Two weeks ago, I was privileged to address the Student Liturgy Committee of Franciscan University for their spring workshop/retreat. I gave two talks on the Sacred Liturgy. The first is entitled "Antinomianism and the Sacred Liturgy," and is posted here. Please note a couple of things. First of all, this was written as a lecture, and not an essay or paper. There are generalizations, and there are claims and principles that lack citation, largely because I was addressing a group of students who are familiar with liturgical norms and principles, and who did not need things cited and spelled-out for them. Finally, like everything else on this blog, these are my own personal opinions and observations, and they should be taken as such. I don't expect everyone who reads this to agree with me...it is merely food for thought.
Antinomianism and the Sacred Liturgy
Throughout the course of the day, I’d like us to address a few different issues. As many of us are aware, with the advent of the English translation of the Third Edition of the Roman Missal, the Church in America has been confronted with yet another opportunity to rethink and re-evaluate the manner in which we approach the act of Divine Worship. In speaking to you today, I would like to examine some key aspects of our respective roles as stewards and ministers of the Sacred Liturgy, and what practical steps we can take toward enhancing the liturgical experience of those whom we serve.
My first talk today will focus on Antinomianism and the Sacred Liturgy. I will talk about antinomianism in general—what is meant by the term, and how it relates to a proper Christian understanding of law. Second, I will examine the application of antinomian principles in the celebration of the Sacred Rites. Third, I shall briefly discuss the shift between the second and third editions of the Roman Missal. And finally, I will offer some general and specific concerns with regard to the future of liturgical praxis.
I. Antinomianism in General
I. Antinomianism in General
Fr. John Coughlin, a professor of Law and Theology at the University of Notre Dame, in his address to the Conference for Canon and Civil Lawyers, held in LaCross, WI, in August 2010, states in no uncertain terms: “Antinomianism diminishes or rejects the validity of law.” There really is no simpler or clearer way to say it.
The term antinomianism itself was coined by none other than Martin Luther. The word is comprised of the two Greek words anti and nomos, literally meaning “against law.” Ironically, this term was employed by Luther as a pejorative description of those whose adherence to the heretical doctrine of Sola Fide—justification by faith alone—deviated further than Luther had originally set forth. The fundamental underpinning of antinomian sentiment, however, remains clear: a rejection of established law (be it Divine, natural, or positive law).
From an historical perspective, the Judeo-Christian system of beliefs has always been one which is based firmly on the prevalence of law. Since the days of Moses, those who adhere to the Abrahamic faiths have always understood a necessary relationship between fulfilling one’s duty to God and obeying God’s law. In fact, one naturally leads to the other. To please God is to follow His commandments. And it is very clear in the Old Testament that the rejection of God’s authority through rejecting Divine, natural, and positive laws is met with swift retribution: the Great Flood, the Forty Years in the Desert, Sodom and Gomorrah, the Babylonian Exile, etc. Virtually every trial and tribulation of the Jewish People in the Old Testament is rooted in humanity rejecting the rule of law.
In the New Testament, factions in favor of and opposed to antinomianism continuously fight over which “side” the Gospels take on the subject of adherence to the Law. There is ample evidence to support each claim. And I will save any discussion of particulars for Biblical and Theological scholars.
Regardless of what some may say, one fact is very clear: God has created a world of order, upon which He has impose a hierarchy of authority, both on earth and in the heavens, for the preservation of man’s salvation. This authority, rooted in the Divine-natural Law, and carried out through the will of Jesus Christ in giving his authority to Peter and the Apostles, is intended to direct and to focus the spiritual growth of God’s People toward the end to which God has intended us—eternal life with our Creator in the New Jerusalem.
It is no more irrational to state that we paradoxically experience true freedom through our adherence to the Law than it was for Augustine to say the same about man’s freedom from sin through slavery to the Will of God. In many ways they are one and the same. True adherence to God demands our adherence to those laws which are provided for us by Him and by His Holy Church through the legitimate authority granted her and carried on through the succession of the Popes and Apostles.
Antinomiansm directs us away from this proper understanding of the Church as the true Bride of Christ, ruling with Christ’s Authority on earth. But for the believing Catholic, to reject the authority of the Church, is to reject the authority of Christ Jesus, and thus to reject God Himself.
