Monday, January 29, 2024

Schmemann’s Critique of the West (Part 3): Secularism and Liturgy

Our Lady’s Church (13th century), Lissewege, Belgium (source)
Having summarized Schmemann’s objections (Part 1) and begun to respond to them (Part 2), today, in this concluding part, I will take up two questions.

First, did Aquinas “cause secularism,” as it were, with his distinction between first cause and second cause?

There are two extremes and a mean on this question.

At one extreme, the world has its own causality independent of God, which amounts to saying that God mostly does not exercise causality in this world. At the other extreme, there is only God’s causality, because the world has no causality. In the mean, God has causality and the world has causality, but the world’s causality is dependent on God’s. Aquinas in in the mean and secularism is in the first of the two extremes. It is probably true that thinkers before Aquinas could wander into the second of the two extremes at times, and so Aquinas’ move from the second extreme back to the mean can look like a movement toward the first extreme.

Later on, nominalist thinkers did set up a kind of divide between God and the world that led towards secularism. Schmemann’s critique is not entirely without merit, but he has picked the wrong enemy, for Aquinas is not a nominalist or a dualist.

(All the same, as a friend of a friend pointed out, Schmemann had liturgics of the 1950s-1970s in view as he composed his critique. He was right to recognize that Western Christianity since the late Middle Ages seems to have been overtaken by a creeping nominalism, one that seems connected, in turn, to a new concept of absolute Church authority, and which alone made possible a kind of nominalist, rationalist, and positivist liturgical reform that would be unthinkable in the East. Like Geoffrey Hull, Schmemann is asking himself: “How did it come about that this concept of liturgy ‘makes sense’ in Roman Catholicism (and Protestantism), when the same approach would be unthinkable in Orthodoxy?” That remains a valid question.)
Aquinas among the Fathers of the Church (excerpt from a painting by Zurbaran)

Second, does Aquinas differ from the Fathers on the relationship between liturgy and sacrament?

Schmemann is right to point out that there was no place for “liturgy” in the systematic theological treatises of the Middle Ages. There were commentaries on the liturgies, but within the developing system of theology there was not a slot for “liturgy” the way there was for “sacrament.”

However, this was not due to Aquinas’ metaphysics but because the contents of the theological system were at least partially determined by the history of controversies. There were controversies about sacramental validity, etc., but there weren’t controversies about liturgy such as we have today. The absence of a treatise on liturgy is not because Aquinas had divorced sacrament from liturgy but because it had never occurred to anyone divorce the two. It was inconceivable.

One finds a similar lacuna in the medieval system regarding “church”: there is no treatise on the Church, although one finds a brief treatment of Christ as Head of the Mystical Body. This is not at all because Aquinas or his contemporaries did not believe in the Church or did not have thoughts about it, but because controversy had never made it a definite subject as later happened in the Reformation debates.

As regards thinking of “sign” as a participation in the signified, I would point to the book Cur Deus Verba, where Dr. Jeremy Holmes develops Aquinas’ own thought to make this very point. I would also note again that some kind of contrast between “figure”/“type” and “truth” was made throughout Patristic times, and the division between “thing” and “sign” was made by St Augustine, so it seems petty to run down the medievals for making similar distinctions.

I think Fr. Schmemann’s problem is not so much with sign/thing as with the very notion of transubstantiation. To avoid transubstantiation, he says that when we enter into the liturgy we pass from this world into the kingdom of heaven, and in that kingdom the bread is the body of Christ. The bread is not the body of Christ in this world, but only in the kingdom of heaven. Once we have entered the kingdom by entering the liturgy, then there is no need for a particular moment of change in the bread; Schemann says that the action of the Holy Spirit is not to change the bread but to reveal that the bread is the body. This view would exclude, for example, the Western practice of Eucharistic adoration.

