The sweeping changes in Catholic liturgy between 1965 and 1975 undoubtedly constitute the most important and the most controversial results of the Second Vatican Council. Today, two generations later, the Council’s call for liturgical renewal in the Church remains a work in progress. Especially considering the renewed interest in the Council’s liturgical reforms, the insights of the German Catholic philosopher Josef Pieper (1904-1997) deserve greater attention.
In a series of essays written between 1969 and 1973, Pieper discusses the nature of the sacred — sacred action (actio sacra), sacred building (aedes sacra), sacrament (sacramentum), and ordination or consecration (consecratio) — and its relationship to the liturgical act.1 Against those who would reject Thomas Aquinas as the epitome of the “medievalism” the Church needs to overcome, Pieper (rightly) insists that “there is nothing ‘medieval’ about what he says.”2 Rather, Pieper argues, Thomas’s realist understanding of the sacraments and liturgy is uniquely well-suited to oppose the varieties of modern subjectivism that he believed lie behind the “desacralization” not just of the liturgy but of human existence itself in the modern world.
In order to explain the significance of Pieper’s thought, I will: 1) briefly present Pieper’s critique of what he calls the “desacralizing” program underlying many of the liturgical innovations of the immediate post-conciliar period; 2) examine his identification of the “sacred” (and his Thomistic understanding of it) with the essentially sacramental character of the liturgy; and 3) offer a short reflection on the continuing value of Pieper’s liturgical writings in light of the subsequent history of and contemporary debates over the Mass. Such a study can provide not just a better understanding of Pieper’s own intellectual sources, but also a deeper insight into the nature of reality with which the liturgy aims to connect us.
I. Desacralization and the Post-Conciliar Church
It is a truism to observe that the years immediately following the Second Vatican Council, when the liturgical reforms called for by the Council were being implemented, were times of sweeping changes both within and outside the Church. While popular culture tends to focus on the most superficial elements of this period, in fact a fundamental and revolutionary intellectual movement spanning the entire post-war period — the effects of which are still very much with us — reached its zenith precisely during the post-conciliar decade, namely, the secularization or, more precisely, “desacralization” of culture and human existence.
In an address to the bishops of Chile on July 13, 1988, a mere two weeks after the schism of the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX), then-Cardinal Ratzinger said of the difficulties surrounding the post-conciliar reforms:
While there are many motives that might have led a great number of people to seek a refuge in the traditional liturgy, the chief one is that they find the dignity of the sacred preserved there. After the Council there were many priests who deliberately raised “desacralization” to the level of a program, on the plea that the New Testament abolished the cult of the Temple: the veil of the Temple which was torn from top to bottom at the moment of Christ’s death on the cross is, according to certain people, the sign of the end of the sacred. The death of Jesus, outside the City walls, that is to say, in the public world, is now the true religion. Religion, if it has any being at all, must have it in the non-sacredness of daily life, in love that is lived. Inspired by such reasoning, they put aside the sacred vestments; they have despoiled the churches as much as they could of that splendor which brings to mind the sacred; and they have reduced the liturgy to the language and the gestures of ordinary life, by means of greetings, common signs of friendship, and such things.3
In this address, some twenty years after the Council, Cardinal Ratzinger correctly analyzed the problems accompanying the implementation of liturgical reform; however his analysis repeats what had already been said a generation earlier by Josef Pieper.
