Pontifex Minimus Blog: Presidential Reflections on the Catholic Intellectual Tradition

By Dr. Michael W. Higgins, President and Vice-Chancellor of Corpus Christi-St. Marks at UBC

It has been a summer of upheaval, unpredictability, social and political anxiety and exasperation on many levels.

Certainly, it seems like a small matter—when our global crises are factored in—but for many Catholics it is not a small matter at all.  It speaks to their heart and Catholic sensibility.

I am talking about Pope Francis’s Traditionis Custodes (“Guardians of the Tradition”), his controversial ruling that re-imposes the restrictions in place regarding the Tridentine liturgy post-Second Vatican Council.

Welcome to the altar wars. Again.

Debates around the continuance of the Old Rite have been with us for some time.  The pre-reform Latin liturgy is seen by a minority of Catholics as a more authentic expression of the Catholic tradition, a rite that inspires with its mystery as it adores the Divine Mystery wrapped in incense, regulated gestures, delivered in a universal language that has seen better days, and all this and more with chasubles and dalmatics aplenty, lofty chant,  in summary: a piece of priceless theatre.  And there can be no doubt that the celebration of Mass using all the refined movements, vessels, holy accoutrements, and exalted music of a treasured pedigree can be both aesthetically and spiritually satisfying.

But liturgy is more than a rubrical sideshow. It is not a museum collection and it carries the weight of ideas, tradition, and conventions that are not indifferent to time.  It is not set in aspic. Liturgy thrives when fed by a living well.

I have tasted the beauty of a Latin liturgy—with the monks of Pluscarden in Scotland and Solesmes in France—and realize they are not desiccated ceremonies but exquisitely crafted rituals.  But these centres of worship are institutions specifically charged to maintain their connection with the past, and although not rarefied they are not universal in their ministry and pastoral relevance.

Francis understands that the reformed liturgy of the Council is the norm and that the persistence of the old liturgy sows confusion, serves as a rallying point for those hostile to the Council’s teachings on other matters, has become a divisive power in local churches, pits bishops against ultraconservative younger priests, and alienates Catholics who have struggled to incorporate the new liturgy (now more than half a century old) into their faith lives.

Lex orandi, lex credendi—the law of prayer is the law of belief.  In this Francis is better connected to the tradition than are the traditionalists who oppose him.

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