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St. Paul Tells the Corinthians — and Us — How to Fix Liturgical Problems

It could perhaps have been predicted that the mandatory global shutdown of the Church’s liturgical life and the slow reawakening of it here and there as policies loosen up would bring with it a bumper crop of new problems mingled with old ones. While it is true that the opportunity for private Masses has led more priests than ever to offer the usus antiquior (and for this we must be profoundly grateful), we are also witnessing a new wave of abuses as Church leaders mingle desacralizing expedients and canonically illicit enforcements of Communion in the hand. It is a liturgical wild West out there, with ideological campaigns masquerading as requirements of public health and safety.

Can we look to the Bible for guidance in the midst of mass chaos?

Although the Bible speaks of plagues a number of times, and of the use and abuse of God-given authority, the sacred authors obviously did not face exactly our set of circumstances. The Good Book was never meant to give us a detailed program for every aspect of ecclesiastical and individual life. For example, nowhere are we told, in so many words, what to think about nuclear weapons, in vitro fertilization, or plasma TVs. Instead, it gives us luminous first principles; methods to follow; many models to imitate — or to avoid imitating; archetypal scenarios that play themselves out again and again; and judgments concerning a broad range of goods and evils, to which the rise of new goods and evils can be compared [i].

An elegant example is the First Epistle of St. Paul to the Corinthians. At the time the Apostle was writing (ca. A.D. 57), the Church’s liturgy was still fairly simple, consisting of elements borrowed from temple and synagogue worship enriched with distinctively Christian prayers and hymns; indeed, the Temple was still some thirteen years away from its prophesied destruction by the Romans. Yet St. Paul already has clear ideas about how Catholic worship ought to be done and how it should not be done, and he tells them to the community at Corinth in no uncertain terms.

Minding Christ crucified

In chapter 1 [ii], Paul appeals to the Corinthians to set aside their dissensions and to be of one mind. This sets the stage for his complaints later on that their liturgy plays favorites with different parties and fails to reflect the unity of the Church. Paul also insists front and center that the Cross is the central mystery of the Faith: “we preach Christ crucified” (1:23). The Mass is indeed the unbloody making-present of the sacrifice of the Cross in our midst, and that it why sinning against the Eucharist is so serious.

In chapter 2, Paul notes that only the spiritual man can discern spiritual things, a foreshadowing of what he will say in chapter 11 about discerning the Body and Blood of the Lord in the consecrated bread and wine.

In chapter 3, the body is said to be a temple of the Holy Spirit. The spiritual man is precisely the one in whom the Holy Spirit dwells; it is only such a one who can receive worthily the spiritual food that unites us to God in love (cf. 6:19; 8:3). For this reason, the apostles must be respected, since they are “the servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God” (4:1; cf. chapter 9) — that is, of the sacraments, which the Church has received and which she must pass on faithfully (cf. 4:7).

Making our bodies holy for the Body of Christ

In chapters 5 through 8, St. Paul turns to various ways in which Christians can sin by making an improper use of their bodies, thereby sinning against the Body of Christ (both literally and figuratively). Those who sin in the flesh include “fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, effeminates and sodomites, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers” (6:9–10), the litigious, and those who scandalize weaker brethren. It is as if Paul is providing, ahead of time, a list of the sort of people who must not receive Holy Communion until they repent — or who, if they dare to receive it, will be made worse by it, not better.

Notably, in chapter 7, St. Paul provides the lengthiest defense of celibacy in the New Testament, explaining how perpetual continence, the way of life he himself has chosen, frees a person up for complete dedication to the Lord’s service. It is the gift of one’s life in the body to Christ who is the Life in His Body. Although the reasoning here can certainly be applied to the clergy, it applies more obviously to missionaries like Paul and to those who withdraw from the world to give themselves wholly to God, who would later be called “religious.” Certainly, this chapter was an inspiration for the first monks and nuns in the Church.

Especially from chapter 10 onward, St Paul’s whole thrust is to move the Corinthians to a deeper appreciation of the sacramental life and a more reverent and strict liturgy. In other words, some parts of the first-century Church had it wrong and needed reform. In that way, the first century and the twenty-first share much in common.

