Next year will be the one hundredth anniversary of the death of Pope St Pius X, whose feast we celebrate today.
Pope St Pius X is of course a hero to many traditionalists because of his firm opposition to modernism.
I want to put a rather controversial counterview: he is an important Pope, in my view, for illustrating the fact that Popes can be saints even though they make grave errors when it comes to their pastoral decisions!
In my view the positive view of Pope St Pius X's reign is in part undeserved, for while he certainly helped define and fight the doctrinal error, he, at the same time, made some pastoral decisions that opened the way to its flourishing in his radical reforms of the liturgy and pastoral practice.
Let me just talk about three of them.
First, I want to suggest that Pope Pius X was the first of the liturgical wreckovator popes of the twentieth century (along with Pius XII and Paul VI).
While one can perhaps laud his emphasis on the use of Gregorian chant (though ultimately an emphasis that has arguably failed to take root), amongst many other major reforms, he altogether wiped out the traditional Roman Office, and replaced it with a radically different rite, thus setting the precedent that made possible the Novus Ordo Mass and Liturgy of the Hours.
Prof. Laszlo Dobszay has written a number of excellent pieces on the anti-traditional nature of those 1911 reforms, and the dire effects it has had. Here is an extract from one of his articles, written in reply to a New Liturgical Movement article:
"The main goal of the 1911 reform (under the name of Pius X) was to lessen the daily portion of the Office, that is, to alleviate the burden of the pastoral clergy. Since the architects wished to keep the a principle of 'whole psalter in one week', the only way remained was to give up the other principle: the duality of „psalm pericopes” and "psalmodia currens”.
This new breviary removed the set of stable psalms of the daily Hours: no psalm returns during one week. At the many points which have been made 'free' this way, was filled up with nocturnal psalms. So not only the quiet rhythm of the daily Hours has been rejected, but also the psalmodia currens of Matins has been tumbled.
The character of the Hours was greatly harmed: the daily Little Hours became long and it became impossible to pray them by heart at the short stops of the daily activity. The very ancient columns of the Lauds (psalm 50, 62 and 148-150; on the place of the first, third and fifth psalm of the Hour) has been removed.
The consequence of this reform was that the clergy lost its experience and sense concerning the essence and historical continuity of the Roman Office and faced to the subsequent changes having no norm beyond the obedience to the rubrics. This became extremely open when they accepted without any opposition, when the Psalterium Pianum was introduced (under the name of Pius XII). This new translation replaced the Vulgate text with new wording, was full of curious expressions, neglected the liturgical associations and cut the ties with the theological reflections, explanations, meditation, prayerful spirituality of one and half thousand years."
The origin of the small 't' traditions approach?
Liturgy aside, a major source of devastation in the modern Church has, in my view, been the relegation of longheld ecclesial traditions, even Apostolic traditions, to the status of what the Catechism calls small t traditions, or practices that can be dropped or modified at will. This view holds that it is the theological content of things that matters, not the form they are transmitted in, and that it is therefore open to the Church to modify or even drop practices at will in order to adapt to the needs of the times.
While I don't dispute that some things can indeed be modified, the traditional approach of the Church has been to shy away from doing so as much as possible, since the way we pray affects what we believe.
Yet that modern approach to such traditions can, I think, also be traced to Pope Pius X.
Consider for example, the order of the reception of the sacraments of initiation. From the earliest times of the Church, the standard order has been baptism, confirmation (chrismation in the East), (confession in the case of those of age), Eucharist.
Pope St Pius X reversed the standard order for the Western Church, putting Eucharist before Confirmation.
This is not a trivial thing in my view, but rather has contributed to the infantilization of the Church we see today, as well as lending aid to the view that ancient tradition has no weight and can be changed as needs be.
Sacrament vs sacrifice
Most people will disagree with me on this, but the most devastating change of all that he made, though, I would argue, was his enthusiastic promotion of frequent communion.
The issue I think is this. By encouraging frequent communion, Pope Pius X laid the framework for the current overemphasis on the Mass as sacrament and communal meal at the expense of the sacrifice, as well as the unworthy reception of the sacrament so common today.
Frequent communion is usually taken as a given today, with most people receiving every time they go to Mass, regardless of whether they are in a state of grace. And there is a lot of Magisterial teaching around encouraging frequent reception.
Let me, however put a counter-view for you to consider.
The mass is at the same time sacrament, meal and sacrifice. The modern liberal view puts all the emphasis on meal, and subverts even that from the connection to the Passover celebration of the delivery of God's people from Egypt, turning it instead into a celebration of the 'community' and self.
