John Baldovin, SJ, on Liturgical Reform and its Critics

(This is Neil) I’ve been wanting to post about the Jesuit liturgist John Baldovin’s recently published Reforming the Liturgy: A Response to the Critics. This relatively brief book is neither a polemic nor an exhaustive historical defense of the postconciliar liturgical reform. It is actually offered in the spirit of dialogue. Fr Baldovin writes “I would not have written this book if I had thought the critics had nothing to offer” and “I have also tried to reflect appreciatively on those areas where the critics need to be heeded.” (Two of the critics mentioned in the book, Frs Thomas Kocik and Alcuin Reid, have recognized that “Baldovin does not seek a fight” – see here and here.)

I don’t think that I can summarize the book in a blog post and I have already discussed Fr Baldovin’s comments on the then-Cardinal Ratzinger’s writings on the liturgy here. Instead, I’ll list five important (IMHO) points from Baldovin’s book:

1. There are different (and mutually exclusive) criticisms of liturgical reform. After all, criticism of liturgical reform now has a long forty-year history, perhaps beginning with Tito Casino’s La Tunica Stracciata: Lettera di un Cattolico sulla “Riforma Liturgica,” which was published in 1967 with a preface written by a curial cardinal, no less.

Fr Baldovin follows Msgr M. Francis Mannion in identifying five “types,” or approaches to liturgical reform – advancing the official reform (e.g., the International Commission on English in the Liturgy [ICEL] before 2002), restoring the preconciliar (e.g., the Society of St Pius X [SSPX]), reforming the reform (e.g., Adoremus), inculturating the reform (e.g., the North American Academy of Liturgy), and recatholicizing the reform (e.g., Mannion and others who want to transcend the current debate, but are worried about liturgical inculturation in a climate of individualism, anti-ritualism, and politicization).

Obviously, some critics would criticize Sacrosanctum Concilium (Vatican II’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy) [SC], others would criticize its implementation by the Consilium in the late 1960s, and others merely criticize the reforms as implemented in most parishes. But, it should be noted, some of the criticisms are also theologically irreconcilable with one another. For instance, the SSPX has criticized the claim that the liturgy represents the whole “Paschal Mystery,” because they believe that it solely re-enacts Christ’s sacrificial death. Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) disagrees. (See also Pope John Paul II’s Vicesimus Quintus Annus, 6).

2. There is a danger of romanticizing the “medieval mass.” In response to the Anglican philosopher Catherine Pickstock, Fr Baldovin notes that the medieval mass went through “an immense number of permutation and variations;” always needs to be contexualized by, for example, examining church architecture; and cannot be isolated from its role as “part of an enormously complex system of services, including the Divine Office, processions, and other sacramental rites.” Furthermore, it is too easy to allegorize the medieval mass for the purpose of critique, to suppose that it was understood by the entire congregation, and to ignore the pre-existing (and continuing) decline in the reception of the Eucharist. One must deal with the medieval mass as it actually was.

For instance, Pickstock interprets the Prayers at the Foot of the Altar as showing the eschatological nature of the medieval liturgy (“a necessarily deferred anticipation of the heavenly worship towards which we strive”). But, then, what does it mean that the Sarum Rite did not begin with the Prayers at the Foot of the Altar?

3. There is a danger of imagining that the Roman liturgy has had an unbroken history. Fr Baldovin also responds to the work of Msgr Klaus Gamber. Gamber has suggested that twentieth century liturgical reform, including the reform of the rites of Holy Week in the 1950s, has been “manufactured.” But Gamber also has a longer story of “the debacle of modern liturgy” that mirrors the ruptured and tragic history of the West. It begins with the failed Frankish assimilation of the rite of the city of Rome; continues with the medieval alienation from the East’s “cosmic and dramatic dimensions of worship,” the introduction of individualist piety in the Gothic period, and the unfortunate success of vernacular music; and culminates in the paralysis of the Roman Rite with the Missal of Pius V, which prevented organic development, and the rationalism of the Enlightenment reaction to Baroque theatricality.

