Devotions Catholics Are Free to Practice (or Not)

One of the most fruitful sources of misconception in regard to the Catholic religion is the general ignorance prevalent among those outside the Church as to the true meaning of what we call devotional practices and their place in the religious system of which they form a part. Our good non-Catholic friends observe us devoutly “telling our beads,” kneeling in prayer at this or that shrine, wearing scapulars and medals, reciting certain prayers in honor of the saints, taking holy water, receiving blessed ashes, candles, or palms; and they are apt to conclude that all these things stand upon the same level as the reception of the sacraments or the observance of the moral law and the commandments of the Church.

Not knowing the distinction between essentials and nonessentials, they class together all the practices that they observe to be in use among Catholics and think that they are all equally binding upon us. Finding some of these practices very distasteful to them, failing to see any signification or usefulness in others, they deem that they could never bring themselves to embrace them even for the sake of that peace and certainty of faith that they often instinctively feel is not to be found elsewhere than in the Catholic Church.

Devotional Practices

This article is from “What Catholics Are Free to Believe or Not.” Click image to preview other chapters.

To remove this misunderstanding, it will be necessary to explain what is meant by Catholic devotions and to show what place they hold in the life of Catholics and of the Church as a body.

Certain observances are made obligatory by the Church upon all Catholics; some because, as in the case of the sacraments, they are the regular and appointed channels by which the life of divine grace flows through the whole body; others because they are of peculiar and universal efficacy in ensuring a practical Christian life. But beyond these, there is the very large class of practices that go under the general name of Catholic devotions.

Not essentially necessary to the spiritual life of a Catholic, as are the sacraments, nor of such universal efficacy in the promotion of the essentials of a practical Catholic life as are the precepts of the Church, devotions are, nevertheless, of greater or lesser utility as helps to true devotion. This greater or lesser utility depends, as is pointed out in the foregoing extract, upon their source as real manifestations of healthy spiritual life — as originating in devout meditation enlightened by sound doctrine — and on their tried efficacy as instruments in the promotion of a high standard of Christian practice among those who make use of them.

Men’s souls have many needs in common, yet each particular soul or class of souls has its own special needs. Catholic devotions are intended to meet these needs, both common and individual. Thus it is that we find in the Church so great a variety of devotional practices, some of a more-or-less universal character, coextensive almost with the Church herself, as satisfying wants that are felt by all or by the greater part of the faithful; while others are of less extension as appealing to certain souls only.

The attitude of the Church herself toward these devotional practices is somewhat different from her attitude in matters of faith. Of both she is, of course, the supreme judge; but, in the nature of things, her judgments in doctrinal matters must more often be strict and peremptory than in the matter of devotions. While it is true that not only will false doctrine produce wrong practice, but wrong practice will also frequently result in damage to faith, yet the boundaries within which varieties in practice may move without damage to faith are wider than those limits beyond which opinion in matters of doctrine passes into error.

The Church, therefore, is very tolerant in regard to practices of devotion. The moment, however, they involve or imply a false conception of the teachings of religion, she puts her ban upon them; but, with a deep insight into human nature and its wants, she does not hesitate to permit many practices that are the outcome of a simple faith and affection and are of real use to large numbers of her children, although they may draw a smile or a jibe from superior and “enlightened” persons. Guided in this matter, as well as in her doctrinal teachings, by the Spirit of Truth promised to her in the beginning, she extends to such practices, as pious meditation on the truths of faith suggests to her children, now her strongest approbation or recommendation, now her protection or kindly toleration, according as she judges them to be of universal utility or useful for certain persons only, and according to their greater or lesser efficacy in the promotion of true holiness. Thus, as the writer whom I have already quoted puts it:

The Church reserves to herself a certain right of discrimination in this matter. She meets the various devotions that arise with approval or toleration or condemnation, according as she judges them sound in doctrine or the reverse, and helpful or harmful or indifferent to the spiritual life. By her approval she guarantees that they are sound in doctrine, and, at least, have it in them to be helpful to salvation and sanctification. By her toleration she ensures to them a certain negative virtue and harmlessness, without any assertion as to their being actually ennobling and useful. But here her mission ends. It is not as with the sacraments, which she presses on the use of the faithful; it is not as with her doctrinal definitions, which are to help on the life of spiritual knowledge, as the sacraments help on that of grace.

