A new one-size-fits-all Catholic Mass?

Andre Penner AP Monks attend a Mass at the Sao Paulo Metropolitan Cathedral in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Liberals in the … Continued

Andre Penner


Monks attend a Mass at the Sao Paulo Metropolitan Cathedral in Sao Paulo, Brazil.

Liberals in the Vatican are changing how Catholics pray. By order from Rome, many texts for English-language Masses will change the First Sunday of Advent, 2011. Some see this reform as an indication of Vatican conservatism and a return to worship-styles from the past, but the way the mandate is delivered is liberal: change by fiat from ecclesiastical elites with power over a centralized bureaucracy. The intended result will be a one-size-fits-all English translation discounting local differences. As U.S. politics suggests, liberalism imposes its decisions unilaterally from the top-down, in contrast with a conservative states’ rights approach.

Using these definitions, the centralization of the liturgy at the 16th century Council of Trent, was reform by liberalism. Facing the encroachments from Protestantism in all parts of the Christian world, in her wisdom the Catholic Church decided that uniformity was a protection against heresy. The II Vatican Council, in contrast, was a conservative council, devolving power of expression in the liturgy to local episcopal conferences and embracing cultural differences as manifestations of the richness of Catholicism.

While debate about liberalism or conservatism in the church may seem detached from Catholic America’s everyday problems, the way decisions are made in the church is often as important as what decisions are made. The procedures established by the II Vatican Council that gave responsibility over liturgy to the bishops of each nation, but these new changes will skip a step and impose uniformity on worship everywhere in the English-speaking world. The people in Brooklyn, New York are being given the same English texts as the Catholics in Sydney, Australia.

I have to question if this goal of English-language uniformity is worth the change or if it is even possible. There are real differences of pronunciation and vocabulary that make it virtually impossible to ever reach such uniformity, even if it were desirable. For the moment, let us forget the differences between “colour” and “color;” between “honour” and “honor.” As the old saw has it, England and America are separated by a common language; a saying even truer when we add the English of the Geiko Gecko and colonial English of places as far apart as Jamaica and India.

Take for instance, the rhyme in hymns: “again” and “train” rhyme only in British-style English. “Bloody” has a radically different meaning on different sides of the Atlantic. Even in the United States, “parking the car in Harvard yard” has a different ring in New England from the southerners who compare the difficulty in understanding to “yanking bacon from a bulldog.” And there is always a lurking double-entendre. A Youth Retreat Director once told me he always changed the 14th Station of the Way of the Cross to “Jesus is placed in the tomb,” because there was too much teenage giggling when he read the traditional title of “laid in the tomb.”

The point is that language is a living reality, constantly reacting to change and circumstance. Local control as ordered by Vatican II would force new translations to be screened for such missteps; but the new reforms were rammed through a meeting of the U.S. bishops that surrendered this right to the Vatican bureaucracy. To speed up the new translation, Rome took over writing the antiphons for the new liturgy without final review or canonical approval by the US bishops. When Bishop Donald W. Trautman objected, he was ruled “out of order,” leaving the perplexed bishop to state, “I do not see how an unnamed Vatican official can trump a doctrinal statement of the Second Vatican Council.”

The present trend centralizes of authority to a narrowing circle of Vatican officials isolated from direct pastoral contact with the Catholics affected by their decisions. Most Catholics in the pews are faithful, and will not question the motives for greater centralization in Rome. We are, after all, “faith-full.” However, there will come moments in which people will ask why familiar prayers are being changed and why the results sound strange. Because the “law of prayer is the law of belief” (lex orandi, lex credendi) the one-size-fits-all liberal mandate is more than word play; it is the exercise of power over the People of God.

Next Week: The Aesthetics of Latinized English

  • amelia45

    I love this twist on the use of the words “liberal” and “conservative.”

  • thebump

    Nice try, but no cigar. The reform of the reform is painful but necessary medicine. The abuses and outrages that the faithful have suffered in the misguided “spirit” of the Council did not arise from the people themselves but rather were imposed with the flimsiest of pretenses by hippie-wannabes and ideological zealots — most of whom ended up moving on way beyond Christianity anyway. Enough. The Holy Spirit is at work cleaning up the mess they left.

  • ccnl1

    Post the following on all Catholic and other Christian church doors and the “pew peasants” will finally close these buildings of worthless worship:

    The Apostles’ Creed 2011: (updated by yours truly and based on the studies of historians and theologians of the past 200 years)

    Should I believe in a god whose existence cannot be proven
    and said god if he/she/it exists resides in an unproven,
    human-created, spirit state of bliss called heaven??

