Can Catholicism's Truth Be Known Beyond Its Walls?

Reflecting on the role of Christians in today’s American society, Bishop James Conley of Lincoln writes, “We know what it looks like when the Church forgets her holiness: Daily discipleship gives way to rote weekly churchgoing. Tough demands of the Gospel are ignored. Prayer, fasting, and penance are bypassed. Christ’s holy Church becomes indistinguishable from the world.”[1] In this brief statement, Conley summarizes what I take to be one of the central claims of Rod Dreher’s recent book, The Benedict Option. Pace those who associate him with a religious “self-separatism,”[2] the “option” proposes not a self-separatism, but a series of practices, habits, and distinctive cultural rituals that seek to provide a solution to the social fragmentation both within and outside of the boundaries of the Church, due to acedia and a rejection of the sacred.[3] Without wading into the merits of the specific arguments and narratives proposed in his important work, I will follow the lead of Nathaniel Peters, who argues that, if the Benedict Option is to succeed, it “needs to be guided by careful, prudent thought so that it bears good fruit.”[4]

What follows will provide a deeper context for understanding one set of distinct practices which Dreher proposes as essential for the renewal of Christian culture, namely, the return to a “sacramental imagination” which “re-weaves” a fragmented world, connecting “body and spirit,” “philosophy as a way of life,” bridging the disconnect between Christian doctrines and Christian praxis.[5] This will be done in three parts. First, through an overview of the relationship between the liturgy and the daily life of the believer in recent Catholic teaching. Next, by proposing the Benedictine, Fr. Virgil Michel, O.S.B. (1890-1938), one of the key and influential founders and architects of the American Roman Catholic liturgical movement, as a fruitful source for continued exploration of the relationship between liturgy, culture, and society. Finally, we will conclude by showing that both recent Roman Catholic teaching and Michel’s work on the liturgy could strengthen Dreher’s account. We will conclude by proposing three spheres where the liturgically-capacitated Christian sees liturgy as something directed not against (post)-modernity, but “for the life of the world.” (Jn. 6:51)


There often lurks a temptation towards dualism in any account of the relationship between the Church and culture; thus, certain readers of Augustine see the “City of God” as the polar opposite of the “City of Man;” the “sacred” is often juxtaposed to the “profane,” or in Dreher’s case, the “sacred” to the “secular.” While this temptation is ever-present, an awareness of the Church’s rich reflection on what happens both at the liturgy, and to those who enter into the liturgy, complicates this account.

The proposal to return to a liturgical way of living is not a new insight in Dreher’s account. The Fathers of the Second Vatican Council proposed in Sacrosanctum concilium that the liturgy is “primary and indispensable source from which the faithful are to derive the true Christian spirit.”[6] What is this true Christian spirit? How can it be derived from the liturgy? What vision does it instill? Over 40 years ago, the Russian Orthodox liturgist, Fr. Alexander Schmemann, argued that “honesty to the Gospel, to the whole Christian tradition, to the experience of every saint and every word of Christian liturgy demands” the opposite of a vision of a bifurcated reality into easy categories of secular and sacred, but rather “to live in the world seeing everything in it as a revelation of God, a sign of his presence, the joy of His coming, the call to communion with Him, the hope of fulfillment with Him.” Christians know that Jesus is the “life of the world—and that in him, the world in its totality has become again a liturgy, a communion, an ascension.”[7] In the “primary and indispensable source of Christian life,” in the liturgy, Christians enter into the “joy of the Lord,” receive a “pledge of future glory,”[8] and ascend into the light and joy of Christ’s presence.[9] The Christian enters in the liturgy into the presence, is reminded of the promise, receives a foretaste, and truly anticipates the Kingdom, the divine communio personarum which she will behold fully at the end of time as did the disciples on Mount Tabor.

Yet, what is the Christian to do about the world from which she enters into the liturgy? When Aquinas argues for the fittingness of the Transfiguration, he argues that one must have a vision of the end, especially when “hard and rough is the road, heavy the going, but delightful the end.”[10] For those of us who belong to the body of Christ on earth, who only participate imperfectly in the heavenly liturgy, we are given a reminder of the end, when God will be “all in all.” (1 Cor. 15:28) But what of the world, the culture, this “profane” dominion of the powers and principalities? Is the liturgy simply meant as a hopeful reminder of the future glory for those of us along the way? Schmemann argues,

It is as we return from the light and the joy of Christ’s presence that we recover the world as a meaningful field of our Christian action, that we see the true reality of the world and thus discover what we must do. Christian mission is always at its beginning. It is today that I am sent back into the world in joy and peace, having seen the true light, having partaken of the Holy Spirit, having been witness of Divine love.[11]