Needless to say, the idea that in the realm of liturgy the bread is shown to be always/already the body of Christ is, curiously, to repeat Berengarius’ error in a more subtle manner: the liturgy shows the bread as a sign of the body, but a sign it remains, with no basis for stating that the consecrated bread is, in truth, in reality, objectively, the body of Christ, such that the worship of latreia is rightly given to it (or rather, to Him who is present to us by means of the Eucharist). One wonders if we are not confronted once again with the fundamental error of Platonism, whereby the sensible is (merely?) an image of the idea or the form, “participating” in it, yes—but not the idea or the form really present in our midst. This Platonism has been a far greater temptation in the East, where it has even threatened, at times, to undermine the core mystery of the Incarnation of the Logos in the flesh.

Some broader points need to be made as part of a judicious response.

There is much truth in what Schmemann says, as (in general) is true of the Eastern Orthodox critics of Western rationalism. Those who wish to pursue this line of argument still further should consult Geoffrey Hull’s The Banished Heart, which will make the reader either a Roman traditionalist, a Byzantine Catholic, or an Eastern Orthodox. We might as well candidly admit that there has been a tendency in the West, in theological discourse, to isolate sacraments from liturgy, and then to isolate within sacraments the “matter and form” that makes them valid. This reduction to validity is at the root of all modern Western liturgical woes.

Joseph Ratzinger recognized the same thing, and so (as he points out) did the Liturgical Movement at its best. In the Preface to The Organic Development of the Liturgy by Alcuin Reid, OSB (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2005), Ratzinger writes:

The author [Alcuin Reid] expressly warns us against the wrong path up which we might be led by a Neoscholastic sacramental theology that is disconnected from the living form of the Liturgy. On that basis, people might reduce the “substance” to the material and form of the sacrament and say: Bread and wine are the matter of the sacrament; the words of institution are its form. Only these two things are really necessary; everything else is changeable. . . . As long as the material gifts are there, and the words of institution are spoken, then everything else is freely disposable. Many priests today, unfortunately, act in accordance with this motto; and the theories of many liturgists are unfortunately moving in the same direction. They want to overcome the limits of the rite, as being something fixed and immovable, and construct the products of their fantasy, which are supposedly “pastoral,” around this remnant, this core that has been spared and that is thus either relegated to the realm of magic or loses any meaning whatever. The Liturgical Movement had in fact been attempting to overcome this reductionism, the product of an abstract sacramental theology, and to teach us to understand the Liturgy as a living network of Tradition that had taken concrete form, that cannot be torn apart into little pieces but has to be seen and experienced as a living whole. Anyone who, like me, was moved by this perception at the time of the Liturgical Movement on the eve of the Second Vatican Council can only stand, deeply sorrowing, before the ruins of the very things they were concerned for.
Indeed, the traditionalist movement is premised on not reducing the virtue of religion—the habit of right worship—to mere validity and licitness. This is a point I discuss throughout The Once and Future Roman Rite, a book that responds, to some extent, to the Schmemannian critique (see especially chapters 5, 6, and 10).

That being said, many Eastern Orthodox thinkers suffer from the polemical defect of being able to find little or nothing good to say about the West, which they believe to be in permanent and irreversible decline ever since the “schism” of 1054. Lossky and other Orthodox intellectuals in Paris even made up a lot of stuff about the Eastern tradition to ensure it would stand as far as possible from the Western tradition. Serious scholarship does not support this almost Manichaean picture of “East = good, true, beautiful / West = evil, false, ugly.” St Thomas Aquinas was sensitive to the complex form of the liturgy, as we can see in Question 83 of the Tertia Pars, where he comments in some detail on the shape of the Roman rite as he knew it, and never betrays the slightest inkling that he views all of that as arbitrary scaffolding around a magical transubstantiation. The careful studies of Abbé Franck Quoëx support this reading of Aquinas.

