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Cardinal Burke and the liturgy

By Greg LaNave

We were privileged yesterday, at the Dominican House of Studies, to host His Eminence Raymond Cardinal Burke, who spoke to us about a "theo-centric view of the liturgy." (See the lecture at the DHS web site: The principal idea was that since the liturgy is a participation in the one act of worship, which is Christ's act of worship offered to the Father, we should think of the liturgy not as our creation, but as something established by God according to his "ius divinum" (divine right). Of course the liturgy has changed in dramatic ways down through the centuries, and there are many different legitimate versions of it even now (consider, e.g., the very different liturgies of the Eastern Catholic Churches and the Latin Rite); to that extent, it certainly is a human creation---we don't have in Scripture prescriptions for Christian liturgy that are anything like the prescriptions for Jewish liturgy that we find in the Books of Exodus and Leviticus. Still, what the cardinal was certainly warning against was any view of the liturgy that sees it as a realm of experimentation on the part of the celebrant who is trying to make it relevant for his congregation. It is an act of worship, in which God enables us to place ourselves in right relation to him.

Taking this view of things (and the cardinal did set it out expertly), I began to wonder about its implications for debates about the liturgy that are very common today, especially in the blogosphere, especially among more tradition-minded Catholics. To say that we shouldn't be concerned in the first place with making the liturgy "relevant" is to say that we don't measure liturgy from the purely subjective side. We don't say "I really need _____ to be able to pray well at Mass." (Fill in the blank with whatever you wish: lively music; greeting people beforehand; Latin; kneeling to receive the Eucharist; etc.) Instead, we enact the liturgy as God has established it through his Church, knowing that we are thereby engaged in an act of public worship. Take a popular example: whether the Eucharist should be received on the tongue or in the hand. Both are permitted, and therefore both are part of that act of worship. If someone insists that receiving on the tongue is better, I have to wonder what he means. If he means that he thinks it difficult or impossible to be properly reverent if one receives in the hand, then his focus is not in the right place---he is thinking of the reception of the Eucharist in terms of what rouses the most proper response in him (a subjective judgment). Instead, he might want to think about how either mode of receiving expresses bodily the proper relation of the communicant and God (an objective judgment).

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