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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