Opinion

The state has forbidden public Masses. Why it’s a huge problem for bishops to go along

The prohibition of public Masses because of the coronavirus testifies to a relativized understanding of the Eucharist.
Tue Mar 24, 2020 - 3:29 pm EST
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March 24, 2020 (LifeSiteNews) – When the princes of the apostles, Peter and Paul, suffered their martyrdom under Emperor Nero, there must already have been a Christian congregation in Rome, that is, the Roman Church already existed. In front of her was a rocky path, a few centuries long, until Emperor Constantine the Great (†337) liberated her from the danger of persecution and declared her a religio licita. Even though Emperor Julian the Apostate (†363) rebuilt the ancient temples again and attempted to push through the return to paganism, the triumph of the Christian altar could not be stopped any longer.

In late antiquity, the question of Christian worship became a question of the cult that supported the state, and thus an eminently political one. Erik Peterson has shown that since the Apocalypse of St. John, the understanding of cult has aimed at becoming the cultus publicus (public cult) of human society. Christians recognized in their Lord slaughtered and risen on the throne of the cross the true Pantocrator and ruler of history. His cult also had to incarnate within history and therefore quite naturally took on representative forms of the imperial cult. The altars of the Christians replaced the pantheon of the old empire. After the sack of Rome by the Visigoths in 410, Augustine felt compelled to respond with his great work De Civitate Dei to the accusation that the suppression of the old public cult of the Roman gods by the worship of the Christians was to blame for the catastrophe. The gods had not wanted to support the state since they were abandoned by it.

In view of these dates of Church history, it is curious that by decree of the prime minister public Masses are forbidden for several weeks throughout Italy (and more and more European countries). For the first time in millennia, a crisis in the former core area of the Roman Empire is being met without religion and even the cultus publicus is being banned. This is the final consequence of the fact that the secular state has the right to place itself above religion.

Something else has to scare us even more. The theology of the last decades has substantially contributed to the fact that also within the Church one can no longer understand the necessity of a continuous cult, and that bishops can rather quickly agree with the drastic measures of the government. Of different theological developments, let us pick two important ones. If in more and more countries today no public cult is possible anymore, then it must be said that it was in a certain sense already abolished within theology by parts of the later liturgical movement, because it wanted to detach Christian worship radically from the history of religion and from philosophical insights. The Second Vatican Council, however, did not only see in Christ’s priesthood the cultus publicus accomplished, but applied this concept quite classically (SC 7, 27, and others).

Even more than this set of questions, however, it is decisive that in the 20th century it was increasingly relativized to frequently celebrate the Eucharist, i.e. the actual core of worship. Odo Casel (†1948) has formulated a re-foundation of Christian worship that is entirely determined by the certainly biblical concept of mystery. Important theologians in the 20th century were on the one hand fascinated by the theology of mystery, but on the other hand also had weighty objections because of its metaphysical weaknesses. An important controversy arose between Casel and Gottlieb Söhngen (†1971), Joseph Ratzinger’s doctoral supervisor, whose central question was whether the sacrificial act of the Mass was numerically identical with that on the cross. The theology of mystery in Casel’s wake in all its manifestations leads to assume such a numerical identity (cf. Ulrich Kühn, TRE 1, 169), with far-reaching consequences. The understanding of the Eucharistic celebration thus shifts from a sacrifice made here and now to a memory (albeit filled with reality) of the Paschal Mystery of Christ. In the further reception of Casel, the content of the Paschal Mystery is no longer only the sacrificial transition to the Father (Jn 13:1) in Cross, Resurrection, and Ascension, i.e. a classical view of sacrifice. Instead, it is expanded into a general anamnesis of Christ or into a cipher for the saving action of the biblical God in history. In addition, as a consequence of Casel’s reception, it is emphasized that not only the Mass participates in the Paschal Mystery. Every liturgical celebration, also the liturgy of the Word presided over by a layman, is its expression. From here, by the way, it is understandable that the Synodal Path indiscriminately offers a Mass at one time, and at another time a liturgy of the Word as the central worship service for the members.

Karl Rahner, on the other hand, tried to preserve the sacrificial character of the Mass and maintained the numerical difference between the sacrificial act on the Cross and that of the Eucharist. Only in this way could the presence of Christ at Mass, in contrast to his presence in the other sacraments, be distinguished as sacrificial (cf. Kühn). This fundamental helpful insight, however, did not prevent Rahner for his part from strongly relativizing the necessity of the frequentness of Mass. He formulates as a central principle underlying it that the Eucharist must be celebrated “as often as the frequentness of the celebration of Mass increases the fides and devotio of those celebrating.” In other words, this means that there is no effect of the Sacrifice of the Mass except that which is aimed at those who currently participate in it. The Magisterium of the Church has tried to counteract the relativization of the Sacrifice of the Mass. In his encyclical Mediator Dei, Pope Pius XII emphasized not only the liturgy as a cultus publicus, but also the classical purposes of sacrifice, which the Eucharist has: praise, thanksgiving, expiation and petition. These purposes of sacrifice, however, have a clear and relevant reference to the life of man: “One understands, then, why the Holy Council of Trent assures that through the Eucharistic sacrifice the saving power of the cross is turned to us for the forgiveness of our daily sins.”

The Second Vatican Council speaks of a continuation of the sacrifice of the cross (SC 47). Pope Paul VI, in his encyclical Mysterium Fidei, prepared still during the Council in 1965, emphasizes precisely with regard to this formulation its continuity with the doctrine of the Sacrifice of the Mass of the Tridentine Council. Moreover, it was the Pope of the Council who urged priests to celebrate Mass daily, noting: “For every Mass celebrated is offered not only for the salvation of some, but for the salvation of the whole world.” This formulation was also used by the conciliar teaching authority (PO, FN 15). How strongly the Pope of the Council insisted on the necessity of the frequentness of Mass is proven by the sentence with which he closes his call to priests to daily celebration, stating that they “contribute most to the salvation of the human race.”

Our times present us with new challenges, with the reactions of state and Church to the coronavirus being only one symptom. The question is how faith in a God who has entered history and who calls upon his covenant people can also become socially relevant without becoming secular. But it is also about the innermost question of the sacramental action of the Church. Faithful times would have been aware that the Eucharistic Sacrifice represents today’s most powerful intervention of God in history.

Written by Fr. Dr. Sven Leo Conrad FSSP, head of the Fraternity’s Academic Council. This article was first published by Die Tagespost and is translated with permission by Martin Bürger.


  catholic, coronavirus, eucharist

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