Proper Liturgy Needs Doctrinal Truth

“This is why respect for truth is ultimately inseparable from what we call worship. Truth and cult are inextricably united—one cannot exist without the other, however often history may have separated them.”  ∼ Joseph Ratzinger (1982)

Liturgical thought today seems to downplay the importance of doctrine while elevating the significance of practice. The harmony of lex orandi as the criterion of lex credendi is questioned. Dogma and liturgy seem to have parted company. We need to choose which side we are on: doctrine and its pastoral application together or merely the latter severed from doctrinal truth. Many a difficult moral case, to be sure, cannot easily be solved. Yet, doctrine seems “rigid”—to use Pope Francis’s oft-repeated accusation. For some, no clear answer seems forthcoming—even after much contemplation. We must act in obscurity. The world is like a “field hospital” where urgent cases must first be dealt with the best way we can. The rules don’t apply to everyone.

Resolute authors resort to probabilism or even “probabiliorism”—the safe or more than safe. The first emphasizes freedom, the latter safety. If these solutions do not work, we turn to consequentialism. This means a moral action is right if its consequences are what we want. Another option is historicism: each age has its own solution which may contradict the answers of an earlier age. A “pastoral” solution to complex problems that does not appeal to truth is close to what used to be called casuistry or even sophistry. The abstract moral principle is applied to a particular case. Particular cases usually have many contingencies about them that mitigate or increase responsibility for the gravity of the act. In any case, we must make a decision. The good of the believer requires it. If the law is not clear, we are free to take the side of liberty—in dubiis, libertas. Under such circumstances, quite a few will accept the Machiavellian solution—we make evil our good.

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

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Each of the sacraments is liturgical in form or content. That is, the sacrament is made present in the rite that confers it. Thus, if a pastor goes ahead and performs a rite, it appears that the problem is solved. By virtue of compassion, mercy, or minute distinctions, practices that were once forbidden on account of the integrity of the sacrament are now conferred. We thus have a “new” situation. We need to adjust the doctrine to the practice. There are many ways to make this adjustment. All things are possible with God. Since we were not there, we do not know exactly what Jesus taught. This ignorance frees us to apply new solutions to new cases in our time as he evidently did in his time. The respective solutions are both “moral” even if contradictory to each other. We have a modern form of the “two truth” theory in the relationship between doctrine and practice.


John Paul II and Benedict insisted on the continuity and integrity of doctrine before and after Vatican II. They did not think, as many apparently did—and still do—that the Council advocated an almost complete conformity to modernity. And, as Tracey Rowland has shown (in Culture and the Thomist Tradition), modernity is not morally neutral. These erudite popes, John Paul II and Benedict XVI, were said to be far over the head of the average bishop, who did not understand what these two popes meant. Bishops are practical men. They are burdened with many practical and bureaucratic problems. They are grateful for pastoral solutions that do not involve complicated theological issues.

Thus, when Pope Francis arrived on the scene, he seemed to be the answer bishops were looking for. As a pastoral pope, he would cut through the red tape of heavy doctrine. Everyone had problems with divorce and remarriages, contraceptives, sodomy, and gender issues. Who could go to communion? Who could not? Why? The learned Germans saw no problem. What did the pope do when he was archbishop in Buenos Aires? Whatever it was, do that. Francis seems to think that his job is not to answer the ordinary questions that popes are expected to answer. As a result, the faithful have become more and more confused about what the Church teaches.

St. Paul, however, clearly stated that we must receive the sacraments worthily. The early Church did not invite unbelievers to participate in the Eucharist. To receive the sacrament worthily, we had to know and believe what it was. And this was not up to the Church to decide. It was given to it by Christ to be held steadfast throughout the ages. This abidingness to what was revealed is evidence of the truth of the doctrine. The Gates of Hell were not to prevail. The practice followed the truth. God was worshipped when the sacrament was received as it was understood. The liturgy of the Church and its sacraments were not of mere human origin.

In the history of religion, various efforts were made to return honor to God. Yet what is strikingly different about Christianity is that God gives to man the proper form of divine worship. Man does not make up by himself the form or content; he receives it: “Do this in memory of me.” Without the command for his followers to do what Christ admonished the disciples to do, they would not have presumed for themselves to act in persona Christi.


