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Recovery of the Sacred

Chapter Four - Liturgy and The Loss of History

Radical liturgical innovation after the Council became a principal cause of the widespread crisis of faith

James Hitchcock’s analysis of the liturgical reform following the Second Vatican Council, Recovery of the Sacred, originally published in 1974 (Seabury Press), and reprinted in 1995 (Ignatius Press) remains both pertinent and timely.

In the author’s preface to the 1995 version (subtitled “Reforming the Reformed Liturgy”), Dr. Hitchcock wrote,

“This is a book the author wishes would never have to be reprinted. It was first written less than a decade after the Second Vatican Council to call attention to certain liturgical trends which seemed unwise and even destructive. But the book had no perceptible effect on the course of liturgical development, so that the analysis remains as relevant today as it was more than twenty years ago. The author’s ego aside, this is a symptom of a much greater problem -- the apparent determination by professional liturgists to pay heed only to other certified ‘experts’. For thirty years, every warning about liturgical abuse has been dismissed as uninformed”.

Now, more than ten years later -- four decades after the Council -- the problems so cogently examined in Dr. Hitchcock’s book have been recognized at the highest levels in the Church. Yet, even after the appearance of such works as then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s The Spirit of the Liturgy, and Pope John Paul II’s last encyclical, Ecclesia de Eucharistia; and despite landmark documents that promote renewed reforms -- Liturgiam authenticam on translation, and Redemptionis Sacramentum on liturgical abuse -- the difficulties and confusion have not disappeared. The influence of “experts” formed in another era persists, and their resistance to “Vatican interference” in the liturgy has continued to hinder corrective actions.

Thus, we present, with the author’s permission, an excerpt from Recovery of the Sacred (now again out of print), which provides insight into the history and dynamic of the early post-Conciliar liturgical reform -- and remains as timely as when it was first written more than thirty years ago.

-- Editor


by James Hitchcock

If the reform of the liturgy led to the discovery by many reformers that the sense of the sacred was an obstacle to good worship rather than its precondition, it also stimulated the awareness that authentically renewed worship did not involve a recovery of lost or distorted traditions, as had been thought, but rather, the abandonment of most traditions in favor of a bold striking-out into uncharted contemporary territory. Within a few years of the Second Vatican Council, staff members of the Liturgical Conference were quoting with approval a jazz musician who complained, “what good does it do for a minister to show a good film and speak about the relevance of the Church in our daily life if we are going to follow the sermon with a hymn from another century? Right away we have effectively reminded the congregation that we are protected and separated from the world”.1 There were other expressions of the same sentiment, 2 and numerous experimental groups tried to apply it.

The mood which followed the conservative reforms of the Council was one of swelling exuberance at the sense of emancipation from the hand of tradition, the dead weight of the past. It was a mood which would be quickly dissipated, leaving a good deal of bitterness and confusion, by the discovery that the Council had not issued a charter for endless liturgical experimentation, and the practically simultaneous discovery that even most of the unauthorized experiments were not proving highly satisfying. Liturgical experimenters found themselves caught between the remnants of a past they were eager to be rid of and a future which somehow refused to be born.

There were, as already indicated, invalid generalizations about “modern man”. Among other things the most radical innovators failed to notice that few contemporary men choose to live only amid the artifacts of their own time. Well-made old houses are if anything more popular than newer ones. The antique market provides steady opportunities for decoration and investment. Proposals to destroy historic landmarks raise public outcries. Museums are crowded by people wanting to see old masters, and symphony orchestras have trouble filling their seats if they play mostly modern works. For better or for worse, a determined holding onto a good deal of the past seems to be a feature of modern man, probably because he senses how fragile these survivals really are.

A flourishing and healthy culture is one which demonstrates creative power but also finds ways to make the best of the past a living part of the present. Either petrifaction or frenetic innovation is a sign of cultural pathology. The Second Vatican Council attempted to eliminate the former danger, only to see its actions interpreted as a justification for the latter. In liturgy as in other things there was a symbolic slaying of the fathers, followed by a joyful shout of “All things are now permitted”.

