Sunday 6 May 2012

Review of "Work of Human Hands" by Rev. Anthony Cekada

This is an interesting and illuminating history of the reform of the Catholic Mass liturgy which was undertaken in the 1960s, written from an archconservative perspective.


The reform of the liturgy was the main outward sign of the reform and modernisation process undertaken by the Catholic Church following the Second Vatican Council (1962-65).  The traditional Roman Catholic Mass - otherwise known as the Tridentine Mass, the Latin Mass and the Extraordinary Form - was solemn, esoteric, sacerdotal, doctrinally rigorous and almost invariably celebrated in Latin.  It is the Mass that you see in old movies.  It looked like this:


Between 1965 and 1970, the rite was revised and ultimately replaced with a broadly similar but reformed liturgy known variously as the Mass of Paul VI, the Novus Ordo and the Ordinary Form.  The reformed Mass retains quite a lot of the basic text and structure of its predecessor, and it is possible to apply its rubrics (practical rules for celebration) in such a way that, to a layperson's eye, it looks very similar to the old rite.  It can even be celebrated in Latin.  Not many priests choose to do this sort of thing, however, and in practice the general ethos and feel of the rite are quite different from those of the Tridentine Mass.  It usually looks - and was intended to look - much more like a Protestant service:

This book has received some attention in exalted circles: other reviewers to date include the prominent liturgists Rev. Alcuin Reid and Mgr Andrew Wadsworth.  These reviews, not surprisingly, come from a faith-based perspective.  That, however, is not the purpose of this blog, and the present reviewer would recommend this book to non-Catholic and secular readers too, since it is an absorbing work of cultural history.  The Tridentine Mass is one of the major cultural artifacts of Western civilisation - one that inspired Protestants like Bach and agnostics like Verdi - and the extensive changes made to it under Pope Paul VI should be of interest far beyond the boundaries of the Catholic community.

The author, Fr Anthony Cekada, was ordained in 1977 by Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, the figurehead of the traditionalist resistance movement that emerged in response to the Second Vatican Council.  Cekada's theological views are some distance from the mainstream.  He is literally more Catholic than the Pope, taking the position that Benedict XVI - who accepts the reforms of the Council as interpreted in a conservative light - is too liberal and modernistic to be a true Catholic or a true pontiff.  This position is eccentric, to be sure, but Cekada's work cannot be dismissed as extremist propaganda.  The book is carefully researched and engagingly written, which is why it has been taken seriously by Wadsworth and other mainstream figures.

The book fills a gap in the market.  The most authoritative archconservative critique of the modern Mass was previously Michael Davies' three-volume Liturgical Revolution.  As Cekada notes, however, Davies' work is lengthy and prolix (it was apparently assembled largely from previously published articles), and it had something of a British slant.  Cekada's work is destined to become the scholarly and popular reference work of choice on the liturgical reform in traditionalist circles for some time to come.


The roots of the liturgical reform lay in the 19th century "liturgical movement" led by the French priest and theologian Abbot Prosper Gu√©ranger (1805-1875), the author of a monumental work on the Catholic liturgy entitled The Liturgical Year.  The movement was a fundamentally conservative enterprise, and it operated squarely within the parameters of traditional Catholic doctrine and practice.  In the first half of the 20th century, however, it turned left.  An interest in the liturgy and its historical development evolved into an interest in reforming the present-day liturgical rites and/or restoring older practices that had been lost.  Moreover, some of the liberal theologians who were being harrassed by the ecclesiastical authorities of the time took refuge in liturgical studies, seeing it as a relatively safe backwater in which they were less likely to get their clerical collars felt than in the more sensitive fields of dogmatic theology and biblical criticism.  Already in the 1920s, some adventurous priests were starting to make experimental changes in the liturgy that later appeared in the Mass of Paul VI - the introduction of modern languages, for example, and celebration with the congregation gathered around the altar.

The scholars of the liturgical movement were mostly from mainland Europe, and their doyen was the Austrian Jesuit priest Fr Josef Jungmann (1889-1975), the author of a magisterial history of the Mass entitled Missarum Solemnia.  Jungmann believed that the days of the early church had been a liturgical golden age, following which mediaeval corruptions had set in and the Mass became a clerical event removed from the congregation.  He believed that the liturgy needed to be reformed in a pastoral direction, so that it would speak more clearly to the common people.  By contrast, Cekada takes the view that the people needed to be educated to an appreciation of the liturgy as it stood - the liturgy didn't need to change to suit them.  He also points out, perhaps more convincingly, that Jungmann's aims were contradictory - either the liturgy needed to be restored to its original pristine form or it needed to be updated for modern man.  Advocating both principles at once opened the door to anything.

