Balancing Truth and Propaganda: of incoming missals and outgoing bishops I

The church of Buckfast AbbeyThe peace and quiet of the Devonian fastness where I am for a few weeks, at Buckfast Abbey, has allowed time for reflection on some of the ecclesial topics of the moment. Two are of particular interest in that they bring into sharper focus the often competing claims of transparency and persuasion, or to put it another way, of truth and propaganda. Neither is bad in itself, and in a sense the one can benefit from the other: truth usually needs to be presented in a way that will convince rather than alienate; persuasion must be attentive to the danger of preferring sentiment to the truth in endeavouring to win over an audience.

The first topic is the ongoing issue of the revised Roman Missal soon to be introduced in the anglophone regions of the Church. For years the English translation has been an ecclesiastical hot potato, not least because English is such a politicised language. How one uses English can support or undermine a particular philosophical, theological or ideological position. A familiar recent example is the phenomenon of political correctness, with its aim (among others) of eliminating gender specificity in language as a means to eliminating sexism, both real and imagined. Its fatal flaw has been all too often to equate all gender specificity with sexism, but that is another story.

So it was fascinating to read a contribution to the current UK Catholic Times by Angela Hanley in Dublin (not the UK interestingly), which appears to be a response, and an objection, to an article by James Kelly a couple of weeks ago in the same paper in which this writer was quoted. The strange thing is that, though it is clear she objects to the original article, she spends no time arguing against it in any detail at all, nor addressing the points it raises. Except one. She launches into an attack on the agenda she feels the revised missal serves, and the “abuse of power” by which it has been “imposed”. If you read the original article (the one to which she objects), you will see that it quotes two commentators who provide reasons as to why the revised missal was needed and the rationale informing its final shape, as well as answering the most common criticisms of it, all of which Ms Hanley ignores.

It really would take too long to deal comprehensively with her article, as the abundance of unsupported assertion would require an even greater volume of supported (and supportable) refutation. What follows is a mere scratch at the surface. The basic thrust of her article can be summed up in her opening set of bullet points:

Despite what many want us to believe, this translation [i.e. the revised missal] is contrary to:

  • The spirit and fact of Vatican II’s Sacrosanctum Concilium;
  • Norms of justice, in how the International Committee on English in the Liturgy (ICEL) was subverted;
  • Ecumenism;
  • Catholic social teaching on subsidiarity;
  • Sound academic principles, and;
  • Canon law.

As to her first point, she makes the reasonable statement that “(t)he almost unanimous vote of acceptance of the Constitution leaves no doubt about the Fathers’ conclusions in liturgy”. However, it remains to be determined how well she has read the conciliar document, or having read it, whether she remembers it very well. For the council fathers made some clear and unambiguous statements about, for example, the primacy of Latin as the language of the liturgy (SC 36:1), and maintaining Gregorian chant as the normative music of the Roman Rite (SC 116). I wonder if she is prepared to start championing these forgotten but clear conciliar directives? After all, as she herself admits, the council fathers voted almost unanimously in support of them.

Her statements regarding the role of the post-conciliar Mass as an ecumenical tool are essentially meaningless. That Protestant denominations looked kindly on the reforms is no bad thing. But that the formulation of Catholic liturgy should be determined by the need to please those denominations which deliberately broke communion with the Church, and indeed persecuted her, is a principle that cannot stand. Apart from reflecting a profound misunderstanding of the Church’s ecumenical endeavour, it is also not a little patronising to our separated brethren. It will take more than tinkering with the liturgy to convince them of the need for them to return to communion with the Church. For they rightly understand that Catholic theology of the Mass has not changed. That said, some of the post-conciliar changes lend themselves to an interpretation which is outside orthodox Catholic theology. Is this what Ms Hanley really means? Does she desire change in Catholic theology by changes in its liturgy, with the goal of removing any obstacles on our side for the sake of rapprochement with Protestant denominations?

Ms Hanley also makes the sweeping claim that those who have worked on the revised Missal have insufficient “expertise in liturgy, history and patristics”. The members both of ICEL and of the Vatican’s advisory committee Vox Clara would probably be rightly shocked by this unsubstantiated assertion. Little more needs be said about it other than that she might examine her own expertise in these fields in light of that possessed by the members of ICEL, and Vox Clara.