Unlimited private experimentation was initially justified as an attempt to translate the essential meaning of the old rites into idioms more accessible to modern man. There was talk about altering the forms of worship or theology without altering their essential content, but that was a naive or disingenuous ambition from the beginning. The Episcopalian liturgist Daniel Stevick later pointed out that a crisis of style always masks a crisis of identity.3 If people suddenly began to find that the Latin of the Mass, or the English of the Book of Common Prayer, or numerous traditional rites, no longer spoke to them adequately, this indicated not simply a need for that modern panacea -- “better communication” -- but a desire to rethink radically the very foundations of belief and worship. The reformers who set out to simplify, clarify, and cleanse traditional worship soon found themselves being drawn toward the creation of new forms which expressed radically redefined beliefs: the Eucharist as celebration of community or of human life, worship as a way of promoting ethical sensitivity or providing emotional experiences for the participants.

A circular action was involved. which soon became a vicious circle leading to the rapid breakdown of liturgy. Liturgical innovators were vaguely dissatisfied with the traditional forms but did not realize the extent of their dissatisfaction until they began to experiment. As they peeled away the layers of historical accretions to liturgy, they found, sometimes with shock, sometimes with satisfaction, that the core of belief which underlay traditional worship was not at all the same as their own, that what was involved in liturgical reform was nothing less than a profound revolution in the nature of belief itself. The vicious circle formed, however, because if a crisis of belief provokes a crisis of worship, it is also true that a crisis of worship provokes further crises of belief. The symbols and the reality they were meant to express were so closely welded that it was impossible to alter one without altering the other.

The drive for radical liturgical innovation thus became a principal cause of the widespread crisis of faith which began to appear in the Church. In its origins this crisis affected only a relatively few persons, who were moved to begin the restless search for a truly “relevant” modern liturgy. As radically transformed liturgies began to be celebrated, however -- in colleges, seminaries, high schools, convents, living rooms, sometimes even in churches -- the crisis became more and more a public thing and began to affect more and more people. The stability of the liturgy for so long had been an effective public symbol of the stability and unity of belief and, equally important, it had been a means by which this stability and unity were preserved and reinforced. Now the diversity and sometimes the shocking unfamiliarity of liturgy became an equally effective public symbol of the instability and diversity of belief and a means of intensifying and propagating this. Many persons found themselves on a roller coaster going they knew not where. They had bought a ticket for the car because they wanted something new, interesting, more consciously contemporary than what they had; they had no idea that the car would never again return to the same stop, that the ride might turn out to be endless and endlessly jolting, unless at some point they simply asked to get off and walked away. The more liturgy was reformed to make the ancient faith meaningful in modern terms, the more it tended to diverge from the ancient faith. As Robert Redfield said about Indians in Yucatan, “Men cease to believe because they cease to understand, and they cease to understand because they cease to do the things that express the understandings.”4

If radical experimentation has not succeeded in forging an authentic and viable new form of Christianity, one of its first and most important effects was a massive loss of contact with the Catholic past, a fact which was often not noticed at first or was even denied, but then just as often came to be celebrated as a blessing and a liberation. There was consistent, sometimes aggrieved, talk about the meaninglessness of traditional rites, with the jettisoning of a good deal of this tradition regarded as a prerequisite to liturgical renewal.5 (Sometimes the traditions thus dismissed were among the things which liturgists before the Council had regarded as beautiful and important.) These traditions were rejected on the grounds that they were either literally meaningless, sometimes even explained as the neurotic repetition of compulsive acts, or as expressing false meanings -- too closely tied to a traditional theology of the supernatural. It is no exaggeration to say that many innovators came to hate the Church’s past as largely a history of tyranny and superstition and especially came to hate the Church’s immediate past, the milieu in which they themselves had been formed and which they now saw as a deformation, a perversion of real Christianity, an immense burden to be shed. There came to be a good deal of bitterness about the present state of the Church, cynicism about its past, and malicious ridicule directed even at things which had previously been considered sacred. Often these feelings surfaced in people who had earlier given few hints of such dissatisfaction, who may even have seemed like serene believers. Many who did not share these feelings nevertheless found them understandable and saw no cause to protest against them.

