A Crisis of Reception – COMPLETE!

We have now published the entire master’s thesis by J. Peter Nixon, “A Crisis of Reception: The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy and the Debate over the English Translation of the Roman Missal.” This thesis was successfully defended at the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California in 2008. It gives an excellent summary overview of the liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council, the history of vernacular translations since the Council, and the crisis which developed in the 1990s between the International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL) and its critics in the Roman Curia. Especially helpful is Nixon’s balanced treatment of the debate over how to interpret Vatican II.

A Crisis of Reception Chap 1 Chap 2

A Crisis of Reception Chap 3

A Crisis of Reception Chap 4

A Crisis of Reception Chap 5 

A Crisis of Reception Chap 6

A Crisis of Reception Bibliography






13 responses to “A Crisis of Reception – COMPLETE!”

  1. Bill deHaas Avatar
    Bill deHaas

    Mr. Nixon – look forward to the rest of your thesis. Excellent theme and so appropriate given what is going on.
    Not sure what your other chapters will show but my memories of these events were highlighted by a couple of things in terms of continuity and/or disruption:
    – it is said that when the final vote on the SC schema happened at Vatican II – end of first session? that John XXIII made a personal journal note that the votes seemed to divide on vernacular and enculturation between “mission” bishops and Italian/curia/European bishops. Mission bishops were much more aligned with vernacular and adaptation
    – remember also the famous Eastern Rite patriarch who refused to speak in latin; rather, his comments on liturgy were in French because his point was that latin is not the consistent or even the essential point of liturgy – it is the community’s sacramental action. Language, adaptations, etc. are accidents not the essence.

    Hope that you address some of these scattered thoughts especially in terms of how LA came about; who wrote it; why the South American curial cardinal suppressed ICEL (he did not speak english but seemed to have strong opinions on it), etc.

  2. Karl Liam Saur Avatar
    Karl Liam Saur

    Many of us remember Peter Nixon fondly as the founder of one of the very best of the first-generation Catholic blogs, Sursum Corda. Unlike some of us (myself very much included), he doesn’t waste words.

  3. J Peter Nixon Avatar
    J Peter Nixon


    You are most gracious. However, be forewarned that the structure of a thesis encourages you to waste words. You say what you are going to say, you say it, and then you say that you have said it!

    God bless,


    1. Karl Liam Saur Avatar
      Karl Liam Saur


      Of course. The principle of double effect applies to the method of argumentation of the thesis.

      I write this as someone who believes that the culture of American academia is in a decadent phase.

      However, that doesn’t mean everything coming out of it is bad. I just understand the process is suboptimal.

      PS: Sometimes, I despair of the quality of scholarly historical writing about broad topics that’s directed to a general audience, and then I find things like Chris Wickham’s magnificent “The Inheritance of Rome” (a long passage in the introduction to which should be required reading for anyone trying to understand why epistemic humility is necessary in making historical arguments) and the even more ambitious (but not quite as successful) “Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years” by Diarmaid MacCulloch (which wins extra special bonus points for being the first work of its type I can remember that attempts a full interweaving of the history of the Oriental Churches with that of the Greek and Roman Churches – the book is worth reading for that dimension alone, and helps remedy something that has long bugged me about Church history works that have heretofore dominated English-language discussions). And then narrower works like Eamon Duffy’s “Catholic Fires” (Tudor-Stuart history was a specialty of mine back in the day, along with other things….)

  4. Jack Rakosky Avatar
    Jack Rakosky

    “In this section, I have argued that the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy is characterized by four major tensions: 1) liturgy as reception and expression; 2) liturgical action as communal and hierarchically ordered; 3) reform as preserving sound tradition while allowing for legitimate progress; and 4) adaptation as preserving substantial unity while allowing for legitimate variation. Faithfulness to the Constitution demands faithfulness to these tensions.” (p.47)

    This tension formulation, especially the importance attached to demanding faithfulness to these tensions, provides us with a much needed organic and dynamic model of liturgy as a living reality.

    Liturgy as reception, as hierarchically ordered, as preserving sound tradition and substantial unity, these ground liturgy in its organic past. Liturgy as expression, as communally ordered, as progress and variation provide the dynamic interaction with the environment equally essential to a living reality.

    The future of a living reality is dependent upon both its past organic development as well as its present adaption to its environment.

  5. Karl Liam Saur Avatar
    Karl Liam Saur

    Folks, don’t forget this over here on the right!

    Peter, I won’t presume to evaluate your work, as that is properly done by your committee and professionals. I do value it, and will keep it, suffice it to say.

    I wanted to share a few thoughts, randomly:

    1. Thank you for keeping the tension in focus as something necessary rather than as something to be gotten past. I think this is actually the hardest part for everyone. We cannot see the Holy Spirit working in tension, only in resolved cadences. It’s our blindspot, not the Holy Spirit’s.

    2. I would encourage you at some later time to develop thoughts around the implications and results of Pius X’s reforms of sacramental praxis. I think that was the biggest revolution of all, and necessitated Vatican II (not just liturgically).

