16 November 2005

Symposium on the 40th Anniversary of the Second Vatican Council

The Moral Theology of the Liturgy: Ecclesia de eucharistia and theosis

Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
University of Dallas
November 16, 2006

(NB. This is the text for a presentation I gave at the University of Dallas commemorating the 40th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council. )

One way to approach to this topic is to talk about the liturgy of the Church as instructive for the moral life of the Christian, that is, to explore how Roman Catholic liturgy, particularly the liturgy of the Eucharist, is an engine for prayer, a source of and guide to holiness, and a push outward toward the evangelization of the world. Though all of this true, it doesn’t go far enough.

In this brief presentation, I will argue that the Church’s liturgy is more than moral pedagogy, more than spiritual refreshment, and more than exhortation to be socially just. It is the Christian life brought to concentration, highly focused, and distilled into a moment of moral clarity, an instant where the divine and the human meet in a transformative act of sacrifice, an act of sanctification through assent and surrender; in other words, the Church’s liturgy is that moment and that place where the human person meets his/her final end: divinization, theosis, a transfiguration of the merely human into the perfectly human.
This is not simply a reorientation of the Christian’s moral life toward “being good” behaviorally. Nor is it simply a refurbishing of a dilapidated but serviceable moral house. If we take seriously the prayer of the Church’s liturgy, particularly the prayer of the Mass, we cannot help but come away from its celebration stunned by what we have experienced, overwhelmed by what we have committed ourselves to, and driven by an almost ecstatic desire to be Truth, Goodness, and Beauty in the world.

My thesis, then, is: the liturgy of the Church is the time and place when and where we meet ourselves as God created us to be forever.

I. The terms

I take as my working definition of “moral theology” the definition offered by Pope John Paul II in his 1993 letter, Veritatis splendor:

The Church's moral reflection…has also developed in the specific form of the theological science called “moral theology,” a science which accepts and examines Divine Revelation while at the same time responding to the demands of human reason. Moral theology is a reflection concerned with “morality,” with the good and the evil of human acts and of the person who performs them...But it is also ``theology,'' inasmuch as it acknowledges that the origin and end of moral action are found in the One who “alone is good” and who, by giving himself to man in Christ, offers him the happiness of divine life. (29)

Unpacking this a bit we get the following definition: moral theology is that sort of rational reflection on good and evil human acts that begins with the reality of God’s self-revelation—scripture, creation, Christ—and attempts to assess the degree to which human acts succeed or fail in promoting progress toward the final end of every human person—“the happiness of divine life.”

“Moral” modifies “theology,” making the phrase “moral theology” connote something more specific (and substantial) than “religious ethics” or “spiritual values.” “Moral” has to do with an already acknowledged distinction between what is right and what is wrong, or what promotes goodness and what promotes evil. “Religious” and “spiritual,” though certainly hinting at something beyond the secular or the material, do not conjure the same sense of clear division between what is right/wrong, good/evil. The “religious” and the “spiritual” are more neutral in their overt commitments to specific judgments about discreet acts performed by the human person. I think what is important about the use of the adjective “moral” here is that it leaves us with the distinct sense that the objects of moral theology are discovered and not created by our rational exploration.

“Theology,” as the term modified by “moral,” is much less ambiguous here precisely because we are discussing moral theology in the context of the Roman Catholic theological tradition. As John Paul II notes in the definition above, theology is the science of examining Divine Revelation by means of human reason. Jean-Pierre Torrell offers an appropriate elaboration:

Before all else, theology is an expression of a God-informed life, an activity in which the virtues of faith, hope, and, charity are given full scope[…]it should be clear that this faith is not pure intellectual adhesion to the collection of truths that occupy the theologian. It is rather, in Saint Thomas as in the Bible, the living attachment of the whole person to the divine reality to which every person is united through faith by means of the formulas that convey that Reality to us. (4)

The connection of faith to the science of theology gives the scientific project its object: God. Again, Torrell notes: “Theology finds in faith not merely its point of departure but also its reason for being. Without faith, not only would theology lack justification, it would have no object[…]only faith allows the theologian to come into possession of his object”(5).

The point of this short excursion into the definition of theology is this: if moral theology is to be useful to us in our exploration of the liturgy, then the theological component must connote a clear commitment to a life of faith. It is not enough that theology be useful here as an instrument for measuring and evaluating claims about the phenomena we collectively call “the divine” or “religious experience.” This is more properly the task of a sociology of religion or a psychology of religious experience. For a moral theology of the liturgy to make sense it must have the same commitment to a life of faith that any other branch of theology in the Roman Catholic tradition has.