    I believe there was a 1st century CE, Jewish, simple,
    preacher-man who was conceived by a Jewish carpenter
    named Joseph living in Nazareth and born of a young Jewish
    girl named Mary. (Some say he was a mamzer.)

    Jesus was summarily crucified for being a temple rabble-rouser by
    the Roman troops in Jerusalem serving under Pontius Pilate,

    He was buried in an unmarked grave and still lies
    a-mouldering in the ground somewhere outside of

    Said Jesus’ story was embellished and “mythicized” by
    many semi-fiction writers. A descent into Hell, a bodily resurrection
    and ascension stories were promulgated to compete with the
    Caesar myths. Said stories were so popular that they
    grew into a religion known today as Catholicism/Christianity
    and featuring dark-age, daily wine to blood and bread to body rituals
    called the eucharistic sacrifice of the non-atoning Jesus.


  • Elohist

    I guess Pope Benedict (Cardinal Ratzinger) was one of your so-called “hippie-wannabes” but he certainly has not moved on way “beyond Christianity.” He wrote in FAVOR of local control of the liturgy as an essential new direction for the Church:
    “The first chapter of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy contains a statement that represents for the Latin church a fundamental innovation. The formulation of liturgical laws for their own regions is now, within limits, the responsibility of the various conferences of bishops. And this is not by delegation from the Holy See, but by virtue of their own independent authority.”

    And anyway, how is it that the Holy Spirit didn’t speak through an assembled Ecumenical Council of pope and bishops, but speaks through unnamed bureaucrats? Go back and read the Catholic Catechism. The mess is people who think they are more Catholic than the pope.

  • thebump


  • Elohist

    One word put-downs are the recourse of the intellectually challenged.

  • thebump

    Where exactly did the Council fathers mandate the endless train of abuses and inanities that were foisted on the faithful? Where did they mandate that churches must look like gas stations? Where did they mandate that Catholics be robbed of their patrimony of sacred art and music and be assaulted with hideous drivel?

    And there’s a world of difference between the authority of a bishops’ conference and the reality of thousands of armchair liturgists vying to outdo each other with some fresh atrocity.

  • thebump

    The brevity of the riposte should be commensurate with the (lack of) seriousness of the original.

  • Elohist

    The bishop is cited, the council is cited and you think that defending the doctrinal integrity of Holy Mother the Church is lacking in seriousness. Really? If you don’t take the faith serious you will never understand scholars like S-A who do their homework. So you think the Holy Spirit was misguided — but you are not because you have a “thing” against people who you call hippies (like the Pope)? We Catholics are serious and you go bumping along. You try to sound pompous but your material is too thin. I guess that is why there are people writing regular columns and anonymous amateurs sending out shallow put-downs.

  • Elohist

    My church doesn’t look like a gas station. You don’t know what you are talking about. All the music used at Catholic masses has to be approved by the bishops’ commissions. You seem to miss the point that one-size-does not fit all. In fact, your vociferous defense of your tastes are proof that the article was right.

  • thebump

    Uh, if you follow the thread you will see I was replying to ccnl1’s sacrilegious post immediately above at 2:49 PM.

  • ccnl1

    Saving Christians from the Infamous Resurrection/Easter Con/Disease:

    From that famous passage: In 1 Corinthians 15 St. Paul reasoned, “If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.”

    Even now Catholic/Christian professors of theology are questioning the bodily resurrection of the simple, preacher man aka Jesus.

    To wit;

    From a major Catholic university’s theology professor’s grad school white-board notes:

    “Heaven is a Spirit state or spiritual reality of union with God in love, without earthly – earth bound distractions.
    Jesus and Mary’s bodies are therefore not in Heaven.

    Most believe that it to mean that the personal spiritual self that survives death is in continuity with the self we were while living on earth as an embodied person.

    Again, the physical Resurrection (meaning a resuscitated corpse returning to life), Ascension (of Jesus’ crucified corpse), and Assumption (Mary’s corpse) into heaven did not take place.

    The Ascension symbolizes the end of Jesus’ earthly ministry and the beginning of the Church.

