“Tradition is to be distinguished from the various theological, disciplinary, liturgical or devotional traditions, born in the local churches over time. These are the particular forms, adapted to different places and times, in which the great Tradition is expressed. In the light of Tradition, these traditions can be retained, modified or even abandoned under the guidance of the Church’s Magisterium.” — CCC §83
“Therefore every scribe instructed in the kingdom of heaven, is like to a man that is a householder, who bringeth forth out of his treasure new things and old.” — Matthew 13:52
I was recently alerted to a post which sounds a healthy warning, presumably in the spirit of Yves Congar’s great work on the subject, not to confuse Sacred Tradition with pious traditions, and specifically not to defend “the innumerable novelties now championed as symbols of Ecclesiastical tradition — such as kneeling for Communion.” The statement seemed well intended, but overzealous to my ear. If hyper-traditionalism is a problem, surely swinging to the other end of the pendulum with a reductionist historicism is just as erroneous. (It’s called Protestantism, if you didn’t know.) So I did a little digging.
Now, I don’t even consider myself an amateur in matters liturgical, but I think there is an important point about Sacred Tradition that needs to be recalled. The heart of the issue is not, as we shall see momentarily, which practice is the most ancient, but rather which practice best reflects the Church’s Prime Directive according to Her own mind, which is to show the greatest possible reverence for the Eucharist given prevailing cultural assumptions and errors. If one is committed enough to a hyper-atavistic historicism, one can turn anything into a “novelty”–such as the personhood of the Holy Spirit, the Filioque, the biblical canon, the monarchial supremacy of the Pope, and so on. As we shall see, not only is such primitivism a slippery slope, but also alien to the Church’s living wisdom.
As a first exhibit, consider the recent Vatican note concerning “communion received on the tongue and while kneeling“:
The most ancient practice of distributing Holy Communion was, with all probability, to give Communion to the faithful in the palm of the hand. The history of the liturgy, however, makes clear that rather early on a process took place to change this practice. From the time of the Fathers of the Church, a tendency was born and consolidated whereby distribution of Holy Communion in the hand became more and more restricted in favor of distributing Holy Communion on the tongue. The motivation for this practice is two-fold: a) first, to avoid, as much as possible, the dropping of Eucharistic particles; b) second, to increase among the faithful devotion to the Real Presence of Christ in the Sacrament of the Eucharist.
Saint Thomas Aquinas also refers to the practice of receiving Holy Communion only on the tongue. He affirms that touching the Body of the Lord is proper only to the ordained priest. Therefore, for various reasons, among which the Angelic Doctor cites respect for the Sacrament, he writes: “…out of reverence towards this Sacrament, nothing touches it, but what is consecrated; hence the corporal and the chalice are consecrated, and likewise the priest’s hands, for touching this Sacrament. Hence, it is not lawful for anyone else to touch it except from necessity, for instance, if it were to fall upon the ground, or else in some other case of urgency” (Summa Theologiae, III, 82, 3).
Over the centuries the Church has always characterized the moment of Holy Communion with sacredness and the greatest respect, forcing herself constantly to develop to the best of her ability external signs that would promote understanding of this great sacramental mystery. In her loving and pastoral solicitude the Church has made sure that the faithful receive Holy Communion having the right interior dispositions, among which dispositions stands out the need for the Faithful to comprehend and consider interiorly the Real Presence of Him Whom they are to receive. (See The Catechism of Pope Pius X, nn. 628 & 636). The Western Church has established kneeling as one of the signs of devotion appropriate to communicants. A celebrated saying of Saint Augustine, cited by Pope Benedict XVI in n. 66 of his Encyclical Sacramentum Caritatis, (“Sacrament of Love”), teaches: “No one eats that flesh without first adoring it; we should sin were we not to adore it” (Enarrationes in Psalmos 98, 9). Kneeling indicates and promotes the adoration necessary before receiving the Eucharistic Christ.
