Ultramontanism and the Objectivity of the Liturgy

alcuin_reidDespite reading very little throughout the summer, I managed to finish Alcuin Reid’s Organic Development of the Liturgy, where he considers the history and principles of changes in the liturgy over the course of the millenia, eventually focusing on the Liturgical Movement in the decades leading up to the Second Vatican Council. (He wisely does not go beyond the year 1962.)

One of the more important concepts considered in the book is the objectivity of the liturgy, and consequently the “authenticity” of developments or changes to this objective liturgical tradition. On this point, he is thinking along the lines of Newman in his Development, where he looks at what constitutes an authentic or objective aspect of an idea. Just to quote an example from Newman, “Thus Judaism is an idea which once was objective, and Gnosticism is an idea which was never so. Both of them have various aspects: those of Judaism were such as monotheism, a certain ethical discipline, a ministration of divine vengeance, a preparation for Christianity: those of the Gnostic idea are such as the doctrine of two principles, that of emanation, the intrinsic malignity of matter, the inculpability of sensual indulgence, or the guilt of every pleasure of sense, of which last two one or other must be in the Gnostic a false aspect and subjective only.”

Much of Reid’s book highlights the tension between this objective character of the liturgical tradition and the tendency to change or “reform” the liturgy according to practical motives. What surprised me was the extent to which he contrasted ultramontanism and objective liturgical tradition. Ultramontanism (from ultra+montana, “over the mountain”) refers to positions which emphasize the authority of the Pope (the one “over the mountains”). Now since I first heard the word many years ago, I basically saw it as a synonym for Catholic, since the Pope does indeed possess universal and immediate jurisdiction over the entire Church as well as the charism of infallibility in defining matters of faith and morals. Without denying any of these prerogatives of the Pope, Reid characterizes as ultramontane those persons who would use papal authority to introduce innovation and refers to the actions of certain Popes as ultramontane to the extent that they do not (seem to) respect the objective character of the liturgy.


Pope Urban VIII

One of the examples Reid gives of an “error” in the exercise of papal authority over the liturgy are the changes made by Urban VIII (1623-1644). The late Christian Latin of these hymns was changed to a more classical Latin, removing late vocabulary and adjusting meters. Religious orders with their own Breviaries retained the original versions and (oddly enough) so did St. Peter’s Basilica. Although these revised hymns remained in force up until 1970, liturgical scholars in all times are nearly unanimous in rejecting these revisions as a deformation in the official prayer of the Church. Another major change to the Breviary that Reid considers is the redistribution of the Psalms by Pope Pius X in 1911. Despite how dramatic these changes were (e.g. no longer prescribing Psalms 148-150 for Lauds each day—a practice existing in every liturgical rite and that perhaps goes back to the synagogue in the time of Our Lord!), they were not widely criticized at a time when “the prevalent ultramontanism led to the assumption that even prudential judgments of popes were unquestionably correct” (p. 78). One typically does not hear of Pope Saint Pius X in connection with radical liturgical changes, but Reid seems to accurately state that “it was a singular moment in liturgical history. That a pope could discard ancient liturgical Tradition by sole virtue of his own authority is found nowhere in liturgical history before Saint Pius X” (p. 77).

Even with his insistence on the authority and reverence due to the objective liturgical tradition, Reid nowhere advocates turning against the decisions of the Roman Pontiffs in disobedience. The fact that he is a Catholic in full communion with the Church indicates that disobedience to the Holy See would be an even worse rupture with tradition than what may be “inauthentic” in the current Ordinary Form of the Liturgy. Though Reid says much more, his basic position can be summarized in paragraph 1125 of the current catechism, “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.”

gregoria_chantsThe practical question now arises: What then? Although this book does not consider changes subsequent to 1962, the principles outlined by Reid would indicate that liturgy as currently practiced throughout most of the Church is not the result of an authentic development from the liturgy as handed on by tradition. And yet from its continuous use for over 40 years, does the more recent use have its own objective weigh beyond its papal approbation? I understand 40 is a much smaller number than the 1300 or so years in which the Roman Canon was virtually untouched. Nevertheless, many aspects of the more recent use as it is typically implemented (e.g. the recent Eucharistic Prayers, total vernacular, no chanting of propers) are so widespread, that nearly two generations have no experience of the liturgy being otherwise.

Throughout much of the book, Reid reiterates that the original purpose of the Liturgical Movement was not to advocate making changes to liturgical rites, but to ground the spiritual life of the faithful in the liturgical life of the Church. So also, whatever the current state of the liturgical discipline of the Church might be, nothing stands in the way of deepening the importance of the liturgy in the life of the faithful, starting with the faithful celebration of that same official liturgical discipline.

Fun note: After finishing this book, I remembered once reading Reform of the Roman Liturgy by Klaus Gamber, which historically picks up where this book leaves off. Gamber proposes that since the promulgation of the newer form of the Mass, there are now two distinct Roman rites. This proposal is basically rejected by Pope Benedict who said we should speak of a “twofold use of one and the same rite” rather than two rites, though Gamber gives an excellent analysis of what constitutes unity and continuity in a liturgical rite. Surprisingly enough, Alcuin Reid actually has an Amazon review for Gamber’s work.

(Alcuin Reid’s other Amazon reviews reveal that I was not wrong to notice his animus against ultramontanism on liturgical matter. Several other critical reviews are titled “Dated and ultramontane” or “Ultramontane and lacking historical depth”.)


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