To paraphrase Pope Francis, the liturgy is not a self-referential act. The liturgical Christian must ask herself: why am I allowed to enter into the mysteries now, though in a hidden and veiled manner, as a wayfarer on the journey? Of course, it is to be given hope; yet an essential element of the supernatural virtue of hope is that it orients one to live in light of eternal life, present here and now. “That means: the Gospel is not merely a communication of things that can be known—it is one that makes things happen and is life-changing. The dark door of time, of the future, has been thrown open. The one who has hope lives differently; the one who hopes has been granted the gift of a new life.”[12] The Christian hope given in the entry into the eternal liturgy must be not only “informative,” but also “performative.”[13]

Liturgical formation must lead to missionary action. Pope St. John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Pope Francis all argue for this indispensable relationship between liturgical formation and missionary action. Interestingly, a discussion of missionary action does not make an appearance in The Benedict Option—but it is a non-negotiable task of the Christian life. Indeed, the Church herself is “born out of the evangelizing activity of Jesus and the Twelve . . . and it is the whole Church that receives the mission to evangelize, and the work of each individual member is important for the whole.”[14] Benedict XVI, reflecting on St. Paul’s description of his own ministry in Romans 15, notices:

He speaks of the cosmic liturgy in which the human world itself must become worship of God, an oblation in the Holy Spirit. When the world in all its parts has become a liturgy of God, when, in its reality, it has become adoration, then it will have reached its goal and will be safe and sound. This is the ultimate goal of St Paul's apostolic mission as well as of our own mission. The Lord calls us to this ministry. Let us pray . . . to become true liturgists of Jesus Christ.[15]

Christians are to become liturgists of Jesus Christ. But what does this mean, and what implications does it have for our social action, our missionary task? In Romans 12:1, St. Paul exhorts the community gathered in Rome, the seat of the imperium: “I appeal to you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship” (Rom. 12:1). Commenting on this passage at the beginning of the third millennium, St. John Paul II called and prayed for Catholics to develop a “liturgical spirituality,” which would make “people conscious that Christ is the first ‘liturgist’ who never ceases to act in the Church and in the world through the Paschal Mystery continuously celebrated,” and through Christ, “the whole of Christian existence becomes ‘a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God’, genuine ‘spiritual worship.’”[16]

More recently, to set the tone for his pontificate, Pope Francis argued that an evangelizing community,

Celebrates every small victory, every step forward in the work of evangelization. Evangelization with joy becomes beauty in the liturgy, as part of our daily concern to spread goodness. The Church evangelizes and is herself evangelized through the beauty of the liturgy, which is both a celebration of the task of evangelization and the source of her renewed self-giving.[17]

Becoming a “true liturgist of Jesus Christ” therefore has grave social implications. Transformed by the encounter with Christ in the Eucharistic liturgy, the Christian begins to see the world as Christ sees it. Aquinas argues that one of the effects of love is that the lover “seeks to possess the beloved perfectly, by penetrating into his heart.”[18] If in the liturgy Christians penetrate into the heart of Jesus, or better, by the action of the Holy Spirit, their hearts are penetrated by the love of God and molded after the perfect image of God, formed into the “all-embracing fullness of God in the Heart of Jesus,”[19] then they must share this love with others.


For the American context, it is fitting to offer a homegrown example of a thinker who sought to unite liturgy, social action, and cultural renewal. In light of the inspiration for Dreher’s book, it is fitting that we choose a Benedictine. Virgil Michel, OSB (1890-1938), a native Minnesotan who was to later enter St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, became an early pioneer of the liturgical movement in the United States.[20] A brilliant and well-rounded student, his studies culminated in a doctorate in English from Catholic University and a doctorate in Education from Columbia University. After brief teaching assignments locally in Collegeville, ranging from violin instruction to Shakespeare, Michel was sent by his new abbot in 1924 to Europe.

