The Genesis of the Novus Ordo and “Theological and Spiritual Flaws” of The Latin Mass

Janet E. Smith

Janet E. Smith, Ph.D., is a retired professor of moral theology.

The second essay in this series demonstrated that Cavadini, Healy, and Weinandy (CHW) misrepresented several key documents in respect to the liturgy as well as the views of Cardinal Ratzinger. This third essay shows that CHW provide no analysis of duplicitous methods used by Fr. Bugnini in the composition of the Novus Ordo Mass (NO), nor do they report how ambivalent Pope Paul VI was about the changes. Most seriously CHW speak of the traditional Latin Mass (TLM) as being theologically flawed and claim that it is clear that the Holy Spirit is the moving force behind the NO and fail to consider that a small group was imposing their view of liturgy on the whole Church.

CHW fail altogether to address the circumstances in which the NO was composed, who composed it, and how it was promulgated. It is a very disturbing story. I wonder if they have read Yves Chiron’s meticulous biography Annibale Bugnini: Reformer of the Liturgy, which well documents Bugnini’s deviousness. Chiron is cautious about accepting the claim that Bugnini was a Mason, but for CHW not to acknowledge or address that elephant in the room as well as the substantiated claims that Bugnini operated by lying both to Paul VI and to the authors of the NO, and that there was an explicit intent to downplay Catholic elements in the liturgy for the sake of ecumenism with Protestants, is to sidestep grave concerns about the actual origins of the NO. 

A shortened version of Chiron’s reporting on Bugnini’s role has been published in the Notre Dame Church Life Journal. Chiron shows that many members of the Commission were opposed to or very reluctant to accept the changes made. Chiron demonstrates that Bugnini manipulated Paul VI, a pope known for his habit of ambivalence, which likely made it easy for him to be manipulated.

This habit was amply shown in speeches he made in the years and months previous to the imposition of the NO. Writing in 1966 (after SC had been approved and before the NO was finalized) in a letter to religious orders that were being pressured to pray in the vernacular, Paul VI makes a strong case for the importance of Latin; what he says about Latin could be easily applied to the liturgy as a whole: 

What is in question here is not only the retention within the choral office of the Latin language, though it is of course right that this should be eagerly guarded and should certainly not be lightly esteemed. For this language is, within the Latin Church, an abundant wellspring of Christian civilization and a very rich treasure-trove of devotion. But it is also the seemliness, the beauty and the native strength of these prayers and canticles which is at stake: the choral office itself, “the lovely voice of the Church in song” (Cf. St Augustine’s Confessions, Bk 9, 6). Your founders and teachers, the holy ones who are as it were so many lights within your religious families, have transmitted this to you. The traditions of the elders, your glory throughout long ages, must not be belittled. Indeed, your manner of celebrating the choral office has been one of the chief reasons why these families of yours have lasted so long, and happily increased. It is thus most surprising that under the influence of a sudden agitation, some now think that it should be given up.

In present conditions, what words or melodies could replace the forms of Catholic devotion which you have used until now? You should reflect and carefully consider whether things would not be worse, should this fine inheritance be discarded. It is to be feared that the choral office would turn into a mere bland recitation, suffering from poverty and begetting weariness, as you yourselves would perhaps be the first to experience. One can also wonder whether men would come in such numbers to your churches in quest of the sacred prayer, if its ancient and native tongue, joined to a chant full of grave beauty, resounded no more within your walls. We therefore ask all those to whom it pertains, to ponder what they wish to give up, and not to let that spring run dry from which, until the present, they have themselves drunk deep. Apostolic Letter Sacrificium Laudis, August 15, 1966,

Indeed, Paul VI forbids the use of the vernacular by the religious: 

