Points of View

For those who do not have much interest in debates about liturgy, I apologize that this blog has become rather ‘liturgically obsessed’ of late.

One of the things this debate has made me think about is the futility of argument in these matters. Some of my friends who love the Mass of Blessed John XXIII pull out all their arguments and keep on firing away. They sometimes express frustration that I don’t answer their arguments. At times I am accused of being woefully ignorant on these matters or indifferent.

The real reason I try to avoid liturgical arguments is because I think they’re pretty much a waste of time. This is not to say that liturgy is unimportant. Neither is it to say that my friends’ arguments are empty or just plain wrong. Because I don’t come out slugging away with my own arguments, I sense that they believe me to be more of their opponent than I actually am.

In fact, as I have said numerous times, I’m actually happy about the recent moto proprio. I’m glad the Mass of Blessed John XXIII is going to be celebrated more frequently. I hear many of the complaints of those who love the traditional Mass and agree with them. I hear and understand many of their liturgical arguments and agree with them.

Where I part company is when they cease to be positive about the Mass of Blessed John XXIII and start to be negative about the Ordinary Form of Mass. Much of this is down to one of my guiding principles that ‘a man is most often right in what he affirms and wrong in what he denies.’ I find the same thing holds true in my conversations with Protestants. When they are affirming good things about the Christian faith I am almost always able to affirm those good things with them. When they start denying things that are Catholic, then we part company because I want to affirm those Catholic things too. So, for example, I can affirm with my Protestant friend that we are saved by faith, but when he denies the need for faithful good works as our co-operation with God’ s grace, well then we part ways.

The second reason I try to avoid liturgical disputes is that they usually try to focus on ‘facts’ and ‘objective reasons’. However, in this sort of debate it is very rare indeed to find any argument that is purely objective, and the more a disputant claims that the argument is objective, the more I have found (certainly in my own case) that the argument is even more deeply subjective. This is because we argue most strongly for the things we feel most strongly about and when we feel strongly about something it makes the argument subjective–not objective. Then when we try to claim loudly that the argument is ‘just plain true’ or ‘simply objective’ it is usually the most subjective, and even more so because we can’t see ourselves the subjectivity of our argument.

Finally, there is the matter of perspective. Very often an argument is loud and long because each disputant really, honestly, sincerely does believe that he has got a handle on the facts that the other fellow has not. Since both disputants believe this to be true, and both cannot agree, then there must be something else going on. The other thing that is ‘going on’ is that they are not really arguing about facts at all. They are arguing about the interpretation of the facts. Both disputants are actually looking at the same set of facts, but because of their perspective and prior assumptions (and a whole load of other subjective baggage) they interpret the facts in very different ways.

You may remember the old story of the six blind men who were presented with an elephant. One felt his tail and said, “This is an old leathery piece of rope frayed at one end” A second felt the trunk and said, “It is a big snake!” The third felt the ear and said, “It is a large leather blanket” The fourth felt the leg and said, “It is a tree.” The fifth felt the side of the elephant and said, “It is a wall.” The sixth felt the tusk and said, “a piece of bone.”

All of them were right. All of them were wrong.

It’s the same with all these quarrels back and forth about liturgy and religion. I try not to get too involved because we’re not really arguing about facts, we’re arguing about the interpretation of facts.

Allow me to give an example from the present debate. Those who love Latin in the Mass point out quite rightly that Vatican II documents say that Latin should have ‘pride of place’ in the liturgy. They assume that this means quite clearly that Latin should be used regularly, if not exclusively, and that the Mass of Blessed John XXIII should be the norm. However, what does ‘pride of place’ mean?

If I have a priceless antique set of family china and crystal I give it pride of place not by using it every day, but by putting it in a beautiful china cabinet. There I can see it and appreciate it, but every day I use the ordinary, nice serviceable stuff from Wal-Mart. On special occasions we get the china and crystal out and set the table for a wonderful celebration, and this too is how we grant it pride of place. One could argue that this is what is meant by giving Latin and Gregorian chant pride of place. It is to be retained, kept in good condition and used for solemn high celebrations within our liturgical life.

One may not agree with this interpretation, but it is just as valid an interpretation of those words as the interpretation which thinks the Latin must be used always and everywhere.

Because we are ultimately arguing about interpretation rather than the text itself and the facts of the case, the results cannot be more than subjective, and the disputants end up disagreeing anyhow, and because their argument are subjective there is really no final and definitive answer. (no matter how much the disputants wish there were) When we do require a final and definitive answer in some interpretive matter we can both look to the Church and accept her ruling. But even then the arguments often continue because people cannot agree on the interpretation of the interpretation!

