Cardinal Sarah's speech: a stealth success?

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Jul 13, 2016

You might say—many commentators have said—that with the quick Vatican smackdown of Cardinal Sarah's proposal for ad orientem worship, Rome has spoken and the case is closed. I disagree. 

On the contrary, Cardinal Sarah has reopened a much-needed discussion about how to increase reverence in the liturgy. His address to a conference in London caused what that city's Catholic Herald is describing in this week's cover headline as A liturgical earthquake. Ten days ago no one was talking about celebrating Mass ad orientem. Now that option is being widely discussed, even in secular media outlets

Cardinal Sarah was not issuing a directive; he was making a suggestion: asking priests to consider the ad orientem posture. Now that option is under consideration. Mission accomplished.

In the process, the cardinal clearly hit a nerve. The overwrought reaction to his speech showed how very nervous some Catholic leaders are about any possible change to the liturgical status quo. (And by the way, is anyone completely happy with the current state of the Catholic liturgy?) Even the Vatican's response appeared wildly disproportionate. Cardinal Kasper suggested a dramatic change in Church teaching and sacramental practice, and the Pope offered him a forum at a meeting of cardinals. Cardinal Marx suggested that the German bishops were ready to write their own rules, and drew only a quiet demurrer from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. But Cardinal Sarah makes a suggestion—for a practice that is already allowed under existing liturgical guidelines, and that was championed by Pope Benedict XVI—and immediately the Vatican press office blew the whistle and called a foul.

Why did it seem so important to squash this particular suggestion? The Vatican statement suggested that the cardinal might have caused confusion, which could endanger the cause of unity among the faithful. But Pope Francis has encouraged the faithful to shake things up, to "make a mess." And if the truth be told, the cause of unity is damaged every Sunday in parishes where liturgical guidelines are blithely ignored. As Leroy Huizenga observed in Catholic World Report, "It’s a bit rich to accuse those who would celebrate our Holy Mass ad orientem of exercising mere personal preference and risking unity, when so much liturgical abuse rooted in priests’ preferences has gone unchecked and harmed unity." 

The faulty logic of Cardinal Sarah's critics should be a giveaway, to neutral observers: a sign that the cardinal is bringing up a topic that others are very anxious to bury. Another Catholic newspaper in London, The Tablet (which has a distinctly leftward editorial tilt), congratulated Pope Francis for using his authority in a "very public slapdown" of Cardinal Sarah. The Tablet denounced the cardinal's sympathy for the "reform of the reform," arguing that this was code language for "more latin, more chant and less participation from the congregation." (How, I wonder, does the priest encourage "active participation from the congregation" simply by facing them? In fact I have argued that the now-standard versus populum posture discourages lay involvement. But let's leave that argument for another day. This debate is only just beginning.) The paper suggested that Pope Francis was obliged to intervene because "given all that is on his plate, the last thing he needs now is a fight over the liturgy." Is The Tablet implying, then, that there are matters more important than the liturgy: the source and summit of Catholic spiritual life? If so, their attitude illustrates the need for the sort of reform that Cardinal Sarah suggests.

Of all the panicky reactions to the cardinal's talk, however, the most absurd is the argument that the ad orientem posture must not be permitted, because it would be unpopular. If the People of God really would reject Cardinal Sarah's suggestion, after giving it due consideration, why the rush to suppress that discussion? 

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: fenton1015153 - Jul. 14, 2016 11:33 AM ET USA

    It is too bad that the GIRM failed to express the preference for ad orientem. It seems that the struggle to correct our lack of reverence at Mass have both champions and antagonists. Behind the scenes there must be some very highly placed individuals in the Catholic Hierarchy that are locked in a battle that ad orientem is only one part. Pray for the Holy Spirit to intervene. That is the only answer.

  • Posted by: DanS - Jul. 13, 2016 9:52 PM ET USA

    Thanks be to God for Cardinal Sarah! May I receive the host kneeling, for once?

  • Posted by: koinonia - Jul. 13, 2016 7:03 PM ET USA

    Thanks for your insights. Legitimate points and rhetorical questions the Catholic mind must be free to raise because they correspond to reality. Even when reality is not as we would hope. Thanks for having the courage Phil to speak to these vital concerns. May our lady rewards you for your testimony this 13th of July.