In any case, beloved Sons, the requests mentioned above concern such grave matters that We are unable to grant them, or to derogate now from the norms of the Council and of the Instructions noted above. Therefore we earnestly beseech you that you would consider this complex question under all its aspects. From the good will which we have toward you, and from the good opinion which we have of you, We are unwilling to allow that which could make your situation worse, and which could well bring you no slight loss, and which would certainly bring a sickness and sadness upon the whole Church of God. Allow Us to protect your interests, even against your own will. It is the same Church which has introduced the vernacular into the sacred liturgy for pastoral reasons, that is, for the sake of people who do not know Latin, which gives you the mandate of preserving the age-old solemnity, beauty and dignity of the choral office, in regard both to language, and to the chant. Apostolic Letter Sacrificium Laudis, August 15, 1966,

Tragically, this letter, Sacrificium Laudis, was scuttled by the direct intervention of Rembert Weakland in Rome, as the latter details in his memoirs.

In several talks and audiences delivered upon the implementation of the NO, Paul VI is emphatic about the need to accept the NO but speaks of the TLM with extremely strong affection. In a general audience on November 26, 1969, he stated:

A new rite of the Mass: a change in a venerable tradition that has gone on for centuries. This is something that affects our hereditary religious patrimony, which seemed to enjoy the privilege of being untouchable and settled. It seemed to bring the prayer of our forefathers and our saints to our lips and to give us the comfort of feeling faithful to our spiritual past, which we kept alive to pass it on to the generations ahead. 

It is at such a moment as this that we get a better understanding of the value of historical tradition and the communion of the saints. This change will affect the ceremonies of the Mass. We shall become aware, perhaps with some feeling of annoyance, that the ceremonies at the altar are no longer being carried out with the same words and gestures to which we were accustomed—perhaps so much accustomed that we no longer took any notice of them. This change also touches the faithful. It is intended to interest each one of those present, to draw them out of their customary personal devotions or their usual torpor. 

We must prepare for this many-sided inconvenience. It is the kind of upset caused by every novelty that breaks in on our habits. We shall notice that pious persons are disturbed most, because they have their own respectable way of hearing Mass, and they will feel shaken out of their usual thoughts and obliged to follow those of others. Even priests may feel some annoyance in this respect. Pope Paul VI, Changes In Mass for Greater Apostolate, November 26, 1969

He speaks almost with a broken heart of the loss of Latin as the principal language of the Mass:

It is here that the greatest newness is going to be noticed, the newness of language. No longer Latin, but the spoken language will be the principal language of the Mass. The introduction of the vernacular will certainly be a great sacrifice for those who know the beauty, the power and the expressive sacrality of Latin. We are parting with the speech of the Christian centuries; we are becoming like profane intruders in the literary preserve of sacred utterance. We will lose a great part of that stupendous and incomparable artistic and spiritual thing, the Gregorian chant.

We have reason indeed for regret, reason almost for bewilderment. What can we put in the place of that language of the angels? We are giving up something of priceless worth. But why? What is more precious than these loftiest of our Church’s values?

The answer will seem banal, prosaic. Yet it is a good answer, because it is human, because it is apostolic. Pope Paul VI, Changes In Mass for Greater Apostolate, November 26, 1969

Paul VI seems to be trying to persuade himself even more than others that Latin can be dispensed with, and that the NO is truly a good thing. 

Some take the overwhelmingly positive vote (2147 for to 4 against) for the SC to have been a vote for the NO. What few know is that an introduction of the NO (in the form of a so-called Missa Normativa) to cardinals and bishops at a Synod in Rome in 1967 did not get the votes needed for approval. As Chiron reports: 

There were 187 voters; the two-thirds majority was therefore 124. For some of the votes, the tally was far from it, with the non placet (nays) and placet juxta modum (approval on condition of modifications) having a broad margin.… More spectacular yet was the refusal to give unreserved approval to the general structure of the normative Mass: 71 placet; 43 non placet; 62 placet juxta modum; 4 abstentions. Yves Chiron, “How the Novus Ordo Mass Was Made,” Church Life Journal, July 22, 2021.

