American Catholic Press
16565 S. State Street, South Holland, Illinois 60473
by Karl Adam
It is good for us all at times to pause awhile and to examine our
fundamental position, and that not merely from a moral, but also
from a doctrinal point of view. In the press of daily life, this
or that peripheral truth pushes forward into the foreground, so that
central truths are not seen, or not seen in their right perspective.
Yet our fundamental attitude is truly Catholic only when we hold
the structure of Catholic doctrine in that order and relative proportion
in which the Church conceives it and would have it conceived. The
Catholic faith is not a mere sum of truths which are strung together
in a merely mechanical fashion; it is a living structure of the Holy
Spirit, which grows forth out of a living basic principle and develops
according to the law of its inner nature. Every truth has its definite
place within this living system, its definite function, its organic
meaning. This is emphatically true of the dogmas which concern
I would like therefore to speak now about Christ and in particular about the position which appertains to Christ in our religious life, if we are to be faithful to the directions of dogma. My inquiry is not, “What do you think of Christ?,” for we all gladly confess that he is the Incarnate Son of God, God of God, Light of Light. I am not inquiring into the content of the Christian faith, but only into the position which Christ occupies in the systematic practice of that faith. Is Christ the final and supreme object of our religious endeavor, or must we go beyond Christ to the Father, per Christum ad Patrem? In what sense is the Christian’s attitude christocentric, and in what sense is it theocentric?
While I endeavor to answer this question, I shall assuredly not be expounding any new truth; but the inquiry may nevertheless help to make our faith more lively and definite, more consistent and pure. Much in our faith and in our worship may thereby come into clear light, which hitherto we have not noticed or have noticed only confusedly.
First, let me be allowed to say that the question we are asking is not a purely arbitrary one. Whoever takes note of the course and gentle flow of Catholic piety will observe a varying rhythm in the confession of Christ and a varying emphasis on the holy Name of Jesus. We may perhaps distinguish two schools of Catholic piety. They are not rigorously separated one from the other; for they are in contact. Assuredly, there is between them no question whatever of any dogmatic difference. Catholics everywhere believe that Jesus is the Incarnate Son of God and that he is to be adored as God. That faith is the unquestioned basis and root of their Christian life. Nevertheless, it may be asserted that this common faith in Christ takes a distinctly different emphasis in the two schools of piety to which I have referred. I mean that there is in this matter a real difference between private and popular piety on the one hand and liturgical piety on the other.
In private devotion, the worship of Christ is, speaking generally, so predominant and so much in evidence that faith in the Father and adoration of the Holy Spirit take a notably inferior position. How many are there now who pray to the Father through the Son in the Holy Spirit? Is it not the Holy Spirit in particular become for not a few devout people an Unknown God? It is an exaggeration to say that in popular devotion a recognition of the Holy Trinity survives only in the Sign of the Cross and the Creed? The figure of Christ has so to speak drawn to itself all religious faith and devotion. When we think of God, we think of the glorified Christ. Omnia ad majorem Christi gloriam. [“Everything is for the greater glory of Christ.”] Christ is our supreme and final goal, and we do not pass beyond Christ to the Father. Thus, our worship is expressly christocentric, rather than theocentric. Perhaps we may see a gentle reproof to this attitude in those words of Pope Pius X in his famous Decree on Frequent Communion (December 20th, 1905)—to which we shall return later—when he lays it down that the primary purpose of the Blessed Eucharist is not ut Dominus honori et venerationi consulatur, that the Lord be consoled by honor and veneration.