During the course of his formation and studies in Europe, especially in Rome and Louvain, he encountered the fruits of the liturgical movement, which had begun in abbeys such as Solemnes under Abbot Prosper Gueranger (1805-1875) and Maria Laach under Abbot Ildefons Herwegen (1874-1946). The abbot of another abbey, Mont Cesar (Belgium), Dom Lambert Beauduin (1873-1960), became one of Michel’s professors at San Anselmo in Rome. For Beauduin, liturgical reforms were aimed, among others reasons, to lead to more active participation in the liturgy among Belgian workers, for whom Beauduin saw the liturgy as a unifying and formative locus of unity in the midst of the difficulties of early 20th century European capitalism. While studying in Rome, Michel also studied under Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, OP the famed (and sometimes feared) Thomist of the Angelicum (whose lectures Michel found “lengthy and slow”).[21] Under Lagrange’s tutelage, Michel became convinced of the necessity of using the social ethics of St. Thomas Aquinas to propose reforms. Social reforms based on Aquinas’ ethics would be able to counter both the rampant individualism characteristic of an unbridled capitalism, which had led to the rise of socialist agitations, as well as provide a foundation for countering the atheistic collectivism that was becoming popular among the working classes.

Having studied from these great masters in Rome, and observed the fruits of the liturgical movement in Europe, Michel returned to the United States with the goal of fostering a “liturgical apostolate,” based on the recent magisterial teachings of Pope Pius X and Pius XI. Central to his argument was a syllogism, “Pius X tells us that the liturgy is the basis of a renewal of the Christian spirit; Pius XI tells us that a Christian spirit is the basis of social regeneration; therefore, the liturgy is the basis of social regeneration.”[22] In what ways did Michel think the liturgy is the basis of social regeneration?

Like many Catholics of the day (and our day), Michel did not have an optimistic assessment of the culture and social movements of the time, “We are witnessing today the cultivation of sex for its own sake, which is in reality nothing but the glorification of sexuality.”[23] This phenomenon was one manifestation of the “frank espousal of Epicureanism and hedonism . . . egoism and individual selfishness.”[24] He decried the divorce of ethics from economics, war, politics, and the perception of “moral principles [as] at their worst a relic of bygone superstitions, or at their best, a matter for each individual to decide for himself.”[25] He characterized the world as “overwhelmingly pagan,” and the state of Christians was not much better. Adopting the voice of the devil in an article entitled, “If I were Satan,” Michel proposed that, should he try to craft a strategy to destroy the faith, he would try to make Catholic Mass attendance “mere occasions for the satisfaction of subjective religious emotions,” he would arouse “petty jealousies among members of religious communities or among the diocesan clergy,” and would change the conception of the Christian life as a “literal performance of so-and-so many obligations that satisfy individuals with a faithful adherence to minimum essential requirements and get them to feel great satisfaction with this as their adequate Christian observance.”[26]

It was in Europe that Michel encountered the doctrine of the mystical body of Christ, which he saw as the most powerful antidote to the individualism, minimalism, and legalism in theology, and the structural injustices and other social ills that characterized American society and the Church on the eve of the Great Depression. The modern recovery of the mystical body theology found in the works of Saint Augustine and then articulated in St. Thomas, came into play in the modern Church through the historical school of theological studies in Tübingen, particularly in the works of Johann Möhler (1796-1838), who influenced others such as the famous dogmatic theologian, Alfred Vermeersch, SJ (1858-1936).[27] The culminating point of this rediscovery was Pius XII’s encyclical, Mystici corporis Christi, in which Pius XII distinguishes between various senses of the “body” of the Church, and relates these senses to various social orders.[28]

Pius XII argues, following Leo XIII, that all orders exist under the authority of God, who governs sweetly according to his wisdom over one providential order of creation. Within this one order, there are various interrelated spheres, including the church, the state, the family, and private associations, each with their own distinctive common goods, and associated claims of authority upon the one who is subject to them in various ways. The Church as a body is not contained in any of these spheres (and thus not identified with the national churches), the Church is not part of any of these spheres (as one private part of a whole public order), but exists prior to, and independent of, any of these orders. It is a physical body (it has institutions, governing authorities, a visible structure), it is a moral body (a fellowship of persons ordered to a common good, bound by friendship, charity, solidarity, and fellowship), and it is a mystical body, bound invisibly by the charity of Christ in one bond with its Head and members, those living and the blessed.

For developing a sounds liturgical and social theology, Michel took as his starting point St. Thomas Aquinas’ doctrine of the mystical body, that the Church is the mystical body of Christ, one whole body made up parts, with Christ the Head of his members.[29] The mystical body is not made or created, but rather exists from the beginning of time as one body encompassing different members, who potentially or actually belong in different ways. Some belong actively in the state of glory, the blessed, and some belong in act by grace; others exist potentially in the body because they will at some point be reduced to act, and some belong potentially but will never be reduced to act.[30] The mystical body exists throughout time and history, and it is Christ the Head who by his passion makes an offering of the body in a supreme act of love and charity. In the sacrifice of the liturgy, it is Christ himself as Head of the body who is making the offering; he himself is the oblation, and the Church, “being the body of which He is the head, learns to offer itself through Him; this is the true sacrifice.”[31] This perfect sacrifice which the Church “continually celebrates in the sacrament of the altar” is the culmination and source of all of our sacrifices, and the true sacrifices are “acts of compassion, whether toward ourselves or our neighbors; these free us from misery and bring us to happiness.”[32]

