Trying to explain the Liturgy Wars

As I begin to elaborate in writing on my experience of twenty-seven years of Catholicism, it is increasingly clear to me that Church politics are almost entirely inaccessible to the uninitiated. As something I grew up with, and then actively involved myself in, it all seems so straightforward, so natural. It is a matter of course for me to say that the focal point of the conservative-liberal divide was the proper celebration of the Mass; it is like saying that social unrest in Latin America is about economics — both are ridiculous simplifications, but at the same time they are accurate enough to go on with. Yet one of the biggest obstacles I have run up against in my early work on my projected seminary memoir is the difficulty in explaining to ‘outsiders’ just what exactly we were so worked up about. And when the audience isn’t even quite sure what I mean by ‘liturgy’ then it becomes clear to me that this is going to require much more than mere passing references and glib insider parlance to adequately convey the true passion of the liturgy wars of the past forty years.

Where to begin? As I sit down to tackle this, I realise that, while I am personally familiar with the various positions in play and the consequences of the unending conflict, I have very little sense of the actual history of the conflict, the ideological sources of the two camps, the developments in the past decade, or above all how to express the polarising rage that I personally experienced — a rage that perhaps is the most characteristic feature of the whole divisive history of the Catholic Church over the past four decades.

Well, let me take this stab at this. One of the most visible results of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) was the drastic reform of the liturgy, the rituals of public worship for Catholics around the world. Celebrated for centuries (I don’t really know how long) exclusively in the Latin tongue, the Council fathers suddenly pulled the rug out from under the faithful by not only mandating celebration in the local language, but also dramatically revising the entire order of worship, simplifying the rituals in an effort to restore the act of communal worship to its most fundamental structures, and in so doing rendering the weekly Sunday celebration of the Mass almost unrecognisable to countless Catholics.

Almost immediately there arose a traditionalist resistance movement in the Church, clinging to the familiar Tridentine Rite — the liturgy as established by the Council of Trent (1545-63) — and rejecting the “New Rite” wholesale as a modernist degradation, or worse. Everything continued to fall apart from there, with attitudes toward the liturgy becoming indicative of how individuals stood in regards to other contentious issues in the Church, setting neighbours against each other in often-bitter strife, and so we reach the seemingly-unreconcilable polarisation that paralyses the People of God today.

That, at least, is a thumbnail of my understanding of the situation. But I have no specifics, no names of key players, no timeline, no historical or theological background for the opposing positions. This is just my impression, and it may well be erroneous (though I have lived and breathed this for so long that I will be severely disoriented if that is the case). What I am looking for, now, is some feedback from anyone who may have some or all of the information I lack. Can someone out there point me toward books or other resources to help me put together all the specifics and acquire the depth of knowledge that will enable me in turn to explain this tragic conflict to future readers? I would deeply appreciate your assistance!

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