On liturgical beauty (a response to Dr. Hillis)

UPDATE 7 JUNE 2015: Dr. Hillis has kindly retweeted my response. Would that all internet exchanges between disagreeing parties be so pleasant!


When Dr. Greg Hillis of Bellarmine University posted the tweet seen below, he (predictably) received much backlash from tradition-minded Catholics. The tweet came in response to Michael O’Loughlin’s article at Crux on the Sacra Liturgia 2015 conference.

After the onslaught of criticism, Dr. Hillis clarified his position at his blog My Unquiet Heart, where, among other things, he fended off baseless insinuations of heterodoxy and liturgical progressivism by informing readers that he too holds the Traditional Latin Mass in high esteem. He recalls with particular delight an Extraordinary Form Mass at the Birmingham Oratory which he considers one of the “few moments in [his] life when the veil between heaven and earth became thin”.

Nevertheless, his comments have provoked a robust debate concerning the nature of liturgical beauty. Since this is a topic close to my heart, I wish to give some of my general observations. I had not the pleasure of attending Sacra Liturgia 2015, but I know many who have, and I share much of their sentiments concerning matters liturgical. In order that I might present Dr. Hillis’ case accurately and charitably, I will cite his blog at length as I attempt to appropriately address his concerns. I encourage the reader to read his full post.

Hillis ends his blog post with a disclaimer which I consider important to recall throughout the present examination.

I want to say that I don’t want to pretend that I have any of this truly worked out. I am willing to be wrong, and so willing to receive criticism for what I wrote above (or anywhere). If you think I’ve read the situation incorrectly, or that my argument is bunk, tell me. I ask only that you do so in charity.

“Far from suppressing the Latin mass,” says Hillis, “I long to see Catholics listen more deeply to the concerns of those devoted to the Extraordinary Form, particularly their concerns about the importance of liturgy – beautiful liturgy – for the life of the church.”

Then he qualifies and explains the concern expressed in his tweet (my emphases added).

However, my sympathy for liturgical traditionalism is not without reservation, and it is this reservation that was so off-putting to some traditionalists yesterday. When traditionalists call upon the church to devote itself more fully to beauty and good liturgy, I proclaim a loud and profound ‘Amen.’ But when traditionalists want to limit the definition of beauty and good liturgy only to the Extraordinary Form, when traditionalists suggest that the only way truly to give credence to the sacredness of the Eucharist and to Divine Beauty is through the Latin mass, and when traditionalists – subtly or not – call for the suppression of the Novus Ordo, I bristle.

I myself have witnessed this kind of unfortunate exclusivism from my fellow traditional Catholics. Earlier this year, when Bishop Athanasius Schneider (one of the most admired champions of liturgical tradition) delivered a conference on sacred liturgy in Washington DC on the Feast of St. Valentine, I was fortunate enough to attend (click here for my thoughts on that event). In the course of the conference, His Excellency listed ten ways to foster authentic liturgical renewal, and a question and answer session followed. (Steve Skojec at OnePeterFive has graciously posted a full audio recording of the conference, as well as an enumeration of Schneider’s ten points, here.) The first questioner simply asked the bishop, “It would seem that all your ten your points on the renewal of the liturgy could be accomplished simply by returning to the old form of the Mass; what are your thoughts?”

I vividly recall what happened next. Immediately, some– not all– of the TLM partisans in the audience erupted in raucous applause. While I absolutely prefer the older form to the newer, I felt it indecorous to join in the merriment. When the cheering had ended, Bishop Schneider, certainly playing to his audience, cheekily replied, “vox populi, vox Dei,” to the amusement of all (myself included). But the good bishop went on to respond on a more serious note that “we also have to consider the reality in which we live, in which the majority of parish priests do not know the ancient liturgy. So many of [the clergy and faithful] are psychologically not ready to change. We have to consider the psychological aspect…” Bishop Schneider’s response definitely tempered the enthusiasm of those who, mere moments before, not-so-subtly cheered for the death of the Novus Ordo; it was a sobering reminder to all present that, for better or for worse, the Missal of Paul VI forever altered the spiritual landscape of the Roman Church, and that simply wishing away the Novus Ordo has little salutary effect for the Church at large.

The history of the Novus Ordo is certainly a troubled one marked by questionable decisions at all stages of its development. The tension between continuity and rupture cannot be easily resolved, and the new liturgy’s openness to undue innovation and abuse is, quite simply, self-evident. But none of this can extinguish the fact that in certain (but admittedly too few) occasions, the Novus Ordo can indeed bring to bear some of the best and most powerful elements of the Roman tradition. One of the few moments in my own life where “the veil between heaven and earth wore thin” was this Novus Ordo Mass on the feast of the Epiphany. The goal of Pope Benedict’s great gift Summorum Pontificum is not that the TLM overtake the Novus Ordo, but that, to use Fr. Z‘s words, a “gravitational pull” might allow each form to accept the best characteristics of the other. At stake is “an interior reconciliation in the heart of the Church,” not a hostile takeover.