In this other field she assumes to herself no final responsibility, except in the merely negative manner which we have indicated. She approves in the name of doctrine; she permits in the name of liberty; but she commands nothing except that toleration and respect which she has herself manifested, and she refuses to take up that burden of individual responsibility which many are too ready to fling on to her shoulders at every turn of the spiritual life. The right of choice and its duties remain to the individual soul, which has to manifest its loyalty by exercising, in things religious, that temperance and courtesy which are the spiritual counterpart of social good manners. We are not bound to practice all the devotions which the Church declares holy and harmless; but we are bound to restrain our criticism in the spirit of respect for our fellow Christians; and we are also called on to conform to certain general usages under pain of becoming boors in our religious community.

The Church, then, wisely leaves these things to our own choice, in which we must be guided by the adaptability of various devotions to the needs of our own souls, and the approbation extended to them by ecclesiastical authority; the latter being, in the main, protective rather than directive. She thus insures us against any practice contrary to the spirit and teachings of the Catholic religion and leaves it to ourselves to select those devotions that we find most conducive to our own progress in the spiritual life.

Thus, far from being bound down and restricted in the development of spirituality, Catholics have the widest freedom — far more than is to be found in any of the sects among whom, just as faith has suffered by insistence on some truths to the exclusion of others, so also spirituality suffers by insistence on some particular method of devotion, with the inevitable result of cramping and confining the spiritual energies that, given free vent, would lead to higher things.

We have already noticed that devotional practices do not all stand on the same footing. There are some that experience has proved to be so generally helpful to a fuller and more fruitful Catholic life that they have obtained almost universal acceptance among the faithful and have been encouraged and promoted far and wide by the Church, who has put her seal upon them in an unmistakable manner. Such are the well-known devotion of the Rosary, the devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, various practices in honor of the sacred humanity of our Divine Lord, others in commemoration of the various mysteries of His life and Passion.

Much as she encourages these devotions, however, the Church does not make them obligatory upon all.

A Catholic, indeed, who should deny that the sacred humanity, as personally united to the Eternal Word, is to be worshiped with divine honor, or who should refuse that worship to our Lord, would make shipwreck of the faith. So also would he who would deny the utility and propriety of invoking the intercession of our Lady and the saints.

Catholic Freedom in Devotions

Nevertheless, a Catholic is not compelled to invoke the saints or to take up any special form of devotion to our Lord’s sacred humanity, excepting, of course, the worship he is duty-bound to offer to Him present on our altars in the Blessed Sacrament. But he is not forced to take up the special devotion to the Sacred Heart or to the Five Wounds or to the Precious Blood. At the same time, any child of the Church who would set up his private opinion in opposition to that of the whole body would, in the words of the writer I have quoted, do so “under pain of becoming a boor in his religious community.” He would, moreover, be depriving himself of a means of furtherance in the Christian life, of the efficacy of which, in view of the strong approbation of the Church, there can be no doubt.

The history of certain widespread devotions plainly shows them to have been awakened in the Church by the action of the Holy Spirit, to meet the needs of souls at various periods of the Church’s life. In these matters the Church moves with the times; and not to move with her argues a certain failure to realize those teachings of faith that express themselves from time to time in new forms of devotional practice, according as fresh aspects of ancient truths exhibit themselves to her understanding.

Not unfrequently such fresh aspects are the consequence of the rise of some error that draws attention to a view of doctrine not explicitly considered before by the Church at large; and a devotional practice arising from this new contemplation of Truth, unchanging in itself, may be a protest against prevalent heretical tendencies. Such was undoubtedly the case with the devotion to the Sacred Heart, which, by its warmth of tender affection to the person of our Blessed Lord, and its lively appreciation of His love for men, together with a consequent great increase of the use of those sacraments by which we enter into the closest union with Him, acted as an antidote to the cold formalism and harsh rigorism of the Jansenist heresy.

