Benedict and Beauty

May 4, 2008

From a “First Things” April 25 post by Fr. Richard John Neuhaus:

“In my commentary here and in my coverage of the papal visit with Raymond Arroyo on EWTN, I had occasion to make somewhat critical remarks about the way the Mass was celebrated at Nationals Park in Washington. My observation that New York, by way of contrast, did itself proud was quite untouched by my notorious New York chauvinism.

In response to my comments, we received hundreds, if not well over a thousand, emails, letters, and references on the blogosphere. I estimate that they ran about five-to-one in favor of what I had said. Responses by church musicians were overwhelmingly favorable. But those in the minority expressed deep outrage. Some took my remarks as criticism of Pope Benedict. My point was that the Washington style of celebration flew in the face of much that Benedict has written about liturgy and music. Others complained that my comments insulted the musicians and choirs who were very sincere in doing their thing, no matter what others thought of it. No doubt. But most of those in the minority charged me with elitism and snobbery in trying to impose my musical and liturgical tastes on others.

Where to begin? The matter of taste—or, if you will, aesthetics—enters into it, no doubt. But the problem with the way the liturgy and music was handled is that it focused attention on the gathered people and the performers rather than on what Christ is doing in the Eucharist. It was a display of preening multiculturalism that proclaimed, “Look at us wonderfully diverse people exhibiting our wonderfully diverse talents!” I should add that this was the impression more powerfully conveyed on television, which was what I saw from the broadcast studio. Some people who were in the stadium and participating in the Mass tell me they hardly noticed the sundry musical performances, except as a vague background noise. They were the fortunate ones.

No doubt there are many parishes where people regularly suffer worse than what was perpetrated at Nationals Park. For the most part it was bad music competently performed. But one expects better, one expects much better, at a papal Mass. Especially when the pope is one who has been so very explicit in his views on liturgical and musical practices.

In the March issue of First Things, Father George Rutler has a devastatingly arch review of Piero Marini’s A Challenging Reform: Realizing the Vision of the Liturgical Renewal. Marini was the Master of Pontificial Liturgical Celebrations until he was relieved of his duties by Pope Benedict.

What Marini calls the “vision of the liturgical renewal” has over the years been strongly criticized by Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict as the invention of the proponents of “the spirit of Vatican II”—a spirit in sharp contrast to what the council actually said. In Sacrosanctum Concilium, the council said:

That sound tradition may be retained, and yet the way remain open to legitimate progress. Careful investigation is always to be made into each part of the liturgy which is to be revised. This investigation should be theological, historical, and pastoral. . . . Finally, there must be no innovation unless the good of the Church genuinely and certainly requires them; and care must be taken that any new forms adopted should in some way grow organically from the forms already existing. (emphasis added)

The difference between the organic and the manufactured has been a theme constantly emphasized by Benedict. The story of how, after the council, Archbishop Annibale Bugnini, ably assisted by Piero Marini (now archbishop), manufactured multiple innovations in accord with their vision of renewal is well known. And, of course, over the past forty-plus years, bishops and priests beyond numbering, taking their cue from the likes of Bugnini and Marini, brought their own “creative resources” to bear on the manufacturing process.

The difference between the organic and the manufactured has everything to do with Benedict’s repeated emphasis on “the hermeneutics of continuity” in the correct interpretation of the council, as distinct from viewing the council as a rupture in the Church’s tradition. The hermeneutics of rupture results in talk about a pre–Vatican II Church and a post–Vatican II Church, as though there are two churches, one before the council and one after.

Nobody seems to know why Pope Paul VI allowed Bugnini to take such liberties with the Church’s worship, or why, in 1976, he “exiled” him to a diplomatic post in Iran, where he died. Without directly criticizing Paul VI, Ratzinger has written that a “pope is not an absolute monarch whose will is law, but is the guardian of the authentic Tradition.” With respect to the liturgy, he has said, “he has the task of a gardener, not that of a technician who builds new machines and throws the old ones on the junk-pile.” In the same context, Ratzinger invokes the “golden words” of the Catechism: “For this reason no sacramental rite may be modified or manipulated at the will of the minister or the community. 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.”

In his book The Feast of Faith, Ratzinger addresses the question of sacred music in a passage well worth pondering:

The movement of spiritualization in creation is understood properly as bringing creation into the mode of being of the Holy Spirit and its consequent transformation, exemplified in the crucified and resurrected Christ. In this sense, the taking up of music into the liturgy must be its taking up into the Spirit, a transformation that entails both death and resurrection. That is why the Church has had to be critical of ethnic music; it could not be allowed untransformed into the sanctuary. The cultic music of pagan religions has a different status in human existence from the music which glorifies God in creation. Through rhythm and melody themselves, pagan music often endeavors to elicit an ecstasy of the senses, but without elevating the sense into the spirit; on the contrary, it attempts to swallow up the spirit in the senses as a means of release. This imbalance toward the senses recurs also in modern popular music: the “God” found here, the salvation of man identified here, is quite different from the God of the Christian faith.

For Benedict, aesthetics is never mere aesthetics. He readily acknowledges his debt to Hans Urs von Balthasar, who has helped many of us to appreciate more fully the ways in which beauty is inseparable from the transcendent realities of the true and the good. I do not wish to be too hard on those who planned the celebration at Nationals Park. It was, sad to say, not unrepresentative of much Catholic worship in our time. The planners and the performers no doubt meant well, but it is worthy of remark that at a papal Mass there was so much that reflected an ignorance of, or defiance of, the very considered views of the pope.”