    Only Luke’s Gospel records it. The Assumption ties Jesus’ mission to Pentecost and missionary activity of Jesus’ followers The Assumption has multiple layers of symbolism, some are related to Mary’s special role as “Christ bearer” (theotokos). It does not seem fitting that Mary, the body of Jesus’ Virgin-Mother (another biblically based symbol found in Luke 1) would be derived by worms upon her death. Mary’s assumption also shows God’s positive regard, not only for Christ’s male body, but also for female bodies.” ”

    “In three controversial Wednesday Audiences, Pope John Paul II pointed out that the essential characteristic of heaven, hell or purgatory is that they are states of being of a spirit (angel/demon) or human soul, rather than places, as commonly perceived and represented in human language. This language of place is, according to the Pope, inadequate to describe the realities involved, since it is tied to the temporal order in wh

  • ccnl1


    “Reimarus (1774-1778) posits that Jesus became sidetracked by embracing a political position, sought to force God’s hand and that he died alone deserted by his disciples. What began as a call for repentance ended up as a misguided attempt to usher in the earthly political kingdom of God. After Jesus’ failure and death, his disciples stole his body and declared his resurrection in order to maintain their financial security and ensure themselves some standing.”

    p.168. by Ted Peters:

    Even so, asking historical questions is our responsibility. Did Jesus really rise from the tomb? Is it necessary to have been raised from the tomb and to appear to his disciples in order to explain the rise of early church and the transcription of the bible? Crossan answers no, Wright answers, yes. ”

    So where are the bones”? As per Professor Crossan’s analyses in his many books, the body of Jesus would have ended up in the mass graves of the crucified, eaten by wild dogs, covered with lime in a shallow grave, or under a pile of stones.

  • thebump

    I’ll take your word for it that your own church doesn’t look like a gas station, but the fact remains that thousands of Catholic churches have been built or systematically wreck-o-vated to resemble gas stations or Ramada Inns.

    There’s room for authentic inculturation and differences in mere taste. That’s not what we’re talking about — not taste but lack of same, inevitably in tandem with relentless dumbing down of the truth, obsession with political correctness, oppressive banality and ugliness, worship of people replacing worship of God, etc. etc.

  • usapdx

    By order of the Vatican which is no part of Rome or Italy. Bear in mind that there will be no altar girls at certain masses by way of Vatican orders.

  • Elohist

    When you talk about political correctness I presume you include Bill Donohue of the Catholic League and other far-right Republican promoters who accuse the media of slandering Catholics when they uncover covered up clerical pedophilia. Yes, I agree the far right and reactionary bishops defend themselves with political correctness, but the oppressive banality and ugliness of your experience indicates that you don’t attend mass frequently. In our church we replaced the “screecher” trying to imitate Mozart by singing in Latin with virtually the whole church singing. That’s because of the Council whose reforms you reject. As for worshiping people instead of worship of God, I don’t know of any Catholic Church where this has taken place, unless of course you refer to the cultic adoration of John Paul II which borders on the absurd.

  • tony55398

    Unfortunately the Vatican wants to show who really is the boss, and it isn’t the Bishops, nor the laity, the peasantry, but being Pope does not mean being right, just ask the apostle Paul.

  • vtavgjoe

    Interesting take on the words, Anthony… I always viewed “liberal” to mean trying to make the world better by looking to what can be better in the future, and “conservative” to mean trying to make the world better by what worked in the past. In that vein, I view these as conservative changes – as are alluded to in some of the comments, a bunch of bureaucrats that never accepted Vatican II, and are doing anything they can to roll it back before they themselves are no longer around. They can’t get the Latin mass back in totality, so we’ll get this Lat-glish that has neither the lyricism of the original Latin, nor the accessibility of the local vernacular.
    I struggle with these changes because as a liberal, I should not have a knee jerk negative reaction to a change of something that (to me) is “the way it’s always been done. (I was born after Vatican II.) But I also strongly disagree with the increasing centralization of Catholic decision making going to a few 80 year olds who really haven’t gotten out to see the real world a whole lot, and with the lack of accessibility of the new language.
    Chances are, this won’t be the end of the world, but if it drastically changes my spiritual experience in a negative fashion, God has blessed us with many other choices than Catholicism as a route to his grace.

  • fzriely


  • cnew292

    What a strange way to define “liberal” and “conservative!”

