Sacrosanctum concilium: conclusion…for now

Closing thoughts on Sacrosanctum concilium:

Which document of Vatican II is the most important? I suspect that most theologians and Church historians would point to the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, which we will begin exploring in three weeks. On the other hand, the most obvious changes following the Council affected the liturgy, and so most of the faithful might assume that Sacrosanctum concilium (SC) was the most important. One thing that I have tried to demonstrate in these posts is the fact that the Council itself legislated very little that changed the outward forms of the liturgy. The change of the position of the altar and tabernacle, the near-abandonment of Latin, communion in the hand, and many other subtler changes were not at all envisioned in the Constitution. This is not to say that all subsequent developments were illegitimate; however, it does seem reasonable (especially in light of the permission given to celebrate the ‘extraordinary form’) to look more critically at some of the changes and ask whether they are truly in accord with the theology of SC.

The second important point about SC in my view is that, while it might not be the most significant document to come out of Vatican II, it was quite deliberately the first. SC makes very high claims for the liturgy: it is the source and summit of our Christians lives. If this is the case, then all theological reflection itself must flow from and toward the Church’s acts of worship. This will be important to bear in mind in interpreting not only Lumen gentium, but more importantly the more controversial documents such as Gaudium et spes (the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World) and Nostra aetate (the Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions). To my knowledge, this sort of contextual reading of these documents has not been attempted.

The context in which we read any text is important. Documents such as Lumen Gentium and Gaudium et spes are customarily read in the rather narrow context of ‘ecclesiology’. This is especially tricky since the development of ecclesiology (the theological study of the Church) as a separate subdivision of the unified study of theology is quite recent. Reflection on the Church in the Patristic era, for example, would not have been separated from Biblical exegesis, Christology or liturgy. To a certain extent, the very fact that theology has been parsed out into subdisciplines is an indication of the impact of the long arc of modernism on the Church’s self-understanding, an arc that I judge to stretch from the advent of nominalistic theology in the early 14th century, through the Protestant Reformation, the Enlightenment and Modernism proper. As Western Christendom splintered, the Church found herself moved to respond to a variety of criticisms of her teachings. In a parallel way, as the Western university continued to segment reality into ever narrower academic subjects, seminary education in the Catholic Church somewhat unconsciously followed suit, teaching the subdisciplines of the theology without clear reference to the binding work of the liturgy.

If I am correct in this, the intended remedy of the Council Fathers won’t appear in the correct light if we continue to treat these disciplines as separable intellectual realities. Sacrosanctum concilium again seems to be on my side in this, proposing the liturgy as the unifying center of the life of the Church: “through the liturgy…the faithful are enabled to express in their lives and manifest to others…the real nature of the Church [SC 2].” Most astonishing in this regard surely is paragraph 16:

The study of sacred liturgy is to be ranked among the compulsory and major courses in seminaries and religions houses of studies; in theological faculties it is to rank among the principal courses. It is to be taught under its theological, historical, spiritual, pastoral, and juridical aspects. Moreover, other professors, while striving to expound the mystery of Christ and the history of salvation from the angle proper to each of their own subjects, must nevertheless do so in a way which will clearly bring out the connection between their subjects and the liturgy, as also the unity which underlies all priestly training.

This suggests that the liturgy (along with the Scriptures that are so central to the understanding of the liturgy) functions as a kind of hub of theological studies, toward which every other discipline is to be related, as if by spokes to the hub, placing the liturgy at the center of the Church’s theological reflection.

This places mystery at the center of the Church’s life. The liturgy, by nature, conveys us into the realm of mystery, into participation with the priestly office of the risen and ascended Jesus Christ. “The human is directed and subordinated to the divine, the visible likewise to the invisible, action to contemplation, and this present world to that city yet to come, which we seek [SC 2].” In my opinion, the necessity of our subordination to divine things, of the visible to the invisible, and so on, is very easily missed and glossed over in the enthusiasm to get at the ‘spirit’ of Vatican II, as it imperceptibly slips into the empirical and positivistic spirit of the age.
With these thoughts in mind, I will assuredly be returning again and again to the most beautiful theological passages with which SC begins. In a separate series of reflections, I hope to continue to look at the concrete changes that took place in the rites after the Council and asking two questions: 1) to what extent were these truly developments of the liturgical tradition, and 2) what possibilities exist for a greater ‘hermeneutic of continuity’ within the liturgy (whether celebrated in the ordinary or extraordinary form)?

I should conclude by expressing my gratitude to the Holy Spirit and the Council Fathers for putting the capstone on the best elements of the liturgical movement in Sacrosanctum concilium. While the vision has not yet completely taken hold, the notions that the liturgy truly is the center of Christian life and spirituality, that all are called to active participation in the priestly action of Jesus Christ, that the Word of God and its explanation in the homily should occupy a central place in the liturgy, and (more subtly, but unmistakably set forth) that a plurality of rites is part of the richness of the Church’s full liturgical heritage: these and other principles of SC give reason to hope for a true springtime of the liturgy in coming decades. As the teachings of the Council take deeper and deeper root in the formation of clerics, religious and theologians and more and more of the laity are formed as a matter of course within their inspiration, the New Evangelization (see SC 1) will be on ever more solid footing.

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