Thursday, April 7, 2011

Challenging the Liturgical Status Quo

For the last year, I have been doing my doctoral research on the French Jesuit Henri De Lubac (1896-1991). This mild-mannered man who played a heroic part in the resistance to the Nazis in France was catapulted to a dubious fame in 1946 when he published a little book called Surnaturel.

The book was ostensibly little more than an historical survey about the concept of the supernatural in Catholic theology, but behind it was a more ambitious project. De Lubac, together with some other French and German theologians, was convinced that the evil of secularization had arisen in part because of a decadent interpretation of theology that had gripped the Church ever since St Thomas Aquinas. For them, the only way to shake the Church out of its fortress mentality and allow her to engage with the world was by renewing theology to re-establish contact between contemporary thought and the early Fathers of the Church.

When De Lubac charged that the noted commentator Tommaso di Vio, better known as Cajetan (1469-1534), had falsified St Thomas’ teaching on the supernatural, the theologians of the day reacted bitterly. For several years, the debate raged in French theological magazines. De Lubac was removed from his teaching post in Lyon. Then, Pope Blessed John XXIII was elected Pope and convoked the Second Vatican Council. This theologian was asked to be a consultor to the council, and his name was inscribed among the theological glitterati who comprised a school that came to be known as the nouvelle theologie. In the wake of the Council, De Lubac, who had been known before it as a dangerous radical, was just as easily dismissed as a reactionary throwback. De Lubac had always maintained that the answer to the question How is God related to human nature? was crucial, not only for theology, but for every aspect of the Church’s life. Within a decade after the Council, theologians were speaking of the twilight of the supernatural as if it were a theological category which had passed into the land of fairy tales, along with limbo and the doctrine that outside the Church there is no salvation.

De Lubac, to his credit, made some valid criticisms about the theology of the supernatural as had come to be explained in his time. He also rejected in great part the entire neo-scholastic system in which theology had been taught for centuries, but did not foresee that his name would be invoked for every kind of trend from liberation theology to Radical Orthodoxy, whose tenets he hardly would have supported. Yet his critique of the theology of the supernatural was accepted prima facie for generations, as it turns out, rather uncritically.

De Lubac’s rejection of the post-Tridentine Baroque commentatorial tradition was part of a fascinating phenomenon in mid-twentieth century theology. Throughout Catholic academia, there was the growing belief that there was something not quite right with the Council of Trent and what came after it. Theologians looked at the often dry and boring manuals of theology of the time and compared them with the vivacity of Patristic and early Medieval authors, and found the former wanting. These academic accurately foresaw the wind of secularism.

What they did not see was the whirlwind of the disintegration of a unitary method of Catholic theology. There had always been pluralism in Catholic theology. Every major university had chairs in Dominican, Franciscan, Jesuit, Thomistic and nominalist theologies. But the critique men of the Church like De Lubac made of the hegemony of neo-Thomism in their time actually gave a tool for others to replace legitimate theological pluralism with doctrinal disorder and chaos.

In matters liturgical, there was also the growing feeling that what happened to the liturgy at Trent and afterwards was somehow not quite right. Eminent liturgical thinkers like Louis Bouyer decried what they saw to be the theatricality of a baroque liturgy removed from the active participation of the people. They looked backwards to the liturgical experience of the primitive Church as having some kind of normative status even as it was admittedly shrouded in mystery.

Pope Pius XII, who was very much in favour of theological progress and research, did see the dangers with such an approach. His encyclicals, Humani generis and Mediator Dei, sought to put thinkers on the alert that such thinking was really anachronistic, and could actually harbour dangers for the integrity of the faith. The exuberant optimism of the conciliar period, however, confident in its own scientific claims, ignored this warning, and continued to propose that the only way forward, for theology as for liturgy, was to go backwards into a better time and forwards into an even better time. What had to be done was not only challenge, but eliminate, the status quo. In doing so, a new Church could be sung into being which would be more authentically Catholic.

The chief problem with this mindset is not the often sincere intentions for ecclesiastical renewal which accompanied it. This problem is expressed in two postulates. The first, is that there existed in the past some point of reference in which the liturgy, theology and Church life was pure, was what should be. This is incorrect, because the Church is never pure and what should be will only be in Heaven. The second, is that placing such a vision in dialogue with contemporary trends will renew the Church. This is also incorrect, because it assumes that such a dialogue and a renewal is always and everywhere possible.

