Thursday, June 25, 2009

Thoughts on "How the Liturgy Might Have Been If..."

I had been hoping to talk more about Nick’s paper this morning, but we moved away from it without really getting into any discussion of his characterization of St. Thomas and the medieval liturgy. So this blog is a nice opportunity to say more.

The first thing that struck me about Nick’s paper is that he appears to exemplify an attitude towards getting liturgy right that I find completely wrong. I don’t think it’s a surprise that a Catholic and a Reformed Christian would have some significant disagreements on such matters. But it’s worth mentioning this one in particular, I think, because it seems important, and I’m not sure whether the point I’m about to make would be obvious to everyone.

Nick likes the “balanced” approach to liturgy he finds in St. Justin Martyr. He may very well have independent reasons for embracing that approach, but it does appear that he takes the antiquity of that approach to be an important argument in its favor. As he says, at the time of St. Justin, the liturgy had settled in, but hadn’t yet become “encrusted.” (185) It’s as though we’re getting closer to the mind of Christ (or at least the Apostles), with respect to the liturgy, by modeling our liturgy on the early forms.

I think antiquity is a great thing, and other things being equal, I’m in favor of old stuff over new stuff. But Pope Pius XII has given a rather stern warning about antiquity:

The liturgy of the early ages is most certainly worthy of all veneration. But ancient usage must not be esteemed more suitable and proper, either in its own right or in its significance for later times and new situations, on the simple ground that it carries the savor and aroma of antiquity. The more recent liturgical rites likewise deserve reverence and respect. They, too, owe their inspiration to the Holy Spirit, who assists the Church in every age even to the consummation of the world…. 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 table form…. 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…. 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.

The thrust of this passage, as I see it, is the very simple point that we ought not to think of the early liturgy as though it provided a structure that needed to be preserved at all times. This seems entirely right to me.

Is the balance in the medieval mass leaning heavily towards Eucharist and away from Word? Sure. Some of the reason for that may be human elements that have crept into the liturgy and corrupted it to some extent. (I’m certainly not so silly as to suggest that everything about medieval liturgy was admirable, although I probably see much more to admire about it than do many others in the seminar.) On the other hand, maybe the reason for the “imbalance” is that the Church came to see the Divine Office as being more the time for Scripture reading and meditation on God’s word, and the mass as being more the time for Eucharist. (And, no doubt, many other such considerations.) But to whatever extent the Church comes to see the liturgy as not being done well, I think the way to fix that is not simply to try to head back to the early liturgy, but rather to correct the excesses or defects while keeping the developments that seem to have been genuine promptings of the Spirit. Nick does make a gesture in that direction, by noting that the various liturgical reforms have “enriched” the early form with some later developments. So this may just be a dispute over emphasis.

But I don’t think it’s just emphasis: there’s substantive disagreement, too, since some of what I would claim are fundamentally important and wholly irreformable developments, Nick seems to see as unfortunate encrustations or deviations. One such development is the mature sacramental theology of the Church. And I have two concerns about Nick’s account of St. Thomas on the sacraments. First, Nick seems to interpret the causality of the sacraments as somehow minimizing God’s causal role: “God,” he says, “is content to remain in the background.” (191) This is very far from how I understand St. Thomas. The sacraments are true causes, yes, but not as independent agents. They are, as Nick rightly says, instrumental causes. A standard example of an instrumental cause is the pen I use to write with. The pen is a cause of the appearing of the words on the page. But it’s not a cause that pushes me into the background. An account of how a manuscript gets written that mentions the pen, but neglects to mention the author, wouldn’t just be incomplete or quirky, but would in fact be profoundly misleading. Likewise, one simply cannot accept the Church’s sacramental theology in any sensible way, and in any sense at all keep God in the background. Keeping God in the background is wholly inconsistent with accepting Catholic sacramental theology.

Second, Nick suggests that St. Thomas’ account of the Eucharist pulls the Eucharist out of the sacramental system: “presence displaces sacrament.” (194) I agree that this is a tricky area, but I actually think St. Thomas’s doctrine of the Eucharist is wholly consistent and, in fact, the crowning achievement of his sacramental theology.

