When the article on Litanies appeared in the Catholic Telegraph, the position taken by the writer was attacked on several different points by different correspondents. It would be uninteresting to the general reader to insert the whole controversy, but truth requires that he should be informed that such a controversy took place, and that some of the arguments urged by our adversaries were strong and pointed. The following remarks on the Roman Congregations and the binding power of their decisions, may not, in the present state of the case, be devoid of interest, and may help the reader to understand the point in controversy.
The practical conclusion drawn in the article on Litanies was that no Litanies, except those of the Saints and of the Blessed Virgin, ought to be recited in public functions, but that others may be recited by the faithful in their private devotions. At the same time the author counseled, even in the latter case, the use of Litanies certainly approved and indulgenced in preference to those not thus privileged. The conclusion to which one of the Telegraph’s correspondents came is that other Litanies than the two mentioned may not be recited by the faithful, even in private. He agrees with the writer of the Sacramentals that their use in public functions is forbidden by the Sacred Congregation of Rites, and then says that the writer in question has overlooked the fact that their private recitation is forbidden by the Congregation of the Index.
The subject naturally resolves itself into two questions: 1st, Have the Congregations issued the prohibitions? 2d, What authority have these Congregations, or, in other words, are their decisions binding?
Before proceeding to a discussion of these points our readers will naturally expect an explanation of what is meant by the Congregation of Rites and that of the Index.
The Sacred Congregations of Rome are Committees of Cardinals, assisted by inferior officials, to whom the Sovereign Pontiff intrusts the examination, management and decision of certain classes of affairs. We may compare the College of Cardinals to a legislative body in our own country. The Congregations into which it is divided are like the various Committees of Congress or any State Legislature. Just as there are Committees of Ways and Means, of Military Affairs, of Public Roads, etc., so there are Congregations of Sacred Rites, of the Index, of Bishops and Regulars, of the Propagation of the Faith, etc.
It is the duty of the Congregation of Rites to regulate liturgical matters, that is, things pertaining to the public ceremonies of divine worship, and to solve difficulties that may arise concerning them.
Rubricians define sacred rites to be the laws prescribed by the Church for the proper regulation of exterior religious worship. Are we to understand this of public or private exterior worship? Three reasons make us believe that it refers only to public worship. 1st, Sacred rites are the objects of that part of ecclesiastical science which treats of the Liturgy. Now Liturgy, as its name, derived from the Greek, indicates, is a public function. 2d, Fornici, whose book, Institutiones Liturgicæ, has received the praise and official approbation of the Roman authorities, calls sacred rites laws. St. Thomas defines a law to be a “rational prescription formed for the common good and promulgated by him who has charge of the community.” Therefore, a law differs from a precept in that it affects men not as individuals, but as members of society. Hence sacred rites regard social or public ecclesiastical worship, not private devotions. 3d, Sixtus V., in his Constitution for the the erection of the Congregation of Sacred Rites, declares that its duty is to attend to the ceremonies, rites, etc., in all the churches of the city of Rome and of the world, that is, to public functions.
The duty of the Congregation of the Index is to designate and prohibit books that are prejudicial to faith or morals, to the well-being of Christian or civil society. The regulation of the private devotions of the faithful belongs to it only indirectly, or per accidens, as theologians say. If any formula of prayer were heretical or immoral, it would, by that fact, fall under the cognizance of the Congregation of the Index. The main business of that Congregation is with dangerous books which might instil false principles of belief or practice into the minds of the faithful, not with the prayers that they are to say in private. The puerile or dangerous expressions with which, as Clement VIII. says, some Litanies abound, subject them to the prohibition of the Index; but we can not see why those that are orthodox in sentiment and phraseology should share the same fate.
We come now to the first question: Have the Congregation of Rites and that of the Index forbidden all Litanies but those of the Saints and of the Blessed Virgin? 1. The Congregation of Rites has done so, as may be verified by referring to the decrees quoted in the article on Litanies in the body of the book, and to others given in the Decreta Authentica, abridged from Gardellini. 2. They are besides on the Index, inasmuch as they are sacred rites. We have found the decree to which the Telegraph’s correspondent refers, but we think that he is mistaken in his interpretation of it. The third number of the fourth division of this decree forbids other Litanies than the two mentioned to be used in sacred rites. But we trust we have satisfactorily proved that a sacred rite is a public rite. Therefore only the public recitation of the Litanies in question is forbidden by the rules of the Index. Their use in private devotions remains optional, provided always the Litany said be not heretical or erroneous in any of its petitions, because then it would be forbidden by the natural law.
