& Roman
Christian Order
Read Christian Order
Main Page


August/September 2000



Perplexity often surfaces when a Catholic, who seeks to conform himself to the teachings and mind of the Church, walks into a recently built or renovated Catholic church and sees in the "worship space," as it is now called, at the front or in the center of the church, two separate altars of equal size. The confusion occurs because in his knowledge of Catholic theology, there does not appear any necessity for two altars. Those who construct the altars see them as an expression of the fact that Christ is present both in the Eucharist and in the Word. Clearly, this is why philosophical distinctions within the Liturgy are of prime importance: if one is not capable of making the distinction between substantial and implicit presences of things, then one is going to fall into error regarding how the "worship space," should be arranged. But the problem appears to run deeper, for without a clear grasp of philosophical notions, it is virtually impossible to engage in a discussion about the liturgy in a truly Catholic sense. For this reason, the following work will consider the impact of modern philosophical thought on the liturgical development.

Since the Church, in her wisdom, has pointed Catholic philosophers toward Thomism(1) as a way of avoiding error(2) and providing a truly perennial Christian philosophy(3), we ought, therefore, to look to the philosophy of St. Thomas(1) as the principle by which we judge modern philosophical thought. Yet, in connection to the relationship the liturgy has to philosophical thought, we can ask ourselves why there are so many liturgical variances and opinions. The first logical possibility, which seems ever more to be the case, is that people do not believe what the Church believes and, consequently, there is a disparity as to what they do and what should be done liturgically in a Catholic church. That is to say that because some do not believe the teachings of the Church, their liturgical actions do not suit the mysteries present. Rather, their liturgical actions reflect a different belief and, consequently, what they do liturgically is unsuitable. Conversely, because many priests have systematically abused the liturgical laws of the Church, the laity have become confused, not only as to what is liturgically appropriate, but more so and even consequently, they have become confused about what pertains to the Catholic Faith since the Faith itself is not being revealed through the liturgical action.

Even though this is true, we must ask the obvious question: why is it that those who are faithful and loyal to the Church and by all intents and purposes love, promote and seek after orthodoxy, do not agree on what should be done liturgically? There are two possibilities: the first is quite legitimate, viz. there are a variety of suitable ways of revealing the same mystery through liturgical action(4) and so different but not contradictory liturgical actions can suit the mysteries contained in the liturgy. The obvious fact of the various rites within the Church is a demonstration of this truth. The second logical possibility for the differing liturgical views is that those who are orthodox have been affected by modern/non-realist metaphysics and philosophy which has governed the last seventy years of liturgical change(5). In the last thirty-five years, the role of non-realist metaphysics and philosophy has actually accelerated and has become an integral part of the liturgy and consequently there has been an erosion of suitability in the liturgy.

There seem to be four modern metaphysics or philosophies governing the current forms of the liturgy and consequently causing the lack of suitability. The first is a type of nominalism in which the knowledge of the essences of things is completely uncertain or rejected. This metaphysics finds its place in a type of "syncretizing" of the liturgy in which a liturgical action is never to offend anyone since in the final analysis we cannot know what God really revealed or anything else of importance for that matter(6). Consequently, contradictory things are introduced to please people on the emotional level so that what they believe will not be left out or offended.

The second form of metaphysics is that of rationalism. This has caused an abstraction to occur not only in religious art as it finds its place in Churches, vestments, statuary, etc., but also in the very architectural styles that are utilized. If a realist metaphysics is not employed, then the liturgy, and consequently the "worship space," will not be designed to conform with reality. This is why sanctuaries now find themselves in the middle of the Church rather than at the front and elevated to signify the heavenly court(7). Moreover, since the senses are not important, they will not be used to lift the mind and heart to God during the liturgy. This is one of the reasons why bells and incense have all but faded out. The bells provide a mechanism which not only harks of heaven but also draws the person's attention into the liturgical action by means of the auditory faculty. Moreover, the incense provides a sweet odour to give the mind the impression of the heavenly sweetness of God's mercy and the rising of our prayers to God(8).

