By Peter Kwasniewski
Dr. Peter A. Kwasniewski is a writer and speaker on traditional Catholicism. He is the author of ten books, most recently The Holy Bread of Eternal Life (Sophia, 2020). Visit his website at www.peterkwasniewski.com.
Let me begin with a plain fact: the sacred liturgy is where most Catholics most of the time encounter the Church and her teaching.
“The Church” and “the Magisterium” might well seem like abstractions until they take on concrete form in the liturgical rites—the texts, music, ceremonies, and other elements of worship—by which the Faith is expressed. No one has better expressed this “common sense” point of view than Pope Pius XI in his Encyclical Quas Primas of December 11, 1925, explaining why he is instituting a feast in honor of the Kingship of Christ:
For people are instructed in the truths of faith, and brought to appreciate the inner joys of religion far more effectually by the annual celebration of our sacred mysteries than by any official pronouncement of the teaching of the Church. Such pronouncements usually reach only a few and the more learned among the faithful; feasts reach them all; the former speak but once, the latter speak every year—in fact, forever. The Church’s teaching affects the mind primarily; her feasts affect both mind and heart, and have a salutary effect upon the whole of man’s nature. Man is composed of body and soul, and he needs these external festivities so that the sacred rites, in all their beauty and variety, may stimulate him to drink more deeply of the fountain of God’s teaching, that he may make it a part of himself, and use it with profit for his spiritual life. (n. 21)
Today most Catholics have never heard of Pius XI or Quas Primas, but if they go to church at all, they will have heard of Christ the King Sunday, thus proving his point (that the feast was transmogrified by Paul VI is not my concern at this moment).
The Church is embodied and represented in her liturgy, and the faithful absorb their ecclesiology largely from it. Her doctrinal and moral teaching, too, is carried and conveyed by her liturgy, even if there normally are (and certainly should be) other sources by which the faithful become acquainted with it. While we know that liturgy is not primarily didactic in purpose, it will, nonetheless, catechize and spiritually shape those who participate in it.
Now, the liturgy can embody a more or less adequate ecclesiology, convey a more or less complete summary of doctrine on faith and morals, nurture a more or less correct devotional stance. A catechist and pro-life advocate eloquently made a case for these claims back in the era of Benedict XVI, using the example of the “culture of life”:
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-centered 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.
The author then notes how this obscuration and loss of sacrality take place:
It is well known that many parishes today have become more centered upon themselves as a community than being clearly centered 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 the almost universal reaction of shrugged shoulders and “so?” she responds:
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 a 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, as well as a loss in the power of the liturgy to move the human heart and mind towards God.
To these gentle words we may compare the more blunt remarks of Frederick D. Wilhelmsen:
The empty womb stripped of its child by an abortionist is analogous to the empty altar stripped of its God by the theological abortionist—the man who either denies, or, what is more frequent, ignores or plays down the Real Presence of Our Lord Jesus Christ in the Sacrifice of the Mass and in the Blessed Sacrament of the Altar.
(Quoted in Msgr. Ignacio Barreiro Carámbula, “Sacred Liturgy and the Defense of Human Life,” in The Sacred Liturgy—Source and Summit of the Life and Mission of the Church, ed. Alcuin Reid (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2014), 371–88, at 377.)
The casting aside in the 1960s and 1970s of so much that was good, holy, beautiful, and meaningful in Catholic life, as if it were a worthless, tattered old garment of no value, remains to this day, and indeed for all time, an astonishing testimony to the intoxicating power of momentary ideological enthusiasms. The decades thereafter have been like an enormous hangover that no number of aspirins, cold showers, or cups of coffee can get rid of.
The huge fallacy behind this strategy, as we see more clearly in retrospect, consisted in thinking that the essence of the Faith could be separated from its accidents. A sound metaphysics would indicate that, apart from the miracle of the Holy Eucharist, there is never a situation when an essence can exist without its accidents—and when we do enough damage to the accidents, we destroy the essence (at least as it is individuated). To put it simply, if you change the shape and quantity of a duck enough, you will not have any duck left—only some messy parts that once were the parts of a duck. That seems to me to be analogous to what the Roman Church—or more accurately, her more “with-it” and therefore less thoughtful members—did to the great heritage of prayer, rubrics, music, architecture, vesture, and poetry, the grand and complex language of public worship.
In his Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris Consortio, Pope John Paul II stated: “The fruitfulness of the Christian family in its specific service to human advancement, which of itself cannot but lead to the transformation of the world, derives from its living union with Christ, nourished by liturgy, by self-oblation, and by prayer” (n. 62, emphasis added). For all its humble “ordinariness,” the family is the first school in which children learn about transcendent things—about God, the saints, eternal truths, virtues, commitment, self-sacrifice, self-discipline. Christian marriage witnesses to the children that there is something permanent, abiding, rock-solid, resting on Christ and sustained by His Spirit.
The liturgy should be inspiring and sustaining parents’ efforts within the family to proclaim these wonderful truths, but it is often doing little or nothing of the sort, or promoting the opposite. In an age of great intellectual and moral confusion, the shepherds have failed their flocks by not supporting them with the fullness of Gospel truth and of Christian tradition in the most obvious place we would think to encounter it: the public worship of the Catholic Church.
Many factors have contributed to the precipitous decline of Catholics’ knowledge of and adherence to the Church’s Magisterium on marriage and the family—including powerful forces of liberalism, secularism, hedonistic materialism, and individualism, the failure of many clerics in articulating and defending sexual ethics (or even daring to address it at all), dissenting but uncensured Catholic politicians and Church leaders, and the continuing deficiencies in religious education and school curricula. All this is undeniable. Yet there is a much deeper connection between our collective liturgical worship and the spiritual health of marriages and families than the Church’s hierarchy has yet seen fit to acknowledge, because, it would seem, of a settled commitment to a policy of never admitting mistakes that could implicate a council’s prudential advisements or a pope’s disciplinary decisions.
May the Lord awaken the rulers of Christ’s faithful, as if by a violent rousing from sleep, to begin searching in earnest for deeper causes of the culture of death that surrounds us, the practical atheism, and the silent apostasy that characterize our times. Meanwhile, clergy who celebrate the traditional rites, or laity who assist at them, are engaged in a quiet but necessary and overdue rebuilding of “the heart, soul, and primary point of contact for the faithful.”