Newman and His Fierce, Unchanging Religion

I will not shrink from uttering my firm conviction, that it would be a gain to this country, were it vastly more superstitious, more bigoted, more gloomy, more fierce in its religion, than at present it shows itself to be.[1] Saint John Henry Newman

Newman’s point in this startling statement is that superstition and religion have something in common, viz., a belief in a spiritual realm that is accessible to human beings. We know that our prayers and rites are pleasing to God and open our hearts to the influence of his grace. The error of superstition, therefore, is not in its recognition of a transcendent reality. Rather is it mistaken in the conviction that by certain formulae and practices it can control these supernatural powers. Many of its practices have become harmless over time, such as knocking on wood to cancel the dangers occasioned by an act of hubris, but some remain harmful, even evil, such as a belief the evil eye or voodoo.

Newman noted that when religion goes wrong it degenerates into superstition. It follows, then, that the purification of superstition will lead back to authentic religion in which prayers and ceremonies will be offered to God in humble submission to his providential care. In other words, superstition lends itself to correction when the element of magic is eliminated. The opposite of superstition is religious scepticism, and it too is the corruption of something good, namely, man’s power of reasoning. Just as, when religion goes wrong, it moves into superstition, so reason degenerates into scepticism when it claims that reality is limited to what human intelligence can discover about the physical world. And as the superstitious person is too gullible, so is the sceptic too dismissive of anything he cannot prove by experiment and in the hard court of logic.

Newman’s insight can be usefully applied to the liturgy, which can go wrong in two ways, one corresponding to superstition and the other to rationalism. The point is that the liturgy is ceremonial: one does something with the assurance that the ritual action has its supernatural effect. A ceremony, by its very nature, must be carefully and properly performed; otherwise, it is not a ceremony. Think, for instance, of the protocol surrounding a royal visit. “Rubrics” is the term used for the directives to the celebrant in his sacramental activity: where to stand, what to say, how to prepare and distribute the sacred elements, and so on. In the past, the ceremonies of the Mass were minutely prescribed: the priest’s arms could not be extended past the shoulders, for instance, candles had to made from beeswax, only linen could be used for the vestments and sacred cloth, are only a few of the numerous rubrics that governed the celebration of Mass. An exclusive concern with such rubrics can move the liturgical celebration in the direction of magic. For the essential characteristic of magic, as with superstition, is absolute fidelity to the words and actions to be performed if the spell is to be effective. A mistake in a name or the use of a wrong gesture can wreak havoc. A common plot in old romances is the administration of a love potion to the wrong person, with the complications that Shakespeare explored in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Magic is automatic and a magical approach to liturgy transforms it into a mechanical act that has its effect regardless of the devotion or even the attention of the worshippers.

If such was a tendency in the past, it is certainly not one of today, when the temptation is in the opposite direction. As the superstitious believer focuses on outward conformity, so the rationalistic believer tends toward a spiritual individualism, a logical self-sufficiency that ultimately calls into question the effect of the rite. Instead of viewing the Mass as a priceless inheritance that must be handled with the greatest care, it becomes a platform for the celebrant’s particular notions. Hence rubrics are discarded, as prayers are altered to suit his fancy and ceremonies are curtailed or reshaped to coincide with current intellectual or social fads that can be subsumed under the general heading of political correctness. One celebrant may omit the lavabo—the washing of the fingers at the end of the Offertory—as an empty gesture; another omits the trinitarian doxology to the opening prayer (the collect) on the grounds that it is redundant. It seems that the celebrant who is scrupulous about rubrics—unlike the one who is careless about them—can be expected to deepen his spirituality by recognizing their role in fostering devotion and well as ensuring care. On the other hand, it must be admitted that continual revisions of the wording and ceremonies of Mass and the other sacraments on the part of Rome and various bishops has left even the most well-intended clergyman in some confusion about exactly what is expected of him. It is axiomatic that a change in laws or regulation, even when it represents an improvement, weakens the authority of law in general. There are times when this principle would recommend leaving an imperfect law intact because its righting will, in the long run, do more harm to the common good that leaving it be. One can only hope, and pray, that over time a set of rubrics will become firmly established and scrupulously observed for the fostering of reverence and devotion throughout the Church.

[1] John Henry Newman, “The Religion of the Day,” Parochial and Plain Sermons (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1997), p. 205.