I've received requests to re-post this essay written a few years back. With the March for Life in Washington, D.C. wrapping up yesterday, it seems there is a renewed interest in strategizing around building a culture of life in our respective countries. Often it seems the source and summit of the Christian life, the sacred liturgy, is often overlooked.
The Sacred Liturgy
The Neglected Foundation to Building the Culture of Life
by Deborah Morlani-Tribe
Many faithful Catholics are already only too aware that many of their fellow Catholics do not conform to Church teaching and support the culture of death to some degree, be it through contracepting, sterilization, abortion, euthanasia, embryonic stem cell research, IVF, or so on. The question that naturally comes to mind is this: how can Catholics who are going to Mass every week be living and thinking in such contrast to God's moral laws, as taught by the magisterium of the Church? The pro-life message is certainly “out there” and not unknown, so where is the deficiency that allows such a situation to exist and what can we do to address it? To answer these questions we need to consider the root of the problem and the font of Catholic life.
The Liturgy Is the Source and Summit From Which All Else Flows
The Church teaches us that the sacred liturgy is the centre, or font, from which all else flows within the Church; it refers to it as her source and summit. (Sacrosanctum Concilium para. 10) It is this tenet which allowed Pope Benedict XVI, while still a Cardinal, to note that “the Church stands and falls with the liturgy” for when one understands and accepts the central place which the liturgy holds within the life of the Church and her faithful, this clearly follows and should hopefully help us to appreciate the foundational place and importance of the liturgy in a variety of questions.
Returning to the question at hand then, it would not seem a stretch to suggest that an implication of this very centrality is that the culture of life itself also stands and falls with the liturgy. Why, we shall look at momentarily, but given our understanding that the liturgy is the summit from whence all else flows, and given the consideration of the impoverished, or "falling", state of the liturgy in so many parishes, it should perhaps come as little surprise that there would be a coinciding “falling” of the culture of life – to use the image of Ratzinger.
Putting Our Own House In Order: A More Serious Look at the Liturgy by the Catholic Pro-life Movement
I would propose, particularly to those actively involved within the pro-life movement (of which all Catholics, clergy, laity, and religious, should consider themselves involved to some extent), that the sacred liturgy needs to be looked at much more seriously as a significant foundation and tool for beginning to build the culture of life among fellow Catholics. Pro-life homilies, pro-life prayer intentions and social activism generally are all important let’s be clear, but they don't address the deeper, foundational problem that lay at the root of this issue; namely, the lack of a sense of God that exists not only within our culture, but even within our parishes. Before we can ever hope to bring about a conversion of the culture to a culture of life – and we are speaking, not merely of the changing of laws, but ultimately of the need for conversion -- we must first put our own house in order. If we understand and accept the teaching of the Church as regards the central importance of the liturgy and its relationship to doctrine, then surely we must neither ignore the fact that deficiencies there will lead to deficiencies elsewhere, nor that it is also an important place to begin to assert the solution.
The Necessity of God-Centred Liturgies: Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi, Lex Vivendi (The law of prayer is the law of belief is the law of living.)
In Evangelium Vitae, John Paul II taught that the root cause of the culture of death is a loss of the sense of God and, in the same vein, one will note that Pope Benedict XVI has been working quite intently to bring back the sense of transcendence and God-centredness within our liturgies; in short, to bring back a sense of God. So it is that a consistent theme emerges and also a consistent recognition of a problem within our churches today. The Holy Father knows well that if God is obscured within the sacred liturgy – the very place that is not only the source and summit of the Church, but also the heart, soul and primary point of contact for the faithful -- then it is likely to follow that God will be absent or obscured in the lives of the faithful as well. Consequently, this lack of sense of the Divine can lead to living a humanistic or self-centred existence which further leads to a lost sense of the sacredness of man; without a Creator, man becomes a mere organism in the vast universe of organisms that can be manipulated and used for any kind of fantasy by anyone who is stronger or more powerful.
It is well known that many parishes today have become more centred upon themselves as a community than being clearly centred upon God – what Ratzinger has called the “self-enclosed circle”. Many parishes are not following the authorized liturgical texts and rubrics -- often out of a misguided sense of "pastoral" creativity, or even simply out of ignorance. Nor do they sufficiently consider (let alone express) those elements which lend a sense of transcendence to the worship of God, particularly as expressed through the medium of beauty. To some these might seem rather unimportant surface considerations, but they are not. The sacred liturgy and doctrine are intertwined and the experiential dimension of the liturgy is a profound moment for catechesis and conversion. Accordingly, when there is problematic approach to the liturgy, and when unauthorized innovations are introduced, there can be a deficiency as well as a coinciding distortion of Catholic belief passed on to the faithful, and further a loss in the power of the liturgy to move the human heart and mind towards God.