Some liturgical innovators plunged into secularism unknowingly because they were motivated, without realizing it until much later, by what Mircea Eliade calls profane man’s desire to empty himself of the past, to create himself completely without the givens of a sacral universe.6 The anthropologist who has written most perceptively about the contemporary religious crisis, Mary Douglas, argues that the destruction of ritual deprives men of the means by which to “articulate the depth of past time”, so that it becomes psychologically necessary once again to return to the beginning to start over again.7

The Catholic Church has always placed great weight on the authority of tradition, especially in response to those religious groups which have sought to deny it. Although it can be perverted into a dead conservatism, a way of blunting legitimate prophetic criticism by claiming in effect that “whatever is, is right”, fundamentally the exaltation of tradition is the way by which the Church accepts history and accepts the linear flow of time. Thus the Church of history has never been overly troubled at the warning that many of its practices were not in use in the early Church; it accepts the movement of time and the need for organic changes of the kind which T. S. Eliot said occur slowly and often even imperceptibly.

Several further principles with regard to the sacred are now becoming evident:

The radical and deliberate alteration of ritual leads inevitably to the radical alteration of belief as well.

This radical alteration causes an immediate loss of contact with the living past of the community, which comes instead to be a deadening burden.

The desire to shed the burden of the past is incompatible with Catholicism, which accepts history as an organic development from ancient roots and expresses this acceptance in a deep respect for tradition.

Every people has a past, and contact with this past can be kept alive in various ways -- by study, by a conservative social structure, by preserving old artifacts, by referring new problems to older precedents for solution. All of these have been utilized by the Catholic Church in various ways, but none has been so important as ritual worship itself. Since liturgy is the great central activity in which all members of the Church participate, it is the uniquely effective vehicle by which the Church’s historical identity is preserved. It serves this purpose in subordination to its primary purpose as the means by which men worship God, but the act of worship in Catholicism is not separable from an awareness of this historical identity. This is formulated in the crucial principle whose implications have been so widely ignored in the midst of liturgical experimentation: Lex orandi; lex credendi (loosely, “As the Church prays, so also it believes”).

The desire to return to the beginnings, to start over again, periodically exercises a great appeal over men, either in communities like churches or in their individual lives. It is always, however, an admission of defeat, that history has become so burdensome or meaningless that it has to be abolished in favor of a myth of timelessness. Thus, when liturgical innovators said they wished to take history seriously, by advancing beyond a frozen liturgy which appeared to absolutize one point in time (the time of St. Pius V, when the Roman Mass was fixed in its form), they did not attend to this other factor present in their longings which would ensure that history was to become not more meaningful but less. It was soon impossible to take history seriously because so much of the past appeared meaningless and, as clear-eyed observers soon noted, it is gratuitous and foolish to assume that a Church which has had so bleak a history for so many centuries can now hope for a glorious future.

The Protestant Reformers of the sixteenth century did not, however, recreate the conditions of the early Church. Even the radical Protestants of that time, the Anabaptists, did not achieve that goal, and the major Protestant leaders condemned much of the Anabaptist effort. The yearning to begin again always proves a disappointment, and the journey back to the sources always ends up somewhere else.

Even in its classic period there were some persons in the Liturgical Movement who dreamed of recreating the original Christian liturgy, and after the Council radical departures from official liturgy were sometimes justified on the grounds that they were efforts to emulate the simplicity of the early Christians. But such austerity soon lost its appeal, and experimentation moved toward all manner of innovations which would have been shocking to the early Christians.

Most significant was the attitude toward Scripture. Dissatisfied Catholics often criticized the Church for being too unbiblical, for espousing a traditionalism which could countenance radical departures from the Scripture. The Second Vatican Council aimed to be, among other things, a reaffirmation of the importance of Scripture in the Church and an erasing of any opposition between Scripture and tradition. This, it was hoped, would provide a salutary cleansing and purifying of the life of the Church, through renewed contact with its roots. To some extent it did. However, soon the ardent biblicism of avant-garde Catholics began to change, through an increased acceptance of the “demythologizing” of Scripture urged by the German Protestant theologian Rudolf Bultmann. Little in the New Testament was now to be taken as historically accurate.

While an attitude of reverence was not jettisoned altogether, the attitude of scholarly detachment began to supersede it. Scripture was conceded no absolute authority, in that the insights of modern man came to be the basis on which the continued relevance of various passages of Scripture was judged. Finally, although the Church’s list of canonical books of the Bible had been devised originally to designate which were suitable for reading in the divine liturgy, the Bible was increasingly superseded in experimental liturgies by readings from other sources. It came to have no more (though also perhaps no less) importance than a great range of writings both religious and secular.

