The Problems of Archaeologism and Antiquarianism

Abbot Basil C Butler

The Flaws of antiquarianism and Archaeologism

Origins and beliefs of archaeologism and antiquarianism

There has been in recent times and possibly dating back to the 1930s a very flawed and erroneous philosophical and historical school of thought known as both archaeologism and antiquarianism which pertains to Catholic ecclesiology. In this article I will give a brief background as to its origins, its essential beliefs, its influence in the Church, and why it is a flawed school of thought and how it is furthermore based on bad historical scholarship as well as modern interpretations and applications.

The schools of archaeologism and antiquarianism could be traced back to the 1930s. During the 1930s there were a lot of liturgists and theologians who were stressing a radical return to the primitive Church such as the Apostolic and Early Church. Some notable of these include Dom Lambert Beauduin, Ildefons Herwegen, Pius Parsch, Virgil Michel and Annibale Bugnini.

So what is archaeologism as well as antiquarianism?

“Archaeologism… is an excessive value placed on those Catholic practices which came earlier in historical chronological succession. For the archaeologist, first is always best. A practice or prayer of the Early Church is ‘better’ or ‘purer’ than a practice of the Medieval Church. Consequently the goal of any true liturgical renewal ought to be to return to the practice of the first Christians, in as much as possible. The modern Church ought to imitate the Apostolic Church.”1

 Many of these leading individuals wanted to bring Catholic ecclesiology back to its primitive foundations including “purging” Catholic ecclesiology and liturgical aspects which came many years after.

Many of these leading theologians and liturgists essentially wanted Catholic ecclesiology to be purged of anything which came later in a chronological succession such as the liturgical and theological developments of the Medieval Church since they saw them as burdens for the Catholic Faithful.

Fallacies of archaeologism & antiquarianism: False sense of Tradition

Many of the archaeologists and antiquarians who advanced this radical return to the practices and theological presentation of the Early Church had for most part noble motives and aims. Namely this consisted in a return to the source and traditions of our Holy Catholic Faith. They believed that if we simply returned to those primitive practices then this would help the faithful to better participate in the Church’s liturgical life and theological presentations. This in essence seems like a noble motive to undertake. As we will however see the approach of archaeologism and antiquarianism was however based on a very false sense of Catholic Tradition.

The problem with archaeologism is that it fundamentally denies the living and organic nature of the Church and especially ecclesial tradition. The Catholic Church and especially the nature of Catholic Tradition is living and organic. Archaeologism and antiquarianism in the contrast see Tradition as dead rather than living, seeing tradition as a mere artifact.

“Just as a human being, each growth and adaption the Church undergoes over the centuries becomes part of her identity. Both the things that shaped my own development when I was 12 as well as those that did so when I was 25 are equally part of my personality, and to deny one in favor of the other, or to regard older developments are authentic while later ones are simply ‘accretions’ is really to deny the organic nature of my personhoold.”2

Pope Pius XII almost since the origins of the schools of archaeologism and antiquarianism reproved the fallacies of their approach in regards to the Church’s liturgical life and ecclesial outlooks. Pope Pius applauded that they wanted to bring back some practices of the primitive church but he quickly admonished their rejection of the living and organic nature of Catholic Tradition.

Pope Pius stated in Mediator Dei Section 59 regarding some of the problems of the archaeologist and antiquarian schools of thought:

“The Church is without question a living organism, and as an organism, in respect of the sacred liturgy also, she grows, matures, develops, adapts and accommodates herself to temporal needs and circumstances, provided only that the integrity of her doctrine be safeguarded. This notwithstanding, the temerity and daring of those who introduce novel liturgical practices, or call for the revival of obsolete rites out of harmony with prevailing laws and rubrics, deserve severe reproof.3

In a latter passage from Mediator Dei Pope Pius emphasizes on the fallacies of wanting to return to some of these primitive practices Pope Pius once again notes the noble aim of some of the desires of wanting to go back to some primitive practices but also notes once again the flawed nature of these two schools of thought:

“Assuredly it is a wise and most laudable thing to return in spirit and affection to the sources of the sacred liturgy. For research in this field of study, by tracing it back to its origins, contributes valuable assistance towards a more thorough and careful investigation of the significance of feast-days, and of the meaning of the texts and sacred ceremonies employed on their occasion. But it is neither wise nor laudable to reduce everything to antiquity by every possible device. Thus, to cite some instances, one would be straying from the straight path were he to wish the altar restored to its primitive tableform; were he to want black excluded as a color for the liturgical vestments; were he to forbid the use of sacred images and statues in Churches; were he to order the crucifix so designed that the divine Redeemer’s body shows no trace of His cruel sufferings; and lastly were he to disdain and reject polyphonic music or singing in parts, even where it conforms to regulations issued by the Holy See.”4

In this last passage of Mediator Dei Pope Pius XII notes the fallacies of these schools of thought both in matters liturgical and theological

