Optional Orthodoxy: How Catholics Became Heterodox
Today I want to discuss a phenomenon I see occur all the time in my conversations with otherwise orthodox Catholics; namely, their total lack of awareness that the Church’s Magisterium has something to say regarding the manner of celebrating the Liturgy. Oftentimes, Catholics otherwise very proud of their Faith and quite committed to the teachings of the Church fall into the trap of thinking that the Magisterium only speaks on matters of dogma and morality, conceiving of dogma as solely pertaining to the realm of belief. Scarcely do they imagine that the Mass could be a centrally important issue in the Magisterial teachings of Rome or the Ecumenical Councils; instead they conceive of the sacred Liturgy as something malleable and flexible. Oh sure, this sort of Catholic will often acknowledge that there is a certain baseline of belief about the Mass that has to be maintained, but the idea that Catholic orthodoxy extends to how the Mass is offered is something foreign to them. A consequence of this pervasive opinion is what I like to call the ghettoization of Catholics who actually adhere to and believe all that the Magisterium has prescribed as the Medicine of the Great Physician, including her doctrine on the celebration of the Liturgical Sacrifice without the shedding of blood, as a fragrance pleasing to God and an oblation which finds favor in His sight. ‘Oh’, say the Catholics who are heterodox on the Liturgy, ‘you’re a Traditionalist. I respect that, but personally, I don’t go that far. Gregorian chant, polyphonic music, Latin, lack of Eucharistic Ministers of Communion, that’s nice and all… but I think that the Mass can be pleasing to God without that.’ In this way, with a single, dismissive comment, adherence to orthodoxy and tradition concerning the sacred Liturgy is rendered optional in popular opinion, and those who actually are completely orthodox out of conscience have a label slapped on them to segregate them as something extraordinary, unnecessary, other from the norm.
Let me propose this to you: there is no such thing as a traditionalist, nor is there traditionalist orthodoxy and conservative orthodoxy. There is only orthodoxy and those who believe it and put it into practice on the one hand, and those who refuse to do so on the other. It is altogether too easy in the Catholic Church today to belong to the latter camp, to refuse to believe the teachings of the Magisterium on the celebration of the Liturgy, to label those who do as something odd, and to treat their adherence as optional. It is easy in the same way that a dead body flowing with the current finds it easy to travel in one direction; it cannot, being dead, go against the common movement. So too the common Catholic finds it difficult to shirk the commonality of heterodoxy, which he finds even in otherwise admirably orthodox parishes and dioceses. He who would please God, and secure his own salvation and that of his posterity, is thus inevitably going to be ostracized by those who do not seek that path which has been prescribed for us by Mother Church.
What, then, does the Magisterium teach us about the Mass? What is this ‘orthodoxy’ I’m talking about regarding the celebration of the sacred Liturgy, which is so often ignored even by otherwise faithful laity and clergy? It is quite simply this: The sacred Liturgy is, in the teaching of the Catholic Church, so otherworldly, so separate from the comparatively profane affairs of daily life, and so singularly unique that the manner of its celebration must be equally unique, fittingly sublime, and singularly extraordinary. Everything, from the music employed, to the vestments and clothing worn, to the building used, to the construction of that building’s interior, to the manner of celebration, to the very mentality we approach it with, must be sacred, ‘other’, and an encounter with the Mystery who is God. The reason why the Liturgy is so completely distinct from everything else in life and even everything else in the Church herself is that it is first and foremost a Sacrifice. Not only are the consecrated elements a Sacrifice, not only are the Body and Blood of Christ an oblation, so too are the bread and wine prior to consecration, so too is the fruit of our lips in music and chant, so too are the Scripture readings, so too are our very bodies and our mannerisms. EVERYTHING IS A SACRIFICE. EVERYTHING MUST BE OUR BEST, AS IT IS BROUGHT BEFORE THE ALTAR OF GOD. THE MASS IS IN TOTALITY SACRIFICE PAR EXCELLENCE, MADE POSSIBLE BY PARTICIPATING IN CHRIST WHO IS HIMSELF SACRIFICE YET LIVING WITH THE FATHER ETERNALLY. This cannot be overstated; oriented thus to its end in the Holy Trinity to which it is offered, the Liturgical Sacrifice finds its being in heart of the Mass, which is Christ Himself, Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity, who on the Altar offers Himself and is offered by the Church. The Mass is therefore impossibly dignified to such an extent that even our best and our highest cannot be entirely worthy of it. Through the offering of the Sacrifice, all Catholics are benefited, especially those who attend, who are both mystically enriched by communion with the living God, and through pedagogical learning of the Faith acquired therefrom. Because of this nature of the Mass, because of its peculiar character Divinely established by the Almighty, He has lovingly provided for us by teaching us in Mother Church in His Holy Spirit how He ought to be worshiped in light of this most sublime oblation of our service to Him.