The charge that the revised Missal is being “imposed” contrary to Canon Law is equally flawed. For example she cites Canon 825 §1-2 as demonstrating that the bishops and bishops’ conferences have “significant authority with regard to liturgical translations and moderation of the liturgy”. Yet this canon refers only to translations of the Bible and has no reference whatsoever to the liturgy. Likewise she cites Canon 826 §2, which states only that local bishops must ensure that liturgical translations are in accord with the “approved edition”. That, we argue, is exactly what the revised English missal ensures: faithful accordance with the approved, or typical, edition of the Missale Romanum (2002). Likewise she cites §3 of the same canon, which refers to “prayer books”, and makes no mention of liturgical books, no surprise since they have just been dealt with in the previous paragraph. The last canon she cites is 838, §1-4. Yet §2 alone totally demolishes her argument, for it states clearly,

It is for the Apostolic See to order the sacred liturgy of the universal Church, publish liturgical books and review their translations in vernacular languages, and exercise vigilance that liturgical regulations are observed faithfully everywhere.

Rome has followed this canon faithfully, though Ms Hanley would label Rome’s canoncally correct procedure as a “naked abuse of power”.

Ultimately I think that the real issue for opponents of the revised missal is, in fact, power. Liturgical progressives have had de facto (but not de jure) the power to change the liturgy by whim due to the reluctance of the Pope and local bishops to exercise to the full their canonical power over the celebration of the liturgy in the 1970s and 80s. Now, in the wake of the liturgical chaos that resulted, the Pope and the bishops are taking up again their legitimate authority to bring order back to our worship. But that is a whole other issue!

Lastly, we come to Ms Hanley’s asertions that the revised Missal and its implementation involve the subversion of ICEL and violation of Catholic social teaching on subsidiarity. The latter is, indeed, exactly what she calls it, social teaching. To extract it from its context and apply it to the regulation of the universal Church’s liturgy is much the same as complaining that by not allowing birds to breathe under water, God has violated his own law of nature which granted that ability to fish.

As to the subversion of ICEL, again we have assertion without proof. Ms Hanley relates that ICEL was a “legitimately constituted body set up in 1963”; by implication she is saying that ICEL as it is today is not legitimately constituted, instead being only an “extension of (the) C(ongregation of) D(ivine) W(orship)”. She writes of a take-over of ICEL after 1998 and the appointment that year of Cardinal Estevez to head the CDW, and this as something amounting to a “coup d’état”. This has culminated in the appointment of Fr Andrew Wandsworth as chairman of ICEL, which clearly horrifies her judging by her description of him only as “a well-known celebrant of the Tridentine Rite”. This is the propagandist’s art at its crudest.

It is up to others better informed than Ms Hanley or myself to narrate the history of ICEL, but I feel sure that it is not as she portrays it, judging by her misrepresentation on other points as shown above. But even it is were true, how then does she account for another piece of recent liturgical history. In the wake of the conciliar constitution on the liturgy it was felt by many progressive bishops and experts that the Congregation of Rites (predecessor to the current CDW), which had long-standing competence in all matters liturgical and was “legitimately constituted” in Canon Law in exercising papally-delegated power with regard to the liturgy. Cardinal Lercaro brought this opinion to Pope Paul who responded by taking responsibility for liturgical reform away from the Congregation and giving it to a newly erected body, known familiarly as the Consilium, which was “stacked” with progressives. Was this not also a coup d’état along the lines Ms Hanley decries? It was done by papal directive – is this papal action to be likewise condemned as an abuse of power?

Sample pages from the new missalIt remains a fact of history that the first English translation of the Missale Romanum was very hastily constructed by a small group of people who did not consult with the various bishops’ conferences. It was imposed without warning or any real preparation on the English-speaking Church only a few years after the Council. To be fair to it, this missal was only ever meant to be temporary. The revised missal we are about to welcome has taken years to construct, involved a galaxy of experts, and their drafts were submitted to the eleven anglophone bishops’ conferences, which debated them, sometimes vigorously as did the United States’ bishops. Their suggestions and criticisms were relayed back to the translators who then accommodated them as far as possible in accord with the principles approved by the Pope and subject to Canon Law. Moreover, there has been the opportunity for far greater preparation by both people and clergy for the revised missal. It would be hard to fault the process of implementing the revised missal when compared to the process for implementing the missal we currently use.

And if I see or hear “the spirit of Vatican II” again I will be sorely tempted to scream.

Ms Hanley has shown herself adept in masking facts with a veil of ideological rhetoric which is at the heart of propaganda. If there is a truth beyond what supporters of the revised missal argue, then she has not served it at all.

In the next post we will examine briefly another recent ecclesial issue where propaganda has prevailed again over truth. But you will need a cup of tea first, at the very least.

One thought on “Balancing Truth and Propaganda: of incoming missals and outgoing bishops I

  1. “And if I see or hear ‘the spirit of Vatican II’ again I will be sorely tempted to scream”


    I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – this new missal translation is the perfect opportunity to re-engage and re-catechise the laity with regards to the Liturgy. It can’t afford to be wasted…


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