Una Voce France organized a colloquy, "The Right to Beauty", at the
University of Strasbourg from 29-31 March. The following contribution by Una
Voce President Michael Davies makes a radical, from the roots, examination
of the nature of a right within the Catholic Church. If the traditional Mass is
truly "the most beautiful thing this side of heaven" can it be said to be the
birthright of every Catholic of the Latin Church, or in liturgical matters does
only one right exist, that of the Pope to allow the faithful to worship in the
manner which he sees fit to accord them? In other words, which should take
precedence, the will of the legislator or the good of those for whom he is
The founders of the various Protestant denominations were revolutionaries
rather than reformers. Their concern was not to reform the existing order but to
introduce a new one. Monsignor Philip Hughes, in his classic study, The
Reformation in England, notes that all revolutionaries are motivated by a
The principal author of the Anglican liturgy was Thomas Cranmer, the apostate
Archbishop of Canterbury. His first communion service contained in the 1549 Book
of Common Prayer, "The Lord's Supper or Holy Communion, commonly called the
Mass", was of an ambiguous nature. This ambiguity is stressed by Dr. Francis
Clark in the most authoritative study of the Eucharistic doctrines of the
Protestant Reformers yet undertaken:
Dr. Clark also explains that:
There was little enthusiasm for the changes among the mass of the faithful,
and sometimes fierce opposition. Commenting on the introduction of Cranmer's
first (1549) Prayer Book, the Anglican Dean of Bristol, Douglas Harrison,
Dr. Adrian Fortescue, England's great historian of the Mass, notes that:
It would be impossible to exaggerate the importance of Father Fortescue's
insistence that in composing new services the Protestant Reformers "broke away
utterly from all historic liturgical evolution". Referring to the reform of
Cranmer in 1898, in a defence of the Bull Apostolicae Curae, the Catholic
Bishops of the Province of Westminster insisted that local churches are not
entitled to devise new rites:
An accepted principle with regard to liturgical worship is that the doctrinal standpoint of a Christian body must necessarily be reflected in its worship. Liturgical rites should express what they contain. It is not necessary for the Catholic position to be expressly contradicted for a rite to become suspect; the suppression of prayers which had given liturgical expression to the doctrine behind the rite is more than sufficient to give cause for concern.
This principle is embodied in the phrase legem credendi lex statuat supplicandi ("let the law of prayer fix the law of faith"), in other words the liturgy of the Church is a sure guide to her teaching. This is usually presented in the abbreviated form of lex orandi, lex credendi, and can be translated freely as meaning that the manner in which the Church worships (lex orandi) must reflect what the Church believes (lex credendi).
Monsignor Hughes insists that the 1549 Prayer Book made it clear that a new
religion was being imposed:
In other words, when for decades the faithful were forced to worship as
Protestants they became Protestants. Their faith had been destroyed by
Professor James Hitchcock echoes Bossuet's sentiments in formulating the
The response of Rome to the Protestant liturgical revolution is explained by Dr. Fortescue: "The Council of Trent (1545 1563), in opposition to the anarchy of these new services, wished the Roman Mass to be celebrated uniformly everywhere." In its eighteenth session the Council appointed a commission to examine the Missal, to revise it and to restore it "according to the custom and rite of the Holy Fathers", using for that purpose the best manuscripts and other documents. "They accomplished their task very well," comments Dr. Fortescue. "On 14th July, 1570, the Pope published the reformed Missal with the Bull Quo Primum. Its title was: Missale Romanum ex decreto ss. Concilii Tridentini restitutum." St. Pius is honoured by the Church as an instrument chosen by God ad conterendos Ecclesiae hostes et and divinum cultum reparandum.
Up to the time of St. Pius V the history of the Roman rite had been one of
natural and gradual development. It was regulated not by written legislation but
by customary usage. Father David Knowles, Britain's most distinguished Catholic
scholar until his death in 1974, explained that:
There have been revisions since the reform of St. Pius V but, as Dr.