Antinomianism in America has a long history. Indeed, it may be said that much of what has made our country what it is today has come at the cost of imbuing successive generations with the notion that law is good, until it isn’t, and then you can just ignore it. At the risk of sounding unpatriotic, this very principle is what gave rise to the American Revolution, Women’s Suffrage, Civil Rights, etc. And while all good things in and of themselves, the antinomian underpinnings that helped propel these movements into the public eye and ultimately made them successful managed to infiltrate the thinking of the Church in this country.
The distinction must be made, however, between that authority which is derived from God, and that which is established by man. We must always consider the Church to be what she truly is—a divine institution given to man for his sanctification. The Civil order seeks legitimacy by inverting the relationship: man establishing order for the common good through imitating divine precepts. The former is a top-down model; the latter is bottom-up.
So, how has antinomianism presented itself in the American Church? Well, one of the most overt examples is the significant absence of Cathedral chapters of canons in this country. When the first dioceses of the United States were established, the law that mandated that every cathedral have a chapter of canons was summarily ignored across the board. No reason was given other than the sentiment that the Church of America is a new order of Church that ought not be confined to the shackles of European culture that so many immigrants were fleeing. “Diminishing or rejecting the validity of law” to suit the desires of the few at the cost of the many.
II. Antinomianism and the Sacred Rites
As concerns the Sacred Rites of the Church, it bears underscoring that the liturgical rites of the Church as set forth by the Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments, and approved by the Supreme Pontiff, carry the force of law. Liturgical books, in and of themselves, constitute a juridical rite whose essence is as spiritual as it is structural. Yet, it is plain to see throughout the history of the Church, there has been a constant struggle between two poles: that which seeks to impose structure, and that which seeks to break free of said structure.
Since as early as the late first century, the Church has sought to standardize and give structure to the manner in which Christians worship. This is evident in many of the extant sources of early Christian worship, including the Didache, the fragments of Hippolytus, the Apology of Justin Martyr, et al. From these earliest of times, the intention of bishops and the Pope has been to oversee the orthodox and altogether faithful celebration of the Sacraments. The imposition of liturgical books became necessary as early as the third and fourth centuries, in order to ensure that the integrity of these Sacraments was being upheld—most especially as concerns the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass—all in the name of upholding the age-old maxim Lex orandi, Lex credendi.
Many “scholars” currently dismiss the practice of imposing liturgical structure, as they consider it to be anathema to true “worship.” This false sense of worship may be traced to a modernistic adoption of antinomianism.
How many of us have heard phrases like: “Well, I know what the liturgical books say, but…” or “That’s what they do in Rome, but we’re not in Rome.” or “It’s not our custom…” or (my favorite) “If the Pope wants me to do this, he can come over here and make me!” These flippant, and often inflammatory statements, are symptomatic of a very deeply-engrained sense of antinomianism that is prevalent in the American Church today. The whole concept of liturgical guidelines, norms, and rubrics carrying the weight of law is either unknown, or simply ignored in favor of tailoring our Sacred Rites to our own tastes and preferences. If one were to do the same with the Faith in general, I believe the term would be “Protestant,” if not “apostasy.”
I fully recognize that this seems like a “hard-line” position. My nicknames don’t include “crazy traditionalist” and “horrid arch-conservative” for no reason! But it is undeniable that there is a direct link between antinomian principles and the current state of the liturgy in the Church. Whether it is out of ignorance of what the documents of the Church actually state, or out of an irrational, ideologically-drive, and borderline malicious rejection of liturgical norms in favor of a protestantized and ego-centrically motivated alteration or—dare I say—abuse of what has been handed on to us as the liturgy of the Church, one thing is clear: the diminishment or outright rejection of the validity of liturgical principles, insofar as they are legally-binding to the ministers of the Church, is antinomianism at its most fundamental, and—more importantly—can—and, by definition, ought to be—considered an outright violation of the law of the Church.