Connected with this is the fact that in private devotion several immensely profound and fruitful doctrines of the faith do not get that position which belongs to them. The more one-sidedly Christ is considered, the more attention is concentrated upon his divinity, and the less he is regarded in his humanity as the “first-born among many brethren” and the new head of mankind, so much the more do the great truths of his High Priesthood and his Mystical Body retire into the background of the devout consciousness. The more does that living sense of the union effected by his grace, of the supernatural fellowship of Christians in Christ, tend to disappear. The Christian isolates himself from the Head and from his fellow members in the Body of Christ. He has no feeling of union and solidarity with Christ and his members, but a consciousness rather of separation and individuality. That unity which Paul, Ignatius, Cyprian, and Augustine celebrate over and over again with enthusiasm as the blessed gift of our salvation, that vinculum pacis, spiritus unitatis, unitas caritatis, [“bond of peace, spirit of unity, unity of charity”] is no longer, or at least in no sufficient measure, a regular constituent of Christian sentiment. So also the average believer regards the Church from without rather than from within. He sees rather its outward hierarchical structure and imagines that the whole essence of our holy Church is exhausted in the activities of the priestly and pastoral ministry, in pope and bishops and priests. Since he has no living understanding of the divine nature of the Church, of the essential union of all members of the Body with Christ their Head, and since he does not really feel that he himself is taken up into the fellowship of the members of Christ, therefore the Church appears to him not as the very basis of his individual life, as the home where he may find his truest life and deepest realization, but rather as something foreign to himself as a sort of bureau or institution to which he may go, if he wants assistance, for the rest. The Church remains wholly outside the circle of his personal interests, with its own ends, its own methods, its own forms of life. For this very reason—because the life of the Church has no vital relation to his own life—he is prone to criticize the claims of the Church and to pass judgment on its decisions and decrees as though it were nothing more than an ordinary human institution. He is only too ready to find its ordinances irksome and disagreeable. He feels the Church as something foreign and forced upon him, just because he has practically lost his feeling of a common fellowship in Christ and with it the profound conviction that his own supernatural life is to be realized in and with the life of the Church.
But there is another and more awkward consequence of the one-sided prominence given to Christ’s divinity and the obscuration of his humanity. In a suggestive essay that appeared not so long ago,1 Abbot Herwegen of Maria Laach pointed to what he described as an “enormous change” in the religious attitude during the Middle Ages, a change which began in the Carolingian period and reached its full development in the thirteenth century. The change was this, that the sacramental, objective and social elements of religion receded in favor of the moral and subjective. This change he imputed, at least in part, to the subjective temperament of the Teutonic races. He concluded that their emphasis on moral values and comparative indifference to sacramental and divine causality resulted in the fashioning of a devotion which relied far more on the personal effort of the individual than on the power of divine grace. In theological language they exalted the opus operantis above the opus operatum.
Now I confess that I cannot assent to Abbot Herwegen’s thesis in its entirety, even in the restricted form in which the revered author, who has done such high service for the liturgical movement, has more recently stated it. But be that as it may, Abbot Herwegen has certainly seen right in this one point, that Catholic piety as practiced apart from liturgical worship may foster a state of soul wherein the organic connection of nature and grace is only loosely held, and where personal activity emancipates itself, so to speak, from supernatural influence. But the real basis of this veiled semi-Pelagianism does not lie—as Abbot Herwegen supposes—in a neglect of the sacramental aspect of our religion. It lies deeper than that, in a secret detachment from the Mystical Body of Christ, and deeper still, in the obscuration of belief in the first-born of his brethren, in the man, Christ Jesus. When the glad consciousness that we have in the sacred humanity of Jesus, the sure pledge, guarantee, and most attractive realization of the new life has vanished into the background, or at least grown feeble and vague, then spring up in the impoverished soil of the soul the arid growths of mere morality, and with them all that contorted virtue, extreme asceticism and intense scrupulosity which now and again turn the glad tidings of the Gospel into tidings of terror.
That I am not wrong in seeing these connections may be proved if we take a glance at those Christian communities which have removed all human features from the image of Jesus, or at least have not let his substantial likeness with us human beings stand forth in its full strength and emphasis. I am referring to the Gnostic and the non-Chalcedonian Churches and, in a certain measure, also to the Eastern Byzantine Churches.
The Gnostic explained the humanity of Christ as pure semblance. For them the divinity of Jesus was the sole and proper object of worship. Christ did not redeem us through his humanity, through his Passion and death, but through that light of truth flashing forth in his divinity which he sends into our hearts. The consequence was that Gnostic piety had a definitely intellectualist stamp; it was an exercise of thought and reason, and not a loving faith. More than that, it broke up that supernatural fellowship and unity of the Body of Christ which binds the faithful to God and to one another. The Gnostic was the individual par excellence. In his creed he had no conception of a mediatorial High Priest, of a Mystical Body of Christ, or of its Head. For that very reason his notion of the Church was purely external. He regarded it, not as a supernatural development and completion of the humanity of Christ unto the fullness of his members and unity of His Mystical Body, but as a merely natural association of like-minded people, a combination of religious society and philosophical school. So, Gnostic piety and morality did not form a life lived in Christ and inspired by the Holy Spirit but an individual and independent life. Rigidity and artificial exaggeration were native to Gnosticism. In the region of intellect, it led to extravagant speculation, in that of will to excessive asceticism. And this latter in the end became so eccentric—at least in Syrian Gnosticism—that it degenerated into a system of caste morality.
