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Need for Liturgical Conscience: Where to Get One (1/3)

November 28, 2016 by  
Filed under Christopher Carstens, Church, Liturgy

The Need for a Liturgical Conscience—and Where to Get One
(Part I of III)


Guitar choir or Gregorian Chant? Communion on the tongue or in the hand? Liturgical language that is elevated, formal, and Latinate—as in the present Roman Missal—or language more common, casual, and conversational—as in the former missale-romanum3Sacramentary?

Opinions on liturgical matters such as these differ, as with myriad other liturgical elements – Is the Church better served by modern or traditional architecture? Should the Easter Vigil begin late for the sake of symbolic darkness or early to encourage better attendance? Ought Christmas poinsettias be real or silk?

Parish liturgical committees debate such issues and render advice to their pastors. But on what grounds? To what degree does one’s own personal preference—whether one sits on the liturgy committee or in the pew—determine what is “good” or “bad” in the liturgy? Am I my own liturgical litmus?

Pope John Paul II once asked this same question:

“The Liturgy! Everybody speaks about it, writes about it, and discusses the subject. It has been commented on, it has been praised, and it has been criticized. But who really knows the principles and norms by which it is to be put into practice? The Constitution Sacrosanctum Concilium referred to the liturgy as the ‘source’ and the ‘summit’ of the Church’s life (no.10): what is being done to make this sublime definition a reality?”[i]

Indeed: who does know the standards by which the liturgy is celebrated and evaluated? Moreover, where are these measures to be found?

In his questions about liturgy cited above, John Paul II has revealed their answer: the Magisterium’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium.

In preparation for the Third Christian Millennium, as well as on the 40th Anniversary of Council’s liturgical constitution, Pope John Paul spoke of an “examination of conscience” similar to one Catholics would make prior to sacramental confession.[ii] Prior to the Sacrament of Penance, I am called to examine my moral life—my thoughts and words, my commissions and omissions—according to the Commandments, the Word of God, and the teaching of the Church.

A Liturgical Conscience

Along those same lines, a liturgical conscience—of an individual, a committee, a parish, or even the Church universal—is also formed and judged according to received norms. Some of these norms are revealed while others are put forward by the Magisterium.

mirror-of-the-conscience-by-mironov for post on liturgical conscienceBut whether the subject is liturgy or morality, the temptation is the same, namely, to be our own rule—and ruler. But this is impossible. While a conscience is often described as an “interior voice,” one rising from deep within, a conscience is at the same time a voice from without, a law inscribed by God himself.[iii]

Etymologically, “conscience” means “to know” (from the Latin scio) “with others” (con). This “other” is the Church, and a well-formed liturgical conscience—as St. John Paul II suggests—is formed and examined according to the Church’s own liturgical principles.

What are the “principles and norms”—let’s call them Commandments—of the liturgical life? The Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, when read in light of the Church’s tradition and understood according to her liturgical life, gives the Church’s liturgy its direction. And while not exactly laid out as a litany of positive or negative proscriptions such as Moses received on Sinai, the Constitution’s contents might be distilled into a decalogue of liturgical formation and decision-making. (In fact, John Paul II himself performs such an examination of conscience concerning the Church’s liturgical and sacramental life in his 2003 Apostolic Letter Spiritus et Sponsa.)



[i] Address to the participants in the plenary meeting of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, October 17, 1985.

[ii] See Tertio Millennio Adveniente, ‘On Preparation for the Jubilee of the Year 2000,” 36 and Spiritus et Sponsa, “On the 40th Anniversary of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium,” 6.

[iii] See Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1776 and following.



Editor's Note: In Part II, Christopher Carstens will address the first five of the 10 Commandments of the Liturgical Life.


Art for this post on The Need for a Liturgical Conscience: Missale Romanum, photographed by Lima, 24 September 2006, CCA-SA 2.5 Generic; mirror of The Conscience, Andrey Mironov, 2015 own work, CCA-SA 4.0 International; both Wikimedia Commons.

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About Christopher Carstens

Christopher Carstens is Director of the Office for Sacred Worship in the Diocese of La Crosse, Wisconsin, instructor at Mundelein’s Liturgical Institute, editor of the Adoremus Bulletin, and the voice on The Liturgy Guys Podcast.

