Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Continuity and Discontinuity in Liturgy and Theology

The fundamental problem in modern Catholic theology, as in modern Catholic worship and life, is rupture and discontinuity with Tradition—that is, the modernism of breaking with the living identity of the past by introducing novelties of various kinds. In a way, it matters little whether the error is patripassianism, transignification, or contraception: all are attempts to tear the seamless garment of Christian truth. This truth is one, indivisible, integral, catholic. Attack a part and you attack the whole; reject a part and you reject the whole. Indeed, a potent sign of the catholicity of a theologian is precisely whether he can see the whole in the part and the part in the whole. Could one start with any dogmatic or moral truth and work one’s way to all the others, or at least show the consistency, the harmony, between them?

While Pope Benedict XVI strove mightily to overcome this rupture with the Tradition, the Church, humanly speaking, is still in a state of utter confusion and disarray, as it has been for the past half century. One need only consider how the Mass has been seriously damaged by the abandonment of ad orientem worship, a practice once universal in East and West, which St. Basil and St. John Damascene, among other Fathers, considered to be of apostolic origin—a conclusion that all recent research supports. Or one might consider the abandonment of sacred chant, also an ancient and constitutive element of Catholic worship, which, it seems, no intervention of the Magisterium has ever been able to reintroduce, given the adamantine non serviam that rises up against any effort to affirm or re-assert continuity with the Tradition.

The crisis of today’s theology is a crisis of identity, mentality, and heart. It is therefore also a crisis of prayer, of public prayer, divine worship, in which our Catholic identity is most of all expressed, nourished, and consolidated.

The hermeneutic of continuity in theology—the principle of going back to the primary sources (ad fontes) in company with, and as disciples of, St. Thomas Aquinas—is matched and supported by living the sacred liturgy as this treasure was and is handed down to us. Continuity in theology is matched by continuity in liturgy; rupture in theology is matched by rupture in liturgy. There is a complementarity, a mutual causality. It is no surprise that those who love Catholic theology in its fullness, in its rich tradition, also love Catholic liturgy in its fullness and tradition, or quickly fall in love with it once they have had the blessing of being exposed to it.

Those who believed that theology had to “come of age,” that it had to modernize itself out of pastoral considerations, were the very ones who deliberately left behind St. Thomas and tended either to exalt the Fathers or to throw in their hat with modern philosophy—and sometimes did both. One cannot miss the striking similarity with the liturgical reformers, who, having won the confidence of Paul VI, reveled in the antiquarianism, “the more ancient and simple, the better,” that had been condemned only a few years earlier by Pius XII, and who, at the same time, and seemingly without feeling the shame of self-contradiction, introduced novelties invented whole cloth from modern ideas.

This strange fusion of antiquarianism and modernism had one practical result: the unanimous exclusion of the fruits of the Age of Faith, the medieval synthesis, whether we are speaking of St. Thomas’s intellectual synthesis or the theological, devotional, and aesthetic synthesis of the sacred liturgy in its highest embodiment. The same people who rejected Thomism and scholasticism rejected the “elaborate courtly and pietistic Mass.” The same people who rejected Gothic architecture, or even, in many cases, any kind of traditional ecclesiastical architecture, have a tendency to ignore or contradict magisterial teaching from the eighth to the twentieth ecumenical councils, with particular contempt for the Council of Trent and the First Vatican Council. All of this is of a piece, utterly self-consistent. Antiquarianism means rejecting the Tradition’s manifestation and development over time, means rejecting the hermeneutic of continuity, and therefore it slips comfortably into bed with modernism, with the exaltation of the pure immanent now, the “modern man” who is ever changing. Ironically, antiquarianism always ends up rejecting much of what constituted ancient Christian orthodoxy and orthopraxy, in favor of the alleged needs of the present moment, which, in turn, is taken as carte blanche for novelty.

Catholic theology venerates and studies primary sources as they deserve to be studied: Sacred Scripture, the Fathers, the Doctors (including, above all, the Common Doctor, St. Thomas Aquinas), as well as the Magisterium. To do anything else will be to enter into a different kind of theology altogether, one that is not Catholic, however many superficial resemblances it may display. One must say the same about the liturgy: an institution that is true to Catholic theology will also, of necessity, venerate, cherish, embrace, and provide Catholic liturgy in its traditional fullness. The sacred liturgy is not only the “source and summit of the Christian life”; it is also the supreme repository and living witness of Tradition. It is a theological source par excellence, not only by transmitting the Faith in its integrity, but even more by being the actual source of our ever-deepening participation in the mystical Body of Christ, which the mere study of sacred doctrine, in and of itself, cannot be.

As you cannot fit a square peg into a round hole, you cannot fit classical theology into a modernized liturgy. Liturgy as such, with its love for imitation, quotation, allusion, typology, symbolism, repetition, and, most generally, ritual continuity with what is always done in the same cultus of the same mystery, is inimical to modernity’s restless shifting among transient, ambiguous, wilful significations that hold their ground only as long as someone consents to keep them. Iconodulia and iconoclasm are forever at war. As Protestantism is not one confession but many contrafessions (if I may coin a word), potentially infinitely many, so too modern man, the Promethean self-creator and self-destroyer, is whatever he wishes himself to be, without reference to any unmoved rock of certainty, without reference to a pre-existent, determinate, authoritative belief and practice. Hence, to the extent that one is thinking and acting liturgically, one will be unmodern and, indeed, anti-modern, whereas to the extent that one is thinking and acting in a distinctively modern way, one will be anti-liturgical and anti-traditional.

As uncomfortable as it may be to admit this profound opposition, I believe it is sufficiently clear that its effects have been playing out with increasing magnitude and accelerating pace ever since the period of the Enlightenment and, above all, during the past fifty years, when the “isms” of the Enlightenment (liberalism, individualism, subjectivism, indifferentism, moral relativism, etc.) found a warm welcome in the Catholic Church. We are living in a period when, thanks be to God, these same principles are being more and more recognized as the poisonous lies they are, and are beginning to be pushed out of the sanctuary and out of the classroom, albeit not without much resistance.

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