Politics and the Liturgical Movement


The Ratzingerian liturgist Dom Alcuin Reid has been having a little controversy with Prof. Andrea Grillo about the extent to which the actual reform of the liturgy after Vatican II reflected the mandate of Sacrosanctum Concilium and the ideals of the Liturgical Movement. In his latest intervention Grillo divides the Liturgical Movement into three phases: “an initial phase (until 1947), a phase of reform (from 1947 to 1988), and a phase of reception (1988-2???) that still continues today.” He then proceeds to make the following contentious claim about the continuity of these phases:

But it is not legitimate to insert jumps, breaks, and ruptures into this history. The Council and the reform, in this perspective, would be the second phase of the liturgical movement! Here I am fighting for a true hermeneutic of continuity, while it seems to me that Reid suggests a dangerous rupture.

Now, I don’t deny that there are some continuities between the pre-1947 Liturgical Movement and mainstream liturgical thought in the 1960s and 70s, but when I read pre ’47 liturgical theology now I am far more struck by how different it is from what followedI claim that this discontinuity is partly a reflection of changing political ideology, and that it is present even in apparently unchanging liturgical projects. I want to show this with the example of celebration versus populum. Both the pre-’47 Liturgical movement (or at least many influential figures in it) and the post-conciliar liturgical establishment (obviously) were for versus populum, but for very different reasons. The pre- ’47 promotion of versus populum had to do with an anti-individualist, anti-subjectivist, reactionary politics that fit with the authoritarian and totalitarian political movements of the times; the post-conciliar promotion of the same liturgical posture was on the contrary tied to an anti-authoritarian, egalitarian ideology that reflected the egalitarian/fraternalist movements of the 1960s.

Charles De Koninck’s masterpiece On the Primacy of the Common Good provides a key for understanding what was going on. De Koninck shows that there are two opposite errors concerning the common good. The first is the individualist error (which he somewhat misleadingly calls “personalist”). This is the error of considering every common good as merely a useful good, a means to realizing purely private goods. The second error is the totalitarian error of considering the common good to be the good of a reified totality (“the nation,” “the classless society” etc.), to which individuals are entirely subordinated. The true position, which De Koninck unfolds with unrivaled brilliance, is that the common good is more truly the good of the person than any merely private good, so that the necessary and just subordination of the individual to the common good is not the alienation of the individual to someone else’s good. Now each of the two errors about the common good tends to produce a reaction toward the opposite error, and this is the key to understanding the Liturgical Movement.

The original Liturgical Movement was (in part) a reaction against an overly subjectivist, individualistic piety that its proponents saw as being prevalent in late 19th century bourgeois society. Thus Abbot Ildefons Herwegen of Maria Laach wrote the following in his Preface to Romano Guardini’s Vom Geist der Liturgie [published in English as The Spirit of the Liturgyunfortunately without Herwegen’s preface]:

The individual raised by the Renaissance and by liberalism has exhausted itself. It recognizes that it needs a connection to an entirely objective institution in order to mature into personality. It demands community [Gemeinschaft]… The age of socialism does have communities, but only such as form a collection of atoms, of individuals. But our desire is for organic, for vital community.

[Das Individuum, durch Renaissance und Liberalismus großgezogen, hat sich wirklich ausgelebt. Es sieht ein, daß es nur im Anschluß an eine ganz objektive Institution zur Persönlichkeit reifen kann. Es verlangt nach der Gemeinschaft […] Das Zeitalter des Sozialismus kennt zwar Gemeinschaften, aber nur solche, die eine Anhäufung von Atomen‚ von Individuen bilden. Unser Verlangen aber geht nach dem Organischen, nach der lebensvollen Gemeinschaft.] (p. 9, cited by Wolfgang Braungart)

Herwegen’s yearning for “objective community” infamously lead him (at first) to greet the rise of totalitarianism in Germany: “The Liturgical Movement is to the religious sphere what Fascism is to the sphere of politics.” [“Was auf religiösem Gebiet die Liturgische Bewegung ist, ist auf dem politischen Gebiet der Faschismus.” From a 1933 speech also cited by Wolfgang Braungart]. Needless to say, National Socialism turned out to be a bitter disappointment to Abbot Herwegen.

Guardini’s book itself is not at all totalitarian. Its second chapter on liturgical Gemeinschaft (jejunely Englished as “fellowship”) is a masterpiece of the authentic doctrine of the common good. It was, however, Herwegen’s less subtle ideas that were more suitable to popularization.

In this context versus populum celebration had the purpose of letting the congregation see the objective liturgical action so that they would not be shut up in their own private devotions, but rather absorbed into the action of the Mystical Body, considered as a kind of giant individual.

After the Second World War, however, people were understandably rather disillusioned with authoritarian and totalitarian ideas. It took a while for the reaction to set in with full force, but in by the 1960s egalitarianism was everywhere on the rise. It was in this climate that the liturgical reforms were carried out, and while liturgists continued to press for versus populum (without any mandate from Vatican II of course) the reasons had changed. Now versus populum took on an egalitarian, horizontalist, anti-hierarchical, almost anti-supernatural sense. The Wir sind Kirche ideal of a happy brotherhood gathered around the table.

Since 1988 (to take Grillo’s somewhat arbitrary dating system) radical egalitarianism has perhaps subsided a bit, and one now finds various versions of the reformed liturgy. The run-of-the-mill banal parish liturgy is perhaps correlated to political neo-liberalism (or neo-conservatism), whereas the more flamboyant type popular in certain cathedral churches correlates more or less with the multi-culturalist “new left.”