The Sacred Rites themselves constitute a covenant between God and His People, mediated by the Church, whose authority in all matters spiritual must be regarded as absolute. Over the past fifty years, however, we have witnessed a systematic chipping-away of the authority of the Church, perpetrated not by a single faction or group, but caused by a variety of different factors, including liturgical norms (documents often seem to conflict or offer no clear directive), the law of the Church itself (in eliminating straightforward penalties for infractions), Episcopal conferences (often diluting the authority of individual bishops), individual bishops and pastors (taking no interest in legislating and enacting solid liturgical principles), so-called “scholars” and “liturgists” (ideologues, more often than not) the ecumenical movement (we have to be like others so they’ll like us, right?), and the lay faithful (I need to be empowered!) alike. In and of themselves, none of these institutions, groups or movements are bad. They all have a proper place and function within the Church. And so, to place any sort of “blame” on any single “cause” of the current state of liturgical praxis would be both irresponsible and inaccurate. Instead, it may be said that, given what we propose to be a necessary observation of liturgical norms as both the intention of the Church and the obligation of her ministers, virtually every facet of the life of the Church has, to a greater or lesser extent, contributed to an overall sentiment of antinomianism.
And so I pose three questions. First of all, why is this the case? Second, how has this come about? And finally, what can be done about it?
The first two questions really do go hand-in-hand. It has been said by some scholars that the timing of the Second Vatican Council—and not the Council itself—led to much of the turmoil that the current Church faces in terms of the attitude of believers toward the Church. Let me repeat that this is not an argument on the merits or deficiencies of the content of the Council itself, but the timing. What do I mean by that? Well, consider the social milieu of the early 1960s. Social upheaval was brewing at every level, most especially in the United States. Between Civil Rights, women’s liberation, “free love,” anti-War campaigns, and a host of anti-establishment movements in the 1960s, the perceived understanding of the Second Vatican Council as a “modernizing” Council that would cast off the shackles of the Middle Ages and propel the Church into a mode of 1960s relevance ultimately contributed to a flawed understanding of both what the Church and the Council intended and enacted. It was a perception that continues to this day in no small number of circles, usually throwing about the phrase “the spirit of the Council.” This oft-maligned Ecumenical Council thus bears the burden of having yet to be truly understood, appreciated, and actualized.
It may similarly be said that Pope Paul VI’s 1968/1969 reform of the liturgy with his promulgation of the first edition of the current Roman Missal aided in solidifying this erroneous interpretation of the Second Vatican Council. Again, blame is not to be placed on the contents of the reform itself, but on the timing of the reform, which seemed to reinforce what most people already mistakenly believed about the Council: “Hey, it’s all changing! No more rules! We can do what we want!”
And yet, from an historical and legal perspective, nothing could have been farther from the truth. I will not debate, nor will I seek to critique, the wisdom of the liturgical reform of Paul VI. But the seemingly sudden transition from a system of liturgical rites fraught with rules and norms, the infraction of which often constituted a mortal sin for the priest, to an effectively penalty-free system with seemingly great license given for improvisation and ad lib commentary, by any standard, was doomed from the beginning to usher in an age that played on simmering antinomian sentiment and desires fueled by social upheaval in the secular realm. It was, in point of fact, a convergence of two individually harmless and (dare I say it) necessary events, combined in a social atmosphere of anti-establishment, antinomian sentiments extolling personal liberty, effectively made a perfect storm for the roots of antinomianism in the Church to take hold in a major way.
III. Antinomianism and the Roman Missal
In the interest of time, I will refrain from listing the manifold examples of antinomianism in the liturgy. The abuses that have been inflicted on the Sacred Liturgy in the past 40 years are too numerous to describe. It ought to be sufficient merely to say that there have been widespread violations of the liturgical norms and guidelines, resulting both from ignorance and rejection of said norms.
Now, to be fair, the first and second editions of the Roman Missal gave much more license for ad-libbing liturgical “creativity” than the current Third Edition does. The most noticeable change between the two most recent editions is the noticeable restraint in use of the previously ubiquitous phrase “in these or similar words” at various points in the rites. What is most clear is that the Third Edition of the Roman Missal no longer finds acceptable the many variations of greetings and exclamations that were so common in the first and second. Without imposing judgment, it is clear to see that the current mind of the Church is that the free-wheeling, nonchalant attitude toward the liturgy is no longer acceptable, if only in seeing that permission is no longer given in the liturgy to use alternative, non-approved words for the various parts of the Mass. This, of course, applies where permission no longer exists for extemporaneous speech, such as during the Introductory Rites, the Penitential Rite, etc. This does not include those parts of the Mass where the GIRM or the rubrics still make allowance for commentary and introduction.
