As anyone without better things to do knows, the Dossier and Shawn McElhinney's blog, Rerum Novarum, are involved in a battle over my Bishop's recent directive that I should not kneel to receive communion, and that I should not kneel after the Agnus Dei in the Mass. Shawn has posted a five-part criticism of my views, which had been expressed in an email to a friend of mine; Parts I through IV of Shawn's response can be found here,, while Part V can be found here. There is also an addendum regarding an unclarity in my original email, which hadn't adequately explained that my bishop forbids kneeling to receive communion and kneeling after the Agnus Dei, which can be found here. My thanks to Shawn for his interest and valuable critique. As usual, he has put his finger on the central issues -- law and piety -- by quoting several good sources on the topic and offering trenchant observations. I will reply in two parts, as indicated by Shawn's own position regarding the two-fold nature of the issue:
The CDWDS merely said that it was not forbidden to kneel. That does not mean that kneeling is therefore something that should be encouraged. As St. Paul noted once "[a]ll things are lawful but not all things are expedient. All things are lawful but not all things edify" (1 Cor. 10:23). In the liturgical context one could paraphrase this as "all that is lawful is not expedient. All that is lawful does not edify."
I think that for my part, some amplification ought to be made of Shawn's wise recourse to St. Paul, for the Apostle to the Gentiles doesn't regard "edification" as a mere notion of Christian aesthetics. Edification is directly connected to an appreciative witness of God as the being who creates all other truths, goodnesses, and beauties. For this reason he urges Christians to go beyond the confines of "taste" and immerse themselves in things which edify: "[W]hatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things." Phillipians 4:8 (KJV).
To say that a thing is "lawful but not edifying" means that a Christian should have as little to do with it as possible. Now Shawn's replies may sound confusing to some, since they mix law and goodness within a refined sensibility that is foreign to the manichean interpretation most Americans impose upon the idea of "legality." Americans insist that "legality" must directly correspond to "goodness." We don't easily appreciate St. Paul's (or Shawn's) enthusiastic embrace of goodness at all times and in all ways, without limiting ourselves to laws -- even to laws which are in themselves good and just. Even when we appreciate the tension, our manichean habits tempt us to reject "law" as being an obstacle to "goodness." We generally maintain only two opinions about law -- first, that by rendering to Caesar we render to God; or, second, that by rendering to Caesar we abandon God. The verse leads us to arguments about civil authority which are not germane. But we are still concerned with authority, and so for the general benefit I thought it might be helpful to point out that Shawn's not being formally contradictory when he argues that while kneeling may be lawful, it is so only in the barest possible sense; and since kneeling cannot, in the present environment, edify the Body of Christ or the individual who kneels, it should not be done no matter how lawful it might be. But I take issue with his argument, which I fear formally distinguishes goodness and legality while at the same time substantially arguing that legality determines goodness. My reply is in two parts, titled "The Legalism of Kneeling" and "Edification and Kneeling."
I begin by repeating selections of Shawn's arguments and sources to give what I believe is an accurate summary of his position on the legality of kneeling. I'm not trying to ignore the finer points, but I think that readers would appreciate a synopsis of Shawn's arguments continuously presented rather than left as they were originally posted, a kind of running commentary on each of my own earlier points. That's fine and accepted Internet style of course (I use it myself), but as the arguments become more engaged it can be extremely difficult to follow. Essentially, Shawn makes three arguments.
First, he says, let's have none of SecretAgentMan's quibbling about what "norm" means in US-GIRM ¶ 160(2) (standing to receive Communion) and what it must therefore mean in episcopal decisions made under US-GIRM ¶ 43 (standing during Communion). Norms are normative. They are not suggestions, but directions which should be followed unless an objective circumstance justifies a departure:
. . . A "norm" means in essence "standard procedure" if you will. (Or what is authorized to be used.) Much as receiving water baptism is a norm for one who wants to be saved. Norms of course can admit of exceptions but one of the problems we have today is people trying to elevate exceptions into the rule. . . . A norm is something that people are expected to do. . . . A norm is an expectation. It is set down to be followed and should be barring unusual or extraordinary circumstances. (For example, someone in a wheelchair would not have to stand for communion if that was standard protocol.)
Shawn then explains that the Second Vatican Council intended a new accommodation between the Church's expression of catholicity in (i) worldwide uniformity (represented by the tight hand of, say, St. Pius V in Quo Primum) and (ii) pastoral solicitude for the particularities of nations, times, and cultures (represented by the protection of other rites even in Quo Primum, or by the "Agatha Christie Indult" for the Sarum Rite granted by Paul VI). Referring to the first priority as involving "macro" issues, and the second as involving "micro" issues, he contends that the US-GIRM is, by reasonable extension, a Vatican-approved grant of localized authority to direct liturgical action:
I think it is important to recognize what the liturgical intentions of the Vatican have been since the Second Vatican Council. In essence there are two threads here that need to be considered. The first is the Holy See retaining control of the liturgical celebration following in the footsteps of the liturgical reform after the Council of Trent. The second is to return the liturgy to the regulation of the local ordinary where it properly belongs. The former is properly understood as of a macro nature, the latter of a much more micro one. . . .