Ironically, the Church which had been accused of not paying enough attention to the Bible continued to read the Scripture from its lecterns each day, while the underground church more and more proclaimed Henry Miller or The Village Voice. Another principle had become clear:

The attempt to begin over again by returning to the community’s ancient sources tends to result in the discovery that the sources themselves are not fully relevant; the locus of the search then shifts to contemporary culture itself.

The attempt to change religious ritual radically was made in the name of serving man, on the assumption that the traditions of the past were a burden on modern men which needed to be lifted. The result, however, was a profound disservice to the people of the Church, because they had the effect of cutting them off from so much of their own past.

Ritual, according to Mary Douglas, articulates the deepest order of the universe and expresses the community’s sense of its historical continuity.8 Thus at the cavalier destruction of so much Catholic ritual, people suddenly found themselves cut off from their pasts, driven into confusion and disorientation. They had become modern, if by modern is understood a rootless living only in the present. As Mary Douglas has said:

We arise from the purging of old rituals simpler and poorer, as was intended, ritually beggared, but with other losses.... Only a narrow range of historical experience is recognized as antecedent to the present state. Along with celebrating the Last Supper with the breaking of bread, or the simplicity of fishermen-apostles, there is a squeamish selection of ancestors ... the anti-ritualists have rejected the list of saints and popes and tried to start again without the load of history.9

Toward the end of the iconoclastic decade of the 1960s the peculiar phenomenon of a fashionable and highly commercialized nostalgia emerged -- regular revivals of the clothes and music of earlier decades (including the recently departed 1950s). The only remedy against nostalgia is to ensure that what is significant in the past remains alive in the present.

If an established ritual expresses the community’s sense of its deepest self and its deepest order, the destruction of that ritual necessarily expresses the opposite, and the symbolic message conveyed to many in the Church by the chaotic state of liturgy after the Council was precisely that the universe too is in a chaotic state, that man has no ability to free himself from the inexorable and contradictory demands of contemporary history, that he is a creature of his time and little more.

If the old liturgy aimed to create a profound order, much of the new liturgy precisely tended to create disorder. Part of this was in the naked assertion that liturgy, which had long been considered sacred and thus to be tampered with only cautiously, was now considered a human invention entirely, to be manipulated for human purposes. This was supposed to assure man of his new freedom and creativity. Instead, in many cases it deprived him of his sense of belonging to a cosmic order, of his ability to reach beyond time and culture.

As anthropologists like Victor Turner and Mircea Eliade have pointed out, the experience of ritual has been the experience of sacred time, or of timelessness, of time outside time.10 Thus experimental liturgies which were intended to celebrate man’s secular ability to create and mold his world often, instead, symbolized his unfree place in that world. The most avant-garde liturgies tended to become preoccupied with the evident hopelessness of so much contemporary life: escape from the womb, mysterious and frightening contrived happenings in a church, bewildering bombardment by random sights and sounds. Another principle had been clarified:

The attempt to achieve freedom by escaping from the burdens of tradition tends to result in a new enslavement to a chaotic present.

A major cause of the new sense of chaos, which produced unhappiness and disorientation in many people who had previously lived relatively serene lives within the order established by the Church, was the obvious manipulation of ancient symbols for new purposes -- the bread and wine of the Eucharist as a primarily human communion, for example.

Closely related was the sudden abandonment of numerous other symbols, with the clear implication that there is nothing in the liturgy so sacred that it cannot be eliminated in the quest for a contemporary idiom. One of the great early anthropologists, Bronislaw Malinowski, suggested that the reverence of primitive people for tradition is based on their awareness of how great a cost was required to gain whatever knowledge the tribe possesses, so that it should be treasured jealously.11

In the economy of the Church, reverence for tradition has had the same root, since spiritual insights are also bought only at great cost. Both Victor Turner and Louis Bouyer, among others, have suggested that a fixed ritual serves the function of preserving deep spiritual truths through periods when they are not fully understood, until such time as they once again become meaningful.12 The decision to jettison so much of tradition in the past decades has often been made rather lightly, with no thought for its long-term consequences or how the elements thus eliminated might be preserved for some possible future usefulness. (The liturgical revolution involved, among other things, a shift in emphasis from the liturgist as a man of deep learning and profound understanding of the Church’s traditions to the liturgist as innovator in empathetic contact with modern culture.)