From this perspective, the then-Cardinal Ratzinger assured that: “Communion only reaches its true depth when it is supported and surrounded by adoration” [The Spirit of the Liturgy (Ignatius Press, 2000), p. 90]. For this reason, Cardinal Ratzinger maintained that “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” [cited in the Letter “This Congregation” of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, 1 July 1, 2002].
John Paul II, in his last Encyclical, Ecclesia de Eucharistia (“The Church comes from the Eucharist”), wrote in n. 61: “By giving the Eucharist the prominence it deserves, and by being careful not to diminish any of its dimensions or demands, we show that we are truly conscious of the greatness of this gift. We are urged to do so by an uninterrupted tradition, which from the first centuries on has found the Christian community ever vigilant in guarding this ‘treasure.’ Inspired by love, the Church is anxious to hand on to future generations of Christians, without loss, her faith and teaching with regard to the mystery of the Eucharist. There can be no danger of excess in our care for this mystery, for ‘in this sacrament is recapitulated the whole mystery of our salvation.’”
In continuity with the teaching of his Predecessor, starting with the Solemnity of Corpus Christi in the year 2008, the Holy Father, Benedict XVI, began to distribute to the faithful the Body of the Lord, by placing it directly on the tongue of the faithful as they remain kneeling.
As second and third exhibits, consider the crystal-clear points made by Cdl. Arinze:
“The faithful should receive Holy Communion kneeling” (Redemptionis Sacramentum §90 [25 March 2004]).
“Leave them in peace, not in pieces.”
I will close with a fourth point of evidence to refute the notion that catholicity, much less the quality of one’s Catholicism, is established by sheer chronological seniority. Almost six decades prior to Redemptionis Sacramentum, Pope Pius XII, in Mediator Dei (20 November 1947), laid out a number of equally crystal-clear caveats about the role of atavism in traditional piety.
44. … [The] organization, regulation and details [of the sacred liturgy] cannot but be subject to Church authority. This conclusion, based on the nature of Christian worship itself, is further confirmed by the testimony of history.
45. Additional proof of this indefeasible right of the ecclesiastical hierarchy lies in the circumstances that the sacred liturgy is intimately bound up with doctrinal propositions which the Church proposes to be perfectly true and certain, and must as a consequence conform to the decrees respecting Catholic faith issued by the supreme teaching authority of the Church with a view to safeguarding the integrity of the religion revealed by God.
46. On this subject We judge it Our duty to rectify … the error and fallacious reasoning of those who have claimed that the sacred liturgy is a kind of proving ground for the truths to be held of faith, meaning by this that the Church is obliged to declare such a doctrine sound when it is found to have produced fruits of piety and sanctity…. Hence the epigram, “Lex orandi, lex credendi” — the law for prayer is the law for faith.
47. But this is not what the Church teaches and enjoins. … In the sacred liturgy we profess the Catholic faith explicitly and openly, not only by the celebration of the mysteries, and by offering the holy sacrifice and administering the sacraments, but also by saying or singing the credo or Symbol of the faith — it is indeed the sign and badge, as it were, of the Christian — along with other texts, and likewise by the reading of holy scripture, written under the inspiration of the Holy Ghost. The entire liturgy, therefore, has the Catholic faith for its content, inasmuch as it bears public witness to the faith of the Church.