Dr. Hillis’ post continues with reflections on liturgical aesthetics (my emphases added).

The beauty of the Latin Mass is very real, but it is a beauty that is entirely European in its history and form. I get concerned when traditionalists insist on the universality and aesthetic superiority of the Extraordinary Form, for this disregards the reality that the Roman Catholic church is no longer predominantly European. It also, I think, fails to take seriously the implications of the Incarnation. Early medieval Irish monks famously painted Jesus Christ with red hair and a red beard, recognizing that the particularity of the Incarnation in first-century Palestine does not prevent us from worshiping and experiencing God in a way that embraces, rather than rejects, our cultural and racial background. An incarnational God is, I think, a God who is willing to be ‘incarnated’ or ‘particularlized,’ and so experienced in a beauty that is culturally specific. I may not appreciate the “saccharine and theologically insipid” hymns [I’m quoting here from an article by Michael B. Dougherty] so often sung at my parish, but I know that there are those in my parish who are deeply moved by them. And I can’t dismiss that, just as I can’t dismiss those moved by hymns sung to blaring synthesizers at a mass I attended in India.

Although he never uses the term, Hillis addresses the issue of liturgical inculturation, whose proper principles (for the Roman Rite) are laid down in the 1994 instruction Varietates legitimae (which states, among other things, that approval of inculturated liturgical forms pertains exclusively to the Holy See). The particular example Hillis cites, namely, the red-bearded Christ often depicted by the Irish monks of old, certainly falls into the realm of authentic inculturation. The Church has never objected to these varied artistic expressions; one only need recall the clean-shaven Jesus of early Roman Christian art, which stands in sharp contrast to the dark-bearded portraits of later ages. Likewise beautiful and edifying are the multiform depictions of the Blessed Mother at the Basilica Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington DC, where various Marian titles and apparitions from all over the world are portrayed with motifs, traits, and languages proper to the various cultures. The appeal to such an “incarnational” mindset certainly has merit. Dr. Hillis continues:

If I’m being honest, I worry that there is a subtle form of imperialism, and even racism, behind the apparent unwillingness to recognize that Divine Beauty is made manifest in culturally particularized liturgical celebrations. I write this with a great deal of trepidation, for this is a very serious claim. But I’m not sure what else to call it when some – by no means all – traditionalists argue that specifically European aesthetic norms must be universal in order to preserve the sacredness and beauty of the mass.

I am not denying that there are some among my traditional brethren who demonstrate a grossly heightened attachment to certain aesthetic aspects of traditional liturgy (fiddleback chasubles, baroque architecture, Mozart–whose music I prefer not to hear at Mass), and I readily concede that an exclusive preference for such things is as anachronistic as the proliferation of various “themed Masses” in modern times (e.g., Teen Mass, Polka Mass, Children’s Mass, Contemporary Mass, etc.) I fear, however, that Dr. Hillis’ comments might err too readily on the side of the particular at the expense of the universal, thus opening the door to an idea of inculturation that yields easily, and perhaps uncritically, to modern cultural forms. This is evident when he speaks of synthesizers in India, “saccharine” hymns, and a reluctance to critique those who are moved by such music.

Missing in Hillis’ analysis is a realization that, in the case of music, certain genres– namely, Gregorian chant and sacred polyphony– are not only objectively beautiful, but also especially suited to the Roman rite precisely because they were developed in, for, and through the Church by people who were completely immersed in a sensus fidei utterly foreign to the ethos of our secularized age. Wherefore the Second Vatican Council, in Sacrosanctum Concilium 116, explicitly stated the Church’s preference for these two musical forms, especially for chant, which must always hold principem locum because it is liturgiae romanae proprium. The synthesizer and the “saccharine” hymn, by contrast, are both deeply tied to their roots in secular pop music, and they, more often than not, carry much of their areligious, aliturgical, entertainment-driven character into the Mass.

