Is kneeling really a mortal sin?

bankaufl neuIt's an old joke, one that I think I first heard during the 1980s when I began reading some conservative Catholic publications while trying to learn more about trends in the Church of Rome. It's a joke that, even after 9/11, gets a lot of use. It goes like this: What is the difference between a liturgist and a terrorist?

The answer, of course, is: You can negotiate with a terrorist.

In my experience, both as a reporter on the beat and now as a columnist, few topics that I write about inspire more comment from readers than articles about trends in worship -- whether we are talking about emerging churches venturing into liturgy or megachurches finding new ways to use their movie screens. This is especially true of columns about efforts to modernize worship in ancient churches. Take, for example, the music in most Catholic parishes today.

But there is a problem, one that is illustrated in that Los Angeles Times story by David Haldane with the headline "A Ban on Kneeling? Some Catholics Won't Stand for It." This is a really important local story that, as Haldane notes, points to a larger story across the nation. Here is how the story opens:

At a small Catholic church in Huntington Beach, the pressing moral question comes to this: Does kneeling at the wrong time during worship make you a sinner?

Kneeling "is clearly rebellion, grave disobedience and mortal sin," Father Martin Tran, pastor at St. Mary's by the Sea, told his flock in a recent church bulletin. The Diocese of Orange backs Tran's anti-kneeling edict. Though told by the pastor and the archdiocese to stand during certain parts of the liturgy, a third of the congregation still gets on its knees every Sunday.

This could not have been an easy story to report, in part because Catholic authorities -- the people who employ the liturgists -- rarely are willing to discuss these kinds of conflicts with people in the mainstream press. Many have a kind of public-relations view of the press and many simply fear that journalists will mess up the complicated history involved in these conflicts.

Let me stress that Haldane and the Times copy desk faced major challenges. You could write a book on this topic, if you wanted to quote all of the clashing viewpoints on worship issues in the American Catholic Church. These issues are numbingly complex. So I am sure that people on both sides of this conflict would have some bones to pick with the final story.

Let's walk through some of the history in this story, where even The Da Vinci Code shows up for discussion:

Since at least the 7th century, Catholics have been kneeling after the Agnus Dei, the point during Mass when the priest holds up the chalice and consecrated bread and says, "Behold the lamb of God." But four years ago, the Vatican revised its instructions, allowing bishops to decide at some points in the Mass whether their flocks should get on their knees. "The faithful kneel ... unless the Diocesan Bishop determines otherwise," says Rome's book of instructions. Since then, some churches have been built without kneelers.

The debate is part of the argument among Catholics between tradition and change. Traditionalists see it as the ultimate posture of submission to and adoration of God; modernists view kneeling as the vestige of a feudal past they would like to leave behind.

At the center of the controversy is the church's concept of Christ, said Jesuit Father Lawrence J. Madden, director of the Georgetown Center for Liturgy at Georgetown University in Washington. It's a question raised in the bestselling book "The Da Vinci Code." Because the earliest Christians viewed Jesus as God and man, Madden said, they generally stood during worship services to show reverence and equality. About the 7th century, however, Catholic theologians put more emphasis on Christ's divinity and introduced kneeling as the only appropriate posture at points in the Mass when God was believed to be present.

That sound you hear is traditional Catholics grumbling that a priest from Georgetown gets to explain this issue and that's that. This is something like allowing, in a news report, someone from the current Southern Baptist Convention's executive committee to explain both sides of the 27-year-war for control of that body. The folks on the other side view the facts and the history quite differently.

backstopThe key, in this story, is that the Times allows Madden to state -- as fact -- that one of the primary effects of Vatican II was to move Catholic worship "back to its earliest roots." When defined in this way, the traditionalists are the modernists, the traditionalists are the heretics. Needless to say, these are fighting words for any Catholic on a kneeler.

Let me note my own bias here, as an Eastern Orthodox Christian. We stand all the time in worship, although -- during large parts of the liturgical year -- we do prostrations (face on the floor) instead of kneeling. The logic for standing is different, too. Madden says that Catholics stand as an expression of "reverence and equality." That's an interesting pair of words. In Orthodoxy, we say that it is appropriate to stand in the presence of a King. But there is a lot of room here for people with different ways of expressing piety and reverence.

Read the article and you will see just how complex this issue can get in the modern Catholic context. What is interesting to me is that some bishops are willing to go to war over this. That alone tells you that the stakes are high. Something else is going on.

So where, in this story, is the viewpoint of a Catholic historian -- or even a bishop -- on the other side of this local dispute? Was there room for someone to respond to Madden? The story does note:

No less an authority than the pope is on record as favoring kneeling. Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, who became Pope Benedict XVI last year, wrote in "The Spirit of the Liturgy," published in 2000, that the gesture "comes from the Bible and the knowledge of God." He has not addressed the issue as pope.

American Catholic bishops have taken the opposite position. "Standing can be just as much an expression of respect for the coming of Christ," said Msgr. Anthony F. Sherman, a spokesman for the liturgy secretariat of the U.S. Bishops Committee on the Liturgy based in Washington.

Well, who would know? The pope or the American liturgist? And have all of the American bishops taken this stance or is this something that is more common in certain parts of the country? Blue zip codes, even?

This is a hot, hot story and I hope that the Times stays on it. This is a battle over symbols that are more than symbols. There be dragons on this part of the Catholic map.

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