The last term to explore briefly is “liturgy.” This is the term that I am least familiar with and most hesitant to tackle. In many ways it is the easiest term to define but has the most complex connotations of the three terms we’ve explored so far. “Liturgy” is the public worship of the Church, or in the case of the Roman Catholic tradition, the public celebration of the sacraments according to the rites of the Church. We all know how inadequate this definition is in the end. Each element of this definition (“public,” “celebration,” sacrament,” “worship,” etc.) carries the weighty baggage of long dispute. So, I will let the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council suggest a use for the term:

For the Liturgy, "through which the work of our redemption is accomplished,” most of all in the Divine Sacrifice of the Eucharist, is the outstanding means whereby the faithful may express in their lives, and manifest to others, the mystery of Christ and the real nature of the true Church.” (n. 2)

Liturgy, along with being the public celebration the Church’s sacraments, is the exceptional way that 1) our redemption is accomplished and 2) an exceptional means the faithful use to convey to others the redeeming work of Christ and the nature of the Church. The liturgy is not just the logistics of organizing the particulars of public rites nor is it the acquisition and use of the arcane knowledge associated with color, symbols, fabrics, sacred objects, and incantations. Liturgy, Roman Catholic liturgy, is the where and when of our transformation from fallen into graced humanity, from sinful individuals into the living Body of Christ.

John Paul II’s 2003 letter, Ecclesia de eucharistia, will provide the instigating text for a meditation on what it might mean for us take seriously the radically transformative power of the liturgy, particularly the liturgy of the Eucharist.

II. “until He comes in glory”

The first paragraph of Ecclesia de eucharistia begins: “The Church draws her life from the Eucharist. This truth does not simply express a daily experience of faith, but recapitulates the heart of the mystery of the Church”(1). What does this mean? This is a reaffirmation of the Church’s traditional teaching that the Eucharist forms the sacramental center of our lives as Christians. More forcefully put: our Holy Father is teaching us that the Eucharist is the Church, that is, without the Eucharist, the Church is not—not the Church, non-existent. The truth that the Church draws her life from the Eucharist summarizes the mystery of what the Church is: the living Body of Christ, fed by the paschal meal, transformed by the sacrifice on Calvary, and brought to participate in the Divine Life as fully graced human beings.

Part of the mystery of the Eucharist as a mystery of the church and about the church is how this foundational sacrament brings together the historical meal of the Upper Room and any parish Mass. John Paul writes,

[The Church’s] foundation and wellspring is the whole Triduum paschale, but this is as it were gathered up, foreshadowed and ‘concentrated’ for ever in the gift of the Eucharist. In this gift Jesus Christ entrusted to His Church the perennial making present of the paschal mystery. With it He brought about a mysterious ‘oneness in time’ between that Triduum and the passage of centuries.”(5)

It is this “making present” in the “oneness of time” that makes the Eucharist the most capable engine for building an ethics strong enough to confront the world. How so? John Paul points to the “cosmic” character of the Eucharist as a starting point: “Yes, cosmic! Because even when it is celebrated on the humble altar of a country church, the Eucharist is always in some way celebrated on the altar of the world. It unites heaven and earth. It embraces and permeates all creation”(8). The strength of this arrangement rests on two historical events, the Passion and Easter. Christ’s suffering and death on a cross and his rising from the dead energize the Eucharist across time because these events happened not to a mere human person, but to the Son of God, God Incarnated. That they happened to the God-Man of history means that the events took place temporally and atemporally, in human time passing and in the eternal now.

Our connection to God the Father is made through the sacrifice of the Mass itself, the making present of the original sacrifice for our sakes and the sake of the whole world. Of this connection John Paul writes: “The thought of this leads us to profound amazement and gratitude” (5). And he sees his project in this letter to be the re-establishment and strengthening of that amazement over and against the “shadows” of the world and those shadows that have crept in through ecclesial neglect of the mystery and truth of the Real Presence (10). It is clear that he sees the failure of some to hold and practice the Real Presence, a failure, in other words, to hold to the efficacy of the sacrament, as the darkest shadows cast. And it is in returning the Eucharist as the gift of Christ Himself that we will dispel these hungry shadows.

