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Liturgy watchdog group blasts Mahony

NCR Staff

Adoremus, a conservative liturgical watchdog group, has issued a statement sharply critical of Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony’s recent pastoral letter on the Sunday Mass, claiming it reflects a “strikingly truncated theology of the Eucharist.”

Taken in tandem with Mother Angelica’s public criticism of the pastoral on much the same grounds the Adoremus statement, printed in the group’s November newsletter, suggests deep antipathy to Mahony’s views on liturgy from conservative quarters in the church.

“The liturgical innovations and additions advocated by the letter ... are likely to increase the liturgical confusion already pervasive in the church,” the statement, dated Nov. 1, said. Suggesting that Mahony paid too much attention in the letter to the role of the assembly and not enough to the sacrificial character of the Mass, the statement said, “This ‘horizontal’ dimension ... is not balanced by equal attention to the ‘vertical’ or transcendent dimension, which is a serious flaw of the document.”

Based in Arlington, Va., Adoremus’ executive committee is composed of Jesuit Fr. Joseph Fessio, head of Ignatius Press; Helen Hull Hitchcock of St. Louis, a noted Catholic conservative; and Fr. Jerry Pokorsky, founder of CREDO, an organization of priests interested in translations of liturgical texts. Mother Angelica also serves on the group’s board of directors.

“There’s no need for the cardinal to rewrite the catechism or the Council of Trent,” said Capuchin Fr. Gregory Coiro, Mahony’s spokesperson, defending the absence of extended commentary in Mahony’s pastoral on the theological character of the Mass. “This letter is a pastoral implementation of the liturgical vision of Vatican II, and thus it’s necessary to talk about the assembly, what we do and how we prepare ourselves,” he said. “But everything in the letter reflects acceptance of the liturgical norms of the Holy See.”

The Adoremus statement listed 18 areas in which Mahony’s letter allegedly raises “serious doctrinal and pastoral difficulties.” They include Mahony’s suggestions that the choice of Eucharistic prayer should be grounded in the needs of the community, that people raise their hands in prayer during the Our Father, and that liturgies make use of inclusive language where possible.

In the course of calling for greater sensitivity to cultural diversity, Mahony had written that the liturgy “should be the one experience in our lives when we will not be sorted out by education level, skin color, intelligence, politics, sexual orientation, wealth or lack of it, or any other human condition.”

That line drew special criticism from Adoremus. The statement said, “Why is ‘sexual orientation’ included in this mix? ... Inserting it here seems an inappropriate concession to advocates of ‘sexual diversity.’ ”

Noting that Mahony referred to the doctrine of transubstantiation, or Christ’s real presence in the Eucharistic elements, only in a footnote, the statement said, “This shows how filtering the liturgy through the narrow lens of multicultural diversity marginalizes key concepts which are fundamental to a ‘full, conscious’ understanding of the meaning of the liturgy.”

Adoremus’ criticism also centered on Mahony’s use of the term “presider” rather than priest, suggesting that such vocabulary reflects a “defective, functionalist view of the priesthood.” Corio took special issue with that claim, noting that the daily Vatican information service always says the pope “presides” at Mass. “The cardinal is using the same language as the Holy See,” said Coiro. “In effect, they’re suggesting that the Holy See is in error.”

The statement hinted that Mahony’s letter might have impact outside Los Angeles, warning that, “in our age of instant communication, what one cardinal mandates will inevitably surface in other dioceses -- with or without approval of the local bishop.”

The statement concludes, “The greatest need of the church now is not for still more ‘flexibility’ and innovations, but for liturgical stability -- for an authentic and beautiful celebration of the Mass, firmly grounded in the teachings of the Second Vatican Council and the observation of existing liturgical norms.”

Coiro said, “I think the cardinal expects this kind of criticism, because the church in this country is so factionalized. But it really highlights the importance of Cardinal [Joseph] Bernardin’s vision of common ground. There should be dialogue over these issues, but it has to be respectful, civil dialogue.”

Perhaps reflecting frustration over mounting conservative attacks, Coiro then went on the offensive against the letter’s critics. “These people fuel the fires of polarization,” he said, “rather than bringing Catholics together in unity on who we are and what we are about.”

Pointedly, Coiro turned the tables on Mahony’s critics. “If people want to criticize us for not following the norms, then maybe they should look at the televised Mass on EWTN,” he said. “I don’t see anything in the GIRM (General Instruction on the Roman Missal) about people throwing themselves on the floor during the Eucharistic prayers,” he said. “If you’re going to be strictly legalistic, you ought to be sure that the people in your camp are following the letter of the law.”

National Catholic Reporter, December 26, 1997