The liturgy and the sacraments are God’s way of instructing us how to worship properly. In this sense, we see in the Old Testament a gradual purification of ancient sacrificial rites. Holocausts of lambs and cattle are replaced by turtle doves and sacrifices of praise. Yet behind these rites is the constant reminder that Jesus must go to Jerusalem where he is to suffer and die. He is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. In no other name is salvation offered to us. After his suffering and death, he would rise again. This rising again on the third day is found in the Creeds. It becomes the day set aside in creation when God rested. It now becomes the day of rest when we free ourselves from the workaday world. God is properly worshipped when we are at rest. We do not “labor” on this day. We discover the activities of leisure, i.e., of what we do when all else is done. In such moments we contemplate what is true. This act of worship is timeless, as is truth itself.

The Book of Wisdom and the Proverbs speak of playing before the Lord. Indeed, in C.S. Lewis’s space fiction, the whole universe is depicted as “The Great Dance.” But this dance of the universe is not simply an exhibition or a performance. It is rather a free response to something delightful, something witnessed, something finally found. God’s unveiling himself to us is gradual. He follows a divine plan, as Paul told us. The plan includes every human being ever created. There is no other kind. Some human beings evidently refuse to dance with the whole cosmos. They only dance to their own tunes. And so they dance alone.


In the background of these reflections stands the figure of Plato in his Laws where he dealt with the laws that pertained to the divinity. He understood that human affairs in themselves were not particularly serious. They were rather, as I like to put it, “unserious”—as in the title of my book On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs. At first sight, such a phrase seems to mock the gravity and burden of human life as it stands outside of nothingness and before death and suffering.

Plato had long concerned himself, even as a young man, with the problem of “successful” injustice. He saw that in this life many crimes go unpunished, while many good deeds go unrewarded. The only way for justice to prevail is for there to be a final judgment after death. The soul of man was thus immortal. Ultimately, no one escaped justice.

In the Laws, however, we find that the reason human life is “unserious” is not because it does not have its own good and grandeur. It is because only God is really serious. By comparison, human life is unserious. The result of this understanding of God is an explosion of glory on the part of human beings who now realize that they are not gods themselves. They are released from the awful burden of thinking that they can cause their own happiness and define their own end. What, then, are they to do? They are to spend their lives “singing, dancing, and sacrificing.” These are the ways that free human beings who grasp reality respond to their place in the divine order of things. These are the ways free human beings rejoice in the reality that is given to them (cf. Joseph Pieper, The Platonic Myths and Joshua Mitchell, Plato’s Fable).

All such themes, activities, and reactions prefigure the liturgy that is revealed to us, the liturgy that understands the truth of the divine inner life of the Trinity—i.e., “the eternal life” into which we are invited. One thing remains to complete our understanding of this relationship between doctrine and liturgy. In Leon Kass’s remarkable book, The Hungry Soul: Eating and the Perfection of Our Nature, we find a description of the reasons why the human body is configured the way it is—why ears? or upright stance? or hands? Basically, we are built the way we are in order that we might know what is not ourselves (cf. Schall, The Universe We Think In). We are not deprived of knowing the universe because of our relative smallness.

What interests me here is Kass’s description of human life in this world at its best. I recall reading somewhere once that the perfection of human civilization is two or three men conversing together. Kass tells us that the natural perfection of human life in this world is a formal dinner with four or six friends sharing good food, good wine, and good conversation that is both lighthearted and touching on the highest things. As a practicing Jew, Kass does not see it this way, but he can understand why a Christian might recall the Last Supper in this scenario. Christ tells the Apostles that he no longer calls them servants but friends because he has told them all that his Father has revealed to him.

The liturgy that is revealed to us as the true way to worship the Father is cast in the twofold form of a supper and a sacrifice. In addition to this context, we have the resurrection of precisely the whole person, body and soul. In the end, we are not just souls or bodies. We are made whole. We remain whole. Msgr. Robert Sokolowski had it right: truth only exists when it is recognized as truth. The “Eucharistic Presence” is the central act of our liturgies. Its only validity is its truth as handed down to us—the one sacrificial banquet that frees us to accept the eternal, Trinitarian life.

Plato was right. We should spend our lives “singing, dancing, and sacrificing.” We should experience the perfection of human life when we dine together as friends because we can no longer be called servants when we are adopted sons of God and friends of Christ, true God and true Man.

(Photo credit:  L’Osservatore Romano / CNA)


  • Fr. James V. Schall

    The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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