Scholasticism, Liturgy and Monasticism

By Carlos Antonio Palad

Originally posted on the New Liturgical Movement blog

It has been said that one of the reasons for the conciliar-era upheaval was the "dry scholasticism" that dominated Catholic theology until the 50's. Scholastic theology, it is claimed, had overlaid the central message of Christ with philosophical ideas and conceptual subtleties that were ultimately foreign to it,leaving both theologians and the faithful deprived of much of the richness of the Christian message. As a result, many theologians turned to the Fathers of the Church and the liturgy, while other theologians turned to the latest existentialist and psychological theories. As one commentator put it, some preferred "ressourcement", others "aggiornamento". In the process, the late scholastic worldview that underpinned much of the "weltenschauung" of 1950's Catholicism was overturned or, at least, shown to be only a partial picture. Many of the old certainties were either rejected outright(by the adherents of change, what has been called the party of the "aggiornamento") or retained, but often put in a different light (by the party of "ressourcement", often referred to as "conservatives").

Many traditionalists and some conservatives however, have steadfastly clung to the scholastic theology current in the pre-conciliar era. At present we are even detecting the beginnings of a scholastic revival; some of the neo-scholastics (such as Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange) are also being re-evaluated. At the same time, ressourcement which, it should be pointed out, does not necessarily entail a rejection of scholasticism, continues to be the dominant trend of thought among orthodox Catholics. One of its greatest practitioners is even the currently reigning pope.

Scholasticism, as found in the writings of the great medieval Doctors, and as represented in the writings of such masters as Jacques Maritain, is one of the jewels of the Church, and must never be discarded. The common teachings of the medieval Scholastic doctors come with the highest recommendations of the magisterium, and to reject these in toto is ultimately to reject the teaching authority of the Church. At the same time, the "dry scholasticism" of the 1950's was a very real problem. Scholasticism as practiced then had indeed lost sight of the sources, of the Fathers and of the worship of the Church. It was too technical and had little of the unction of the saints. The fathers and the scriptures were certainly present, but they were often put into a framework that gave primacy to hilosophical categories.

If scholasticism is to remain a vital force in the life of the Church, it must avoid falling back into the academic dryness of the pre-conciliar era. If scholasticism is to enter into a fruitful dialogue with the forces of ressourcement, scholasticism must be brought back in touch with its own "crib", the environment in which it was born and raised.

This crib had two components: the monastic cloister, and the liturgy.

It is quite interesting to note that the great founders of the golden age of scholasticism were people -- often saints -- who lived in a monastic atmosphere and led a rigorously liturgical life. The Dominicans of the 13th century were not "active religious"; they were canons regular, who chanted the entire Divine Office in choir in addition to the Office of the Blessed Virgin and various other devotions. St. Thomas Aquinas, it is said, was present at two masses every day: he celebrated one mass, after which he would serve another. And this was in addition to his daily offices! And was he not himself the poet and doctor of the Eucharist? The Franciscans have not always been the most liturgical of orders, but the 13th century coincided with their best liturgical work, when Franciscan hands were molding what we now know as the classical "Roman" breviary. St. Bonaventure himself was a renowned mystic, fond of prayer and of the common life. The Franciscans of those days, for all of their activity, were first and foremost men of retirement and intense prayer, both liturgical and private. Those precursors of scholasticism, the Canons Regular of St. Victor, were also men of intense liturgical life. While Hugh and Richard of St. Victor wrote sublime theological treatises, their fellow Canons of St. Victor were writing some of the most beautiful sequences of the Western liturgical heritage. Furthermore, Paris, the center of medieval scholasticism, was among the most liturgically-conscious dioceses of the West. And, were not medieval Oxford and Cambridge places surrounded by glorious chapels, where the Sarum Use was celebrated in all its exuberance?

