ON THE SACRED LITURGY
SOLEMNLY PROMULGATED BY
POPE PAUL VI
ON DECEMBER 4, 1963
16. The study of sacred liturgy is to be ranked among the compulsory and major courses in seminaries and religious houses of studies; in theological faculties it is to rank among the principal courses. It is to be taught under its theological, historical, spiritual, pastoral, and juridical aspects. Moreover, other professors, while striving to expound the mystery of Christ and the history of salvation from the angle proper to each of their own subjects, must nevertheless do so in a way which will clearly bring out the connection between their subjects and the liturgy, as also the unity which underlies all priestly training. This consideration is especially important for professors of dogmatic, spiritual, and pastoral theology and for those of holy scripture.
In 1955 the eminent American Catholic Historian Monsignor John Tracy Ellis stirred up considerable controversy in the U.S. Church with a published criticism of the poor state of Catholic scholarship in the United States. As a graduate student at Catholic University around 1930, Ellis was so disillusioned with the poor quality of instruction that he sought to complete his work at the University of Illinois. Later he would write, “Historically Americans have been wary of their scholars, and it is doubtful if there is a major nation in the world whose history reveals more suspicion of its academicians than our own.” To the contentions of the American Ellis, I can add recollections of famous European theologians such as Hans Kung and Bernard Haring who found seminaries in Rome to be woefully insipid, as a rule. The Redemptorist Haring, you might remember, preferred the foreign missions to taking a Roman doctorate in moral theology after World War II.
Section 16 probably resonates with the reasonable expectations of most readers as the normal and proper way to run a railroad, so to speak, when discussing the scholarship necessary in Catholic colleges and seminaries to produce leaders appropriate to the age. The document itemizes both the wide variety of theological fields to be mastered as well as the unity of the different parts of religious study. Para. 16, of course, is part of a teaching document on the sacred liturgy, but notice how the instruction strives to incorporate the systematic, historical, spiritual, pastoral, and judicial aspects of theology into the study of liturgy. After the Council, liturgical scholars would attempt to include interdisciplinary subjects including art, aesthetics, semiology [the science of symbols], and multicultural diversity into the study of liturgy.
All policy or law is purposeful, a response to a perceived problem. Para. 16’s text gives us a fair idea of the problems of theology in the pre-Vatican II Church. Liturgy was not a major focus of seminary training. That a priest comprehended the rites of the Tridentine Missal and the appropriate precepts of Canon Law was acceptable enough; there was no perception of liturgy as a living entity where much might still be discovered. There was little sense of unity in seminary curriculums between the theological disciplines, and most egregious was the limited emphasis upon Sacred Scripture, which was employed primarily as proof texts for key points of Church doctrine.
The training of priests at the time reflected the Church at the time: in counter-Reformation mode, and later in defense against modern trends of thought, the Church’s stance on nearly all aspects of its life was permanence and stability, two qualities that while highly commendable, were not a fertile feed bed for the academic curiosity we cherish today in all areas of education. In one aspect para. 16 extends its concern to Catholic education in general, not just advanced students and/or seminarians and priests. The Council did issue a decree on Seminaries, Optatam Totius, (“the best in everything,” roughly translated) which reinforced many of the principles cited here.
The priests educated about decade ahead of me were supposed to be taught their courses in Latin. As one of my friar colleagues put it, “my professors taught in English, but every now and then they would get scrupulous and try teaching in Latin again, but it was too hard for them.” No surprise there, as even the revered New England patriarch Cardinal Cushing boycotted the second session of Vatican II because he couldn’t understand the Latin of the debate. Previously, he offered to pay for a simulcast translation system for all the bishops, but the Curia preferred the confusion, or so the story is passed down.
In our own United States, the emphasis in seminary education was pastoral, as that was understood in the first half of the twentieth century. There is a well-documented explosive growth in the Catholic population via immigration and the baby boomers after World War II. Los Angeles, around 1950, was opening a new Catholic school every 90 days or thereabouts. The need, then, from seminaries was more parish priests, and not so many academics. The exceptions were the fields of Canon Law, which spelled out all matters of Church discipline and order, and morality, or more specifically, the case study of the moral manuals, the “manualist era.” Catholic seminaries fell under Ellis’s criticism of moribund academic vigor.
The implementation of para. 16 in American Catholic life is complicated to summarize. I was directly affected, and favorably. In the mid to late 1960’s the major religious orders in Washington, dissatisfied with their own major seminaries or the theology school of Catholic University, formed a charter to create the Washington Theological Coalition in Silver Spring, Maryland, in 1968. I studied there during the years 1971-74 and received my M.A. The faculty consisted of the best scholars in each respective religious community, and the arrangement saved the member orders (about a dozen, I believe) the expense of running separate schools of divinity.
I found my three years there as undoubtedly the best academic years of my life. I sometimes think that doing the Café blog entries is motivated by my curiosity to answer questions the WTC awakened in me. I have referred to my liturgical professor and Franciscan brother Regis Duffy, O.F.M., on many occasions; he was typical of the gifted and imaginative scholars who passed through the Coalition (later Union) during my years and beyond. I feel that the spirit of para. 16 was implemented by the religious orders who established this enterprise.
However, there were other forces at work after the Council that created obstacles for the implementation of this Vatican II Constitution. The first was the declining number of vocations to the priesthood. The fiscal struggles to maintain the small independent/regional seminaries began to take a toll almost immediately. My school closed in 2015. And, as seminaries closed or consolidated, rectors or sponsoring religious orders had to contend with more bishops of a conservative bent who demanded a somewhat more institutional outlook in the classroom. Perhaps the best single example of such pressures was last Monday’s post on Pope John Paul II’s encyclical Veritatis Splendor in 1993, which singled out seminaries as places where theological novelties might be hurting the Church.
I would add, too, that many priests today—including the recently ordained—continue to be pastoral pragmatists, living by the saying of the late medieval spiritual writer Thomas a Kempis: “I would rather feel compunction than know its definition.” Again, I can only go by impressions, but we seem to be returning to an age of simpler piety at a time when there is a desperate need for inventive and insightful theological thought to address the challenges of our times. This tendency is most noticeable in homilies and the educational programs offered at the parish level. The irony of our times is that as priests shy away from theology, the laity and religious women have embraced all branches of theology—including liturgical theology—with great vigor, a factor very evident in the publishing news of our major university presses.
Liturgy will be as compelling as our understanding of what we do.
I am taking spring break next week to catch up on my reading; the next Saturday Sacrament post will be April 1.
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