. . . the local ordinary possessing the authority to regulate "the conduct of divine worship" would have this authority [to prohibit kneeling] to the extent that the Holy See allows it. And the practice of the Holy See in the past forty odd years has been to allow the local ordinary to legislate in micro matters as they see fit within due limits. These due limits are specified in the GIRM of 2000 . . .
. . . Just because the Holy See did not forbid kneeling in the GIRM does not mean that a local ordinary cannot prescribe a standing posture for communion. The USCCB of course does not have authority by divine right to do this but the individual bishops do. Hence, while the USCCB's prescriptions are not binding on the bishops, if the bishops implement them in their dioceses, the faithful are expected to comply to the extent that this is at all feasible to do. . . .
[T]he USCCB is an administrative entity that can make suggestions but they are not part of the divine constitution of the Church [, which] recognizes the office of bishop and the jurisdiction that a bishop has in his dioceses. The Catholic Encyclopedic Dictionary defines this as follows:
. . . . Bishops are the successors of the Apostles and by divine institution rule their dioceses with ordinary power under the authority of the pope. They have legislative, juridical, and executive power...[A] bishop can enact those laws which he considers for the good of his dioceses and he is a judge in the first instance in all ecclesiastical trials; he can punish lay people with censures and clerics by deprivation of offices or censures (qv). He has supreme direction of the clergy, the conduct of divine worship, administration of ecclesiastical property, building of churches, etc. [Catholic Encyclopedic Dictionary: Donald Attwater General Editor, tenth edition, pg. 62 (c. 1941)]
Shawn has found a disputational axe in the proposition that norms are binding on whoever is objectively able to comply with them. By showing how the Church recognizes the bishops' authority to promulgate local laws regarding the liturgy, Shawn swings the axe over his head in a wide and terrible arc. In his third argument he brings the sharp blade crashing down with tremendous force by invoking an element of Catholic thought hallowed in the epistle of St. Ignatius to the Smyrneans -- let nothing be done without the bishop:
. . . [C]ommunion posture is not remotely in the same category [of immovable teaching such as Humanae Vitae] in that liceity is a movable feast in this regard to some extent. It [communion posture] falls under the realm of regulating the application of the divine law - a principle explicitly recognized by the Council of Trent. To quote from Session XXI which dealt with the Doctrine on the Most Holy Eucharist:
The power of the Church as regards the dispensation of the Sacrament of the Eucharist. [The Sacred Council] furthermore declares, that this power has ever been in the Church, that, in the dispensation of the sacraments, their substance being untouched, it may ordain, or change, what things soever it may judge most expedient, for the profit of those who receive, or for the veneration of the said sacraments, according to the difference of circumstances, times, and places."
This principle applies to all matters of discipline and government. And thus it also applies to communion posture.
This makes me mad. I've quoted that same selection in my minor skirmishing with "RadTrads" who quarrel with the legitimacy of the Novus Ordo itself. Shawn's not only swinging the timber-axe of obedience at my argument, but he's borrowed the axe from my own damn toolshed! Does Shawn strike home? Can SecretAgentMan survive without bitterly quoting Deitrich von Hildebrand on theological positivism?
I think I can. In fact, I think I heard a big "whooooshhhhhh . . . . . " as the axe-head slashed just past my ear, heading in the vicinity of Shawn's toes. I realize he's making a subtle argument about law and edification, but his juxtaposed authorities (or, perhaps, the ones I juxtaposed for him, but I think I've been fair about it) prove too much. Consider, if (as Shawn argues) the norms requiring standing are binding instructions, validly issued by the bishops' power to enact laws for the good of the Church, a power whose legitimate exercise in the present case must be obeyed as a de fide teaching of the Church, then surely my bishop is right when he says that those who kneel to receive communion "clearly will be demonstrating dissent from the mind of the Church." And if my bishop is right to say that kneeling is a public declaration of "dissent from the mind of the Church" and disobedience to the Bishop of Rome, then those who kneel are schismatic and heretical. "Heresy is the obstinate denial or doubt, after baptism, of a truth which must be believed by divine and catholic faith. . . . Schism is the withdrawal of submission to the Supreme Pontiff or from communion with the members of the Church subject to him." (Catechism of the Catholic Church, ¶¶ 4-5) While the correct posture for communion is not of itself a "truth which must be believed by divine and catholic faith," the idea that the Bishops and the Holy Father may require a certain posture is, as Shawn points out, such a truth. Given this, it seems unlikely that anyone who kneels should be given communion, since communion must be refused in "cases presenting a danger of grave scandal to other believers arising out of the person's . . . schism, publicly professed or declared." (Code of Canon Law, Canon 751, § 2 (1983) (Washington: Canon Law Society of America, 1983)).