Fortescue explains, up to his time (1917) these had been intended to keep the
Missal in line with the reform of 1570. By the time of Clement VIII
(15921605) printers had corrupted the text in several ways. "The work of
the commission appointed by Clement VIII "was only to correct these corruptions.
They did not in any way modify the Mass . . . Benedict XIV (1740l758), who
did so much for the reform of the liturgy did not revise the Missal." Dr.
Fortescue deals with all the subsequent revisions up to his time in detail and
The Reforms of Pius XII did go farther than this, notably in regard to the
Holy Week services. But any objective assessment of his reforms will find that
they were enacted "according to the custom and rite of the Holy Fathers", and
with a profound respect for tradition. To quote Dr. Fortescue again:
The antiquity of the Roman Mass is a point which needs to be stressed. There
is what Dr. Fortescue describes as a "prejudice that imagines that everything
Eastern must be old." This is a mistake and there is no existing Eastern liturgy
with a history of continual use stretching back as far as that of the Roman
It is scarcely possible to exaggerate the importance of the Roman Missal from any standpoint. A. Baumstark, perhaps the greatest liturgical scholar of this century, expressed this well when he wrote that every worshipper taking part in this liturgy, "feels himself to be at the point which links those who before him, since the very earliest days of Christianity, have offered prayer and sacrifice with those who in time to come will be offering the same prayer and the same sacrifice, long after the last fragment of his mortal" remains have crumbled into dust."
It is natural that the Church, the steward of these holy mysteries, should
clothe them with the most solemn and beautiful rites and ceremonies possible. It
is equally natural that the book containing these rites should appropriate to
itself some of the wonder and veneration evoked by the mysteries themselves.
There can be do doubt that the leaders of the authentic liturgical movement in
this century regarded the Missal of St. Pius V with much veneration. This
veneration for the Missal is well expressed by Dom Cabrol:
In the Middle Ages every kind of art was lavished upon it. It was adorned with delicate miniatures, with the most beautifully executed writing and lettering and bound between sheets of ivory, or even silver and gold and was studded with jewels like a precious reliquary.
The Missal has come into being gradually through the course of centuries always carefully guarded by the Church lest any error should slip into it. It is a summary of the authentic teaching of the Church, it reveals the true significance of the mystery which is accomplished in the Mass, and of the prayers which the Church uses.
Dom Cabrol also pays tribute to the incomparable beauty of the Missal from
the literary and aesthetic point of view. He stresses that this is not a
question of art for art's sake:
The beauty, the worth, the perfection of the Roman liturgy of the Mass, so
universally acknowledged and admired, was described by Fr. Faber as "the most
beautiful thing this side of heaven." He continues:
Cardinal Gasquet rightly remarks that:
Liturgical laws, although coming within the category of ecclesiastical law,
must be governed by the same principles by which any human law can be judged.
The prayers in the Mass and the rubrics governing its celebration are generally
the codification of practices already established by custom. "Liturgies are not
made, they grow in the devotion of centuries," notes Professor Owen Chadwick in
his history of the Reformation. Until the post-Vatican II liturgical revolution
only heretics ever attempted any radical reform of the Liturgy, and it cannot be
denied that the reform of Pope Paul VI "broke away utterly from all historic
liturgical evolution". Msgr. Klaus Gamber insists in his book on the
post-conciliar reform, which has been endorsed by three cardinals, that:
This brings us at last to the question of the right to beauty. Do we have a true right to the traditional Mass, to "the most beautiful thing this side of heaven"? If the traditional Mass the birthright of every Catholic of the Roman rite or do we have a right only to what the Pope feels inclined to grant us, to the reform which Msgr. Gamber states "did not provide the people with bread, but with stones".
During this century, as a reaction to Modernism, there has evolved among many of the most loyal, the most orthodox Catholics, a totally untraditional and uncatholic concept of the papacy in which, to all intents and purposes, the Pope is envisaged as a dictator whose merest whim is law, and whose subjects do can have a genuine right only to what he sees fit to accord them.
