Saturday, October 27, 2007

Kwasniewski: why the new lectionary doesn't work

Peter A. Kwasniewski has written a remarkable article, "The Loss of Liturgical Riches in the Sanctorial Cycle," Latin Mass magazine (Fall 2007). It is an outstanding article and offers a case in point of the kind of tough charity and constructive criticism that will be needed over the next years and decades to achieve the "reconciliation in the heart of the Church" that is the stated goal of the Holy Father's Motu Proprio, Summorum Pontificum. It is challenging in more ways than immediately meets the eye, and will likely get readers thinking about some things in ways they haven't quite imagined before; which, after all, is the point, albeit one rarely achieved.

It is commonly assumed by intelligent Catholics that, whatever the disasters of the post-Vatican II era (usually associated with its "implementation") one of the strongest suits of the Conciliar reforms was the revised lectionary. The renewed emphasis on Scripture in the post-Conciliar era, so it is often said, has been one of the great achievements of the Council.1 There is no question that the new lectionary readings contain a great deal more quantitatively of Scripture than the old -- and a great deal more of it from the Old Testament. A recent newsletter of the USCCB's Committee on the Liturgy published after the publication of Summorum Pontificum (see "Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics," Musings, October 18, 2007), states that the Novus Ordo contains 14% of the Old Testament and 71% of the New while the 1962 Missal contains only 1% of the former and 17% of the latter." No doubt about it, this would seem to look like a prima facie case in favor of the new lectionary.

Protestant converts to the Catholic Faith, particularly those from non-liturgical backgrounds, are often initially enthusiastic in their support of this quantitative amplitude accorded to Scripture in the new Catholic liturgy. David Currie, for example, in his book, Born Fundamentalist, Born Again Catholic, describes an experiment he conducted in measuring the average clock time spent in actual Bible reading in different churches.2 He chose two Protestant churches -- one evangelical, the other fundamentalist -- both with an average Sunday attendance well into the thousands. He found that the evangelical church, in the northwestern suburbs of Chicago, spent less than 6 percent of its Sunday service in Scripture, while the fundamentalist church in northwest Indiana spent 2 percent of its mornings in Scripture. By contrast, he found that Catholics spend an average of more than 26 percent of their time at Mass in Scripture.

The problem with such a quantitative approach to assessing the place of Scripture in worship is that it takes no effective account of the liturgical role actually played -- and the role that should be played -- by Scripture in life of the community assisting at Mass. It is easy for Catholic converts from evangelical backgrounds, given their apologetical and propositionalist bent,3 to assume that liturgy, at its best, is intended to be some sort of richly exegetical Bible study session. On the other hand, it is easy for cradle Catholics who are disdainful of propositionalist apologetics to assume, nevertheless, that the superiority of the new Mass must surely consist in, among other things, its covering quantitatively more Scripture, as well as allowing the "active participation" of laity as lectors, cantors, and in offering congregational responsorial antiphons and the like.

But without prejudice to the propositional truth of divine Revelation, this sort of quantitative approach has always struck me as simply wrong headed. How often do people come away from the new Mass with any recollection of the readings, let alone any sense of a theme uniting these readings? People don't assimilate more biblical wisdom simply because they have quantitatively more texts read to them at Mass, or because they participate quantitatively more in reading those texts. What counts is meaning and context; and if the liturgy itself fails to provide these, then no amount of ratcheting up the quantity of Scripture read or "active participation" in meting it out is going to suffice. In fact (pace those from Protestant backgrounds), failing an adequate liturgy, no homily is going to suffice. On the other hand, with a properly integrated liturgy and lectionary, a homily need no longer be seen as the indispensable locus for instruction in Scripture, as those from Protestant backgrounds -- especially those accustomed to academically sophisticated 30-40 minute sermons where the congregation took notes! -- might be tempted to think. In fact, the assumption that the homily is the premier place for instruction in Scripture in the life of a Catholic is based on a flawed understanding of the function of liturgy.