“Clearly no sincere Catholic can refuse to accept the formulation of Christian doctrine more recently elaborated and proclaimed as dogmas by the Church, under the inspiration and guidance of the Holy Spirit with abundant fruit for souls, because it pleases him to hark back to the old formulas. No more can any Catholic in his right senses repudiate existing legislation of the Church to revert to prescriptions based on the earliest sources of canon law. Just as obviously unwise and mistaken is the zeal of one who in matters liturgical would go back to the rites and usage of antiquity, discarding the new patterns introduced by disposition of divine Providence to meet the changes of circumstances and situation”.5

For these reasons the biggest dangers of both archaeologism and antiquarianism is that it denies the living and organic elements to Catholic Tradition and sees it rather as a dead tradition that is nothing short of being a mere artifact needing to be recovered, while rejecting the liturgical and theological developments that came throughout the centuries by Divine Providence and for the needs of the time.

Archaeologism and Antiquarianism’s influence on Vatican II and the New Mass

Despite the warnings and admonitions of Pope Pius XII many leading theologians and liturgists around the time of the Second Vatican Council and the promulgation of the New Mass had wielded a large sphere of influence in regards to the views of both archaeologism and antiquarianism. One specific leading proponent of these views in regards to the Second Vatican Council was Abbot Basil C. Butler, an Anglican Convert who was also a scripture scholar and Abbot of the Benedictine Congregation of Downside Abbey in England.

Abbot Basil C. Butler was a leading voice in the Second Vatican Council and his writings quickly show that he was immersed in archaeologist and antiquarian thought and that he wanted a radical return to the primitive Church at the expense of those latter organic developments which had come after, and which Pope Pius XII had warned against. Butler’s views did not just include liturgical matters but even doctrinal and theological matters.

“The pastoral aim, the instinct of a charity that goes beyond all boundaries, the sense of mission not so much to human nature or the abstract human species, but to human persons and the actually existing human family, demanded that our aggiornamento should be conceived of in depth. The consequent need to discriminate between what the Church must always be, what the Gospel forever is, and the contingent elements in which, at any given moment, the Church presents herself in history, was driving the Council to some criterion. And this drive took her gaze ever backwards, behind the counterrevolutionary Church, behind the Counter-Reformation, behind the medieval synthesis, back to the Church before the estrangement of East and West, to the Church before the confrontation with Greek culture and philosophy, to the primal source: to Christ in Palestine…Christ Himself is the fullness of divine revelation, and the content of the sacred tradition is just revelation, the Word of God made flesh.”6

The problem with this view as expressed by Abbot Butler is that it rejects and abandons those great doctrinal, as well as philosophical and theological developments which had developed throughout the ages based on the needs of the Church and of the Catholic Faithful. Could we in good conscience possibly reject Thomism and the great developments made by Saint Thomas Aquinas for example? How about the doctrines and dogmatic formulations made throughout the ages such as the Immaculate Conception, the Assumption of Mary, the Council of Trent, and many other developments made as a means of combatting the errors of the day?

Several years after the close of the Second Vatican Council and the promulgation of the Novus Ordo Abbot Basil wrote to his sister Mary Butler and wrote the following:

“Ever since the second century, the Church has been adapting herself to her age. In the second century she Europeanised herself having started as a Jewish thing. She learnt to think and express herself according to Greek philosophy. Then she Romanised herself (I might have added that, later still, she feudalised herself). She trails along with her remnants of these past adaptations. (I might have added that, since the Reformation she has frozen herself into the decadent medieval attitudes which she took up against the Reformers). For me renewal means not just a few changes in window dressing, but a radical return to her origins – not so that we become first century Palestinian Jews, but so that we may then ‘translate’ the fullness of the Gospel into terms relevant to our own age. (The Council can of course take only one or two tentative steps in the required direction; it will be for the Church to explore it further.)”7

Similarly this archaeologist and antiquarian influence on Vatican II and the New Mass can be seen in the text of Sacrosanctum Concilium Section 50:

“The rite of the Mass is to be revised in such a way that the intrinsic nature and purpose of its several parts, as also the connection between them, may be more clearly manifested, and that devout and active participation by the faithful may be more easily achieved. For this purpose the rites are to be simplified, due care being taken to preserve their substance; elements which, with the passage of time, came to be duplicated, or were added with but little advantage, are now to be discarded; other elements which have suffered injury through accidents of history are now to be restored to the vigor which they had in the days of the holy Fathers, as may seem useful or necessary.”8

Similarly when the Novus Ordo was promulgated in 1969 we saw for example “The reduction of the amount of times the sign of the Cross was used, the elimination of the Last Gospel, prayers at the foot of the altar, etc. This elimination of rites stems from a view of the organic development of the liturgy as mere accretions that are of ‘little advantage’ to the faithful.”9

Antiquarianism and Archaeologism rooted on bad historical scholarship

Not only are archaeologism and antiquarianism based on a very flawed concept and understanding regarding the nature of Catholic Tradition and ecclesiology but it is also to a large extent based on bad historical scholarship. This includes many liturgical practices which many individuals who hold on to either antiquarianism or archaeologism favor a return to, such as Communion in the hand, the celebration of Mass facing the people (vesus populum), including the use of table altars as opposed to high altars, and many other things. However modern scholarship has shown that many of these things are based on bad historical scholarship and furthermore that the modern interpretations and applications to these things is drastically different than what it was is in reality.

