Tag Archives: Christianity – Catholic

Opus Dei

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Opus Dei: An Archaeology of Duty [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Giorgio Agamben, trans Adam Kotsko, part of the Meridian: Crossing Aesthetics series.

Agamben Opus Dei

This slim volume is reliant on the lines of thought explored previously by Agamben in The Sacrament of Language and The Kingdom and the Glory, although it might be approachable on its own by a generally well-read and determined reader. I found it slow going, requiring as much as five minutes per page.

The first chapter is on “Liturgy and Politics,” but mostly liturgy. It focuses on the emergence and development of a distinction between opus operans and opus operatum in sacramental activity. Only at the very end does Agamben remark that he considers this instrument for the “effectiveness of the cult” to be a “theological model … which has made a lasting mark on praxis in the Marxist tradition” (26).

The first part of Chapter 2 “From Mystery to Effect” should be read in dialogue with Drudgery Divine by Jonathan Z. Smith. It is somewhat amusing that Agamben should take the side of the (anti-pagan) Protestants in the relevant questions about Christian liturgical origins, while Smith assails it. “Effect” is concerned with the “transformation of being into operativity” that results from the “ontological-practical paradigm … of effectiveness” (63) which Agamben identifies with sacerdotal mystery.

The third chapter offers “A Genealogy of Office,” which begins to focus on the historically articulated nature of ministry as a duty and a function. This interesting study culminates in a declaration that “[T]he priesthood, of which the character is the cipher, is not a real predicate but a pure signature, which manifests only the constitutive excess of effectiveness over being” (87). (There is also an interesting mention of Varro’s three modalities agere, facere, and gerere, which seem to correspond to the offices of Cancellarius, Praemonstrator, and Imperator, respectively. 82)

“The Two Ontologies” of the fourth chapter are the philosophical-scientific and the religious-juridical. The former is characterized by the indicative mood and the latter by the imperative. Agamben illustrates various ways in which these two oppose one another and yet have become intertwined and reliant upon one another, with the tendency to privilege the religious-juridical under the cover of the philosophical-scientific reaching an acme in the 18th century. His account here makes solid sense out of Kant, and it almost re-interested me in Heidegger. The alignment of liturgy and ethics is witnessed through the concept of pious “devotion.” Agamben writes, “Theologians never lost awareness of the pagan origin of devotio, with which the commander consecrated his own life to the infernal gods in order to obtain victory in a battle” (103).

The very end of the book offers a discussion of the metaphysics of will, which arrives at remarks perfectly congruent with Beyond Good and Evil section 19, although Agamben never cites Nietzsche in the whole book. And then I was perplexed to read the final sentence, for which he never seemed to have supplied the motivation: “The problem of the coming philosophy is that of thinking an ontology beyond operativity and command and an ethics and a politics entirely liberated from the concepts of duty and will.” As usual, Agamben gives me useful insights and leaves me scratching my head.

Cult and Controversy

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Cult and Controversy: The Worship of the Eucharist Outside Mass [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Nathan Mitchell, Studies in the Reformed Rites of the Catholic Church, Vol 4.

Mitchell Cult and Controversy

When I started reading this 1981 study in Roman Catholic liturgy and ritual praxis, I expected it to be chiefly concerned to contextualize and interpret the 1973 Vatican Decree on “Holy Communion and Worship of the Eucharist Outside Mass,” which supplied regular liturgical forms for administration of the Eucharist to the sick, viaticum, processions and benedictions with the Eucharist, “forty hours” devotions, and Eucharistic congresses, all in light of the Second Vatican Council. While that concern is certainly present here, the book happily has a much wider scope and ambition to review without prejudice popular customs and official sanctions attaching to the Eucharist outside the liturgy of the Mass.

The first half of the book is concerned with ancient and medieval contexts. Ultimately, the traditional practices are classed under four heads: 1) Administering the sacrament in ministerial visits to the sick or dying, 2) Processions displaying the host, 3) Stationary exhibition of the host, and 4) Use of the reserved host as an instrument of benediction (163 ff.). Early chapters discuss cultural and liturgical developments that fueled the worship of the consecrated species, which only became possible once the Eucharist had transformed from a “holy meal to sacred food.”

The second part (“Reforms”) is concerned with modern developments, including both the Tridentine era and the developments since Vatican II. There is particular attention given to the US American context, where the sort of practices discussed in this book “provided a ‘distinctive badge of identity’ for a Catholic minority in an overwhelmingly Protestant country” (335). “Theological roots” make for a surprisingly minor element of the overall treatment, and the summative synthesis and evaluation draws heavily on both secular psychology (notably that of Erik Erikson) and philosophy (Paul Ricoeur).

My peculiar perspective on this material caused me to take note of such items as the 17th-century Congregation of Rites making an injunction against “placing relics or statues on the altar of exposition” (205), which naturally put me in mind of the contradictory command from Liber Legis III:22. While I had little use for the bits of Christian theology in this book, its study of the long-term interactions of culture, institutions, and liturgy around Eucharistic practice was definitely worth my attention.