Sunday, 6 October 2013

Cardinal Newman on Liturgical Traditions

John Henry Cardinal Newman

This is an interesting and remarkable passage from the Pariochial and Plain Sermons of Cardinal John Henry Newman (recently beatified by Pope Benedict XVI). This passage speaks of the importance of retaining the religious forms which have been handed down through long usage. The essential points all strike me as correct; I would, however, attach more objective importance to Catholic liturgical traditions, as I view them as more than merely indifferent. But perhaps Newman's point in naming such traditions as indifferent is to concede the fact that religious expression may vary, and there may be more than one single perfect means. In this sense it is admissible that such traditions are indifferent. But the fact that the religious expressions embodied in such traditions have acquired so great a practical usage and effectiveness in the Church is reason enough to establish a more objective venerability as well - and perhaps this isn't necessarily incompatible with Newman's teaching here.


After the Holy Spirit had descended, at first sight it would have appeared that all the Jewish ordinances ought at once to cease. But this was far from being the doctrine of the Apostles. They taught, indeed, that the Jewish rites were no longer of any use in obtaining God’s favour… But they neither abandoned the Jewish rites themselves, nor obliged any others to do so who were used to them. Custom was quite a sufficient reason for retaining them; every Christian was to remain in the state in which he was called… Now from this obedience to the Jewish law, enjoined and displayed by Our Blessed Lord and His Apostles, we learn the great importance of retaining those religious forms to which we are accustomed, even though they are in themselves indifferent, or not of Divine origin; and, as this is a truth which is not well understood by the world at large, it may be of use to make some observations upon it… Granting that the forms are not immediately from God, still long use has made them divine to us; for the spirit of religion has so penetrated and quickened them, that to destroy them is, in respect to the multitude of men, to unsettle and dislodge the religious principle itself. In most minds usage has so identified them with the notion of religion, that the one cannot be extirpated without the other. Their faith will not bear transplanting… The Jewish rites were to disappear; yet no one was bid forcibly to separate himself from what he had long used, lest he lost his sense of religion also. Much more will this hold good with forms such as ours, which so far from being abrogated by the Apostles, were introduced by them or their immediate successors; and which, besides the influence they exert over us from long usage, are, many of them, witnesses and types of precious gospel truths; nay, much more, possess a sacramental nature, and are adapted and reasonably accounted to convey a gift, even where they are not formally sacraments by Christ’s institution… Much might be said on this subject, which is a very important one. In these times especially, we should be on our guard against those who hope, by inducing us to lay aside our forms, at length to make us lay aside our Christian hope altogether. This is why the Church itself is attacked, because it is the living form, the visible body of religion’ and shrewd men known that when it goes, religion will go too. This is why they rail at so many usages as superstitions; or propose alterations and changes, a measure especially calculated to shake the faith of the multitude. Recollect, then, that things indifferent in themselves become important to us when we are used to them. The services and ordinances of the Church are the outward form in which religion has been for ages represented to the world, and has ever been known to us. Places consecrated to God’s honour, clergy carefully set apart for His service, the Lord’s day piously observed, the public forms of prayer, the decencies of worship, these things, viewed as a whole, are sacred relatively to us, even if they were not, as they are, divinely sanctioned. Rites which the Church has appointed, and with reason, -- for the Church’s authority is from Christ, -- being long used, cannot be disused without harm to our souls… Therefore, when profane persons scoff at our forms, let us argue with ourselves thus – and it is an argument which all men, learned or unlearned, can enter into: ‘These forms, even were they of mere human origin (which learned men say is not the case, but even if they were), are at least of as spiritual and edifying a character as the rites of Judaism. Yet Christ and His Apostles did not even suffer these latter to be irreverently treated or suddenly discarded. Much less may we suffer it in the case of our own; lest, stripping off from us the badges of our profession, we forget there is a faith for us to maintain, and a world of sinners to be eschewed.’

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