Many persons withdrew from active participation in the life of the Church after 1966 on the grounds that the Church was irrelevant and old-fashioned, and its traditional liturgy was often given a major share of the blame, especially for the disaffection of young people. (Although the failure of so many of these people to find experimental liturgies satisfying suggests that even more strenuous liturgical reform would not have helped them.)

The relationship of cause and effect in such cases is difficult to disentangle, however. The officially mandated liturgical changes were being implemented as early as 1964 and were largely in effect before the flood of departures from the Church and from the priestly and religious life began. So long as the liturgy was stable, so was Church membership. As with other changes in the Church, the disaffection with liturgy seems to have come about not because the liturgy did not change but because it did. The sense of the meaning of tradition was broken; symbolically there had been a repudiation of the past which the fathers of the Second Vatican Council had certainly not intended but which their actions signaled to some people.

Looking for guiding signs, many persons thought they were being told that the Church would now adapt itself thoroughly to contemporary culture. This seemed, then, like a new certainty, a new official policy to replace the old traditionalism. As it became clear that there were definite limits beyond which the Church refused to adapt, the signals once again became confusing. Some people felt they had been defrauded, both because they had once been taught to believe in the sacredness of traditions which turned out to be expendable and because they had then come to expect an unrestrained embrace of modernity which also proved illusory. Some priests were concerned to minister to these people by providing the advanced liturgies which might show that the Church could be modern. Such liturgies tended to have the opposite effect, however, since the new and manipulative use of the sacred symbols was merely a dramatization of the breakdown of the old order, of the final dying of traditional beliefs. This was their effect not only on many troubled and searching worshippers but also, finally, on many priests as well.

The bitterness of many of those caught in this historical trap was due in part to the inescapable dosage of self-hatred which was part of it. They had been intimately involved with the old Church. It had been their spiritual nurture and had done much to form them. At one time they had perhaps been happy and purposeful within it. Like the rejection of one’s parents, it proved to be impossible to reject the old Church without also rejecting a large part of oneself. They were now cut off from spiritual traditions which had once seemed great and profound. If they had gained at least an apparent larger measure of freedom, it was in a world that was colder, more barren, more matter-of-fact than the one they had inherited. At a time when alienation has become a major concern of social analysts, it has proved a short-sighted and counter-productive strategy to encourage people in the discarding of their inherited religious identities. The ancestors of today’s disillusioned American Catholics were people who experienced an even greater threat of alienation as they literally uprooted themselves to journey to a strange and often unfriendly land. In that exodus their liturgies were among the things which most effectively kept them as people able to transcend their sufferings.

Traditional liturgy helps men to free themselves from historical determination by making accessible to them modes of Christian life from other ages than their own. It proclaims that no man is bound simply by the customs of his own time, and hence its “irrelevance” is in certain ways its glory.

The religious revolution of the later 1960s aimed to be, among other things, a turning from the past (Christians were thought to be too conservative, inclined to look backward at a supposedly more religious era now gone) and a turning to the future. In that sense, if one dimension of history was being lost, another was being recovered. The eschatological aspect of Christianity was given renewed emphasis, the expectation of a transformed future world in which the will of God would at last be fulfilled. Christians were to emancipate themselves from the past, but thereby were enabled to take responsibility for the future.

An orthodox Christian notion was made to fit too easily with frenzied and euphoric fashions, however. For a brief time it was possible to think that “revolution” was occurring, whose locus was primarily on the college campuses where students organized themselves to resist government policies in every area, radical ideologies were resurrected which had been forgotten since the 1930s, and some apparently solid institutions (mainly the colleges themselves) proved to be remarkably vulnerable to pressure for change. Joined to the growing Black Power movement and the incipient Women’s Liberation movement, student radicalism seemed to promise a thorough overhaul of the American political and economic system, and some Church members threw themselves into this struggle with an unabashedly religious fervor.

Before long the improbability of “revolution” in any meaningful sense of the term became obvious, and the focus shifted to “cultural revolution”, Once again avant-garde Christians professed to see deep religious significance in, for example, Charles Reich’s The Greening of America, which predicted the coming transformation of society through a profound new consciousness that was being born in young people. By the early 1970s, however, college students were once again frankly interested in material security, and the counter-culture was in deeper trouble than even the Church. The future-oriented Christians of a few years before were left either in various kinds of disillusionment or with the tattered but still serviceable dogma that Christians are distinguished by their hope in the face of despair. In the meantime, however, this Christian hope had been emptied of most of its religious content.

