Right-handed Gestures

And More on Canonizations

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ROME, SEPT. 6, 2011 (Zenit.org).- Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: A genuflection is made by bending the right knee (General Instruction of the Roman Missal [GIRM], No. 274), and a sign of cross is made by the right hand. Are these rules absolute? Could a left-handed person make a sign of cross by the left hand or genuflect with the left knee? — P.T., New Orleans, Louisiana

A: As a southpaw myself, I fully sympathize with our reader’s predicament. Thankfully, the stigma attached to left-handedness in former times seems to have all but disappeared. It certainly does not seem to have damaged the prospects of three of the last four U.S. presidents.

From a liturgical standpoint, the indications in the GIRM are merely descriptive of what the vast majority of people will do naturally and indicative of established custom. Since it is usually no great difficulty for left-handed people to perform these tasks, it is better and more decorous that they conform to the general rule of right. Even in civil society the vast majority of left-handed people will proffer the right hand for a friendly handshake. It quickly becomes so natural and spontaneous to use the right hand for genuflecting and blessing that one would have to make a conscious effort to act otherwise.

Personally, I have rarely found being left-handed an obstacle to carrying out the normal liturgical gestures and movements, except possibly when scooping incense from the boat to the thurible.

And yet, there is no deep theological reason for preferring one hand or another. It is a question of practicality and longstanding custom, similar to the different ways of making the sign of the cross, moving the hand from right to left among most Eastern Catholics while the Latin rite traditionally prefers a left-to-right movement.

It is true that there are many biblical passages that speak of the power of God’s right hand, and of Our Lord sitting «at the right hand of the Father.» The literary figures contained in these texts are significant in many theological contexts and are certainly related to the liturgy’s general preference for the use of the right hand. But I think it would be forcing the issue to use them to exclude other possibilities, or convert the use of the right hand into an absolute rule. These texts simply reflect the use of universal symbols of power grounded on the fact that 90 percent of people are right-handed.

If circumstances warrant it, then an alternative mode can be adopted. For example, when Blessed John Paul II broke his arm he felt no qualms in using his left hand to impart the apostolic blessing. Likewise, a person who is unsteady on his legs could genuflect according to whichever member gave greater balance.

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Follow-up: Canonizations and Infallibility

In the wake of our article on canonizations and infallibility (see Aug. 23), a reader requested further clarification. To wit:

«I read your essay on this subject; it is one that has puzzled me for some time. But there are several things unexplained in your piece. The Pope is infallible in matters of faith and morals. The canonization, much less the miracle that supports it, cannot be a matter of faith because that refers to Revelation, and the period of Revelation is over: There is nothing more to be revealed before Jesus returns. So it must be under morals that his infallibility lies. I have for some time felt that this exercise occurs when he declares a man or woman to have lived a life of heroic virtue. It would, it seems to me, be scandalous to encourage people to imitate and pray to someone who did not fit that description. The further stages, I would say, are based on God’s verification that the person’s cult is influential. You do not mention in your piece whether your statements are official Church teaching or, like my explanation above, your understanding of the process, which is bound to be more knowledgeable than mine. Obviously, if the Pope uses the word ‘define,’ that suggests his exercise of this authority, but you did say it was an approximate translation.»

First, let me say that the word define (definimus) is used in the original Latin, and the Pope is thus exercising his authority.

Second, the object of canonization is that the person declared as a saint is now in heaven and can be invoked as an intercessor by all the faithful. The infallibility of this action is accepted by the majority of Catholic theologians but has not itself been the subject of a definition.

Thus, with the act of canonization the Pope, so to speak, imposes a precept upon the faithful by saying that the universal Church must henceforth keep the memory of the canonized with pious devotion.

The 1967 New Catholic Encyclopedia discusses the theological foundation for the infallibility of canonization: «The dogma that saints are to be venerated and invoked as set forth in the profession of faith of Trent (cf. Denz. 1867) has as its correlative the power to canonize. … St. Thomas Aquinas says, ‘Honor we show the saints is a certain profession of faith by which we believe in their glory, and it is to be piously believed that even in this the judgment of the Church is not able to err’ (Quodl. 9:8:16).

«The pope cannot by solemn definition induce errors concerning faith and morals into the teaching of the universal Church. Should the Church hold up for universal veneration a man’s life and habits that in reality led to [his] damnation, it would lead the faithful into error. It is now theologically certain that the solemn canonization of a saint is an infallible and irrevocable decision of the supreme pontiff. God speaks infallibly through his Church as it demonstrates and exemplifies its universal teaching in a particular person or judges that person’s acts to be in accord with its teaching.»

At the same time, it is important to note that while the decree of heroic virtues and the miracle form a necessary part of the process of canonization, they are not the specific object of the declaration of infallibility.

Although the saint is proposed as a model of virtues and Christian living, it is not the specific object of canonization. For example, it is quite possible that a martyr show heroic virtue in the face of death without necessarily having lived all the virtues to an exemplary degree. Nor does canonization make the saints immune from the judgment of history insofar as hindsight might show that some of their external actions proved to be unwise or had negative consequences.

This argument therefore would place the infallibility of canonization within the area of faith insofar as the venerability of saints is a dogma grounded in Revelation, and the determination as to which persons can be thus venerated is a necessary exercise of infallible authority.

This is sometimes called the secondary object of infallibility. It is not revealed dogma per se but truths regarding faith and morals which are not formally revealed but are so bound up with divine Revelation that to deny them would lead us to many difficulties and even lead to a denial of some aspect of Revelation itself.

According to Ludwig Ott’s classical manual of dogmatic theology there are four kinds of teaching involved in this exercise of infallibility: Theological conclusions derived from formally revealed truths by aid of the natural truth of reason; historical facts on the determination of which the certainty of a truth of Revelation depends (so-called «dogmatic facts,» for example, «Is Pope N. truly the duly elected and rightful successor to the throne of Peter?»); natural truths of reason which are intimately connected with Revelation (e.g., the morality of certain medical procedures); the canonization of saints (see Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, p. 299).

A further argument can be offered
. With a canonization, the Pope mandates (rather than permits, as is the case of beatification) that a saint be venerated in the Church’s liturgy and especially with the Eucharistic celebration in his honor. Considering that the Mass is the highest and most perfect form of worship, it is logical that the Holy Spirit would guard the Pope and the Church from any error regarding a canonized person’s definitive state.

At the same time, it must be recognized that this is an argument based on congruence and is not apodictic. The institution of a liturgical celebration does not in itself imply an exercise of infallibility.

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Readers may send questions to liturgy@zenit.org. Please put the word «Liturgy» in the subject field. The text should include your initials, your city and your state, province or country. Father McNamara can only answer a small selection of the great number of questions that arrive.

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