Monday, July 03, 2017

The Long Shadow of Neoscholastic Reductionism

In liturgical discussions, a major premise of the progressivist side is, ironically, what might be called neoscholastic reductionism, which defines the “essence” of the Mass as having a valid consecration. In almost any conversation about whether and to what extent the rite of the Mass can change or should change, the proponent of tradition is immediately challenged with: “But you can’t prove that the Novus Ordo [or any fabricated, experimental liturgy] is bad. It has the words of consecration.”

The problem with this approach, of course, is that it falsifies the reality of a liturgical rite as a definite embodiment of apostolic tradition existing over the course of history. Each rite has its own deep characteristics that make it irreducibly itself. No one would dream of defining the Byzantine rite as “essentially” a valid consecration, with which a lot of florid prayers and hymns are accidentally associated. Nor should anyone with a modicum of sense try to define the Roman rite of Mass apart from the Roman Canon, which is its defining feature, or attempt to import an epiclesis into the Roman Canon, when, properly speaking, it has none and needs none. These rites are what they are—and thanks be to God for that.

Reducing the Mass to a valid consecration is like reducing the nuptial act to a successful conception of a child. I sincerely hope no one is foolish enough to define the nuptial act as the conception of a child. The nuptial act is ordered to the conception of a child, to be sure, but it has its own reality, its own meaning, that comprises more than conception; it is an expression of spousal love, which is designed to culminate in new life. By God’s institution, life is supposed to proceed from love; both elements are involved in defining the act. This is why the Church opposes in vitro fertilization, which otherwise she could not do if the sole meaning or value of the union of man and woman were a viable zygote.

In like manner, the Mass is a privileged microcosm of unitive prayer with a Eucharistic finality. The presence of the sacrificial victim who is to be our divine food is conceived, as it were, by the liturgy in its totality; even if the consecration takes place at a certain moment, it has been prepared for and will be followed by a manifestation of love that suits us to receive the Lord and rejoice in His presence. When this does not happen, we are dealing with the specter of in vitro transubstantiation.

Unfortunately, since nearly everyone who came to Vatican II or who worked for the Consilium had been brought up on this superficial neoscholastic reductionism, they felt free to rip apart and reconfigure the Roman Rite as long as they kept the words of consecration (more or less) intact. In this regard they were lab technicians committed all along to the result of a valid Mass but not feeling themselves ethically bound to any particular content or process.

Indeed, the arrogance of the reformers could not stop at the threshold of the holy of holies, but went so far as to tamper with the very formula of the consecration of the wine by removing the phrase mysterium fidei from within it — a phrase already so well known and so venerable in the Middle Ages that St. Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century could plausibly attribute it to the Apostles.

Unquestionably, therefore, we need to start all over again with better questions. We should not ask: What is it that makes transsubstantiation happen,[1] but: What is it that makes a liturgy a Christian liturgy? Even more importantly, what makes this liturgical rite to be itself (Roman, Ambrosian, Byzantine, Syro-Malabar, etc.) and no other? When these are the questions we pursue, we find rich answers that show us the fittingness, the beautiful complexity and sufficiency, of each rite in itself, and therefore, shows us the dramatically anti-liturgical, anti-ritual, anti-historical, and ultimately anti-Catholic nature of the reforms.

Obviously, there are elements more and less central to a given rite. But it cannot escape our attention that elements truly fundamental and constitutive of the Roman Rite have been abandoned by nearly everyone—including by the supposed guardians of the rite.