That's what Shawn's argument must prove, if it proves anything, but that's also exactly the opposite of the conclusion reached by every authority which has considered the matter. Communicants who kneel are not to be denied communion, because kneeling to receive communion (and, by reasonable extension, kneeling during communion) is "completely appropriate in light of the true, real and substantial presence of Our Lord Jesus Christ under the consecrated species." (Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments, Protocol # 1322/02/L, 1 July 2002. This apparent contradiction between the terms of Shawn's argument and its conclusion results from a crucial flaw, namely Shawn's insufficient accounting for the contradictory positions which our liturgical "macro" and "micro" authorities have taken on the issue of kneeling. Because of those different positions, Shawn cannot, as he seems to have done, restrict the question of kneeling under the US-GIRM to the simple confines of an individual's response to a licit exercise of episcopal authority.
I agree with him that our question involves "macro" and "micro" spheres of authority. But I think he would agree with me that distinguishing between "macro" and "micro" spheres of authority admits of "macro" and "micro" authorities and that, by the very nature of their competence, these authorities impose "macro" and "micro" instructions and obligations. Let's spend some time looking at our "macro" authority, the authority to whom my bishop's ability to make norms about posture must always refer:
Therefore, relying on the clear testimonies of Sacred Scripture, and adhering to the eloquent and manifest decisions not only of Our predecessors, the Roman Pontiffs, but also of the general Councils, We renew the definition of the Ecumenical Councils of Florence, by which all the faithful of Christ most believe ‘that the Apostolic See and the Roman Pontiff hold primacy over the whole world, and that the Pontiff of Rome himself is the successor of the blessed Peter, the chief of the apostles, and is the true vicar of Christ and head of the whole Church and faith, and teacher of all Christians; and that to him was handed down in blessed Peter, by our Lord Jesus Christ, full power to feed, rule, and guide the universal Church, just as is also contained in the records of the ecumenical Councils and in the sacred canons.'"
Furthermore We teach and declare that the Roman Church, by the disposition of the Lord, holds the sovereignty of ordinary power over all others, and that this power of jurisdiction on the part of the Roman Pontiff, which is truly episcopal, is immediate; and with respect to this the pastors and the faithful of whatever right and dignity, both as separate individuals and all together, are bound by the duty of hierarchical subordination and true obedience; and with respect to this the pastors and the faithful of whatever right and dignity, both as separate individuals and all together, are bound by the duty of hierarchical subordination and true obedience, not only in things which pertain to faith and morals, but also in those which pertain to discipline and government of the Church spread over the whole world, so that the Church of Christ, protected not only by the Roman Pontiff, but by the unity of the communion as well as of the profession of the same faith is one flock under the one highest shepherd.
-- Vatican Council I, Dogmatic Constitution on the Church of Christ (1870). Denzinger, Enchiridion Symbolorum, 13th Ed., translated by Roy J. DeFerrari and published as Sources of Catholic Dogma (St. Louis: B. Herder, 1955), ¶¶ 1821-1840 (Denzinger), pp. 451-457 (DeFerrari).
We are accustomed to thinking of Vatican I as "the Council that taught papal infallibility." A reference to the Council's decrees might at first glance seem ill-placed in our discussion, which does not involve infallibility or matters of faith and morals. But papal infallibility is not the whole of the Council's teaching. The Council also taught the age-old truth that the Holy Father has immediate, ordinary, episcopal authority "not only in things which pertain to faith and morals, but also in those which pertain to discipline and government of the Church spread over the whole world."
The Holy Father exercises this jurisdiction in various ways. He exercises it personally, when he issues orders, preaches in encyclical letters, and when he acts through the various Congregations which are established within the Church at his pleasure -- like the CDWDS. (Cf. Codex Iuris Canonici Cans. 360, "The Supreme Pontiff usually conducts the business of the universal Church by means of the Roman Curia . . . it consists of . . . congregations, tribunals, and other institutions . . ."). The CDWDS, exercising the authority of the Holy Father himself, has explained that kneeling cannot be forbidden by the US-GIRM:
This Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments has recently received reports of members of the faithful in your Diocese being refused Holy Communion unless while standing to receive, as opposed to kneeling. the reports state that such a policy has been announced to parishioners. There were possible indications that such a phenomenon might be somewhat more widespread in the Diocese, but the Congregation is unable to verify whether such is the case. This Dicastery is confident that Your Excellency will be in a position to make a more reliable determination of the matter, and these complaints in any event provide an occasion for the Congregation to communicate the manner in which it habitually addresses this matter, with a request that you make this position known to any priests who may be in need of being thus informed.
The Congregation in fact is concerned at the number of similar complaints that it has received in recent months from various places, and considers any refusal of Holy Communion to a member of the faithful on the basis of his or her kneeling posture to be a grave violation of one of the most basic rights of the Christian faithful, namely that of being assisted by their Pastors by means of the Sacraments (Codex Iuris Canonici, canon 213). In view of the law that "sacred ministers may not deny the sacraments to those who opportunely ask for them, are properly disposed and are not prohibited by law from receiving them" (canon 843 ¶ 1), there should be no such refusal to any Catholic who presents himself for Holy Communion at Mass, except in cases presenting a danger of grave scandal to other believers arising out of the person's unrepented public sin or obstinate heresy or schism, publicly professed or declared. Even where the Congregation has approved of legislation denoting standing as the posture for Holy Communion, in accordance with the adaptations permitted to the Conferences of Bishops by the Institutio Generalis Missalis Romani n. 160, paragraph 2, it has done so with the stipulation that communicants who choose to kneel are not to be denied Holy Communion on these grounds.