Therefore, I really do think that such arguments are not only a waste of time, but they are one of the devil’s favorite games. How delighted he must be to see Catholics spending inordinate amounts of time quarrelling over liturgy and calling each other names and getting hot under the collar over rites and rubrics and religion when they ought to be getting on with the joyful and awesome task of following Christ, and sharing his salvation with the world.

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  • Very well said, Father!Although, you might forget, some people just argue because they like it, find it fun, and enjoy the intellectual exercise. Some of us are a tad crazy like that 🙂

  • James

    Crazy indeed!If you were right about this, Father, then there would be no norms for liturgy at all since everybody’s view would be as good as the next man and everyone could flout the norms as often as he liked.The fact is that the facts on liturgy are as objective as flint.It suits those who don’t want to find out or follow the truth about the liturgical traditions of the Catholic Church to pretend it’s all subjective but the reality is very different.You write:”They assume that this means quite clearly that Latin should be used regularly, if not exclusively, and that the Mass of Blessed John XXIII should be the norm.”No, wrong.The Council DOES mean that Latin should be the norm. If you knew your canon law you would understand that this is what it means.BUT that is not the basis for preferring the traditional mass (or Mass of John XXIII as you inaccurately call it just as Fr Jay used to call it the “Pian” mass).You are still attacking straw men, Father.Then you write:”One may not agree with this interpretation, but it is just as valid an interpretation of those words as the interpretation which thinks the Latin must be used always and everywhere.”No, sorry, it isn’t. You would not make this statement if you knew what you were talking about.You really do need to put in the research to avoid such egregious blunders.You now know that the Council did not mandate the vernacular but intended to keep both chant and Latin.Perhaps if you keep reading you will find out a few other things, too.Liturgy is not unimportant because, as Fr Jay rightly says on his blog, how we pray affects how we believe and how we believe affects whether we go to heaven or not.So these are, indeed, issues worth fighting for.And, as the English martyrs would tell you, worth dying for.Think about it!James

  • Anonymous

    So, people who are interested in liturgy shouldn’t discuss it? Lay people shouldn’t talk about things that only priests are suited to discuss? I have a hard time seeing this.Especially in a post that follows another post on comic book heroes, which in my view, is a waste of time.

  • Let anyone discuss liturgy to their heart’s content. Let them die for a rubric and condemn one another to eternal damnation for a maniple if they wish. My post was simply explaining why I choose to do better things (like enjoy superhero movies with my kids)

  • Once again James you make my point. If I wished to I could come back to you and say, ‘Oh no it isn’t! You need to read this book and that book and this cardinal has said thus and so and that liturgist has written such and such, and if you only knew as much as I know then you would see that I am right and you are wrong!”Then you would come back, “But that book isn’t the right book, and that cardinal was probably a secret freemason and a liberal, and that liturgist isn’t the right kind of liturgist. He may have all the degrees in liturgy and canon law in the world, but he’s not the right sort of liturgist because a good liturgist wouldn’t say what he says, and can’t you see what is so clear that may have cardinals and liturgists and books and liguists, but they are all the wrong ones and mine are the right ones, because I am right and you are wrong, and why can’t you just see that?”

  • James

    Dear Father,A somewhat ungracious reply, I think, especially as you are a priest and a priest is (meant to be) a sacred minister of the divine liturgy which is (meant to be) the perfection of praise for the God who created and saved us.That’s worth dying for, not a rubric; and one learns in the liturgy rather more than how to fit a maniple.The liturgy is about praising God which is what we will do for eternity in Heaven (if we get there).I think it is good that you, as a father, enjoy superhero films with your son but not so good that you, as a priest, take so little interest in the public worship of the Church for its Creator and Saviour, still less that you cannot take any kind of critical comment from others, even when you are wrong about something.Even your old friends at Bob Jones University would, I think, take some care over how they pray to God.It’s even more important for a Catholic priest. That’s partly what priests are for, to lead the people in publicly praying to the Almighty.If you’re not really that interested then perhaps you need to ask yourself a few searching questions.James

