The Evil of Liturgical Abuse

By Msgr. Vincent Foy

Published in Challenge Magazine, 1997 and The Roman Catholic Faithful Newsletter, December, 1997.               

“The liturgy has its laws which must be respected.”

Pope John Paul II, March 8, 1997

A liturgical crisis has been brewing for a long time. Back in 1973, Archbishop Robert Dwyer of Portland Oregon, wrote: “Sincere Christian men and women in their thousands and millions are reacting against the impoverishment and degradation of the liturgy, as they are reacting against so many displays of enfeebled or uncertain leadership.” (Catholic Priests’ Association Bulletin [England]. Vol. I and II, 1973, p.42). Since then, the crisis has deepened. Abuses are pandemic.

The Instruction “Inaestimabile Donum” (Inestimable Gift”) of April 3, 1980, lists some of the liturgical aberrations reported from different parts of the Catholic world. Among them are “the confusion of roles, especially regarding the priestly ministry and the role of the laity (indiscriminate shared recitation of the Eucharistic Prayers homilies given by lay people, lay people distributing Holy Communion while the priests refrain from doing so); an increasing loss of the sense of the sacred (abandonment of liturgical vestments, the Eucharist celebrated outside Church without real need, lack of reverence and respect for the Blessed Sacrament, etc.); misunderstanding of the ecclesial nature of the liturgy (the use of private texts, the proliferation of unapproved Eucharistic Prayers, the manipulation of the liturgical texts for social and political ends).”

The list of other abuses is long: there is a refusal to give Holy Communion on the tongue, or to those who are kneeling; bowing instead of genuflecting after the elevation; holding hands during the Our Father; unwarranted so-called liturgical dancing; leaving the sanctuary to give the kiss of peace; changing, adding or omitting words even during the Canon of the Mass. One should not dismiss such aberrations as minor. “The relative seriousness of a given rubric should not be our primary concern; our primary concern should be that any deviation from the rule of prayer diminishes the legacy of unity which Christ on the eve of His death asked his Father to bestow on His Church.” (Msgr. Clarence 1. Hettinger, Homiletic and Pastoral Review, Feb. 1997, p 57).

Among other liturgical horrors are clown masses, rock masses, and the profanation of the church as a sacred place by the pagan “Missa Gaia.” There is the annual “Call to Action” mass attended by bishops, priests, religious and laity, at which all say the words of consecration. Several years ago, at the “Call to Action” convention in Detroit, Dianne Neu spoke of “Creating Feminist Liturgies.” She said: “Feminist liturgy brings to public expression the faith life of the community, free from hierarchy, patriarchy, curiarchy…I think it is important for us to have the edge that we are moving away from the kind of a Church that can excommunicate us.” (cf. Human Life International Report, No. 151, July, 1997).

A fairly recent atrocity is the “Tyme Mass” in London, England, during which the young danced in a night-club atmosphere, a young woman gave the homily and sesame-seed loaves were consecrated in ceramic bowls. This experiment had the approval of Cardinal Hume as “a means of attracting young people back to the Church.” (cf. Christian Order, May, 1997, pp. 262-269).

A current common practice destructive of faith and morals is the reception by all, or nearly all, of the Holy Communion. This is at a time when sexual sins are rampant and our confessionals are deserted. Many have been led to erroneously believe that the Mass forgives mortal sins. The teaching of the Church is that the Mass “is an antidote by which we are freed from daily faults and are preserved from mortal sins” (Council of Trent, Session 13. C. 2). St. Paul says: “whoever eats the bread and drinks the cup in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the Body and Blood of the Lord.” (1 Cor., 11:27). We have a witness to ancient Tradition in the document “The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles.” It reads: “The statement of the Lord applies here also: ‘Do not give to dogs what is holy’…Oh the Lord’s day, when you have been gathered, break bread and celebrate the Eucharist. But first confess your sins so that your offering may be pure.” (Second reading of the 14th week in Ordinary Time, the Roman. Breviary.) See also the Code of Canon Law, C. 916.

Perhaps there never was a time when our sanctuaries were so dishonoured by breaches of liturgical law. In his recent autobiography, Cardinal Ratzinger attributes the present Church crisis to liturgical collapse.

