There has been some debate over the past decade about the state of Catholic theology. Many of the questions circle around the suggestion of some that the dissolution of the “Thomistic synthesis” leading up to and following Vatican II has resulted in a kind of chaos of Catholic theology. According to this read of the situation, this chaos is the result of a collective lack of common approach and method. Aside from the historical reality that there have always been various theological schools and approaches in the church, the concerns stem from what is often experienced as a particularly unstable and relativistic cultural context.
Purveyors of this view typically say that there’s nothing inherently wrong with modern theology, but that we’ve lost the universal, metaphysical grounding generously supplied by Aquinas, a grounding particularly apt to our historical moment. Put recently by Thomas Joseph White, OP, “In the Church today, we typically encounter a generalized doctrinal amnesia and nescience of our best philosophical traditions. This creates intellectual indetermination and disorientation, which lead many back to fundamental metaphysical questions, and to a revived interest in Thomism.” In other words, mainstream theology after the sixties has left us bereft of grounding.
Pope Leo XIII’s 1879 encyclical Aeterni Patris had called for the restoration of Thomistic philosophy, encouraging Catholic faithful “to spread it far and wide for the defense and beauty of the Catholic faith, for the good of society, and for the advantage of all the sciences” (31). The encyclical gave ballast to the already bubbling neo-scholastic movement in Catholic theology, which asserted that a recovery of scholastic (mostly Thomistic) thinking was the remedy to modern problems.
Many have already pointed out that neo-Thomist thinking was in many cases a mirror of its opponent. It challenged the rationalism of modernity by a kind of “clear and distinct ideas” approach to the tradition. It ceded some of the ground to its modern critics by working out an all-encompassing system that left little room for the affective, the mystical. It wasn’t that such thinkers thought that prayer and mystical approaches to the faith were unimportant; it was just that they didn’t represent real, hardball theology.
It may not be a surprise to learn that I think one of the answers to this problematic in contemporary theology is a liturgical theology. Note, I wrote “one of the answers.” Adamantly, this is not a panacea. But I think liturgical theology represents a pathway, an opening perhaps, in conversations about a general, consensus, Thomistic theology. Further theological development and discourse is at its best when it proceeds from liturgical theology. Of course, this brings to mind liturgy’s classical designation as theologia prima.
In his modern classic by that name, David Fagerberg defines liturgical theology as “the theological work of the liturgical assembly, not the work done by an academic upon liturgical material.” Fagerberg goes on to describe two defining attributes of liturgical theology: “it is theologia prima and it is found in the structure of the rite, in its lex orandi” (ix). It may be obvious, then, that the same debates I mentioned above are also—though by no means always—framed by debates around liturgical celebration, especially of the Ordinary and Extraordinary Forms. If the structure of the rite is where liturgical theology is found, then it follows that the OF and EF have different liturgical theologies, as many have pointed out.
And so, I’d like to reflect for a moment on an insight from an oft-overlooked theologian of the World War II era. Émile Mersch, SJ, was key to the recovery of mystical body of Christ theology that so influenced Virgil Michel and other liturgical reformers. While Mersch is critical of scholastic theology (perhaps a proxy for neo-scholastic theology of his own day), his 1938 work The Whole Christ is a constructive, ressourcement reading of the tradition drawing out the strains of mystical body of Christ theology in various writings. For him, the theology of the mystical body was not simply an ecclesiology or a model of the church, but rather a fundamental theology, a starting point for the entire theological endeavor.
But one comment that Mersch makes is striking: “The doctrine [of the mystical body of Christ] always and necessarily retains a certain vagueness which, to judge from the mentality of many of the Scholastics, was scarcely calculated to win their sympathy” (452). At the end of this section, Mersch sums up his reflections: “though the picture is more distinct, it is also less vivid. The Scholastics indicate more clearly the nature of the mystery, but they do not describe it with vigor and forcefulness. Their doctrine possesses neither the amplitude and richness in which St. Cyril had clothed it, nor the depth of interior life that characterized it in the writings of Augustine” (484-5).
Vague, Émile? How can it be vague and yet so important? My guess is that Mersch’s comfort with the mystical body is indebted to a rich liturgical theology. For him, the goal of the theological enterprise is not “clear and distinct” categories and ideas, but rather a gateway into the divine mystery. I would suggest that he is comfortable with the vagueness of the mystical body is because it is fundamentally liturgical. That is, Mersch’s theology of the mystical body proceeds from, and returns to, fundamental liturgical theology.
This is not to suggest that liturgical theology is somehow irrational. Rather, since the creation of the word is accomplished through God’s logos (word, reasoned order), to come to know God and ultimately to worship God for God’s wonders is an inherently reasonable act.
But liturgy is not cut and dried. It’s not clear and distinct. And I find it interesting that many appeals to the need for the EF are appeals to the mystery and the reality that “not everything needs to be immediately comprehensible” to quote Lee Fratantuono’s comment on Fr. Anthony’s recent post. Theologies are typically measured by their explanatory power. Of course, though, when talking about God, we sometimes forget that explanatory power always has a mystical streak in it.
From what we know—Mersch died trying to help a wounded priest during a German air raid in May 1940—Mersch was a supporter of liturgical reform. His work certainly found favor with several key liturgical reformers. Lambert Beauduin “read and reread” Mersch’s The Whole Christ. In one of his letters, Michel recommended that same book as one of the best available texts on the mystical body of Christ.
When the rest of theology proceeds from liturgical theology, it seems that it is led to be less concerned with the utter exactitude and more open to that “certain vagueness.”
*The original version of the post was missing both italics and links. Sorry! It has been edited to insert that formatting.