A great example of this is in regards to the liturgical practice of receiving Holy Communion in the hand which many individuals have said we should return to because it is the way that those in the Early Church did. Many Church historians and even influential prelates such as Bishop Athanasius Schneider are now saying is historically untrue to a large extent.

For example it is true that to a certain extent the practice of Holy Communion in the hand was practiced in the Early Church. This is only a half-truth though. First of all there is strong evidence that the Eucharist was not truly touched by the fingers of a person, but only the palm. The palm served as a patent at a time when patents were not greatly available. Furthermore the communicant would directly place the Eucharist in the mouth with the tongue without touching it with the fingers. Lastly it was only during times of persecution that this practice was allowed. This was mainly for keeping the Mass as quickly and short as possible, lest they fall under arrest during these hard times. Once persecution was over the practice quickly fell out of place. This is precisely because of the various dangers and profanations which can occur to the Eucharist as well as the lack of faith in the Real Presence that can occur as we have often seen.

Another liturgical practice which many have called for such as the celebration of Mass with the priest facing the people (Versus Populum) has also been refuted by many modern scholarship and Church historians as being based on bad historical scholarship. It can actually be arguably be said that the use of Ad Orientem (The priest facing the altar) was used ever since the first Mass celebrated. The Church teaches that the Last Supper was in fact the first celebrated Mass, since it is here in which Christ instituted the Eucharist by breaking bread, blessing it, and turning bread and wine into the literal body, blood, soul, and divinity of Christ. Michael Davies a Church historian writes  “They (the twelve apostles and Christ) all reclined on the same side of the table, facing Jerusalem, just as for nearly 2,000 years of Christian history, the priest and the people have offered or assisted Mass on the same side of the altar”10  

Many other historians and scholars also document that while the ancient liturgies did speak of the priest turning and “facing the people” during certain parts of the Mass, the concept of celebrating the entire Mass versus populum is not true during this time. The celebration of versus populum (Mass faced towards the people) in the Catholic Mass was rather an invention of the 1970s which was grounded in a false interpretation and application of a liturgical practice of the Early Church.

One last example of this liturgical aspect which is also grounded in faulty scholarship is in regards to those who have tried to change the traditional Roman Canon to different ones such as Eucharistic prayer 2 which is said to have been older than the Roman Canon and which was said to have its origins in St. Hippolytus. However as Fr. Finigan has pointed out:

“We need to be careful about asserting too readily that the “Apostolic Tradition” is Roman, that it is our earliest liturgical source, that it is by Hippolytus and so on. The origin, authorship and dating of the document is not established with the certainty that would enable us to draw safe conclusions as a solid basis for practical liturgical proposals.”11

Similarly Boniface in his article Eucharistic prayer #2 furthermore states that it is actually likely that the Traditional Roman Canon is significantly order perhaps having its roots with Saint Peter himself.

“Of course, the Roman Canon did not begin with Gregory but was codified by him. Gregory himself stated that the canon had been already possessed and arranged in the same order for centuries and was himself unsure who wrote it (Epp., lib. VII, no. lxiv, also lib. IX, no. xii). We see St. Ambrose making a definitive reference to the Roman Canon and bits of the Roman Canon are quoted in the pre-Nicene Fathers. Going even further, some have examined the textual similarities between the Roman Canon and the Epistles of St. Peter and concluded that some of the Roman Canon may have been composed by St. Peter himself (Fr. Ripperger is of this opinion, I believe). Addition evidence to this effect is that in ancient Greek translations of the Roman Canon, the liturgy is referred to as “The Liturgy of St. Peter.”12

I think we can reasonably conclude from all of this that the prevailing views of archaeologism and antiquarianism are significantly a flawed philosophical outlook in regards to the Early Church, as well as Catholic ecclesiology and tradition, viewing it not as living and organic which develops throughout the ages as Divine Providence sees fit, but rather as nothing but a dead artifact needing to be recovered. We have also seen that this approach to ecclesiology is also based to a great extent on bad historical scholarship and modern interpretation. We have also lastly seen that this approach has also greatly affected several aspects of the Church.


  1. What is Archaeologism?
  2. Ibid
  3. Pope Pius XII “Mediator Dei Section 59”
  4. Mediator Dei Section 62
  5. Mediator Dei Section 63
  6. Basil C. Butler, OSB, The Aggiornamento of Vatican II, 1966, “Faith Magazine, July 2013
  7. Basil C. Butler, Letter to Miss Mary Butler, 3 October 1964
  8. Sacrosanctum Concilium Section 50
  9. Question on Antiquarianism
  10. Michael Davies “The Catholic Sanctuary and the Second Vatican Council”; Tan Books 1997
  11. Hippolytus and Eucharistic Prayer II
  12. Eucharistic Prayer # 2















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