  • Anonymous

    Fr. Longenecker, you might reflect on this: the traditional liturgy of the Catholic Church “makes it possible for people, poor as well as rich, to transcend their cultural limitations, to rise above their cultural poverty and be citizens, or rather subjects, of an eternal city. The effect of the Church on the culture of the world, and in particular on the life of ‘common man,’ ought to be ennobling, ought to be affirming of an aristocratic status as a child of God, as a member of a royal priesthood, a people set apart. This does not happen when mass culture is ‘baptised’ by its use in the liturgy or when its idioms are taken to wrap the Church’s doctrines. Contrary to the rationale behind such pastoral projects, their ultimate effect is not to make the Church relevatn to the modern world, but to make it indistinguishable from the modern world, and this in turn makes it completely irrelevant (Tracey Rowland, “G.K. Chesterton and the Weeds of Aggiornamento.”)Janice

  • one little point of clarification. I refer to the Mass of Bl John XXIII because that is how the Holy Father refers to the Missal of 1962 throughout the moto proprio.

  • For heaven’s sake Jamie, haven’t you got a sense of proportion or a sense of humor? Of course I make every effort to be knowledgeable about liturgy and say Mass reverently. My language about rubrics and maniples was hyperbole and irony. If you hadn’t noticed, I’m not actually arguing for (or against) anything at all. You’re the one who is arguing, and I’m not even sure what you are arguing for, who you are arguing with, and whether I actually disagree with you.My position can be stated quite clearly on the whole matter of liturgy and Latin etc. It’s stated in the moto proprio. I agree with that. Why does it need to be more complicated?

  • Brian

    Fr. Dwight,I have absolutely no problem at all with Mass according to the Ordinary form. However, I also empathize with those who long for the Mass according to the Extraordinary form. I must admit that I would get tired of having to fight feverishly against “liturgists” who find every excuse in the book to squash interest in the Mass as it is celebrated according to the Missal of 1962, and some of the excuses I have read are just plain wrong. I would think that perhaps this is partly to blame for the negativity you find amongst those who prefer Mass according to the Extraordinary form.

  • Dear Father,One of the most important questions to ask is ‘Why were these changes made to the Mass?’ ‘What were the theological reasons behind them?’Answer those honestly and you very quickly become one of us much maligned ‘traditionalists.’If you haven’t already read it I would recommend Mgr Gambers ‘The Reform of the Roman Liturgy: Its Problems and its Background.’ The foreword was written by Cardinal Ratzinger.I would finally add that a liturgy that has remained essentially unchanged for thirteen centuries and has thus sanctified thirteen centuries of Western saints, and been celebrated by thirteen centuries of Popes, Bishops and Priests has absolutely nothing to prove to anybody.A Missal that is just 37 years old which has been used during an age of such terrible collapse has absolutely everything to prove. If my fellow young Catholics (I am 20) are anything to go by I don’t give the new Mass another 37 years as the ‘ordinary form.’ When I go to Mass I see two age groups dominating.1. Elderly people who has their hearts broken by the most terrible assault on immemorial custom and the rights of the laity that the Church has ever seen.2. Young families. Students. It is quite amazing that I need introduce a fellow student to the traditional Mass once and, they will start to travel miles with me to get too another. I took an atheiest to a new Mass in English, ad orientem and celebrated with great reverance and sacred music and it didn’t move him at all. He moaned about it. I took him the next day to a very simple Low Mass in the old rite and he couldn’t think of a bad thing to say. He was visibly moved by the sense of the sacred and the devotion of the congregation.The new Mass is a product of its time and will die with its time.The traditional Mass is immemorial and will last until the end of the world.

  • Anonymous

    Has Holy Mother Church never before seen such an age of terrible collapse? Is this the first time that people walked away from the Church in droves? Not. It has much more to do with education and society than what Mass is celebrated. Sharon

  • The real reason I try to avoid liturgical arguments is because I think they’re pretty much a waste of time.Bingo.As a seminarian, the way I explain my lack of interest in the Liturgy Wars:”I’d much rather contemplate God than contemplate people contemplating God.”James says, “…especially as you are a priest and a priest is (meant to be) a sacred minister of the divine liturgy which is (meant to be) the perfection of praise for the God who created and saved us.”Who said anything about perfection? Liturgy is about a lot of things; perfection isn’t one of them.I can’t speak for Fr. Dwight, but I can certainly speak for myself. I go to Mass every single day, and if all I did was fume about a lack of perfection, I’d have left the seminary a long time ago.

  • I think I love you. (with a Christian love, o’ course)Well said!

  • and I love you too (in a Christian and ironical sense of course…)