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October 31, 2012
Rebuilding Catholic culture: Avery Dulles, the comma, and the ways we worship
By Sr. Joan L. Roccasalvo, C.S.J. *

By Sr. Joan L. Roccasalvo, C.S.J. *

At the time of his death in 2008, Avery Cardinal Dulles was considered the first among American theologians. The search for truth led this agnostic to the Catholic faith in his senior year at Harvard. After serving as a naval officer, he became a Jesuit priest. Avery Dulles was no liturgist, but as a complete theologian, he could boast – but didn’t – of a refined sense of the arts, especially in regard to the liturgy.

Among his prodigious writings, his short article, “The Ways We Worship,” exemplifies his writing style – clear, crisp, concise, and coherent. It was published in First Things (March, 1998) and was taken from a talk he gave to liturgists in 1997. With his quick ability to size up persons, things, and events, Dulles goes to the heart of the neuralgic topic, the ways we worship. The whole of theology is found in details, and the details point to the whole.

“Liturgy,” he writes, “is the principal bond between the earthly and the heavenly Church, a frail human participation in the glorious heavenly liturgy.” (28) The prime purpose of worship is to glorify God. And, the ways we worship flash red within the Church.

The Lowly Comma

Cardinal Dulles intoned his words. If you weren’t attentive to his homilies or lectures, you could miss his droll, understated humor delivered with a Lincoln-esque straight face. A case in point. In “The Ways We Worship,” Dulles speaks of “two opposed tendencies in liturgical piety in the Latin Rite: the transcendent view and this-worldly view.” Then he explains. Some years ago, while making his thanksgiving after Mass in a parish church, he noticed a banner hanging from the pulpit which read: “God is other people.” He thought at the time: “If I had had a magic marker within reach, I would not have been able to resist the temptation to insert a comma after the word “other.” (28) The two forms of the inscription, with and without comma, “sum up the two tendencies.” The lowly comma distinguishes the two ways in which we worship.

Prior to his exposition of his remarks, Dulles cautions that he is drawing the contrast in bald terms, “verging on caricature, while recognizing that less extreme positions are more normal” (Ibid). In distinguishing these two views below, View A designates that of the transcendent and otherworldly view, and View B, that of the earthbound and this-worldly view. Views A and B differentiate themselves in ecclesiology, Christology, liturgical theology, and the sacred arts.

View A. The Transcendent, Otherworldly View

View A holds that the Eucharist makes the Church. Often referred to as theology ‘from above,’ liturgy is made in heaven. There are no substantial changes to it. Liturgy is God’s gift and invitation to the Body of Christ, and the faithful receive what the liturgy has to offer. (28) The order of the ceremony is entrusted to a divinely ordained hierarchical priesthood, which has responsibility for the strict observance of the prescribed rites.” (29) Sacraments are efficacious, ex opere operato. Because the ritual is sacred and inviolable, the faithful must adapt themselves to the liturgy rather than adapt the ritual to their tastes, interests, or capacities. The celebration should elicit a sense of awe in the presence of the holy, for God is remote and transcendent. (28)

View A favors formality in the liturgy and values the continuity of tradition not for its own sake but for the unity of the Church. Here tradition is understood not as a set of rigid outdated practices, but rather as “the Church’s self-consciousness now of that which has been handed on to her not as an inert treasure but as a dynamic inner life” (Robert F. Taft “Beyond East and West,” ix). View A holds to the distinction between clerical priesthood and the priesthood of the laity which in turn affects the church architecture and the use of sacred space. View A holds that “modern Catholics are disgusted by the tasteless experience and pedestrian language currently in use.” (29)

View B. This Earthbound and This-Worldly View

View B holds that the Church makes the Eucharist. Theology is ‘from below.’ The liturgy is produced by the people. View B is repelled by a petrified hieratic liturgy that sees the Church as separate from the modern world (Ibid). It accuses View A of having canonized the past by turning the Church into a museum piece. Instead, worship must be made relevant to the actual situation. The liturgy is a matter of feeling and self-expression. (28) It favors creativity and spontaneity and is disinclined to favor tradition. (29)

View B holds that there should be as little distinction as possible between clerical priesthood and that of the faithful, between sanctuary and nave, between heaven and the world, expressed through liturgical space, art, architecture, and music. Here there is new emphasis on the People of God, a phrase that is preferred to the phrase, Body of Christ.

