This is a most important question. And one the answer to which will surprise people on all sides.
For, one group will say, “Of course the Catholic Church can gain. She is not the full Church of Christ anyway. There are many churches of the Church of Christ that are not Catholic and which therefore can teach the Catholic churches.”
Another group will say, “If the Catholic Church is the very Church founded by Jesus Christ, then she can gain nothing from non-Catholic churches.”
To answer this question, we must begin with some basics. First of all, the second group states a truth of dogmatic authority in its “if” clause: The Catholic Church most certain is the very Church founded by Jesus Christ. There is a “full identity” here; hence, no distinction at all.
But second, this does not mean that the Catholic Church can gain nothing from non-Catholic churches. Why not?
We must distinguish the essence of the Church – the ingredients of which I refer to as her intensive plenitude, e.g. her sanctifying power, her governing power, his teaching power, her holiness, catholicity, etc. – from her “lived life”. The “lived life” of the Church refers to the quality of the lives of her individual members, the quality of the theological reflection at some given age in some given place, the quality of the relations among the members, the quality of the liturgy, etc. The “lived life” of the Church may suffer in one age or another. There come times when Catholics do not live their faith well, run through the motions of the liturgy, do not study theology and philosophy, do not love the poor, do not order the temporal order to Christ the King, etc. For instance, before St. Francis, the Italians were far from the way of Christ and his Church. St. Francis brought about a renewal. At the times of the Protestant objections, many Catholics including priests were not living holy lives ordered to Christ the King. At different times in the Church’s history, liturgical reforms were made that were not so edifying. For example, the reform of the Divine Office in the early 16th century. It was a badly done reform; the Church eventually went back to her prior practice.
When we make these distinctions between the essence and the lived life, we can further reflect on our non-Catholic brothers and sisters. We can ask ourselves, “Is it possible that a Greek Orthodox liturgy is more beautiful than the liturgy as practiced in many Catholic parishes?” Now, I think just about anyone who assists at an Orthodox liturgy will agree: “Yes, they do liturgy better than do many Catholic parishes.” Thus, we can ask, “Can the Orthodox teach us how to do liturgy better?” I think surely everyone will now agree: “Yes, they most certainly can.”
Let’s continue. We can even ask more incisively: “Does the Orthodox liturgy itself – not just in its practice – not give us an objectively more beautiful presentation and more comprehensive catechetical portrait of our faith (excepting of course the Roman primacy and certain other crucial truths, such as some Marian dogmas) than that given in the Novus Ordo? Here, I contend the answer is, “Yes, it surely does.”
But someone will object: If you say that, you are questioning the validity of the Novus Ordo. Answer: No I am not. One can hold – and on grounds – that some liturgy is more adequate an expression of the Eternal Faith than another liturgy. Adequate here would be judged in terms of the comprehensive and articulate expression of the Church’s faith and in terms of the goal of liturgy, the pointing of man to God in fitting religious worship. Of secondary concern, but not of no concern, would be the “accessibility” of the liturgical reality. This is a concern, but it is of secondary importance.
Now, a full evaluation of the matter would be complex. It would involve analysis of the precise prayers, the order, the movements, the vestments, etc., of the liturgies. How well do the prayers convey, substantially, the faith of the Church? That Christ died for our sins to snatch us from the fires of hell! That Christ is God and man! That the Holy Trinity accepts the sacrifice of Christ our High Priest. That through the liturgy we are sanctified and ushered towards glory. That we must repent of our sins. That the saints are in heaven with us as we pray. That we rely on them. Etc. Now at the liturgies of John Chrysostom, the congregation sings again and again to God implorying his mercy and repenting of sin. Sanctification in light, removal of darkness. These are stressed. Christ as God and man. These are stressed. The liturgy is accessible though transcendent and even foreign. It lifts us up to worship.