The importance of the liturgy, the public worship of the Church, can hardly be exaggerated. The work of the liturgy is our sanctification and salvation. Through it we go from sin to grace, from earth to Heaven. The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy of Vatican II tells us: “it is the liturgy through which, especially in the divine Sacrifice of the Eucharist, the work of our redemption is accomplished.” (Introduction, n. 2). No private action is comparable to liturgical worship: “Every liturgical celebration, because it is an action of Christ the Priest and of His Body, which is the Church, is a sacred action surpassing all others.” (ibid. n. 7).

Among all the forms of prayer, liturgical prayer is pre-eminent. “There is nothing better here below than prayer, and the best prayer is evidently that of the Church, since it is the ineffable prayer of Christ, continued and always active.” (Pierre Charles, S.J., “Prayer for All Times,” London, Sands, and Co., 1929, Vol. II, p. 48).

Not only does the liturgy offer grace and salvation, it is also a vehicle of divine revelation, a preserver and teacher of doctrine, the ultimate Catechist, instructing and teaching on matters of faith. “Lex orandi, lex credendi,” the law of prayer or worship is also the law or carrier of our belief. Pope Pius XII referred to the liturgy as “the principal organ of the Magisterium of the Church” (quoted from ‘Spiritual Theology,’ Jordan Aumann, a.p., Sheed and VVard, London, 1986, p.29).

The measure of charity in the world can be largely gauged by the measure of liturgical worship. “Let there be no illusion. There is no charity possible as an institution, as a thing that is a world-power, outside the sacrament of Christ’s Mystical Body.” (Dom Anscar Vonier, “A Key to the Doctrine of the Eucharist,” Newman Press, 1975, p. 257). Pope John Paul II has affirmed the essential link between the Eucharist and the Church’s spiritual and apostolic vitality. (Dominicae Cenae, Feb. 24, 1980, no. 4).

The Liturgy and Law

Because the liturgy is so important, the Church guards it and protects it with liturgical law. She does this with divinely delegated authority. “Regulation of the sacred liturgy depends solely on the authority of the Church, that is, on the Apostolic See and, as laws may determine, the bishop.” (Vatican IL Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, n. 22). Bishops and bishops’ conferences have only that authority over the liturgy which is explicitly granted. “No other person, not even a priest, may add, renew or change anything in the liturgy on his own authority.” (ibid.). The reason for this is that “liturgical services pertain to the whole Body of the Church… they manifest it and have effects upon it.” (ibid. n. 26).

Liturgical law is found in numerous instruments. The Code of Canon Law is not a primary source. It says “For the most part, the Code does not determine the rites to be observed in the celebration of liturgical actions.” (c. 2). It does contain some liturgical law and legislates what is of central importance to this article: “The liturgical works, approved by the competent authority, are to be faithfully followed in the celebration of the Sacraments. Accordingly, no one may on a personal initiative add to or omit or alter anything in those books.” (C. 846.1).

The main corpus of liturgical law is scattered over literally dozens of Instructions, Declarations, Apostolic Letters, Notes and other documents. There is the Constitution of Vatican II on the Sacred Liturgy and three Instructions on the Correct Implementation of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy. There is the General Instruction of the Roman Missal. Liturgical books like the Lectionary, the breviary and the Rites of the Sacraments, all contain their specific laws. The Church regulates Indulgences through her Enchiridion. She approves blessings and constitutes sacramentals by which she dispenses spiritual benefits from her inexhaustible treasury of grace.

All liturgical law is ordained not to unduly restrict freedom of worship, but to enhance it, to ensure both the truth and beauty of public prayer. There is a marvellously concise overview of liturgical doctrine and law in “The Catechism of the Catholic Church,” paragraphs 1066-1209. It answers the questions: Why the Liturgy? Who Celebrates the Liturgy? How is the Liturgy Celebrated? When is the Liturgy Celebrated? Where is the Liturgy Celebrated?

The Intrinsic Evil of Liturgical Abuse

Liturgical aberrations are nothing less than a falsification of worship. St. Thomas Aquinas wrote: “One who offers worship to God on the Church’s behalf in a way contrary to that which is laid down by the Church with God-given authority…is guilty of falsification.” (Summa Theologica, 2-2, q. 93, a. 1). The falsification consists in pretending to act in the name of Christ and His Church when one is acting on one’s own. It is a violation of the first commandment. The priest becomes impostor.

