AN ENCOMIUM FOR FATHER ROBERT F. TAFT, SJ by A.A.J. DeVille

robtaftThe Orthodox priest-scholar and my friend Father William Mills passed on to me an e-mail from the Jesuit, Father John Baldovin, who was in to see Father Robert Taft last weekend and reported that he is no longer eating and is very weak and frail. Taft, now in his 86th year, will soon appear, it seems, before the “awesome tribunal of Christ,” as the Byzantine liturgy, which Taft has done so much to help us understand, plaintively puts it.

For those who do not know him, Taft has, more than any scholar of our time, helped Eastern Christians and others understand the Byzantine tradition, tracing out its liturgical history in all its fascinating and often messy details through hundreds of articles and books stretching back more than fifty years.

Though a Catholic, and a Jesuit whose whole life has been lived in the Russian recension of the Byzantine tradition, Taft has shaped many minds in the Orthodox world. Scholars such as Father Alexander Rentel at St. Vladimir’s Seminary in New York studied under him; Sister Vassa Larin was one of his last graduate students; and many other Orthodox and Catholic scholars today have been influenced by his myriad works. It is, in fact, impossible to study liturgy or Eastern Christian history seriously without coming across Taft’s works.

His formidable reputation precedes him, and so, when I was scheduled to be on a panel with him at the Orientale Lumen conference in Washington, DC in June 2011, I was a little nervous, for Taft is a gruff, no-nonsense kind of guy infamous for his take-no-prisoners style. He was still quite vigorous then, but clearly slowing down. We had, I was relieved to discover, a very amicable time together, in part because I had done my homework and was not indulging in some of the things Taft has long denounced, not least “confessional propaganda” masquerading, he says, as church history.

It is, I think, from Taft that I was first awakened to the uses and abuses of Christian history, especially when it comes to the dolorous divisions between East and West. Several of his works treat serious historiographical questions, and I have often returned to them, referred others to them, or used them to develop some of my own work. I would note three in particular: “The Problem of ‘Uniatism’ and the ‘Healing of Memories’: Anamnesis, not Amnesia” was published in Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies in volume 41-42 (2000-2001), the first issue in which I was involved as one of the editors, and an issue dedicated to Taft by Father Peter Galadza on what was the former’s 70th birthday.  

More recently, in working on Islamic distortions of Crusades history (especially in ISIS propaganda, on which I have written elsewhere), I have found myself returning to Taft’s  “Ecumenical Scholarship and the Catholic-Orthodox Epiclesis Dispute,” Ostkirchlische Studien 45 (1996): 204-26. It admits of wider application than to the epiclesis debates.

The third work is one of his late works, his short 2006 book Through Their Own Eyes: Liturgy as the Byzantines Saw It. There he recognized how much history, including that which he had done, was largely textual and documentary history, which is understandable and useful, but also limited. What he said we needed more of was history through the eyes not of the scholars or clerics writing the books, but of those in the churches—more a social history of ritual enactment and engagement by the people. Such history would require different methods not apart from textual and documentary methods, but in addition to them, bearing in mind that the people celebrating the liturgy were not always doing what the rubrics told them to do! Sometimes, in fact, the people in church were—as Taft memorably showed elsewhere, quoting from patristic sources—engaged in rather unsavory behavior, showing up drunk on Pascha or getting into brawls in the communion line! In these and many other examples Taft was and remains enormously useful in demolishing the tendency, much in evidence on the part of some Eastern Christians, to romanticize the past, nostalgically pining for some pristine patristic era that never was.

Taft wrote many other books besides this one, and I freely admit I have not read all of them. I think the first book I read was the collection of articles, Beyond East and West: Problems in Liturgical Understanding, published in an updated edition in 2001 by the Pontifical Oriental Institute, where Taft was a professor for nearly half a century, and where even the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew himself once studied. There are many gems in that book, including an autobiographical chapter in which Taft recounts some of his early formation.

With my students over the years, I have often assigned Taft’s The Liturgy of the Hours in East and West (Liturgical Press, 1986). It’s a dense book, and by Taft’s own admission focused much more on the East than the West, but that detracts nothing from its value. For those coming to the Byzantine tradition with no background whatsoever, Taft’s  1992 book, The Byzantine Rite: A Short History, is a good place to start.

For those, by contrast, ready for an in-depth history, then there is of course Taft’s magnum opus, the multi-volume history of the liturgy of St. John Chrysostom. I have not read all volumes, but those that I have are vintage Taft: an amassing of sources in a variety of languages, judiciously sifted to tell a history with all the best virtues of the academy—objectivity, fairness, discernment, and comprehensiveness. These are the virtues which seem to me to be depressingly in decline across too much of our world today—the academy included—as we demand either instant answers to complex questions, or we substitute ideological programs for the long, hard askesis of scholarship, which asks of us much patience and self-denial in service to the truth.

Taft possesses these virtues in abundance, marking him out as a scholar’s scholar whose works have been recognized and rewarded by the Ecumenical Patriarch, the Catholicos of the Armenian Church, Harvard University’s Dumbarton Oaks Centre, and the British Academy, inter alia.

All great men have blind spots, and with a little trembling I suggest that Taft’s was around the Latin liturgical reforms after Vatican II, on which I disagreed with him in some respects. Taft’s 2008 “Return to Our Roots: Recovering Western Liturgical Traditions” in America magazine lauding those reforms was surprisingly uncritical in some key areas, and did not seem to consider the evidence of what Joseph Ratzinger famously called the grave damage done to the Latin Church, whose reformers based themselves—as the Anglican Catherine Pickstock has memorably said—upon an entirely sinister conservative worldview that failed to challenge modernity’s notions of time and scorn of repetitive “thick” ritual (a point which owes not a few things to Mary Douglas’ Natural Symbols: Explorations in Cosmology).

But unlike those whom Taft criticizes in his 2008 essay, I am in all other respects a staunch defender of Vatican II, especially for its ecclesiological and ecumenical advances, as I make abundantly clear in my chapter published this year in The Reception of Vatican II, edited by Matthew Levering and Matthew Lamb and published by Oxford University Press. There I drew on Taft’s earlier works assessing the legacy of the Council and looking at the prospects of Orthodox-Catholic unity. Those prospects are brighter because of Taft’s unwillingness to shield us from the messy realities of both our shared past and our present.

Let me end, as Taft’s life is coming to its end, with his 2008 book Liturgy: Model of Prayer – Icon of Life. For those of us who only knew and know Taft as this formidably blunt scholar, this book comes as something of a surprise. For here we see that he is after all a priest with a tender (if unsentimental) care for souls. (I’ve heard over the years from some of his former students that Taft would surprise people, including students, with pastoral visits to them in hospital.)

For pastoral tenderness and scholarly fierceness alike in investigating sources, inveighing against bad history that propagates Christian division, and pushing Eastern and Western Christians further down the path to unity demanded of us by Christ, may the Lord count it all unto him as righteousness! And may his memory, when that time comes, be eternal.

(Parts of this encomium appeared on November 6 on Eastern Christian Books.)

Adam DeVille is associate professor and chairman of the Department of Theology & Philosophy at the University of Saint Francis in Fort Wayne IN, and editor-in-chief of Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies. He holds a PhD in Theology from the University of Ottawa and St. Paul University. His published works include Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy: Ut Unum Sint and the Prospects of East-West Unity