the story, in that the journalist doesn’t even mention this. And, in fact, I would argue that his audience could really care less about this. The bias is seen from sourcing only from the National Catholic Reportter. There is ample evidence that the younger generation as a whole is a LOT more into the smells, bells and ancient traditions.

    I think that tmatt oversimplifies a bit by focusing on the kneeling and seeing the divide there. Actually, the divide in my view is more complex. It comes down to being obedient to your local bishop, even when you disagree with him, left, right, center or whatever. The norm in the U.S. church, as far as I understand it, is that one makes a profound bow before receiving communion. Those who insist on receiving while kneeling in the average U.S. church where everyone else is not bowing are just as focused on their navels as those who are busy bad-mouthing the upcoming changes.

    Considering the audience, I think this piece brought out interesting details of a trend that will require more ink in the coming years. Let’s hope he researches it well.

  • Kristen McGuire

    oops that wasn’t Augustine… but the concept of lex orandi, lex credendi is the missing piece that tmatt noted, rationale from the right.

  • tmatt

    I think that tmatt oversimplifies a bit by focusing on the kneeling and seeing the divide there. Actually, the divide in my view is more complex.


    Oh, I know that there are MANY other issues in this complex divide. I was simply citing that as an EXAMPLE of an issue in this article that could be unpacked.

  • Jack

    Here’s what the the reality is regarding this battle. The Latin Mass in low and high form is growing by HUNDREDS of percent. I’m thinking particularly of Germany where the figure of 480% Latin Mass growth since the motu proprio was released. In the US the liberal Bishops have dragged their feet and sometimes have flat out denied folks who have requested a regular Latin mass so their “official statistics” show that “not many people are interested in the Latin Mass.” That of course is a crock and the people most interested in the Latin mass are YOUNG people which is a frightening prospect to most of these liberal bishops.

    Lets face facts, Vatican 2 was a mistake and has led to great disarray and apostasy within the Church and the changes will be completely rolled back by a future pontiff.

    With the novus ordo mass. People are voting with their feet and not attending this mass thus leading to Church closings EVERYWHERE. The Detroit Archdiocese just announced another round of Church closings. Meanwhile the Latin Mass I attend frequently has to put out fold up chairs to acommodate the overflow.

  • Bain Wellington

    May I revert at length to the good guy/ bad guy typology? The starting point is self-evidently the antithesis: Vatican II good, anti-Vatican II bad. Whether Guido is anti-Vatican II is more or less taken for granted on the basis of what his opponents have said:- Guido is all for what “some church liberals interpret as the harbinger of a counter-reformation”; Piero has championed the Vatican II reforms and “has expressed wariness about the rollback of liturgical reforms”; there is a “schism between the Marinis”. That’s the broad brush. It’s clear who is on the side of the angels as far as the journalist is concerned.

    Going into detail, consider the treatment of papal vestments under the new dispensation: (1) “[Guido] adjusted the pontiff’s lush robes”; (2) “he . . makes sure that every candle, Gregorian chant and gilded vestment is exactly as he, the pope and God intended it to be”; (3) ” Some of the key trappings of the Mass – the vestments and vernacular, the “smells and bells” – have taken on a more ancient air “; (4) “Perhaps the most apparent and luxurious sign of the new era is the pope’s vestments”; (5) “the pope opted for a paisley patterned crimson and gold chasuble, while [Guido], his fingers tented in front of him, wore a white cotta with breezy lace sleeves over a purple cassock”.

    Leaving aside the crass attempt at (5) to treat liturgical vestments as a fashion statement, it is evident, is it not, that the new dispensation is being relentlessly presented as arch, self-regarding, obscure, fussy, over-indulgent, extravagant, etc.

    What is there on the other side? (a) “Piero, 68, is a gruff is a gruff Vatican veteran, a progressive who advocates a more modern ritual that reflects the great church reforms of the 1960s”; (b) “Piero . . championed the Vatican II reforms, including the simplification of rites that he believes facilitates active participation”.

    The problem with this identification of Piero as pro-Vatican II, pro-simplification of rites, is that he promoted (under guise of an incoherent “inculturation” which disregarded the specific concerns of Vatican II) a ballooning of complex, disturbing and distracting liturgical novelties (mostly ad hoc) which have no relevance to the “great church reforms of the 1960′s” and in some cases no relevance to anything understandable as Catholic liturgy at all:- viz. the shamanistic exorcism quoted without any sense of incongruity after the applause of Guido as a progressive “who advocates a more modern ritual . . including the simplification of rites”.

