“Liturgizing is a work of Christ in man”: An interview with David Fagerberg

“The truths about which dogmas talk are celebrated in liturgy. In liturgy, one can experience the dogma,” says the author of Liturgical Dogmatics. “Academic theologians think about dogmas, reason about dogmas, discuss and organize dogmas – but the ordinary believer can experience a dogma.”

(Image: Fr. Lawrence Lew, OP)

David Fagerberg is Professor in the Department of Theology at the University of Notre Dame, where he has been since 2003. After earning an M.A., M.Phil., and PhD. from Yale University, he taught in the Religion Department of Concordia College, Moorhead, MN, from 1988-2001 and then at the Liturgical Institute at Mundelein Seminary in 2002-03.

His area of expertise is liturgical theology, and he has published several books in that field, including Theologia Prima (2003), On Liturgical Asceticism (2013), Consecrating the World (2016), and Liturgical Mysticism (Emmaus Road Publishing, 2019).

His most recent book is Liturgical Dogmatics: How Catholic Beliefs Flow from Liturgical Prayer, published by Ignatius Press. “Anyone interested in the Christian life,” says Bishop Robert Barron, “will benefit from this tour de force of a book.” Christopher Carstens, Editor of  Adoremus Bulletin, states, “Liturgical Dogmatics portrays the liturgy’s universal truths and will expand one’s liturgical vision in ways scarcely imaginable.” And Dom Alcuin Reid, Prior, Monastère Saint-Benoît, Brignoles, France, says, “Fagerberg’s refreshing approach moves the study of liturgy beyond historical, ceremonial, and spiritual questions and gives it its rightful place as the literally fundamental locus of the Church’s experience of God’s redemptive revelation in Christ.”

Dr. Fagerberg recently corresponded with Carl E. Olson, Editor of CWR, about his new book.

CWR: You’ve written several books on liturgy and liturgical theology, but this book is rather unique. First, let’s start with the title: What is “liturgical dogmatics”? What do liturgy and dogmatics have to do with one another?

David Fagerberg: You are correct that I began by writing about liturgical theology. That was the title of my dissertation 30 years ago: “What Is Liturgical Theology?” I came to agree with Aidan Kavanagh when he said liturgy is primary theology, and Alexander Schmemann when he said liturgy is the ontological condition for theology. So I have always looked for a theological content in liturgy. I remember a colleague saying to me, when he learned I was coming to Notre Dame, “And you like liturgy. Wait until you see a football game there!” Apparently he believed that liturgical scholars get turned on by excessive pomp, useless formality, and extravagant ceremony. I, on the other hand, believe that ritual without theological content does not a liturgy make.

So I came up with the thickest definition of liturgy I could. “Liturgy is the perichoresis of the holy Trinity kenotically extended to invite our synergistic ascent into deification.” This makes liturgy cosmological in circumference and eschatological in scope. Could liturgy, therefore, apply to all the classic categories in dogmatics? That was the challenge I posed for myself in Liturgical Dogmatics.

CWR: Secondly, you note in the Introduction, “An academic rarely writes without footnotes”—and yet this book has almost no footnotes. How is this unusual and why did you decide on such an approach?

David Fagerberg: Yes, it is intentionally ironic that the only footnotes are in the introduction where I say I’m not going to use footnotes.

Almost immediately it struck me that every one of the books on the shelves surrounding me could have raised their hand to volunteer to help me. I could not fit them all in. Also, it would waste time to lie down on a theological psychoanalyst’s couch in order to trace the adult thought back to its childhood. I think that feelings precede a thought. It’s true that I could have searched for the quotation that produced that feeling in me, but there is no guarantee it would produce the same feeling in the reader. So instead of bothering with sharing isolated quotes, I tried to recover the feeling again for myself, and produce a thought in my own words.

CWR: Speaking of approach, you write that you were inspired by the format of Francis de Sales’ classic book, Treatise on the Love of God. Can you discuss that influence and connection? How does it inform the structure of your book?

David Fagerberg: I wanted to speak in a certain style, a style that would have been negated by 40 page chapters. The very length would create an academic atmosphere where the air would become thin. I want an element of spirituality to be included. (Imagine! dogmatics and spirituality …) This is probably what brought Francis de Sales to mind. He gathers together short chapters on the same subject. I have eight big subjects, and walk around each of them in short chapters. The chapters are connected, but in ways that I may not fully realize myself, so the unspoken conjunctions leave work for the reader to do.

CWR: The book begins with the statement: “By an astounding gesture of grace, human beings are invited to liturgize God.” I can imagine that some readers will be confused or startled by that remark. Whatever does it mean to say that we “liturgize” God? Why is this so vital to more deeply contemplating and understanding the nature and purpose of liturgy?

David Fagerberg: We say “theologize,” “dogmatize,” why not liturgize? What happens when you add the suffix -ize to a word? The dictionary says it forms a transitive verb, but I usually make my point in class with a demonstration. I ask students to give me some words that end in “ize” (but warn them not to repeat the stunt by a pesky freshman who gave me the word “size”). “Fossil-ize, drama-tize, motor-ize, terror-ize.” The -ize brings something about; renders; makes something happen.