In 1970, Pieper noticed the tendency of many thinkers to speak of our era “as the post-sacral age.”4 Rather than celebrate this belief, Pieper argued that the hostility to the sacred and the elevation and substitution of the profane in its place that marks our modern world is not so much a symptom of the ills confronting modern man as it is their cause. He writes: “The word ‘desacralization’ (or ‘secularization’) long ago ceased to be a technical, descriptive term for a social process rapidly taking place all around us, and is now being used to denote a sociopolitical program, a goal toward which some people are deliberately striving and which they have recently employed ‘theological’ arguments to promote.”5
The disastrous effects of this “sociopolitical program,” Pieper continued, were felt throughout every area of the Church:
For a number of years I have been hearing a certain group of Catholic theologians clamoring for “desacralization.” Diverse as the individual views of these theologians may be, they are primarily protesting against the traditional style of religious ceremony; against the “sacred” language of verba certa et solemnia (“fixed and solemn utterance”); against the ritual form of symbolic gestures and actions; against church buildings in which form and function expressly differ from the structures of homes, factories and offices; and not least against the conception of the priest as a consecrated person who deals with the “sacred” and is ordained expressly to celebrate the sacrament of the Eucharist.6
Indeed, Pieper writes, it is precisely in the Eucharistic celebration, which the Council called the “source and summit” of the life of the Church, where this insistence on desacralization was most immediately placed on display:
the propagandists of “desacralization” … propose, in fact, that the Eucharist be celebrated without the use of sacred language … like any other meal people eat together in a normal dining room…. At all costs the sacred action is to be forced to fit into the ordinary, practical course of everyday life and preserved from any “disruptive” separation between the sacred and the secular. In other words, we are told, it is to be “humanized.”7
The choice of the word “humanized” here (which he takes from his opponents) is telling. Lying behind this entire program of desacralization, Pieper contends, is a fundamental misunderstanding of what the human person truly is and of the role of the sacred (especially as embodied in the liturgy of the Church) in fulfilling and perfecting the human person: “My primary concern in [this discussion] was to show how very closely the doctrine and practice of the Church, which throughout its history has never allowed itself to be diverted from asserting and actually realizing the autonomy of the sacred, conforms to the true nature of man.”8 This need for the sacred, he continues, is a fact of human existence upon which all aspects of the Church’s liturgy and life must be built: “The concept underlying this approach to divine worship — quite apart from its embarrassingly primitive and shabby character — is based on an insulting misapprehension of the true nature of man. For it goes against man’s grain to be confined to the ‘merely human.’”9 But if so many of the ills afflicting the Church and the world today result from the denial of man’s natural need for the sacred, the question remains: “What is the sacred?”
II. Defining the Sacred Thomistically (and Sacramentally)
The term “sacred” has certainly fallen on hard times in a postmodern culture that, when it is not using the term ironically, employs it so broadly and indefinitely that it can apply to any possible object or activity that has special significance to some person or group. Anything can be sacred, we assume, if someone considers it thus, whether the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem or the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland.
What matters, we moderns believe, is the psychological response evoked by and the sociological function performed by the thing under consideration. Pieper will have none of this naturalism, though: “The concept of the ‘sacred,’” he writes, “is [not], in its primary sense, an architectural, artistic, stylistic, or aesthetic [or, he might well have added, a psychological, sociological or political] category. In terms of its systematic classification, this concept belongs to the sphere of a philosophical-theological anthropology.”10
Defined within its proper “philosophical-theological-anthropological” sphere, Pieper tells us, the concept of the sacred is actually quite specific and definite:
Naturally, God and God alone can be considered “holy” in the ultimate and absolute sense of the word. Yet we can never designate Him by the words sacer, sacré, “sacred” or sakral…. Thus in the following discussion the words “holy” and “sacred” will not be used to designate either the infinite perfection of God or the moral stature of any human being. Instead they will signify that certain empirically existing objects, places, times and actions possess the peculiar characteristic of being excluded from the realm of average phenomena and attributed to the sphere of the divine.11 (emphasis added)
Just as, for Aristotle, foods and bile can be called healthy insofar as they contribute to or indicate the health of a living thing, so too the many and various uses of the word “sacred” all derive from a more fundamental and primary meaning. Pieper explains:
