The last decade has been an uneasy one for those committed to the liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council. It opened with the Congregation for Divine Worship’s rejection, in 2001, of a new English translation of the Roman Missal more than 20 years in the making. In 2007, two years after his election, Pope Benedict issued Summorum Pontificum, which allowed for wider use of the preconciliar Roman Missal of 1962. Most recently, on Jan. 24 of this year, the pope lifted the excommunications of four bishops from the schismatic Society of St. Pius X, known for their ardent opposition to the reformed liturgy.
These actions at the highest levels of the church have found an echo at the grass roots in a movement calling for a “reform of the reform.” While supporters of the movement remain a minority among Catholics, they often make up in persistence and commitment what they lack in numbers. Over the last 10 years, a number of books have appeared that take issue with aspects of the reform, including Alcuin Reed’s The Organic Development of the Liturgy, Uwe Michael Lang’s Turning Toward the Lord: Orientation in Liturgical Prayer and, of course, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s The Spirit of the Liturgy.
John Baldovin’s new book, Reforming the Liturgy: A Response to the Critics, attempts to assess this body of criticism. A liturgical historian who has trained a generation of seminarians and lay ministers, Baldovin, who is a Jesuit priest, is well poised to make a contribution to the debate. More than merely a “response,” his book is an excellent field guide, providing an introduction to the best known critics and an in-depth review of the disputed issues.
The material in the book is roughly divided into two parts. In the first, Baldovin provides an introduction to the principal critics of the reformed liturgy, organized by discipline. These include, among others, the philosophers Catherine Pickstock and Jonathan Robinson, the historians Klaus Gamber and Alcuin Reid, and the anthropologists Victor Turner and David Torvell. Baldovin also devotes an entire chapter to the liturgical theology of Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI. The last is particularly useful given Benedict’s obvious centrality in the contemporary debate over the liturgy.
In the second half of the book, Baldovin looks at the issues at the center of contemporary debates over the liturgy. He provides an assessment of the specific changes sought by many of those seeking to “reform the reform,” such as a preference for worship ad orientem, a return to the exclusive use of the Roman Canon, a retrieval of many of the prayers of the 1962 Roman Missal and an end to distributing Communion in the hand. Baldovin strives to be evenhanded in his treatment of these topics and grants the critics a number of points. Overall, though, he holds that many of the proposed cures are worse than the disease.
As a liturgical historian, Baldovin is strongest when addressing the ways in which critics of the reformed liturgy use (and sometimes misuse) history. He argues well and persuasively that the liturgical reforms implemented after the Second Vatican Council reflected the will of the council and were strongly supported by Pope Paul VI and the overwhelming majority of the world’s bishops. He also criticizes the view—popular among traditionalists—that the reforms departed from certain principles of “organic development” that had governed liturgical reform prior to Vatican II. While conceding that the council’s reforms did represent dramatic change, Baldovin questions whether the Roman Rite has ever had the degree of unchanging stability that many critics of the reform seem to assume. He ultimately turns the metaphor of an “organic” liturgical tradition back upon the critics, asking, “Is it not possible or necessary that broken limbs must be reset to become useful again to the whole organism?”
The book is somewhat weaker in dealing with criticisms of the reformed liturgy that come from the perspective of anthropology and ritual studies. Baldovin offers, for example, a strong challenge to the anthropologist Victor Turner’s idealization of the pre-conciliar Mass, but he is less successful in challenging Turner’s claim that the celebration of the reformed rites often lacks the sense of liminality proper to ritual worship.
While he is critical of the positions taken by many of the authors he reviews, Baldovin is sympathetic to some of their concerns. He concedes the point that the reformed liturgy can suffer from a surplus of words and poverty of gesture. Baldovin is also skeptical about recent trends in church architecture, commenting with some obvious frustration that “we need to stop designing churches that look like slightly out of date living rooms.” More fundamentally, he argues that we must “combat the narcissistic notion that liturgy exists primarily for us to ‘get something out of it,’” and recapture the notion that it is first and foremost God’s gift and God’s action.
These are welcome and necessary words. To the extent that the movement to “reform the reform” is gaining adherents, it is probably less because they are convinced of the timeless value of the 1962 missal and more because of negative experiences with the current rites. Defenders of the reformed liturgy may need to recover the spirit of the late Aidan Kavanaugh, O.S.B., who combined an uncompromising defense of the reformed liturgy with withering criticism of incompetence in its celebration. Baldovin may lack Kavanaugh’s rhetorical edge, but his book remains an important step in the right direction.