Tuesday, October 23


"Reform of the Reform" and Neo-Traditionalism

Over a long period of time, it has increasingly been my opinion that the "Reform of the Reform," and many of its leading proponents in the blogosphere, have exhibited an increasing narrowness of vision and tendency towards hitching its wagon to the classically "traditionalist" agenda. This tendency is counterproductive both in the present and the future, and, if not addressed, could lead to more rather than less liturgical polarization in the Church, repeating rather than resolving the problems of the past.

In its initial stages, the "Reform of the Reform" was a novel and intriguing idea - a reconsideration of the liturgical reforms of the 1960's and 70's, especially in their applications on the ground and the myths that were perpetuated of a rupture between past and future. Indeed, in this respect, it is still important and necessary. In recent years, however, and especially in the wake of the motu proprio, many proponents of the "Reform of the Reform" have become overly "restorationist" in their thinking and the kind of things they promote. This can be seen especially in a recent list of "flagship parishes," which chooses what I find to be a very narrowly constituted selection of parishes that exhibit more the thinking of what the "Reform of the Reform" agenda wants at the moment than what such a reform actually calls for. Indeed, it comes off largely as a selection of conservative havens than as anything else, and ignores the fact that there may be elements of their constituencies (and clergy) that, by catering to those "in" on the prevalent way of thinking (which is not always necessarily the only conclusion of being an orthodox believer), end up alienating many others who, all things being equal, might like to worship there. Furthermore, the praise of such places, which often comes off as ludicrously gushing, ignores and downgrades the significance of other places in the same cities by making it appear like they are the "only show in town." Once again, this comes off as promoting ideological havens instead of pointing to the richness and legitimate diversity of beautiful liturgy in the Church.

Essentially, the problem with much "reform of the reform" discussion out there right now is it displays a contentment with being a phenomenon of the ecclesial right, rather than moving towards or seeking to really influence the center. Thus, the tendency to exalt places that, beautiful liturgy aside, can by no means accused of residing in or near the center. There is also a tendency to settle for nothing less than the perceived idea of "perfection," and thus incessantly criticizing every little aspect of something that one finds insufficient, whether it is the fact that a parish does not have a celebration entirely in Latin, or that the Missa de Angelis is somehow "not real chant."

The danger, then, of the "Reform of the Reform," is to institute a kind of neo-traditionalism - less problematic, perhaps, than its predecessor, but nevertheless lacking in vision for the whole Church and relying for its identity on what ends up as a mixture of traditionalism and elitism. Such a strategy might result in short-term gains of those enthusiastic for something different, but it does not have a future as a sustained way of living within the Church. Ultimately, no movement of the Church that comes off as ideological can ever completely dominate the center, because the faithful naturally resist ideologies.

The only workable strategy is to move towards and constitute the center. This inevitably involves compromise and not getting one's way, but it opens up whole new paths for renewal and for leavening the mainstream rather than condemning it and starting one's own operations. The real "flagship" for such a strategy is Notre Dame's Basilica of the Sacred Heart, with its beautiful liturgy televised on two different satellite TV stations. It is a well-celebrated Mass in a beautiful church that each weekend opens up thousands of people to beautiful liturgy they have perhaps not experienced in their own parish, but realize is attainable at least in certain respects. This is the "Reform of the Reform" in an organic way - beautiful liturgy speaking to people and reaching out to them. There may not be an ideologically uniform congregation, and there are no homilies canonizing the parishioners ("I would preach to you about XXXX sin, but I'm sure no one does this at XXXXX parish"), and the absence of these things precisely creates an environment and experience that transcend the worn-out right/left divide in the Church and carve out a liturgical center from which all can draw.

This is not to say that there is no place for more academic discussion about liturgy, and for a focus on places that do it well. But unless this is carried out in a way that is sensitive to the pastoral needs of the Church, rather than overly worried about carving out ideological havens, it has no chance. Perhaps in this light it is worth remembering Romano Guardini, the greatest theological mind of the Liturgical Movement - a man whose brilliance transcended ideology precisely by embracing the beauty of truth and of the liturgy. Until his would-be successors are more careful to avoid tying themselves up with ideology, I worry deeply about their possibilities for success.

Let me emphasize that my critiques of the "Reform of the Reform" are not meant to be an overarching critique of the entire project. As I started out by saying, such a thing is certainly necessary, and I share many of the same priorities. I do think, however, that it is necessary to think long and hard about the dangers I have emphasized in order to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past and turning the future into a cycle of retribution instead of a time of liturgical peace and beauty.

Update: I'd also like to comment that in all of this, I'm not trying to critique the motu proprio, which was a brilliant and necessary move, precisely as a way of separating the traditional liturgy from any ideology and thus attempting to defuse that part of the "liturgy wars." The removal of ideology is precisely the path towards influencing the center, and why a place like Notre Dame has been able to whole-heartedly embrace this.

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