Michel brought these reflections on the mystical body to bear on social reform. He took seriously Pius XI’s statement in Mit Brennender Sorge that “In the final analysis, all permanent Catholic social reform begins in the sanctuary.”[33] One would therefore have to pursue social reform by beginning with an account of the gathering of the mystical body in the sanctuary, “the worship rendered by the Mystical Body of Christ in the entirety of its Head and members.”[34]

The liturgy is not a private action in a private sphere performed by individual agents, either ordained ministers on behalf of laity or individual persons participating in their own way through personal prayer, but is rather already of its very essence a corporate act of worship in which the whole body worships God, in which the active participation of each person, according to his proper mode as lay or ordained, forms one part of the whole act of offering. Participation is active, and requires the efforts of body, mind, intellect, and will, in which bodily actions express and signify the union of minds, wills, and hearts of the persons involved. In the liturgy we see: The supernatural model of all human fellowship in full harmony with the complete responsibility of all individual members. Having learned again from the liturgy the harmonious relation of responsible personalities and their voluntary cooperation in the common life of fellowship, we must apply those concepts to all the forms of our social life, the family, the community, the state, and thus build up anew a Christian social order of life.[35]

Michel does not mince words in his essays directed towards both priests and bishops who refuse to preach and interrelate the corporate act of worship offered in the sanctuary to the social ills of his time:

And while so many Catholic Christians mind their own business, the injustices suffered by sharecroppers, the gross discrimination against negroes (even at times within the walls of Catholic churches), economic oppressions of all sorts, crying court injustices, violent vigilante antics based on the principle that might is right, etc. go on, with hardly a prominent Catholic voice raised in protest.[36]

If in the liturgy the mystical body is united in a corporate act of worship, a unity of heart and mind, and finds its supernatural form for action, then it is no surprise that “the early Christians had no difficulty transferring this intimate fellowship of love that was wrought among them in Holy Communion into every action of their daily lives.”[37] Insofar “as we participate in the liturgy after the mind of Christ, do we also live and breathe the supernatural social unity of the members of Christ. This is why the liturgy is so truly the primary and indispensable source of the true Christian spirit: it not only teaches us what this spirit is but also has us live this spirit in all its enactments.”[38]


The Christian, a “true liturgist of Jesus Christ,” cannot but be compelled to care for society, cannot but be compelled to work for justice, cannot but desire to instill in society the spirit of social justice and charity. The difficulty, of course, is that the term “social justice,” in today’s context, is a trite term that can mean just about anything from support of fair trade coffee to campaigning for so-called marriage equality. Michel also already in 1938 recognized the difficulty of identifying the meaning of the term:

Why another discussion of social justice? Is not the topic getting to be a quite hackneyed one by this time? Yes, as a topic of mere conversation that may be true enough. It is still more true that the use of the term as a sort of catchword has become even more hackneyed, that is, the gracious bandying about of the phrase in a most empty way, the mere lip-service that the fashionable thought of this world pays to what is quite proper or accepted for the moment. But social justice as a thing put into actual practice in everyday life is anything but hackneyed . . . social justice, though much talked about, cannot be said to have failed since it has never been tried in our modern practical life.[39]

How did Michel envision the spirit of Christian justice and charity, sustained in the mystical body’s corporate act of worship, to be applied in “modern practical life”? Rather than taking an institutional or structural approach, as did other Catholic social ethicists of the twentieth century, such as Msgr. John Ryan (1869-1945) and Fr. Charles Coughlin (1891-1879), Michel begins with the liturgically-formed person, who while a member of civil society, is also first a member of the Church, and exists subject to the different orders (ecclesial, political, social, domestic) in the one providential ordering of God. Indeed, given his influence on Dorothy Day (1897-1980) and the Catholic Worker movement, which certainly espoused a vision of social renewal based on the personalist philosophy of Peter Maurin (1877-1949), and Michel’s influence on other social reformers and friends such as Baroness Catherine de Hueck Doherty (1896-1985), one might argue that Michel’s approach is anti-institutional. If he was amenable to institutional reform, it would be a form of solidarism or corporatism, perhaps such as that articulated by Heinrich Pesch, SJ (1854-1926) and the German school of Catholic social thought, or the vision of the Central Catholic Verein in Saint Louis, which drew upon the German school.