In fact, as His Eminence, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger has recently emphasized, the practice of kneeling for Holy Communion has in its favor a centuries-old tradition, and it is a particularly expressive sign of adoration, completely appropriate in light of the true, real and substantial presence of Our Lord Jesus Christ under the consecrated species.
Given the importance of this matter, the Congregation would request that Your Excellency inquire specifically whether this priest in fact has a regular practice of refusing Holy Communion to any member of the faithful in the circumstances described above and - if the complaint is verified - that you also firmly instruct him and any other priests who may have had such a practice to refrain from acting thus in the future. Priests should understand that the Congregation will regard future complaints of this nature with great seriousness, and if they are verified, it intends to seek disciplinary action consonant with the gravity of the pastoral abuse.
Thanking Your Excellency for your attention to this matter and relying on your kind collaboration in its regard,
Sincerely yours in Christ,
Jorge A. Cardinal Medina Estévez
-- Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments, Protocol # 1322/02/L, 1 July 2002. The text may be found here..
Roma locuta est; causa finita est. "The supervision of the sacred liturgy depends solely on the authority of the Church which resides in the Apostolic See and, in accord with the law, with the diocesan bishop. It is for the Apostolic See to [set the] order [of] the sacred liturgy of the universal church . . . and to see that liturgical ordinances are faithful observed everywhere." Codex Iuris Canonici, Can. 838 §§ 1 & 2. The CDWDS has said it is a "fact" that "the practice of kneeling for Holy Communion . . . is a particularly expressive sign of adoration, completely appropriate in light of the true, real and substantial presence of Our Lord Jesus Christ under the consecrated species. Those who kneel are not schismatic, not scandalous, and may be properly disposed to receive Holy Communion -- hardly terms which characterize actions which are supposedly proximate to scandal, heresy, or otherwise repugnant to the sense of the faithful. As Vatican I repeated, with respect to these decisions "the pastors and the faithful of whatever right and dignity, both as separate individuals and all together, are bound by the duty of hierarchical subordination and true obedience." Moreover, inasmuch as the process of denying Communion to those who kneel is "pastoral abuse," the Diocesan campaign now afoot to deter Catholics from kneeling by less confrontational means than a priest's direct refusal of communion is, at the very least, a hypocritical and vicious attempt to get Catholics to do to themselves what the Bishop is prohibited from doing to them.
By the express ruling of the CDWDS above -- and also, it should be added, by the necessity of Vatican's approval for US-GIRM § 160(2) in the first place -- my "micro authority" is forbidden from making any law against kneeling to receive communion that binds my conscience. If he could make such a law, then my kneeling would be direct disobedience to it, and that is hardly something which US-GIRM § 160(2) or the CDWDS would condone. Is this a bad thing? Of course it's a bad thing when "micro" authorities pretend that they can ignore "macro" authorities. Of course it's a bad thing when "macro" authorities give initiative with one hand and restrict it with the other. And it's a bad thing when the same "micro" and "macro" authorities blithely proceed as though there's no conflict at all. But I'm not a "macro" authority or a "micro" authority. I'm a "micro layman." My Pope (through the CDWDS) says my kneeling to receive is completely appropriate. My Bishop (through a local newspaper I help fund) says that people who kneel to receive are schismatic. The Lieutenant commands, "Steer 180 degrees," and the Captain shouts, "Belay that order!" Would we court-martial the helmsman? Would we even think that the helmsman's obedience to the Captain is conduct prejudicial to the service? Would it matter if all the other swabbies agreed with the Lieutenant? The answer is "no" on all three counts, and the answer is "no" to Shawn's argument that kneeling is a quasi-demi-illicit traducing of episcopal authority.
What about kneeling during Communion? Well, remember that my bishop isn't voicing his personal preference. He's telling us that his instructions are merely obeying the US-GIRM's requirement that the congregation stand after the Agnus Dei. This is patently false:
Query: Is it the case that the . . . the Institutio Generalis Missalis Romani, [the US-GIRM] intends to prohibit the faithful from kneeling after the Agnus Dei and following reception of Communion?
-- Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, Prot. 2372/00/L, 7 November 2000.
Even US-GIRM § 43 explicitly rejects my Bishop's interpretation, stating that "[t]he faithful kneel after the Agnus Dei unless the Diocesan Bishop determines otherwise." (A footnote directs the reader to Sacrosanctum Concilium of which more later). Clearly the US-GIRM grants my Bishop the authority to impose his personal preference upon the parishes of our Diocese, but my Bishop's insistence that his personal preference is not involved means that he does not intend to use the authority granted to him under §43. What is the moral position of a layman (or priest) who receives an episcopal instruction that explicitly says it's intended to exercise a non-existent authority? The Bishop has no authority whatsoever to impose standing during communion "in obedience" to the GIRM, because the GIRM does not in any way require the faithful to stand during communion. Now if he said, clearly and unequivocally, that while the GIRM "defaults" to kneeling during Communion it also grants him a personal, episcopal authority to decide that standing is better, and that he was intending to exercise that authority for our Diocese alone, his instructions would have some validity in law and require our serious attention. But as long as my Bishop says his instructions are given to bring our parishes into conformity with the GIRM, no one is obliged to take him any more seriously than if he announced his intention to ordain women in order to bring us into line with Ordinatio Sacerdotalis.
