Her Sacred Enterprise: Liturgy and the Common Good

By Jonathan Culbreath

In the first chapter of The Spirit of the Liturgy, Pope Benedict XVI argues, from the Old Testament, that without a firm grounding in liturgical worship, the ethical and juridical structures of a society are bound to collapse. The three categories of precepts in the old law – ceremonial, moral, and judicial – are intrinsically bound together, but in a certain order, in which the ceremonial law actually holds first place. Pope Benedict argues that without the firm basis of worship, i.e. a “God-ward perspective,” morality and law are pointless and ineffective. “We must not forget that there is an essential connection between the three orders of worship, law, and ethics. Law without a foundation in morality becomes injustice. When morality and law do not originate in a God-ward perspective, they degrade man, because they rob him of his highest measure and his highest capacity, deprive him of any vision of the infinite and eternal… Law is essential for freedom and community; worship – that is, the right way to relate to God – is, for its part, essential for law” (Spirit of the Liturgy, 18-19, 21). Human community, in other words, is bound to fall apart if it is not fundamentally rooted in the act of worship that occurs first in the sacred liturgy.

I would like to explore this insight from another point of view, one closely linked to the Pope’s reasoning, but more philosophical. I think the same conclusion – the primacy of liturgical worship in the framework of human society – can be established by looking at the liturgy in light of the doctrine of the primacy of the common good, one of the most central doctrines of the perennial tradition in political philosophy.

The great 20th century Thomist, Charles DeKoninck, perceived a trend towards an exaggerated affirmation of the personal or private good over the common good, which he rightly feared would lead to the undermining of all politics and moral life. He referred to this trend as “personalism” – though it might be more clearly labeled as “individualism,” inasmuch as it attempts to affirm the dignity of the human person by asserting the primacy of his individual good over the good of the community. Modern politics is very influenced by such a way of thinking: the common good is reduced to a mere means to private ends – or it is simply not included in the picture. Politics has no role higher than securing the individual welfare of the citizens, or providing a societal framework within which they might more easily look after the good of themselves. Individual persons themselves become the final end of society; they are their own final causes, and all the things they love are good only for their sakes.

A true conception of human dignity, DeKoninck insisted, must be rooted in an awareness of the individual person’s capacity for transcending his own individual good, and devoting himself to a transcendent good for its own sake. In other words, true personal dignity might be said to consist in the person’s capacity for the good, not only of himself, but of all men, even of all creatures. And it is a good that is theirs, not in the sense that it exists for their sake, but they exist for its sake. This good is the common good. The ground of personal dignity is thus the common good itself, rather than the individual or private good. This is the very reason for the age-old assertion that man is an essentially political animal: man does not fulfill his own nature except by living for a good that transcends his own individuality, a good which can be shared, without diminishing, by an entire community.

The having or attaining of this good consists in the activity of philosophic contemplation, the act of the virtue of wisdom. Happiness itself consists primarily in this activity of wisdom: contemplation. But the highest principle of things is the Good itself. The Good, as the ultimate final cause, the cause of causes, diffuses itself to all who participate in it. As such, it is the ultimate cause of goodness and perfection in all things. Contemplation is thus the activity by which man attains the Good itself. As the highest final cause, the Good has a universal range of causality: it diffuses itself, without being diminished, to all who possess it. Therefore, it is by its very essence common: and thus the activity by which man possesses this Good is precisely the activity by which men possess it in common. In other words, the most perfect form of political activity is itself contemplation in common: a kind of shared life of the intellect, and consequently of the heart, which loves the good apprehended.

Already, we see grounds to claim that the common good is an essentially religious affair – and, conversely, that religion itself is an essentially common affair. A political being as such is ordered to that Good which is simply and unqualifiedly the most common, namely God Himself. Thus, to live politically is to live for God, as the first and last reason for one’s activity. Moreover, it is to live thus  in community with other human beings; for it is to many that God communicates Himself. A truly political man does not enjoy the common good as if it were merely his own – though it is his in a very real way – but precisely inasmuch as it is common. God, as the most of common of goods, diffuses Himself to the multitude of all creatures who may participate in His goodness, and it is precisely as such that the political being enjoys His goodness. The virtue of religion, therefore, is something that is firstly and definitively exercised in community.