Max Weber has pointed out that in times of rapid change, when old forms have been destroyed or weakened severely but new ones have not yet been created, the “charismatic leader” is likely to appear, who offers in his person the certainty which traditional institutions can no longer provide. He is unpredictable and uncontrollable and appears to understand the drift of history.13 The most remarkable development of the early 1970s was the phenomenon of formerly radical, militantly political, secular, and often corrosively skeptical young people placing themselves under the implicit authority of Hindu gurus or becoming “Jesus freaks”. “Modern” man’s need to emancipate himself from religious domination proved to be of very short duration. In the Church itself equivalent leaders appeared, like Bishop Pike or Harvey Cox, whose personal odysseys came to be accepted as normative religious models by many disaffected Christians.

The atmosphere among radical Christians for a time closely resembled what has been described by sociologists as the “millenarian temperament”, a phenomenon which may still be found in extreme Protestant sects but can exist in other guises. In the overheated atmosphere that began to cool after 1970, it had a largely secular thrust, even among Church people, and it attracted persons of considerable education and sophistication rather than the simpler people who usually join millenarian groups.

Generally stimulated by the experience of social breakdown or rapid social change, millenarianism often involves an absolute condemnation of the present as evil, and the concomitant appeal to either a mythical and distant past or an equally mythical future, which may be imminent. The Kingdom of God is not thought to exist in some “otherworld” but will be established on earth itself. The millenarian has a strong sense of belonging to an elite which is preparing the way for this kingdom, in the face of opposition by a majority of ignorant and ungodly people. There is a general rebellion against authority, often a rapid turnover in the leadership of the movement itself, a compulsion to violate taboos deliberately, and a tendency to attract nonconformists to membership. Aggressive acts are sometimes justified. Although such movements can be nonpolitical, they may also link religion and politics if the latter is recognized as a possible means of achieving the millennium. The failure of the kingdom to arrive as predicted does not necessarily lead to the movement’s demise but may simply require a reformulation of its message.14

Groups answering to this general description, and claiming a religious inspiration, have existed both inside and outside the Church since the Council, their activities directed at either the secular state or the Church, sometimes at both. They have manifested a spirit which is not totally illegitimate from a Christian viewpoint, except where it becomes too fanatical or too secular. However, they have not manifested that clear-eyed worldliness which religious secularizers originally aimed at, and their existence suggests yet another principle:

The abandonment of religious traditions and the sense of the sacred tends to stimulate the formation of millenarian groups with intense but usually short-lived eschatological expectations. Their existence usually masks a hunger to reestablish religious certainties previously abandoned, although these may be put at the service of a largely secular gospel.

The alternative to millenarianism, of much lower emotional intensity and probably also affording considerably less satisfaction as a philosophy of life, is the modern idea of “progress”, which the breakdown of sacred traditions also helps to release. Progress is a satisfying belief in that it summons the individual into a happier and more fulfilling future. It also tends to be alienating in that it requires the almost constant rejection of values and modes of living which have become familiar. The past is not regarded as a spring that constantly feeds the present, which gives depth and grounding to life, but as something which is continually outgrown, which must be continually discarded as burdensome and retarding. The self-evident superiority of the present over the past, and the equal superiority of the future over the present, are generally taken for granted.

Victor Turner believes that effective ritual must have something archaic about it, which is not the same as something irrelevant or dead, and that attempts to modernize liturgy radically are likely to have disastrous effects on it.15 An additional principle can be formulated to express this:

Catholicism, although open to change, manifests a decided bias toward stability and toward the preservation of the past. This is because one of its principal tasks in the world is to witness to the reality of eternity; hence it cultivates what is timeless, enduring, and stable to serve as hints of eternity.

In Catholicism, it is necessary to recall once again, tradition itself is seen as a legitimation of truth, although various individual traditions may be false. The sociologist Peter Berger has pointed out that, in a world where few ideas are credible purely on their own merit but most depend on some social support for their plausibility, the force of tradition is one of the most powerful of these, or at least has been in most societies.16 The abandonment of tradition is not likely so much to make the individual freer as merely more susceptible to other kinds of social influence, such as the consensus of current enlightened opinion.