On the contrary, where there is a question of rights, it is the rights of the subject rather than those of the legislator that must take precedence. St. Thomas accepts the classical definition of justice as rendering to each one what is his right or due, and explains that a man is said to be just because he respects the right of others. Every legislator in Church and State has an absolute obligation to rule justly, and this obligation is not simply binding upon the Pope, but it is clear that in his capacity as the Vicar, the earthly representative of Our Lord Jesus Christ, who is the source of all justice, this obligation binds the Pope more than any other ruler. He is the supreme shepherd charged with guiding his flock to heaven, and if, through harsh or unjust treatment on his part, even one of them should be driven from the fold he would bear a heavy responsibility. He has the duty to emulate his divine master and guide his flock to green pastures and clear refreshing waters (Psalm 22). What appears to be the virtually unlimited juridical authority possessed by the Pope is restricted by moral considerations. What is legally valid is not necessarily morally licit. An evident example of legally valid but morally illicit papal legislation was the all too frequent practice of nepotism in which benefices established for the salvation of souls were used by popes as no more than a source of income for their relations. Karl Rahner, who was most certainly not a traditional Catholic, wrote an interesting study in 1965 on the distinction between legally valid but morally illicit papal legislation, and used the liturgy to illustrate his thesis. The Pope, he explained, is legally entitled to impose the Roman rite upon the eastern rites, but to do so would be a totally immoral act which would inevitably result in a schism for which the Pope would be responsible.
In his book L'Eglise du Verbe Incarné, Cardinal Journet quotes Cajetan
An examination of any form of human law, common law, liturgical law, laws relating to games, or the laws of grammar, makes it clear that they have no intrinsic value in themselves but are simply a means to an end, and that end is the common good of those for whom the laws are ordained. There is no intrinsic merit in driving on the left side of the road or on the right, but it is clearly in the common interest of all motorists that in any particular country they should all drive on the same side. St. Thomas defines a law as "An ordinance of reason for the common good, made by him who has care of the community, and promulgated."
The consensus of Catholic authorities agrees with St. Thomas in his exposition of the nature of human law, namely, that whether civil or ecclesiastical it is an act of public authority having the right to demand obedience, but which itself must conform to the demands of reason and be seen to have an effect that is both good and to the benefit to those for whom it is intended. St. Thomas, followed by other authorities, warns that any change in existing legislation must be made only with extreme caution, particularly where it might involve changes in any longstanding customs. In support of this contention he cites the Decretals: "It is absurd, and a detestable shame, that we should suffer those traditions to be changed which we have received from the fathers of old." He adds that the very fact of changing a law, even for a better one, "is of itself prejudicial to the common good: because custom avails much for the for the observance of laws, seeing that what is done contrary to general custom even in slight matters is looked upon as grave."
Professor Hitchcock states that:
In discussing the question of the mutation of laws, St. Thomas lays down the premise that there are two remote reasons which can lead to a just change in the laws. The first resides in the nature of man who, being a rational being, is gradually led by his reason from what is less perfect to what is more perfect. The second reason must be found in the actions which are being subjected to the regulation of law, and which can change according to the various circumstances in which men find themselves and in which they must work. Every change in law must be determined by an evident necessity of the common good since law is rightly changed only insofar as this change manifestly contributes to the welfare of the community. The principle was echoed in the Liturgy Constitution of the Second Vatican Council which commanded that "there must be no innovations unless the good of the Church genuinely and certainly requires them" (Article 23).