What belongs to this inner core of the Roman Rite?
  • Most importantly, the Roman Canon, its sole anaphora for 1,500 years, going back in its elements to the first centuries.
  • The ad orientem stance. We do not know how early on this stance became universally normative, but we know that already in the first centuries of the Faith it had become universal in East and West, which could never have happened were it not apostolic in origin, as St. Basil the Great takes for granted in his treatise On the Holy Spirit. It belongs to the original configuration of all of the great historic rites of Christianity. Without it, a liturgy is no longer in actual continuity with apostolic tradition, however much it may enjoy a technical licitness of the reductive sort mentioned above.
  • The liturgical “vesture” of the Latin chant, which is not a mere add-on or ornament, but the very liturgy-as-sung. The Proper and Ordinary chants articulate the shape of the rite, fill its content, sustain its spirituality, and guarantee its substantial continuity over time and space. Without them, we are not looking at the Roman Rite any more.[2]
  • The cursus of readings, namely, the set of Epistles and Gospels. This is a topic on which much has been written elsewhere; here it suffices to note that the Roman lectionary, almost as venerable in its antiquity and universality as the Roman Canon, was supplanted by the novelty of a multi-year lectionary constructed for the Missal of Paul VI. The old and new lectionaries have very little overlap at all.
  • The calendar with its particular clusters of Roman saints and its rhythm of Sundays, Holy Days, vigils, octaves, Ember and Rogation days, etc. It is true that, as Dom Gregory Dix shows, the calendar had a lengthy development, but it did develop organically in certain ways distinctively Roman and always preserved until the revolution of the 1960s.
  • In light of the principle of organic development, one may argue that the offertory (as in all the traditional offertory prayers), which developed in the Middle Ages and spread to all Western rites, had fused with the core of the Roman Rite. The offertory may be compared with a branch successfully grafted into a tree so that it loses all foreignness and becomes a major part of the flourishing organism. Its removal was not a haircut but the amputation of an arm or a leg.
Now, it cannot escape the notice of anyone that in most or all of these ways, the modern “Roman Rite” is a striking departure from the Roman Rite. It is possible for it to be celebrated in a way that follows some of the rite’s precedents, but it is also possible for it to be celebrated in a way that is utterly at variance with all of them. A very great number of celebrations, certainly the vast majority, are at variance with the Roman tradition, because
  • the Roman Canon is not used;
  • Mass is said versus populum;
  • liturgical texts are not recited or chanted, e.g., the Propers and Ordinary are absent, mangled, or delivered in a way inconsistent with their origins;
  • that novelty of novelties, the multi-year lectionary, is employed;
  • a severely reduced calendar is followed;
  • the traditional offertory is lacking, de iure as well as de facto.
In other words, when Roman Catholics attend such liturgies, they are getting a Mass, but not the Mass of the Roman Rite in its essential constitution. They are getting what might be called “the Modern Rite,” as liturgical scholar Msgr. Klaus Gamber would have it.

The damage wrought by neoscholastic reductionism is all too real and very extensive. It is the only atmosphere in which the outrageous enterprise of creating a Modern Rite in the late 1960s could have sprung up. The same mentality has, over time, propagated itself to other aspects of Catholic life as well. For example, that there are people today who are seriously asking the question of whether public sinners may receive Holy Communion shows that the Eucharist has been reduced, in the minds of many, to a mere sign of belonging or of table fellowship — not a supernatural mystery that requires the full commitment of one’s mind, heart, soul, and strength to Jesus Christ really present, against whom one mortally sins by unworthily receiving Him.[3] Such moral and disciplinary reductionism is not, however, surprising against the backdrop of the wave of liturgical reductionism that went before. Our age has provided a nearly scientific demonstration of the axiom lex orandi, lex credendi, lex vivendi.

The traditional movement in Catholicism simultaneously pursues two great goods: the recovery of a sound Eucharistic theology and the reestablishment of the actual Roman Rite of the Mass. Good theology and authentic liturgy work together to unveil to the eyes of faith the presence of Our Lord Jesus Christ in the entire liturgy and, above all, in the miracle of the host and chalice, in such a way that Catholics will be able to experience once more the terrible beauty and challenging joy of Eucharistic communion, and will strive to order our lives and our societies according to Its demands.


[1] As a Thomist, I certainly accept that there is a moment of consecration, as I have defended here and elsewhere. But if one looks at Summa theologiae III, q. 83, one will see that St. Thomas is far from being a liturgical reductionist. He sees the complexity of the Roman Rite, the meaning and value of each of its parts, and the respect with which it ought to be treated by those who worship in it. Scholastic precision does not have to devolve into neoscholastic reductionism.

[2] Even the Low Mass bears witness to this normativity of the chants of High Mass by requiring the recitation of the texts of the chants, although this is somewhat like a two-dimensional drawing versus a three-dimensional sculpture.

[3] See my article on 1 Cor 11:27-29. Again, “worthy reception” here does not mean that we are already perfect, but, as John Paul II explained in Ecclesia de Eucharistia, that we have renounced mortal sin and have an intention of living according to all the commandments of God.

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