The modern mainstream view puts the emphasis on the sacrament at the expense of the sacrifice: the Eucharist as a channel of grace.
Yet this emphasis too is a distortion.
Now I agree with those who argue that this distortion is a product in large part of the Novus Ordo Mass. All the same, I think it does represent a logical development of Eucharistic theology in the wake of Pope Pius X's effective equation of Mass attendance and reception of the sacrament.
Once upon a time, one went to Mass primarily to participate in the sacrifice; now one goes in order, primarily, to receive communion.
Pope Pius X's push for frequent communion was meant as a counter to Jansenist emphasis on our unworthiness. Unfortunately one only has to look at the Church today to see that what has resulted is an extreme over-reaction in the opposite direction.
And that, in my view, is the natural consequence of overturning longstanding traditions and practices.
Frequent communion is not the traditional practice of the Church. It does seem to be true that frequent reception of communion was the norm in that very early, fervent Church borne of persecution. But when the Church became a mass religion, this changed. St John Chrysostom, for example, in the fourth century, complained that things had gone to the opposite extreme, with most people receiving communion only once a year.
Practice seems to have varied considerably over time and place (in England in the later Middle Ages for example, most people received on all of the major solemnities). All the same, while the tradition up until the twentieth century at least generally viewed frequent, even daily communion as laudable - it viewed this as desirable only under a set of conditions which most people could not regularly meet.
St Thomas Aquinas and even more so St Bonaventure for example, argued that the recipient should not only be free from mortal sin and have the right intentions, but also approach the sacrament with great devotion and reverence, to be manifested through fasting and other careful preparation far beyond the norm that most people could manage regularly.
The modern view, reflected in the current Code of Canon Law, is that since the sacrament conveys grace we should receive it as frequently as possible in the hope of receiving some of that grace (strangely, the same argument does not seem to extend to confession).
The more traditional view is that while the grace of the sacrament is infinite, our capacity to benefit from it depends entirely on our dispositions. Hence one extremely well disposed reception of the sacrament can infuse more grace in our souls than a hundred (or more) less well-disposed receptions.
And of course, the traditional view also took seriously St Paul's warnings about the dire consequences of unworthy reception of the sacrament.
I'm not necessarily advocating infrequent communion: the enforced infrequent communion of those of us who suffer from wheat allergies, gluten intolerance and the like aside (and yes there are ways of dealing with these issues, albeit no simple solutions, particularly in a traditionalist context), the 'tradition' has arguably moved on. Perhaps in the current circumstances the best approach would be to concentrate on ways of recovering Pope Pius X's true objective through promotion of means to induce a greater sense of reverence for the sacrament and a greater use of the sacrament of confession, such that frequent communion would be fruitful for most people.
Still, I think the point that this was a radical change to practice, and could and arguably has had real consequences, is worth making.
The fight against modernism
Pope Pius X's main claim to fame, for modern traditionalists at least, though, is his work in combatting modernism and other heresies within the Church.
Some today in the neo-conservative (or 'neo-Catholic' if you prefer though I personally hate the term) establishment seem to want us all to ignore the problems of the Church within and focus instead on presenting a happy front to enable evangelisation to those outside.
Pope Pius X's life though, does, I think, genuinely illustrate the need for a continuing focus on what is happening within, for as with so many of the great Pope and bishops saints, he spent most of his life combatting error within the Church as a necessary pre-condition to the mission 'ad extra'. Indeed, Our Lord's own mission was to the Jews, countering the distortions and errors that had crept into practice as a necessary foundation for the mission to convert the world.
All the same, I do think there are some take out lessons from his pastoral program. Modernism, albeit in mutated forms, is alas still with us. Many traditionalists today seem to be reacting by focusing ever more on dogma and the defence of particular (sometimes eccentric in my view) theological positions, and in the process sometimes reflexively reject even perfectly legitimate theological responses and understandings to modern problems.
In a world where most people do not have the necessary training and knowledge of philosophy and theology, and that is antagonistic to the notion of truth as an absolute, I think that is a mistake.
We need to rediscover first what Pope Pius X understood, namely that practices can be used to combat doctrinal error. But we also need to learn from his mistakes, and focus afresh on the fact that changing those practices and traditions can have an unintended sub-texts, and hence unintended consequences.
If we want to save the Church from modernist errors we need to encourage those people who are not traditionalists to attend the TLM - because over time, with exposure to the tradition, they may well become traditionalists. And we need to work with conservatives to recover the importance of traditional practices and traditional Catholic culture, for they are what truly support and help inculcate right doctrine.
Pope St Pius X pray for us in the mission to reform the Church from within.