    3. In terms of hermeneutics:

    a. For English-language Catholics, the difference in legal culture between the Anglosphere and Rome is important. So much of the conversation among us is dominated by a tendency to read conciliar and Curial documents the way we read our civil constitutions and laws. It is a consistent source of misunderstanding.

    b. I believe it’s important to understand that it was the Tridentine liturgical reforms that effectively killed organic development. The import of this is twofold: first, it meant that any reform would by necessity be done legislatively/bureaucratically and therefore be experienced as a discontinuity, and second, it dramatically increased the odds that any movement to “recover”, “restore” or “preserve” tradition would tend to become ideological – and ideology is modern: it’s traditionalist, but not traditional. There appears to be a lack of self-awareness regarding this on the part of most (but not all) of the traditionally minded. (On this last point, read Rod Dreher’s comments on the conundrum of traditionalism: http://blog.beliefnet.com/roddreher/2010/06/tradition-faux-and-true.html)

    Oh, and if any of this is useful to you, please use it as you will.

  6. Peter Nixon Avatar
    Peter Nixon

    Thanks for the feedback, Liam. Aidan Kavanaugh once suggested that the real transformation that came with Trent was the idea of a standard set of liturgical books, a concept that was only possible because of the advent of the printing press. While liturgical books were always part of the way that the tradition was handed down, the fact that the books had to be copied by hand meant that orality played an important role as well. Oral tradition is generally more open to organic development than a textual tradition. Liturgy increasingly became something read out of a book, which may explain why so many of us have our noses in our missalettes throughout Mass!

  7. Chris Grady Avatar
    Chris Grady

    Surely the ‘noses in the missalettes’ thing is a result of three things: 1) having a missalette (if you don’t you can’t); 2) using a non-vernacular language; and 3) bad (or no) catechesis about listening etc

    1. Terri Miyamoto Avatar
      Terri Miyamoto

      and (4) Priests with impenetrable accents reading the Gospel and preaching

  8. Ioannes Andreades Avatar
    Ioannes Andreades

    I’m in the proces of going through chapter 4. I have to admit to some doubts. The first is the translation of seu. I’m not an expert in Ecclesiastical Latin, but I’m fairly proficient in the classical stuff. In classical Latin, seu in this context would give the choice of two options, not a clarification. Simply reading the Latin, I would say that there is the option, either of probare or confirmare. Part of the issue, I think, lies not so much in the meaning of seu but of probare, which may mean both to scrutinize (Jungmann’s take) or to approve (=probare). Since the semantic ranges of these words overlap, my take on it would be that the phrase is used to show that not only a simple approval (confirmare) be given but perhaps a more detailed analysis (one of the meanings of probare that can’t be expressed by confirmare) be chosen. Otherwise, there is no reason not simply to say “confirmatis”. Linguistically, a listener may presume that a speaker’s utterance is not more prolix than necessary (i.e. we generally don’t say “light red”; we say “pink”). Otherwise, a series of implicatures can be created. Therefore, it is necessary to explain the more prolix utterance. Here, we need to ask, why didn’t the document just say confirmatis? Presumably, something additional was intended. Conversely, simply using probatis would be unclear, since we would not know which meaning was intended or whether both sense might be operative.

    1. Ioannes Andreades Avatar
      Ioannes Andreades

      The question then becomes, who gets to decide? It would be odd to say that the episcopal conference could make that decision, since they would presumably alsways choose the confirmare option. Based on the wording, I can’t see how episcopal conferences would be justified in presuming that.

    2. Ioannes Andreades Avatar
      Ioannes Andreades


      As it was, it didn’t really matter, since Pope Paul let the entire mass be said in the vernacular.

      Am curious. Are there any countries where the canon must still be said in Latin?

      There is one aspect of the thesis that is quite curious to me. The “three-legged” communication idea of Ormond Rush. What is interesting to me is that to a large extent, the communicator and the recipient are the same people in this scenario. A communicator bishop who voted in St. Peters might be the same as the recipient bishop at the Hilton conference center. Pope Paul and Pope John Paul II are interesting examples of this as well. John Paul II may have received the documents in the same way that he intended them, and the promulgation of Canon Law in 1983 may very well reflect his intent when he voted in 1963. He clearly thought that the content of the constitution could be modified. Thus the three-legged construct cannot be thought of as a model that can be mechanically applied. Clearly the reception hermeneutic is the most complex and irreduceable of the three.

  9. Paul Schlachter Avatar

    Many thanks to Pray Tell for posting Peter Nixon’s reading of our history of decision making, interpretation and reception. Balanced views such as his should inform our catechesis about language in liturgy. So, of course, should mystery, revelation, prayer and many other dimensions he did not cover. Over the years I have attended numerous conferences in which a revised rite is only described as approved and taking effect soon, so we are to learn it. The more we encourage each other to listen and understand the values we are each trying to further, the better we will be able to manage the tensions that Nixon listed.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

%d bloggers like this: