29 January 2022

It Took Francis to Abolish the Ancient Mass in Latin. Not Even von Balthasar Had Ever Thought of It

How do you know that Andre Grillo is lying when he talks about the Liturgy? Easy! His lips are moving. The man is an enemy of Tradition.

From Settimo Cielo

By Sandro Magister

There is no letup in the controversy ignited by the motu proprio “Traditionis custodes” of Pope Francis, which in effect has sentenced the Mass of the ancient rite to death. Andrea Grillo, 61 years old and father of two, professor in Rome at the Pontifical Athenaeum of St. Anselm and one of the liturgists most consulted and esteemed by the current pontiff, in defending the justice of this sentence has recruited in his support one of the greatest theologians of the twentieth century, Hans Urs von Balthasar (1905-1988), as if he already wanted this back then.

But is Grillo’s reinterpretation of von Balthasar correct? According to other experts, no. Among these is Nicola Lorenzo Barile, Church historian and a specialist on the Middle Ages, a Berkeley fellow of the University of California’s Robbins Collection.

In this commentary for Settimo Cielo, he explains that von Balthasar never supported the abrogation of the old missal, which was not abolished by Paul VI, the pope of the post-conciliar liturgical reform, much less by Benedict XVI, who on the contrary expressly declared it “never abrogated.” And the proximity between Joseph Ratzinger and von Balthasar, in the field of theology and liturgy, is well known.


Von Balthasar “beyond St. Pius V”? Note on the alleged extinction of the ancient rite of the Mass

by Nicola Lorenzo Barile

Why is it important to read old books? Because, according to C.S. Lewis, “Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period.” (“On The Reading of Old Books,” 1944).

This is what Prof. Andrea Grillo seems to have done in one of his own contributions: “Pope Francis and H.U. von Balthasar are in agreement: the ancient rite is dying out,” published the day after Pope Francis’s motu proprio “Traditionis custodes,” using a minor but no less important work of the Swiss theologian: “A Short Primer for the Unsettled Layman” (1980).

I am indebted for this notification to the theologian and liturgist Nicola Bux, who expressed his surprise at one of the statements in the “Short Primer,” emphasized by Prof. Grillo, according to which von Balthasar already at the time considered the “previous form of the Roman rite” as “destined to die out,” a statement that Prof. Grillo aligns with the restrictions imposed by “Traditionis custodes” on the Mass in the ancient Latin rite.

First of all, Prof. Grillo’s insistence on the “conservative and, we would say, right-leaning profile of von Balthasar” neglects the reputation as a progressive theologian attributed to him after the publication of works such as “Razing the Bastions” (1952), quickly dispelled after von Balthasar’s severe warnings against indiscriminate openness to the spirit of the world, which this time did earn him a reputation as a tenacious defender of tradition.

It is also difficult to explain the contrast that Prof. Grillo establishes between the aforementioned statements of von Balthasar's “Short Primer” and those, instead, of the almost contemporaneous “Autobiography” (1978) of then cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, according to which the liturgical reform had an “accessory character,” with the 1962 version of the Tridentine rite remaining “untouchable.” Between the Bavarian theologian and his Swiss colleague, in fact, there was a great affinity. “I have always known Ratzinger and he has always been this way, this is how he has always thought of it. […] There is little to say. Ratzinger is right,” von Balthasar said of him in the “Forbidden and lost interview”given in 1984 to Vittorio Messori. While Ratzinger said of von Balthasar: “Even if I can’t keep up with his erudition…. the inward intention, the vision as such, was shared” (“Last Testament,” 2016).

So there are two methods that I would suggest for a correct interpretation of von Balthasar's “Short Primer” to which Prof. Grillo has drawn our attention:

1) “placing in reciprocal relationship with each other the individual passages of the book,” as von Balthasar himself said in the Afterword;

2) referring to his “Forbidden and lost interview” cited above, from which some further elucidations may be gleaned.

In fact, in the opening chapter of the “Short Primer” von Balthasar explains that he intends to examine only a part of the traditionalist galaxy, in “spectacular secession” from others: “different more or less radical groups of traditionalists, who either openly denied the legitimacy of the last Council or regretted some of its regulations or loudly protested its effects. Supported by individual bishops, they oriented themselves completely to the preconciliar period by wishing to preserve the entire Creed by walling it into the letter of a liturgical form that was no longer recognized.”

Who the traditionalists are to whom the “Little Guide” alludes is also explained in the “Forbidden and lost interview,” where von Balthasar expresses a serene judgment not on the form of a particular rite, but on the celebration of the liturgy in general, albeit limited to the Germanic region: “sober and if done well, that is, in a way that respects the sacred, […] well accepted by the majority of those who still go to Church.”

