Should we have Liturgy Wars?

Should we have Liturgy Wars?

By: Parker H Zurbuch

This article is a plea from one lay Catholic, who attends a normal, Novus Ordo parish in rural Indiana, to all of his fellows in Religion (Trads, Conservatives, and Progressives alike).

I have been heavily involved in various discussions on social media regarding the liturgical rites in the Western Catholic Church for about a month now. Among the participants have been Dr. Peter Kwasniewski, Gregory DiPippo, and numerous other “Traditionalists.” Conservatives have weighed in a lot, too, although this often has been mediated via private messages to myself or through a variety of other means.

Where it all began.

This journey started for me when I read Dr. Kwasniewski’s book “True Obedience” after it had been recommended to me by a friend.[1] I was honestly quite reluctant to pick it up at first, because I had become skeptical of anything written by Dr. Kwasniewski. This skepticism was not due to personal interaction with him in any way, but simply had brewed within me via comments others had made on social media about him. My heart (and mind) had been hardened towards this man and his work, to a certain extent. I had cultivated within me a bias towards Traditionalists.

Despite this, I started reading Dr. Kwasniewski’s book. I agreed with most of it; particularly, the parts about what true obedience is in the Church. Where I disagreed were the parts laying out particular applications for said obedience, and by contrast, for disobedience. It was this second section of this work that earnestly puzzled me. It seemed that Kwasniewski was making the claim that one could disobey Traditionis Custodes, because the Traditional Latin Mass (TLM) could not de facto be abrogated.[2] Furthermore, he argued that the reason the TLM could not be ultimately prohibited was because it was the only version of the true Roman Rite left in existence.[3] These two points flabbergasted me. How could someone make such a claim? Does the Pope not have full authority over the liturgy; enough to do with it as he pleases or call it what he wants?[4]

The answer, of course, is not so easy. The questions brought to me by this book were deep.[5] They are questions which, as far as I can ascertain, have not been fully ironed-out by the Church’s Magisterium yet, and therefore need to be discussed amongst theologians, liturgists, philosophers, and anyone of good will with an intellect ready for the task.[6]

What does good discussion consist of?

These liturgical discussions have been a real catalyst for me in understanding the peaks and pitfalls of conversation. This is a very emotional topic, but we do not want those emotions to cloud our minds or pre-dispose our wills toward acting uncharitably.[7] Throughout this time, one of my main goals has been to analyze how said discussions are progressing by viewing patterns in them which are helpful or unhelpful. From these patterns, I was able to formulate a number of steps which can be helpful in fostering further constructive remarks when this topic of the liturgy is in play. These steps begin with a base level of respect for the other and have an end goal of what I call “True Listening:”

1. Respect is the entrance to conversation.

2. Conversation allows for understanding.

3. Understanding cultivates empathy.

4. Empathy cultivates a true, deep love for the other, even when disagreement is at play. This empathy paves the way for a true sense of listening to the other.

5. True Listening is the goal. Only then can one effectively challenge or ask another to consider more seriously rethinking their own point of view or accepting your own; and even then, it is not about being right, but discovering the Truth together.

Throughout the whole process, it takes patience and not being afraid to be wrong and change your own mind accordingly. One must be truly open to the others' viewpoint and not afraid if the Truth hurts. We must accept that pain, and turn it into love.

For those who make think the above reflections are simply platitudes, I will now give further definitions of each term:

Respect is an act of the will, aided by the intellect saying something like “This person is loved and cherished by God. They deserve every good which I could ever want for myself, and probably more. I therefore want to make that a reality for them, even if we do not see eye to eye.”

Conversation is that constructive vocalization of words between two or more persons.

Understanding of the other is when we come to the point of seeing their argument as valid; although, maybe not agreeing with the soundness of their premises. If the argument is invalid, then a true understanding cannot occur. One cannot understand something which is illogical.

Empathy is the healthy emotional reaction which flows from true understanding. The purpose of this reaction is to allow a person to put themselves “in the shoes” of the other for the sake of communicative truth.

True Listening is what I have designated as the separate goal of each individual within said discussion. It is the culmination of the other steps having been achieved. When this True Listening occurs on both sides of the dialogue, then a really constructive conversation can finally occur between the two.

These steps can be applied to more than two persons as well; although, the more people one adds to a discussion, the more room for error there is when one of said persons does not achieve True Listening.

Why is this important?

Why is it important to foster good discussions amongst fellow Catholics on the subject of the liturgy? Well, primarily because we are Christians who are called to be respectful, conversational, understanding, empathetic, and true listeners. Additionally, this topic is such that all Catholics have a “dog in the fight” in one way or another. Either an individual actively wants to see things change in the way the liturgy is said, or they want to defend it the way it is. If one tries to bury their head in the sand on this issue, it will find them anyway – even if it is through  one’s beloved parish liturgy changing before one’s eyes (for better or worse) without that person having any advanced knowledge of its happening.

I had a priest-friend relay to me this anecdote recently:

        

I was in the rectory when my pastor handed me a letter. This letter simply had my name written on the front, and when I opened it, there was no name written indicating it’s author. The letter went on and on about how I was making the Mass too much of a performance, and how I needed to look at the people more…

At this point, my friend told me how he laughed out-loud at the hilarity of such a comment.

“Make the mass less of a performance, yet look at the people more?? What a paradox!”

I also could not keep myself from laughter and shaking my head. Anyways, he continued his story:

                        

The letter went on to tromp about in no uncertain words how I and my pastor were ruining the Mass, and that the author was sending a copy of this letter directly to the Bishop!