Something similar could be said of other aspects of liturgical form. In the realm of architecture, it would be certainly wrong to suggest that only gothic or only baroque or only romanesque architecture can suitably express the mystery of the sacred. And yet, one would be hard pressed to claim that, in the best-executed examples of these forms, such churches fail to raise the hearts of men to the contemplation of the divine. Rare is the man who will be unmoved at a small baroque chapel like Bramante’s Tempietto, let alone at larger churches like the Birmingham Oratory or St. Peter’s Basilica. Likewise, both the simplest gothic church in the English countryside and a grand cathedral like Chartres, while different in complexity and scale, somehow find a way to aptly articulate in stone and brick the greater mystery which transpires beneath their vaulted ceilings. The ethos of the peoples who gave birth to the gothic, the romanesque, and the baroque was an utterly religious, totally Christian spirit; in their endeavors to construct forms worthy of the divine majesty, those peoples created beautifully distinct architectures whose identities are intimately tied with that of the Church. Nor is devotional architecture limited to these forms. I am no apologist for the SSPX, but having seen pictures and video footage of the old, simple, wooden African missions under the care of Archbishop Lefebvre’s Holy Ghost Fathers, it is clear that an authentic Christian ethos and simplicitas nobilis resided there too. By contrast, postmodern architecture, forged in the interwar tumult precisely as a reaction against the old world order, largely remains the vessel of an antireligious spirit which has been exceedingly difficult to exorcise.

Just as Joseph Ratzinger considers the encounter of biblical faith with Hellenic philosophy (and thus, Greek culture) as providential, so too might we consider certain aspects of the old Roman liturgy as blessed progeny of a providential marriage between Christianity and European culture. We cannot ignore that the most significant, profound, beautiful, and explosive products of Christian civilization sprang from the soil of Europe; nor can we hold that the European elements constitute a merely accidental mask, easily detachable from its Christian core, and easily replaced with non-European facades. When we call our tradition the Roman Rite, we acknowledge that some aspects of European culture are irrevocably fused to our Christian identity. Form and content correspond to one another; a degradation of one means the degradation of both.

Much of the contemporary conversation concerning liturgical inculturation largely ignores the fact that the Roman Rite, like every other Catholic rite, is itself a culture sui generis. It has proper linguistic, literary, artistic, theological, gestural, and intellectual qualities which cohere into a substantial unity. This rite, especially in its traditional manifestation, is an eminently beautiful expression of its own inner logic, distinct and distinguishable from the other Catholic rites, and rooted in a vibrant historical tradition.

As I noted in a prior reflection on inculturation, true inculturation involves two movements. Varietates legitimae remarked that inculturation is “the incarnation of the Gospel in autonomous cultures and at the same time the introduction of these cultures into the life of the Church“. It signifies “an intimate transformation of the authentic cultural values by their integration into Christianity and the implementation of Christianity into different human cultures.” In modern practice, the first movement– that of interpreting the Gospel in local forms– often overshadows the second movement, or the assimilation of local cultures into the larger culture of the Roman rite. The importance of this second movement cannot be understated, and is perhaps even more important than the first. I think that many traditionalists, even those who cling to an anachronistic love of the baroque, nevertheless grasp this essential point. While the vicissitudes of postmodern culture require constant examination and discernment, much of the anterior Roman tradition, in all its beauty, has been tried and tested– and this is precisely what attracts those who love the TLM. 

Beauty certainly exists in all forms, but there are types of beauty eminently suited and proper to the liturgy. One who recognizes the breadth, profundity, and nuance of certain old liturgical forms does not necessarily have a “limited conception of beauty”; perhaps he simply recognizes those things which are more apt for divine worship. He is neither “racist” nor “imperial” when he expresses a preference for a gothic chapel, a romanesque altar, a Filippo Neri-style chasuble, or a Palestrina motet, for the catholicity of such things has scarcely been in doubt. Of course, in good faith and with respect for the law of organic development, he must be open to the assimilation of newer cultural forms into the liturgy– an assimilation which must nevertheless remain rooted in a discerning and measured approach which upholds the Roman Rite’s integrity, not in an impulsive drive toward novelty.

Since its beginnings in the 19th century, the purpose of the Liturgical Movement was firstly a reform of Christian hearts and minds, whose goal was the rediscovery of the beauty in the received liturgical tradition. Ritual reform and local adaptation were always of penultimate importance. Many traditional Catholics, such as those who participate in the Sacra Liturgia conferences, intuitively know this. They are engaged in the daunting task of liturgically catechizing the larger Church. They rightly seek to demonstrate, for example, to those who love “saccharine” hymns and synthesizers, the reasons why the Roman Church exalts chant and polyphony as superior to all other genres. Such catechesis, in its attempt to illuminate the history, beauty, and raison d’etre of the liturgical tradition to a largely forgetful Church, is less “imperialist” than it is “evangelical”. And if hearts are reformed and conformed to the spirit of the liturgy, the Christian faithful might be better equipped to discern those things which truly resonate with the essence of authentic Christian worship while rejecting anachronistic and idiosyncratic novelties.