"It is well known," writes Louis Salleron, "that a tried and tested
revolutionary technique for overthrowing established societies is the call for a
return to its origins. It is no longer a question of pruning the tree so that it
will bear better fruit; it must be sawn down at its very base under the pretext
of reinvigorating the roots." Pascal notes that custom is the whole of equity
for the sole reason that it is accepted and that anyone who tries to trace it
back to its first principles will destroy it:
Even where a change in the law carries an evident benefit it will be accompanied by some harm to the common good as any change in the law abandons a custom, and custom is always a great help and support in the observance of laws. Any change in an individual law diminishes the force and respect paid to Law because a custom is taken away. Reference has already been made to the importance attached by St. Thomas Aquinas to maintaining existing customs unless changing them is demanded by some overwhelming necessity. With profound psychological insight he adds that this is true even when the innovations contrary to custom are minor ones, for, even though minor in themselves, they may appear important in the common estimation. From this he draws a general conclusion: law must never be changed unless it is certain that the common good will find in the modification at least adequate compensation for the harm done by way of derogating a custom. A principle enunciated by Professor Hitchcock is that: "The decline of a sense of tradition in the Church severely weakens not only its continuity with the ages past but also its coherence in the present age."
Professor Johannes Wagner, Director of the Liturgical Institute of Trier,
reached the same conclusion when he stated:
Suarez, another great authority, insists that for his law to be considered reasonable, a legislator must not simply refrain from demanding something his subjects will find impossible to carry out, but that the law must not even be too difficult, distressing or disagreeable, taking account of human frailty. On no account should it contradict any reasonable custom because custom is a kind of "second nature" and what it finds abhorrent "is considered to be morally impossible." He also lays great stress on the necessity for laws to be permanent, not in the sense that they can never be abrogated, but that this shall only occur if changing circumstances make it quite clear that they are no longer just. If legislation is to work in the common interest it must aim at stability and uniformity within the community.
Where there is the least doubt that the benefits of a change in the laws are
likely to outweigh considerably the harm that will result from a change of
custom then it is better to conserve the existing legislation rather than change
it. Being the accepted practice, it has, so to speak, the right of possession
and, in a case of doubt, it is the right of possession which is the stronger.
Another principle stated by Professor Hitchcock is that:
In his Apostolic Constitution Auctorem Fidei (28 August, l794) Pope Pius VI condemned the pseudo Synod of Pistoia for its desire to return to what it claimed were more primitive sources by simplifying the rites, using the vernacular, and saying the entire Mass in an audible tone. The Pope laid particular stress on the fact that this Synod had suggested a conflict between the principles which should govern the celebration of the Liturgy and the order currently in use, accepted and approved by the Church. The proposed changes were condemned as "false, disturbing the prescribed order of the celebration of the mysteries, and easily productive of many evils."
The history of the various Christian denominations is replete with instances of disruption and even schisms concerning changes in established customs, changes which many modern commentators might regard as trivial matters. The secession of the Old Believers from the Russian Orthodox Church is a typical example. What such incidents prove is the accuracy of St. Thomas's insight into the harmful effects of changing the status quo without overwhelming reasons for doing so.
"Sacred rituals, " notes Professor Hitchcock,"cannot be reformed
substantially without serious dislocation in the society whose symbols they
are." He expresses well the total incompatibility of any radical reform of the
Catholic liturgy with the ethos and traditions of the Church:
What Professor Hitchcock describes here is precisely what Mgr. Gamber
considers to be the result of the reform of Pope Paul VI:
Salus animarum suprema est lex - "The good of souls is the supreme
law". It is a law which binds all Christians and binds above all the Holy Father
who, we can be sure, wishes to be bound by it. Did he not decree in his
Apostolic Constitution Ecclesia Dei that by virtue of his apostolic
authority "respect must everywhere be shown for the feelings of all those who
are attached to the Latin liturgical tradition"? We have a right to what is
essential for the good of our souls. We have a right to beauty, and therefore a
right to the traditional Mass of the Roman rite, "the most beautiful thing this
side of heaven."
Some of the sources referred to in the notes have been abbreviated as follows:
ESR F. Clark, Eucharistic Sacrifice and the Reformation (Devon,
RIE P. Hughes, The Reformation in England, 3 volumes (London,
RRL K. Gamber, The Reform of the Roman Liturgy (New York, 1993).
RS J. Hitchcock, The Recovery of the Sacred (New York, 1974).
ST Summa Theologica.
TM A. Fortescue, The Mass: A Study of the Roman Liturgy (London,
Last modified 27th October, 1997, by David Joyce.