Is that level of richness present expressively in the Novus Ordo? Is the saving sacrifice of Christ as abundantly expressively present in the Novus Ordo as in the Greek Orthodox liturgy? What of his holy Godhead, his exalted humanity, his kingly power and rule, etc.? These are serious questions. Of course, the one same sacrifice of the Mass is present; that is not in question.
Let’s return to our opening question: Can the Catholic Church gain from non-Catholic churches. The answer is indeed surprising. The answer is yes, contrary to what some, who love Tradition, may think. Yet paradoxically, this answer does not mean a dilution of Tradition, contrary to the misguided and the rebels. It means that we must be insightful enough to realize that the current “lived life” of the Church may be very sick, just as it was at the time of St. Francis. She may, in her members and expressed life, need to undergo an authentic reformation. And sometimes non-Catholic churches can point the way towards a healthier lived life.
Further, as should be evident by now for the reader, the Ordinary Form of the liturgy might stand to gain from consideration of the Extraordinary Form. The Novus Ordo may stand to gain from consideration of the Mass of many ages. The prayers, the gestures, the movements, the vestments, the sequences; the deep theology of the Cross, the battle of sin and grace, the transcendence of God, etc. Could it be that in an age in which we focus on the secondary concern – accessibility – we have lost sight of the primary concerns of liturgy? Could it be that accessibility thus stressed has eclipsed the Theo-centric character of liturgy?
The questions are double edged. Chiefly and immediately, they target the bad performances of the Novus Ordo. That is the chief ill of the day. For it is evident that the transcendence of God is not infrequently eclipsed by the very character of the way the Mass is celebrated. Balloon masses, etc. These are utterly banal; an insult to the human person. But secondly, and less forcefully but not without all force, the foregoing questions may well target the Novus Ordo itself. Not as anything illicit much less invalid. Not as anything false. Indeed, not. But rather as, perhaps, something less comprehensively expressive of the faith as would be desirable. See, e.g., the concerns of Siri, Ottaviani, even J. Ratzinger, et alia.
Final objection: But even to raise such questions is disobedience.
Final retort: Do you accept Paul VI’s missal? (He answers: Yes.) What are its roots? (Vatican II). You’re correct, though of course the normal interpretation of Vatican II might be different from what the texts themselves stipulate. For instance, the next never said that Latin should go on holiday. By the way, I got that expression from Cardinal Arinze. But back to my retort: What are the roots of Vatican II? (The liturgical movement of the 1900s). And was that movement suggesting a change in the then current liturgy? (Yes.) So it is not per se rebellious to suggest a change? (Well, hmm. I guess not.) No indeed. It must be done with tact and respect, loyalty to Rome and to the Great Tradition, and with an eye on the eternal glory of God and the salvation of souls.
Again and on a different note: Can a community of reformed Christians teach the Catholic Church anything? Indeed yes. How zealous many are! How deeply immersed in the bible. And yes how thoughtful. No, not all evangelicals are “fundamentalists” without brains. Many are very thoughtful. Indeed, I heard Denis Prager on the radio yesterday talking with a group of Christians who are scientists arguing scientifically for the perspective of an ordered, divinely ordered, world. This is excellent. And much needed. How much of the bible and history do Catholics know? Do they know how to go to a disaster area and lend a hand? Do they challenge the culture or just go along with it? Well, our evangelical brothers and sisters can teach us considerably on this score.
By the way, none of this is new to God’s plans. Who was it who told Moses how to organize the people in the desert? Not Aaron. Not Moses himself. No. His non-Jewish father-in-law! The bible is filled with surprises such as this.
The point is, we must measure our standards not by current practice alone but by the weight of Tradition, Divine Transcendence, etc. It just is a fact: Many people are currently bored with the current parochial practice of Catholicism.
If man is deep and built for transcendence, we will become relevant in the measure to which our lived Catholicism becomes deep and transcendent (not fickle and flighty), radically theo-centric (not anthropocentric), Godward (not manward), accessible yet difficult and wonderful (not conquerable, banal and forgettable).