The National Catholic Register recently published a blog post by Kevin Di Camillo, which argued that the “Traditional Latin Mass” shouldn’t be “silenced,” since a diversity of liturgical expressions doesn’t threaten Church unity. He writes:

My liberal Catholic friends usually like to take extreme examples to their illogical conclusions, especially when it comes to the liturgy, and I see no reason why using their own pretzel logic can’t be used in this case: If the Latin Rite Mass must be always and only in the post-Vatican II model, why should we countenance the Maronite Rite? Or the Ambrosian? Or the Coptic?

If these Churches are part of the Catholic Church, but why do they need their own rite, since even within the Church of Rome there now can be only one expression of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass? If Catholics must forgo their beloved pre-Vatican II Mass, why should any of the Churches that maintain communion with the Holy See be allowed a separate rite.

Of course, this is a question of rhetoric and I’m sure the Chaldean liturgical tradition is safe for the foreseeable future.

He concludes the article by writing:

In a Church so full of clamor for more “diversity” it seems difficult to see how suddenly silencing a sincere and growing aspect of the faith through the Tridentine Mass will ever bring greater diversity — or unity.

The argument of Kevin Di Camillo’s article is flawed. Pope Francis hasn’t “silenced” the “TLM.” For now, he has merely put more restrictions on its use. This action of his has nothing to do with liturgical diversity as such. It has everything to do with maintaining unity in the Church. Liturgical diversity can either promote or disrupt this unity, largely depending on the social factors associated with the use of a liturgical rite.

Liturgical Diversity

Liturgical diversity is, in general, a good thing for the Church. God is infinite, and no finite liturgy can fully capture our relationship to him. Every liturgy will end up emphasizing some theological points over others. Just as each one of us uniquely shows forth some aspect of our Creator, it would take an infinite number of rites to fully portray the wonders of our Faith.

Our religion is also incarnational; it is centered on the stunning claim that a village carpenter was also God. The almighty and infinite Creator wants to enter into the reality of our daily lives, and to elevate and transform every aspect of human life. We can see this transformation in our global Church’s liturgical diversity, in the wide variety of liturgies that represent the encounter of different cultures with the divine.

Pope Francis, however, seems to have concluded that this particular liturgical tradition is problematic. It isn’t that he sees the “Traditional Latin Mass” itself as problematic; rather, he is concerned that it has been weaponized as a tool of division. What distinguishes healthy diversity from harmful division?

Four Warning Signs

There are four different factors, when taken together, that can make a minority liturgical tradition dangerous and divisive. (What follows is primarily relevant to liturgical traditions held by a minority group within the Church. Majority groups can have other problems, but their liturgical traditions are less likely to prove divisive, strictly speaking.) None of these factors have to do with the liturgy itself, but rather with the social conditions that can surround liturgy. If all four of these factors are present, division becomes likely, perhaps even inevitable. If only some of them are present, the liturgical custom in question is less likely to become problematic. Also, each point builds on the ones before it.

Liturgy as Group Identifier

From country to country, and even from parish to parish, there are small liturgical differences; many of these customs or traditions are barely noticed by the faithful. For instance, on a recent trip to the Midwest, I noticed that the hosts consecrated for the Elevation were much larger than those typically used by my local parishes. Such differences have not become the identifiers of a group, and so can’t prove divisive. Once a detail, however small, becomes such an identifier, the possibility of division is present. In the 1600’s, different ways of making the Sign of the Cross became such a divisive detail among Eastern Christians, contributing to schisms that persist to the present day. Similarly, the reception of the Precious Blood became a politically charged issue in the Hussite schism of the 1400’s; in this case, religious differences eventually led to war.

A Distribution not Confined to a Particular Geographic Area

As mentioned above, one of the primary arguments for liturgical diversity is that different cultures influence the local development of liturgy. This argument does not hold, however, for practices which are widespread but relatively uncommon. A geographically limited distribution doesn’t prevent division, but in such cases a division is usually the fault of the wider Church. For instance, the Portuguese Catholics tried to westernize the rites of the Thomas Christians in India, leading to the “Coonan Cross Oath” in which almost all of the Thomas Christians broke their allegiance to Rome and went into schism. (The Thomas Christians who stayed in union or later became reunited with the Catholic Church formed the Syro-Malankara and Syro-Malabar Churches.) Without the interference by the Portuguese, the liturgy of the Thomas Christians would not have proved divisive.

In contrast with distinctive local liturgies, liturgical differences within a diocese, country, or rite are more likely to become problematic. Such differences have the potential to divide the faithful from their bishops. Sacrosanctum Concilium contains the following description of the ideal liturgical life within a diocese:

41. The bishop is to be considered as the high priest of his flock, from whom the life in Christ of his faithful is in some way derived and dependent.

Therefore all should hold in great esteem the liturgical life of the diocese centered around the bishop, especially in his cathedral church; they must be convinced that the pre-eminent manifestation of the Church consists in the full active participation of all God’s holy people in these liturgical celebrations, especially in the same eucharist, in a single prayer, at one altar, at which there presides the bishop surrounded by his college of priests and by his ministers.