Phrases like “holy places,” “holy time,” “holy act,” “holy signs,” and so forth, are commonplaces of speech. The new Ordo Missae or Ordinary of the Mass even speaks, in a way which many people doubtless find distressing, of “sacred” vessels and vestments (de vasis sacris, de sacris vestibus). But are all the phenomena I have listed, to which additions might be made, really of the same order? Or are some primary and others secondary in nature; some primordial and others derivative? There is no doubt in my mind that the answer is “Yes.” For within the realm of the sacred the “sacred action” [i.e., the sacramental act] clearly holds the primacy and is more representative of the sacred than are other sacred phenomena.12
Accordingly, for Pieper, the sacramental celebration itself is what is truly and most properly called sacred, with all other sacred places, times, signs, etc., meriting the adjective “sacred” only insofar as they have “been removed from everyday use and reserved for the celebration of the cultus divinus or divine worship.”13
In a society as diverse and divided as ours, one might ask how Pieper could justify defining the sacred so narrowly? His reply is simple: “My assertion is borne out by a statement made centuries ago by Thomas Aquinas: ‘A Thing is called sacred (sacrum) by virtue of its relationship to divine worship (ad cultum divinum).”14 It is worth noting here that Pieper is not a Thomist appealing to Aquinas as an authority whose word ends the debate, but rather to him as a witness to the evident truth of this definition, a truth ultimately verified by the unchanging effort of the Church:
to preserve all these phenomena and concepts — a determination in which it has not wavered for a moment even in its most recent announcements. To verify this fact one need only read the constitutions and decrees of the Second Vatican Council, or the Institutio Generalis on the new Ordinary of the Mass, published in April 1969. Here the liturgy … is described as a “preeminently sacred action” (actio sacra praecellenter) and likewise as the culmination of the Church’s activity and the source of its power…. [The Institutio] interprets the church building not as a purely “functional enclosure” but as an aedes sacra (“sacred structure or temple”) and regards as axiomatic the necessity of its “solemn consecration,” [IG 255, 262] just as it does the consecration of the altar. Again, this document speaks of the “dignity of the holy place,” [IG, 279] and “sacred” vestments and vessels [IG 289, 297]. And naturally priests are not called presbyters, preachers, or leaders of the congregation, but sacerdoti and ministry sacri (“priests” and “sacred ministers”).15
Ultimately, in such fundamental questions about worship and the divine, “In my opinion, the only thing that matters is what the Church itself, the kyriaké or sacred community which ‘belongs to the Lord,’ has believed and thought and said about this subject down through the centuries.”16
Nevertheless, for Pieper, Aquinas is centrally and singularly important in coming to a deeper understanding of the totality of the Christian faith and the meaning of Tradition. For example, though Pieper does not mention it, Aquinas offers this definition in his discussion of the vice of sacrilege, which he defines as “the violation of a sacred thing.” He continues: “Now just as a thing acquires an aspect of good through being deputed to a good thing, so does a thing assume a divine character through being deputed to the divine worship, and thus a certain reverence is due to it, which reverence is referred to God.”17
Of course, Aquinas also admits, sacrilege does no harm to God in the strict sense, since He can suffer no injury whatsoever. Nevertheless, he argues (following Aristotle), since “honor is in the person who honors and not in the one who is honored,” sacrilege is still a vice since through it “irreverence is in the person who behaves irreverently, even though he do no harm to the object of his irreverence” (reply to obj. 3).
In other words, for Aquinas, the character of the sacred that belongs to a person, place, or thing dedicated to the worship of God is really and truly something they come to possess (i.e., not a mere extrinsic denomination or relation) precisely by its participation in the truly sacred act of worship. As Pieper writes of the consecration of church buildings: “Thus it is the (Roman Catholic) Church itself, speaking as itself, which not only characterizes the church as a ‘sacred’ building, but which actually makes it a sacred building in the liturgical act of consecration.”18 This principle applies to the consecration of priests and altars as well.
As quickly became clear in the reform of the liturgy, this classical “realist” understanding of the liturgy and the sacraments that it effects came under attack by some theologians and liturgists — so much so that Pope Paul VI was led to issue his encyclical Mysterium Fidei in 1965, during the Council, defending the traditional formula of “transubstantiation” when discussing the Real Presence against newer formulae such as “transignification.”
Examples could be multiplied. The distance between Pieper’s (and, it might be added, Trent’s and Paul VI’s) emphasis on a “realist” understanding of the Sacraments, and the intellectual trends that dominated much post-conciliar liturgical theology, is shown by the almost total absence of Thomas from the classic account of the reform by Archbishop Annibale Bugnini, secretary of the Consilium for the implementation of the Constitution on the Liturgy. His book The Reform of the Liturgy, 1948-1975, mentions Thomas only twice; both times only as an authority appealed to by musical traditionalists.19
As Pieper clearly saw by the late 1960s, the traditional (and Thomistic) understanding of the sacraments as really making present the divine in this world — indeed, the very possibility of the divine becoming present in the world — was in serious doubt among many theologians.
