Rubricism

I am not pointing any fingers in any particular directions, but I have been aware since the early 1980’s of a certain fashion of interpreting the rules of the liturgy. It is something we could also call canonical positivism. In his book The Mass, Adrian Fortescue describes the incensing of the altar and said “Such increased definiteness was bound to come and, after all, you must incense an Altar somehow; it does not hurt to be told how to do so“. It is a subject I encountered when researching the Tridentine codification of the Roman rite in 1570 and its ulterior regulation by the Congregation of Rites. A popular accusation of the old liturgy is that of rubricism where the hidden thought is the dissolution of all liturgical form. For this reason, I will try to isolate a moderate position between the two extremes of rubricism and anything goes.

The word appears to have been coined by Newman in a letter to Keble in 1840:

Right views and practices are spreading strangely; nor do I think with you that they tend to nothing more than rubricism.

The word plainly comes from rubric, which is the red print in liturgical books to distinguish rules or instructions from the text to be sung or said. As an American priest recently expressed as a slogan – Say the black, do the red. It is reasonable for us to be asked to learn the ceremonies and celebrate the liturgy correctly. Once the rules are learned, we then operate by habit and routine.

Rubricism is an extreme adherence to the rubrics to the last detail. It is a question of degree beyond “doing it properly” and excluding improvisation, the opposite extreme. It is possible to become obsessed to such a degree that we become unable to see the wood for the trees, the profound meaning of the liturgy for such details as the order of lighting the altar candles by the server.

It is something I have noticed in the English-speaking world in contrast with the more laid-back attitude among some of the old French priests I have known. Roman Catholicism before Vatican II was heavily influenced by a legalistic and tutiorist attitude. Probabilism and tutiorism are roughly two attitudes in regard to an ambiguous moral situation calling for a judgement. Probabilism

– is the moral system which holds that, when there is question solely of the lawfulness or unlawfulness of an action, it is permissible to follow a solidly probable opinion in favour of liberty even though the opposing view is more probable.

This can be helpful in unblocking a situation where the correct thing to do is unclear, and some measure of pragmatism is called for. However in tutiorism in its most extreme form:

It is not lawful to follow even a most probable opinion in favour of liberty.

In a less extreme form, tutiorism is

– the doctrine that in cases of moral doubt it is best to follow the safer course or that in agreement with the law

Neo-scholastic moral theology is a jungle of speculations and a legalistic mentality. As I was taught by Fr Servais Pinckaers OP at Fribourg University, following a compromise between Thomism and ressourcement theology, the moral act is judged by its end (finis operis) and the intention of the agent (finis operantis). Laws themselves are judged by their finality and not simply as the expression of the law’s legislator. This is why any system of law is preceded by a treatise on the principles of interpretation and application. Canon law is governed by the principle of epikeia, roughly expressed as necessity needing no law. For example, Jesus taught that it was legitimate to rescue a trapped animal on the Sabbath. This is the vital distinction to be made between the spirit and letter of the law, the essence of Christ’s teaching faced with the legalism and hypocrisy of the Scribes and Pharisees.

The principle of epikeia holds also for the rubrics in the liturgy. In most circumstances, the rubric tells us what to do and we do it, the alternative being some arbitrary choice of our own for no justifiable reason. What about omitting one of the vestments, like the maniple, because it is missing from the set of vestments, or taking a maniple from another set of vestments of another colour? What about reading the Epistle and Gospel in the vernacular and facing the people at a Mass in Latin? What about “being trendy” and improvising the Eucharistic Prayer? The first of these examples is making do with what we have. The second is a measure of “pastoralism” or a pastoral measure to avoid alienating the laity. The third is a wanton violation of the very principles of the liturgy.

I now come to the notion of pastoralism, a term that was coined by a Papal master of ceremonies by the name of Msgr Léon Gromier in his criticism of the Pius XII Holy Week ceremonies. He refers to les pastoraux as those liturgists working for the Vatican who wanted to bring about liturgical reforms on pastoral grounds. It is a difficult problem which in history caused rood screens to be removed from churches and the plans of Jansenists at the Synod of Pistoia up to Fr Louis Bouyer and the philistinism of Msgr Annabile Bugnini. In its extreme form, pastoralism describes a concern for the pastoral relevance of the liturgy according to subjective tastes and desires. However, in a less extreme form, it defined an expression of French and German liturgical ministry – for example the biblical readings in the vernacular and read away from the altar, the possibility of vernacular hymns, a loosening of that feeling of the tutiorist and rubricist sarcophagus suffocating any human agency in the liturgy. Some of us seek what was  probably the spirit of the pre-Reformation liturgy, a healthy balance of a notion of tradition and custom, and a great measure of popular participation. We would like to see a cultural framework that makes liturgy live rather than be a mummified corpse as Louis Bouyer described what he must have seen in some churches in the 1930’s or 50’s.

In reaction to the post-Vatican II reforms, many traditionalists resumed the old rubrical tutiorism, the letter of the law for its own sake. There were also the more cranky excesses like some lay faithful believing that the Mass would be invalid if the priest was not wearing the maniple. Though it is more desirable to wear a maniple, when such is possible, it is hardly the matter and the form of the Eucharist (if we are defining things in Thomist terms).

One possible analogy with the correct observance of a liturgical rite is eating at table as a family. Children are taught to hold a knife and fork in the acceptable way. In England, we generally follow Debrett’s rules, depending on how formal the meal is. When eating peas, the diner squashes them onto the convex side of the fork with the knife to convey them to his mouth. Even faced with such a practical difficulty, it is improper to turn the fork over in the left hand and push the peas onto it with the knife – but it is much easier. French table manners are much less rigid about exceptions. At a family meal, the father of the family can surely be a little less rigorous as long as the children know what the right thing is for a formal meal. I remember as a child that my father came over so heavily about table manners that I left the table feeling nauseous. I was probably doing something incorrect and should have known better. I think my father then realised that he had been too strict and needed to be more patient with me. Nowadays, children often eat like pigs!

There has to be a balance between doing things properly in church, but without forgetting or burying the profound meaning of Christ’s Mystery. It is indeed the relationship between man and the Sabbath…

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