So, then, should a Catholic abstain from a devotion of this kind, one would say of him that he is not compelled to take it up, but that he proves himself more or less out of sympathy with the spirit of the Church by refusing to follow her in that continual progress she exhibits alike in the development of her understanding of doctrine and in consequent adaptations of practice. Not to follow her in such adaptation to new needs and conditions is at least to run the risk of finding oneself out of harmony with her teaching. The appeal to antique as against contemporary ways of devotion has a dangerous kinship with the appeal from the teaching of the present living voice of the Church to the dead letter of the past.

Holy Indulgences and Sacramentals

There are two other ordinances of the Church that enter largely into Catholic life and may be, for the purposes of this chapter, conveniently classed under the head of “devotional practices,” although differing in one important respect from such devotions as we have hitherto considered. These are holy indulgences and the sacramentals of the Church. They differ from other devotions in that they have a close connection with the sacraments themselves and are consequently recommended and even pressed upon the faithful by the Church with more insistence than she uses with regard to devotions in general.

The grant of indulgences — that is, of the remission of temporal punishment still remaining due for sins already forgiven — is an integral part of the power of the keys exercised by the Church in absolution from sin. Indulgences complete the work begun by the sacrament of penance. The sinner has been reconciled with God, but the demands of Divine Justice have still to be satisfied by temporary suffering, endured either on earth or in purgatory. In holy indulgences we have a means of satisfying these demands in an easier way; or, rather, in them the Church has an authoritatively ordained means of making that satisfaction for us — a means purchased, like pardon itself, by the merits of the blood of Jesus Christ. The utility of indulgences, and the power of the Church to grant them, are truths of faith that no Catholic may deny. No one, however, is bound to avail himself of them. Nevertheless, it will easily be seen that the rejection of so great a spiritual advantage would argue a still greater want of conformity with the spirit of Catholicism than the rejection of even the most widespread of the devotional practices of which I have hitherto spoken.

The same may be said of the sacramentals. Partly by virtue of the official prayers and blessings of God’s representative, the Church, and partly by reason of the faith and devotion of those who use them, sacramentals are true means of grace and are, as such, brought prominently before her children by the Catholic Church. They are closely connected with the sacraments, inasmuch as, by remitting venial sin, they prepare the soul for their worthier reception and because some of them are invariably connected by the Church in her liturgy with the administration of certain sacraments and the celebration of Holy Mass. Thus, the blessing and use of holy water, palms, ashes and candles, and the holy oils find a place in the most solemn liturgical functions. Here again, although there is no compulsion to use these things — except when, as in the case of the holy oils, for instance, they form part of a sacramental rite — a Catholic who should withdraw himself from the universal practice of the Church at large would rightly be suspected of some want of harmony with her spirit.

But beyond indulgences and sacramentals, beyond those devotional practices whose universality is a recommendation not lightly to be passed over, there remain a multitude of devotions that will be useful to some, but by no means to all. These a Catholic may leave aside without the slightest imputation upon his conformity to the mind of the Church. Indeed, to leave them aside may often be a virtue; for it is not to be denied that some, oblivious of the real object of such things — to minister, that is, to the needs of particular souls and to help them forward in the practical life of a Christian — make of the means the end, and turn devotion into a kind of spiritual amusement, to the immense detriment of solid virtue and real progress. This is the fault neither of the devotions, which are excellent in themselves if wisely chosen and properly used, nor of the Church, which approves of them precisely on the understanding that such wise selection and prudent use of them shall be made. It is the fault of the persons who misuse a good thing.

Editor’s note: This article is adapted from a chapter in Fr. Hughes’ What Catholics Are Free to Believe or Notwhich is available from Sophia Institute Press

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Fr. H. G. Hughes is the author of What Catholics Are Free to Believe, which was originally published in 1906 and brought back to print by Sophia Institute Press.

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