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Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger

Sacrifice Called Into Question by Modernist Liturgists

Excerpts from "Theology of the Liturgy":  A lecture by His Eminence Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, delivered during the Journees liturgiques de Fontgombault, 22‑24 July 2001. Originally appearing in Oriens Journal at, but no longer on the Internet.

The Prefect laments the way in which the sacrificial nature of the Mass has been downplayed by modern Catholic liturgists.

1. Sacrifice called into question

    If we go back to Vatican II, we find the following description of this relationship: "In the liturgy, through which, especially in the divine Sacrifice of the Eucharist, ‘the work of our Redemption is carried on’, the faithful are most fully led to express and show to others the mystery of Christ and the real nature of the true Church.”

    All that has become foreign to modern thinking and, only thirty years after the Council, has been brought into question even among catholic liturgists. Who still talks today about "the divine Sacrifice of the Eucharist"? Discussions about the idea of sacrifice have again become astonishingly lively, as much on the catholic side as on the protestant. People realize that an idea which has always preoccupied, under various forms, not only the history of the Church, but the entire history of humanity, must be the expression of something basic which concerns us as well. But, at the same time, the old Enlightenment positions still live on everywhere: accusations of magic and paganism, contrasts drawn between worship and the service of the Word, between rite and ethos, the idea of a Christianity which disengages itself from worship and enters into the profane world, catholic theologians who have no desire to see themselves accused of anti-modernity. Even if people want, in one way or another, to rediscover the concept of sacrifice, embarrassment and criticism are the end result. Thus, Stefan Orth, in the vast panorama of a bibliography of recent works devoted to the theme of sacrifice, believed he could make the following statement as a summary of his research: "In fact, many Catholics themselves today ratify the verdict and the conclusions of Martin Luther, who says that to speak of sacrifice is "the greatest and most appalling horror" and a "damnable impiety": this is why we want to refrain from all that smacks of sacrifice, including the whole canon, and retain only that which is pure and holy." Then Orth adds: "This maxim was also followed in the Catholic Church after Vatican II, or at least tended to be, and led people to think of divine worship chiefly in terms of the feast of the Passover related in the accounts of the Last Supper." Appealing to a work on sacrifice, edited by two modern catholic liturgists, he then said, in slightly more moderate terms, that it clearly seemed that the notion of the sacrifice of the Mass – even more than that of the sacrifice of the Cross – was at best an idea very open to misunderstanding.

    I certainly don’t need to say that I am not one of the "numerous Catholics" who consider it the most appalling horror and a damnable impiety to speak of the sacrifice of the Mass. It goes without saying that the writer did not mention my book on the spirit of the liturgy, which analyses the idea of sacrifice in detail. His diagnosis remains dismaying. Is it true? I do not know these numerous Catholics who consider it a damnable impiety to understand the Eucharist as a sacrifice. The second, more circumspect, diagnosis according to which the sacrifice of the Mass is open to misunderstandings is, on the other hand, easily shown to be correct. Even if one leaves to one side the first affirmation of the writer as a rhetorical exaggeration, there remains a troubling problem, which we should face up to. A sizable party of catholic liturgists seems to have practically arrived at the conclusion that Luther, rather than Trent, was substantially right in the sixteenth century debate; one can detect much the same position in the post conciliar discussions on the Priesthood.  The great historian of the Council of Trent, Hubert Jedin, pointed this out in 1975, in the preface to the last volume of his history of the Council of Trent: "The attentive reader ... in reading this will not be less dismayed than the author, when he realizes that many of the things - in fact almost everything – that disturbed the men of the past is being put forward anew today." It is only against this background of the effective denial of the authority of Trent, that the bitterness of the struggle against allowing the celebration of Mass according to the 1962 Missal, after the liturgical reform, can be understood. The possibility of so celebrating constitutes the strongest, and thus (for them) the most intolerable contradiction of the opinion of those who believe that the faith in the Eucharist formulated by Trent has lost its value.

    It would be easy to gather proofs to support this statement of the position. I leave aside the extreme liturgical theology of Harald Schützeichel, who departs completely from catholic dogma and expounds, for example, the bold assertion that it was only in the Middle Ages that the idea of the Real Presence was invented. A modern liturgist such as David N. Power tells us that through the course of history, not only the manner in which a truth is expressed, but also the content of what is expressed, can lose its meaning. He links his theory in concrete terms with the statements of Trent. Theodore Schnitker tells us that an up-to-date liturgy includes both a different expression of the faith and theological changes. Moreover, according to him, there are theologians, at least in the circles of the Roman Church and of her liturgy, who have not yet grasped the full import of the transformations put forward by the liturgical reform in the area of the doctrine of the faith. R. Meßner’s certainly respectable work on the reform of the Mass carried out by Martin Luther, and on the Eucharist in the early Church, which contains many interesting ideas, arrives nonetheless at the conclusion that the early Church was better understood by Luther than by the Council of Trent.

    The serious nature of these theories comes from the fact that frequently they pass immediately into practice. The thesis according to which it is the community itself which is the subject of the liturgy, serves as an authorization to manipulate the liturgy according to each individual’s understanding of it. So-called new discoveries and the forms which follow from them, are diffused with an astonishing rapidity and with a degree of conformity which has long ceased to exist where the norms of ecclesiastical authority are concerned. Theories, in the area of the liturgy, are transformed very rapidly today into practice, and practice, in turn, creates or destroys ways of behaving and thinking.

    Meanwhile the problem has been aggravated by the fact that the most recent movement of ‘enlightened’ thought goes much further than Luther: where Luther still took literally the accounts of the Institution and made them, as the norma normans, the basis of his efforts at reform, the hypotheses of historical criticism have, for a long time, been causing a broad erosion of the texts. The accounts of the Last Supper appear as the product of the liturgical construction of the community; an historical Jesus is sought behind the texts who could not have been thinking of the gift of His Body and Blood, nor understood His Cross as a sacrifice of expiation; we should, rather, imagine a farewell meal which included an eschatological perspective. Not only is the authority of the ecclesiastical magisterium downgraded in the eyes of many, but Scripture too; in its place are put changing pseudo-historical hypotheses, which are immediately replaced by any arbitrary idea, and place the liturgy at the mercy of fashion. Where, on the basis of such ideas, the liturgy is manipulated ever more freely, the faithful feel that, in reality, nothing is celebrated, and it is understandable that they desert the liturgy, and with it the Church.



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