Given the stories of sexual abuse that assault us from every direction, it is possible that any public discussion of liturgy could be dismissed either as frivolous diversion or highly ideological sparring. Catholics have serious issues to discuss, moral ground to retake and an obvious evil to repel. In such a highly charged atmosphere, would we not be wasting our time talking about liturgy?
Serious reflection on Roman Catholic worship is neither a diversion nor an arcane exercise. Rather, it reveals how we are being church. The foundational concerns of worship are not banners, praise-hymns and rubrics but faith, ecclesiology and doctrine. The Second Vatican Council’s “Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy” taught that liturgy is the way we express and create our true self as church. The liturgy is “fount” and “summit” of the church’s life. The shaping and enactment of our worship unflinchingly exposes how we are shaping and enacting faith, ecclesial identity and belief.
In the current crisis, commentators are expending significant energy attempting to pinpoint the real issues underlying the abuse scandal. Some want to confine the conversation to a narrow consideration of sexual matters. An obvious example is the purported but unsubstantiated relationship between the projected number of priests with a homosexual orientation and acts of sexual abuse of young people. Others want to emphasize that the overarching problem is our lax approach to morality. The solution here is not just better training for seminarians but more emphasis on individual confession, Catholic moral teaching and formation in chastity for all. Some contend, however, that the heart of the crisis is not a few heinous clerics but a system turned in on itself, concerned with self-preservation and power, skilled in the arts of secrecy and intimidation.
Although it may seem unlikely, a consideration of the liturgical turmoil in the church could shed some light on the current sexual abuse scandal. In particular, this could provide corroborating evidence that the current crisis is not simply a matter of sexual abuse, but is about the use and abuse of power. The often secretive and autonomous ways in which some U.S. ecclesiastical officials have dealt with accusations of abuse within their jurisdictions are neither isolated nor confined to matters sexual. Rather they are reflective of a non-consultative, self-preserving form of governance that increasingly marks the church in the United States and in Rome. The ways in which the church has recently made important decisions about liturgy are pointedly illustrative of a growing authoritarianism in the church. Conversely, a reflection on the promise of liturgical reforms heralded by Vatican II could provide important direction for how the current crises—both sexual and liturgical—should be addressed.
While various aspects of the current liturgical turmoil have been reported, a brief overview reveals not only a stunning set of reversals but an unparalleled heavy-handedness in the processes leading up to them. In 1994, for example, the Vatican withdrew the confirmation it had given in 1992 to the U.S. bishops’ decision to employ the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible for liturgical use. Simultaneously permission to use the Psalter from the Revised New American Bible for liturgical use, approved by the U.S. bishops in 1991, was denied. The result was rejection of the Lectionary that the U.S. bishops had submitted in 1992, which relied upon these translations. In 1996 Rome required Bishop Anthony J. Pilla of Cleveland, then president of the N.C.C.B., to withdraw the U.S. bishops’ imprimatur (given in 1995) for the Psalms translated by the International Commission on English in the Liturgy. In 1997 Rome rejected the ordination rite that the U.S. bishops had approved and submitted in 1996, because of what Rome considered a flawed English translation.
Throughout these reversals, criticism of ICEL mounted. In October 1999 Cardinal Jorge Medina Estévez, prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship, insisted that a new constitution be drawn up for ICEL. In 2001 Rome published a new set of translation guidelines (Liturgiam Authenticam, “Authentic Liturgy”) that not only replaced the previously published guidelines of 1969, but radically reversed the principles for translation. This effectively changed the rules in the middle of the game. Consequently the ICEL translation of the Missal, which had been overwhelmingly approved by 11 English-language bishops’ conferences around the world over a 13-year process, was rejected, because it did not follow the principles published after the translation work and approval processes were completed.
The official demeaning of ICEL is so obvious and offensive that the outgoing chair of ICEL’s episcopal board, Bishop Maurice Taylor of Galloway, Scotland, believed it “a duty of conscience” to speak out. He wrote in a letter dated Aug. 9, 2002: “The impression is given, and indeed is seemingly fostered by some, that ICEL is a recalcitrant group of people, uncooperative, even disobedient. This is mistaken and untrue.... One is tempted to suspect that, no matter what ICEL does, its work will always be criticized by some because their minds are made up that the mixed commission is incorrigible and unworthy of continued existence.”
In March 2002 Rome refused a request from U.S. bishops for permission to allow extraordinary ministers of Communion to continue customs that have existed in many communities for almost 30 years. The new directives indicate that laity are no longer allowed to come to the altar during the Lamb of God; they cannot help in the breaking of the bread or in distributing wine into cups; they cannot communicate until after the priest has concluded his own Communion; and they cannot take any sacred vessel directly off the altar. Instead, these must be handed to them by a priest or deacon. Apart from such national or universal directives, highly publicized side skirmishes reveal Rome’s increasingly authoritarian approach to matters liturgical. Notable is the squabble over the renovation of the cathedral in Milwaukee and Rome’s unprecedented attempt to change its design.
