The Philosophy Behind True “Active Participation”

If the Church desires active participation, then self-examination is in order.

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While there is no shortage of commentary on the need for the “active participation” of the faithful at Mass, the issue is rarely approached philosophically. Yet if the Thomistic dictum holds true that God’s grace builds on and perfects nature, we should expect that philosophy would have much to contribute to the discussion.

Here I will offer two brief philosophical notes relevant to active participation: first, the emotional basis of such participation should not be overlooked; and second, participation requires likeness.

To see that active participation requires the support of certain emotions, we must briefly consider the nature of the Mass, or liturgical prayer more generally. While there can and should be contemplative moments during the sacred liturgy, on the whole liturgy is more of a “doing” than a “knowing.”

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Liturgical prayer is an action: the Mass itself is the sacrificial action of Christ, an action to which the offering of the faithful can then be joined. The sacrifice of Christ is perfect and complete, so discussions of active participation are concerned with the “assistance” or contribution made by the faithful through the ministry of a priest. 

Yet since these contributions of the faithful are human actions, we should not expect them to come to perfection without emotional support. There is always an intellectual component to any moral virtue. The excellent way of acting that is virtue is defined by reason.

However, that rationally-identified excellence will need to be carried into action through the support of emotions: “the head rules the belly through the chest,” as C.S. Lewis says in The Abolition of Man. Or, as Aristotle says in the Nicomachean Ethics, while any human being can feel emotions, “having these feelings at the right times, about the right things, toward the right people, for the right end, and in the right way, is the intermediate and best condition, and this is proper to virtue.” 

What is the perfected emotional basis that would allow the full, conscious, and active participation desired by the Council Fathers? In paragraph 2144, the Catechism of the Catholic Church calls this emotional basis a “sense of the sacred,” and includes a quotation from St. John Henry Newman about the feelings of fear and awe a Christian should have in the presence of God. If the Church truly desires the active participation of the faithful, rather than the mere semblance of such participation, then she needs to undertake a self-examination of liturgical praxis with that emotional goal in mind. 

What orientation of the priest during Mass tends to be more awe-inspiring: facing the Lord, or facing the people? Does the use of the vernacular tend to be more awe-inspiring, or does the use of a sacred language? Is a man in sacred orders in ornate vestments a more awe-inspiring minister of Holy Communion, or is it your neighbor Susan from down the street wearing her favorite holiday sweater? What posture in receiving Holy Communion best expresses man’s littleness and poverty in relation to Almighty God? 

A second philosophical principle relevant to active participation can be retrieved from the works of Plato. In his Phaedo, a dialogue that explores the arguments for the immortality of the human soul, Plato notices that participation requires some degree of likeness, some basic similarity. Things that are radically dissimilar cannot participate in one another: “snow will never…admit the hot and still be what it was, namely snow, and also hot; but at the advance of the hot, it will either get out of the way or perish.” 

This requirement for participation is not just an abstract philosophical principle; it is, instead, a truth we all acknowledge in daily life, even if we have never formally articulated it. Few of us would be comfortable showing up for an ice hockey game wearing only our running shoes, shorts, and a t-shirt. Lacking protective padding, ice skates, and a hockey stick, our participation in the game would be radically handicapped: there is not enough likeness of equipment. 

Or, few of us would be comfortable representing ourselves in an important legal proceeding. Without extensive knowledge of the law and the rules of legal procedure, our participation would again be handicapped, and we would be unlikely to prevail: there would not be enough intellectual likeness between ourselves, the opposing attorneys, and the judge. Effective participation requires likeness—and, all things being equal, the more likeness, the greater the potential participation.

Discussions of active participation often give evidence of some awareness of this requirement of similarity. There is a desire for intellectual likeness, inasmuch as the faithful are to be taught the meaning of the various parts of the Mass; their participation is to be “conscious.” There is also a desire for bodily likeness with the liturgical action. The faithful are to sing, to make the prescribed responses, and to stand, sit, and kneel at the appropriate moments; their participation is to be “active.”

However, the human person is more than just intellect and body. The human person also has what have traditionally been called the “appetites.” These include the “sensitive appetite” (the emotions) and the “rational appetite” (the will). For the participation of the faithful to be “full” and active in the highest degree, there would also need to be some likeness in these appetitive aspects of the human person.

In the case of the sensitive appetite, the emotions, the necessary likeness would be the sense of the sacred discussed above. But what about the will, the rational appetite? On a basic level, one would have to be willingly choosing to be attending the Mass and taking part in it. Something would be lacking in the participation of one who was brought to Mass against his will (see, for example, the conduct of the average toddler at Mass). 

However, a deeper likeness would also be required for participation in the fullest sense: the human will would need to be conformed to that of Christ, the principal actor in the Mass. Our term for that likeness is charity. Unless the will has been perfected by the theological virtue of charity and is united to God, the participation in the sacrifice would be radically incomplete. Put differently, no one in mortal sin, in whom the virtue of charity has been extinguished, can participate fully in the Mass. 

A person in mortal sin can participate in the Mass to some degree, and even participate in a bodily sense, but he cannot do the “one thing necessary,” which is shared activity with Christ, uniting himself with the self-offering of Christ. Without charity, “active participation” is ultimately hollow at the core.

Again, if the Church desires active participation, then self-examination is in order. While it is good to encourage people to sing hymns, it is far more necessary to encourage people to avail themselves of the Sacrament of Reconciliation. If the Church desires active participation, then self-examination is in order. While it is good to encourage people to sing hymns, it is far more necessary to encourage people to avail themselves of the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Tweet This

How often, and how long, is Confession being offered at the parish or shrine? Are the Confession times convenient for the confessors, or convenient for the sinners? Are the faithful being pressured by ushers to present themselves for Holy Communion regardless of the dispositions of their souls, or are they able to peacefully remain in the pew without receiving concerned remarks and puzzled looks? 

On that note, why not reintroduce the salutary practice of priests hearing Confessions immediately before Mass? In fact, in parishes with extra priests, why not revive the practice of continuing to hear Confessions during the first portions of the Mass, before the additional priests are needed to assist in the distribution of Holy Communion?

In churches where this custom has been retained, one can readily observe how the faithful continue to participate in the Mass from their place in the confessional line. Rather than ignoring the sacred action, the faithful awaiting Confession are actually seeking to equip themselves to participate in the Mass in the deepest, most essential way.

To quote C.S. Lewis again, the Church must be careful not to “castrate and bid the geldings to be fruitful.” If active participation by the faithful is indeed desired, then we should more carefully attend to the means by which the necessary emotional dispositions are cultivated and by which the will is perfected by the theological virtue of charity. A right to an end implies a right to some effective means to that end.


  • Alexander Schimpf

    Alexander Schimpf received his Ph.D. in Philosophy from the Catholic University of America in 2015. He lives in Oklahoma City with his wife, Sarah, and their four children. His writings have appeared in Crisis, Aleteia, the National Catholic Register, and the Imaginative Conservative.

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