Catholicism seeks therefore to convey to people a sense of their participation in a great historical progression, in which the spiritual values of the past remain alive in the present in a variety of ways but especially through the Eucharist, which in traditional theology is considered as being celebrated for all believers living and dead and was often represented in earlier religious art as being celebrated in the presence of the angels and saints.

The rejection of tradition focuses the worshippers’ attention on the narrow and incomplete community of present believers and shatters their sense of membership in the widest Christian community, which is the Communion of Saints.

This is reflected, among other things, in an evident decline of belief in Purgatory and of the practice of praying for the dead, even by a certain agnosticism about the afterlife. Living and dead are no longer thought to have any discernible bond. Meanwhile, Spiritualism grows as a popular movement among the sophisticated.

It has been pointed out that the struggle to preserve traditional religion always has the effect of changing it, frequently in ways which its defenders do not perceive.17 This has been recognized by the Church in the fact that new dogmas have often been defined, and new devotions introduced, specifically in response to heresies. Orthodox definitions must always be in conformity with the original truth, but they can move the Church in directions it had not moved previously. Ironically, therefore, challenges to the Church to become relevant do usually have the effect of stimulating it to change, but not in the ways the modernizers have sought. This is one of the means by which petrification is avoided.

In Roman Catholicism a devotion to traditional liturgy almost inevitably has the effect of preserving orthodoxy, since these rituals are the concrete substance of the Church’s life, in which its total meaning is embodied.


1 Robert W. Hovda and Gabe Huck, “Music: We Must Learn to Celebrate”, Liturgical Arts, XXXVIII, 2 (February. 1970), p. 43.

2 For example, see Peter Schillaci, “Celebrating Change: the Liturgy”, Worship, XLIV, 2 (February, 1970), pp. 66-82; Helmut Hucke, “Towards a New Kind of Church Music”, Liturgy in Transition, ed. H. Schmidt (Concilium, LXII (1971)), pp, 87-97.

3 Daniel Stevick, Language in Worship: Reflections on a Crisis (New York, 1970), pp. 33-36.

4 Robert Redfield, The Folk Culture of Yucatan (Chicago, 1955), p. 363.

5 For example, see Benedict R. Avery, O.S.B., “A Halfway House to Aggiornamenta, The Sacramentary”, Worship, XL, 10 (December, 1966), pp. 634-49.

6 Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane, trans. Willard R. Trask (New York, 1959), pp. 203-4.

7 Mary Douglas, Natural Symbols (New York, 1970), p. 20.

8 Ibid., pp. 19-20, 51.

9 Ibid., pp. 19-20.

10 Victor Turner, “Passages, Margins, and Poverty”, Worship, XLVI, 7 (September, 1972), p. 399; Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane, pp. 68, 85, 89.

11 Bronislaw Malinowski, Magic, Science, and Religion (Garden City, N.Y., 1955), p. 39.

12 Turner, “Passages, Margins, and Poverty” (cited n. 10), p. 400; Louis Bouyer, C.O., Liturgical Piety (Notre Dame, Ind., 1954), p. 8.

13 Max Weber, The Theory of Economic and Social Organization, ed. Talcott Parsons (Glencoe, Ill., J947), p. 361.

14 Yorina Talmon, “Pursuit of the Millennium: the Relation between Religious and Social Change”, Reader in Comparative Religion: an Anthropological Approach, ed. William A. Lessa and Evon Z. Vogt (New York, 1965). pp. 526-35.

15 Turner, “Passages, Margins, and Poverty” (cited n. 10), pp. 391-92.

16 Peter Berger, The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion (Garden City, N.Y., (967), p. 31.

17 David G. Mandelbaum, “Transcendental and Pragmatic Aspects of Religion”, American Anthropologist, LXVIII, 5 (October, 1966). p. 1189.

Copyright © James Hitchcock. All rights reserved.
Online edition published with permission.

Preface -- 1995 Edition

Preface to the First Edition - 1974 Edition

Chapter 1 - The Liturgical Revolution -- Published in the Adoremus Bulletin, November 2009

Chapter 2 - The Chimera of Relevance

Chapter 3 - The Cult of Spontaneity

Chapter 4 - The Loss of History -- Published in the Adoremus Bulletin, June 2006

Chapter 5 - The Death of Community

Chapter 6 - Folk Religion

Chapter 7 - The Reformed Liturgy -- Published in the Adoremus Bulletin, April 1996

Chapter 8 - The Recovery of the Sacred


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