Brief Book Review: Liturgical Dogmatics

Liturgical Dogmatics: How Catholic Beliefs Flow from Liturgical Prayer
By David Fagerberg

Who should read this book? This book will be particularly useful for those charged with liturgical formation: directors of diocesan offices of worship, directors of liturgy at the parish level, and catechists. It will also be useful for seminary instructors and those who teach undergraduate and graduate classes in theology at colleges and universities. The text is very occasionally technical but is generally very accessible.

Main point: In the introduction, the author writes that “the goal of dogma is achieved preliminarily when the mystery has been protected from heretical corruption, but the final goal of dogma is achieved when the believer is united to the mystery that dogma propounds.” Throughout the text, then, the author examines the ways in which liturgy effects this achievement in the minds, hearts, souls and bodies of those who worship.

Why does it matter? Why is this book significant? For the author—and, I would argue, for the Christian tradition as a whole—liturgy is not one more thing that believers do alongside all the other things believers do; thus Sacrosanctum Concilium 7, for example. Liturgy is the beating heart of Christian existence. “The Church,” says the author, “is the dynamic incorporation of men and women into Christ, which means that Christianity is not a system of ideas; it is sacramental unity” (p. 158). On page after page, the author relates how fundamental principles of Christian belief (revelation, Trinity, sin, imago Dei, death, providence, etc.) are lived in the liturgy. For example, with respect to Christology: “The Father descends to us through Jesus; we ascend through Jesus to the Father. What transpires Christologically is celebrated liturgically.”

What intrigued me: I underlined a great many passages in the text, sometimes with stars in the margins and sometimes with question marks. On the whole, the text invites me to think carefully about how I teach theology, whether the subject is liturgy as such or some other topic. Despite my best efforts, am I presenting Christianity as a system of ideas? Do I keep in mind that the telos of revelation is not additional data in my head (or the heads of my students) but communion with God?

Pushing back. Though in some places the author acknowledges that sin can be and is a feature of the internal life of the church, in a great many more places liturgy is presented as that aspect of church life free from corruption: “What shall we do in this interval between Eden’s innocence and heaven’s righteousness? In the between time, we must do our liturgy with evil yapping outside the door noisily and stupidly and not let it gain entrance into our hearts” (p. 124). Evil can yap noisily, stupidly, and even horrifically in liturgy, with the history of racially segregated Eucharistic celebrations providing just one case in point.

Implications. In the introduction, the author writes: “The subject matter of dogmatics is not the topic of God, it is the Subject himself. God himself. Liturgical dogmatics reminds us of this. If we want to know propositions—that God is universal, immutable, eternal, et cetera—we can know them by analysis. If we want to know God, we must fall down in adoration.” For me, and I hope for others, this book is an important invitation to keep in mind that discourse about God is all but only a stepping-stone to adoration.

Fagerberg, David. Liturgical Dogmatics: How Catholic Beliefs Flow from Liturgical Prayer. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2021. 260 pages. $19.95. ISBN: 9781621644095.

REVIEWER: Timothy Brunk

2 comments

  1. I wonder whether the ‘Christianity as a set of ideas’ goes back at least to the 16th century, as the focus shifted in the Latin Churches from ritual community to ideological community. The ritual community is sustained and formed by its celebration of the sacraments and the Liturgy generally. The ideological community is sustained by catholic schools, seminaries, catholic universities, and policed by confessional practice.

    The primary need at the time was to oppose the ideology of the Refomation communities (themselves ideological) by whatever means possible. Maybe this accelerated a process that had already begun.

    The Liturgical Movement and ‘Sacrosanctum Conilium’ were an attempt to reclaim the ritual community. How successful they have been, or indeed could ever be, is a matter of debate.

    AG

  2. The word “system” (as in “system of ideas”) is charged with Hegelian overtones, I suppose, but I would hope we can see the liturgy and systematic theology as complementary — each with a proper discipline and arena of activity. That liturgy should be regarded as “summit and source” is part of a system of ideas that privileges the liturgical action. Without some kind of systematic understanding, liturgy devolves into “whatever you make of it.”

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