Suppose my bishop grasped political nettle and admitted that the US-GIRM actually requires us to kneel after the Agnus Dei unless he decides otherwise. Suppose he admitted that while Catholics in the West have knelt during Communion since the days of the Sacramentarium Gregorianum, he has -- as Sacrosanctum Concilium requires -- "carefully and prudently consider[ed] which elements from the traditions and culture of individual peoples might appropriately be admitted into divine worship." (Id. ¶ 40(1)) Suppose he publicly concludes that our own 200-year-history of kneeling during Communion is culturally inauthentic, and that the actual culture of Midwestern farmers and factory workers urges us to acknowledge the divine presence by standing and singing "We Are Church." (Actually, it's the State University fight song, but that's another essay). Suppose he really did what the US-GIRM permits him to do and told us that while every other Catholic in the world may kneel before God in the Mass, we must stand and sing. What then? Are we then obliged to abandon our culture for the sake of our Bishop's vision of our culture?
To answer this question, let's look at what the Bishop's directive would be. Would it be an exercise of his episcopal authority to "enact those laws which he considers for the good of his dioceses . . . [regarding] the conduct of divine worship"? (Catholic Encyclopedic Dictionary, Donald Attwater General Editor, tenth edition, pg. 62)?
285. Definition. -- Law is an ordinance of the reason for the common good promulgated by him who has authority in the community.
(a) It is an ordinance, that is, a command or prohibition which has obligatory and lasting force. Hence, advice is not a law, because not obligatory; a rule that binds only during the lifetime of the lawgiver or of those who received it is not strictly a law, because not enduring.
(b) It is an ordinance of the reason, since the rule and standard of human acts is reason . . . Hence, the arbitrary will of a ruler commanding what is against reason would not be law, but rather iniquity.
(c) It is made for the common good, that is, it must tend to promote, directly or indirectly, general happiness, which is the end of society. Hence, the commands of a tyrant which benefit a few at the expense of public peace and prosperity are not truly laws.
(d) It is made by him who has authority, that is, by the person or persons who have the lawmaking power according to the form of government. Hence, the decisions of an advisory body or the decrees of a usurper are not laws.
(e) It is made by the proper authority in a community, that is, as here understood, in a self-sufficing community, which has its own means for attaining its end and is independent in its own order of other societies. Hence, the regulations made by parents for their family are not called laws, since the family is not a self-sufficing society.
(f) It is an ordinance that has been promulgated, that is, brought to the notice of those whom it binds. Hence, a law that has been drawn up but not published as such, is not obligatory even for those who know of its existence. A law becomes obligatory, however, as soon as it has been promulgated, and the presumption then is that the law is known; but he who is inculpably ignorant is not guilty of formal sin if be breaks the law.
-- McHugh, Callan, O'Farrell, Moral Theology, Vol. I, ¶ 285 (New York: B. Herder, 1958) (emphasis original)
Clearly, the present rule of affairs in our Diocese is not "law" because it does not meet criteria (d), (e) (f) -- my Bishop has not made or promulgated the decision authorized by US-GIRM § 43, he has only promulgated his own false interpretation of the GIRM. But we speak here of a proper decision duly promulgated by my Bishop. Would it be a law? Arguably not, because its existence would be personal to him not binding on any successor, and "a rule that binds only during the lifetime of the lawgiver . . . is not strictly a law, because not enduring." Id. But I shan't quibble with that argument, because the same point is raised by the next best thing to a law, namely a "precept," which is a "command obliging in conscience" given to individuals identified by voluntary membership in a specific community or a jurisdictional area of the Church ruled by, for example, a Bishop. Id. ¶¶ 515-517.
So if my Bishop actually did what US-GIRM § 43 let him do, and announced his personal precept / law for all of us to stand during communion, where would that leave kneeling folk like me? Certainly, it would not leave us in the position of disobedient sinners:
288. Collision of Laws. -- Not infrequently it happens that opposite laws seem to call for fulfillment at the same time, as when in case of unjust attack it seems that one is bound to defend oneself and bound not to injure the other party. Hence arises a conflict of obligations and rights. But the difficulty is only apparent; for, since God is a just and wise lawgiver, He does not intend either that one should be held to impossibilities, or that a superior obligation should yield to one that is inferior. Hence, the rule in such cases of apparent collision of laws is: (a) if a person can recognize which of the two obligations is superior, he is bound to follow that one; (b) if he is unable to discover after careful examination which obligation has the greater claim, and must decide at once, he may decide for the law whose observance seems to him safer; or, if he sees no difference as regards safety, he may decide for either as he wishes. If the decision is wrong, the error is involuntary, and hence not imputable as sin.
