What is the Nature of Church Reform?

Christ the Ancient of Days

Some “rad trads” have the idea that if the Latin Church turns back the clock to the time before the Second Vatican Council in terms of teachings, disciplines, and practices, she will automatically be restored to her full vitality and integrity. But the reality, as more moderate traditionalist thinkers realize, is that the Latin Church of the 1950s was not any kind of a model or ideal for ecclesiastical life. On the contrary, she was in serious need of reform, just as all the churches of Christendom have been at one time or another in our long 2000-year history. At the same time, I also think that open-minded (i.e. not ideological) observers can see the way the reforms proposed by Vatican II were actually carried out in the period following the council till the present day has been less than ideal.

To understand what happened, we have to first get clear on what “reform” really is: a return to form, not a departure from or rupture with the existing tradition. In other words, such reform never results in discarding traditions and introducing novelties in their place, but rather involves correcting certain corruptions and distortions which have turned the traditions aside from their proper purpose, and then focusing them back in on the reality they developed to point towards. So, faithful, right-believing Catholics should interpret the reform directives of Vatican II not as a call for ecclesiastical revolution, but rather as an exhortation to a renewed appreciation for our 2,000-year heritage leading us to evaluate where certain aspects may have gone astray from their own intended meaning.

All of this sounds very airy and abstract; some concrete examples are in order. First, consider by way of contrast to this true reform an example of false reform. One of the most venerable traditions of the universal church in both East and West is the celebration of the Divine Liturgy/Mass facing the East (ad orientem), where the clergy lead the people in prayer to God by facing the altar/holy table. And yet despite being such a long-standing practice throughout Christendom, the practice has been largely discarded in the Latin Rite since Vatican II, though neither the Council nor the rubrics for the New Order of Mass called for such. As I often say, even the revised Roman Missal implies celebration ad orientem, as it instructs the priest to face the people for the Dominus vobiscum, which would only be necessary if he were not facing them for other parts of the Mass. Thus, celebration versus populum is more an innovation than a return to form.

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