In a sense, it appears that Michel wanted his social ethics to be a social (but not secular) analogue to the liturgical ethics. Namely, rather than seeing an order of nature distinct from an order of grace, with two different ends, a vision which would lend itself to articulating social ethics on a basis separate from the life of the church, and rather than seeing only one supernatural end which would radically put into question the possibility of any economic or social order operating apart from the direct involvement of the Church, Michel appears to hold to an intermediate position. For him, all the spheres exist in the one providential order of God, in which there is a two-fold end, a natural perfection and a supernatural perfection. In this scheme, the real and existing solidarity, fraternity, charity, equality, justice to the poor, and advocacy for the marginalized that exists in the church, would be the model and fulfillment of what ought to exist in the social order. It would be the task of Christians, on one hand, to work for this order within the institutions of society, since they exist in a given contingent time and location, and on the other hand, it would be the task of non-Christians to remain open to seeing the positive contribution of the mystical body to the social and economic realm. Presumably, this might allow for the possibility of some forms of practical cooperation between the visible, institutional Church in its assistance to the institutions of the state, without allowing the state to violate the proper internal authority of the Church, and it would also allow for the Church to be open to the assistance of the state in carrying out its proper tasks, without violating the proper sphere of the state.[40] In Michel’s thought, we see underdeveloped yet open possibilities for further articulating the relationship between the liturgy and social justice.


We will now turn to three practical spheres, the family and parish, the academy, and politics and culture, in which we see Michel’s proposal for liturgy as the basis of social regeneration uniting liturgical formation and Christian missionary action, as called for by the Second Vatican Council, the recent Roman pontiffs, and certainly by the liturgy itself.

Perhaps anticipating the Second Vatican Council’s return to the patristic sources which identifies the family as the “domestic church,” Michel identifies the home as “the extension of the house of God” and the family as the “Mystical Body’s spiritual miniature.”[41] It is in the home that the unity of the sons and daughters of God in charity is first of all experienced and expressed, and the bonds of fellowship are solidified between husband and wife, and then instilled by them in their children. In a culture which measures social status by accumulated wealth, “glorifies impulse, passion, and sex, while laughing reason, permanent truths and eternal principles out of court,” (this is the 1930’s!) Michel saw the family as a place in which the “sacrifice learned from Christ and renewed often at Mass” is handed on to children, who would be able to then enter society with a deep conception of the importance and beauty of sacrificial self-giving love.[42]

In a particular way, and perhaps in keeping with Pope John Paul’s articulation in our own time of the “feminine genius” in Mulieris Dignitatem,[43] Michel saw the particular importance of the place of women, both in the home, and in the wider society. He insisted on the equality of men and women before God, their mutual obligation to obey the commandments of God, and pointed to the irreplaceable role of women in the Church, drawing upon the history of deaconesses, women-martyrs, double-monasteries with women-abbesses, the role of women in medieval guilds, and as advisers to bishops, kings, and popes, to whom they spoke “with a frankness that astounds us today.”[44] In the family, the wife is a “gardener of God doing a veritably priestly work,” in which Christian virtues are formed through the celebration of Christian feasts, and by the active practice of a common religious life.[45]

Now lest we post-moderns accuse Michel of reducing women to a domestic role, rather, he saw the sacrificial self-giving of mothers as a model and source of inspiration for those women whose vocation was to work “in the world,” mentioning the important roles of women in social work, nursing, religious life, education, law, and medicine. Indeed, Michel argued that, in addition to their indispensible roles in the home, women needed to “step out more actively into the affairs of the world” because the “world needed them more than ever,” perhaps foreshadowing Pius XII’s words, “Your day is here, Catholic women and girls. Public life needs you. To each of you might be said: your destiny is at stake.”[46] In the mystical body, formed liturgically, each Christian man and woman recognizes his and her role as a specific vocation, and men and women, whether living in the sacramental bond of communion in marriage, or related to one another by the bond of communion in the mystical body, each build one another up in bearing witness to society of the requirements of charity.