There are two points to be made here. First, as Baldovin says, Gamber really might consider “the entire development of Western culture a disaster.” Second, we can see Msgr Gamber’s basic principle, that liturgical development has to be “organic” in nature, respecting the “timeless character” of the rite.” Gamber has written, “Every liturgical rite constitutes an organically developed homogeneous unit. To change any of its essential elements is synonymous with the destruction of the rite in its entirety.” (Thus, Msgr Gamber does not criticize all aspects of liturgical reform – he thinks that it is a good idea to use the vernacular for the Liturgy of the Word and to incorporate readings from the Old Testatment.)

But, here, Fr Baldovin notes that all Christian rites have borrowed from other liturgical forms. There simply is no “pristine rite.” There is no reason to see ecumenical conciliation (e.g., the addition of the doxology to the embolism after the Our Father) as contamination. There is likewise no immediate reason to exclude scriptural exegesis (e.g., the claim that multis is a mistranslation of pollon) or the historical recovery of the basic structure of a liturgy as alien or foreign. Furthermore, it is not clear that the Pope can never make radical changes to the liturgy, even if radical change is usually pastorally inadvisable.

One related problem has to do with the word “organic.” As SC 23 says, “Care must be taken that any new forms adopted should in some way grow organically from forms already existing.” But this clearly is a metaphor. Can one use such a metaphor to support every development of the mass, including silent recitation of the Canon, infrequency of reception of the Eucharist, and the use of Latin? Fr Baldovin even suggests that the biological metaphor can be pushed in new directions, “[I]s it not possible or necessary that broken limbs must be reset to become useful again to the whole organism?”

Finally, the claim that the Roman Rite had been “pristine” ignores how the rite has often been celebrated. One of the major consultants in liturgical reform was Dom Bernard Botte, who described hearing daily Mass at the beginning of the 20th century as a “murmur.” One of his sisters was told by a dean of theology that the best time to receive communion was “before mass” so she then could “offer mass in thanksgiving for communion” (!). (This point is especially true in discussions of liturgical music.)

4. There is a danger of identifying Tridentine and post-Tridentine liturgy with the spirit of early liturgy. Responding, mostly positively, to Denis Crouan, Baldovin notes that the Tridentine liturgical reform took as its model the Low mass, not the corporate sung mass. He agrees with Crouan, who says, “the Tridentine reform would progressively develop a practice of making the Eucharistic celebration an act of private devotion of the priest, whereas the faithful were simply invited to attend the Mass and to unite their prayers with it as sincerely as possible.”

Baldovin also agrees with Crouan that the Baroque period had negative consequences for liturgical development, as its theatricality “would further distance the liturgy from being a true exercise of the Body of Christ,” and its grand tabernacles, as Crouan says, “transformed sanctuaries into religious dioramas.” Furthermore the invention of printing “which made regularization of the liturgy possible (for the first time really) also turned the book itself with its rules and rubrics into a kind of object of worship,” or, as Crouan says, “the missal becomes the guarantee for tradition.” The Baroque appeal to sentiment was only made worse by the Pietism of the 18th century and the Romanticism of the 1900s.

5. The critics of liturgical reform make valid and useful points. Of course Baldovin does not agree with the critics on everything. This is true about translation and the meaning of active participation, which, he says, really is meant to be “active,” originally rendered as the Italian “participazione attiva” in Pope Pius X’s Tra le Sollecitudini.  Nevertheless, Baldovin does identify common ground on five points:

A. Baldovin agrees with the sociologist Kieran Flanagan that “liturgies operate best when they manage to make their social apparatus invisible and unsignified.” He quotes from CS Lewis’ Letters to Malcolm:

Every service is a structure of acts and words through which we receive a sacrament, or repent, or supplicate, or adore. And it enables us to do these things best – if you like, it “works” best – when, through long familiarity, we don’t have to think about it. As long as you notice, and have to count the steps, you are not yet dancing but only learning to dance. A good shoe is a shoe you don’t notice. Good reading becomes possible when you need not consciously think about eyes, or light, or print, or spelling. The perfect church service would be one we were almost unaware of; our attention would have been on God. But every novelty prevents this. It fixes our attention on the service itself; and thinking about worship is a different thing from worshipping. … A still worse thing may happen. Novelty may fix our attention not even on the service but on the celebrant.