Perhaps the doctors of the Scholastic age were able to do what they did, to construct elaborate systems that were quite foreign (without being opposed to) to the patristic heritage and that welded elements of pagan, Jewish and Islamic philosophy with the thought of the Bible and the Fathers, precisely because their intellectual and affective lives were balanced by the constant round of liturgical offices and the discipline of the cloister. This is not a mere "prayer-and-study" balance I am talking about, as if the scholastics could have replaced the liturgy with devotions and mental prayer and still have pulled off their intellectual achievement (more on this later). I hold that it was the lived experience of the liturgy in the context of cloistered life that precisely made it possible for the scholastics to soar into the heights of philosophical speculation without losing their own familiarity with the fathers and scripture. As for the "monastic" life that the greatest medieval doctors lived, its contribution was not simply as a framework for the daily liturgy. Rather, the monastic life, with its institutions, its mentality derived straight from the Fathers, made it possible to fully live the patristic and evangelical spirit present in the liturgy.

Conversely, to cut off scholasticism from the lived experience of the liturgy, with its rich treasures drawn from the Bible and the Fathers, is to begin the inevitable shriveling up of scholasticism into the dry and impoverished system that could only alienate -- and did alienate -- people from the fullness of Catholic teaching. Without a liturgical environment, scholasticism faces the prospect of aridity. I could even adduce a theological reason to this: the liturgy is the primary and privileged expression of the magisterium, the most authentic exposition of the mind of the Church. Without it, no system, no school of thought could claim to transmit the fullness of Catholic teaching.

The Silver Age of Scholasticism shows this impoverishment well. What we often call "dry scholasticism" has been traced to the 16th and 17th century (and even earlier) attempt to revive scholasticism. However, this attempt, called the "Silver Age" did not add as much to the great corpus of scholastic teaching as would be expected, and often entangled Catholic theology in misinterpretations of the scholastic and patristic heritage that had to wait for 20th century developments in order to be dispelled. One thinks of the Bannezist and Molinist controversies that only muddled up the Thomistic doctrine of predestination, the "Augustinian" theologians who only succeeded in making the Doctor of Grace look entirely dark and who made the ground hospitable to Jansenism, the disjunct established between nature and grace that had to wait for 20th century attempts at clarification in order for it to be mended. It was ultimately the tangles of Silver Age theology and philosophy that would result in the revolutionary reactions of mid-20th century theology.

It is significant that the Silver Age and its antecedents occurred precisely when the liturgy had ceased to be the center of Catholic spiritual life, even in the monasteries. In place of liturgical spirituality there was the "devotionalism" that would dominate Catholic piety from the 15th to the 20th centuries. Far be it from us to utterly condemn the "devotionalism" of the 16th to the early 20th centuries, to brand it as being somehow un-Catholic. It certainly made many great saints. Still, there can be no denying that the "devotions" and other subjective forms of piety that came to dominate the post-medieval Catholic world were a poor substitute for the liturgy. Even the liturgy came to be treated as just another private devotion.

Coming back to our topic: was it any coincidence that once the liturgy ceased to be the heart of Catholic life, Catholic theology also became "dry" and "academic"? Was it any coincidence that once scholasticism came to be formulated in the middle of the classroom and the lecture hall instead of in the heart of the cloister, it lost much of its creativity, its unction, and much of the patristic spirit that it had retained? Perhaps we can add: once the liturgy ceased to be at the center of Catholic thought, was it a surprise that Catholic theology began its fragmentation into diverse fields of investigation that theologians rarely managed to hold together into a coherent whole? After all, is it not the liturgy that lies behind our belief, "lex orandi, lex credendi", and is it not ultimately the liturgy that takes together all the thoughts of the heart and mind of the Church and forms them into a coherent whole?

I daresay that a mind saturated with scholastic thought, but with little liturgical consciousness, cannot in anyway reflect the mind of the Church in all its fullness. Scholastic thought needs liturgical spirituality (which is also biblical and contemplative), and not just any other spirituality, if it is to avoid becoming arid and "desacralized".

As we Catholics pick up the pieces of the post-conciliar chaos and strive to begin anew, let us strive to keep scholastic thought and liturgical spirituality together. At present, Catholic communities and religious orders -- active or monastic -- that are committed to either a healthy restoration of classical religious rites or to the reform of the reform, are according to the liturgy an importance that it never had in the lives of most religious orders or societies of the pre-conciliar age. Alongside the restoration of Catholic thought, there is an emphasis on the solemn and complete celebration of the sacred rites. Perhaps this could be the faint beginning of another Golden Age of scholasticism? One could only hope so.