Less devastating, but nevertheless critical enough, were the effects on the non-Chalcedonian communities of this same dislocation of dogma and obscuration of the humanity of Christ. Let me cite the witness of Father Joseph Jungmann, S.J., in his substantial and instructive study regarding the place of Christ in liturgical prayer, a book which I shall have much to say about presently.2 Father Jungmann points out that the Arian heresy, in denying the Son’s essential equality with the Father and full divinity, had a remarkable effect, by contrary reaction, on the Eastern liturgies generally. The primitive liturgical formula “through Christ our Lord,” and the ancient doxology, “Glory be to the Father through the Son in the Holy Spirit,” became no longer tolerable, since the terms “through Christ,” “through the Son ” could be interpreted in an Arian sense as implying the inferiority of Christ, and were in fact so interpreted by the Arians. Thereore, St. Basil the Great and St. Athanasius replaced the ancient formula: “Glory be to the Father through the Son in the Holy Spirit ” either with “Glory be to the Father with the Son and with the Holy Spirit,” or with “Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit.” The ancient expression of Christ’s function as a mediator, “through the Son,” was abandoned. So, too, we find St. John Chrysostom changing “through him” into “with him.” He alters the so-called “grace formula,” which originally was an appeal to the Father to grant our prayer through the merits of his Son, into the form “May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ move the Father to give us his gifts.” In non-Chalcedonian circles this form obtained exclusive supremacy, and the original form came to be regarded as heretical.
How did these liturgical alterations affect the religious attitude of the people who used the new formulas? In all these Churches the sense of the importance of Christ’s humanity in our redemption faded. Among the Monophysites, it perished utterly. Fulgentius observes that Eutyches, the founder of the Monophysite heresy, had no longer any place left for the priesthood of Christ in his doctrinal system. In the non-Monophysite Greek and Russian churches also, the designation of Jesus as our High Priest—so frequent in the liturgical language of the first centuries—became ever more and more rare. This involved a complete revolution in christology. For now Christ no longer stands by man’s side, as the representative and advocate of mankind and no longer as the man, Christ Jesus, and the first-born of his brethren, offers the sacrifice of mankind to the Triune God. He has, so to speak, crossed over, and is now by God’s side, and himself the awesome and unapproachable God. He has become infinitely remote from men, and in the Eucharist itself he is regarded as the infinitely exalted God who perfects the mystery. As Jungmann says,3 the memory of the God-Man who instituted the sacrifice is overlaid by the thought of the divine presence. Jesus is now the divine consecrator who effects the holy sacrifice. The thought of his divinity engulfs all else in the liturgy. The result was on the one hand, from the time of the Emperor Justin II (565-578), the gorgeous development of the liturgy, and on the other hand, a complete transformation of religious attitude. It is significant that this transformation set in with the very theologian, St. John Chrysostom, who first regularly corrected “through him” into “with him,” and first therefore exchanged the soteriological outlook for the trinitarian. Characteristic of this attitude is that sense of an immense distance between us and the divine presence in the Eucharist, leading to boundless reverence and even to fear and awe. Now for the first time in the history of the Eucharist is there talk of the “awesome sacrifice,” of the “awesome bread,” and of the “fear and trembling” with which we should receive the Body of the Lord. Up to the fourth century such expressions were unknown. The adjectives “terrible,” “fearful,” “dreadful,” “awesome” now for the first time make their appearance in eucharistic literature. A religion of love has become a religion of fear. In order to give outward expression to the new sense of remoteness from the eucharistic God, the altar is withdrawn from the gaze of the people, first by means of curtains and later by the painted, wooden partition of the iconostasis.
The eucharistic sacrifice has come to be regarded as essentially
the awesome mystery. It still preserves something of the attractiveness
of mystery; that element is only faintly discernible. The faithful
felt themselves faced by an infinitely awesome reality, the stupendous
fact that God immolates himself for us. For the first time there
now appeared the notion of the eucharistic slaying, from which notion
were derived later, post-Tridentine destruction theories. Faced
with this awesome reality, the faithful found no support or comfort
in their own human world, no refuge in a holy humanity which being
unspotted by sin could stand before God to intercede for the brethren and
reconcile the world with him. There was no longer a living faith in the
man Christ, the first-born among the brethren, the new Adam. Thus, they were
dominated by a feeling of boundless guilt; nor could this feeling find any
genuine relief through trust in the man Jesus, through any assurance of safety
here and now by union with him in his Mystical Body.