Another luminary of the liturgical movement fingered by Cekada is Fr Louis Bouyer (1913-2004), a former Lutheran minister who shared Jungmann's concerns about the corruption of the liturgy over time.  He challenged the traditional Catholic emphasis on the "real presence" of Jesus Christ in the Mass in the physical form of bread and wine - was Christ not also "really present" in, for example, the church community?  He also believed that the liturgy should be instructional, teaching the people about the Catholic faith (this militated against, among other things, celebrating Mass in Latin).  One aspect of Bouyer's work that Cekada takes particular issue with is his drawing for inspiration on sources who were not orthodox Catholics (or, as Cekada diplomatically calls them, "heretics"), namely Anglican, Lutheran and Jansenist scholars - although Bouyer's ideas were ultimately indebted to the Hebrew Bible and its concept of the Qahal Yahweh, the Assembly of God.

The ideas of Jungmann, Bouyer and their colleagues in the liturgical movement were effectively condemned by Pope Pius XII in his encyclical Mediator Dei in 1947, but the reformist scholars had already got a lot of influential people to listen to them.  One of these was a rising star called Giovanni Battista Montini.  He would later become better known as Pope Paul VI.


It is not often realised that the liturgical changes began long before Vatican II.  A high-level commission for liturgical reform was established as early as 1948, and successive rounds of limited changes to the Mass followed in 1951, 1955, 1958 and 1960.  These affected in particular the rites for Holy Week.  When the Tridentine Mass is celebrated today, priests generally use the 1962 edition of the Roman Missal, which incorporates these rather modest changes.  (This choice of the 1962 Missal, which has been sanctioned by John Paul II and Benedict XVI, ultimately derived from a political decision made by Archbishop Lefebvre in the 1970s - Cekada prefers the entirely unreformed, pre-1951 Missal.)

Who was behind all this?  Like all good books, this one has a villain, and his name is Archbishop Annibale Bugnini CM.  Bugnini was a highly placed Vatican insider from the aftermath of World War II to the 1970s, with the exception of an interlude from 1962 to 1964 when his enemies briefly succeeded in getting him fired.  Bugnini is something of an enigmatic character, and he seems to have been a man with an agenda of his own.  There have been persistent rumours that he was a Freemason - this would be a big deal because there is a long history of hostility between Catholicism and Freemasonry, and Catholics have traditionally been forbidden from joining Masonic lodges.  In 1975, he was suddenly dismissed from his senior Vatican job by Pope Paul VI and exiled to an obscure diplomatic post in Iran (population: 98% Muslim).  The reasons for this unusual career wobble were extensively speculated on but never made public.

Already in January 1948, Bugnini was sounding out liturgical scholars about the possibility of a reform of the liturgy, and this was taken as a sign of approval from Rome.  Bugnini went on to serve in key positions on three major liturgical commissions in 1948, 1960 and 1964, and took a leading role in drafting both Vatican II's decree on the liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, and the text of the reformed Mass.  Nevertheless, I have a feeling that Cekada may be exaggerating Bugnini's role.  Whether or not he was in the Masons, Bugnini would have got nowhere had he not had powerful patrons within the Church, notably Paul VI (until the mysterious events of 1975), Cardinal Giacomo Lercaro and Cardinal Augustin Bea.  It has been suggested that he was mostly a chancer who grasped at opportunities presented to him by others rather than a dedicated conspirator pursuing a master plan to wreck the traditional Mass.  In any event, he had few original ideas of his own: the reforms that he implemented were drawn from the work of the wider liturgical movement.

The seminal event in the liturgical reform process was the convocation of the Second Vatican Council.  In November 1963, after some vigorous debate, the Council approved Sacrosanctum Concilium by a vote of 2,147 to 4.  As Cekada points out - and as the lopsided majority in the vote suggests - this document is a masterpiece of ambiguity.  Like most of the other documents of the Council, it was carefully drafted in politically nuanced language in order to be acceptable to a broad swathe of both conservative and liberal bishops (Lefebvre, for one, voted for it).  At times, its language approached utter banality ("Sound tradition may be retained, but the way must remain open to legitimate progress" - no, really?).  It did, however, clearly mandate a revision of the Mass liturgy, including a simplification of the rite, a breaking of the near-monopoly of Latin and a restoration of ancient practices.