  • Maire2

    I agree that Stevens-Arroyo presents a strange, almost unrecognizable notion of ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal.’ But we shouldn’t make decisions on the basis of ideology in any case, so I’ll ignore the conservative-liberal dichotomy he uses. The Curia’s procedure with the new Roman Missal–adoption of Vox Clara’s heavily edited interlinear translation without episcopal approval in place of ICEL’s approved dynamic translation–is reason enough for deep concern. Liturgiam Authenticam yields an impoverished approach to translation, aimed primarily at political goals, such as setting the Roman liturgy apart from other Christian liturgies, effacing the equal moral worth of women with gender-exclusive language, inculcating a sense in Catholics of their identity as a “holy remnant” in the pronouncement that Christ’s blood is shed not for all but for many, and implicitly reinforcing clericalism in the bishops’ rationales for “And with your spirit,” spoken by people to priest. The addled, non-colloquial English of the “translation” is the least of my complaints. The most serious is that the extensive catechesis designed to help the people understand the new text transforms it into a teaching document and undermines its essential purpose as prayer of the assembled people. How many self-respecting mothers, I wonder, can in good conscience bring their daughters to church on Sundays to repeat the words “who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven….”? How many others will stand silent rather than mumble Latinate circumlocutions, sentences that heap subordinate clause upon subordinate clause and end up nearly incomprehensible–again, supposedly as prayer?

  • azraq

    What an awful article. Liberalism has nothing to do with it. While you’re on the subject of local difference in language, you might realize that “liberal” and “conservative” mean completely different things in the Church than they do in American politics, to say nothing of other institutions of the English-speaking world.

    And as a journalist who has lived in several different English speaking countries, I firmly believe that there can and should be ONE English language. It is telling that most of your examples regarding language variance had to do with slang.

  • wehutson

    The changes are small in proportion to the whole set of prayers that are part of the Holy Mass.

    The changes are a gentle tug for us to deepen and sharpen our knowledge of God, with closer ties to holy scripture and with reminders to contemplate His supernatural existence more deeply and with more accuracy to revealed truth. The changes are also a bit more personal and tender. The way we say things matters. If we love God we will struggle to adore Him with the most beautiful words available. His personal call too us to respond to Him. The Faithful don’t need more secularity in the Divine Liturgy. They are helped by transcendent language.

  • athelstane

    “He wrote in FAVOR of local control of the liturgy as an essential new direction for the Church…”

    Yes – to a degree, yes, Ratzinger was.

    And then he saw the results. And began to think better of it.

  • athelstane

    “…such as setting the Roman liturgy apart from other Christian liturgies…”

    You say this as if it’s a bad thing.

    “…the pronouncement that Christ’s blood is shed not for all but for many.”

    The Latin says “pro multis,” not “pro omnibus.” There is a responsibility to actually translate what the original says. Jesus Christ shed his blood to redeem all – but not all are saved. (Mt 7:14)

  • mbmyer

    This afternoon I was at an event with several bilingual people; I heard relief that at last the English and Spanish would be equivalent. And unity across barriers of time, place, and culture is part of what it means to be Catholic.

    You may not be comfortable with the changes for a while, but they are in fact better translations than the watered-down language we got in consultation with non-Catholic communities. The changes are more faithful to the Latin and closer to what other Catholics around the world say in worship at every Mass.

    And you have completely reversed the meanings of Liberal and Conservative. (Cf. the comboxes for a sample of others’ opinions.) In an essay centered on the use of language, one would hope that you would use language better than this.

  • James210

    I don’t normally choose to argue with the Justice of “something” from the higher platform but, if one would allow a common sinner to enhance or articulate my own impression of Rome.

    Local control as ordered by the Second Vatican would enforce orthodox interpretations, to avoid such missteps; and, the new reforms will, through the U.S. bishops, that joined in this rebellion to dismantle the Vatican bureaucracy, will re-establish civility and rule of law .

    Or, we could always water it down.

    Would love to attend a service Cspan is my new drug of choice.

  • amelia45

    The words Liberal and Conservative have more than one meaning. What Stevens-Arroyo is demonstrating is that meanings change as language drifts, as our underlying assumptions about what a word means are influenced by changes in our culture. Fixed language can cause confusion. For example, 50 or 60 years ago, a “strict constructionist” on constitutional issues was a conservative (Republican) who would not want the Supreme Court to “make up” new meaning to what the Constitution says. However, this very conservative Supreme Court of today, with the avid support of today’s conservatives (Republicans), has decided that corporations are people and money is speech.

  • amelia45

    Thank you, Maire2. This is very well said. I am glad my daughter is grown. I would not want her to grown up with the “through my fault, through my fault, through my most grevious fault” of todays mass.

    Oh, we will all get used to the changes so we can maintain community. But, this is not the language of prayer. Who says “consubstantial” in their intimate moments with God?