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Online Edition - Vol. IV, No. 1: February/March 1998
A New Song For the Lord

Review by Kenneth Whitehead

So much of what Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger publishes in book form lately seems to consist of collections of occasional articles or lectures by him or interviews with him. No doubt his duties as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome prevent him from producing more sustained work.

Nevertheless he remains one of the most original and perceptive Catholic theologians of our day. Nothing that he produces is insignificant. This is notably true of the present collection, which consists of a number of essays by him written between 1975 and 1995 on the general subject of the relationship between faith and liturgy. The individual topics range from "Jesus Christ Today" (a remarkable essay) through liturgy and Christology and the meaning of Sunday to important questions of Church architecture and, especially, of Church music (one of the chapters on this last topic appeared in three successive issues of Adoremus Bulletin between October and December, 1996).

All of the chapters in the book merit close study by anyone interested in the liturgy today. The cardinal's penetration in to the problems which currently beset our liturgy is profound. What he has to say about faith and liturgy is especially pertinent because some of his pronouncements on the subject of the "fabrication" of liturgy by "experts" and on that of the priest facing the people at Mass--statements perfectly valid in themselves--have been picked up by some Tridentine Mass people and used to imply that the cardinal believes that Vatican Council II's liturgical reforms were fundamentally mistaken and that he favors a simple return to the Tridentine Mass.

This is not the case. Cardinal Ratzinger deals with the liturgy on a level far deeper than superficial disputes about "rites". He is only too well aware, of course, that the liturgical reforms mandated by Vatican II have been somewhat less than an unqualified success overall. Nevertheless he also knows very well that, in his words, "the alternative between traditional forces and reformers is oversimplified" and that "those who think we can choose only between old and the new" are wrong (p. 132).

A syllogism that is still very much alive in some traditionalist circles is that Vatican II bore bad fruit and must therefore be uprooted and cast into the flames; we must return to the statu quo ante , that is, to the Tridentine Mass, as if the Council had never taken place. Although this idea may appear tempting to some, it fails to reckon with the fact that perhaps the most untraditional thinking that it is possible to imagine about the Catholic Church, for anyone knowledgeable about her real history, is that she ever would--or could--go back on or abrogate the authentic acts of one of her general (or ecumenical) Councils. Vatican II was the twenty-first such Council in the long history of the Church, and it has to be axiomatic for Catholics today that we must go forward from there, not back.

Cardinal Ratzinger takes this for granted; indeed he seems curiously only dimly aware of the deep-seated "traditionalist" problem that, in fact, continues to fester in the Church, while his ideas are sometimes used by traditionalists for their own purposes. At the same time, though, he is quite definitely aware of the true nature of our current liturgical dissaray--as much so as any theologian or liturgist currently writing.

Cardinal Ratzinger understands in particular that the crisis in the liturgy today fundamentally goes back to the current widespread crisis of faith that exists today. It is on this subject that this book speaks most eloquently; the cardinal sees clearly that it is the contemporary crisis of faith that has to be confronted and dealt with before the problems of the liturgy can be entirely remedied. Liturgy is not manipulable, nor is it something that can be fabricated by experts, precisely because it is an expression of the Church's faith. "Every liturgy is a cosmic liturgy," the cardinal writes, beautifully. It is "a stepping out of our pathetic little groups into the towering communion that embraces heaven and earth" (p. 175).

The essays in this book consistently illuminate not only the deep sources of both faith and liturgy but the necessary relations between them; properly understood, these studies help to see why a "reform of the reform" is not only necessary, but is the only way to go.

One minor irritant concerning this book must be mentioned, and it is that the translator (or the publisher) unwisely decided to give us a version of moderate "inclusive language" in the translation of the cardinal's original German (though the translation is otherwise clear and readable enough); the book also, unfortunately, uses the New Revised Standard Version for the quotations from Scripture included in it. All this is more than a little ironic considering that it was the very Roman Congregation which Cardinal Ratzinger heads that insisted upon withdrawing ecclesiastical approval from the NRSV translation of the Bible, just as it was this same Congregation that insisted upon having the inclusive-language translation of the Catechism of the Catholic Church re-done -- and just as it continues to insist today that liturgical translations too must be faithful to the original Latin, not distorted in the interests of a radical modern ideology.

Kenneth D. Whitehead is the translator of twenty-one books, and writes from Falls Church, Va.

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