The problem, in brief, is this: in Catholic tradition the liturgical role of Scripture served to richly contextualize lectionary readings within a cycle of annually repeated readings grouped thematically around various historic Saints and doctrines of the Church. This allowed Catholics to become familiar with a great number of central biblical texts and themes through the course of the year that were repeated annually, thus sedimenting themselves into their souls through cyclical repetition throughout their lives. The problem, however, is that the liturgical unity and integrity of these themes has now been radically compromised by the new lectionary and missal, which have substituted a quantitative biblical calculus for the traditional thematic cycle.

If ever there was a doubt that traditionalists had a legitimate case concerning the lectionary, it can be layed to rest by the kind of thoughtful, constructive criticism offered by Peter A. Kwasniewski in his article, "The Loss of Liturgical Riches in the Sanctoral Cycle," Latin Mass magazine (Fall 2007). The argument he makes is not on the level of the pathetic ICEL translations, which have perpetrated on English-speaking Catholics "a fraud the magnitude of which has never been equaled in the history of liturgical abuses." Kwasniewski writes, "No, my complaint is not at this level; it is at the level of the Latin text. In her masterful studies of recent years, Dr. Lauren Pristas has helped us to see that the radical difference between the old and new Missals has to be assessed on the 'pure' ground of the Latin editio typica of each. And this is where I, too, stake my claims. I prescind entirely from the insulting travesty of the ICEL translation and focus on the Latin."

Kwasniewski compares sets of propers from the two missals and asks: "Is this an example of liturgical progress, of a 'successful' reform?" He writes:
The new lectionary . . . is a failure for three fundamental reasons.

First, the guiding principles were Cartesian, that is to say, mathematical order, a technical completeness (we have to "get through" the Scriptures), and a typically materialistic disregard for the organic unity of the soul-body complex which is the liturgy ...

Second, there is the basic human problem of having more than one year's worth of readings. A single year is a natural period of time; it is healthy, pedagogically superior, and deeply consoling to come back, year after year, to the same readings for a given Sunday or weekday. This has been my experience. You get to know the Sunday readings especially; they become bone of your bone. You start to think of Sundays in terms of their readings, chants, and prayers, which stick in the mind all the more firmly because they are both spoken or chanted and read in the missal you are holding (more senses engaged). In this way the traditional Western liturgy shows its affinity to the Eastern liturgies, which go so far as to name Sundays after their Gospels or after some particular dogma emphasized. In the old days, the fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost had a distinctive identity: Protector noster was the introit, you knew its melody, and the whole Mass grew to be familiar, like a much-loved garden or a trail through the woods. Nowadays, who knows what the "tenth Sunday of Ordinary Time" is about! It's anyone's guess.

Third, the men who chose the readings were a committee of "experts," biblical scholars with sociological leanings, who should be distrusted when it comes to spiritual matters. The only reverent way of augmenting a missal would be . . .
The argument itself is in the comparison of propers, in the result of the 'reform' in a wholesale abandonment in practice of the very notion of Propers, in a disorienting suppression of 'archaic' saints, and the general dis-integration (in the literal sense of the term) of the component parts of the liturgy. Read this first-rate article for yourself and see what you think. For my money, it's the most cogently and elegantly argued challenge to the new lectionary of recent memory. The gauntlet has been cast. The article can be found here: Peter A. Kwasniewski, "The Loss of Liturgical Riches in the Sanctorial Cycle," (Scripture and Catholic Tradition, October 25, 2007).


  1. One evidence that more emphasis on Scripture simpliciter is no panacea for the problems addressed by Vatican II is the nearly wholesale capitulation of Catholic biblical scholarship in many circles (e.g. John Dominic Crossan, Thomas Sheehan, etc.) to historically naturalistic liberal protestant presuppositions of biblical historical criticism. [back]

  2. David Currie, Born Fundamentalist, Born Again Catholic (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1996), 99f. [back]

  3. To suggest that a 'propositionalist' bent may be misplaced in liturgy -- that is, an approach that focuses principal on the didactic content and role of Scripture study -- is not to imply in the least any denigration of the indispensable propositional dimension to Scripture. [back]

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