48. For this reason, whenever there was question of defining a truth revealed by God, the Sovereign Pontiff and the Councils in their recourse to the “theological sources,” as they are called, have not seldom drawn many an argument from this sacred science of the liturgy. … [D]uring the discussion of a doubtful or controversial truth, the Church and the Holy Fathers have not failed to look to the age-old and age-honored sacred rites for enlightenment. Hence the well-known and venerable maxim, “Legem credendi lex statuat supplicandi” — let the rule for prayer determine the rule of belief. The sacred liturgy, consequently, does not decide or determine independently and of itself what is of Catholic faith. … But if one desires to differentiate and describe the relationship between faith and the sacred liturgy in absolute and general terms, it is perfectly correct to say, “Lex credendi legem statuat supplicandi” — let the rule of belief determine the rule of prayer. The same holds true for the other theological virtues also, “In . . . fide, spe, caritate continuato desiderio semper oramus” — we pray always, with constant yearning in faith, hope and charity. …
59. The Church is without question a living organism, and as an organism, in respect of the sacred liturgy also, she grows, matures, develops, adapts and accommodates herself to temporal needs and circumstances, provided only that the integrity of her doctrine be safeguarded. This notwithstanding, the temerity and daring of those who introduce novel liturgical practices, or call for the revival of obsolete rites out of harmony with prevailing laws and rubrics, deserve severe reproof. …
60. The use of the Latin language, customary in a considerable portion of the Church, is a manifest and beautiful sign of unity, as well as an effective antidote for any corruption of doctrinal truth. In spite of this, the use of the mother tongue in connection with several of the rites may be of much advantage to the people. But the Apostolic See alone is empowered to grant this permission. It is forbidden, therefore, to take any action whatever of this nature without having requested and obtained such consent, since the sacred liturgy, as We have said, is entirely subject to the discretion and approval of the Holy See.
61. The same reasoning holds in the case of some persons who are bent on the restoration of all the ancient rites and ceremonies indiscriminately. The liturgy of the early ages is most certainly worthy of all veneration. But ancient usage must not be esteemed more suitable and proper, either in its own right or in its significance for later times and new situations, on the simple ground that it carries the savor and aroma of antiquity. The more recent liturgical rites likewise deserve reverence and respect. They, too, owe their inspiration to the Holy Spirit, who assists the Church in every age even to the consummation of the world. They are equally the resources used by the majestic Spouse of Jesus Christ to promote and procure the sanctity of man.
62. … [I]t is neither wise nor laudable to reduce everything to antiquity by every possible device. Thus, to cite some instances, one would be straying from the straight path were he to wish the altar restored to its primitive tableform; were he to want black excluded as a color for the liturgical vestments; were he to forbid the use of sacred images and statues in Churches; were he to order the crucifix so designed that the divine Redeemer’s body shows no trace of His cruel sufferings; and lastly were he to disdain and reject polyphonic music or singing in parts, even where it conforms to regulations issued by the Holy See.
63. Clearly no sincere Catholic can refuse to accept the formulation of Christian doctrine more recently elaborated and proclaimed as dogmas by the Church, under the inspiration and guidance of the Holy Spirit with abundant fruit for souls, because it pleases him to hark back to the old formulas. No more can any Catholic in his right senses repudiate existing legislation of the Church to revert to prescriptions based on the earliest sources of canon law. Just as obviously unwise and mistaken is the zeal of one who in matters liturgical would go back to the rites and usage of antiquity, discarding the new patterns introduced by disposition of divine Providence to meet the changes of circumstances and situation.
64. This way of acting bids fair to revive the exaggerated and senseless antiquarianism to which the illegal [Jansenistic] Council of Pistoia gave rise. … For perverse designs and ventures of this sort tend to paralyze and weaken that process of sanctification by which the sacred liturgy directs the sons of adoption to their Heavenly Father of their souls’ salvation.
Alas, to denounce “kneeling for communion” as an implicitly defective “novelty”, is but to cut off one’s ecclesial nose in order to spite one’s traditionalist face. So, while it may be commendable, and certainly cathartic, to joust with those who would magnify their favorite particular traditions into non-negotiables of the Faith, we are well advised to heed Holy Mother Church’s counsel on the reception of the Eucharist, realizing that an overzealous return “ad fontes” may only serve to dull the sensibilities of our already deeply sacrilegious world. The mind of the Church on this matter is clear, and I think the reasoning is simple: kneeling for communion and reception on the tongue is a more ampliatory liturgical devotion, in so far as it broadens and deepens the significance of receiving communion per se. A zeal for catholicity mustn’t become an excuse for traditionalist revanchism, least of all when the scars of one’s theological facelift are still so visible: the risk of spiritual suppuration is too great.