Trent and Vernacular Liturgy?

(This is Neil.) I thought that, with all the discussion of the forthcoming motu proprio that will presumably ease restrictions on the Tridentine liturgy, it might be a very good thing to examine what the Council of Trent (which is only indirectly related to the “Tridentine” liturgy) actually said about the liturgy. Obviously, others are more expert in this subject than I could ever be, and, in any case, blog posts probably should be brief. We can limit this very humble post to the particular question of the vernacular. The learned Jesuit historian John W. O’Malley had a short article in America in January entitled, “Trent and Vernacular Liturgy.” Fr O’Malley noted the relative evenhandedness of the Council, particularly on four issues of pastoral controversy: clerical celibacy, veneration of images, the Communion cup for the laity, and liturgy in the vernacular. A Google search tells me that nobody has yet blogged on the article, so I might as well.

Obviously, the Protestant Reformers supported liturgy in the vernacular. But, of course, so did the Holy Roman Emperor and the Duke of Bavaria, who attempted to pressure the Council. But, even before the Reformation, vernacular liturgy was a subject of scholarly discussion. This could hardly have been simply motivated by a dislike for Latin – the great Latinist Erasmus was an exponent of the vernacular in the liturgy. At the very least, the idea of vernacular liturgy has a long history, even if – as we shall see – the bitterness of Christian division prevented its actual development in the Roman Catholic Church. For a quick post on how the state of Christian disunity can seemingly cause radical changes in the meanings of theological concepts, see here.
What, then, did the Council of Trent actually say about liturgy and the vernacular? I’m pressed for time, so let me just provide a long excerpt from Fr O’Malley. For those who are even more pressed for time, I will italicize a couple of important sentences. Comments are always welcome. Here is the excerpt:

In its 22nd Session, Sept. 17, 1562, which was partly devoted to practical questions concerning the Eucharist, the council issued its decree concerning the vernacular. In the eighth chapter (really a short paragraph), the council said, “Although the Mass contains much instruction for the faithful, it has, nevertheless, not been deemed advisable by the fathers that it should be celebrated everywhere [passim] in the vernacular tongue.” As was often the case, the issue was taken up again in a very brief canon that lumped together three Eucharistic issues concerning the actions of the presiding priest: using a low tone of voice in saying the words of consecration, using the vernacular and adding a few drops of water to the wine. According to the canon, if anyone says that “the Mass ought to be celebrated in the vernacular tongue only” (lingua tantum vulgari), let him be anathema. Trent issued documentation that in its sheer quantity is second only to the Second Vatican Council. Yet for this burning issue it had only one line, which it repeated in similar words in the canon.

What does that line say? If we turn it around a little, we can paraphrase it to say that Latin is legitimate. The liturgy can rightly and properly continue to be celebrated in Latin. This is surely not the same thing as saying that a vernacular liturgy, or use of the vernacular in the liturgy, is wrong. In fact, one could, out of context, press the statement to indicate that vernacular is the norm. The context, as we shall see, does not quite allow that interpretation; but in any case the council never decreed that the liturgy had to be celebrated in Latin, although that position is often attributed to it.

What is the context that seems not to support the interpretation that vernacular is the norm? In Chapter 8, after the sentence quoted above, the council goes on. “Wherefore, the ancient rite of each church, approved by the holy Roman church … being everywhere retained,” the council urges pastors to explain to the people what is happening during Mass and explain “the mystery of this most holy sacrifice.” Here we see the presumption that the liturgy will continue to be celebrated in traditional ways according to the diversity of rites approved by the church. Nonetheless, given the conventions of the language the council used and the way the council handled similarly controversial issues, it is clear, as Hubert Jedin, the great historian of the Council of Trent, averred decades ago, that the council left the door open to the vernacular. Here, as elsewhere, the supposedly fierce Council of Trent took a moderate stance. Although it was under pressure from outside forces, I do not think the stance can be attributed to cowardice or to a worldly diplomacy. By this time in the council, the fathers had been well schooled in the richness and complexity of the Catholic tradition and were sensitive to the pastoral implications of their decisions. Many were, moreover, trained in canon law and had the canonist’s instinct to say only what was minimally required.

Why, then, did a vernacular liturgy not develop? The answer, as I have implied, is simple. The lines of demarcation, not to be transgressed, had been drawn. Out in the trenches, name-calling was the norm, and moderation had long ago taken flight. Latin – along with celibacy, Communion under both kinds and veneration of images – had become battle cries in a fight to the death. No quarter could be given.


About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in the Pacific Northwest, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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