That is not surprising, of course, given that those who voted for SC had no reason to believe that radical changes, such as those in the NO, would be made.

It is also not surprising that that was the last vote taken in regard to the NO.

It should be noted that not only did Paul VI introduce a new liturgy for the Roman rite, he changed the rites for all the sacraments. As a reviewer of Yves Chiron’s biography of Pope Paul VI observes: 

Paul changed the formula of consecration during the Mass, as well as the rites of baptism, marriage, confession, extreme unction (anointing of the sick), and burial. He entirely restructured ordination, banishing the seven-step structure Holy Orders had once known. To the governing apparatus of the Church, Paul gave the definitive power structure it enjoys today. Very nearly every religious community in the Church altered its formation, daily life, habit, governance, bylaws, and prayer life in response to Paul’s demands for change. Church thinking changed as well, with wave after wave of innovative theological ideas ushered in by Paul. In almost every respect, Church life can be described dualistically: either Prepaulian or Postpaulian.

Let us note again, the NO ushered in not a “tweaked” or “reformed” liturgy but a wholesale rewriting of the sacramental rites of the Church.

Theological flaws

CHW make several very dubious claims about the differences between the TLM and the NO. One is the claim—asserted but not substantiated—that the personal and liturgical prayer of those who attended the TLM before the Council “primarily consisted of praying to the one (generic) God” whereas only with the NO did the faithful become “more cognizant” of the possibility of personal and liturgical trinitarian prayer. It seems impossible for anyone to make that claim who has done even a superficial comparison between the TLM and the NO. Dr. Peter Kwasniewski, who has a most impressive intimate knowledge of the TLM and the NO both from his study and from decades of experience of each, has shown (not just asserted) that the NO systematically removed Trinitarian and Christological confessions.7 This, for example, is his list of the diminution of reference to the Blessed Trinity in the NO:

  1. Both the prayer of offering to the Trinity (“Suscipe, Sancta Trinitas”) and the prayer of homage to the Trinity (“Placeat tibi, Sancta Trinitas”) were abolished.
  2. The Preface of the Most Holy Trinity, required to be said or sung between 24 and 32 Sundays a year in the TLM, is heard extremely rarely in Novus Ordo liturgies; according to the rubrics it is required only for Trinity Sunday itself. As a result, most Catholics will not be formed in any sustained way by the rich dogmatic teaching of this Preface, which demands to be heard many times before one can begin to grasp what it is saying. 
  3. The recitation of the Gloria, a Trinitarian hymn, has been severely curtailed to Sundays and major feast days. 
  4. All iterations of the “Gloria Patri” have been abolished from the Mass.
  5. The use of the sign of the cross, very frequent in the TLM, has been reduced to the start of the liturgy and its conclusion. 
  6. In like manner, the use of the sign of the cross in priestly blessings of objects involved in the liturgy has dwindled to almost nothing.

Movement of the Holy Spirit

There are several places in the series where CHW do not merely imply, but state outright, that the way the Catholic Church worshiped for many centuries, even millennia, was somehow theologically or spiritually flawed. They assert, for example, that the faithful were less adequately able to “enact…their indelible baptismal character”; that, in the absence of the vernacular language, the “participation of the faithful…would have been impossible”; that a “rich banquet of God’s word” was unavailable and that, implicitly, the old liturgy made it “incidental”; that celebration ad orientem was less “congruent with the reality of the liturgy as an action of Christ and of his Body”; that a return to the traditional form of the liturgy would be “doctrinally unacceptable,” which on the face of it asserts a doctrinal rupture or contradiction between the old and new leges orandi; that the old rite “systematically positioned the faithful as silent spectators” and therefore disengaged from the act of worship; that the old rite possesses a “more limited and less adequate ecclesiology” and “undermines the doctrine that the ordained priesthood is ordered to the service of the baptismal priesthood of the faithful”; indeed, they maintain that “to return to the Tridentine Mass is…to lose or obscure a foundational dimension of the Church and her worship” (emphases added).