So, how does John Paul understand sacrifice in light of the Real Presence? Acknowledging that there are various ways to construe the “presence” of Christ, the empowering presence is the Real Presence of Christ, his substantial, abiding “hereness” in the elements of the sacrament (15). The sacrifice of the Eucharist is real inasmuch as Christ’s presence on the altar of sacrifice is real. John Paul writes in language mindful of Trent:

The Mass makes present the sacrifice of the Cross; it does not add to that sacrifice nor does it multiply it. What is repeated is its memorial celebration, its “commemorative representation,” which makes Christ’s one, definitive redemptive sacrifice always present in time. (12)
Since the sacrifice of the altar is not separable from the sacrifice of Calvary, the sacrifice of the Mass cannot be understood as Christ merely offering himself to the Church as spiritual food. We must understand the sacrifice of the Mass to be “first and foremost a gift to the Father,” the gift of Christ offered by Christ through his Church for the sake of the Church and the world (13).

Having reaffirmed the traditional outlines of the Church’s Eucharistic theology, John Paul moves into less chartered waters in order to tie the sacrifice of the Mass to the larger world by offering to the world a means of living ethically. He characterizes the link between the presenting action of the Eucharistic sacrifice and the broader world as a kind of “eschatological tension”(18). This tension is first felt in the liturgy itself when the assembly acclaims the mysterium fidei, concluding with “until you come in glory.” The tension felt here is the tension between our present state and the possibility of living face-to-face with God in heaven. John Paul writes: “The eschatological tension kindled by the Eucharist expresses and reinforces our communion with the Church in heaven”(19). Rather than directing out limited attention to life after this one, John Paul argues that the tension inherent in the longing for union with God directs us instead to a deeper engagement with our world: “Certainly the Christian vision leads to the expectation of ‘new heavens’ and ‘a new earth,’ but this increases, rather than lessens, our sense of responsibility for the world today”(20). The eschatological tension is best exemplified by the “fruit of a transfigured existence and a commitment to transforming the world in accordance with the Gospel[...]”(20). Here is where the ethics of the Eucharist begins to make sense: transfigured men and women transforming the world according to Gospel values.

If the reception of the Body and Blood of Christ at the sacrifice of the Mass is going to produce evangelical fruit, it seems that two conditions must be met: 1) the presence consumed must be the Real Presence of Christ and 2) the person consuming the presence of Christ must become Christ in and for the world. Though he exhorts the church to celebrate the mystery of the Eucharist (its Real Presence, sacrifice, and banquet) in a way that “does not allow reduction or exploitation,” he also exhorts the man and woman taking communion not to reduce or exploit their reception of the mystery by failing to live lives structured by gospel integrity. And this is the key to understanding how John Paul envisions the church functioning with the world without being overwhelmed by it. Two elements must always balance within the Church as the Body of Christ: first, the ineffable mystery of the Eucharist must be maintained because the salvific efficacy of the sacrament depends on the Real Presence; and second, the celebration and reception of the mystery must drive the Christian man or woman to evangelize the world fully conscious of his/her transfigured existence, fully aware that he/she walks now as the real presence of the divine, the really, truly present body and blood of the Savior.

How do we communicate to the world the presence and power of Christ when the world seems thoroughly in love with ideologies of death, radical materialism, and skepticism? Here’s how we do not communicate the power and presence of Christ to this world: Christ is only symbolically present, Christ is present because the bread and wine have had their final ends changed or because their nominations have changed. None of this communicates power or presence; it communicates doubt, embarrassment, and perhaps even denial. What communicates power and presence to this world is the hard example of Christians working in the world to bring to life those gospel values that signify the divinizing effect of the sacrifice of the Mass. This is work done now in light of Christ’s promise that he will be with us always– here now, there then and always.

III. Meeting ourselves as God created us to be forever: theosis

It seems to me that the Holy Father’s exhortation to us in Ecclesia de eucharistia is precisely right, that is, he is directing us to move from the liturgical celebration of the sacrifice of Calvary into the world as living Christs, transfigured persons set ablaze with the love of Father and the Son through the Holy Spirit. Taking everything I’ve said so far about what we mean by “moral,” “theology,” and “liturgy,” a moral theology of the liturgy then has to tell us something about the person who is moved to be Christ in the world and how the liturgy of the Church makes this transformation possible. I said earlier that if we take the prayer of the Mass seriously we should be awed beyond rational description by what we commit ourselves to in sharing communion and driven by a desire to take that filial bond of communion out into the world as living sacraments of God’s presence. This is not simply a matter of allowing the prayers of the Mass to teach us a lesson, or finding spiritual refreshment in taking communion, or even being exhorted by the priest in his homily to go out and do good works. Surely, all of these happen in the Mass. But if what we’re talking about here is a moral theology of the liturgy in light of Ecclesia de eucharistia, then we have to move to a more radical concept of who becomes Christ and how the liturgy makes this possible. This radical concept is theosis.