To see why, consider the standard medieval threefold distinction: in any sacrament, there is (a) what is sacrament only, (b) what is sacrament and thing, and (c) what is thing only. In the case of baptism, what is sacrament only is the water and the washing (the purely symbolic elements). What is thing and sacrament is the baptismal character that is imparted to the recipient. And what is thing only is the baptismal grace imparted to the recipient. The elements can come apart. Imagine baptizing a person who sincerely desires to be baptized, but who is living in sin and has no intention of changing that. In such a case, the baptismal character is imparted, but the baptismal grace is not. In other words, the person is baptized, but it does him no good. Now imagine baptizing an adult who completely repudiates the whole thing: doesn’t want baptism, doesn’t believe any of the stuff involved, etc. Such a person doesn’t receive the baptismal grace, of course, but also fails to receive the baptismal character. This person hasn’t been baptized. There has been no baptism unless the sacrament and thing is present in the recipient. (Similarly, there has been no marriage if one of the supposed spouses doesn’t really intend to be married. And so forth.) (For some discussion of all this with respect to baptism, see and some surrounding articles, especially 7.)

In the case of baptism and all the other sacraments except the Eucharist, both the thing only and the sacrament and thing are in the recipient. For this reason, St. Thomas will say that the sacraments (except Eucharist) contain something sacred in reference to something else (the recipient). But the Eucharist contains something sacred absolutely. Namely, the Body and Blood of Christ. To apply the above threefold distinction to the Eucharist, the Body and Blood of Christ are the sacrament and thing, the sacrament only is the bread and wine (falsely so-called), and the thing only is the grace imparted to the recipient. As we saw with baptism, what is essential for the sacrament to have “occurred” is that the sacrament and thing have been made present. But the sacrament and thing with respect to the Eucharist is present irrespective of whether anyone receives the Eucharist. The sacredness of the Eucharist is not merely in reference to some recipient, but absolute. The Eucharist is hence a unique sacrament—which Catholics would have insisted on anyway—but still a sacrament. Its sacramentality hasn’t been displaced by presence, but rather the fullness of sacramentality has been achieved in the sacramental presence of the immolated Lord.

The concern one might have about all this (I mean, aside from doubts about the whole theological picture) is that St. Thomas says that sacraments are signs of holy things insofar as they make men holy. But with respect to the Eucharist, the need to make men holy has dropped out. So hasn’t the sacramentality gone with it? In fact, St. Thomas writes (in a passage cited by Nick in n. 28) “this sacrament is both a sacrifice and a sacrament; it has the nature of a sacrifice insomuch as it is offered up; and it has the nature of a sacrament inasmuch as it is received.” (III, 79, 5) Isn’t sacramentality being undermined here?

This passage is, I think, easily misunderstood. As Abbot Vonier notes, we should pay attention to the subject: “this sacrament.” (See his lovely book A Key to the Doctrine of the Eucharist.) St. Thomas doesn’t say The Eucharist is both sacrifice and sacrament, he says the sacrament is both sacrifice and sacrament. He is not intending to suggest that the Eucharist can be considered equally well as either sacrament or sacrifice. He’s saying that in the case of this one particular sacrament, there’s some special stuff to consider. (Namely, the real presence of the Body and Blood of Christ: the absolute sacredness, together with the fact that Christ is present as immolated: the sacrificial element.) But that absolute sacredness is there because the Eucharist makes Christ sacramentally present. Moreover, “because the use of the consecrated matter belongs to a certain perfection of the sacrament, in the same way as operation is not the first but the second perfection of a thing…” (III, 78, 1 ad 2) This connects up nicely with our discussion this morning about Aristotelianism. The Eucharist is what it is (namely, the Sacrament) in virtue of its consecration, but it only “actualizes” itself as sacrament when it is received, thus conveying the grace that is thing only. Fortunately, at least the priest always receives at every mass, so there is never a case where Eucharist fails to attain its “second operation” as sacrament. All this is meant to say that medieval Eucharistic piety has not undermined the Eucharist’s place as a sacrament, but rather brings out its special role in the sacramental system.

On the other hand, one might very well argue that the baroque emphasis on Benediction as somehow even more important than the mass was a gross overreaction to the Reformation. Fortunatey, Benedictine fathers of the liturgical movement such as Dom Gueranger and Dom Beauduin effectively took to pieces in the late 19th and early 20th century. But their thrust seems to have been inherited by Schmemann: for they simply wanted to get liturgical piety fixed up, and not at all to mess around with the script of the liturgy itself.

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