After the Second Vatican Council, these two errors accompanied critiques of liturgy, theology, and Church life from left, right and center. Catholicism in the latter half of the twentieth century had imbibed the myth that there was out there a perfect way to do theology, make liturgy, and be the Church. If we read the memoirs of Annibale Bugnini and Cardinal Antonelli, both deeply involved in the Liturgical Reform and also divided by it, we can see that these two men in different ways took these postulates to be true, differing only in the details.

The assumption that the liturgy was broken and needed to be fixed, that theology was broken and needed to be fixed, that the Church was broken and needed to be fixed, began well before Vatican II and has continued unabated every since. People’s assumptions of how all of this came to be broken, and what must be done to fix it, have divided Catholics ever since.

The Neo-Thomists who reacted to De Lubac and others associated with the nouvelle theologie often refused to entertain legitimate points of their criticism because it was not expressed in a form they recognized. Likewise, those who felt themselves attacked rejected everything dear to their attackers because they were being attacked. A similar thing is happening with the liturgy. Many self-appointed proponents of what is now known as the Extraordinary Form of the liturgy defend one particular form of liturgy without always engaging concerns about the way in which liturgy is celebrated and intended to be. (One thinks of the rather odd situation of those who defend the 1962 Missal and the 1955 Holy Week Reforms without granting that they were as much the brainchild of Bugnini as the 1970 Missal). Likewise, liturgical revolutionaries have successfully poisoned the minds of many an otherwise faithful Catholic against liturgical forms of previous and current times because they do not conform to standards which they themselves set and which often have little to do with the liturgy at all.

In the past ten years, some younger theologians who were born after the debate over De Lubac’s Surnaturel and for whom the mid-century theological debates are about as personally relevant as those at Nicea I, have begun to ask themselves: What was the fuss all about anyway? In doing so, they have pointed out that De Lubac, even as he rightly pointed out certain aspects of the supernatural problem that had been obfuscated and hoped for a renewal of theology, still created more problems than he solved with his answer. These theologians do not accept De Lubac’s critique as unassailable and are realizing that the wholesale rejection of the Baroque commentatorial tradition was a mistake. They do not seek to return to a pre-St Thomas, pre-Cajetan, or a pre-De Lubac position. They do seek to renew theology by questioning what had become universally accepted, namely that the Baroque theology was bunk.

Liturgy is experiencing something similar. A younger generation, which does not have the baggage of the experience of Vatican II, are questioning the fundamental assumption that the Tridentine liturgy was bunk and the liturgical reform was good. They do not seek to return to a pre-Trent, or pre-Vatican II position. They do seek to recover a celebration of the liturgy in which there need not be temporally chauvinistic dividing lines.

So what does this mean for the future of the liturgy? There will continue to be those who argue that there will be renewal in the Church only when we go back (or forward) to a certain liturgical text, or time period, or modus celebrandi. The temporal chauvinist is always tempted by time: to be progressive or conservative, to go backwards or to go forwards. But there are also those within the Church who argue that in the Church’s life, whether it be at the Altar in the liturgy or in Classroom in theology, there is no time, there is no progress or regress, backwards or forwards. There is only the extent to which our prayer and our work are in fidelity to Christ and the timeless Revelation of His Truth for us. Authentic Catholicism is not within the realm of how we get theology, liturgy, or the Church right. Authentic Catholicism is right because it is encounter with the fullness of Truth celebrated in Beauty.

In this optic, the most important question is not to decide for ourselves how to worship: what words to say in what language (hieratic or everday English, Latin or vernacular), what rite to celebrate (Tridentine or Byzantine or Amchurch), or what music to accompany the narrative of our lives of faith (chant, Lifeteen or Viennese orchestral masses). When we realize that Catholic worship is the self-oblation of Christ to His Father through the Holy Spirit for the Redemption of the world, the fruits of which we receive in Holy Communion and which constitute the Church herself, and give her a theological and evangelical mission, then those questions will work themselves out.

We are right to challenge the liturgical and theological status quo. But we are wrong to do so if we think that by doing so, we can foist upon the Church our own pet project vision of how things should be. We should always challenge ourselves as to how we enter into the Mystery of Salvation, of how our celebration of the Paschal Mystery is not bound to criticism, but to Glory.
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