While Orthodox authors captivate with their poetic grandiosity, metaphysically their accounts often fall apart. For example: even if the entire liturgy is “divine” and must be embraced and entered into with reverence, there has to be a moment of consecration, before which the elements are only bread and wine, and after which they are Christ Himself. After all, He is always present “spiritually” or “mystically” in a soul in a state of grace and in the mystical body of the Church, but He is not always and everywhere present in His body, blood, soul, and divinity as He is upon the altar of sacrifice and in Eucharistic communion. This difference is the basis for the exaltation of the Divine Liturgy and of the Eucharist in the Christian life (just have a look at Nicholas Cabasilas). Whatever language we use to point out that difference—as we saw last week, “real” can certainly be defended, especially if it is contrasted not with mystical but with metaphorical or rational, that is, a linguistic or mental entity—the difference must be pointed out.

Some in the East almost seem to make a boast out of their imprecision (“everything is sacramental... everything is Christ... the liturgy is Christ,” etc.), but this can work only if people are content to rest in a hazy cloud of incense and not ask any further questions. “In what sense is everything sacramental? Is Satan sacramental? Is dung? Is an iPhone? In what sense is Christ in all? Is he in the apostates? In the act of sinning or the sinful will?” Any intelligent reply rests on distinctions: “Things are signs of God to the extent that they are good... Christ is present in the nature of the will but not in its voluntary disorder...” The moment any such distinctions are introduced, a person is well on his way to scholasticism of one kind or another: this is just how the human mind works—and it’s a perfection if it is done well.
Need we be separated over the All-Holy Theotokos? (source)
Moreover, Church history reveals many unfortunate cases where a difference in vocabulary need not have been a doctrinal obstacle but ended up becoming one either due to a mistaken apprehension of what each side was saying or, worse, due to a stubborn insistence on a single way of speaking even when argument has shown there can be various ways of expressing a truth. Transubstantiation is an excellent example; the Immaculate Conception yet another. In their passion to condemn everything Western, Eastern writers even manage to contradict, irony of ironies, the witness of the Church Fathers. Have a look at the patristic quotations on behalf of the substantial change in the Eucharistic gifts (whatever one wishes to call it), in Ludwig Ott’s Fundamentals (new ed., 405–6).

Another way in which the modern Eastern apologists fictionalize and mythologize their own tradition is by downplaying the quite extensive Byzantine scholasticism and even Byzantine Thomism. Some argue that Gregory Palamas and Thomas Aquinas are not as opposed to each other as customarily assumed. If we take the conventional view of Palamas, how amusing it is that Orthodox thinkers thunder against the West for “driving a wedge” between God and creation by means of a distinction between uncreated and created grace—and then they seem to drive a wedge into the divine nature by means of a distinction between God’s “essence” and His “energies”! The obvious distinction between the infinite, eternal, uncreated cause and the finite, limited, created effect is elided, while a far from obvious distinction that threatens the simplicity of God is produced ad hoc. When challenged, the “mystery card” is played: more clouds of incense.

In any case, for Aquinas, at least, real and mystical are not in opposition to each other, nor does Aquinas have to be pushed in a rationalizing/rationalistic direction. Is there contrary evidence from within the Western tradition—in the rites themselves and in the habits of the faithful—that this rationalism was not normative? Do we have the wherewithal in our own tradition to respond to its besetting temptations and vices?” Every tradition has its own temptations and vices; any honest person will admit it.

All Western traditionalists are characterized by a fundamental agreement that liturgy has intrinsic, immense, and independent value and should not be reduced to sacramental validity; nay, that the proper context for understanding what sacraments are, who their ministers and recipients are, what a proper intention is, etc., is precisely the traditional rites themselves, which are therefore indispensable. All one has to do is participate in a solemn High Mass to see that the West never entirely lost its liturgical-cosmic-sacramental sensibility. It is right there, “baked into” the rich and resplendent rites, which are anything but reductionist or minimalist.

True, we are suffering greatly from the triumph of the Pistoian rationalism and utilitarianism that hijacked the liturgical reform and now infests nearly every aspect of the Church’s life; but we can also see a zealous countermovement, a creative minority, that is poised to fill the pews when the twentieth-century experiment has finally exhausted itself in institutional bankruptcy.

Here are some pieces one could look at, having Schmemann’s objections in mind:

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