If it appears that I’ve decided to pick up the topic of my presentation right here at the end, let me say: not true. I’ve said from the beginning that the Church’s liturgy is that moment and that place where the human person meets his/her final end: divinization, theosis, a transfiguration of the merely human into the perfectly human. The Dominican, Jean Corbon, describes this beautifully:

The lived liturgy does indeed begin with this “moral” union [a face-to-face encounter between the person of Christ and our own person], but it goes much further. The Holy Spirit is an anointing, and he seeks to transform all that we are into Christ: body, soul, spirit, heart, flesh, relations with others and the world. If love is to become our life, it is not enough for it to touch the core of our person; it must also impregnate our entire nature (216).

Underneath John Paul’s teaching that the Eucharist is the Church is the notion that Holy Spirit transforms His assembled people into a living offering for sacrifice. From the invocation of His presence at the beginning of Mass, and especially at the epiclesis over the offerings of bread and wine, the Holy Spirit sanctifies the people as an offering, transforming them from a collection of the merely human into a body of the perfectly human. This in no way replaces, displaces, or in any way disturbs the absolutely essential transformation of the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ. In fact, it is through the transubstantiation of the bread and wine that we are constantly perfected by the Spirit. Without this efficacious sign our transformation is only symbolic, or merely moral, meaning it is only an exhortation to imitate Christ. What I believe that John Paul is teaching us, and Corbon is describing so beautifully, is that while the bread and wine become the Body and Blood, we also are changed, radically changed into what God has created us to be forever: Himself. And as He has offered Himself for us, we offer ourselves in the world for the transformation of the world. Corbon, again: “If we consent in prayer to be flooded by the river of life, our entire being will be transformed; we will become trees of life and be increasingly able to produce the fruit of the Spirit: we will love with the very Love that is our God”(216).

IV. Conclusion: three questions

1. What does theosis mean for your daily life? I mean, if we take theosis to be our understanding of what salvation in Christ is, then what difference does it make for you as a Christian day-to-day?

2. If we take “grace” to be both God’s invitation to theosis and the mechanism by which we are divinized, then what does it mean for us to say that we “receive grace” in the liturgy of the Eucharist (or in any liturgical celebration of a sacrament)?

3. We said that moral theology is the science of rationally reflecting on the good/evil actions of the human person in light of his/her final end as a creature of God. How does human evil, sin, corrupt or thwart the process of theosis in the liturgy?

Works Cited

Corbon, Jean. The Wellspring of Worship, 2nd ed. Ignatius Press: San Francisco, 2005.

Torrell, Jean-Pierre. Saint Thomas Aquinas: Spiritual Master. CUA Press, 2003.


  1. Anonymous3:21 PM

    Well done Good and Faithful Servant !

  2. Hey! Invite me to Ireland to give a talk, or I'll tell Imelda you've been two timing her...



  3. Dear Fr. Powell:

    Thank you for your excellent weblog, and for this posting in particular.

    I would say that all of what you have written is necessary to an understanding of Eucharist as sacrament. Necessary, but unfortunately, not sufficient. It has been a truism which is nonetheless true that the West tends to focus upon Calvary and that dread Friday, while the East instead upon the empty Tomb and the Day of Resurrection.

    I think it would be helpful to your analysis to consider what the East has contributed in this regard. If I may suggest, the website of the late Orthodox theologian, Fr. Alexander Schememann (http://www.schmemann.org) and his writings may be of some help in this regard. In particular, I strongly suggest this essay of his: http://www.schmemann.org/byhim/theologyandeucharist.html

    That said, I think that both your analysis and your intuition of Liturgy as the means of theosis is stunningly and beautifully correct. I hope that the intellectual and spiritual inquiries of Westerners such as yourself may assist in manifesting true liturgy in the Western Churches.

    I suggest, however, that when you finally reach that summit, you will find that the East has been already there, awaiting your return.

  4. Bernard,

    Thank you for your comments.

    I have to confess that I know very little about Eastern liturgical theology. My thoughts
    at the time of the presentation were geared toward poking at a western notion of theosis
    in order to remind Roman Catholics that our liturgy is more than just a happy-clappy
    fraternal meal acted out with socially constructed, politically correct symbols. If I
    understand the history of the notion of theosis, the western church owes a debt to the
    east for clarifying it. I'm thinking here of A.N. Williams' book, "The Ground of Union:
    Deification in Aquinas and Palamas."

    Thanks again!