Catholicism is Universal, Part II: Understanding Different Rites and Different Customs

As discussed in a previous post, Catholicism was the first religion that was meant to be universal (hence its name), and hence the practice of the faith was to take on different forms in the different cultures that it spread to.  Of course, the actual doctrines of the Church, the actual deposit of the faith, are the same and unchanging.  The seven Sacraments instituted by Christ Himself are the same.  But among the different cultures, the Church has always been very amenable to accepting different methods of prayer and devotion, different customs and practices, and even different intellectual traditions that are all meant to express and reflect the same truth. 

This is why, from the beginning, different ‘rites’ developed in different areas of the world.  Each ‘rite’ was under the authority of a different patriarch, and each developed a different form of liturgy, though all were celebrating the same Eucharist and the same Sacraments as instituted by Christ Himself.  The patriarchies in Constantinople, Jerusalem, Antioch, and Alexandria were each the seat of one of the Eastern Churches.  The Pope in Rome was the leader of the Church throughout the entire Western world, which was somewhat homogenized at the time since the Romans had conquered it all.  While the Eastern Churches each developed liturgies and forms of devotion appropriate to the culture in their locality, the Western Church established, among other things, Latin as a liturgical and religious language, veneration of statues, using unleavened Hosts for the Eucharist, kneeling during Mass, and using holy water for blessings.  They even Christianized old pagan customs such as exchanging wedding rings, and dedicated the month of May, which had been dedicated to the goddesses of bloom and fertility, to the Blessed Virgin Mary instead.

Over the centuries, the particular traditions of the Western Church became much more solidified, and did not always continue to change as equivalent things in the secular world changed.  Priests’ liturgical vestments and habits of religious brothers and sisters continued to resemble clothing from the ancient or early medieval world when they were initially established, even though secular clothing styles changed.  Liturgies continued to be celebrated in Latin even after many people did not understand it.  But this was usually because the Church recognized that the old traditions were more conducive to proper religious devotion and reverence than ‘updated’ practices would be.  Clerical vestments and religious habits represented dignity and sacredness, whereas newer clothing would have had exactly the opposite effect.    

Nevertheless, different European cultures did ultimately develop various practices of their own that were appropriate to their own cultural sensibilities and did not always agree with each other.  For example, Christians everywhere, except in Ireland, took to naming their children after saints out of respect and devotion, but only the Spanish took to naming their sons Jesus.  All other cultures refused to do.  The Church tolerated such differences, recognizing that each culture intended to express reverence but had different ideas about how to best do so.  Also, new practices and devotions were introduced in order to be appropriate to new nations to whom the Gospel was preached.  For example, the Blessed Mother appeared at Guadalupe, leaving behind an image of herself dressed as a pregnant Aztec princess. This appealed to the Indians’ understanding and sensibilities and helped to draw them to her and her Divine Child.

Pope Leo XIII explained in his 1899 letter Testem Benevolentiae Nostrae:

“History proves clearly that the Apostolic See, to which has been entrusted the mission not only of teaching but of governing the whole Church, has continued ‘in one and the same doctrine, one and the same sense, and one and the same judgment,’ — Const. de fide, Chapter iv.  But in regard to ways of living she has been accustomed to so yield that, the divine principle of morals being kept intact, she has never neglected to accommodate herself to the character and genius of the nations which she embraces.”

This letter was written when it was perceived, rightly or wrongly, that the Church in America was trying to change her doctrines and reject the authority of the Pope in order to seem more respectable in a predominantly Protestant nation.  Leo XIII strongly warned against doing this.  But there were other changes implemented by the American Church that were most helpful to the spiritual and pragmatic needs of Catholics in America.  The best-known example is the system of parochial schools that was established as an alternative to the American public schools.  Parishes also established catechism classes for children attending public schools.  Another example is that the number of Holy Days of Obligation and mandatory penitential days was reduced in America, recognizing that these practices caused more hardship in a country whose economy and social structure was not designed to accommodate them.  Also, Scripture readings during Mass were read in English from early on.

So, however out-of-step with the times the Church may seem, it is important to recognize that Catholicism, which professes to be the one universal true religion, is actually very accommodating to the needs of different cultures and changing times.  Moral absolutes are unchanging and unchanging and must always be obeyed, which is not an easy concept to understand in this day and age.  Nevertheless, the Church also has an unwritten rule that, for situations which do not involve a moral absolute, it is usually best to follow custom.  This is true to the extent that customs can be applied in a way that is consistent with Church teaching and the good of souls, and it is amazing how often ways can be found to incorporate Catholicism with prevailing customs. 

I hope to have upcoming posts about specific ways that Catholicism can be incorporated with prevailing customs in our particular society.  Feel free to contribute suggestions!

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