Traditionals like myself object not to a red-haired Christ or to a Black Madonna; however, we do know that– respecting the law of organic development– an authentically inculturated liturgical form for India is found not so much in the blaring synthesizers and booming rhythms of secular music, but more in the Syro-Malabar and Syro-Malankara rites. We know that, for liturgical purposes, not all beauties are created equal, and that it pertains to catechized hearts to seek and retain those beautiful things which radiate a truly liturgical character. And while the so-called “European” aspects of our Roman rite certainly do not exhaust the treasury of liturgical expression, they do enjoy a preeminence on account of their time-tested, venerable history.

I agree with Dr. Hillis when he says that

if the church universal is going to take seriously the concerns of traditionalists, traditionalists themselves need to abandon the kind of liturgical exclusivism that refuses to see the truth, goodness, and beauty in liturgical expressions other than the Extraordinary Form.

However, I also hold that, for the Roman Church, the Traditional Latin Mass remains the icon par excellence of true liturgical beauty; the Novus Ordo, still in its infancy as compared to the other Catholic liturgies, has much to learn from its parent rite.

3 Comments on On liturgical beauty (a response to Dr. Hillis)

  1. What? The Novus Ordo, charitably put, has no place in the future of the Orthodox Catholic Church. A ceremony, put together in great haste and assembled on terms far in excess of what the Council Fathers would have approved, celebrates Man. Further, as much outstanding literature has amply described, the Novus Ordo reflects a new Catholic Culture, a new Catholic Church. The two “forms” of the Mass cannot co-exist.

    Yes, the Novus Ordo is licit, to the extent that the Church, through its indefectibility, promises that this Mass serves its basic purposes. But that Mass is clearly intended to do one thing: make Catholicism more palatable to Protestants. (Why, for example, at the conclusion of the Pater Noster, are the People asked to respond with, “For the Kingdom, the power and the glory are yours now and forever” — Clearly Protestant in history, and no where found in the Bible, or earlier Catholic writing.)

    Dr. Hollis is welcome to his Novus Ordo. The stubbornness of the current Church in clinging to this failed form is, essentially, more political than theological in nature. All revolutions embrace new doctrine, even if they cling to the symbols of the old, discarded ancient regime. Most tellingly, the post-Benedict XVI Vatican Administration simply detests the Mass of the Ages. Just look at the injustices visited upon the Franciscan Friars/Sisters of the Immaculate!

    Mr. O’Loughlin’s apparent agreement — although unclear — with the right of the Novus Ordo to co-exist is confusing. The Church was wrong to junk the Tridentine Mass. This decision has wrecked havoc on the institutional Church to the extent that debate on this point will soon be solely academic. Already in France, demographic studies point to the near-term primacy of Traditional priests serving the entire Nation. Death will likely be the final answer, as young men, and women, see a return to Tradition as wholesome and right; and the great generation of present church-goers will soon leave this realm.

    The Catholic Church exists for one purpose: to be the pathway for Mankind to achieve salvation. The Traditional Latin Mass, alone, is the center of Man’s effective worship of God.

    • Thank you for your comment. I will make three clarifications.

      First, the phrase “for thine is the Kingdom,” etc., is not an exclusive Protestant phenomenon. In fact, it has ancient roots. While two of the earliest surviving texts we have of Matthew’s Gospel (the Codex Vaticanus and Codex Sinaiticus, both of the 4th Century AD) do not contain this doxology, another 4th Century text (the Codex Washingtoniensis) does in fact contain the doxology and reflects the liturgical tradition of the Eastern Churches, many of whom still use this doxology. While many Protestants later adopted the phrase, this does not somehow defile its completely orthodox doctrinal content. I agree that the Novus Ordo as a whole is rife with novel introductions which seriously call into question its organic unity with the Traditional Mass; however, this doxology– this singular aspect of the Novus Ordo– ranks among the least controversial changes.

      Second: your assertion that the “Traditional Latin Mass, alone, is the center of Man’s effective worship of God” does total injustice to the various legitimate Eastern Catholic rites, many of which are no less ancient and venerable than the Roman. The Chaldean, Syro-Malabar, and Syro-Malankara rites all trace an origin to Thomas the Apostle. The Coptic liturgy originates with St. Mark. Especially when these rites are celebrated in Catholic Churches in union with the Roman Pontiff, the effective worship of God occurs there too.

      Third and lastly: my kind interlocutor was Dr. Hillis, not Dr. Hollis. While this could have been a simple typographical error, a decent respect for the rules of charity nevertheless obliges one to spell names correctly.

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