Some Myths About Post-Vatican II Liturgical Reform
Friday, Mar. 27, 2020
In perusing “conservative” liturgical websites, I find three recurring themes: that Vatican II never intended Latin to be replaced by the vernacular; that Pope Paul VI made a mistake in approving so many liturgical changes after the Council; and that the time is coming when the liturgy will be restored in its fundamentals to what it was before Vatican II.
Each of these points needs comment.
First, on the introduction of the vernacular. The Vatican II Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy Article 36 (1), about the vernacular, states: “The use of the Latin language, with due respect to particular law, is to be preserved in the Latin rites.” Article 36 (2) goes on to state: “But since the use of the vernacular, whether in the Mass, the administration of the sacraments, or in other parts of the liturgy, may frequently be of great advantage to the people, a wider use may be made of it, especially in readings and in some prayers and chants.”
Clearly the Council envisaged some use of the vernacular. To what extent? Article 36 (3) answers this: “It is for the competent ecclesiastical authority ... to decide whether, and to what extent, the vernacular language is to be used. Its decrees have to be approved, that is, confirmed, by the Apostolic See.”
This leaves the question of how much of the liturgy may be in the vernacular wide open. After the bishops who attended Vatican II returned to their dioceses, they began to experience the positive affects of the use of the vernacular in the liturgy. This led Pope Paul VI to approve a very wide use of the vernacular.
That the reforms of Pope Paul VI in the matter of the vernacular went beyond what the Council intended I do not think to be true, given what I just quoted. There is also the very important consideration that Pope Paul VI had the authority to be the principal interpreter of the conciliar decrees. Those who criticize Pope Paul VI often find themselves being in the troublesome position of according their personal opinions as much if not more authority than the pope in the matter of interpreting and implementing Vatican II.
Second, the theory that Paul VI made a mistake in approving so many changes after Vatican II is, in my opinion, rash – and it is problematic, as I just mentioned, in that it accords personal interpretations of Vatican II excessive importance. Much criticism of post-Vatican II liturgical reform is historically ill-informed, out of touch with the pastoral benefits that came from Vatican II, and often ends up subtly questioning the very legitimacy of the Council itself.
History cannot be undone. The liturgical reforms that came after Vatican II were not perfect, but they are what we have. Starting liturgical reform all over again (as is proposed in certain segments of the “reform the reform” movement) is as unrealistic as trying to put the toothpaste back into the container. Liturgical reform properly grows slowly and organically.
Third, the notion that there is widespread disillusionment among Catholic about the rites that came from Vatican II is erroneous. There is no data that backs up this belief. The vast majority of Catholics find the reformed rites spiritually edifying. They have no desire to return to Latin. They are incredulous at the idea and cannot imagine that they would again be required to hear a language that they cannot understand. To restore the prayers and responses to Latin would likely backfire, and lead to great disturbance in the Church.
Msgr. M. Francis Mannion is pastor emeritus of St. Vincent de Paul Parish.