Let me now very briefly indicate another process that went on in the Eastern Churches, parallel with the weakening of belief in the humanity of our Lord. This was the development to an extreme point of the veneration of the saints. In those churches the saints now separated themselves, so to speak, from the mediatorship of Christ—which had become obscured—and asserted their independence. According to the conception of early Christianity, as that has remained dominant in the Roman Church, the saints are members of the Body of Christ. Certainly they are its most distinguished and valuable members, whose intercession has special power with Christ; but they remain always its members. Whatever they do, they do it only through him; and they form along with the rest of the faithful a single society of the redeemed, a single fellowship living in Christ. Their intercession is not different in kind from the intercession of any member of the Church. They belong to the Church, even if, being its most distinguished and holiest members, their intercession is of more effect with God than the intercession of other members. So the Church, turning to Christ for grace, takes the saints with her in her prayer. The saints were and are dependent upon Christ and live through him alone. When the Church takes them with her in her prayer, her intention simply is that their intercession should strengthen the prayer which the Ecclesia orans, the whole praying Church, makes with them to God.6 This conception of the function of the saints still dominates the prayers of the Roman Mass.
But where the other tendency has prevailed, where people have forgotten the High Priesthood of Christ and removed the High Priest himself away from contact with us, relegating him to the infinite sphere of the divine, there it was inevitable that this conception of the function of the saints should disappear. In such a religious belief, a yawning gulf appears between human beings and the purely divine Christ; the saints were naturally called in to bridge this gulf. Thus they take the place of Christ as intercessor of the praying community. So in the later form of the Byzantine Liturgy the invocation of the saints, the appeal to their intercession, is a regular conclusion of solemn prayer, just as the phrase Per Christum Dominum nostrum is in the Roman liturgy.7 Hence came a certain extravagance in the veneration of the saints as practiced in the Eastern Churches. The great truth, to which St. Paul testifies so often, that “Head and Body are one Christ” was not indeed denied, but it was in serious danger of being obscured. Certainly, it was not profoundly understood.
I need scarcely point out expressly how this new religious attitude, deriving from the struggle with Arianism and resulting in an undervaluation of the humanity of Jesus, has influenced the whole spiritual make-up of the Eastern Christian, and in particular of the Russian. For Christians of the West the same influence had no very lasting opportunity of making itself felt. The Gallican and Spanish liturgies, which had been transformed by the anti-Arian trend, were ultimately absorbed by the Roman liturgy. We shall presently hear how the Roman liturgy is the only one among all Christian liturgies that declined to revise its liturgical prayers in the struggle against Arian error. Men speak of the Russian, of his passive temper and gift for self-surrender, of his self-depreciation and utter indifference in regard to earthly interests, and at the same time of the basis of his attitude, namely his vivid eschatological hope. They will tell you of his constantly recurring delusion that the Son of Man must come in the next generation, of his passionate longing for resurrection and a new life, and of his exaggerated veneration of the saints. It is not hard to recognize that special circumstances and definite historical experiences have had an important share in the development of this mentality. But the decisive influence has been the liturgy, and especially the anti-Arian conception of Christ which the liturgy held constantly before his eyes. Wherever the devout soul has its gaze fixed exclusively on the divine Christ and contemplates only the dread God who is slain for the sins of mankind, wherever it forgets the “first-born among many brethren” and no longer realizes that it has already in this life, in and through this first-born, a genuine fellowship with all the saints, a Church and a home: there the devout soul is compelled to put its trust more and more exclusively in the world to come. For the undervaluation of the humanity of Christ necessarily brings with it an undervaluation of everything human and earthly. Then in effect there remains for us in this world nothing but that stern command that came from the old monk Arsenius: “Flee, be silent, weep.”
Thus our examination of Gnosticism and of Eastern and Russian piety has revealed to us all those characteristics and consequences which we believe necessarily arise for the religious attitude of the faithful when the humanity of Jesus is obscured. Therefore there stands before us once more in plain evidence the ancient truth, that dogma is the very structure of life and that it can endure no sort of obscuration or curtailment. Only where it can work in unweakened strength and purity do there arise men and women, spiritualities, saints, having in them nothing warped or distorted, but formed in all things according to the measure of Christ.
Where is it that dogma can exert its power in all its strength and purity? We answer that it can do so in that sphere wherein the infallible and only true Church reveals her supernatural consciousness in the most intimate and tender fashion, where she breathes forth her faith spontaneously in prayer. It is that second sphere of which we spoke at the beginning of this chapter and which we distinguished from the sphere of private devotion, namely the sphere of liturgical prayer.
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