Liturgical abuses are a form of Pelagian pride. The abuser acts as though the action of Christ and the Church are not enough. He must supplement it, subtract from it or modify it to enhance its redemptive work. He sets up his own priesthood in opposition to Christ’s.

Abuses are also a form of liturgical nihilism. Humility of worship is replaced by pride, service by disobedience. Scandal replaces edification and the custodian becomes destroyer. What should be a source of grace becomes an occasion of sin; what should be an act of divine love becomes a profound breach of charity. In liturgical nihilism, the abuse is emptied of Christ. In the words of Pope Paul VI, “Anything that departs from this pattern (of loyalty to the will of the Church as expressed in its precepts, norms and structures), even if it has a specious attractiveness, is in fact spiritually upsetting to the faithful, and makes the ministry of priests lifeless and sterile.” (Directory on Masses for Special Groups.)

The Effects of Liturgical Abuses

No good results can come from liturgical abuses. The Instruction, “lnaestimabile Donum” points out four principal effects:

1. The unity of faith and worship is impaired. The Church has always taken care to see that worship and prayer are in harmony with true doctrine. Credal truths are the golden threads holding together the whole liturgical fabric. The axiom ‘the law of prayer is the law of belief is found in a fifth-century document and is doubtless witness to apostolic tradition.

Liturgical abuses often inculcate doctrinal errors along with their deviation from the rubrics. The practice in some churches of saying “all are invited to the table” teaches either that the Mass forgives moral sins or that the state of grace is not necessary for the reception of Holy Communion. The heresy is sometimes taught that without the assembly there is no Eucharist.

Iconoclasm in our churches has diminished devotion to our Blessed Mother and the saints. The Church teaches that “Sacred images in our churches and homes are intended to awaken and nourish our faith in the mystery of Christ. Through the icon of Christ and His work of salvation, it is He Whom we adore. Through sacred images of the Holy Mother of God, of the angels and of the saints, we venerate the persons represented.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1193). In some churches, sacred statues have been destroyed, replaced by images of non-saints or worse. The Buffalo church of St. Ambrose has windows depicting the goddess Shiva and Teilhard de Chardin. (cf. “Church Renovations Embody Cluster of Heretical Notions, “by Paul Likoudis, the Wanderer, July 24, 1997, p. 1).

2. Abuses bring with them doctrinal uncertainty. When through abuses Christ is ignored in the Eucharist, surely this tends to bring His presence into doubt. This is done in myriad ways. Sometimes the tabernacle is so hidden that the words of Mary Magdalene could apply: “They have taken away my Lord, and I know not where they have laid Him.” (John 20, 13). Christ is ignored through the failure to genuflect when the rubrics demand it, by standing during the Consecration, by failure to make a sign of adoration in receiving Holy Communion. Christ is ignored by loud or idle talk or socializing in church. To ignore a person is to treat him or her as nothing. To ignore Christ on the altar or in the tabernacle is to treat Him as non-existent. So, the ground is laid for doctrinal errors like transignification and transfinalization in place of the truth of transubstantiation. One sees how Luther and Calvin were able to destroy the Mass by presenting it as a celebration instead of Sacrifice, as The Lord’s Supper instead of the act of our salvation through the mystical death of Christ on our altars.

When reverence, decorum, recollection and rightful awe disappear from our churches, more worthy of respect than the Holy of Holies of the Old Testament, the church becomes a place of diminished faith. In the introductory rite for the Dedication of a Church, we read: “This is a place of awe; this is God’s house, the gate of Heaven, and it shall be called the royal court of God.” We ought to conduct ourselves accordingly.

3. Liturgical abuses cause scandal and bewilderment among the People of God. Priests and people are often deeply offended when they see liturgical violations. I know an older priest who has spent his priestly life on the missions. When he returns on his annual visit to his Mother House, he is scandalized to see his confreres celebrating the community Mass without alb or chasuble. An associate pastor who trained altar boys to genuflect before the Blessed Sacrament heard the pastor forbid the boys to do so because it was “pre-Vatican II.” Pastors are scandalized by associates who violate the liturgy and vice-versa, causing trouble or tension in the rectory. One couple I met at the “Call to Holiness” convention in Detroit last year told me they drive over 50 miles to Mass every Sunday. At their own church, the priest invited all to say the words of the Consecration because, he told them, “You are Church.”