B. Baldovin agrees with David Torevell and James Hitchcock that the reformed liturgy did inspire a certain “poverty of gesture.”He says, “[T]here is need for a new ‘choreography’ of the liturgy in the sense of conscious and intentional use of the body” after the “infatuation with ideas and concepts in the late 1960s and the 1970s.” (We discussed this briefly on the blog, with regard to Peter Jeffrey’s work, here and here.)  To be sure, this isn’t merely a “traditionalist” or “conservative” sentiment. Baldovin is able to quotes the late liturgist Fr Robert Hovda, “Anyone who contrary to the most elementary human experience, persists in the stubborn conviction that ideas, points, arguments are the stuff that move human beings, is natively unfit for liturgical leadership, if not for liturgical life.”

C. While Fr Baldovin argues that the General Instruction of the Roman Missal does envision celebration facing the people (versus populum) – this is a disputed question of translation of a quod clause, he concedes that in the early church the “idea of facing the people in praying was not nearly as important as the question of orientation: i.e., facing the geographical east.” Baldovin notes that the priest can “hijack” the liturgy if he is always in the gaze of others. He also writes that celebration with the priest facing the liturgical east has never been forbidden. That said, Baldovin is somewhat skeptical of celebrating ad orientem, because he wonders if the symbolism of the rising sun makes sense in a world “flooded with artificial light.” (This, to me, was the most unpersuasive paragraph in the book – I haven’t noticed a lack of “sun” references in popular music or a lack of light imagery in contemporary film.)

In any case, Baldovin is not dogmatic about celebrating versus populum, ad orientem, or (as in Ratzinger and Cardinal Christoph Schönborn’s writings) obviam Sponso, facing a cross on the altar. He concludes, “Whatever the stance of the priest, both priest and people need to be oriented toward God in prayer.”

D. Fr Baldovin agrees with Dom Aidan Nichols, OP, and the then-Cardinal Ratzinger when they argue that the “didactic element overwhelms the latreutic” (that is, the liturgy becomes about instruction rather than worship) in much contemporary liturgy, or, worse, that the liturgy becomes spectacle. He argues that we must receive the liturgy as gift. Baldovin notes, “Realizing that we cannot do catechesis during the liturgy itself may well force us to work harder to find appropriate ways to catechize the community. It has been my frequent observation that the liturgy is unable to sustain the catechetical and community-building weight that has been put on it.”

E. Baldovin agrees that there are aesthetic problems and “performance” problems that mar contemporary Catholic liturgy. First (as hinted above), priests should not begin the Mass by saying, “Good morning, I’m Father ? and I want to welcome you here today.” The second and third problems can be summarized by two quotes from the late Adrian Kavanaugh: “Churches are not carpeted,” and “Most of the music currently done in the liturgy is stunningly immodest and stunningly bad” (1976; Baldovin says that things have gotten better).

What do you think?

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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5 Responses to John Baldovin, SJ, on Liturgical Reform and its Critics

  1. Todd says:

    I’d need a whole post to respond, so let me confine myself to point D.

    I’m aware of pre-conciliar hymnody such as “To Jesus Christ Our Sovereign King” or “The Mass Is Ended” in which liturgical awareness (or reform) seemed to be an issue in the texts.

    And while the Bible and psalms aren’t completely free of the reference of addressing the assembly in the second person, I think we can see some progress away from a certain didactic approach in the past thirty, forty years.

    As for lifting the catechetical weight on the liturgy, maybe it requires a certain degree of trust on the part of homilists and other leaders to let the liturgy (and especially God’s grace) do the work and get the heck out of the way.

    As for the communal dimension, I think many Catholics might be relieved if the liturgy refrained from being an obstacle to community–the stares at fussing children, the insistence on parking at the end of back pews, a sense of perfunctory observance on the part of clergy and musicians. We might also lament–more accurately–the loss of Catholic culture, especially in many suburbs. Fifty, seventy years ago many parishes had community life sustained by ranks of volunteers and organizations. Today, maybe less of that.

  2. Liam says:

    I would initially offer additional context: Fr Baldovin is a very welcome regular (if not necessarily weekly) celebrant of the weekend Masses at St Paul’s in Cambridge, MA, and is thus very familiar with the style of liturgy developed there since Dr Marier and Msgr Hickey began the implementation of Mediator Dei in its immediate wake over 60 years ago as well as, of course, the liturgical reforms that occurred thereafter. When the notices of this recent book of his came out, he was attacked by some over at NLM for being something he is not (and I should add that he has mentioned being attacked from the other side for being too conservative).

