Rubricism, Juridicalism, and the Slavery of Preconciliar Catholicism

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I have been nerding out since I discovered that has digitized the 1912 edition of the Decreta Authentica Sacræ Congregationis Rituum, which contains all 4,284 decrees the dicastery had issued since its establishment by Pope Sixtus V in 1588 up to that time, answering countless practical questions about the proper celebration of Mass, the Sacraments, and the Office according to the Roman Rite. It is a very timeless book, if you think about it, a volume added to, but never completed, by successive generations of cardinals, filled with very old statements that held immediate and practical relevance for parish priests and sacristans around the world for nearly 500 years.

Fascinating reading for anyone remotely interested in liturgy (and with a passable knowledge of Latin), and across the centuries you can see the Congregation responding practically to very contemporary concerns. Perhaps my favorite decree is SRC 3859, dated June 4, 1895, in which the question of electric lights is addressed. The Congregation determined that they may be employed to “dispel the darkness and more brightly light the churches,” but that they may not be used to “increase the exterior splendor of the rites,” and that every precaution must be taken “lest their use appear theatrical.”

In our day and age, of course, in which one cannot write an article about why the sanctuary is a meaningful liturgical symbol without being accused of  “sheer undisguised spiritual pride that rolls off their tongues without a hint of self-awareness,” the mindset that gave rise to decrees of this kind, in such great volume, about such seemingly minute and trivial details, is certainly counter-intuitive, probably unfamiliar, and likely unintelligible to most. Our mindset is more like that of a priest who, as I was preparing the music for Mass once and realized that I had inadvertently violated the rubrics, remarked nonchalantly that God didn’t really care what text I used for the Gospel acclamation.

I feel as if, in denouncing “rubricism,” we have perhaps inculcated in many of the faithful what amounts to a hatred of rubrics. I find this especially odd at this historical moment, when we are nearly obsessive about the subjective, rather than objective, aspects of liturgy.

It puzzles me that, on both sides of the liturgy debate, people behave as if what is aimed at by the rubrics is some objective state-of-affairs that, once realized, will bring tranquility and order to the Church. The progressives dream of a kind of liturgical ressourcement in which an appreciation for the origins of all the ceremonies of the Mass will show clearly their unnecessary character, and that, in consequence, an age of nearly absolute freedom in all but the most essential symbols will reign in the Church. I believe it was Dom Chupungco who even spoke of inculturation to the extent of replacing the Gloria with a completely vernacular composition of a similar character, among other things. This mindset, which may seem on the face like hypersubjectivism, is spun as the only appropriate response to a realization of the culturally-conditioned character of the Roman Rite, and hence proposals that could have been taken as subjectivist dispensations for certain cultural and pastoral circumstances (for example the dispensation for a vernacular and metrical Gloria in preconciliar Germany), but that also recognized the subjective value of unified prayer and the intercultural enrichment the Roman Rite could provide under ordinary circumstances (think of all the cultural notes that Gregorian Chant, a medieval monodic music, or Latin liturgy, still holds in even the most popular expressions of American culture, for example in Hollywood—who doesn’t “get” the baptism scene from The Godfather?), become instead an objectivist mandate to alter a perfectly sound on-the-ground state-of-affairs for esoteric reasons.

For a deeper discussion of this perspective, see Fr. Vincent Donovan’s Christianity Rediscovered, in which he advances the thesis that the failure of modern missionary activity lies with the mixing of what is essentially a Roman tribal recension of Christianity with the simple and undiluted seed of the Gospel, and that preaching the “core” of the Gospel in a highly inculturated way (he went so far as to alter even the parables, rather than to teach the Masai the significance the characters in the parables would have had for Jews at the time) and allowing the culture itself to supply the rites for the celebration of the Mass and Sacraments, would yield more abundant and lasting fruit.

On the converse, I get the sense from many traditionalists that their pastoral theology is taken from Field of Dreams, and that a pure, streamlined, rubrically and musically full and precise iteration of the Tridentine Mass will simply exert a mystical attraction on the faithful, who will be drawn magnetically into the fold, and that it ought, if possible, immediately and definitively supplant any and all other expressions at least of the Roman Rite, if not of Mass itself, given its objective superiority.

