Are the Church’s Changes to the Liturgy Harmful to Souls? | Michael Lofton

We have all experienced it – dreadful liturgies filled with scandal-ridden abuses. This regretfully common phenomenon has tried the souls of many faithful – to the point that some, having grown weary in well doing, have thrown in the towel and condemned the liturgical reforms of the post-conciliar church, along with the abuses. This can be seen in a certain society of priests that warns Catholics to avoid attendance at any Novus Ordo, saying:

The doctrinal deficiencies of the New Mass has rendered it a danger to the faith of Catholics—as witnessed by such negative effects as a widespread diminishment of belief in the Blessed Sacrament. Consequently, since the Church would never ask her members to endanger their souls, the Sunday Precept does not oblige the faithful to attend the New Mass.

Is this true? Has the church promulgated a liturgy that is, objectively considered, a danger to the faithful, or is this another case of throwing the baby out with the bathwater? The claim that the church can harm the souls of the faithful with liturgical reforms is oddly reminiscent of the claim Protestants made against the Catholic Church when it adopted the practice of administering Holy Communion under one kind. The Protestant claim was that this practice was at odds with the divine and apostolic custom of administering communion under both kinds, and since the church formally adopted this practice, this was proof it was not indefectible in its administration of the sacraments. In response, the Council of Trent stated:

It [the Council] declares furthermore that this power has always been in the Church, that in the administration of the sacraments, preserving their substance, she may determine or change whatever she may judge to be more expedient for the benefit of those who receive them or for the veneration of the sacraments, according to the variety of circumstances, times, and places.

In other words, as long as the substance of the sacrament has been preserved, the church may reform anything concerning its administration, which certainly includes the liturgy, if it deems it beneficial for souls. After all, if the church can alter the way the Eucharist was administered by the apostles, it can certainly alter elements of the liturgy that are post-apostolic in origin. This interpretation is confirmed by the renowned manualist Joachim Salaverri who thoroughly argues that the church has solemnly taught its liturgical decrees are infallible. As proof, he offers the above quote from the council of Trent, along with a litany of other Magisterial references. Among the citations is a curious canon from the Council of Trent, which says:

If anyone shall say that the received and approved rites of the Catholic Church accustomed to be used in the solemn administration of the sacraments may be disdained or omitted by the minister without sin and at pleasure, or may be changed by any pastor of the churches to other new ones: let him be anathema. (Emphasis mine)

Does this mean a person who claims the current liturgy is harmful to souls falls under this anathema? The application of the church’s anathemas is best left to the ecclesiastical authorities, but this claim does seem to fall under the category of disdaining one of the church’s rites. Yet, the church doesn’t stop there. It also states in the First Vatican Council:

Wherefore we teach and declare that, by divine ordinance, the Roman Church possesses a pre-eminence of ordinary power…and this not only in matters concerning faith and morals, but also in those which regard the discipline and government of the Church throughout the world.

In other words, the church’s power extends to matters of discipline and church government, which certainly includes the liturgy. However, if any doubt remains that this power extends to liturgical disciplines specifically, Pope Pius XII explicitly puts such doubts to rest, saying:

The Sovereign Pontiff alone enjoys the right to recognize and establish any practice touching the worship of God, to introduce and approve new rites, as also to modify those he judges to require modification.

It should be noted that changes to a rite are dependent on what the pope (or an ecumenical council) judges to be in need of modification, not what an individual layman thinks. As I type this, I can hear the objection now, “but the liturgy is more than discipline, it is tradition!” In response, I offer the words of Pope St. Paul VI:

Does it belong to this group, and not the Pope, not the Episcopal College, not an Ecumenical Council, to establish which of the countless traditions must be regarded as the norm of faith!

Perhaps even the words of a sainted pope won’t suffice for some Catholics, but – after all – isn’t that the source of the problem, namely, a refusal among some Catholics to recognize the authority of the church’s leaders? At this point, some Catholics may grant the ability of the church to alter its liturgy; however, they may point out that this does not mean the current liturgy is good for souls, since they assume the church may licitly alter something that becomes harmful to souls. But, is that the case? Salvaerri offers a very simple argument to refute this claim:

For, the end of the infallible Magisterium demands those things that are necessary in order to obtain the end for the life of the faithful in the Church without error. But in order to obtain the end for the life of the faithful in the Church without error, infallibility concerning disciplinary decrees purposefully connected with the truths of revelation is necessary. Therefore, the end of the infallible Magisterium demands infallibility concerning the disciplinary decrees in general, which are purposefully connected with revealed truths.

In short, the church is infallible in its decrees that touch on matters of the faith and the sanctification of souls. Since the Eucharistic liturgy is, in the words of the Second Vatican Council, the “source and summit of the Christian life,” and is the means it uses to sanctify souls, the church’s reforms to the liturgy cannot be considered harmful to souls.

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