  3. Neil says:

    Dear Gentlemen,

    Thank you for responding.

    Regarding point 5D, the distinction between “didactic” and “latreutic” liturgy has, I think, often been made by critics of liturgical reform. “Didactic” liturgy is connected with a set of values – moralism, anthropocentrism, subjectivism, immediate accessibility – that are emphasized at the expense of mystery and contemplation. Thus, Aidan Nichols’ question, “Is the Liturgy primarily latruetic, concerned with the adoration of God, or is it first and foremost didactic or edificatory, the conscious vehicle of instruction of individuals and the upbuilding of a community?”

    To be sure, this argument can be made unpersuasively. Furthermore, the latreutic and didactic can be too starkly opposed.

    But there is a problem with “didactic liturgy.” We can fall prey, as John Baldovin says, to “the Instrumentalist Fallacy that the liturgy is primarily about our finding our own needs met.” The liturgy serves a function. It is no longer a gift.

    And I do think that we can see a loss of the “latreutic” in some liturgical celebrations. The late Fr Max Thurian of Taize offered some examples.

    One would involve the use of a cheap, plastic portable altar that can serve the function of an altar but is barely a “sign of the sacrifice of the cross as memorial, the table of the Eucharistic meal, the symbol of the tomb left empty by the Risen One.” Likewise, Thurian speaks of the celebrant’s chair being placed immediately behind the altar “preventing the contemplative orientation of the whole community in adoration towards the symbolic place of the Lord’s presence and in eschatological expectation of his return.”

    Thurian also writes about the presider modifying the words of the liturgy:

    The liturgy has a contemplative character and directs the gaze and hearts of the faithful to the face of Christ. It tries to describe and to represent, more than to explain or rationalize. A priest’s personal alterations of the liturgical prayer are often didactic. Only if one thinks that a prayer or gesture is too poor in substance does one overburden it with explanatory considerations. Instead of guiding contemplation, prayer in this way proposes a reflection that turns the believer in on himself rather than opening him to transcendence, as the sober traditional prayers do so well.

    And Thurian writes about church architecture:

    The whole church should be arranged so as to invite adoration and contemplation even when there are no celebrations. One must long to frequent it in order to meet the Lord there. Too often today churches, designed as multipurpose halls or with the sole objective of gathering the assembly for the liturgy, become dead at the end of the celebration and do not invite the faithful to enter so as to recollect themselves in prayer.

    Why might a parish have a cheap plastic altar, a presider whose chair faces the assembly, alterations of the liturgical prayers, and a church that resembles a multipurpose hall? It is possible that the parish still values edification, instruction, and a rich communal life. After all, none of these things are necessarily inhibited by cheap plastic altars. The parish, we might say, has lost awareness of the importance of contemplation and adoration.

    Does this make sense?

    Thanks again.


  4. Though this is not the topic of the overall post, I’m a little puzzled by Fr. Baldovin’s reference to active participation in Pope Pius X’s Tra le Sollecitudini. Though the Italian may indicate that such participation is meant to be “active,” Pius X doesn’t seem to be advocating more “active” participation as much as he’s stating that such “active participation” is a present reality of Catholic worship. I realize that in describing the ideal he is in effect advocating to a large degree, but he’s advocating a reality that he already sees realized in some places in the Church’s liturgy in 1903. I’m familiar with some of the debate over this topic, but this doesn’t seem to necessarily follow.

  5. Neil says:

    Dear Jeremy Priest,

    Thank you for writing and for the very kind mention on your blog.

    Fr Baldovin reads Tra le Sollecitudini as Pope Pius X’s attempt to “promote more external participation in the liturgy,” not merely as an acknowledgement of the “present reality of Catholic worship.”

    The point of the short mention of “active participation” in Baldovin’s book is to argue against those who claim that it only means an internalized engagement. Baldovin would claim that it also means participation with voice and body.

    I should immediately add that Fr Baldovin doesn’t suggest that “active participation” means physical action without internal engagement. Furthermore, he notes that “It is ridiculous to argue that everyone in the assembly needs to be doing everything all the time.”

    Nonetheless, the ideal, he would say, is an internal commitment that is related to external participation.

    Thanks again.


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