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Online Edition - Vol. IV, No. 1: February/March 1998

Where's the High Ground?

Father Richard John Neuhaus

Father Neuhaus's observations appeared in the February 1998 edition of First Things, an ecumenical journal he publishes. They are reprinted here with his permission.

Antiphon is the publication of the Society for Catholic Liturgy, a fine organization founded by Monsignor Francis Mannion. The current issue, however, seems to be stretching in order to distinguish the society from similar efforts of a more forthrightly conservative nature.

In his editorial, Msgr. Mannion takes note of reflections by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger in an autobiographical work that has not yet appeared in English.

Mannion writes: "In the cardinal's view the fundamental problem following Vatican II was that the reformed liturgy was 'presented as a new structure, in opposition to the one which had been formed through history.' The old structure was 'dismantled, and its pieces were used to construct another' to the detriment of liturgical tradition. This made it appear that liturgical development is not a 'vital process, but a product of specialist knowledge and juridical competence.' The impression developed that 'the liturgy is "manufactured," that it is not something which preceded us, something "given", but that it depends on our decisions.' The cardinal concludes: 'For the life of the church, it is dramatically urgent to have a renewal of liturgical awareness, a liturgical reconciliation, which goes back to recognizing the unity in the history of the liturgy and understands Vatican II not a s a break, but as a developing moment'."

Mannion juxtaposes Ratzinger's views with those of Archbishop Rembert Weakland of Milwaukee, who, in an article in America, staunchly defends the liturgical changes of recent decades and blames any confusions on Pope John Paul's indult of 1984, allowing the use of the Tridentine rite at the discretion of the bishop.

"The one point of agreement between Cardinal Ratzinger and Archbishop Weakland", writes Mannion, "is that the liturgical life of the church today is in crisis. Beyond that, it would be difficult to reconcile their positions. The tendency to take sides is tempting, but, in my opinion, it should be suspended." The alternative is continued fruitless polarization and ecclesiastical tribalism."

One can appreciate Msgr. Mannion's desire to position his society in the center, which is often taken to be the high ground, but his irenicism is a reach too far. Ratzinger is describing liturgical circumstance that is pervasive and is overwhelmingly supported by the liturgical establishments that brought the circumstance about. Weakland uncritically endorses the status quo -- which he calls "the product of the finest thinking within the whole of the Catholic tradition" -- and heaps blame for any problems on John Paul II's pastoral generosity to a relatively small handful of Catholics who prefer the Tridentine Rite.

Mannion is right that the future should not mean going back to conditions before Vatican II, and Ratzinger is certainly not suggesting that. The point is that Ratzinger's argument about the sources of our current problems is substantive, while Weakland's complaint is, to put it kindly, superficial. Taking Ratzinger's "side" in his analysis of what has gone wrong still leaves plenty of room for honest disagreement about what should be done about it.

The high ground in this discussion is not to be found mid-way between the substantive and the silly.

Copyright © 1998   First Things

Return to March 1998 Table of Contents

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