Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Thomas Aquinas and the Liturgy

Book Review: Thomas Aquinas and the Liturgy by David Berger. Sapientia Press: 2004. 134pp. ISBN: 0970610688

Reviewed by Shawn Tribe

The German Thomist David Berger has written a short and concise book on a topic that seems surprisingly rare. There have been numerous books on the sacred liturgy, as well as numerous books on Saint Thomas Aquinas, yet seldom has been seen a book which specifically studies the thinking of Aquinas on the sacred liturgy itself. In fact, Berger starts off his study by precisely asking the question, why would we consult Aquinas when it comes to the liturgy? The liturgy is (or at least ought to be) rooted in mystery and transcendence after all, whereas Saint Thomas is known as a scholastic philosopher of rigorous, even rationalist, methodology. Berger gets down to the task of demonstrating that Aquinas has much to say about the liturgy and in so doing recasts an all too common perception of Aquinas as a mere rationalistic philosopher; a perception which forgets that he was also a great man of piety and prayer as well as a devotee of the sacred liturgy.

It is in fact the case that for St. Thomas, the liturgy is an important place in which to discover and understand the truths of the faith. In fact, alongside the sacred scripture, Berger points out that Aquinas would place the authority of the liturgy above that of the Fathers of the Church. While this may seem surprising, the reason why gives an insight into Aquinas' view of the matter. The authority of the Fathers is derived from the authority of the Church; their doctrine is confirmed by the Church and it is in this confirmation that there is an authority given their teaching. The liturgy, by contrast, is the very practice and expression of the Church herself. You might say that this is the Church in her own voice. The liturgy then is an authoritative source by which to measure the truth of theological principles. Berger notes that Aquinas does such 57 times in the course of the Summa Theologiae. This is a testament to the homage and deference given by the great philosopher-theologian to the sacred liturgy. (It might be noted that there can be a tendency even amongst orthodox Catholics to consider the liturgy as something subjective and secondary in comparison to theology and doctrine. So long as the latter is understood and defended, so the thought may go, the former is merely window-dressing and not of primary importance. One would hope that such individuals might re-evaluate their position in the light of the Angelic Doctor's own.)

Berger spends a great deal of the book looking at Aquinas' liturgiology as can be derived from his works. This includes a summary of Aquinas' allegorical discussion of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, as well as his discussion of the doctrine of transubstantiation. Central to St. Thomas' liturgical theology is a theocentric focus – a theme discussed at length in the book. For Aquinas, everything within the liturgy is first and foremost oriented toward the worship and glorification of God – even the sanctification of man takes a back seat to this. In fact, our sanctification is itself directed toward the service of the rite, being our incorporation into the glorification of God through Christ, accomplished through the unbloody sacrifice offered in persona Christi by the priest. This sacrificial dimension of the liturgy, so often pushed aside in our modern day, is also highlighted by Berger, along with Thomas' sacramental theology. Besides being a study of the thought of Aquinas, Berger also takes the opportunity to extrapolate some critiques of some of our modern, post-conciliar liturgical principles, as well as some of the strengths of the classical Roman liturgy.

Stylistically, the book is quite readable, and certainly one need not be familiar with the thought of St. Thomas to pick this book up. There is some philosophical jargon throughout the book, but nothing insurmountable to the average reader. It would have been enjoyable to see even more extrapolation on Berger's part with regards the modern liturgical crisis and the classical Roman liturgy. However, that being said, Berger accomplishes what he sets out to do: to present a Thomistic liturgiology which can serve as both an aid in the proper understanding of the sacred liturgy as well as a tool by which one can critically examine some of our modern liturgical principles. More than that, however, this book can serve an important function in restoring the sacred liturgy to the place given it by the Church. Not as something secondary to Catholic philosophy and theology, but rather as the source and summit of the Catholic Faith, and that from which all her power flows.

Originally published in The Saint Austin Review, May/June 2006.

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