The second goal that the reform and promotion of the liturgy is to serve, according to the opening document of Vatican II, is “to adapt more closely to the needs of our age those institutions which are subject to change.”
Now, determining the needs of the age is not easy feat. Perhaps slightly less complicated is the effort to determine precisely which institutions of the Church are subject to change. It would not appear to me to be the case that the Council Fathers were intending this to apply primarily to the liturgy, which, seen as an ‘institution’ certainly is not altogether one of human origin and direction. Canonically, the word institutio refers primarily to religious orders and analogous associations of the faithful. I would also consider Canon Law itself to be an ‘institution’ along these lines.
As far as the ‘needs of our age’ are concerned, these are spelled out elsewhere in the documents of the Council. It is important to consider that the Church must always be reading the ‘signs of the times’, so that the call to be flexible in certain areas of Church custom and discipline has always been the norm as the evangelical imperative has been carried out. However, in practice, this reasonable openness to adaptation was easily conflated with an uncritical aggiornamento, an ‘updating’ of the Church to the apparently more advanced, modern people of the twentieth century. The difficulty with an uncritical application of this idea is that the modern notion of ‘progress’ contains, as part of its foundational narrative, the notion that religion itself (and especially Catholicism) is something to be transcended. Thus, adaptation of the Church to the needs of modern people must mean something other than reappraising Church doctrine and discipline in the light of modernism, which would more or less amount to admitting the irrelevance and redundancy of the Church.
Rather, the Church must seek in some way to meet modernity with the precise challenge to that foundational narrative. How this is to be done I will leave as for the reader to ponder; but it must include some kind of challenge to the inner coherence of the modern myth of progress. In my opinion, the very best of la nouvelle theologie (the ‘new theology’ of the early 20th century, so called because of its break with entrenched neo-Thomism) does exactly this. In particular, Henri de Lubac, Hans Urs von Balthasar, Karol Wojtyla and Josef Ratzinger made significant contributions in this area. Today, while I am not at all current on theological trends (readers feel free to help me out!), I find the writings of David Bentley Hart and Fr Robert Barron to be among the most thoughtful in specifically theological confrontation with modernity. However, I find the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre and the literary critic René Girard to be the most helpful of any thinkers in this work. Girard’s theories are perhaps most heavily influenced by another important deceased contributor to the debate, Fyodor Dostoevsky.
Now, what has the ‘reform and promotion’ of the liturgy to do with any of this? Obviously a reform of the liturgy will require some changes, so that within certain limits we can expect Sacrosanctum Concilium to propose some adaptations of more or less extrinsic parts of the liturgy, and that such changes will be proposed as to make the liturgy more persuasive to the modern mind.
However, I would again suggest that the reason that the Council Fathers took up the liturgy first was that there was reason to believe that the strength of the Church in general, whether taking up the tricky issues of modernism, ecumenism, interreligious dialogue, or the injustices of the modern political economy, depends on deep roots in the grace of God, and that the best way to ensure this is through a reinvigorated liturgical life. What is more, as I suggested yesterday in pointing out that liturgical participation is a way of connecting to the larger Tradition and a means of avoiding heterodox idiosyncrasies, in the challenges posed by a ‘post-Christian’ world, Catholics must take every precaution against watering down the deposit of the faith by blithe accommodations to a hostile ideology. The liturgy should form a robust mind within a generous affectivity so that the very lives of Catholics witness to the truth, goodness and beauty of a life transformed by divine grace. When we are near to God, we have nothing to fear from modern ideologies, and every reason to hope for the conversion of the worldly.
This might sound quixotic, given the intensely negative revelations about priests over the past decade. But thankfully the reality is larger than these appalling failures. As anyone who has ever attended the Rite of Election at the beginning of Lent (especially in a large Archdiocese like Chicago) can attest, huge groups of people enter the Catholic Church each year at Easter. Ten years ago, the number topped 100,000 two years in a row. The numbers have dropped a bit since then, but are still well into five digits—and this is just in the United States. Has this been a result of the reform and promotion of the liturgy? I would say, “not entirely,” and that at best. Nonetheless, as anarchic as the liturgical reform has proven to be at times, the Church continues to evangelize. What will happen when liturgical reform really becomes evangelical itself?