One problem remained, stemming from the Vatican's legendary office politics.  The Roman department responsible for liturgical matters was the Congregation of Rites, a conservative body which at this point in time was under the control of Arcadio Larraona Saralegui, an elderly Spanish cardinal of the old school.  Paul VI decided to circumvent this bureaucratic obstacle by creating an entirely new body, known as Consilium ("the Committee"), to implement the Council's decree.  Bugnini was appointed as Consilium's secretary, a highly influential post in Vatican circles.  Other appointees to the new body included, in a major break with tradition, six Protestant clergymen.

While the new rite of Mass was being prepared, the Tridentine Mass was gradually being reshaped.  Successive changes to the rite were made in 1964, 1965, 1967 and 1968.  By the end of the 60s, modern languages could be used for the whole of the Mass, and the priest could face towards the people rather than eastwards, towards the altar embedded in the back wall of the church.

A trial celebration of the new rite was held in front of a congress of bishops in the Sistine Chapel in October 1967.  It went down fairly well, and the new liturgy was approved by Paul VI in November 1968 and publicly promulgated in April 1969.  The world's Catholic priests switched to using the new rite on the first Sunday of Advent 1969, and a full new edition of the Roman Missal followed in 1970.

The traditionalist lobby did not take this lying down.  When the first edition of the new rite was published in April 1969, a group of conservative priests and laypeople (including Archbishop Lefebvre) had a critical review of the new liturgy drawn up and presented to the Pope through the hands of two Roman cardinals, Alfredo Ottaviani and Antonio Bacci (the critique has become known as the "Ottaviani Intervention").  A defensive Paul VI gave two public speeches defending the orthodoxy of the new rite, and the edition of the Roman Missal published in March 1970 contained a slightly revised General Instruction (the part which sets out the general directions for celebrating the Mass and the theology behind it) and a new preface.  Essentially, some more traditional terminology and ideas were inserted - but the ritual text of the Mass itself was not changed.


How exactly does the Mass of Paul VI differ from the old rite?  Cekada's principal objections seem to be that the revision shifted the emphasis from the priest to the assembly as a whole, and from the worship of God to the communitarian aspect of the liturgy.  He identifies a reduction, Bouyer-style, in the importance attributed to the presence of Jesus Christ in the forms of the consecrated bread and wine in favour of other "presences", such as the metaphorical presence of Christ in the congregation and in the scriptural readings.  He objects that insufficient respect is shown to the consecrated elements, considering that they are believed to be infused with the presence of God himself.  Consistently with these criticisms, he notes that the revised rite is much more similar to Protestant liturgies than the traditional Mass ever was.  Finally, he claims that ancient practices were restored only selectively, the criterion being whether they were consistent with modern liberal theology.

The changes made to the rite extended even to the Canon of the Mass, the central prayer during which Catholics believe that Christ becomes present in the eucharistic elements.  The Canon had traditionally been recited silently; today, it is said aloud.  This seems to have been a genuine restoration of an ancient practice, but the evidence on this point is inconclusive; Cekada questions the evidence that the Canon was ever recited aloud and notes that in more recent time an audible eucharistic prayer has been a Protestant thing.  What of the text of the Canon?  The prayer had been practically unaltered since the 6th century, and its origins were much older still.  For most of Catholic history, the notion of altering it would have bordered on the sacrilegious, and Paul VI personally insisted that it be retained.  In the event, it was only lightly edited.  However, three alternative and more contemporary eucharistic prayers were added to the Missal, thereby ensuring in practice that the Canon ("Eucharistic Prayer I") fell into disuse.  The very short Eucharistic Prayer II, which is widely used by priests, is often said to be a restoration of an early Christian prayer.  Cekada notes that it was in fact constructed by Consilium in 1967 using some phrases from a text attributed to a 3rd century antipope.  He also draws attention to the further additional eucharistic prayers that have been authorised by the Vatican over the years, including some cringeworthy specimens for Masses celebrated for children.

