21 April 2020

Gov. Cuomo’s Theological Confusion

By Bishop Robert Barron

Last week, Andrew Cuomo, the governor of New York, made a rather interesting theological observation. Commenting on the progress that his state has made in fighting the coronavirus, and praising the concrete efforts of medical personnel and ordinary citizens, he said, “The number is down because we brought the number down. God did not do that. Faith did not do that.”

The condition for the possibility of the governor’s declaration is the assumption that God is one competitive cause among many, one actor jostling for position and time upon the stage with a coterie of other actors. On this reading, God does certain things—usually of a rather spectacular nature—and creaturely causes do other things, usually more mundane.

[E]verything is, at once, natural and supernatural—precisely because God’s causality is operating noncompetitively, on a qualitatively different level than creaturely causality. If you want a one-liner summary of this distinctively biblical perspective, you could not do better than this, from the prophet Isaiah: “O Lord, it is you who have accomplished all that we have done” (Isa. 26:12).

God is not the supreme being (ens summum in his Latin), but rather ipsum esse subsistens, which means “the sheer act of to be itself.” (St Thomas Aquinas) … Therefore, God does not compete for space, so to speak, on the same ontological grid as creatures; a zero-sum game does not obtain in regard to God’s activity and creaturely activity—the more we ascribe to one, the less we have to ascribe to the other.

Allow me to ground this rather abstract rhetoric with a very homely example. If one were to ask what is necessary to make a bicycle, the response would be something like this: “tires, brake pads, a chain, a metal frame, the skill of the builder, perhaps a schematic to guide the building process, etc.”  No one would ever be tempted to respond as follows: “tires, brake pads, a chain, God, a metal frame, the skill of the builder, etc.” And yet, a smart religious person, upon finishing the project of constructing that bike, would quite legitimately say, “Thank God!” The prayer would be a humble acknowledgement, not that God in a fussily invasive way interfered with the building process, but that God is responsible for the entire nexus of causes and behaviors that made up the process. The upshot is that the two dimensions of causality—one finite and the other transcendent—operate simultaneously and noncompetitively: “You have accomplished all that we have done.”

All of which brings me back to Governor Cuomo. To claim that “God did not do that” because we did it is simply a category mistake. What brought the coronavirus numbers down?  It is perfectly accurate to say, “The skill of doctors and nurses, the availability of hospital beds, the willingness of so many to shelter in place, etc.” But it is also perfectly valid to say that God brought those numbers down…

[Consider] the psychological motivation of those dedicated physicians and nurses. Why ultimately were they willing to do what they did? I would be willing to bet a large percentage of them would say that it was a desire to serve others and to be pleasing to God.

18 January 2020

Why Not Use Ancient Rites?

It's been more than 2 years since I last posted. So I'll try to revive things here with this post.

As the Apostles and their successors evangelized throughout the world (both East and West, and beyond these boundaries of the Roman Empire), various regional liturgies were used in the earliest times. These liturgies were "cultural expressions" of the faith. This means that the faith itself and the key outline of the Mass and Divine Office were unchanged, but the musical tones (cadence, tonal system) and means of rhetoric (circular or linear; analogical or typological or otherwise) and ceremonies (usually based on local court customs) were employed. This was noticed primarily, then, in the prayers and chants, as well as the 'flow' of the liturgical services.

In the Western part of the Roman Empire (and later extending into the remainder of Europe), all of these liturgies were built, in some way, on the Roman Rite (i.e., the rites used in the Church of Rome) with some influences (in a few scattered instances) from Eastern customs. Over time, in both East and West, for various reasons usually related to the dominance of a capital city or the need for more uniform practices, these various liturgies collapsed into four major rites, centered around the major regions of Christianity: The Antiochian Rite; the Alexandrian Rite; the Roman Rite; the Carthaginian Rite; and the Edessan Rite. (See the chart below.) In turn, these rites (among the canonical Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches) collapsed, again for various reasons usually having to do with desire uniformity, into two: the Roman Rite (which was influenced by the Gallican Rite and which, in turn, influenced the still extant Ambrosian and Mozarabic Rites as well as the rites of a few religious orders); and the Constantinopolitan Rite (which was heavily influenced by the Antiochian Rite, but is not at all identical with it; and which influenced all the other Byzantine Rites.) In Europe, the collapsing into the Roman Rite was chiefly completed by 600 AD (although it underwent a few minor changes in the 9th century) and has remained in tact (excluding the protestant changes in England, etc., and the revolutionary change in Rome in 1970). In Asia and Eastern Europe, the collapsing into the Constantinopolitan/Byzantine Rite was not completed until the 13th century and has remained in tact (although different minor 'uses' appear in Russia and elsewhere).

Given this background, it is perhaps clear that the 'pre-schism' Western Rite is the Roman Rite which was used (most often in Latin) from 600 AD until 1970 AD in the Church of Rome; and has been used in the Orthodox Church since the 1880s. To use 'ancient Western liturgies' offers an historical, liturgical, and theological challenge. The historical challenge is that the documentation for exactly how those Rites were used (the ceremonies and chants, as well as the texts) is spotty at best; certainly it is not in tact fully. Furthermore, the best of these rites have already been folded into the Roman Rite, and so teasing them out may leave lacunae. The liturgical challenge is that 're-creating' a Rite that hasn't been used for at least 1000-1400 years follows the Protestant model that the Rites are not received nor the work of the Holy Spirit, but devised by humans and therefore open to 'liturgical archeology' (the exact same argument that lies behind the Novus Ordo of the Roman Church). The theological challenge is centered around this question: what is objectionable now to the Roman Rite that was never objectionable before the so-called 'Great Schism.' (Remember, the date for the Great Schism is arbitrarily chosen by post-reformation European scholars, mainly Anglican [i.e., Protestant]). Some will answer that question by presuming that the liturgy carries the seed for whatever heresies might be extant in the Church of Rome; a dubious premise, at best.

Given this history with the attendant challenges, when the Churches of Russia, Constantinople, Antioch, Romania, Serbia, and Alexandria issued decrees concerning the use of the liturgical tradition of the Western liturgy in their churches, they collectively approved the continued use of the Roman Rite (with the use of the Benedictine Breviary) as it was practiced prior to the 'Great Schism'--which is no different (except in a few feasts) than what was done in the Church of Rome and the Benedictine monasteries until 1970.