The third influential philosophy, which has had a great impact, is empiricism. This philosophy essentially states that there is nothing beyond the senses and so pursuit of those things beyond the senses is futile(9). This philosophy leads to a horizontalizing effect and emptying out of the transcendental dimensions of the liturgy(10) which is nowhere better expressed than in the lack of proper altar orientation(11). Moreover, if there are no real supernatural realities to which we must adhere, then it is not right that the priest performs all of the functions and this is why the role of the laity has become exaggerated; in a word, the role of the laity has been misunderstood because of a materialist/empiricist philosophical influence which finds no place for the transcendent. If a priest is not signed with a (spiritual) indelible mark, then he is no higher than anyone else and ought not to "dominate" the liturgy. If one's understanding does not include the transcendent/spiritual teaching of the Church about the nature of the priesthood, then one will not believe there is anything really different about him and so he is not to assume a role which by nature implies a difference from the laity.

One last metaphysics, which has become very widespread and seems to affect even the best intentioned, is the historicist metaphysical reflections of Hegel. Hegel essentially taught that there was one substance which is in a constant state of flux. This flux was a process going from a thesis to an antithesis which is the opposite of the original thesis and then finally to a synthesis of the two. It means that everything is changing and it cannot help but change. Consequently, to try and go back to a previous state of affairs is impossible, futile and foolhardy to imagine(12).

This historicism has led to catastrophic effects. It seems to have been adopted almost as a whole, not necessarily as an explicit principle or philosophy, but at least as an implicit principle(13). The adoption of this principle leads to a constant changing of the liturgy and the ensuing mentality that it must be novel or changing in order to be relevant and true to the wholly historical nature of liturgy. This also meant an immediate eradication of ecclesial laws since they cannot accommodate the necessity for constant change and they inhibit the liturgical "growth" of a particular place(14).

The New Rite, unfortunately, did not escape the non-realist metaphysics and philosophies. Even if we do not consider post ritual promulgations(15) as part of the original New Rite, nevertheless, the horizontalizing effect is clear. Comparisons of prayers have shown that the sacred and supernatural have been removed from the propers(16). The Hegelian metaphysics finds its place in the numerous options allowed since the options facilitate a constant changing of the liturgy. While it is true that certain options were allowed in the previous rite such as votive Masses, etc., the option was not an integral part of the ritual as it appears to be in the newer forms of the liturgy.

Moreover, there is a rationalistic strain that runs very deep when extra-mental realities and signs (language being one of them) mean very little, e.g. the changing of the Communion rite from its previous form(17) to "Corpus Christi," with the communicant saying "Amen." The reason this is a difficulty is because if we understand the Hebrew meaning of the term, it can imply something which is materially heretical. When the priest shows the host and then says "The Body of Christ," the communicant responds with "Amen" which is in the subjunctive(18) which implies some lack of certainty about the fact of it actually being Christ's Body. Many believe it is a contracted form of the previous Communion rite but the previous Communion rite did not imply what is implied here.

Our intention is not to make a point by point analysis of the New Ritual since such an analysis would be far too extensive for our present discussion but our hope is that the modern philosophies may be seen as active in the New Ritual(19) as promulgated(20). The ritual of the Mass, any Mass, is a very powerful form of intellectual formation on all those involved in it, from the priest who offers the Mass to the laity who attend it. It also means that if a non-realist metaphysics or philosophy has sway over elements of the Mass, the people and priest will likewise be influenced by that metaphysics or philosophy. In fact, the entire discussion of the liturgical renewal and now the "reform of the renewal" has been a complete witnessing to the different philosophies involved.

For example, those who think that we need to have a new ritual other than the Novus Ordo, due to the inherent and associated difficulties it bears, often reject the idea of "reconnecting to tradition"(21) and assert that "we cannot go back." These suffer from a Hegelian metaphysical influence(22). In other words, they don't want the Mass of Pope St. Pius V (thesis), nor the Mass of Paul VI (antithesis) but a new Mass which is often referred to as a combination (synthesis) of elements of both rituals.