In chapter 10, Paul refers obliquely to baptism and warns the Corinthians not to “put the Lord to the test” (10:9) by falling into immorality [iii], as the Israelites did again and again. What happened to Israel happened “for our instruction” (10:11). Christians must shun idol worship — a convenient way of summing up all the immorality Paul has already discussed — because “the cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?” (10:16). If eating food offered to idols makes us partners with demons (10:20), eating the food of Christ makes us partners with Him. Those who “provoke the Lord to jealousy” will be defeated (10:22).

Chapter 15 speaks of the literal truth of the resurrection of the dead as the foundation of the Christian faith: we are looking ahead to eternal life in the flesh with the Son of God, who shares His flesh with us in the Eucharistic sacrifice (cf. Jn. 6:53–54). The uncompromising bodily realism of this epistle makes it astonishingly relevant in the context of today’s neo-gnostic denial of the body-soul integrity of the human person.

Mandating reverence and discernment

Chapter 11 brings up three important issues connected with the Mass. First, St. Paul advises women to cover their heads with veils in church, a rule that was observed by Catholics from ancient times until the 1960s, when it was suddenly dropped as outdated.

Second, St. Paul speaks of abuses at the Mass. The custom of having a “common meal” prior to the breaking of the Eucharistic bread was leading to divisions within the community: some people got too much food and drink, others not enough, and the poor, in particular, were excluded. The Apostle then recounts the institution and meaning of the Eucharist (11:23–26), focusing it on the Lord’s death on the Cross (11:26), which represents to us and demands of us the love that He showed.

This transitions seamlessly into his third main point: the warning against the unworthy reception of Holy Communion (11:27–30), because the Eucharist is Jesus Himself: “Whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord[.] … For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks condemnation upon himself” (11:27, 29). Paul says that we must examine ourselves before we receive (11:28). These three verses (11:27–29) — which concern a matter so important that salvation or damnation hinges on it! — are read at least three times each year in the traditional Latin Mass. They were, however, systematically excluded from the Novus Ordo, where they are never read.

The Apostle also points out that unworthy reception of Communion can lead to physical sickness and death (11:30). St. Paul’s advice that Christians should first eat at home and then come later on to the Mass (11:34), emphasizing its proper dignity as a heavenly banquet, shows the remote origins of the discipline of the Eucharistic fast.

Moderating our appearance and actions

In chapter 12, St. Paul speaks about the proper division of duties within the Church and the importance of modesty — two themes of capital importance to Massgoers in the twenty-first century, living in the ruins of democratic (or pseudo-democratic) political revolutions and surrounded by the fallout of the Sexual Revolution.

In the justly famous chapter 13, he addresses the primacy of charity and mentions the need to give up childish ways of behavior — too many of which reappeared in the sixties and seventies. The Eucharist is indeed the sacrament of charity, having as its inmost reality the unity of the Mystical Body of Christ, so it is highly fitting that this chapter should appear in a heavily liturgical epistle, from which, alas, it is often taken out of context and read as a sentimental “Hymn to Luv.”

In chapter 14, he warns against seeking charismatic gifts for their own sake and advises seeking the greater gifts, which redound to the unity of the Church. Notably, the Apostle urges that liturgical worship be orderly and edifying, without excessive talking in church (14:26–33), “for God is not a God of confusion but of peace” — a striking observation, given that the most chaotic moment in the Novus Ordo is usually the so-called “sign of peace,” thankfully under an indefinite ban at the present moment. (His advice at the end — “Greet one another with a holy kiss” [16:20] — stands at the basis of the formalized “kiss of peace” found in the traditional Latin Mass.)

Paul reinforces the apostolic custom that only men should speak aloud: “As in all the churches of the saints, the women should keep silence in the churches[.] … For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church” (14:33b, 35b) [iv]. He concludes this section: “All things should be done decently and in order” (14:40) — a perfect description of how every traditional liturgical rite, Eastern or Western, operates, perhaps most especially the classical Roman rite.

Growing up, I remember seeing so many laity, especially women, flowing freely up and down the sanctuary without the slightest sense of the reality of the Blessed Sacrament, without so much as a bow, let alone a genuflection, rummaging through the tabernacle as though they were cleaning out a cupboard, all the while presenting (I speak of the ladies) a feminist “self-confident, competent, and non-subservient” look — which comes across as ironic when the priest, with subtle clericalism, is watching them serve him.