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  • marybernadette

    Thank you for this Christopher. I read ‘Spiritus et Sponso’ and was enlightened by it , thanks to Pope St. John Paul II. Recently, I have been receiving the Holy Eucharist on my knees, ‘on the tongue.’ I had seen others do this for a number of years but decided to do this myself, although I’m not sure if it’s from the Lord but I have felt the desire to receive ‘on the tongue.’ Also, I have been wondering if the ‘reception of the Eucharist’ especially on Sundays, should be received in relative silence,(no loud music from the Choir) but perhaps ‘meditative music’ to help people to meditate on the Lord as he communes with each soul. Of course, I am not saying this should happen as it’s not for me to say. One more thing, the Liturgical abuses, as you know, have led to a form of ‘schism’ where people have turned solely to pre-Vatican II, believing the latter is not valid, which of course, it is.
    May God help all of us to grow in humility, then we will realize how the Church is our Teacher and Guide, through the Holy Spirit.

  • Marie

    I have to admit, as much as I love and respect liturgy and the documents of Vatican II, this topic makes me nervous. I accept and agree that norms exist, and exist to be followed and for our formation. But calling them “commandments” with a capital C makes it sound like we will next address liturgical mortal sins. We already have a spate of articles going around that point of very valid things (such as the one about correct positioning of hands during public prayer), but inflate their importance to the point where some seem to think that the sun rises and sets on rubrics, and not on love of God and neighbor, on faith, and hope. Let’s take care of the big things while not neglecting the small things, but let us also be very clear about the difference between big and small. And let us correctly identify the nature and healing of “freestyling” in liturgy as a lack of a fully communal dimension of faith, rather than just picking at behaviors.

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  • roberdine

    I’ve never understood why a liturgy committee, or a decorating committee. They seem like superfluous groups for those who like to be on committees and engage in controversy.

    • LizEst

      On the contrary, roberdine. They are the helping hands for the priest. All these committees take some of the workload off of the priest. Why don’t you offer your services and find out! God bless you … and Blessed Advent to you.

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  • Judy Silhan

    Dear Christopher, this is the first of your writings I have encountered, and enjoy your echoing my questions – who does decide how the Liturgy is celebrated, etc. I will be reading all the links you have provided here in this post, as well as your other posts. (i am just noticing your posts today, part III)

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  • LizEst

    Peter — The Church has a motto, which I suspect you are aware of: Lex orandi, lex credendi — how we pray is how we believe. When we don’t pray well, we don’t believe well. If we are sloppy in our communication with God, if we could care less how we worship, down the road it translates into not caring what we believe, or caring only that we believe what we ourselves sanction.

    It works the same way with the people we interact with. If we could care less how we communicate with others, if we don’t care to communicate with them, our personal relationships with them suffer. It’s kind of built in to the way we are human.

    Christ taught us how to pray, when his disciples asked. We, likewise, in our roles as parents and guardians, transmit our faith to our children in the family, the domestic Church, when we teach our children how to pray. If our children–and for that matter those exploring the Catholic faith–experience and participate in well-prepared and prayed liturgy, they are naturally drawn closer to the living God. If not, they might be entertained, but, in the long run, their souls will not discover that fruitful ground of rich soil which suffuses a heavenly perfume that encourages them to dig deeper, to sell everything they have, in order to obtain the pearl of great price.

    God bless you in the new year, Peter!

    • Some people are more drawn to ritual than others. For me, it is beautiful, but it never did inform me to dig deeper when I was growing up. In fact, there was nothing deeper presented at the time. I found the deeper Christianity when I started exploring the Bible. Only from there was I instructed in the Christianity that I was able to incorporate into my life in a meaningful way.

      In the Catholic Church, the Bible itself is rarely, if ever, presented as a resource for forming our consciences. Everything has to be filtered through the Catechism, magisterium, or other later writings. What better resource is there besides the Bible. Everything in Christianity is regulated by it. The Catholic Church compiled it. Thanks to the printing press, we now all have personal access to it; Catholics included.

      • LizEst

        Peter, I’m happy you’ve found great solace in the Bible.

        The Bible, Word of God that it is, did not drop down from heaven, though. The Church existed before the Bible, the Word of God, written by men inspired by the Holy Spirit. Scripture, as such, only came into being when the Magisterium of the Church approved its canon.

        Me thinks you must be going to a different Church if you say that the Bible is rarely presented as a resource for forming our consciences. My confessors often refer to it during sacrament of reconciliation. Scripture is found through and through the Eucharistic celebration, in the actions and prayers, not just in the Scripture readings. Our priests teach it in their homilies and measure their lives by it. So perhaps your parish, or the parishes you’ve attended, have not done it justice. I can’t speak to that. But, my experience has been very different from yours.

        That said, the Church rests on three pillars: Scripture, Tradition and the Magisterium. All three have to inform our consciences.

