Wednesday, 15 January 2014

Just how Important is the Liturgy?

It seems that many Catholics today tend to underestimate the value and importance of liturgy in the Church. In particular, I have seen some conservatives put forth that doctrine is more important. At first this seems evident, since in comparison to the truths of faith, which are of the speculative order, the practices of the liturgy seem to be less lasting and set-in-stone. One might even attempt a Thomistic justification of this mentality: the speculative order is, after all, superior to the practical. So the truths of faith seem to be of greater importance than the practices of the liturgy. However, even on Thomistic grounds, this argument does not quite succeed. For St. Thomas himself notes that, although the speculative is indeed superior to the practical, the intellect to the will, nonetheless the highest particular act that a man can perform in this life is in fact an act of the will. That act is the love of God. Charity is indeed the highest virtue, surpassing even the intellectual virtues, whether natural or supernatural. All the wisdom and knowledge in the world are nothing without charity; and even the firm assent of supernatural faith cannot avail to salvation, if it is not enlivened by charity. Thus, St. Thomas tells us that charity is the greatest of the three theological virtues. All virtues, then, are ordered to the virtue of charity, the love of God.

Now, the saints will all tell us that charity, the love of God, is primarily exercised and perfected in prayer, which is understood to be simply a lifting of one's mind and heart to God. This is the classic spirituality of such saints as Francis de Sales, or Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, and many others. Prayer is the principal and most effective means by which Christians show their love for God. Now prayer comes in many forms, obviously. But of all forms of prayer, the first place must be given to liturgical prayer, whether in the Mass or the Divine Office. Indeed, the liturgy is not simply a prayer, but it is the prayer of the Catholic Church, which has continuously formed the faithful and produced saints for many centuries. The liturgy is thus absolutely one of the most important aspects in the life of a Christian - even more important, in some sense, than the truths of faith. This is not to say that a right belief in the truths of faith may be sacrificed for the sake of the liturgy - that is obviously nonsense, since one cannot truly love God if one does not have at least an implicit belief in Him. It is sometimes said that faith can be had without charity, but not charity without faith. Thus, rather, in saying that the liturgy is more important than the truths of faith, all that is implied is that faith is not an end in itself, but is ordered and directed to the virtue of charity, which finds perhaps its highest expression in liturgical prayer.

From these principles, it follows how Catholics must be all the more careful in the regulation of the sacred liturgy. I have stressed before, on this blog, that extreme prudence is demanded of those in authority; but even more than being a matter of prudence, it is a matter of piety. To do damage to the liturgy amounts not only to an act of imprudence, but also one of impiety, since it comes with the grave risk of slowing the spiritual progress of the faithful. And the risk of doing such damage is quite great.

P.S. When I speak of "spiritual damage," I do not mean of such a nature that positively sends souls on their way to hell; in fact I think a liturgy like the Novus Ordo, if celebrated well, can be spiritually beneficial. But it is still gravely less so than the traditional liturgy, and it is there that the damage lies.

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