A Word about Tradition and the Liturgy

For Dulles, tradition is the living past; it binds together past and future. There is a big difference between tradition, “the living faith of the dead” and traditionalism, “the dead faith of the living,” to quote Jaroslav Pelican, a Protestant theologian. According to Dom Prosper Guéranger, a founder of the modern liturgical movement, “the liturgy is tradition itself, at its highest power and solemnity.” Though the liturgy does not coincide with the entirety of the Christian life, the whole life of the Christian should be permeated by the spirit of the liturgy.” (30)

With his typically balanced approach, Dulles summarizes his article with several corollaries from what has already been said about the liturgy:

1-3. Liturgy is God’s gift to which attention must be directed. The Holy Spirit is to be invoked.

4. Making use of its symbolic resources, liturgy should arouse a keen awareness of the truths of faith.  This involves rituals, vestments, sacred song, and periods of silence. (33)

5. Liturgy calls for participation that strengthens the faith of the worshipers. (33)

6. Liturgy should be marked by stability, not be changed without real and manifest necessity and not be static. Adaptation does not mean that everything should be stated in plain vernacular English or conducted in a tone of familiarity. Attention to the laws of worship may require a certain formality in style and language somewhat removed from ordinary speech. The need to evoke the sense of the sacred may also call for types of chant not heard in secular situations. (33)

7. Because liturgy, like tradition in general, is a living reality, no one stage of its development should be absolutized. (33)

8. The existing liturgy provides no lack of room for creativity, rightly understood. The choice of music, the preparation of the liturgical space, the composition of the homily and the intercessions all place heavy demands on the talents of those concerned. Spontaneity in formal liturgical celebrations should, however, be kept within bounds. Liturgy, as the chief embodiment of perennial tradition, should convey a sense of the objective, the constant, and the universal. (33)

Dulles keeps Views A and B in a delicate balance: “God is neither other people nor does he dwell in remote seclusion.” (34)

Personal Observations

Whenever an official or public event is celebrated at the White House, for example, protocol and good form enjoy priority over other concerns. The formal  atmosphere, visuals, music – all details, are guided by good taste to realize the purpose of the event. Good taste is expressed as public courtesy, aesthetic reserve, un-spontaneity, and modest decor. The ceremony must proceed smoothly.

Similarly, when the Church celebrates the liturgy, reserve, protocol, and proportion are expected. Liturgical good taste forbids coarseness, vulgarity, and showiness in the service. Bad taste lacks finesse and dignity. It wallows in excess. Where a lack of proportion exists between form and depth, and between content and presentation, bad taste is near. (Charles-Damian Boulogne, “My Friends, the Senses,” 143) Despite the virtual disappearance of courtesy in public, good taste, and good form are indispensable at worship. Bad taste in liturgy, tasteless liturgy, these keep people away from Sunday Mass.

Benedict XVI: “The Church Tearing Herself Apart”


Benedict XVI has taken a dim view of the postconciliar liturgy. For him, it has produced an attitude of opposition within the Church – a partisan and opposing church tearing herself apart. At issue, is that the faithful have become the church, and they are celebrating themselves, “an activity that is utterly fruitless.” (“A New Song for the Lord,” 142)

“[What] we are experiencing today,” he laments, “is to a large extent due to the disintegration of the liturgy which at times has even come to be conceived of etsi Deus non daretur, (that is, the liturgy has even come to be celebrated as if there were no God.” (“Milestones: Memoirs 1927-77,” p. 149)

Sr. Joan L. Roccasalvo, a member of the Congregation of St. Joseph, Brentwood, NY, holds degrees in philosophy (Ph.L), musicology (Ph.D.), theology (M.A.), and liturgical studies (Ph.D). She has taught at all levels of Catholic education and writes with a particular focus on a theology of beauty and the sacred arts. Her e-mail address is [email protected].
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