But rubrics, on the whole (and certainly not the detailed ones) aren’t about imposing what is objectively superior or academically accepted. Rather, rubrics are aimed precisely at safeguarding subjective expressions of the faith, and at enabling the faithful to live stable and fruitful spiritual lives in which they are at home. The idea that rubrics are even supposed to aim at something that is “objectively best” is dispelled by the merest glance at the old Rituale Romanum’s rules for distributing communion. Unless compelled by necessity, priests of the Oriental Rite are forbidden from distributing communion under the species of unleavened bread. Unless compelled by necessity, priests of the Latin Rite are commanded to. The rubrics aren’t attempting to adjudicate whether leavened or unleavened bread is more fitting for the Sacrifice; both are acceptable. The sensibilities of the faithful, and the stability of their prayer lives, are so valuable, that Church law prevents ritual intermingling and attempts to preserve the integrity of each rite. Klaus Gamber speaks of the sense of “home” the faithful should be able to have in the celebration of Mass, no matter where it is celebrated. St. Pius X echoes this principle in his Motu Proprio on Sacred Music, in which he commands that, although inculturated music is to be encouraged, it should be of such a character as to strike any Catholic from any part of the world as sacred. This principle he calls the “universality” of sacred music.

I’m not a pastor, of course, but I do have years of experience in pastoral music, and I can’t help but observe that the breakdown in concern for seemingly trivial details and the radical localization of liturgy has all but destroyed this universality, this at-homeness any Catholic should feel in any celebration of his rite. And this isn’t a question of scholars in the pews judging those in the sanctuary on some esoteric principles of organic development or quality of presiding. Rather, these are the gut reactions of the ordinary Catholic with no especial theological training, to which I have been privy in abundance over the course of my career in church music. This is the lady who puzzles to the deacon, “Why is he singing all that stuff in Latin before Mass?” (she was hard of hearing; I was singing in English, but she should be able to feel comfortable with Latin in the Latin Rite, and not be struck with it as something from outer space). This is the man who can’t believe that we still think the same things about the Eucharist we used to, since when he was an altar boy he wasn’t even allowed to touch the ciborium, but now is all but expected to touch the Host itself. These are very practical concerns from very down-to-earth people, concerns that are voiced on both sides of the issue by people who often don’t know what to expect from Sunday to Sunday in their own parishes. Nothing is given anymore, and they are not at home anywhere, unless they are blessed enough to have a very rigorous theological training, and to be able to see the underlying unity of such widely disparate external ceremonies, and to have the presence of mind to completely spiritualize their experience of Mass to an extraordinary extent, ignoring the externals that annoy them or strike them as unfitting, that jar them and disorient them, and focusing completely on the latent spiritual reality.

But Trent reminds us that the ceremonies of the Mass are aids to our entering into the mystery, not difficulties to be overcome in trying to contemplate it. We may argue and implement ad experimentum ad nauseam, trying desparately to find the golden, pristine liturgical Nirvana that most beautifully encapsulates the Gospel, but in the end all this does is breed confusion in the Church, and discord among the faithful.

Like the dog staring at the other steak reflected in the stream, instead of being satisfied with the steak in his mouth, we, seeing the unnecessary and changeable character of so much of our liturgy, have in so many ways been overcome with lust for what could be that we have abandoned the good things we once had.

So what of the Decreta Authentica? They are a remarkable artifact, perhaps quaint to such a cavalier bunch as us, of an age in which pastors were deeply solicitous to iterate the liturgy faithfully and accurately for their flocks (this is not to ignore the many and varied liturgical abuses that prevailed at the time!), to preserve the unity of the Roman Rite, and, in deferring to the judgment of a higher authority on minor matters, to ensure that there was no occasion to offend the sensibilities of the faithful or to arouse discord among them. And that, we may perhaps see by reflection, is no paltry sum, and is certainly not an undesirable state of affairs.

I’ll leave you with a thought from the preface to the Liber Usualis, the book of chants that prevailed before the ritual reform:

“Holy Mother the Church has received from God the charge of training the souls of the faithful in all holiness, and for this noble end has ever made a happy use of the help of the sacred liturgy. Wherein — in order that men’s minds may not be sundered by differences, but that, on the contrary, the unity which gives vigour and beauty to the mystical body of Christ might flourish unimpaired — She has been zealous to keep the traditions of our forefathers, ever trying diligently to discover and boldly to restore any which might have been forgotten in the course of ages.”

I think this is a true account of the “why” of rubrics and of the importance of tradition with a little “t.”

Sean Connolly

Sean Connolly

Sean is a teacher of History, Latin, and Choir at the high school level and parish music director. He keeps his domestic church in ordered disarray with an equally beleaguered and altogether lovely lady and his little daughter.