Turning to the parish, Michel argues this “family of families” is a living and real expression of the corporate and spiritual life of the entire mystical body, which unites around the altar. The “parochial liturgical life” allows Christians to “find all the spiritual means to relate the whole context of life to God.”[47] In my own parish, we are blessed to unite around the Eucharistic altar as one community consisting of diverse families and individuals: university professors, blue-collar workers, students, African Americans, Hispanics, the intellectually and developmentally disabled, members of the Catholic Worker, Opus Dei, Sant’Egidio, and other communities whose common membership in the “Body of Christ must be the basis of an active love and cooperation between them in all activities that make up parish life.”[48] Michel argues that such families and parishes can be citadels of Christian culture radiating into their neighborhoods, ones in which the liturgical life extended into daily life forms the center of social, cultural, spiritual, educational, and recreational life.[49] Practically, Michel argues that these roles find concrete expression in the “works of mercy administered to the needy and the poor,” since we have “at times been guilty, all of us, of an . . . alienation of the toiling masses.”[50]

A second area to be regenerated by the liturgical vision proposed by Michel is the academy. Towards the end of his (short) life, Michel began to carry on a serious philosophical engagement with the leading philosophical lights of his day. He believed that the encounter with Christ in the liturgy in the corporate fellowship of the mystical body provided a confidence in living in the truth. He criticized some Catholic thinkers as having “lived entirely in the past,” and who easily dismissed non-Catholic thought and labeled it as “pantheistic, idealistic, hedonist, materialist, etc.” How were non-believers supposed to see any truth in the Catholic intellectual tradition if “we are actually building a wall around ourselves and closing to them all avenues of approach”?[51] The liturgically formed Christian, we might say, sees all people as potential members of the body of Christ, as those for whom Christ has also died, and seeks to encounter them in the truth by engaging them on an equal level. He proposed as a model for dialogue the kind of charitable engagement with a tradition that was adopted by Thomas Aquinas as here explicated by Robert Brennan:

If we are to be true Thomists, we must think and speak and write in terms of the problems of our age. We must consider seriously the intellectual needs of our times, the confusion and chaos with which our generation has been afflicted . . . The discussion of contemporary problems must be . . . accomplished by men [sic] who, on the one hand, are thoroughly sympathetic with the Zeitgeist and its particularities, and who, on the other, are keen enough in philosophical insight to discern its fundamental errors, and strong enough in philosophical virtue to apply the remedial measures. Only those thinkers who, like Aquinas, are vibrating with the life-pulse of their age, can lead profitable discussion at the roundtable, from the lecture platform, in the literary circle . . . With a wisdom such as this, we shall be protected against our own selfish inversions which would shut us off from communication with our own fellow men.[52]

Michel believed that the Catholic intellectual apostolate suffered from bad philosophical thought, and argued that, if even philosophy or the social sciences, as pursued by liturgically formed Catholics are to be effective, or even “missionary,” then there must be a robust engagement with the “temper” and “thought climate” of the age.[53] In other words, for success on the supernatural level of forming academic discourse that can be marked by the charity and fellowship that characterizes the mystical body, there must be a solid foundation of natural virtue, of a rigorous professionalism that is open to the truth, wherever it can be found. The academic life is thus an apostolate, but one in which the liturgically formed Christian, who sees God at work in the world, approaches the world confident, open, engaging, hospitable, sincere, honest, and with a desire to imbue all discourse with a true Christian spirit of justice and charity.

Finally, this Christian spirit of justice and charity was something that Michel believed ought to characterize Christian social and political engagements. He was often frustrated by the “definite flop” of Catholic preaching against communism, since it often took on “the semblance of preaching hatred—which is anti-Christian,” and because it remained negative in its approach, being “merely anti-something or other,” rather than “pro” something. It is much easier to denounce something, although at times it is necessary, but the more difficult task lies in an active effort to pursue social and political reconstruction. However, for the Christian to be an effective actor in the social and political realm, Michel argues, he must remember that Christian “warfare” begins at home through personal sanctification in prayer, mortification, and self-denial.[54] However, in contrast to the “antipolitical” politics (as proposed by Dreher),[55] Michel saw the need for active political and social engagement. Like a true Thomist, Michel recognizes the importance of making important distinctions between the eternal and timeless principles, safeguarded by the Church, and contingent, context-dependent realities. Although the natural and the supernatural orders could not be identified, they remained interrelated, and Michel saw clearly how the natural political, social, and economic order affected the supernatural, and believed, following Pius XI, that what was needed was not only a change of spirit among Christians, but also of institutions.