To the interviewer who presses him, referring to “certain fundamentalist circles that have made the liturgical reform their hobby horse” and in particular to the “Lefebvrist movement” and its “very harsh attacks on the pope and Ratzinger,” von Balthasar replies without ambiguity: “Lefebvre and his people are not true Catholics. Right-wing fundamentalism seems to me even more incorrigible than left-wing liberalism. They believe they already know everything, that they have nothing to learn. On the other hand, their apparent fidelity to the popes is contradictory, but only to those who agree with them.”

No hostility, therefore, on the part of von Balthasar toward a particular rite or a form of it, even though the debate on this was already underway, but instead a polemic against the excesses of a certain kind of fundamentalism, inspired by “an erroneous conception of what Revelation is,” which “understands the content of this as devoid of history, so that it loses its relational dimension, to leave room only for form” (“Integralismus heute,” in “Diakonia” 19, 1988).

After this brief reconstruction of the context in which it was written, therefore, von Balthasar’s statement on the extinction of the ancient rite turns out to be not at all in disagreement with the fears of then cardinal Ratzinger over the “preservation of ritual forms whose greatness is always moving, but which when pushed to the extreme manifest an obstinate isolation” (“The courage of a true witness,” preface to K. Gamber, “La Réforme liturgique en question,” 1992).

I therefore find it reckless to conclude, as Prof. Grillo indeed does, that von Balthasar would have gladly accepted the end of the celebration of the Mass according to the ancient rite, as decreed by “Traditionis custodes.” Von Balthasar always invited us to rediscover beauty - unfortunately “no longer loved and guarded even by religion” - and in particular the beauty of the liturgical rite. The risk today, however, is less that of aestheticism and, instead, much more that of pragmatism; because of this, rather than of simplifying and pruning there is the need of rediscovering the decorum and majesty of divine worship (see: Office for the Liturgical Celebrations of the Supreme Pontiff, “The beauty of the liturgical rite,” for the space allotted for the Swiss theologian). And variety is one of the components of this beauty, as the experience of the medieval Church already taught: “In Rome, as elsewhere, various liturgical uses were widespread but none were despised, because variety in divine worship elicits attraction, but uniformity disgust “(S.J.P. Van Dijk-J. Hazelden Walker, “The Origins of the Modern Liturgy,” 1960).

Despite the promulgation of a new “Ordo Missae” which in fact took the place of the old (“ut in locum veteris substitueretur”), Paul VI himself by no means intended to reduce the use of the forms for celebrating the liturgical rite (“lex orandi”), that of Rome, patrimony of the one and unchanged faith (“lex credendi”). Proof of this is the apostolic constitution “Missale romanum” of April 3 1969, which certainly intended to replace the Missal of 1962 with a new one but did not explicitly and absolutely abrogate the previous one, as confirmed later by Benedict XVI’s motu proprio “Summorum Pontificum” of July 7 2007.

The continued validity of the 1962 Missal, alongside the one promulgated by Paul VI, is guaranteed, moreover, by the right to exist of the “consuetudo centenaria aut immemorabilis” sanctioned by the Code of Canon Law in can. 28: “Unless it makes express mention of them, a law does not revoke centenary or immemorial customs.”

The highest ecclesiastical authority, in fact, cannot blithely change the ancient and venerable liturgy of the Church, as clarified by the Catechism of the Catholic Church (“Even the supreme authority in the Church may not change the liturgy arbitrarily, but only in the obedience of faith and with religious respect for the mystery of the liturgy,” no. 1125), without committing an abuse of power (“abusus potestatis,” can. 1389).

This is always a topical question. Even von Balthasar, in the dense chapter of his “Short Primer” significantly entitled “Critical Obedience,” invited us to carefully evaluate the fallibility of religious authorities, although he recognized that “it is difficult to draw the line between the ordinary magisterium of all the bishops, the orthodoxy of which is guaranteed, and the fallibility of single bishops and bishops’ conferences (not to speak of ordinary priests and vicars,” and that “[even] the pope speaks infallibly only in certain precisely defined situations,” so that the faithful must “always be alert; and he must become restless, for example, when something is proclaimed in a sermon that does not correspond to the Creed or the Canon of the liturgy.”

Quite a long way, therefore, from repositioning even von Balthasar “beyond St. Pius V,” to paraphrase the title of a 2007 book by Prof. Cricket. Certainly we will not be able to obtain the benefits that Lewis has in mind for us if we limit ourselves to reading in the old books the errors and hypotheses characteristic of our age, to which we may have grown blind. We will not learn much from them if, instead of letting the books call our assumptions into question, we try to make them allies in our current ideological battles.

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