The difficulty appears to be the very fact that they are saying the New Rite. Because the liturgy is a very powerful form of intellectual formation, those who say it consistently or with any intellectual and volitional involvement cannot escape its formative effects. In other words, even though they do not wish to be affected by the modern metaphysics and philosophies implicit in the New Mass, they cannot escape the modern philosophies taking an implicit role in their deliberations about what should and should not be in the liturgy(23).

What should be evident is the fact that since the realist metaphysics has collapsed, there are disparities between what is taking place liturgically and what the Church believes, since there are aspects of the liturgy in which the actions (orandi) and the beliefs (credendi) are not congruent. Without a realist metaphysics and epistemology, one cannot strive for suitability in the liturgy since there is no intention to ensure that our sensory signs and actions 'congrue' with the spiritual realities(24). Only a realism, which maintains that man can know things through his senses, will ever provide an adequate approach to liturgical matters.

Where does this leave the members of the Church? It seems that the only solution is to reconnect with the tradition in a living manner(25). Not through taking and adapting it to some new form of the liturgy, but reconnecting with our tradition in the fullest sense and offering only those forms of the liturgy which were not imbued with non-realist philosophy. Once the realist metaphysics and philosophy operative in the ancient liturgies has taken root in those most intimately connected with the liturgy(26)," then with "fear and trepidation," the Church can consider whether any changes are really needed. It would seem only at that point that suitability as contained in the liturgical agere sequitur esse would be grasped and employed as an operative principle in the proper sense and would be applied to any liturgical deliberations.

Father Ripperger is a priest of the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter who resides in Nebraska, where he teaches moral theology and philosophy at the Fraternity and diocesan seminaries. Email:

* * * * *


(1) 'The possible citations are numerous, but among others see: Leo XIII, Aeterni Patris, passim, but especially paras. 21, 25 and 33; Pope St. Pius X, Pascendi Dominici Gregis, para. 45; CIC/83 can. 252, 3 and Sacred Congregation For Catholic Education, Ratio Fundamentalis, paras. 79 and 86.

(2) Among other see: Leo XIII, op. cit., paras. 18, 21 & 29 and Pope St. Pius X, loc. cit.

(3) See the two works of Pope St. Pius X, loc. cit. and Studiorum Ducem, passim.

(4) Clearly this notion must be handled prudently so as to be sure that the best form of the liturgy arises and that liturgical minimalism or excess do not occur.

(5) Here, reference is made to the fact that the liturgical variations in this century seemed to increase with the rise of the liturgical movement, in France and German in the 1920s. Historically, it appears that the more widespread the liturgical movement became, the more the modern philosophy seemed to govern the liturgical life of the Church. One could even argue back further, referring to the Modernist crisis which began in the last century and whose liturgical legacy we are currently living. But even though there was a discussion about the liturgy, the actual "experimentation" with the liturgy and rapid changes did not begin until after Pius X stopped purging the seminary and university faculties of Modernists.

(6) One of the more important ways this can be seen is the lack of distinction between the priestly and lay roles. Since we cannot really know the nature of anything, it does not seem fitting for one person to take a higher role and imply that he is by nature somehow different from the rest.

(7) It should be noted that while these reasons are proffered, it is possible that a variety of causes from various metaphysical and philosophical tenets be operative.

(8) The intention is not to fix absolute interpretations on the liturgical actions or things since that is neither within the competence of the author nor his intention. Moreover, since each thing in the liturgy is capable of many complementary interpretations, each interpretation should be given its due.

(9) One of the ironies of the new forms of the liturgy is that while denying the use of sensory images and language to lift the mind and heart to.God, at the same time they use the senses to bring everything down to a banal and 'appetitive' level; a cursory reflection on some new forms of liturgical music bears this out.

(10) This is perhaps why the New Mass has little appeal to the youth. The youth in our age have been subjected to the modern metaphysics and philosophy in every aspect of their lives and when they see a liturgy which is likewise governed by these philosophies, they find it, like many other things they experience in modern society, to be vacuous. Consequently, they tend to seek the transcendent outside the Church since it does not seem to provide it, or they reason themselves back to a time and liturgy which embodied a realist metaphysics and philosophy and thus provides a fulfilment to the desire for the transcendent. Perhaps this is why the Mass of Pope St. Pius V has so much appeal to the youth and where that Mass is said the medium age is quite young.

