Sacrosanctum Concilium was meant to revitalize the Church's liturgy, but it led to liturgical collapse instead. What went wrong?
The following article was commissioned by Aleteia on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the promulgation of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium.
It is interesting that the liturgy of the Church was the first major subject to be discussed and lively debated by the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council, who accepted the final draft of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy by an overwhelming 2,147 votes to four. Sacrosanctum Concilium (SC) is in truth a splendid document, the fruit of a liturgical movement seeking to bring to the attention of the entire Church the riches of Catholic tradition regarding the worship of God. Catholic scholars had been eager to draw upon the rich fount of liturgical experience rooted in the mystagogic theology of the Fathers of the Church from both East and West. Such classic works as Joseph A. Jungmann, S.J.’s The Mass of the Roman Rite: Its Origin and Development, Joseph Ratzinger’s The Spirit of the Liturgy, Dietrich von Hildebrand’s Liturgy and Personality, Maurice Zundel’s Splendour of the Liturgy, Romano Guardini’s The Church and the Catholic and the Spirit of the Liturgy, and Dom Theodore Wesseling’s Liturgy and Life sought to make the faithful aware of the centrality of Christ in their lives and their encountering him who created and redeemed mankind in the public worship of the Church.
As the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy noted, the sacred liturgy of the Church “is principally the worship of the Divine Majesty” and “the summit towards which the activity of the Church is directed; it is also the fount from which all her power flows” (SC 33 and 10). Again, it observed:
Addressing the Problems
Clearly,Sacrosanctum Concilium sought to deepen the faithful’s understanding of the spirit of the liturgy and awareness of its power to transform them into saints. The words of the great philosopher Dietrich von Hildebrand are applicable regarding the intention of the Council Fathers, who had profited from a liturgical movement dedicated to promoting a greater participation in the Mass and sacraments that would enable all the faithful to live more intimately the life of the Church, which is the life of Christ himself :
In its doctrinal and pedagogical exposition of the nature of Catholic liturgy, the Council Fathers saw the need to overcome the exaggerated rubricism, formalism, clericalism, and other barriers (including language) which impeded the laity’s full liturgical participation as well as a greater appreciation of the Mass’s theological richness. Certain deficient spiritual attitudes such as pragmatism, consumerism, careerism, and contentment with mediocrity that gripped the mentality of too many clergy needed correction. The lay Christian at Mass was to be freed from the role of a mere ‘spectator’ and being satisfied with merely fulfilling his Sunday Mass obligation. Laity motivated by the love of Christ in the Liturgy were rather to be active and informed apostles in spreading the Faith. Little did the Council Fathers and the faithful in general realize there would, in Cardinal Ratzinger’s words, occur a “collapse” of the liturgy. There would result not a revitalization of liturgical celebration and practice, but devastation. “What happened after the Council was totally different: in the place of liturgy as the fruit of development came fabricated liturgy,” the Cardinal wrote in his introduction to a book critical of the results of liturgical reform by Msgr. Klaus Gamber.
It is not an exaggeration to say that a “liturgical revolution” manned by “liturgical terrorists” intent on profaning and secularizing the liturgy would grip the Church in all the Western nations. Millions became alienated from the Catholic Church by the incredible experimentation, faddism, and introduction of eccentric practices into the celebration of Mass. The U.S. would witness millions of former Catholics (constituting now10% of the U.S. population) abandoning the Church herself, since they no longer sensed her supernatural and spiritual character. Mass attendance among the remaining Catholics would plummet. Today, only 30% of professed Catholics regularly attend Mass, which Sacrosanctum Concilium declared to be “a sacred action surpassing all others.” No other action of the Church can equal its efficacy, since it is the action of Christ the High Priest himself celebrating “the Eucharist in which the victory and triumph of His death are again made present” (SC 6).
For the proponents of “Americanized liturgy” active in “Offices of Liturgy,” the crucial distinction between the sacred and the profane had simply disappeared from their theological horizon. Trendy theologians who had thrown the works of the great Fathers and Scholastic doctors into modern dumpsters followed in the wake of Hans Küng, Edward Schillebeeckx, and Karl Rahner. In challenging the teachings of the Magisterium, they gave their support to liturgical innovators who, like them, were promoting an anti-papal democratic and congregationalist ecclesiology. The ignoring of the essentially theocentric and Christocentric nature of Catholic liturgy and replacing traditional sacral liturgy with informal, casual, and spontaneous celebrations had tragic consequences. This was inevitable given the widespread de-emphasis on the teaching of Catholic doctrine, particularly the notion of the Mass as Sacrifice and Paschal Banquet, a foretaste on earth of the “heavenly liturgy.”
Liturgy was no longer seen by millions of Catholics in the pews to be the celebration of the sacred mysteries of Christ; no longer the experience of the sacred and the holy, the glorification of God and the sanctification of men. The Holy Sacrifice as the “re-presentation of Calvary” on Catholic altars appeared transformed into the celebration of human creativity and the experience of humanitarian benevolence and fulfillment by American Pelagians chattering endlessly about “luv”. Doubtless, future historians will document in detail the happenings in American dioceses manifesting post-conciliar liturgical confusion, conflict, and disintegration that destroyed for millions of believers the capacity for prayer, interior recollection, and contemplation of heavenly things. This unhappy situation was also facilitated by the near disappearance of sacred music in the Mass. The gravity of the liturgical upheavals leading to the loss of faith of millions of Catholics in the increasingly secularized West can also be measured by the tragedy of the Lefebvrist schism, which continues despite the heroic efforts of Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI to reconcile the Society of St. Pius X to full communion.
As one examines the state of the liturgy in American parishes today – one which, sadly, remains in a state of general impoverishment – one will note the seeds of a genuine liturgical revival evident in some parishes. The exhortations and efforts of Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI to restore solemnity, dignity and decorum in the liturgy have borne fruit among younger priests. The new English translation of the Roman Missal and the wider use encouraged by Pope Benedict XVI for the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Mass have already had a healthy effect in restoring the sense of the sacred among priests and people. Individual bishops have acted to deal with liturgical abuses; Portland Archbishop Alexander K. Sample’s pastoral letter on sacred music in divine worship, “Rejoice in the Lord Always,” is a model of what can be done to implement in dioceses the thought of Vatican II concerning sacred music, which is considered an essential element of worship “in spirit and in truth”.
What will the future bring? Hopefully, the prayer of the long-suffering faithful will bring about a “springtime of beauty” for Catholic liturgy.
James Likoudis is the President Emeritus of Catholics United for the Faith (CUF) and an expert on family life, liturgy, and eastern Christianity. His books include The Pope, the Council and the Mass and The Divine Primacy of the Bishop of Rome and Modern Eastern Orthodoxy: Letters to a Greek Orthodox on the Unity of the Church. He currently sits on Aleteia’s Board of Experts.