And yet, in our day-to-day experience, how many priests are now faithfully following the third edition of the Roman Missal? Or how many have simply merged their previous habits of casual greetings and dismissals, alternative introductions to prayers, and the ghastly anything-but-the-Lamb-of-God Ecce Agnus Dei? Yet again, the Church has sought to rein in the options, not out of becoming more rigid, but out of a fervent desire to preserve the dignity of our Rites by disallowing the possibility of the encroachment of texts and habits that may be (and often are) opposed to the true, orthodox Faith and its manifestation in the Sacred Liturgy. The antinomians use these strictures to vilify and demonize the Church as a patriarchal institution that only wants to “keep us down and oppress us.” One has to wonder if Martin Luther isn’t being channeled through some of the most vocal pundits that speak in opposition to the Magisterium of the Church these days.
So as not to seem one-sided, though, let’s look at the alternative to “liberal” antinomianism. Indeed, there are just as many antinomians on the “conservative” side of the spectrum (and I ask you forgive the crude labels of ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative,’ because they are truly misnomers). Many who are drawn to the more traditional expressions of our one Faith find themselves in situations where they, too, are guilty of modifying the rites in an antinomian fashion to suit their needs. It is, for example, not uncommon at Funeral Masses to hear “Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, dona eis requiem,” where the current liturgical books do not allow for such an alteration of text (even though it is proper to Mass XVIII). Or, it may be that a young traditional priest crosses his stole underneath his chasuble or insists on wearing a maniple, where provision is made for neither in the current liturgical books (the former being explicitly stated, the latter still a point of debate at various levels). Indeed, there is more to faithfulness to the liturgy than simply saying only what is contained in the Missal. There is a necessity that, in due obedience and deference to the authority of the Church, all norms and rubrics be followed. This is the only way in which ministers of the Church can truly be ministers, servants, stewards of the Sacred Liturgy, and not legislators in their own right.
IV. Some Thoughts for Discussion
Finally, some thoughts regarding the future of liturgical praxis:
First, in answer to the third question of what can be done about antinomianism in the Sacred Liturgy, there is no one single solution. Rather, there is a whole mindset that must be altered. To do so will be neither easy, nor fast. But it is terribly necessary if the Holy Roman Church is going to preserve her liturgical rites. The first step is to catechize people. Most individuals (priests and lay faithful alike) are simply ignorant as to what the documents on the Sacred Liturgy actually say. There has been so much misinformation over the years, and so many people (priests especially) simply do not want to acknowledge that they may have been doing something that is not correct or even licit! A firm understanding of liturgical norms as they actually exist, their history and development, and how they apply to the celebration of the Sacred Rites is critical.
Second, we must lead by example. We cannot expect radical shifts in how liturgical documents are worded, nor can we expect that individuals will simply “fall into line” as soon as they are confronted with the truth. In fact, the very premise of antinomian sentiment flies in the face of this. But if we celebrate the liturgy in a manner that is befitting the dignity of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, using proper terminology (“chalice” and “paten,” as opposed to “cup” and “bowl,” for example), and being rubrically and textually accurate, then we stand a good chance of helping people to see that we ought not aspire simply to the lowest common denominator, if you will, but that it behooves us to present the liturgy of the Church faithfully, as a matter of principle, as a matter of law.
Third, we must seek to imbue our fellow Catholics with a deeper sense of what it means to submit to authority. Again, in America we have an over-developed sense of individual liberty that flies in the face of a truly Christian anthropology and understanding of union through authority. Respect for that authority which has been established by God Himself is fundamental in helping others to regain a more balanced and accurate sense of where the liturgy comes from, to whom the sacred action is directed, and our role as stewards of the liturgy.
I’ve not intended this talk to be comprehensive by any means. Entire volumes have been written on the need for greater fidelity to the Church’s authority, and those principles can easily be applied to the celebration of the Sacred Liturgy. This is merely some food for thought—a new way of looking at the same problem of liturgical “creativity” and “infidelity” that have plagued the Church for centuries.
Simply put, there has never been a “perfect age” of the Church. We fight a constant battle amongst ourselves, the warring factions of “liberal” and “conservative,” “progressive” and “traditional” constantly tugging at each other. And there appears to be no end in sight. A truce in this never-ending struggle will only come through a heightened sense of respect for what the liturgy does, who the liturgy is for, how the liturgy is to be offered, and where the liturgy comes from.