  • John Mack

    Surely Bishop Fishman is divinely inspired, the fish being one of the most ancient symbols of Christ.

  • Joe

    Just a quick example of how the changes effected me. I’m 28 and got married last September. My wife and I asked the priest at the church we got married to perform the marriage rite according to 1962 rite. The priest purposely performed the rite wrong and only used the epistle and gospel according to the rite. We started realizing slowly about this “war” in the church at that point. Since then we have found a church in the diocese that offers the Latin rite (funny enough it is in an area that no one wants to go to) and my wife now sees how much of a difference there is between the two rites. In that time we have attended the post Vatican 2 rite twice and both times my wife has cried because she feels like her church life growing up has been a scam.
    I have a question. When did the church change focus from the God that it worships to the people. It seems to me now that the people think they are more important than God.

  • charlie

    Joe above mentions THE change. We no longer enter the big doors with the reverence & awe of past times. God is not worshipped and adored in His own house as He deserves.

  • TeaPot562

    If you want most of the congregation to understand, word by word and phrase by phrase what is being said at Mass, then the OF celebrated with proper dignity s/b your preference. Speaking as an altar-boy trained in the 1940s, I know how to follow the Mass in a missal; but I also was aware that many in the congregation, at least in May and October, were praying the rosary aloud until the ringing of the Sanctus bell.
    So the 1962 missal has the defect that most present don’t know what the presider is saying; and the post V-II missal has (IMO) the defect that many presiders try to ad lib instead of following the prescribed words. This ad libbing detracts from dignity, and leaves the congregation somewhat confused. This is especially true when the presider doesn’t use the prescribed wording at the Orate Fratres (which leaves the congretation wondering when to start “May the Lord receive . . .”)
    Very few of the priests currently in North America have been trained in the pre-V-II Mass. This fact hinders bishops from acceding to requests from those who would like the earlier form celebrated more frequently.

  • http://none em vicary

    The second Vatican was good. The changes in the liturgy, etc. made it seem bad.The changes made by the progressives
    did not produce any good effects on the liturgy,the
    religious communities and the Church as a whole.

    The Mass should be all about Jesus and not people feeling
    good because the priest is now facing us and everybody has to be disturbed and distracted by giving each other
    the sign of peace. Jesus is our peace, not the shaking of hands.I think the writer is biased against Guido Marini.

  • Passing By

    Oh,good grief. People who cared knew what was going on in Latin; people who don’t care are as clueless in the vernacular as they were in the old day. Read the polls.

  • Joe

    The author and all of us speak of changes in the church over the last 40-50 years. But I for one did not really grasp the gravity of the situation. For the better part of 2000 years we had the height of the “smells and bells” and can judge from history how well the church accomplished its mission set forth some 2000 years ago. There have been the ups and downs but always remember that humans direct the day to day movement of the the Catholic Church. And as we all know, we humans have our flaws.
    Below I attached some statistics that I have found. I’m not saying that they are 100% true because I can not verify any of them but even if they are off 10%-20% you can get the idea of the era of Piero Marini, who’s mentor Archbishop Bugnini started this movement, and the era of Guido Marini, who had the same ideals as the pre-Vatican II hierarchy.

    The following statistics are about priests, and only priests, leaving the priesthood.

    From 1914 to 1962, 810 requests for dispensations were submitted, of which 315 were approved and 495 rejected. From 1964 to 1988, the requests received totaled 44,890, of which 39,149 were granted and 5,741 denied, for a total of 39,464 dispensations granted and 6,236 rejected out of 45,700 requests received by the congregation for the doctrine of the faith.

    Using the most recent figures available, it reported that between Aug. 1, 2005 and Oct. 20, 2006, the Vatican had received 904 requests for dispensation, including some from deacons.

    The requests came from the following countries: 185 from the United States, 119 from Italy, 60 from Spain, 59 from Brazil, 52 from Poland, 48 from Mexico, 32 from Germany, 31 from the Philippines, 29 from Argentina, 27 from India, 26 from France, 23 from Ireland, 22 from Canada and so on. “La Civilta Cattolica,” however, gave no indication of how many left the priesthood without requesting dispensation.