-- McHugh, Callan, O'Farrell, Moral Theology, Vol. I, ¶ 288 (New York: B. Herder, 1958)
With respect to this theology, my bishop has been handed a serious problem by the drafters of US-GIRM § 43. You see, if § 43 had been written to say, "[t]he faithful kneel after the Agnus Dei unless the Diocesan Bishop determines otherwise by flipping a coin, or some other capricious whimsy," then my Bishop's decision (while invalid for other reasons) couldn't conflict with the CDWDS' teaching about kneeling, because the CDWDS only speaks about the kneeling at the moment of reception.
But by predicating my Bishop's ability to opt for standing on Sacrosanctum Concilium, the US-GIRM has required him to go beyond capricious whimsy and advance his ideas about a proper Catholic response to the presence of God:
21. In order that the Christian people may more certainly derive an abundance of graces from the sacred liturgy, holy Mother Church desires to undertake with great care a general restoration of the liturgy itself. For the liturgy is made up of immutable elements divinely instituted, and of elements subject to change. These not only may but ought to be changed with the passage of time if they have suffered from the intrusion of anything out of harmony with the inner nature of the liturgy or have become unsuited to it. . . .
23. That sound tradition may be retained, and yet the way remain open to legitimate progress Careful investigation is always to be made into each part of the liturgy which is to be revised. This investigation should be theological, historical, and pastoral. Also the general laws governing the structure and meaning of the liturgy must be studied in conjunction with the experience derived from recent liturgical reforms and from the indults conceded to various places. Finally, there must be no innovations unless the good of the Church genuinely and certainly requires them; and care must be taken that any new forms adopted should in some way grow organically from forms already existing. . . .
40. In some places and circumstances, however, an even more radical adaptation of the liturgy is needed, and this entails greater difficulties. Wherefore:
1) The [diocesan Bishop] . . . . must, in this matter, carefully and prudently consider which elements from the traditions and culture of individual peoples might appropriately be admitted into divine worship. . . . .
2) To ensure that adaptations may be made with all the circumspection which they demand, the Apostolic See will grant power to this same territorial ecclesiastical authority to permit and to direct, as the case requires, the necessary preliminary experiments over a determined period of time among certain groups suited for the purpose.
3) Because liturgical laws often involve special difficulties with respect to adaptation, particularly in mission lands, men who are experts in these matters must be employed to formulate them.
Sacrosanctum Concilium, ¶¶ 21-40 (1963).
Both under the express terms of the US-GIRM, and the general reservation of authority to the Holy See in ecclesiastical law which finds its relevant expression in Sacrosanctum Concilium, my Bishop can't just opt for standing because his John Paul II Euro came up "heads." He can require standing only by simultaneously advancing the idea that kneeling is an "intrusion" of something "out of harmony with the inner nature of the liturgy" and which has become "unsuited to it," so that the "good of the Church genuinely and certainly requires" it to be replaced by an element "from the traditions and culture of individual peoples" which can be "appropriately be admitted into divine worship." Id.
Of course, my Bishop makes no such argument. While explaining why the US-GIRM supposedly requires standing after the Agnus Dei, he opines that kneeling is a "penitent" posture that is unsuited to the public adoration of God in the Mass. According to him, the US-GIRM isn't adapting the Mass to congenially suit our culture. The GIRM is actually restoring our witness by stripping away medieval "intrusions" which are "out of harmony with the inner nature of the liturgy." Arguably, that's not the kind of cultural adaptation allowed by the US-GIRM or ¶ 40 of Sacrosanctum Concilium. It's really more within the role reserved to the Apostolic See: "The supervision of the sacred liturgy depends solely on the authority of the Church which resides in the Apostolic See . . . It is for the Apostolic See to [set the] order [of] the sacred liturgy of the universal church . . .." Codex Iuris Canonici, Can. 838 §§ 1 & 2. But in any event, a precept requiring standing under § 43 of the US-GIRM is necessarily involved with theology and culture, as both the US-GIRM and Sacrosanctum Concilium make plain. Neither theology nor culture exists in a vacuum, nor are they independent of one another. Theology and culture form and are formed by one another, and cultural actions have unavoidable theological components and undeniable evangelical implications. Significant cultural statements are always theological statements, which is one of the reasons why God created an entire Old Testament culture so that His people would not have other gods before Him. All of which brings us back to the "macro managing" of the CDWDS.
The CDWDS has its own testimony about kneeling, and it directly conflicts with my Bishop's: In fact, as His Eminence, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger has recently emphasized, the practice of kneeling for Holy Communion has in its favor a centuries-old tradition, and it is a particularly expressive sign of adoration, completely appropriate in light of the true, real and substantial presence of Our Lord Jesus Christ under the consecrated species. Ibid. I believe the CDWDS here refers approvingly to Cardinal Ratzinger's book The Spirit of the Liturgy which discusses the supra-cultural aspects of kneeling before God:
There are groups, of no small influence, who are trying to talk us out of kneeling. "It doesn't suit our culture", they say (which culture?) "It's not right for a grown man to do this -- he should face God on his feet". Or again: "It's not appropriate for redeemed man -- he has been set free by Christ and doesn't need to kneel any more". . . .
Kneeling does not come from any culture -- it comes from the Bible and its knowledge of God. The central importance of kneeling in the Bible can be seen in a very concrete way. The word proskynein alone occurs fifty-nine times in the New Testament, twenty-four of which are in the Apocalypse, the book of the heavenly Liturgy, which is presented to the Church as the standard for her own Liturgy. . . .