These are very grave charges to make against the Holy Church of God and against the Holy Spirit that guides her.9 It is one thing to argue that perhaps there may be several good ways to conduct divine worship, e.g., in various Eastern and Western rites, and that they may differ from one another in legitimate points of emphasis. It is even possible to argue that some things need to be emphasized more in this or that period of time, or among this or that group of the faithful.

By no means, however, can it be maintained that there is something wrong with the Church’s long-approved traditional manner of worship. To assert this is to fall into a serious ecclesiological error. Is it really possible that so many popes received and handed down a form of worship that was objectively misleading or malforming? It is far more likely that a wholesale departure from constant tradition would be damaging to the Church.

Whatever happened to “the Spirit’s enduring infallible guidance” (to use CHW’s own phrase) with respect to the TLM? Did not the Holy Spirit accompany the Church in its composition of the TLM over the centuries? Was the TLM so flawed that it needed to be jettisoned altogether? Certainly, the Church has needed reform in many of its elements over the ages, but clearly, Vatican II did not intend a replacement of the TLM with the NO. So, did the Holy Spirit misguide the authors of Sacrosanctum Concilium? Is it not possible that the authors of the NO imposed their own views on the liturgy and were not faithful to the guidance of the Holy Spirit? Why did the Holy Spirit permit such a mess with respect to liturgy and doctrine after Vatican II?

CHW readily and rightfully acknowledge that the experience of the NO  has been chaotic and, in fact, full of abuses. Nonetheless, there is the sense throughout the articles that the NO is a product of the movement of the Holy Spirit and that the demise of the TLM is something that the Holy Spirit desires.

Indeed, CHW makes this claim: “The liturgical movement thus needs to be acknowledged as an authentic work of the Spirit for the benefit of Christ’s Church. It was not free from weaknesses and errors, as Pius XII acknowledged, yet it cannot be denied that the Holy Spirit was guiding sinful and fallible people—the only kind he had to work with—to undertake this renewal that was desperately needed for the good of the Catholic faithful.” I find nothing in the article that warrants such a high estimation of the liturgical movement or that the renewal was “desperately needed for the good of the Catholic faithful.”

When CHW state: “The Church’s tradition, of which the liturgy is a constitutive element, is not frozen in time but is a living tradition that develops with the help of the Holy Spirit, in fidelity to the deposit of faith,” they imply that the TLM has been frozen in time. That is a completely insupportable claim. Indeed, as we saw above, Mediator Dei presents a long list of changes that have been made to the TLM over the ages, and it is still undergoing changes; after all, very recently, new prefaces have been added as well as rules governing the honoring of saints more recently canonized.

Indeed, the resurgence of interest in the TLM might rightly be seen as a movement of the Spirit and a kind of “new Pentecost.” The grassroots enthusiastic explosion of the TLM is a sign that both the sensus fidelium and the Holy Spirit want this liturgy to continue. Many of us do expect that the TLM will still be celebrated to the end of history—just as we expect Catholics forever to love the beautiful music, art, and architecture that grew up alongside it, all of which were and are and will always be an irreplaceable expression of the timeless Catholic Faith.

As a matter of fact, in recent years some of the features that had been most associated with the NO are disappearing from that Mass and are being replaced by practices inherited from the TLM, such as the priest praying ad orientem, the use of incense and chant, communion rails, and the reception of communion on the tongue. The reappearance of these elements has begun to restore a sense of reverence for the Mass and the Eucharist.

CHW do not mention this phenomenon, which nevertheless is at the forefront of the minds of most conservative young clergy. I know one young priest who during Covid celebrated the TLM as his private Mass. He left the church open and parishioners started coming—at first just a few and then dozens who, after the Covid restrictions were lifted, asked that the parish provide the TLM.