By contrast, the sacred liturgy, when celebrated well and focused on God, is where the building of the culture of life begins for within the liturgy one experiences and encounters the perfection of the culture of life from the giver of life Himself, God our Creator. It is through this deep encounter with God in the liturgy that we witness and learn a perfect love that is self-giving and self-sacrificing; from that flows the possibility of conversion of heart and the reciprocal love for God in giving of our lives to Him and His Church just as Christ gave His life for us, a sacrificial reality which is perpetuated upon our altars at every Mass. From that love for God and desire to serve Him naturally flows an ability to better move outside of ourselves and love our neighbour, seeing their lives as inherently of value. Therefore, if we are to build a culture of life within our parishes and serve as leaven for our culture, the sacred liturgy must be oriented to God in all things, both interiorly and exteriorly. The liturgy must be celebrated in accord with the authorized texts and rubrics so that we might avoid obscuring Catholic doctrine or falling into a subjectivist mentality. The ceremonies must be reverent and beautiful, speaking to the worship of the Lord and the sacredness of what occurs, moving and focusing us accordingly. Finally, there should be liturgical catechesis for the faithful to help them to understand the greater meaning, focus and sacrificial reality of the Mass, emphasizing its primary end as the worship of God through the sacrifice of the Cross, including through postures and gestures, signs and symbols.
Pope Benedict XVI Leads by Example
The Pope has consistently written of and witnessed to the importance of both interior and exterior dimensions which orient the sacred liturgy toward God. He has led by example in directing how certain exterior forms contribute to a God-centered liturgy, such as through the “Benedictine altar arrangement” with a central Crucifix; his celebration of Mass ad orientem in the Sistine Chapel; the use of beautiful sacred music and vestments within the liturgy; and finally, by re-introducing kneeling for Holy Communion in his own liturgies. Moreover, the Holy Father has emphasized the importance of interiorly directing our minds and hearts toward God through mystagogical catechesis (meaning the teaching of the mysteries of the Faith) so that we can more fully know God through beauty and the sacred mysteries experienced in the liturgy and further be drawn into a more profound encounter with the Divine which can lead to a deeper conversion.
To conclude, let us recall the teaching of the Church about the centrality of the liturgy and how all flows from it. Let us also follow the example of the Holy Father in addressing any crisis among Catholics first in looking at the liturgy and never neglecting it as a central part of the solution. Indeed, everything that happens within the sacred liturgy matters and all that is done to lead the faithful closer to God will ultimately work toward building the culture of life, which will necessarily come through, not simply legal means, but conversion of heart and mind to God.
Postscript: Addressing Some Common Objections
As a postscript, it would seem important to address a few common objections that arise whenever there is an attempt to assert the central importance of the liturgy in all its forms and aspects.
One objection is summarized by the sentiment that "all that really matters at Mass is that Our Lord is present in the Eucharist. These other matters are ultimately not of significant importance. They are simply nice-to-have’s or just a matter of taste.” This is a common objection that often comes up from many Catholics, and even some priests, when attempting to explain the importance of the sacred liturgy as though validity, sacramentality or Eucharistic piety is all that is of concern. Obviously they are of concern, but this view is not in accord with the Church's teaching and is based on what Ratzinger has called “abstract sacramental theology” and “reductionism”. Everything in the liturgy matters which is why the Church regulates it accordingly. In that regard, our focus cannot merely be upon validity or receiving and adoring the Blessed Sacrament, it must be deeper, and it must take more serious consideration of the Mass in all its aspects and dimensions and the implication of those aspects and dimensions. The teaching of the Church and the teaching of our Holy Father speak contrary to such an assertion.
A second objection is the suggestion that the liturgy really doesn't affect whether or not Catholics follow the Church's teachings on contraception, abortion, and so forth. This also does not follow, for if, as the Church teaches, the sacred liturgy is the source and the summit, the font, from which everything else flows, this clearly has the implication that what flows from the liturgy will also likely be manifest in the Catholic faithful who are present, for good or for ill. How could it have such importance and influence and not have such effects?
Another objection might be the suggestion that doctrinal catechesis through study, preaching and such methods is far more important in the building the culture of life than what goes on in the sacred liturgy, but this fails to consider some basic realities. First, liturgy and doctrine are inseparable; what goes on in the liturgy is catechetical in itself. It is an experiential form of catechesis, and accordingly, very powerful. Second, the liturgy is the first and primary source of catechesis as it is a living experience of the Catholic faith that draws one into an encounter with God. It is there that most Catholics come into the most prolonged and profound contact with their faith and it is through this means that they are most impacted and potentially moved, making them accordingly more disposed to receive more intellectual forms of catechesis. "By its nature, the liturgy can be pedagogically effective in helping the faithful to enter more deeply into the mystery being celebrated. That is why, in the Church's most ancient tradition, the process of Christian formation always had an experiential character."(Sacramentum Caritatis, para. 64)
A final objection might be that good liturgy doesn't guarantee that a Catholic will be pro-life and poor liturgy doesn't mean that a Catholic won't be pro-life. Of course this is true in point of fact, but while it may not be an absolute guarantee, and while exceptions can surely always be found, it does not change the fact of the central importance of the liturgy in Catholic life and faith, nor does it change the teaching of the Church on this matter.