The situation is different, though, with the classical word for adoration on one's knees -- proskynein. I shall give two examples in order to clarify the question that faces the translator. [Matthew 14, and John 9] . . .
I have lingered over these texts, because they bring to light something important. In the two passages that we looked at most closely, the spiritual and bodily meanings of proskynein are really inseparable. The bodily gesture itself is the bearer of the spiritual meaning, which is precisely that of worship. Without the worship, the bodily gesture would be meaningless, while the spiritual act must of its very nature, because of the psychosomatic unity of man, express itself in the bodily gesture.
The two aspects are united in the one word, because in a very profound way they belong together. When kneeling becomes merely external, a merely physical act, it becomes meaningless. One the other hand, when someone tries to take worship back into the purely spiritual realm and refuses to give it embodied form, the act of worship evaporates, for what is purely spiritual is inappropriate to the nature of man. Worship is one of those fundamental acts that affect the whole man. That is why bending the knee before the presence of the living God is something we cannot abandon.
In saying this, we come to the typical gesture of kneeling on one or both knees. In the Hebrew of the Old Testament, the verb barak, "to kneel", is cognate with the word berek, "knee". The Hebrews regarded the knees as a symbol of strength, to bend the knee is, therefore, to bend our strength before the living God, an acknowledgment of the fact that all that we are we receive from Him. In important passages of the Old Testament, this gesture appears as an expression of worship.
At the dedication of the Temple, Solomon kneels "in the presence of all the assembly of Israel" (II Chron 6:13). After the Exile, in the afflictions of the returned Israel, which is still without a Temple, Ezra repeats this gesture at the time of the evening sacrifice: "I ... fell upon my knees and spread out my hands to the Lord my God" (Ezra 9:5). The great psalm of the Passion, Psalm 22 ("My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"), ends with the promise: "Yes, to Him shall all the proud of the earth fall down; before Him all who go down to the dust shall throw themselves down" (v. 29, RSV adapted).
The related passage Isaiah 45:23 we shall have to consider in the context of the New Testament. The Acts of the Apostles tells us how Saint Peter (9:40), Saint Paul (20:36), and the whole Christian community (21:5) pray on their knees.
Particularly important for our question is the account of the martyrdom of Saint Stephen. The first man to witness to Christ with his blood is described in his suffering as a perfect image of Christ, whose Passion is repeated in the martyrdom of the witness, even in small details. One of these is that Stephen, on his knees, takes up the petition of the crucified Christ: "Lord, do not hold this sin against them" (Acts 7:60). We should remember that Luke, unlike Matthew and Mark, speaks of the Lord kneeling in Gethsemane, which shows that Luke wants the kneeling of the first martyr to be seen as his entry into the prayer of Jesus. Kneeling is not only a Christian gesture, but a christological one.
The Name above all Names
For me, the most important passage for the theology of kneeling will always be the great hymn of Christ in Philippians 2:6-11. . . . [which] hymn presents Christ as the antitype of the First Adam. While the latter high-handedly grasped at likeness to God, Christ does not count equality with God, which is His by nature, "a thing to be grasped", but humbles Himself unto death, even death on the Cross. It is precisely this humility, which comes from love, that is the truly divine reality and procures for Him the "name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth" (Phil 2:5-10).
Here the hymn of the apostolic Church takes up the words of promise in Isaiah 45:23: "By myself I have sworn, from my mouth has gone forth in righteousness a word that shall not return: 'To me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear'". In the interweaving of Old and New Testaments, it becomes clear that, even as crucified, Jesus bears that "name above every name" -- the name of the Most High -- and is Himself God by nature. Through Him, through the Crucified, the bold promise of the Old Testament is now fulfilled: all bend the knee before Jesus, the One who descended, and bow to Him precisely as the one true God above all gods. The Cross has become the world-embracing sign of God's presence, and all that we have previously heard about the historic and cosmic Christ should now, in this passage, come back into our minds.
The Christian Liturgy is a cosmic Liturgy precisely because it bends the knee before the crucified and exalted Lord. Here is the center of authentic culture - the culture of truth. The humble gesture by which we fall at the feet of the Lord inserts us into the true path of life of the cosmos.
There is much more that we might add. For example, there is the touching story told by Eusebius in his history of the Church as a tradition going back to Hegesippus in the second century. Apparently, Saint James, the "brother of the Lord", the first bishop of Jerusalem and "head" of the Jewish Christian Church, had a kind of callous on his knees, because he was always on his knees worshiping God and begging forgiveness for his people (2, 23, 6). Again, there is a story that comes from the sayings of the Desert Fathers, according to which the devil was compelled by God to show himself to a certain Abba Apollo. He looked black and ugly, with frighteningly thin limbs, but most strikingly, he had no knees. The inability to kneel is seen as the very essence of the diabolical.