Mention of the multiple Eucharistic Prayers recalls that one of Cekada's recurring complaints is that the Mass of Paul VI is a "deregulated" liturgy - that is, one which offers multiple options at various points, along with opportunities for improvisation by the priest.  To take one example, the 1970 edition of the Missal increased the number of the prefaces that could be recited before the Canon from 14 to an astonishing 81, with still more being added subsequently.  Cekada appears to view this flexibility as being an inherently bad thing.  But it is not immediately obvious that a rite that is rigidly invariable throughout the Catholic world - from St Peter's to the local parish church, from Vietnam to Ireland - is superior to one which can be adapted to local conditions.  Starstruck priests who ham up the improvised bits are an unfortunate consequence, but one probably worth bearing.

Cekada's criticisms of the revised liturgy are in many cases old news, the sort of thing that ultra-traditionalists have been bringing up since the Ottaviani Intervention.  But Cekada has made it his business to look more deeply at the modern rite than most other critics - specifically, he has undertaken an analysis of the "propers" of the Mass.  These are the cycles of prayers and Bible readings which vary from day to day and from Mass to Mass, and which are slotted into various places in the "ordinary", the unvarying part of the liturgy.

Some of the prayers ("orations") in the propers of the Tridentine Mass are very, very old indeed.  Modern liturgical scholarship has traced their origins back at least as early as the 5th century AD.  Cekada is palpably distressed at the way in which they were gutted in the reform:
While the identity of those who created the orations in the traditional Missal is lost forever in the mists of history, we know that the orations in the Missal of Paul VI were the work of Consilium Study Group 18b, which was appointed by Bugnini in 1965....

The traditional Missal contains 1182 orations. About 760 of those were dropped entirely. Of the approximately 36% which remained, the revisers altered over half of them before introducing them into the new Missal. Thus, only 17% of the orations from the old Missal made it untouched into the new.
How were the orations altered?  Cekada demonstrates that they were cleansed of "negative theology" - the traditional Catholic emphasis on sin, divine anger, punishment and damnation - and brutal terminology that was offensive to non-Catholics and non-Christians.  (To digress slightly, the best known example of such terminology in the Tridentine Missal was the notorious reference to "the faithless Jews", perfidis Judaeis, in the Good Friday service - it was felt that this sounded a bit tactless after the Holocaust, so it was amended as early as 1960.)  The same thing happened with the scripture readings.  Sin, hell and un-ecumenical sentiments were systematically edited out.  Cekada also objects that the simple but rather bare one-year cycle of Bible texts was replaced with a larger and more complex three-year system of readings.

Cekada criticises all this on doctrinal grounds, but I find it difficult to follow him here.  Much of the material that was excised was based on specific and narrow ideas - an angry, vengeful deity and an aggressive, triumphalist church - which do not represent either contemporary theological understandings or popular piety.  It developed in a different time and cultural context, and Cekada's objections simply exemplify the tendency of traditional Catholic theology to give the past an absolute veto over the present.  At its best, the deleted material was eloquent and edifying.  At its worst, it presented a caricature of old-time Catholicism, a mixture of triumphalism and masochism.  Cekada quotes the liturgical scholar Fr Carlo Braga as speaking of the older material as presenting "difficulty for the psychology of the man who experiences other problems, who has a different way of thinking, and who lives in a different material and disciplinary situation".  Cekada dismisses this observation with a sarcastic comment about mental hospitals, but I'd say that Braga was on to something.  The Missal is not a museum piece.  The truly astonishing thing would be if prayers composed in the dying days of the Roman Empire were still reflective of the faith and life of Mass-goers today.

And yet, and yet....  I can't say that Cekada is entirely wrong here.  What we have is a classic case of pendulum-swinging.  The one-sided harshness of the Tridentine propers was exchanged for texts which, at least in some respects, breathe the shallow optimism of the 1960s.  Any liturgy worth its salt needs to convey to the members of the congregation, along with a sense of comfort and hope, the more challenging messages that they are accountable for their actions, that the spiritual life is demanding and that the human condition has a dark side.  If the emphasis is wrong, rather than being uplifted, they are merely infantilised.  One also perhaps shares with Cekada a sense of sadness that 1,500 years of history were swept away so peremptorily.

Another major, and highly visible, change was the near-universal substitution of Latin for modern languages.  Latin was regarded as a sign of the Church's unity and traditions, with its linguistic precision being a guarantee against doctrinal sloppiness.  Very occasionally, the Mass was permitted to be translated into other languages (such as Arabic and classical Mandarin), but such permissions were given extremely sparingly.  Moreover, after the Reformation, the use of vernacular languages became tainted by association with Protestantism.  These days, the Mass of Paul VI is almost invariably celebrated entirely in the vernacular, though a few more conservative priests will throw in some Latin texts, or even use Latin for the whole rite.

