Platonic Philosophy Must Balance the Liturgical Debate

I definitely recommend watching the full debate between Timothy Gordon and Timothy Flanders regarding the important and prevalent question: Can the Pope Abolish the Latin Mass? Both men had great points, relying on arguments of authority with their appeal to history and the teaching Magisterium of the Church. No doubt these kinds of arguments are the most important ones when dealing with theological topics, especially one concerning the liturgy and its organic development.

Nevertheless, I believe that the disagreement runs deeper, namely, on different fundamental philosophical views. This is important to point out since orthodox theology stems from supernatural Revelation and the use of sound philosophy as an instrument to correctly deduce certain truths of our Faith. In fact, the root cause of heresy is a bad philosophy applied to the Sacred mysteries which causes grave errors as a consequence. Therefore, good philosophy, is absolutely essential, as per the encyclical Aeterni Patris on the Restoration of Christian Philosophy of Pope Leo XIII.

Gordon based himself on the classical Aristotelian-Thomist tradition, applying these categories to the mystery of the liturgy. Now it is true Pope Leo XIII elevates Aristotelian-Thomism to the point of being the main reference philosophy for Christian philosophy. Nevertheless, even Thomism has its different variants and subdivisions (one simply has to investigate the 16th century infighting among Thomists Cajetan and John of Saint Thomas and the Neo-Thomist variants of Gilson, Geach, etc.).

On the other hand, true Thomism does not—or should not—differ in its fundamental principles. The notion of substance is a clear example here and this is one that Gordon refers to frequently in the debate. He says repeatedly that the liturgy is not a substance. Now the reason that the substance is brought up is because the debate must ultimately deal with the fundamental nature of the liturgy, the liturgy as a foundational entity of reality, and substance. For Aristotelian-Thomism it is a perfect notion to address in order to preclude it from the “whatness” of liturgy.

Aristotle’s metaphysical view is based on the idea of substance, the principal category of being. Substance is an independent entity that exists “per se” and, as such, it does not change, that is, it does not substantially change, but only accidentally changes (which is change properly speaking), acquiring new accidental forms while retaining its substantial form. Faithful to Aristotelian-Thomist principles, Gordon points out that substantial “change” is when a thing receives a new substantial form and this only happens via generation and corruption when a new nature is produced.

There is no infallible exhaustive philosophical system since representing reality conceptually in a perfectly systematic way using adequate human categories is simply not possible. And if this applies to nature because of its complexities, what are we to say about the supernature?

Of course, there are philosophies better than others that reflect reality more soundly and thoroughly (the Aristotelian-Thomist perennial philosophy in its classic form is probably the most systematic and detailed no doubt). There is true intellectual pluralism in the Church, regardless of what many moderns believe. The Church tolerates and promotes different philosophical methods, as long as they are realist (i.e. hold a fundamental belief in absolute truth).

Applying Aristotelian philosophical categories to the mystery of the liturgy definitely has its shortcomings, as Timothy Flanders implies. (Kwasniewski has observed this in his 2017 piece “The Long Shadow of Neoscholastic Reductionism.”) Sure it may emphasize clarity, yet it seems that the transcendent nature of the liturgy is not stressed. For that reason, the Platonic, Neo-Platonic, philosophical view seems better suited to be used when profoundly dealing with the mystery of the liturgy and its nature (and I say this as a Thomist myself). Aristotle essentially believed in one world, all beings exist here and now as substances which are metaphysically composed of matter and form. For Plato, two worlds exist, the passing physical world of copies and the unchangeable world of the Forms.

I truly believe that Platonic ultra-realism is the go-to philosophy of today (I can’t stand when people call Plato an idealist, which he wasn’t), since it satisfies the more growing desire of mystery we see today, especially in the youth. Though Aristotelianism emphasizes clarity in the natural realm, Platonism accents the spiritual world as the true reality. Platonic philosophy is more open to the mystical (at least St. Bonaventure believed so, with St. Augustine and the rest of the Church Fathers). And in this general sense, we can say that liturgy is a substance (though Plato did not use this term Aristotle used), in a way that, here on Earth, it is a copy of the true liturgy in Heaven. This accords with what St. Paul says in Hebrews 8:3-5:

For every high priest is appointed to offer gifts and sacrifices: wherefore it is necessary that he also should have some thing to offer. If then he were on earth, he would not be a priest: seeing that there would be others to offer gifts according to the law, Who serve unto the example and shadow of heavenly things. As it was answered to Moses, when he was to finish the tabernacle: See (saith he) that thou make all things according to the pattern which was shewn thee on the mount.

Timothy Gordon argued that liturgy is only substantial in the matter and form of the Sacraments, while the rest of its elements are accidental, and hence it can change. Though this is true, to say that the liturgy is almost in its entirety a composition of accidents seems to lessen its Divine worth, even if we are only talking about the category of accidents in the metaphysical realm.

In Platonism, the liturgy would be a copy here on Earth, since it is composed of sensible symbols that communicate the Divine mysteries to man. As such, it is subject to change. Yet its Form, the celestial reality, is unchangeable. Nevertheless, as a symbol, a copy, it has certain expressions that manifest the mysteries in a more efficient way, and this seems to be the philosophical argument in favor of Flanders’ position. Precisely because it is more devout, having the better symbols as compared with the Novus Ordo, etc., as such, it is objectively a better copy of its Form. And for that reason, no one can arbitrarily change it not even the Pope (one has to recognize of course the difficulties with the relationship between matter and Form in Plato that Aristotle criticized).

Gordon kept trying to press Flanders into revealing exactly what are the elements of the Latin Mass that cannot be changed. This is a legitimate question yet a difficult one. Nevertheless, I believe it is possible to recognize that the Latin Mass cannot change without specifying what those unchangeable aspects are. It may be that the simple, pure Catholic spirit that the Latin Mass emits is the principal element that cannot be changed.

To conclude, it is Plato’s philosophy – the philosophical system used by the Church Fathers – based on the supernatural Forms and not so much the Aristotelian metaphysics founded on substance, that seems to be better suited, especially for our days, when dealing with the profound nature of the liturgy. It is true though, deep down (or maybe not so deep down), that Plato and Aristotle’s metaphysics can be harmonized. In fact, only the Catholic can do so, with his firm belief in the dignity of both this life and the next.

Editor’s note: Plato’s philosophy, also known as “Ultra-Realism,” is promoted by contributing editor, Charles A. Coulombe. See his article at Tumblar House for more information. On the Platonic thought of St. Thomas Aquinas, see Sebastian Morello, The World as God’s Icon: Creator & Creation in the Platonic Thought of Thomas Aquinas (Angelico Press, 2020).

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