Guardini’s liturgical vision (which is simply the true Catholic one) is also present in some places both in certain exceptional celebrations of the usus ordinaria and (perhaps even more often, as Reid argues) in the usus extraordinaria. Ironically, given that Guardini himself was a pioneer of celebration versus populum, ad orientem worship has become a mark of celebrations in his spirit.

I want to emphasize that I am not claiming that liturgical theology or praxis is reducible to an expression of political ideology, but only that a false political ideology, and its embodiment, can have a distorting effect on the liturgy. And this is one reason why I think it so important to promote an authentic Catholic integralism; a political philosophy that would not tend to distort the culmen et fons of the Christian life.


12 thoughts on “Politics and the Liturgical Movement

  1. Reading the history of the Liturgical Movement of these periods, I have always wondered why Germany, with its problematic politics was one of the countries in the lead in the “Liturgical Renewal”. This gives a pretty good answer. This reminds me of C.L.R. James’s Marxist analysis of the rise of team sports in relationship to the rise of factories and the rebirth of democratic republics in the modern world. That, and Bouyer’s criticism of “baroque” liturgy as being palace ritual that had no place in the modern church. Liturgy, like sport, like politics, needs to serve as a means of social and cultural cohesion, and the previous mumbled private prayers of the priest or pomp of bombastic orchestral Masses could not be used as an instrument of that cohesion. Of course, I speak here of purely naturalistic causes, since I do not grant the existence of the supernatural.


  2. So the connection to Walter Benjamin’s observations about fascist aesthetics is being finally adopted in discussions of the liturgy. Of course the spectacle of a single individual at the centre of a performance is in stark contrast to an audience in a cinema all facing the same direction, part of an egalitarian experience, yet all experiencing that individually. Self affirmed and realised among a family of many. Spectacles that centre on an individual looking back at the mass is considerably at odds to a spiritual realisation that works collectively to a shared experience of all.


    • You make a good point about spectacle. I think it is true that celebration versus populum was not really so suited to bring about what its proponents in the 30s hoped from it. I thing ad orientem in a Dominkus Böhm church is actually much better able to achieve the kind of colletive experience for which they were aiming.


  3. One could also argue the liturgy of the Greek and Latin Fathers reflected a continuing attachment to the Jewish synagogue, the central role of a governing patriarch in the various metropolitan sees of a rapidly declining Roman empire.. So what?

    Liturgy is strictly man-made. Jesus constructed no liturgy including his Last Supper. Assuming there ever was a Last Supper. Historical research, archaeology and science will have exposed these anthropological and cultural constructions as little more than the pious yearnings of simple peasants to grasp the unknown and their place in the overall scheme of things.


    • This is a common misunderstanding. Liturgy indeed has a human component, yet it has a heavenly origin as revealed especially through Temple worship. Like most Christian things, humans do their best to sacramentalize the ineffable, using natural signs, conventional signs and signs from direct revelation. But it’s always to *reveal* what is outside of us and formative on us.
      One of the great problems of the 20th century was the systematic elimination of the influence of the Temple, with its deep proto-sacramental sense of mythical time, space, and action. Of course, many Reformed Christians eradicated any sense of the Temple in worship (looked too Papist perhaps) and the Third Reich (growing out of some deeply Protestant tendencies) engaged scholars to “rid” Christianity of it’s Jewishness. Bultmann was among them. It is no surprise to me that the anti-Temple, anti-Jewish thinking rushed in to the late Liturgical Movement and therefore Catholic were suddenly questioning priesthood, Real Presence, liturgy as sacrifice, etc.. Political ideology takes on many forms in its relationship to the Church! If we recover the Temple legacy in Christian worship (transformed and fulfilled of course by Christ), then we can understand priesthood, priestly mediation (for both the priest as in persona Christi capitis and the people in persona Christi), sacramental rites, gestures, music, architecture. Without the Temple, worship becomes a Christian meeting or a classroom with some overlay of earthly beauty.


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  5. There are some important observations here, such as the origin of the Liturgical Movement of the 19th century in anti-bourgeois piety. It seems telling ordinary devout people how and what to pray to God was a pastime of the ivory- tower scholars, as it was recently by those responsible for the Novus Ordo.

    The word “community” keeps coming up in the above article, as it does in some documents of the Council. This is quite a change from the traditional concept of the “communion of saints” which includes not just the faithful present at Mass here on earth but also of those in heaven; the idea of “community” creates a separation of these two. Fr. Robinson of the Toronto Oratory thinks this idea of community that infiltrated the Church during Vatican II comes from Hegel and his German idealistic philosophy, and the Germans were very influential at the Council. I think the infiltration was helped by Marxist ideas that began flourishing after the second world war, although from a different, more political, perspective. Hippy communes keep coming to mind.

    All this is to say that the Novus Ordo is a product of its time and is very much outdated in 2014, which has totally different politics and world views. It was fabricated to touch the World War II generation, but offering little other than an alienation to subsequent generations. The Liturgical Movement may have caused more damage than good.

    Indeed, reading Guardini’s book recently, I do not know why so many older people are impressed by it (I am thinking here of Ratzinger), as it does not speak to me, and I actually found it boring and, except for a few points, irrelevant in my desire to worship God. I did not know that he favoured ad populum orientation, and perhaps this explains my lack of appreciation: I have an aversion to any thinking that leads one away from God such as to be towards the people in a “community”.

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