Must Altars be Freestanding?

I have already shown beyond any possible doubt that no mandatory legislation exists commanding that the tabernacle must be removed from the main altar. We shall now examine legislation concerning a freestanding altar in the same way, i.e., whether it constitutes a permission, a recommendation, or a command. The relevant legislation will be examined in chronological order.

Sacrosanctum Concilium,
The Liturgy Constitution of Vatican II 4 December 1963

This Constitution does not recommend that Mass should ever be celebrated facing the people; it does not even mention the practice, and hence does not refer to the need for a freestanding altar. Article 124 states that when churches are built care should be taken that they are suitable for the celebration of liturgical services and the active participation of the faithful. Note that it refers only to the building of new churches and not adaption of existing ones. As Mass facing the people is in no way necessary for, or in any way conducive to, the active participation of the faithful, it is evident that this article did not envisage freestanding altars even in new churches.

There is a reference to the altar in n. 128, but it simply states that new liturgical laws should refer to the worthy and well-planned construction of sacred buildings, and the shape and construction of altars. Once again, there is no reference to their being freestanding. N. 127 requires bishops to ensure that sacred furnishings and works of value are not destroyed as they are ornaments in God's House. Sadly, this requirement has had no effect on prelates such as Bishop Lindsay who had no hesitation in destroying the sanctuary of St. Mary's Cathedral.

Before the Council had ended some priests had begun to place tables in front of their altars upon which they celebrated Mass facing the people. This is an example of the celebrated "spirit of Vatican II", in which practices for which one can find no sanction in the official documents of the Council are presented as in accordance with its spirit. It is also a flagrant repudiation of the warning given by Pope Pius XII in his Encyclical Mediator Dei, that it would be wrong to want "the altar restored to its ancient form of a table".
Inter Oecumenici
First Instruction on Putting into Effect the Constitution
on Sacred Liturgy 26 September 1964

In March of the same year, the Commission for the Implementation of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy had been established, the notorious Consilium, with Cardinal Lercaro as the President and Father Annibale Bugnini as the Secretary. Father Bugnini was described by Dietrich von Hildebrand as "the evil spirit of the liturgical reform". The manner in which the Consilium did its work is made very clear in this document, which, although promulgated under the auspices of the Sacred Congregation of Rites, was also signed by Cardinal Lercaro in his capacity as President of the Consilium. The Consilium did not have the authority to promulgate legislation, and so the changes it wished to impose were promulgated by the Sacred Congregation. The late Archbishop R.J. Dwyer remarked, with the benefit of hindsight, that the great mistake in the implementation of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy was allowing it to fall into the hands of men who were either "unscrupulous or incompetent. This is the so-called 'Liturgical Establishment', a sacred cow which acts more like a white elephant as it tramples the shards of a shattered liturgy with ponderous abandon".

As I have just stated, the manner in which the Consilium did its work is made very clear in Inter oecumenici. N. 90 reads:

In building new churches and in repairing or adapting old ones care must be taken to ensure that they lend themselves to the celebration of divine services as they are meant to be celebrated, and to achieve the active participation of the faithful (cf. Const. art. 124).

However, n. 124 of the Liturgy Constitution does not state this. The words in italics do not occur in it. N. 124 mentions new churches only. But how many of those who read Inter oecumenici would have taken the trouble to verify the reference? Throughout this century Catholics had taken it for granted that any document coming from the Vatican would be beyond reproach. It would have appeared almost unCatholic to so much as think of verifying a reference in a Vatican document.

N. 91 contains the first reference to a celebration facing the people in the conciliar of post-conciliar legislation:

It is better (praestat ut) for the main altar to be constructed away from the wall so that one can move round it without difficulty, and so that it can (peragi possit) be used for a celebration facing the people.

Note very carefully that Inter oecumenici does no more than recommend the construction of altars away from the wall so as to make possible a celebration facing the people. It does not actually recommend celebrating Mass in this way, nor does it command that new altars must be freestanding, or that existing altars must be moved forward from the east wall. No reference is given for n. 91, which is not surprising since at no time in the history of the Church have altars ever been constructed specifically to facilitate a celebration facing the people. As I have already shown, there is no precedent in the entire history of the Church for celebrating Mass facing the people as an act of conscious pastoral policy. The practice constitutes a radical break with Tradition, and has been invested with an anti-sacrificial signification since its adoption by Protestants as a sign that they believe their Lord's Supper to be no more than a commemorative meal.

Emphasis in bold, that of the Web Master.

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