(11) Klaus Gamber's book The Reform of the Roman Liturgy clearly indicates the proper understanding of the orientation of the altar. But suffice to say that if the Son of God, like the natural sun, rises in the east (oriens) and providing that the Son is God, then it is only fitting that we should face God during the Mass. To say that the previous liturgical rite said Mass with its back to the people is to exhibit a fundamental lack of understanding of the nature of sacrificial ritual and liturgical history; one always faced the one to whom the sacrifice is offered. To face the people signifies a horizontal understanding of God or it puts people in the place of God.

(12) The notion of the outmoded or outdated past, i.e. to put the past in a pejorative light, seems to have taken deep rooting in the fact that except among a few there is a general distrust for tradition.

(13) A principle does not have to be explicitly grasped in the mind of the knower to be operative. Moreover, because people learn by imitation, there is a strong drive in man to imitate or adopt what other people think. Consequently, it appears that many have adopted this historicism without a clear reflection on what they were doing. Moreover, it must always be kept in mind that operative principles tend to have a life of their own. Even if the one under its sway does not desire to follow the principle to its logical conclusion, the principle itself will drag the adherer to that conclusion and this has been clearly demonstrated by the liturgical principles adopted by the earlier liturgists and the fact that those principles only recently are finding their full expression.

(14) Perhaps, this is where the document Sacrosanctum Concilium failed to see that it contained diametrically opposed principles. It said first that any change must be an organic development (para. 23) which is a true and valid principle and it reflects a proper understanding of how things developed historically on the liturgical level. But then the document employed vocabulary which embodied a Hegelian metaphysics, e.g. while the word "change" appears only several times in one form or another, what is affected by the changes includes virtually every aspect of the liturgy (see paras. 63-82). When changes of that magnitude are ordered, there should be no wonder why the Hegelian metaphysical principle of change took over.

(15) Such as the permission of the use of altar girls, Communion in the hand, etc. These observations would be applicable to the 1969 and 1970 editions of the Sacramentary. However, if the Vatican were to include these in the General Instruction to the Roman Missal, the point is even more cogent.

(16) See the text of Anthony Cekada, Problems with the Prayers of the Modern Mass (currently published by TAN Books and Publishers, Inc.), or Denis Whitehouse's summary article about this text in the March 2000 Christian Order ("Liturgical Cleansing").

(17) That is "Corpus Domini Nostri Iesu Christi custodiat animam tuam in vitam eternam. Amen" i.e. "May the Body of Our Lord Jesus Christ preserve your soul unto life everlasting. Amen."

(18) Amen is Hebrew for "so be it." See Gerhard Podradsky, New Dictionary of the Liturgy, Geoffrey Chapman Ltd., 1966. See also The Catechism of the Council of Trent (TAN Books and Publishers, Inc., Rockford, Illinois, 1982), p. 588.

(19) This is not to imply that the New Rite of the Mass is invalid.

(20) This implies that even if the ritual is said according to the rubrics, it still has some fundamental difficulties. The fact that Cardinal Ottaviani and several other cardinals and high ranking ecclesial officials warned Pope Paul VI of the (theological) problems inherent in the New Ritual prior to its promulgation in 1969 is significant. Moreover, the fact that Paul VI and subsequent liturgists and theologians all but ignored the observations made by the cardinals and others is quite perplexing considering their high rank within the Church. The text of Cardinal Ottaviani is currently published by TAN Publishers under the title The Ottaviani Intervention and it draws attention to the fact that the problems inherent in the New Rite were perceived long before their effects were felt in the Church.

(21) The name of an article written by Thomas Gordon Smith in Sursum Corda! Fall, 1998.

(22) It is nothing short of Hegelianism to assert that modern man is fundamentally different than his predecessors and therefore a new ritual is needed in order to appeal to modern man. The fact is that since man's essence does not change, all essential and virtually all accidental liturgical forms will have appeal to every generation.