When we look again at St. Paul speaking of the Body of Christ and its appointed hierarchical ministers, when we hear him promoting charity above charisms, and when we realize he is saying the Eucharistic liturgy and especially Communion can be done unworthily, it is overwhelmingly clear that his message to the Corinthians is this: “Laity, it’s time to back off: let those be in charge who are supposed to be in charge. Let the women cover their heads and be silent. Let everyone examine his conscience. Do everything in an orderly and edifying manner.”

Paul warns the Corinthians to avoid bad company because it will ruin their morals (15:33), which is reminiscent of his earlier command that they must avoid the man he has excommunicated (5:1–8). Unlike many of his latter-day successors, this prince of the Apostles does not hesitate to use his authority to crack down on the disorderly, the immoral, and the heretical.

Lastly, in chapter 16, Paul speaks of the collection to be taken up for the poor in Jerusalem. Passing the collection basket around at Mass really goes back that far!

Maintaining the apostolic requirements

Looking back over this wonderful epistle, we can see that the Apostle’s insistence on orthodoxy and encouragement of unity goes hand in hand with his careful liturgical directives — a mini-treatise on how to make the community’s liturgy more reverent, more true to its nature, more demanding and sanctifying for the participants. Although the liturgy in its prayers, music, and ceremonies developed greatly from century to century after Paul’s time, the universal “dos and don’ts” in his epistle always remained true and applicable.

The traditional Latin Mass would and does fulfill each of St Paul’s desiderata, while the Novus Ordo generally fails to do so and exhibits just the problems he criticizes. Note that Paul never advocates more laxity, a more casual style of worship, more options, or a more horizontal “Vatican II”–style Church where boundaries between offices are blurred. In every instance, he calls for tightening up the discipline. As Martin Mosebach says, genuine reform always means “return to form,” that is, more definition and discipline, not less.

It seems to me that the teaching of First Corinthians will especially resonate with those who have attended (or still attend) both the old and the new Masses, since the contrast between the two rites offers so many illustrations of the kinds of things St. Paul is talking about. In any case, it might be a way of consoling yourself in retrospect: God was allowing you to do “field research” in order to open up to you the meaning of His inspired word.

The rulers of the Catholic Church have never allowed liturgical practice to degrade to the extent that it has done in the past half-century. True, there were sketchy periods and egregious problems in the Dark Ages and Middle Ages, but the knowledge and the instant communication that could have learned of them quickly and addressed them effectively were lacking. The modern hierarchy’s indifference to, or positive encouragement of, the liturgical abuse of which St. Paul speaks — symbolic dissonance, irreverence, profanation, idolatry, sexual immorality, inversion of charity and charisms, and usurpation of ministries — makes the evil qualitatively different.

In addition, therefore, to its implications for the beliefs and behavior of individual Christians, the first epistle to the Corinthians constitutes a guide to the universal principles of true liturgy and therefore of correct reform, and, accordingly, functions as a liturgical “examination of conscience.” Thanks be to God, and surely thanks to the intercession of the great martyrs of Rome, Peter and Paul, the traditional Roman rite — the ultimate standard in the Latin Church for the worthy worship of Almighty God — remains alive today and keeps alive our glorious apostolic heritage.


[i] Recognizing this simple fact is the first step to recognizing why Christ instituted a Church and why, indeed, if He chose not to remain with us on earth in His visible presence as the King of the new Israel, He had to institute a visible Church with the authority to teach in His Name. It is impossible for any single book, even an inspired one, to address every single question that will arise in however many thousands of years the human race will endure before the end of time. Someone must be able to say, definitively, how the truth revealed to us applies to new issues. However, the same argument shows why the Magisterium cannot contradict itself, otherwise, it would be useless as a guide. Hence, the very God-givenness of the Magisterium is the reason why Modernist simulations of it must be resisted by Catholics.

[ii] The division of Bible books into chapter and verse was a medieval invention to facilitate theological discourse. The divisions do not always correspond to the articulation of the argument or narrative in the original author, so we should be careful about placing too much emphasis on them; they are merely for convenience.

[iii] The Greek word for “immorality,” porneia, carries the sense of sexual immorality; it is sometimes translated “fornication.” See, for further implications, Jonas Alšėnas, “Porneia and Communion in the Hand” and “Spiritual Porneia and the ‘Lump’ Destroyed.”

[iv] On this question, see my article “Should Women Be Lectors at Mass?” as well as Jonas Alšėnas’s “Female Lectors and the Parable of the Sower.”

Image: Lawrence OP via Flickr.

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