Here, Pieper tells us, Aquinas can provide both a philosophical answer and a theological corrective to this modern problem of faith:
Strangely enough, Thomas Aquinas formulated a similar objection to the view which he himself actually held, when he questioned whether the theatrical element of symbolic actions might not be incompatible with the “authenticity” of the religious rite. His reply was that in fact religious worship had something in common with poetry in that both depicted, through images accessible to the senses, things which could not be directly grasped by the reason (ratio). [ST I.II, q. 101, a. 2, ob. 2, r. 2] However, naturally when a modern man raises this objection, he means something entirely different by it than St. Thomas did: [A modern man] is not asking about the ‘meaning’ of the sacred action, but about its truth content. To put it mildly, he questions whether anything solid, tangible, and real takes place in the course of the action; he disputes the fact that something on the order of the divine presence is actually manifested in its performance. The question [modern man] poses is in fact the crucial question on whose answer everything else depends.20
Pieper’s point, in contrasting Thomas’s approach to the question of sacramental symbolism with the approach found in much of the post-conciliar period, is to emphasize the connection between the sacred vessels, sacred places, sacred men, sacred spaces, etc., and the sacrament from which they derive their sacred character:
One thing must be made absolutely clear: If a sacred action, above all the Christian celebration of the Eucharist, does not constitute a sacrament in the sense I have described — in other words, if the divine presence does not really manifest itself, in a special and exceptional way, in the performance of this action — then in fact all discussion of the sacred would be, at bottom, without foundation. In this case all manifestations of the sacred, especially its liturgical and ritual manifestations, would represent nothing more than a bit of pious folklore.21
In short, both Pieper and Thomas insist that unless the divine is truly present in the sacrament, sacredness is impossible anywhere else in the world. And those things in the world that are sacred, in turn, exist as such by virtue of and for the sake of that which is truly sacred: “For it is not for its own sake that a church is consecrated, i.e., turned into an aedes sacra, a sacred building, a holy place, but rather so that an enclosure, a receptacle, may be created for something else: a ‘something else’ which can, in a far higher degree and in a much stricter sense, be called ‘holy’ — and which must be kept ‘holy.’”22
To drive home the point, Pieper emphasizes (citing both the Summa Contra Gentiles and the Summa Theologiae) that this consecration abides in the object even in the absence of anyone to recognize the symbolic aspects of it: “We must keep in mind that consecratio represents an essentially irrevocable act. In other words, by its very nature its effects are permanent. Once consecrated in such a manner, the consecrated person or object remains consecrated [SCG IV.77], regardless of whether it is a church, an altar or a human being [ST III, q. 63, a. 5].”23
This realism concerning both the sacred and the sacraments, which is grounded in the unchanging tradition of the Church and given clear expression and explanation by Saint Thomas, allows Pieper to draw out the ultimate consequences (if one is charitable toward its proponents) or presuppositions (if one is not) of the desire by so many post-conciliar theologians and liturgists to “desacralize” the liturgy. He writes: “More- over, I am convinced that the ultimate intellectual root of all the programmatic advocacy of ‘desacralization’ — particularly when this ‘desacralization is propounded on ‘theological’ grounds — is nothing other than the denial of sacramentality.”24 When one considers the decline in the belief in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist among Catholics since the Council, and a recent poll (May 2012) showing that 60% of Catholics in the Diocese of Camden believe that Jesus personally sinned, Pieper’s argument that the belief in the sacred and the belief in the Incarnation are inseparably linked seems more and more prophetic.
III. Relevance for Contemporary Liturgical Theology
Josef Pieper’s continuing value for liturgical and sacramental theology, however, is not his role as a Cassandra during the immediate years after the Council. Were Pieper only a more congenial and literate Archbishop Lefebvre, his thought would have little value for the larger Church today. Happily, though, he was much more than that, and even a cursory reading of his writings on the sacred and his critique of many tendencies in post-conciliar liturgy continue to be of value long after the abuses and faddish theologies that occasioned them have faded or disappeared.
Three qualities of Pieper’s liturgical works set him apart from Traditionalist critics of the “New Mass.”
First, despite his misgivings about the intellectual undertones of many of the attempts at reform that came out of the Council, Pieper fully embraced and vigorously supported the call of the Council to reform and renew the liturgy of the Church. Nowhere do you find a nostalgic longing for the return of the Tridentine Mass as a shelter from the changes sweeping the Church, any more than you find a naïve embrace of the passing liturgical fads of the period.
Pieper always speaks of “The Mass” without qualification, and his writings seek what Romano Guardini (in many ways a spiritual brother of Pieper) called “the Spirit of the Liturgy” rather than a singular expression of that Spirit by which to measure all places and times. It is precisely this principled attitude, rooted in the tradition and shaped by the ever-timeless and ever-timely thought of Saint Thomas, with which Pieper engaged the struggles of his day without becoming captive to them.