(23) This perhaps is the most telling sign of the modern problem, viz. that there are those who see themselves as worthy of making the changes who are not in positions of ecclesiastical authority. While those in authority will be aided by their office, those who do not have authority will not. Moreover, the very fact that there is in the liturgical discussions a great deal of language embodying expressions such as "I want" and "I think" is a sign of the inevitable subjectivism which results from the rationalist metaphysics present in the liturgy. Moreover, if one has a realist metaphysics, one quickly realizes that one is not worthy of determining what is and should be part of the liturgy. For there is a fundamental lack of humility about someone who cannot see the awesome responsibility of determining the intellectual formation of the faith of billions of people. Only those endowed with the proper ecclesiastical office, after prayer, sacrifice and mortification ought to approach the sacred mysteries and even then with only slight changes in mind, remembering how the saints formed the liturgy under the guidance of God's Most Holy Hand. Moreover, we must recoup the humility which teaches us that we must conform ourselves to the liturgy and not the liturgy to ourselves.

(24) What this means is that if one does not hold to a realist epistemology, and consequently, a realist metaphysics, one will not hold that we can come to true intellectual, universal and conceptual knowledge by means of the senses. Consequently, there is no psychological motivation to ensure that there is a congruity between what one believes and what one does exteriorly. Rationalists use abstract art and signs since, for them, there is no real need or use of the senses. The empiricists do not believe in anything spiritual, so the sensory signs to do not point to anything beyond sensible reality but focus the attention on the 'appetitive' and human. Hegelians want a constant changing of the signs to reflect the constant changing of beliefs. Clearly, then, only a realist metaphysics realizes that essences do not change and that our conceptual knowledge of those unchanging essences is acquired by means of the senses. Therefore, only a realist metaphysics will grasp the changelessness and spiritual reality of the Deposit of Faith and the nature of a man and therefore recognize that a liturgy must be something which does not change essentially or substantially over time. Rather, like accidents in general, the liturgy would change only accidentally and slightly over the course of a long period of time. This is why organic development of the liturgy is crucial because it recognizes that if a liturgy reflects the teachings of the Catholic faith, it will not need major modifications. Rather, only slight changes from time to time will be needed as a deeper grasp of that same Deposit becomes clearer. Therefore, suitability in the liturgy will only occur when a realist metaphysics is insisted upon and when the changes in the liturgy are not wide sweeping but only slight. Moreover, it will not accept a completely newly designed rite since that implies that essences somehow change and that the prior liturgy did not reveal the essence of the Faith. But in point of fact, the traditional Rite did reveal the Faith and therefore there is no need to create an "essentially" new and different rite.

(25) Some have mistakenly concluded that those currently in the Church are bound by the precepts of the Second Vatican Council to make liturgical changes. While this would be true for those who immediately followed the Council, it does not necessarily apply to those currently in the Church. Commands are given by a competent authority and are to be carried out with a certain set of circumstances in mind, but these commands bind as mediated by the circumstances under which the command was given; when the circumstances fundamentally change, one is no longer bound by the command. This moral principle is employed in the CIC/83: "Can. 41: The executor of an administrative act to whom the task of execution only is entrusted, cannot refuse to execute it, unless it is quite clear that the act itself is null, or that it cannot for some other grave reason be sustained, or that the conditions attached to the administrative act itself have not been fulfilled. If, however, the execution of the administrative act would appear to be inopportune, by reason of the circumstances of person or place, the executor is to desist from the execution, and immediately inform the person who issued the act." Consequently, because the liturgical situation and life of the Church have changed in such a serious manner since the closing of the Council in 1965, we today are no longer bound by the requirement of the Council to make the changes since it cannot be sustained without more confusion besetting the already clouded minds of the laity and clergy, and, consequently, it would be inopportune by reason of the circumstances.

(26) If St. Paul (Romans 10: 17) is right that faith comes through hearing, then it must also be the case that if the faith is expressed clearly through the liturgy, the faith of the laity will also be revitalized. Moreover, many more people would be converted to Catholicism if more witnessed the Mass of Pope St. Pius V which by its very forms of expression "preaches" the faith by the very nature of its orandi to those who will hear it. But if the liturgy does not "preach" the faith, it will not convert anyone.


Back to Top | Features 1990'