        • I agree that Scripture is used in the mass and elsewhere in the Church. I do a Scripture study at the Catholic church that I attend. I find that most Catholics still prefer to not use the Bible itself as a primary resource for their spiritual information. They rely mostly on what others quote or tell them about it. I like to read it directly because I get context and what the Bible emphasizes as important. It helps us to evaluate the opinions of others who may not be in line with it, both Catholic and Protestant.

          I am told by older Catholics that they were instructed to not read the Bible for themselves well before Vatican II. There is still some of this residual culture that remains. I got my first Bible in Catholic school in 1950. I referred to it because of my doubts, but we were not encouraged to use it.

          Vatican II says some interesting things. Dei Verbum 21 says: “Therefore, like the Christian religion itself, all the preaching of the Church must be nourished and regulated by Sacred Scripture.” This gives Scripture an authority that no other teaching has.

          Dei Verbum 8 says that the ordinary believer, as well as the clergy, contribute to tradition: “This tradition which comes from the Apostles develop in the Church with the help of the Holy Spirit. (5) For there is a growth in the understanding of the realities and the words which have been handed down. This happens through the contemplation and study made by believers, who treasure these things in their hearts (see Luke, 2:19, 51) through a penetrating understanding of the spiritual realities which they experience, and through the preaching of those who have received through episcopal succession the sure gift of truth”.

          Lay people also have to be regulated by Sacred Scripture along with everybody else in the Church in order to be a part of this tradition; which means that we also have to be well-informed as to what is in Scripture.

          • LizEst

            The Word of God is absolutely important. That said, we are not a sola scriptura religion. It’s Protestant teaching that holds that Scripture is the sole infallible rule of faith and the practice of that faith. That’s just not Catholicism. We stand on three things: Scripture, Tradition and the Magisterium. Not one of the these three can be left out.

            Yes, there are Catholic people out there who were told not to read the Bible. But, that may have been done by those who did not wish to assist them with that. Leo XIII, who was Pope from 1878-1903, in fact, encouraged it and “granted to the faithful who shall read for at least a quarter of an hour the books of the Sacred Scripture with the veneration due to the Divine Word and as spiritual reading, an indulgence of 300 days” (Preces et Pia Opera, 645). So, to say that reading the Bible was generally discouraged is a myth when it was promoted and disseminated by the Supreme Pontiff himself and printed in the Bibles of the time. If folks are relying on that to indicate why they don’t know more, well, that’s just their experience. But, that is quickly falling by the wayside as you implied. It’s not generally the norm throughout the Church these days.

            If you find that people don’t read and study the Bible as much, that’s one thing. But, that varies from place to place, parish to parish, etc. My sister and her husband are in a four-year detailed and directed Bible study program, with graded homework, study questions and group discussions, run in their parish by well-trained facilitators and instructors, according to a documented well thought out program. It is just not true that the Bible is not given the emphasis that is due to it. I think what you are experiencing is what is common to your area or to your parish. There are many, many Catholic Bible study programs across the country and around the world. And, new programs spring up all the time.

            Peter, it’s great that you have such an interest in Scripture. And, we’re glad you are doing a Scripture study at the Catholic church you attend. But, please be careful not to fall into the sola scriptura trap. It’s just not Catholic.

          • What I quoted from V2 is probable part of the reason why some Catholics consider the present Church to be too Protestant. V2 is not Catholic enough for them.

            My first reaction to Dei Verbum 21 was that this sounds like “sola scriptura” Catholic style.
            Dei Verbum 8 sounded like a major departure from what we usually think of as Catholic. Even to this day, I have never heard that the believer can contribute to tradition, until I read it for myself.
            Some don’t even want you to read V2 directly for yourself without study aids, let alone the Bible.

            Another interesting V2 quote is from Dignitatis Humanae 2: “all men should be at once impelled by nature and also bound by a moral obligation to seek the truth, especially religious truth. They are also bound to adhere to the truth, once it is known, and to order their whole lives in accord with the demands of truth However, men cannot discharge these obligations in a manner in keeping with their own nature unless they enjoy immunity from external coercion as well as psychological freedom”. This probably sounds like heresy to some traditional Catholics.

            Maybe we have to reevaluate our view of what is Catholic.

          • LizEst

            Peter – Again, what you have experienced is not the norm. It is limited by your experience and your own personal view. I have never, ever heard anyone say not to read the Documents of Vatican II without study aids, let alone the Bible. Have you ever taken a class from the Avila Institute? There is much to learn from these very Catholic courses. Check it out.

          • Is it OK to read something, without someone else’s help, just to see what is in there?

          • LizEst

            Funny! Please read our Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) here, especially question 4 and it’s subquestions:

          • I think that 4.4 in the link applies here. For me, the obvious answer to my question is yes. I’m not so sure that this is obvious to everyone.

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