Indeed, many of the changes in the Church since then-Cardinal Ratzinger’s lament of “desacralization” can be seen as a vindication and application of Pieper’s insistence upon the importance of “‘sacred’ language of verba certa et solemnia (‘fixed and solemn utterance’), … the ritual form of symbolic gestures and actions; … church buildings in which form and function expressly differ from the structures of homes, factories and offices; and not least … the conception of the priest as a consecrated person who deals with the ‘sacred’ and is ordained expressly to celebrate the sacrament of the Eucharist.”25
Second, while Pieper accepted without qualm the decision of the Council not to adopt a scholastic methodology for its reforming work and instead sought a biblical mode of expression, he was not hesitant to criticize theologians who substitute historical-critical exegesis or interpretation of Scripture for sound theological argument and liturgical judgment.
As a matter of theological method, all too often during and after the Council, the embrace of the historical-critical approach to the Bible and the decision to return Scripture (rather than the Thomistic manual tradition) to the heart of theology led to the confusion and even identification of exegesis with dogmatic theology. Regarding this confusion, Pieper writes:
I believe that the liturgy of the Church and the doctrine embodied in this liturgy do not derive their authority solely from “biblical exegesis or proofs,” but possess their own authenticity, in that they represent an interpretation of Christ’s revelation authenticated by the author of this interpretation (the Church). Thus I am not pleased to see theologians who are also members of the clergy quoting the New Testament in the attempt to disprove its validity.26
In judgment upon this tendency toward “Biblicism” among both progressives and traditionalists, Pieper sanguinely writes: “To be sure, frequently one can detect the dubious nature of such arguments at a glance.”27
Thirdly and finally, this last comment points to the personality trait that makes Pieper such an appealing and enriching writer. Pieper possesses a quiet and utterly un-defensive personality, capable of calmly and fairly hearing and considering the views of his opponents, accepting what in their writings can be of value in the search for truth, and concerned always not to vindicate himself but to come to know, do, and share the Truth as best as he can.
In an era and a field seemingly designed to eradicate prudence, reserve, and charity among its interlocutors, Pieper is remarkable for his ability to present issues of great import and complexity both carefully and with equanimity, without ever hiding behind the jargon of scholasticism that so many Thomists and Traditionalists (who constitute overlapping but not identical sets) find irresistible.
Pieper’s intellectual temperament must have been like that of Saint Thomas himself. At the very least, Pieper possesses a unique (to my eyes) ability to make Thomas a participant in the contemporary life of the Church rather than a scourge upon it.
Much work remains to be done if the Church is to carry out the call of the Second Vatican Council to renew the liturgy and make the Mass truly the source and summit of its life and the lives of all believers.
Certainly, anecdotal and statistical evidence suggests that the manner in which this call to renewal was implemented left much to be desired, and is itself in need of renewal and reinterpretation (though not, it must be said, total rejection).
A review of Josef Pieper’s work is both instructive and encouraging. By emphasizing what he calls a “philosophical-theological anthropology” that is presupposed by the 2000-year-old liturgical tradition of the Church — especially as interpreted by Saint Thomas Aquinas — Pieper’s insightful critique of post-conciliar tendencies seems remarkably prescient.
Unlike many critics of the liturgical reforms of his day, Pieper’s thought remains fresh in its optimism and potentially fecund in its spiritual and philosophical insights. His writings from 1969 to 1973 are much more relevant to the liturgical life of the Church than countless writings produced twenty, thirty, or even forty years later. They merit our renewed and sustained attention.
1 These include: “The Sacred and ‘Desacralization’” (1969), “Not Words but Reality” (1973), “What Is a Priest?” (1971), and “What Is a Church?” (1970), collected in Josef Pieper, Problems of Modern Faith: Essays and Addresses (trans. Jan von Huerck; Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1985), 13-115 [hereafter, PMF].
3 Address by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, given July 13, 1988, in Santiago, Chile, before that nation’s bishops. Published in The Wanderer June 22, 2000. Accessed January 2013: catholicculture.org/culture/library/view.cfm?id=3032&repos=1&subrepos=&searchid=292734.
12 PMF, 24. Likewise with holiness, In ST II.II 1.99, a.3 Aquinas writes: “Now holiness is ascribed not only to sacred persons, namely, those who are consecrated to the divine worship, but also to sacred places and to certain other sacred things. And the holiness of a place is directed to the holiness of man, who worships God in a holy place.”