In his own life, Virgil Michel engaged with many Catholics working for social change. He corresponded regularly with Dorothy Day and published for the Central Catholic Verein; although a great friend and influence, he would at times become frustrated with Day’s seeming political apathy and agnosticism with regard to working for institutional change. Sharing her personalist philosophy and liturgical commitments, he agreed that no change would come about without the practice of the works of mercy by liturgically formed Christians, but also called for involvement in institutional change. Sharing Archbishop Fulton Sheen’s commitment to the Mystical Body of Christ, he did not usually speak, however, of a struggle between the Mystical Body and the anti-Christ.[56] He preferred to begin (as Pope Francis might), by denouncing the permeation of the members of the Church with a spirit of materialism, consumerism, and individualism.[57] To be truly effective in the political realm, at least in the time of Michel, he argued that the Catholic, formed by the liturgy into the image of the self-giving love of Christ in the mystical body, one must commit to a heroic spirit of sacrifice, simplicity, and poverty.[58]


What can we conclude from these reflections on the role of the liturgically-formed Christian in the family and parish, the academy, and society and politics? First, Michel does not provide for us a ready-made recipe for what the 21st century Christian is to do. His is a vision rooted in moral realism, not an idealism, which takes into account the diversity of contingent realities in which one finds oneself. He is committed, however, to the reality that, by its nature, the liturgy sends forth the Christian into the world, for the life of the world, “One of the greatest needs of our day is whole-hearted Christians who remain in the world, but not of the world, doing good for Christ wherever possible.”[59] How to live as liturgical Christians will look different for a family in Indiana, or Utah, or New York City. Yet, all of these places allow one to enter into the mystery of God’s saving action in Jesus Christ extended over time and space through the Church’s corporate worship; Michel’s vision is both broad enough to allow for a plurality of forms to co-exist, and yet specific enough to re-direct all of us to some of those “practices” that Dreher recommends.

If the liturgy cannot lead us to a transformed vision of action, then we are not living liturgical lives; if we are living liturgical lives, but not being challenged to change our ways, then they are only pietistic attempts to “pursue holiness.” Our concern should be to encounter first the love of God, in which we see all of creation, all of our brothers and sisters, and those who do not yet belong to the Body of Christ, as invitations to share God’s presence in fidelity to the call to be “missionary disciples.” What is needed today is the living of a saintly life that shows the “world how the daily routine and concerns of life can be raised to the supernatural and so sanctified,” and this is the “type of sanctity . . . needed in our day. It can very properly be called the liturgical type, since the liturgy is the indispensable source of the Christian spirit for all men, and since its inspiration reaches so completely into all the angles and aspects of daily life in the world.”[60]

[1] Bishop James Conley, “Freedom, Fasting, and the Courage to be ‘Set Apart,’” Southern Nebraska Register, 23 June 2013.

[2] David Brooks, “The Benedict Option,” New York Times, 17 March 2017.

[3] Rod Dreher, “David Brooks on the Benedict Option,” accessed at, accessed March 24th, 2017.

[4] Nathaniel Peters, “Not Benedictine Enough: Rod Dreher’s Diagnosis and Prescription for American Christianity.” The Public Discourse, 21 March 2017, accessed at

[5] See Rod Dreher, Benedict Option (New York: Sentinel, 2017), 108, 109, 111.

[6] Second Vatican Council, Sacrosanctum Concilium, §14

[7] Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World (New York: National Christian Student Federation, 1963), 85.

[8] See the hymn attributed to Saint Thomas Aquinas, Sacrum Convivium, “O sacrum convivium! in quo Christus sumitur: recolitur memoria passionis eius: mens impletur gratia: et futurae gloriae nobis pignus datur.”

[9] See: Schmemann, op. cit., 86.

[10] St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae,

[11] Schmemann, op. cit., 86.

[12] Benedict XVI, Spe Salvi, §2.

[13] Ibid., §2, 4, 10.

[14] Paul VI, Evangelii Nuntiandi, §15.

[15] Benedict XVI, Homily for the First Vespers for the Opening of the Year of St. Paul, June 29th, 2008.

[16] John Paul II, Spiritus et sponsa, §16.

[17] Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, §24.

[18] Aquinas, Summa theologiae,

[19] Pius XII, Haurietis Aquas, §100.

[20] In what follows, I am drawing from the (currently) most comprehensive biography of Michel: Paul Marx, OSB, The Life and Work of Virgil Michel (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1957).

[21] Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange was also the dissertation director of another famous 20th-century figure, a young priest named Karol Wojtyła, who became Pope John Paul II.

[22] Pius X, Tra Le Solletudini; Pius XI, Quadragesimo Anno.

[23] Virgil Michel, OSB, “The Unchristian Character of Modern Life,” (unpublished manuscript), 3. See, Marx, op. cit., 199.

[24] Marx, op. cit., 199.

[25] Michel, “The Unchristian Character of Modern Life,” op. cit., 6.

[26] Michel, “If I Were Satan,” Orate Fratres, XII (1937): 77-78.