Examples of such offences could be listed in the tens of thousands. They are a grave injustice and merit grave concern. They are, and should be, shocking. Anne Roche Muggeridge once invited a non-Catholic friend to Mass in Ireland where she thought the liturgy would be save from the despoilers. She reported that she was embarrassed: “It was like taking someone home to meet your mother and having her get drunk and dance on the table.”

4. Liturgical abuses bring “a near inevitability of violent reaction.” Some are bewildered and grieve in silence. In many, the reaction is bitter criticism, anger, resentment or a deep feeling of betrayal. Some stop going to Mass. Some so criticize the Church that their children lose respect for the religion of their parents and are alienated from the faith. Every liturgical aberration sets up its own chain of negative reactions by a kind of tragic Newtonian law.

The Remedies

Obviously, liturgical abuses are eliminated through the observance of liturgical law. This remedy is the vindication of a right. Canon 214 of the Code of Canon Law says that “Christ’s faithful have the right to worship God according to the provisions of their own rite approved by the lawful Pastors of the Church.”

The law states clearly where the responsibility lies. In his own diocese, the correction of liturgical abuses is the obligation of the bishop (cf. C.392.2). Under the bishop’s authority, the parish priest must direct the liturgy in his own parish, and he is bound to “be on guard against abuses.” (C. 528.2).

To obtain the correction of an abuse, it should be sufficient to draw the attention of the parish priest to an aberration. If this is insufficient, it should be enough to bring the matter to the attention of the bishop. In short, if Church law and legal redress were observed, there would not be a liturgical abuse in the world.

In the present liturgical crisis, when rubrical anarchy is rampant, it is obvious that law and recourse are often ignored or rebuffed. “There will be no witch-hunting in this diocese,” said one bishop when it was reported to him that many parishes permitted altar girls before they were allowed.

What then is the remedy? When shepherds will not shepherd, the remedy, an inadequate one, must be found in one’s personal reaction. Some bear with abuses as a cross and penance. Others legitimately go to another parish or to a church of another rite or a Tridentine Mass. The options licitly available are expertly discussed by Fr. John Hardon, S.J., in a tape entitled “How to Cope with Abuses in the Eucharistic Liturgy” (Eternal Life, P.O. Box 787, Bardstown, KY, 40004, U.S.A.)

The tragedy is that some, in anguish and rebellion, stop going to church and join the literally millions worldwide who have lost their faith in this generation. Not all the responsibility is theirs.

All Catholics have some obligation to right the liturgical wrong. All can pray for their bishops and priests.

Some can join or support societies or movements which advocate right liturgy. Seeing no evil when it is there is the way to further liturgical decay.

Liturgical Abuses and Empty Churches

Liturgical abuses are a form of Liberal Catholicism, the great enemy of the Church today. It is a reincarnation of Modernism. St. Pius X spoke of “the perfidious plot of liberal Catholics.” Of liberal Catholics today, Mother Angelica said recently: “Everything God doesn’t want is on their agenda.” In the moral order, liberal Catholics call for freedom from sexual restraint, the right to premarital sex, contraception, divorce, homosexual practice, even abortion. In the liturgical order, it takes the form of freedom from rubrical law.

Liturgical abuses, like all liberal Catholicism, are a rejection of divinely constituted authority. As Cardinal Newman said, authority is the very essence of our revealed religion, coming through Christ to St. Peter and his successors to us. Liturgy is so bound up with authority and the apostolic hierarchy established by Christ that without it “there would be no public worship as Catholicism understands the liturgy.” (Fr. John Hardon, S.J., “The Catholic Catechism,” Doubleday and Co., p. 450). When the sanctuary becomes a site of rebellion against the Church’s authority, the action of Christ as High Priest is diminished or disappears. Empty churches are certain to follow. There echoes in our ears the chant of Psalm 74 concerning the Temple of Jerusalem: “The enemy has laid waste the whole of the sanctuary … they have razed and profaned the place where You dwell.”

May we pray often and fervently for the preservation and restoration of the Church’s liturgy, “the Sacrament of our Salvation.”

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