Besides this litany of rejections and reversals, it is informative to consider the processes that accompanied, or failed to accompany, Rome’s actions. Following the rejection of the Lectionary, for example, a closed consultation was held in Rome in January 1995. One result of this consultation was the crafting of “secret norms” for translation by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. These norms were finally sent to the U.S. bishops just two weeks before their meeting in June 1997. Despite widespread objections to the secrecy of the process and to the way these secretly crafted norms modified decisions that had been made with the involvement of scores of well-known American scholars and approved by the U.S. bishops, such secret processes continued.
A further example of this secretive, non-consultative approach was the issuance of the new translation guidelines in 2001 (Liturgiam Authenticam). These guidelines regulate not only the translation of prayer texts but also the translation of biblical texts for worship. In that regard, this document instructs that the 1979 revised Latin version of St. Jerome’s Latin Bible (the Vulgate), called the Neo-Vulgate, must be the base text for all biblical translations. Besides the objections of individual scholars, the Catholic Biblical Association demonstrated the flaw in this decision and the process leading to it. In a letter to the U.S. bishops they called attention to the directive of Pope Paul VI (June 27, 1971) that “the [Pontifical Biblical] Commission must be consulted before the issuance of new norms on biblical matters.” Neither the Pontifical Biblical Commission nor any similar body contributed to the shaping of this document. In May 2001 various cardinals attending the extraordinary consistory in Rome pointedly spoke of the need for more collegiality. Liturgiam Authenticam was the example Cardinal Thomas Winning of Scotland invoked when he publicly insisted that Roman officials should consult more with bishops before promulgating documents.
Such liturgical developments are virtually never discussed outside Catholic circles, and even within the church are often viewed as the neuralgic concerns of a fussy few who are fixated on the obscurities of worship. Seen within the framework of Vatican II’s “Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy,” however, it is clear that liturgy is not essentially about rubrics, translations or books but about being church. It is not only the way we celebrate worship but also the way we go about shaping rubrics, translations and books for worship that also express and create who we are as church. From that perspective, the liturgical developments chronicled above symbolize a church that on many fronts has drawn back from the brink of collegiality and regressed to an authoritarian mode more in line with the Tridentine Mass (1570) than the rite issued under Paul VI (1969).
The current scandal over the handling of charges of sexual abuse appears to be a particular manifestation of this development. James Poling, in the title of his unsettling book, The Abuse of Power (1991), names the theological problem underlying sexual abuse. He identifies the issues in abuse as power and the abuse of power, manifest in sexual violence toward women and children. His study focuses not on the psychology of the abuser but on the overarching structures of domination that produce suffering. His analysis echoes many contemporary voices who reason that the problems undergirding the current crisis are not simply sexual, but are at their core issues of power and the preservation of unresponsive and secretive power structures. Poling’s strategy for healing led him to an analysis of God images and suggestions for revising those images. The liturgy of the Roman Catholic Church proposes a different strategy.
One of the most memorable statements of the “Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy” concerns active participation: “In the restoration and promotion of the sacred liturgy the full and active participation by all the people is the aim to be considered before all else, for it is the primary and indispensable source from which the faithful are to derive the true Christian spirit” (No. 14). If the liturgy is truly the font and summit of the church’s life, such active participation cannot be narrowly understood or confined to ritual enactment within the Sunday assembly. Full, conscious and active participation is needed in the liturgy and in the shaping of the liturgy. It is also needed in the shaping of our whole ecclesial life. Sensus fidelium is not the passive assent of believers but a dynamic reservoir of the Holy Spirit.
Does this mean that the church has to forgo its hierarchical structure, as defined in Vatican II’s “Dogmatic Constitution on the Church,” and turn into some new-age, democratic spiritual institute? The answer is no. The church can at once be hierarchical and collegial, magisterial and participatory. Just as the full, conscious and active participation of the faithful does not undercut or erase the dignity and importance of ordained ministry, so full, conscious and active participation of the faithful in the broader life of the church does not demean or erase the dignity and importance of the church’s hierarchy. It does, however, hold it accountable, and accountable we all should be. The eucharistic liturgy of the Latin church does not presume a distant mediator, with his back to the people, secretly praying and ritualizing outside their view, but an accessible shepherd facing the community and willing to engage in full and open dialogue. “The Lord be with you. And also with you” is not just an empty ritual interchange, but a time-honored rehearsal of the dialogic nature of the church.
Myriad voices in the United States are clamoring for such dialogue in the midst of the current sexual abuse scandal. Dialogue restricted to this topic alone, however, could be more damage control than true dialogue. Some bishops have publicly admitted that it is important for officials to listen to the people on how issues of sexual abuse should be handled in order to regain credibility. Hearing sessions are now in vogue. This is a great beginning, but why not continue them on the full range of issues (like liturgy) that touch ordinary believers’ lives? Hearing sessions should not be a remedy in time of crisis but a way of being church.
The “Constitution on the Liturgy” was the first document promulgated by Vatican II, and in many ways it set a tone for much of the forward-looking thinking that was to follow. Maybe it is time to reassert fully participatory Roman Catholic worship—in its preparation and celebration—as an appropriate symbol of and vehicle for the kind of forward-looking thinking the church so profoundly needs today.