42. But because it is impossible for the bishop always and everywhere to preside over the whole flock in his Church, he cannot do other than establish lesser groupings of the faithful. Among these the parishes, set up locally under a pastor who takes the place of the bishop, are the most important: for in some manner they represent the visible Church constituted throughout the world.

In my last article, I mentioned the refusal of the FSSP priests in Dijon to concelebrate with their bishop. This is a good example of the way that liturgical differences within a diocese can make it impossible to “center liturgical life around the bishop.” At the most extreme, such differences can lead groups to break away from their bishops altogether. This is particularly likely if such groups possess the final trait on this list: a feeling that the group is superior to the mainstream Church.

A Perception of Superiority

Mere liturgical preferences are unlikely to create a division. It is easy, however, to move from “my liturgical practices are superior” to “my group is superior.” A group that sees itself as “elite” in some way is likely to look down on their fellow Catholics. This kind of superiority is likely to provoke a negative response from the mainstream Church, setting the stage for escalating tensions that eventually produce a schism or division. Ronald Knox’s book Enthusiasm chronicles the long, sad story of “enthusiastic” groups in the Church, groups which saw themselves as superior in some particular way, be it liturgical, social, moral, or theological. Almost all of them set out to reform the Church but ended up dividing it. I think perceived superiority based on liturgical differences is particularly dangerous; the traditionalist slogan “Lex orandi, lex credendi, lex vivendi” really does hold. As you worship, so you will believe, and so you will live. If a group worships separately, as a way to demonstrate its superiority (as opposed to merely worshiping “differently”), it will almost certainly come to believe separately.

A Proselytizing Spirit

This is the most problematic of the four warning signs. Catholics should not be trying to proselytize other Catholics. We should not see our own groups or organizations in conflict with other groups within the Church. A former member of the Legionaries of Christ told me that his group was characterized by just such a proselytizing spirit. They saw fellow Catholics as potential recruits for their project, and all their activities were geared toward that end. The Church has always contained a diversity of groups and religious orders; this diversity builds the Church up if each group sees the others not as competitors but rather as allies. A group that desires “victory” in the Church is a problem, and this applies to liturgy just as it applies to everything else.

The Warning Signs Applied

If we view the Eastern Rites through the lens of these warning signs, we can see why they are not a problem for the Church. They certainly have a group identity around their rites, and some Easterners may personally consider the Western liturgical forms inferior. They are more or less confined, however, to certain geographic areas, with Eastern churches outside of their homelands mostly existing to serve diaspora populations. Most importantly, they don’t have a proselytizing spirit toward the Church as a whole; none of them imagines that one day their way will “triumph” over the other liturgical practices in the Church.

It is important to note that some individual traditionalists do maintain healthy relationships with the mainstream Church. In fact, I’ve been very edified by my traditionalist friends who used Traditionis Custodes as an opportunity to call the traditionalist movement to repentance and greater unity. Such a call is needed, because the traditionalist movement clearly has all four of these warning signs. The older liturgy has become a marker of group identity (as seen in those who identify as “traditionalist Catholics”). It is not confined to a certain geographic area. Many traditionalists feel that their movement is superior to the mainstream Church. Most importantly, the movement is clearly proselytizing. Traditionalist blogs, YouTube channels, and websites are constantly attempting to convince Catholics that their way is superior and that they should join the movement. Individual traditionalists often attempt to convince fellow Catholics to join personal parishes or to drive great distances to attend Mass in the old rite, rather than to attend their local geographic ones. As a former traditionalist, I remember having this outlook myself, looking on fellow Catholics as people to be “converted” to the “cause.” In a similar way, we tended to look on those who left the movement as having betrayed “the cause,” even when they remained faithful Catholics. A proselytizing movement is always in danger of becoming a “parallel church” because a proselytizing movement is no longer fully united with the Church, even without a formal split. As Pope Francis said in the letter which accompanies Traditionis Custodes:

 Vatican Council II, while it reaffirmed the external bonds of incorporation in the Church — the profession of faith, the sacraments, of communion — affirmed with St. Augustine that to remain in the Church not only ‘with the body’ but also ‘with the heart’ is a condition for salvation.

Accepting Diversity

Unity is fundamental to our Faith. We believe that God himself is, in a sense, a community of persons. Our destiny is unity with God and with our fellow human beings. Our individual, distinctive selves won’t merge into some sort of amorphous totality; rather, God wants to build a greater whole out of individual parts. We can choose to willingly cooperate with God’s unitive and loving plan, or we can choose to close ourselves in with self-absorption and hate. Similarly, whether a particular situation of liturgical diversity will build up or tear down the Church depends largely on those who practice it. If they choose the path of superiority and proselytism, they will tear apart the Church, and will eventually be condemned. If they strive for loving community with others in the Church who do not share their liturgical customs, their diversity can help to build a greater unity.


Image: Pope Francis celebrates Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica on Sunday for the Congolese community of Rome, according to the Zaire Use (officially the Roman Missal for the Dioceses of Zaire). Vatican News.  


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Malcolm Schluenderfritz hosts Happy Are You Poor, a blog and podcast dedicated to discussing radical Christian community as a means of evangelization. He works as a graphic design assistant and a horticulturalist in Littleton, CO.

Is Liturgical Diversity Divisive?
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