I could have talked about praising God, or glorifying God, but I want to include everything that goes on in liturgy, not just a few parts of it. To liturgize means to commit liturgy. To liturgize is to praise God, bless God, adore God, glorify God, give God thanks for his great glory. It is an act of devotion, worship, delight, enjoyment, sacrifice, and a foretaste of heaven. Most importantly, I use it to indicate the activity of the mystical body of Christ. Glorifying and worshiping are actions of which man is capable, but liturgizing is a work of Christ in man. Human beings can offer God praise or glory but our mystical union with Christ means that liturgizing is done through him, with him, in him, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. (I should note, therefore, the -ize in divinize).

CWR: You write, “A variety of human sciences can approach the human activity, but dogma is required to approach the character and work of God.” It goes without saying that the word “dogma” is viewed negatively by many (or most!) people today—including more than a few Catholics. How and why is dogma required? What can be done to help people recognize the necessity and goodness of dogma?

David Fagerberg: Dogma means a settled opinion, what is accepted and authoritative. We reason theologically and teach doctrinally from the roots of dogma.

The book was written in about a second and a half in my mind; putting it on paper naturally took a little longer. It happened in a hallway conversation where I was asked if I would teach the summer course in liturgical history. I thought to myself: “Yes, I’d be glad to. Liturgical history is an important topic. Where shall I begin? I suppose with Abraham, leading to Moses’ encounter at the burning bush, and then to Israel’s kings and prophets preparing for the Jesus, the great high liturgist. No, wait. Liturgical history actually began with Adam and Eve, and their fall was the loss of cosmic priesthood, and the long story of salvation history was designed to restore man and woman to their liturgical state by becoming apprentices to Christ. That would be a liturgical history.”

Then I realized the person who asked the question only wanted to know if I could teach a course on the history of the liturgy.

Liturgical history is more than a history of the liturgy, as Church is more than the Jesus club, as icon is more than picture, as symbol is more than sign, and sacrament is more than souvenir. The truths about which dogmas talk are celebrated in liturgy. In liturgy, one can experience the dogma. Academic theologians think about dogmas, reason about dogmas, discuss and organize dogmas – but the ordinary believer can experience a dogma.

So I thought there must be more: liturgical cosmology (why creation?), liturgical anthropology (man and woman as cosmic priests), liturgical ecclesiology, liturgical soteriology (how and for what are we saved?) etc.

CWR: There are some striking and challenging observations about idolatry throughout the book. For example, you state: “If we lack fear of God, it is a sure sign of idolatry. But it is an equally sure sign of idolatry if we are not enraptured by God.” What is idolatry? Why is it such a major theme in Scripture? And how should that inform our understanding of liturgy?

David Fagerberg: You are correct in noticing that I’m taking idolatry as the opposite of liturgy. Down or up, inward or outward, taking or giving, self or God – the choice must be made. Liturgizing is ecstatic: it makes us stand outside ourselves. This was a natural movement in our state of original justice, but we chafe under it, and resist it, in our current state of original sin because we do not want to give up self-love. I do not think I could have written Liturgical Dogmatics until after Liturgical Asceticism.

It might help to notice the difference between two words. The Greeks used dulia to refer to homage paid to distinguished personages, or even places (the Archangel Gabriel gets dulia, Augustine gets dulia, maybe the grotto at Notre Dame gets dulia). But latria is what we give God, and only God, because he is God. The Christian in the early Church – or now, for that matter – can give dulia to the emperor, but he must give latria to God. And it would be an act of ido-latry if he confused categories and gave latria to the emperor: it would be giving latria to an eidolon (image). It would confuse creature with Creator.

I suppose we could say that whatever receives our latria is our god. But there is only one God, one true God, and Scripture tells us that he, and only he, receives our liturgy.

CWR: “Satan,” you write, “hates liturgists.” By “liturgists” do you mean professional liturgists? Or something/someone else? You then state that Satan “broke hierarchy in favor of anarchy.” Can you unpack that a bit? And how does it relate to situations where the hierarchical nature of liturgy and the Church herself is dismissed or rejected by Catholics?

David Fagerberg: You are correct that by “liturgist” I do not mean the person who studies it in his office or the person who leads it in the choir. Man and woman were created as cosmic priests, to be the tongue of mute creation. Schmemann says the reason for the rational and spiritual qualities, that distinguish us from other creatures, is so that we can bless God. Yes, homo sapiens (one who knows); yes, homo faber (one who makes); but first of all homo adorans (one who worships).

Satan’s fall can be described as an idolatrous act: he wanted to assume the glory of creation to himself, rather than render it to God, which was his appointment task in the hierarchy. He seduced Adam and Eve into his rebellion, and the fall was the forfeiture of their liturgical career, and the shattering of the liturgical hierarchy. The cosmos was made so that Agape could flow down this ladder, and eucharistia could flow back up it. That is the circulation that Satan broke. Sin is the absence of hierarchy; it is anarchy.