This is quite a common story among priests – especially of a liturgically conservative or traditional flavor. What was most striking about it to me, however, was that the author did not give these priests a chance to defend or explain themselves. This should be a basic rule of moral action for a Christian: we should allow a person to explain themselves before we go accusing them of this or that; especially before we accuse them before their boss!! Not only is this unjust and uncharitable conduct; it also makes the accuser look irresponsible, ignorant, and ignoble when they attempt to bring the accusation up! If the accuser had taken the time to employ the above steps in his conduct, the situation could have ended with some legitimate fruit. Instead, the Bishop most likely shook his head at the accusation and threw it in the trash.[8] 

The reason I am relating this story here is because it demonstrates the importance of good, respectful communication by contrasting a horrific narrative. As regards the specific liturgical discussions I have been fostering on Facebook, I can recount some additional remarks which I would like to address. One involved a number of people trying to convince me that I should not converse with Dr. Peter Kwasniewski, because “he is a dangerous man; leading people astray into schism.” This claim may or may not be true, but at least one should not argue from it that I therefore would be amiss in conversing with him. I also wish to assess the man’s arguments; not what people do with them. By assessing his arguments, and offering rebuttals via discussion, I hope to get people thinking – not simply reacting.

In Conclusion

In my personal observation, there is a lot of reaction occurring on social media (people immediately responding to one another out of frustration, ignorance, or malice), but there is not a lot of reflection, deep thinking, and charitable interaction. Frankly, this needs to stop among Catholics. When we cannot respectfully, charitably, and openly discuss matters (whether they be theological, philosophical, liturgical, or otherwise related to the Catholic faith) with one another, we prove to be a scandal to the world. Those scandalized include Catholics themselves, non-Catholic Christians, and non-Christians alike. It is a scandal which needs to cease.

We must foster good discussions amongst ourselves for the sake of charity with one another, and for the sake of evangelizing the world. This is precisely the reason why St. Paul exhorted the Corinthian church not to bring secular law suits amongst themselves; because it is a scandal to the pagans.[9] Today, we need to be acutely aware of how our inter-Catholic (and extra-Catholic) public conversations can be a cause of scandal to the secular world, and take actions to comport ourselves in the most virtuous ways possible.


If truth is spoken without the conveyance of charity, it is not really truth -- but rather empty fact. If love is spoken without the conveyance of truth, it is not really love -- but rather empty sentiment. Empty facts only numb the mind, and lead to the contempt of truth. Empty sentiments only serve to numb the heart, and lead to the contempt of love.


[1] Kwasniewski, Peter. True Obedience in the Church: A Guide to Discernment in Challenging Times. Crisis Publications, 2022.

[2]  Kwasniewski, Peter. True Obedience in the Church: A Guide to Discernment in Challenging Times. Sophia Institute Press, 2022. pp. 38-39; See also Kwasniewski, Peter. The Once and Future Roman Rite: Returning to the Traditional Latin Liturgy after Seventy Years of Exile. TAN Books, 2022. p. 160.

[3] Kwasniewski, Peter. The Once and Future Roman Rite: Returning to the Traditional Latin Liturgy after Seventy Years of Exile. TAN Books, 2022. pp. 214-217.

[4] I am being facetious here. I knew at the time that this issue was much, much more complicated than the above reaction insinuates. This reaction is actually unhelpful other than being a clown to poke fun at. No respectable “anti-Trad” or “Conservative” would take this extreme position of papal voluntarism.

[5] Dr. Peter Kwasniewski also has another book The Once and Future Roman Rite which fleshes out these questions more clearly than does True Obedience. After finishing the former, I read the latter in order to contextualize myself in the thoughts of the author and to hear his full arguments.

[6] Now, to be sure, facets of these questions have been worked-out. The question regarding the limits of general papal authority has been specifically answered by the Church’s Magisterium over the last 200 years. See Dei Verbum No. 10 (defines Scripture and Tradition), Lumen Gentium Nos. 12 & 25 (defines the sensus fidelium and the various weights of Magisterial definitions, respectively), Humani Generis No. 20 (on the authority of non-definitive Magisterial teachings), and Satis Cognitum No. 10 (describes how only an official organ of the Magisterium can interpret previous definitions of the Magisterium itself). Also see the 1989 Professio Fidei of St. John Paul II and Cardinal Ratzinger’s document when he was prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith Doctrinal Commentary on concluding formula of 'Professio fidei’. The documents of Vatican I are a necessary source-text, and Bishop Gasser’s Relatio is a needed commentary for understanding Vatican I; even if it is not a magisterial text in and of itself. Many more references could be listed here on the topic of Magisterial authority, but the above few will suffice for now.

[7] This is an emotional topic, and it should be an emotional topic. We are human beings, and cannot divorce ourselves from our emotions. What we can do, however, is regulate said emotions virtuously so that they lead the conversations in constructive (not destructive) paths.

[8] Admittedly, many Bishops may not have proceeded in this way. Some may indeed have gone along with the accusation (or possibly even promoted it). I wish to think the best of a Bishop if I do not know who he is; therefore, I choose to present this hypothetical one in a positive light for the sake of the above scenario. I wish to also note that an anonymous letter should not be taken seriously by anyone; unless there were grave circumstances necessitating such an action (such as the risk of bodily harm to the writer, for example). I cannot think of a way in which a person making liturgical complaints would risk physical harm or retaliation by those they accuse. If the person does not have the self-dignity to be responded to in return, then they should not be making such accusations or complaints. In such a scenario, a cleric who receives such communications would be completely justified in throwing out the letter without giving a second thought to the action.

[9] 1 Corinthians 6:1-11

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