The translations of the Missal are centrally mandated and approved.  Complaints about the quality of the English translations started almost immediately.  They were entirely justified.  Don't get me started on this.  I cannot adequately convey to a non-Catholic the sheer awfulness of the 1973 ICEL translation, which was used for years throughout the Anglophone world until it was finally killed off last year.  It was just dreadful.  Dreadful, dreadful, dreadful - tedious, banal, patronising and sometimes bearing only a passing resemblance to the Latin original.  If the ICEL translators had been my students, I would have failed them without a second thought.  But Cekada argues that the poor quality of the English translations was not attributable to the shortcomings of the translators - the translations into other languages were often just as bad - rather, it stemmed from the defective rules for translation laid down centrally by the Vatican.

In hindsight, it is perhaps difficult to believe that the near-universal use of Latin would have lasted so long if it hadn't been for the Protestant associations of modern languages.  The arguments formulated to defend it are essentially post hoc rationalisations produced to defend a situation which had developed unplanned: Latin was originally the language of the people, and had itself been chosen to replace Greek when the latter was no longer understood by Western Christians.  Cekada accepts this point, but doesn't really succeed in rebutting it (though he does note that Jesus himself would have prayed in the dead language of Hebrew).  The notion that English cannot be a vehicle for a noble and poetic liturgy is adequately refuted by Cranmer's Book of Common Prayer.


Consistent with his robustly traditionalist views, Cekada argues that the Mass of Paul VI is so gravely deficient that it no longer constitutes an authentically Catholic liturgical rite.  He even uses the term "sacrilege".  He is dismissive of conservative priests who attempt to "improve" the modern rite by employing traditional practices and paraphernalia; he invents a character called Father Retreaux ("Retro") to make this point.  He dismisses Benedict XVI's taste for traditional liturgy as a mere aesthetic product of his refined cultural sensibilities, on a par with his liking for Beethoven.  A real pope, he seems to imply, would be out there burning heretics, not poncing about with incense and jewelled mitres.  He also advances a somewhat technical theological argument, which ultimately derives from the Ottaviani Intervention, to the effect that the modern rite is sacramentally invalid because the form of consecration ("This is my body....  This is my blood....") is presented in a narrative rather than a significative mode.  You don't have to know what this means if you're not a Catholic, except that the result would be that, in terms of Catholic doctrine, the bread and wine would not truly become the body and blood of Christ, thus entirely wrecking the Mass liturgy.

This is strong stuff, and the response from the liberal side comes readily to mind.  It can persuasively be argued that the Tridentine rite was inherently √©litist and exclusionary.  The ritual actions were monopolised by the priest (and/or a cast of all-male altar ministers), who performed them facing away from the congregation while speaking in a language that few of them understood.  Is this what communal public worship should be about?  When done badly - which it certainly can be - Low Mass is a dry and inaccessible ceremony; when High Mass is done badly, it is an exemplar of the Protestant critique of Catholicism as garish and ritualistic.  And it is difficult to agree that the liturgy would be spiritually enriched by putting in more mentions of divine anger and damnation.  To take one example which Cekada brings up, restoring the Dies Irae at funerals would be little short of cruel - it's a beautiful poem, and spiritually edifying in its own way, but it implies strongly that the deceased is lucky if he isn't currently being roasted in hellfire.  This stuff can't and shouldn't just be brought back.  The liturgy was reformed for a reason.

But if the old rite posed real problems, the new rite was a poor answer to them.  As Cekada notes, the Mass of Paul VI is anthropocentric, man-centred, rather than being focused on the transcendent.  At its best, the Tridentine Mass is numinous, sacral, beautiful and other-worldly.  It was no bad thing that it made greater demands on its attendees in terms of comprehension, nor that the essentially passive role of the congregation allowed for silent meditation and private devotions in place of the constant effort of keeping up with the responses.  As for the elaborate external ceremonial, it can be genuinely uplifting on more than a merely sensual level.  It was the closest thing that our peasant ancestors got to a physical glimpse of heaven.  Unfortunately, arguments based on the sacrality and beauty of the old rite are precisely the sort of arguments that Cekada won't accept - he dismisses such defences as mere emotionalism and sentimentality.  He is much more comfortable talking about dogma, scholastic theology and the technicalities of sacramental forms.  Readers can make up their own minds who is missing the point here.