The word is thought to be a neologism, created by Dionysius the Areopagite. It put together iereus (sacred, holy, priest) and arche (power, first cause, elementary principle). Yves Congar says arche is used nine times in the New Testament about diabolical powers of captivity (see Ephesians 6:12). Well, into this set of powers, a new power has entered – a hierus-arche, a priestly power. It is Christ. And he shares this priestly power with his mystical body.

Regrettably, we misunderstand this as if the word was spelled “higherarchy.” We think it distances, when it actually unites. I’ve always figured the guy who invents a word should get first crack at defining it, and Dionysius says, “The goal of a hierarchy is to enable beings to be as like as possible to God and to be at one with him.” If that is the case, then when people ask me if the Church is hierarchical I always reply, “I hope so! I hope we are not here just to kill a Sunday morning. I hope the Church has been given her three offices (sanctifying, teaching, governing) as powers to exercise on my behalf that I may be reconciled with God.”

CWR: There has been a great deal of talk lately about “Eucharistic coherence” and “Communion wars”. Do you think your book might help people view or understand these issues in a different or better light?

David Fagerberg: I don’t know. Maybe better to ask the readers one by one, than the author! I am struck by the fact that “coherence” comes from com (together) and haerere (to adhere, stick). What sticks to what? One dogma sticks to another? That will be nice. The Eucharist remains attached to how we live in the world? That is certainly necessary.

I detect a series of cohesions as I expanded my understanding of liturgy. First was the coherence of liturgy with theology, so that it was more than ritual behavior. Second was a coherence of liturgical theology with asceticism, because therein is described the cost of being capacitated to liturgize. Third was a coherence of the sacred with the profane, because liturgy is designed to consecrate the world. Fourth was a coherence of liturgy and mysticism.

CWR: Any further, final thoughts?

David Fagerberg: Kavanagh introduced me to his fictitious Mrs. Murphy. Looking back over my career, I see that Mrs. Murphy is a liturgical theologian, though not of the academic kind; she is a liturgical ascetic, though not of the monastic kind; she is a liturgical mystic, though not of the exceptional kind. Turns out, she is a liturgical dogmatician, as well. If that’s the case, there should be a coherence that runs throughout her life. Dogmas are not only to be believed, they are to obeyed, tasted, experienced.

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About Carl E. Olson 1191 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.


  1. Olson asks Fagerberg: “Do you think your book might help people view or understand these issues [Eucharistic coherence]…?” To which, Fagerberg responds: “I don’t know. Maybe better to ask the readers one by one, than the author!”

    In his interview, Fagerberg’s excursion into “cohesions” seems to not quite grasp the question, and for this reader is like trying to read Braille through a liturgist’s mattress….Eucharistic coherence is NOT simply about “how one dogma sticks to another,” and not about the blanketing talking points of “theology,” “asceticism,” the “sacred versus the profane,” or “mysticism.”
    Eucharistic coherence has to do with whether the very public recipient himself is living (for others) a very fatally contradictory—incoherent—double-life, or not….Whether he is simply misinformed, or living in a fictive bubble, privately rationalizing his bipolar “spirituality?” Whether he is so privately willful in possible self-deceit that his invincible ignorance has become impervious to educational “dialogue,” or not? Whether he is so flooded with groundless mental graffiti and euphemisms that his incoherent CONTRADICTION WITH THE REAL is simply beyond his grasp—like receiving the consecrated host (the Real Presence!) in one hand while also mandating, with a pen in the other, coercive citizen complicity with the Aztec-like abortion industry, under the thumb of the all-powerful State? (And, to ensure that there is no turning on the lights, also mandating the ever wider fictive universe of marriage and family destruction and gender theory, in all corners of Socialist society and for all age groups.)

    Yes, Eucharistic coherence is indirectly about “how we live in the world,” but very DIRECTLY about somnambulism and sacrilege in the Mass, including abuse (non-consensual!) of the entire captive-audience Mystical Body of Christ, extending forward through history from Christ’s open hands at the Last Supper and at Golgotha.

    Eucharistic coherence is about the Church’s right to be what it is.

  2. Fagerberg explores liturgical depths beyond most. Suffice it to say “the ordinary believer can experience a dogma” says it all for this writer. Word, music, presentation bind the community in one faith, adoration. Alone now, Mass is Word and presentation, the latter reflecting Fagerberg, living dogma in tonality, bearing. Expressed in silent closeness, alone with God alone the written Word voiced ardently.

  3. “Liturgy is the perichoresis of the holy Trinity kenotically extended to invite our synergistic ascent into deification.” A definition ought to define a lesser-known word in terms of better-known ones. Perhaps all this will become clear in the text.

  4. Beautiful. Bravo. I look forward to seeing what has been described to be a gem.

    Thank you, Editor and Professor, for this interview.

  5. Not knowing a thing about Kavanagh and less about Mrs. Murphy (I wondered vaguely whether she could be Chesterton’s Fr. Brown’s housekeeper…), I found Google’s reference to a ND magazine. The story was a tribute to Kavanagh at his passing, and the writer recalled the words Kavanagh had once said to her:

    “Young lady,” he said coldly, “the world was not saved by being nice. The world was saved by someone dying on a cross.”

    I filed that as a footnote for future use.

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