The way in which God has provided the knowledge of how to offer to His Majesty a worthy Ritual befitting the sublimity of the Sacrifice is in sending His Spirit to alight upon all portions of the Catholic Church, inspiring each of her venerable Liturgical Rites and overseeing their development over the centuries, determining their content and inspiring their orthodoxy. In the Roman Rite of the Latin Church, to which most Catholics belong canonically, the Magisterium has always prescribed very clear rules which apply directly to the way in which the Roman Rite should be celebrated in order to be worthy of the Holy Trinity. Take for instance the music to be used in the Mass, which is itself a sacrifice of praise before God. The proper sacred music which ought to be used in all celebrations of the Mass, and that proper musical prayer to which all the Latin Catholic faithful have a right in their parishes, is either Gregorian chant, or else polyphonic music, even simple polyphonic music. Using any instrument other than the human voice or the organ is strictly forbidden in the Magisterium; to depart from this simple, ancient, sacred way of offering the Liturgical Sacrifice is to lapse into heterodoxy and to consider orthodoxy optional, falling into the error of considering Liturgy a product of our own selves and subject to drastic change in its very principles. These are not mere tastes, something that would distinguish traditionalists from ordinary Catholics; these are objectively binding standards which the Holy Spirit has inspired for the proper glorification of God through the Sacrifice of the Mass, which in turn edifies clergy and laity who participate in it. The proper vestments for the Priest and the other clergy celebrating the Mass are the stole, the chasuble, the maniple, and so on; the proper dress of the laity is their best clothing, for the are appearing before a King, who is saving them. The proper manner of celebrating is toward the East, toward the Lord, while utilizing other sacred orientations such as North for the readings of sacred Scripture. By maintaining these and other objective standards, we are not only taking advantage of ‘authentic options’ in our ‘legitimate aspirations’, but properly and worthily offering the Holy Sacrifice; for the nature of the Mass is objective, and not something which we create ourselves from our communities; something to which all are called and which we receive, not something that we produce. There is no traditionalism as distinct from conservatism, and no orthodoxy apart from tradition. There are only the traditions we have received, to which we are bound, and upon which are identity rests.
The Roman Rite is not something supple, alterable, and subject to change and adaptation depending locale and community; it is something enduring, resolute, and living, something which binds Catholics into an identity and a way of worshiping God that has been provided directly from His Hand, which we receive and live in faithfully as the faithful Sheep of a Providential Shepherd. We are thus left with a single, pointed conclusion: Those who reject the nature of the Roman Rite are simply not orthodox, and centuries of Councils and Popes call them back to fidelity to their Holy Mother, the Church, and to Catholic teaching. One cannot pick and choose what one is willing to accept in tradition and the Magisterium and remain an orthodox Catholic; we cannot accept dogmas and morals without accepting the Liturgy as preeminent and absolutely vital. Let us choose willingly, nay, gladly, to adopt the traditions of our forebears once again, passing them on to future generations, and rightly glorifying God in the Sacrifice of the Mass.