But I do not want to go into more detail. I should like to make just one more remark. The expression used by Saint Luke to describe the kneeling of Christians (theis ta gonata) is unknown in classical Greek. We are dealing here with a specifically Christian word. With that remark, our reflections turn full circle to where they began. It may well be that kneeling is alien to modern culture -- insofar as it is a culture, for this culture has turned away from the faith and no longer knows the one before whom kneeling is the right, indeed the intrinsically necessary gesture. The man who learns to believe learns also to kneel, and a faith or a liturgy no longer familiar with kneeling would be sick at the core. Where it has been lost, kneeling must be rediscovered, so that, in our prayer, we remain in fellowship with the apostles and martyrs, in fellowship with the whole cosmos, indeed in union with Jesus Christ Himself.
--- Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy (Ignatius, 2000). The text can be found here.
The passage is quoted at length because Cardinal Ratzinger is actually elevating kneeling above culture, making a Thomistic argument about the nature of the human body and its inherent ability to express spiritual and metaphysical realities. Because of this inherent expressiveness, a liturgy without kneeling "would be sick at the core," just as if it were a liturgy that abuses the expressiveness of human speech to deny or misrepresent some element of divine truth.
If an episcopal precept existed which required me to stand while Our Lord is actually, physically present before me, then obedience would be required. Obedience, however, isn't limited to external assent: The element that differentiates [obedience] adequately from other good habits is found in the last part of the definition already given. Stress is put upon the fact that one not only does what is actually enjoined, but does it with a mind to formally fall in with the will of the commander. Catholic Encyclopedia, "Obedience" (New York: Knights of Columbus, 1913). The CDWDS' approval of kneeling doesn't depend on the communicant's act of receiving, but on God's act of becoming present under the species of bread and wine. So, again, there are two commanders, two authorities, saying different things. My "micro commander" says I should have a mind to formally fall in with the idea that kneeling after the Agnus Dei is an inauthentic bit of pseudo-culture that is an inappropriate response to God's presence. My "macro commander" says I should have a mind to formally fall in with the idea that kneeling whenever God is present in the Mass is "completely appropriate" and, if the CDWDS' amplification by way of reference to Cardinal Ratzinger is accepted, even a completely-required response from a created human being to the presence of God. My "micro commander" says that my ability to kneel is, in effect, a cultural style which can be altered and adjusted to suit his own views on what would be a proper evangelical proclamation of God's presence. My "macro commander" says that my ability to kneel is, in effect, a God-willed part of my nature as a created being whose perfect observance commends kneeling when I adore Him. The witnesses are inconsistent; whose will should I formally fall in with?
This juxtaposition of conflicting law and authority is not an ipse dixit thrown up by my own argument. It results from the terms of the debate set by the US-GIRM itself. That kneeling is an ontological/theological matter, and not merely (or even primarily) a cultural issue, is borne out by § 160(2) of the US-GIRM itself, which says that Catholics who want to kneel to receive communion "should be addressed pastorally, by providing the faithful with proper catechesis on the reasons for this norm." The highlighted phrase is revealing in light of what "catechesis" means:
Quite early on, the name catechesis was given to the totality of the Church's efforts to make disciples, to help men believe that Jesus is the Son of God so that believing they might have life in his name, and to educate and instruct them in this life, thus building up the body of Christ. Catechesis is an education in the faith . . . which includes especially the teaching of Christian doctrine imparted, generally speaking, in an organic and systematic way, with a view to initiating the hearers into the fullness of Christian life.
-- Catechism of the Catholic Church ¶¶ 4-5
If someone who kneels should be given proper catechesis in order to stop kneeling, and if we understand that proper catechesis is an education in the faith with a view to living the fullness of Christian life, it follows that the Bishops believe kneeling before a consecrated Host is ignorance of the faith and a detraction from the fullness of Christian life The CDWDS, together with Cardinal Ratzinger, say that disregarding the necessity of kneeling before God is "sick at the core." If I follow my "micro commander," I must witness to a theology which regards kneeling as a cultural response to a truth of Christian life which has been rendered inauthentic by changes in that culture. But if I follow my "macro commander," I must witness to a theology which regards kneeling as an ontologically-authentic response by a creature to his creator, a response rooted in the created reality of the human body and which therefore transcends culture. Whose theology should I formally fall in with and express?
"[T]he difficulty," as McHugh, Callan and O'Farrell say, "is only apparent . . . the rule in such cases of apparent collision of laws is: (a) if a person can recognize which of the two obligations is superior, he is bound to follow that one." ( McHugh, Callan, O'Farrell, Moral Theology, Vol. I, ¶ 288 (New York: B. Herder, 1958)). The theological obligations imposed by the CDWDS' statements are superior to those of my bishop in their own terms, in their source, and in their claims. Even if I were in doubt about whose authority in this matter were to be followed, surely it is the safer course to accept one's nature as a created being than to hinge one's response to God's presence on a bishop's idea of culture. Even if there were no difference as to the safety of these views (a point I willingly concede), and my bishop had his own "counter-Thomist" theology about posture and adoration, I may still decide for either as I wish, and that seems to me the strongest argument for my ability to (respectfully) disregard my Bishop's decision about kneeling after the Agnus Dei when and if he ever gets around to making one in lieu of obeying a false interpretation of the GIRM.
Coming soon . . . . "Edification and Kneeling"