In the past month, a lot has been written and said about the two most recent announcements from the Vatican: the Holy Father's letter permitting wider use of the Latin Mass, and the document from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on the Church.
My office has received letters and phone calls about both items, and I have to say that, as often happens, the secular media has made far too much of the announcements. As a result, they have riled up Catholics and non-Catholics unnecessarily.
In fact, if I were to believe some of the letters and calls I have received, I'd say it might be time for all of us to start preparing for another round of religious warfare among Christians that would make the time of the Reformation look tame. Fortunately, this isn't the case. Let's look at the two announcements and what they really mean.
The Latin Mass First, the wider use of Latin Mass (see The Catholic Advocate, July 18). What did the Holy Father really say? Why did he say it?
Simply put, Pope Benedict XVI said that any priest who wishes to celebrate Mass privately using the pre-Vatican II liturgy in Latin, which we now call an "extraordinary form" of the liturgy, can do so without receiving permission from his local bishop. Up to now, any priest who wished to celebrate the traditional Mass in Latin publicly needed that permission.
Nowhere in his letter did the Holy Father say that Latin Mass would replace Mass in the vernacular or local language. In fact, the pope very strongly emphasized that Latin could not replace the local language. The priest celebrant must know Latin and know the rubrics of the extraordinary form. The pope said it could be offered only on Sunday or Solemnities.
Most emphatically, he said that for Latin Mass to be offered publicly, the parish had to ensure that it could gather a stable community of worshippers willing to participate in the liturgy under the older form, which, by the way, remained as a valid form of liturgy even after the changes in the Mass took place back in 1965. The decision about public Mass pertains to the pastor. He also said emphatically that this permission does not in any way soften, lessen or diminish the reforms of the Second Vatican Council.
There had been strong speculations regarding the pope's reason behind this permission. He acknowledged that it is his desire to bring back into the Church some people who have felt uncomfortable with the reforms, but who truly wanted to remain Catholic. One group in particular, based in France, has been in schism with the Church almost since the time of the Second Vatican Council.
The hope is that, through an offer of reconciliation that includes permission to celebrate Mass in the extraordinary form, this group could eventually return to union with the Church. Time will tell, because this group still has issues with some of the reforms of the Second Vatican Council-reforms that will not be rescinded.
For the most part, however, the wider permission is seen really as an opportunity for people who feel that they can find a greater spirituality in the extraordinary form of the liturgy. In this respect, providing the wider permission can in some ways be likened to Rome accepting the charisms, the special gifts of the Holy Spirit, of a particular religious community or movement.
The Franciscans, the Benedictines, the Dominicans, the Carmelites and their communities all express their senses of spirituality in slightly different ways. Yet they are all Catholic and in communion with the universal Church. In fact, one little bit of history worth noting is that, before the Second Vatican Council, when the entire Latin Rite Catholic world celebrated Mass in Latin, these different religious communities often celebrated slightly different forms of the Latin Mass. Those differences reflected certain elements of their spirituality and made the Mass unique to them. But it was still the same Mass.
The universal Church today has many forms of liturgy that its priests celebrate. Each of the Eastern rite churches that is in union with Rome celebrates its own form of liturgy, exercises its own traditions and uses a language different from Latin. Former Episcopalian or Anglican parishes that have rejoined the Church in recent years under the Pastoral Provision worship using an approved Anglican form of liturgy. And every week, the people of this great archdiocese celebrate the liturgy in some 20 different languages, including Latin. Some may view this as a cacophony; I view it as a joyful sound.
Truth is, the vast majority of Catholics enjoy the celebration of Mass in the local language and that's as it should be. In our own experience with Latin Mass, some groups have become smaller after a time. For some, the novelty of the extraordinary liturgy may wear off or they begin to understand and appreciate the reasons behind the liturgy we use today. For those who do remain with Latin Mass, it is an expression of their particular devotion.
On Questions Regarding Certain Aspects of the Doctrine of the Church The misinterpretations that have arisen from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith document Questions Regarding Certain Aspects of the Doctrine of the Church have me even more perplexed.
This document was developed to help clarify a document from 1995 called Ut Unum Sint, on ecumenism, and a subsequent document from 2000 called Dominus Iesus.
Both documents form the basis for how the Church is to engage in dialogue with other faith groups. And while the progress that the Church has made in dialogue with other groups has been strong, it is important to remember that all dialogue begins with an acknowledgement of differences and that it has to proceed with certain givens.
For the Catholic Church, the given is this: Jesus Christ established His Church on earth. Everything that Jesus intended for His Church-the fullness of truth and sacramental life-is found within the Catholic Church. The words that the document actually uses to describe this are "subsists in." By using the specific term "subsists in," the Church acknowledges that other churches and faith communities possess elements of truth and sanctification. However, the Church holds the fullness of truth and sanctification that Jesus intended. This is what we, as Catholics, believe. We recite it each week at Mass in the Creed: "one holy, catholic, and apostolic Church."
Some of the misinterpretation stems from the language used in the document-language that has a very definitive meaning within the Church that is different from general, everyday usage. For example, the document uses the term "faith communities," rather than "churches," for the Christian communities that have arisen since the Reformation. In Catholic usage, "church" has a very specific meaning. A church possesses true sacraments and above all-through apostolic succession-the sacrament of Holy Orders and the Eucharist. These elements do not exist in the communities formed since the Reformation. They do exist in the Eastern rite churches.
Another word in the new document that has a specific Church meaning, but a wider, less restrictive general meaning, is "defect." In everyday language, someone hears this word and thinks: "It's broken, throw it away" or "it's just not good." In the language of the Church, however, defect means simply that an element is not present.
Does this latest document from Rome mean that dialogue and ecumenism is dead? Certainly not! In fact, in this archdiocese-indeed, throughout the state of New Jersey-the depth of dialogue and the progress in understanding and cooperation among the many churches and faith communities is very strong, and expected to continue. No one should ever show disrespect for another's sincerely held beliefs.
There always will be differences in theologies, differences in practices, and differences in outlooks. It is important for all involved in dialogue to know and acknowledge those differences. Sometimes, clarifying them creates new challenges, but those challenges now are placed within their proper theological context to be discussed and examined with greater fruitfulness.