[27] See Kathleen Cahalan, Formed in the Image of Christ: The Sacramental-Moral Theology of Bernard Häring, C.Ss.R (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2004), 49-59.

[28] I am aware that this encyclical was published after Michel’s death, but insofar, as it works within the same tradition as Michel, I will include it here, as the commonalities between Michel’s work and the encyclical’s will be evident.

[29] See St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae, III.8, III.49, III.73, III.79.

[30] St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae,

[31] See: St. Augustine, City of God, X.19.

[32] Ibid., X.6.

[33] This is the translation which Michel used. The English translation on the Vatican’s website is certainly inaccurate, when it renders the text as “Every true and lasting reform has ultimately sprung from the sanctity of men who were driven by the love of God and of men” (§20). This is an incorrect translation of the original German (in which Pius XI wrote the encyclical, which states, “Jede wahre und dauernde Reform ging letzten Endes vom Heiligtum aus; von Menschen, die von der Liebe zu Gott und dem Nächsten entflammt und getrieben waren” (§23).

[34] Pius XII, Mediator Dei, §20.

[35] Virgil Michel, OSB, ”The Scope of the Liturgical Movement,” Orate Fratres, 10 (1935): 485.

[36] Virgil Michel, OSB, “Timely Tracts: Social Injustices,” Orate Fratres, Vol. 11 No. 2 (1936): 79.

[37] Virgil Michel, OSB, “The Liturgy: The Basis of Social Regeneration,” Orate Fratres, Vol. 9 No. 12 (1935): 542.

[38] Ibid.

[39] Virgil Michel, OSB, “Timely Tracts: Social Justice,” Orate Fratres, Vol. 12 No. 3 (1938): 129.

[40] One might think of an organization such as Catholic Charities which supports the common good of civil society by caring for the poor, and one might think of some systems such as the one in Germany, where tax revenues directly support the works of the Church. Both these schemes, of course, lend themselves to conflict and abuse if the proper realms of jurisdiction and authority are not respected. Thus, Catholic Charities is forced to shut down since it will not follow dictates of the state, and Catholic churches will not offer sacraments such as matrimony to those who do not pay their church taxes to the state.

[41] See: Second Vatican Council, Lumen Gentium, §11; Familiaris Consortio, § 21; Catechism of the Catholic Church, §1655ff. See: Marx, op. cit., 270. See also: Virgil Michel, OSB, Liturgy and Catholic Life, 97 (unpublished manuscript).

[42] See: Marx, op. cit., 270.

[43] See John Paul II, Mulieris Dignitatem, §30-31.

[44] Michel, Liturgy and Life, op. cit., 85. See: Marx, op. cit., 267.

[45] Ibid., 92, 96.

[46] See: Marx, op. cit., 269. Michel, “The Liturgical Movement and the Catholic Woman,” Central Verein of America: Annual Report, (1929): 57-62. Pius XII, “Women’s Duties in Social and Political Life,” Catholic Truth Society (1955).

[47] Marx, op. cit., 273.

[48] Michel, The Christian in the World (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1939), 133.

[49] Marx, op. cit., 270.

[50] Michel, OSB, “Timely Tracts: Social Injustices,” op. cit., 80.

[51] See: Marx, op. cit., 324. Michel, “Intellectual Confusion and Today and Philosophia Perennis,” Fortnightly Review, XXXIV (1926): 211.

[52] Robert Brennan, Essays in Thomism (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2014), 20.

[53] See: Marx, op. cit., 337.

[54] See: Marx, op. cit., 318.

[55] Rod Dreher, “The Benedict Option and Antipolitical Politics,” The American Conservative (Online Edition), 19 May 19t 2015; also “The Benedict Option: Reactionary?” 26 April 2016.

[56] See David O’Brien, American Catholics and Social Reform: The New Deal Years (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1968), 91.

[57] See Fr. Virgil Michel, OSB, “Timely Tracts: Social Injustices,” op. cit., 78-80.

[58] See: O’Brien, 191.

[59] Virgil Michel, op. cit., 29.

[60] Virgil Michel, Liturgy and Catholic Life (unpublished manuscript), 136. See: Marx, 262.

Featured Image: Les Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry, Folio 90v - The Horseman of Death [detail], c. 15th century; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100. 


John Sikorski

John Sikorski is a PhD candidate in moral theology at the University of Notre Dame, where his research focuses on bioethics, marriage and family life studies, liturgical theology, and Catholic Social Teaching.  He also serves as the Director for Adult Faith Formation & Catechesis, and the Associate Director for Marriage, Family & Pro-Life Ministry in the Secretariat for Evangelization and Discipleship of the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend.

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