Liturgical worship is accordingly an eminently political activity, perhaps the very highest political activity, since it is the principal communal act of the perfect polis which is the Church. In liturgical worship, the community, precisely as a community of persons, engages in the activity of contemplation of the common good. Conversely, in the liturgy, this highest good diffuses itself into the multitude of believers, as the good is wont to do. This is the very essence of Eucharistic communion, in which the goodness of God is poured out among all the worshipers, without thereby being diminished in any way, but binding the community together in the mystical body of Christ. It is in the liturgy that the desire of all things for participation in the divine good, the return to their first principle, is fulfilled. It is here that all aspects of life receive their final ordination to God the universal final cause. In practically every conceivable way, the liturgical act is the most perfect of all human acts, because it is the most divine – it is the work of God, opus Dei, in which we participate as priests and worshipers. (Contemplation, Aristotle points out, is more a divine than a human activity. Thus, by engaging in such an activity we participate most in the divine nature, whose likeness is embedded in our nature. Even more so in the liturgy, which is the pinnacle of contemplation.)

The political science is, for Aristotle, the most architectonic in the sphere of the practical sciences, just as metaphysics is the most architectonic of the speculative or contemplative sciences. Moreover, between the practical and the contemplative, there is an order in which the contemplative occupies a place of primacy. The political art has, for its object, the ordering of all human acts, which are always by their nature for the sake of something else. Everything useful and practical is oriented towards that which is not for the sake of something else, but good purely in itself, for its own sake. The activity which has this for its object is contemplation. Politics sets all human activities in order towards contemplation, corresponding to the order of all goods to the highest good which is God Himself, the common good. The political activity as a whole thus consists in the complex of all human activities as thus ordered to contemplation, with contemplation itself as the core activity.

The liturgy is precisely such an activity. At its essence it is contemplative; but it involves a multitude of other kinds of activity, all for the sake of contemplation. The liturgy is, in a very real way, eminently practical, even as it is eminently contemplative. The liturgical ritual is the perfection of the human arts – servile, liberal, and fine. One need only observe the activities of using and cleaning the finely crafted sacred vessels, which themselves hold the products of the culinary arts; or the elements of the sacred space, constructed by masters of architecture, adorned with beautiful images and symbols, mirroring the structure and spheres of the heavens, carrying and amplifying the sounds of sacred music; or the poetry and prose of the sacred prayers and scriptures, composed by prophets and saints of an ancient tradition. There are a whole host of artistic elements involved in the liturgy, in which one could argue that all of the modes of art come into play in significant ways – all for the sake of facilitating the contemplation of the God who becomes present upon the altar, in the Blessed Sacrament, in the ritual, and through the various symbols that give meaning to the church building. What more obvious example could there be of a perfect political activity, in which all the arts of man come together according to their order to the highest activity of contemplation?

In emphasizing the communal nature of the liturgy, we emphasize the good that unites the community – a good which is ultimately resolved to something other than the community itself. Contemplation – individual or communal – is an activity directed to something other, namely God Himself. The most perfect communal act does not, therefore, consist merely in the interaction between the individuals who make up the community: as Cardinal Ratzinger writes elsewhere, the worshiping community cannot turn in upon itself, in a kind of self-worship. Rather, the perfect communal activity consists in the common cooperation of all the members in directing themselves towards the contemplation of God – hence the fittingness of celebration ad orientem. Unless this orientation towards God, the extrinsic common good, does not hold first place in a society, all subsequent human interactions will be disordered. Charity holds God first, and loves all men for the sake of God. The first and last activity of the community must therefore be radically and genuinely towards God. This is why the liturgy is not the place for human interactions – “communal activity” as it is usually conceived. The liturgy is not about man, nor even about the community itself, in the end. Indeed, to assert in the most radical sense that the liturgy is a communal activity is to assert that it is not about the community, but about the common good, i.e. God.

For the restoration of Christian culture, and the renewal of a genuine, integralist, Christian politics, it is imperative that the liturgy be given the pride of place in political life. So long as there is a Church on this earth, who offers the sacrifice of praise to God on behalf of all men, no absolute separation of Church and state can promisingly ensure the common political welfare. So long as God has revealed Himself to us in the person of Jesus Christ, true politics is inconceivable without the Church and her sacred enterprise: the liturgy.

Jonathan Culbreath is a graduate of Thomas Aquinas College in California and is currently pursuing graduate studies in ancient and medieval philosophy at the University of Leuven in Belgium.


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