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17 thoughts on “Rubricism, Juridicalism, and the Slavery of Preconciliar Catholicism”

  1. Pingback: Rubricism, Juridicalism, and the Slavery of Preconciliar Catholicism - CATHOLIC FEAST - Every day is a Celebration

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    Conversely, the true reason the music and rubrics are there is to enhance the
    Word, which does and must change from age to age so as to put the Gospel in
    present day perspective. We once had a priest who was blessed with an ability
    to homolize so gallantly that his Masses were PACKED with both C & E catholics
    and Trads. He played rock, country, blues, jazz, pop, classical and you name it music right after the sermon, This musical interlude, meant to digest the sermon just rendered, bound everyone in a sense of unity and repose. But of course,
    there were the detractors though so few in number the local bishop adopted a
    laisser-aller stance. Most would agree that Jerry Garcia and The Grateful Dead should never have had a place at a Catholic Mass – but all it took was one priest with a gift for knowing his flock and his own gift to put all the rubrics back in the box. It’s not the ritual but the effects of it on the faithful that either keep them
    coming back or looking anew for what resonates. Hence, we have thousands
    of Christian churches doing evangelical and pentacostal moves to music not particulary kosher to us but very relevent to the masses. .

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        If the sheep follow they become his to teach. It’s the gospel message and the Eucharist that can’t be tampered with.

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        Isn’t the priest also a part of his bishop’s flock, and the bishop a part of the Pope’s flock? Is he not theirs to teach?

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        The bishop defered and the pope trusts his bishops.
        I know Jerry Garcia wouldn’t sound well transcribed
        for organ but the charisma this priest exhuded ( he is
        deceased now) filled every mass to the tune of $12K
        a week. We had a schola too and they were very
        professional but some of the music was over the
        heads of the blue collar parishoners. Do you think
        sacred music is instrumental in saving souls ?

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        Instrumental? Yes, it is an instrument in the salvation of souls. Essential? No, it is not essential to the salvation of souls.

        I know Catholics who prefer Mass to be absolutely silent.

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        No. He broke the mold. There is a beautiful Meditation on
        a Communion hymn called Picardy by Leo Sowerby. I was
        told that this piece could not be played at mass because
        it was written by and for Protestant services. Is this true ?

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        Well, Picardy is just a tune, to which many words are put, including “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence,” which is the most popular English translation of a hymn from the ancient Liturgy of St. James, thoroughly Catholic. It is printed in many Catholic hymnals. The tune itself seems to be French origin, presumably Catholic. So the only thing “Protestant” about that piece is Sowerby himself, not any of the materiel he chose to use.

        As to the principle behind the thing, “Now Thank We All Our God” was written by a Lutheran and translated by an Anglican, and I’ve never heard anyone raise any serious objections to its use in Mass, nor to the use of “Holy, Holy, Holy,” which was written by an Anglican minister.

        So no, I’ve never heard anything of the kind, so long as the text is theologically sound and the tune suitably dignified. Catholics usually don’t sing “A Mighty Fortress,” even though it’s all of the above, but that’s because “der alte böse Feind” has a subtext.

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    This makes so much sense to me. I’m not a die-hard studier of rubrics — in fact, I try not to be, because it’s obsessive and distracting — but I wish things would just stay the same for awhile. I wish I didn’t have to wonder, at each new church I go to, what the heck they are doing or why they’re doing something different, or whether I’ve got a priest who will get mad at me for kneeling to receive, or for standing to receive. Whatever I do, someone, somewhere, wants to turn that into a political action when I’m just trying to participate in the Mass! If only it were all more or less the same everywhere.

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    Perhaps people were overly obsessed with rubrics pre-Vat II, but the widespread lack of reverence and casualness in most modern masses, and the total disregard of the riches of Catholic liturgical (and musical) tradition in the Ordinary Form as it is commonly celebrated make me think the pendulum has swung too far the other way. I think the Ordinary Form could use a little stricter rubricism at this point.

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    Pope Francis’ recent three session interview:

    “Then there are particular issues, like the liturgy according to the Vetus Ordo. I think the decision of Pope Benedict [his decision of July 7, 2007, to allow a wider use of the Tridentine Mass] was prudent and motivated by the desire to help people who have this sensitivity. What is worrying, though, is the risk of the ideologization of the Vetus Ordo, its exploitation.”

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      I’m a bit confused. The post wasn’t about the ritual reform, or about either form of the Roman Rite in particular.

      That being said, I agree with the Pope’s remarks on that point.

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