The second questions is, what authority have the Roman Congregations? The answer is simple enough: Just as much as the Supreme Pontiff gives them. He is the primary source on earth of all ecclesiastical jurisdiction, dogmatic, moral, and liturgical. He may, if he wishes, delegate to the Congregations the plentitude of his own authority, and make their decisions binding as his own, or he may impart to them a limited jurisdiction, making their decisions bind only in particular cases. Which of the two has he done in regard to the Congregation of Sacred Rites and that of the Index? The teachings of approved theologians will help us to solve the question.
Scavini, one of the latest Italian theologians, one who has systematized the doctrine of St. Alphonsus Liguori, and whose book has been favorably received by his present Holiness, Pius IX., puts this question in his treatise De Ligibus: “Are the declarations of the Sacred Congregations binding?” He thus answers:
“There is question either of the particular case for which the declarations were issued; or of a different, but similar case. If the first, then the decisions bind, as is evident from the contribution Immensa of Sixtus V. If the second, many hold the probable opinion that they still bind, on account of the similarity of the case. Others, with equal probability, maintain that they are not binding, unless issued by the command of the Pope, and published for the whole Church.”
There is an axiom in theology which says, lax dubia non potest parere certam obligationem. This answer may require explanation for those of our readers who are not acquainted with theological technicalities. Many of the decisions of the Congregations are given in answer to particular questions or doubts proposed by individuals or by local churches. For that particular case the decisions bind. Suppose now that a similar question arise in another place; does the first decision bind in the second case on account of the similarity? It is probable according to the teaching of theologians, that it does not, and therefore we can not conclude that sin would be committed by its non-observance. Of course it ought to be adopted, if the cases are in all respects, precisely similar, but we are not at liberty to say that it must be adopted. Theologians always sharply distinguish between what is of strict precept, binding under pain of sin, and what is of counsel.
St. Liguori agrees with Scavini in his decision of the question (Lib. I. Tract 2, De Legibus, Cap. I., Dubium 2. N. 106. Mechlin Edition, 1828.) Nulli dubiam, quod pro casibus particularibus, pro quibus fiunt, obligant ut leges, prout est commune. Dubium est an obligent pro casibus similibus. Duplex est sententia, utraque probabilis.
Let us apply this teaching of theology to our subject-matter. The prohibitions of Litanies by the Congregation of Rites are, as far as we have found, issued, with one exception, in answer to particular questions asked by individuals or by local churches. That one exception is a general decree, quoted in the article on Litanies, curent Ordinarii colligere et vetare formulas quascumque, tam impressas quam manuscriptas Litaniarum, de quarum approbatione non constat. Die 31 Martii, 1821. Decretum Generale ad 8 (4428.) The case to which this decree applies is a general one, and therefore it binds generally. Decreta generalia Sacræ Congregationis Rituum vim legis universalis et conscientiam oblitgantis habent (Bouix De jure Liturgico. Pars secunda. Lect. II. Cap. VI. Prop. 2.] How far this decision is to be modified by contrary custom, sanctioned by the tacit consent of the Holy See, we do not know, nor have we any right to say. Our learned prelates are for us the representatives of the Pope, and when we obey them, we obey him, we obey Jesus Christ.
In regard to the binding force of the decrees of the Index, we shall content ourselves with quoting an authority which “A Constant Reader” and every American Catholic will respect—the Most Rev. Archbishop Kenrick, of Baltimore. In the second volume of his Moral Theology (Tract XIII, De Virtutibus Theol., Pars Ia. C. V. de librorum prohibitione N. 56 et 57,) the distinguished prelate says: “The Popes, particularly Clement VIII, commanded the rules of the Index to be promulgated everywhere, and the Sacred Congregation has declared that its decrees bind all Christians; yet the mildness and tolerance of the Sovereign Pontiffs allow the rigor of these rules to be relaxed in most places, in which Catholics live amidst heretical society. Although the intention of the Church is to forbid the reading of bad books, yet if the rules of the Bullæ Cœnæ and of the Index are not received amongst us (and it seems evident that they are not), I do not know by what universal law the reading of the books in question is prohibited. If the work or writing be intrinsically bad, it is forbidden by the natural and positive divine law, and all that would follow, in the case, from the non-binding power of the Index in this country, would be that persons reading bad books would not incur ecclesiastical penalties, although they would sin. Even granting, then, for the moment, that the Litanies in question are forbidden in private devotions by the rules of the Index, the prohibition would not apply to this country. The faithful may say them then, unless they be heretical or otherwise erroneous.
We conclude, 1st, it is the earnest wish of the Church that no other Litanies than those of the Saints and of the Blessed Virgin should be recited in public functions. 2. It is not certain whether that wish has the force of a law, in this country. 3. Private devotions which conform to the public ones of the Church are, cœteris paribus, to be preferred to those which do not.