21 November 2009

Hand kissing, Lying, Guilt, and the Translation Battles

Questions. . . 

1).  What's the deal with kissing a priest's hands? 

As demonstration of respect and reverence for the priesthood some people will kiss a priest's hands rather than give him the more customary handshake.  There is nothing weird or wrong about doing this.  Kissing hands is largely a custom limited to historically Catholics countries like Italy, Poland, Mexico, etc.  When I've celebrated Mass in Hispanic parishes, many of the older parishioners will greet me at the door with a hand kiss.  The first time this happened I was a little surprised!  It is quite humbling.  Priests in the U.S. do not have the mystery surrounding them that they do in other parts of the world.  This is both good and bad.  It's good b/c too often "mystery" can go to the priest's head and he begins to think of himself as the object of reverence.  It's bad b/c the priesthood is not a function but a vocation, not a job/career but an identity.  Losing the mystery of the priesthood tends to reduce the priesthood to just another category of parochial employee.  It seems to me that hand kissing is perfectly acceptable so long as both the Kissed and the Kisser know that it is the priesthood being reverenced and not the priest.  Perhaps the best test of this would be to ask yourself (the Kisser):  would I kiss the hands of a priest I do not respect/like as a person?  If the answer is no, then I would say you should probably refrain. . .of course, kissing his hands may be a way for you to overcome your aversion to him.  But I'm not sure this is the best motivation.  I would hope that a priest who has his hands kissed would receive this sign of reverence humbly and not try to discourage it.  By and large, I think American, Canadian, and western European priests would be uncomfortable with it.  But, properly understood, there's really no reason to be.  I understand that the practice is more common in the eastern churches, but my knowledge of eastern Christians customs is very limited. 

2).  Is it ever OK to lie? 

I get this question a lot.  Most of the time people are wanting to know if it is OK to lie in order to avoid hurting someone's feelings, or spare them some sort of "hard truth."  Aquinas provides the classical Catholic analysis of the question.  He teaches that lying is always a sin.  As a sin, lying is subject to the same moral evaluation that we afford other sins.  Is the object of the act evil?  Is the act itself freely willed?  Is the act intended?  As moral agents we are constantly seeking the Good.  Everything we do we do to achieve this end--goodness.  Frequently, we are mistaken about whether or not a particular act takes us closer to the Good.  Sometimes, we know this act will not get us closer.  In the case of lying, we must know that we are speaking a falsehood (object).  We must be competent to will ourselves to speak the falsehood (i.e. free, not mentally or emotionally incapacitated).  And we must intend to deceive by freely willing to speak the falsehood.  All three conditions must be met in order for there to be a sin committed when speaking a falsehood.  Circumstances can mitigate the degree of culpability (guilt) for the sin.  The classic example is lying to the Nazis about the Jews you have hidden in your basement.  Yes, it is a sin to lie to the Nazis and save the lives of the Jews you have hidden.  Your guilt here is mitigated by duress.  Some would argue that you are not free.  But this is a dangerous interpretation of Aquinas' conditions b/c just about any situation where you want to spare someone hurt could be considered a limit on freedom.  So, lying is never OK.  But there are degrees of culpability in different circumstances. 

3).  In the post below, "Sacrificial service vs. being a doormat," I tried to distinguish the difference between serving others in a truly Christian fashion and simply allowing others to abuse your good will.  Ultimately, this distinction is going to be lived out in the individual conscience of the servant:  am I serving for the greater glory of God, or am I serving for some other, lesser reason?  Commenters noted that women are often culturally conditioned to feel guilty when they fail to serve "as they ought."  Not being a woman, I'll have to assume that this is true.  Guilt serves an important role in our conscience.  Understood in a healthy way, guilt alerts us to possible violations of conscience.  When guilt is imposed from an outside force (culture, spouses, etc.), it limits freedom and becomes coercive.  I can't speak to individual cases without spending a lot of time on the details involved, but generally speaking, our Christian service must be freely given--without any kind of coercion--in order for it to be sacrificial service.  Think of the difference between making a donation and paying a tax.  Who feels good about writing the IRS a check?  Who doesn't feel good about writing a check for a favorite charity?  The difference is the degree of freedom involved.  If you know that you are "serving" out of a sense of imposed guilt, then I would say that you are not serving freely.  Knowing that you are serving out of guilt is the tricky part.  That requires some spiritual direction.  It's not something that I can tease out in general terms.   

4).  What's the big deal with the new English translations of the Mass?  Why the constant delay? 

In my experience, people rarely argue over the Real Issue at Hand.  We tend to choose what I'll call "ciphers," or symbols that allow us to reduce a larger problem into smaller, manageable bits.  At stake in the Liturgy Wars is the soul of the Church.  Who are we?  What are we about?  It's a question of Catholic identity in this postmodern age.  But the problem of Catholic identity is cultural, social, economic, religious, legal, etc.  In other words, it's HUGE.  And as such, largely unmanageable.  So, we pick smaller battles to fight the larger war.  The Translation Battles have to do with what sort of language will use to pray together.  Both sides of the battle know that language shapes attitudes and influences beliefs.  Both sides know that the kind of language we use in prayer together shapes our view of God and our relationship to Him.  Some will go so far as to say that language-use is the only reality we have direct contact with.  Control language-use, control reality.  This is the philosophical base for the P.C. movement, i.e., if we can change how people speak, we can change the reality they live in.  The Translation Battle is really about how will we come to understand ourselves as Catholics in the next few decades.  One side wants us to maintain a "marketplace diction" so as to emphasize your communal nature as a Church.  The point of this language is to bring God down to us and have us share together in His immanent presence.  The other side wants us to use a more "sacred diction" so as to emphasize the transcendence of God beyond His creation and elevate us up to Him.  Both sides have very distinct ideas about what counts as a language of prayer.  The recently approved translations favor the "sacred diction" side of the battle.  This side will point out that the "marketplace diction" of the last 30 years has desacralized the liturgy to the point where Mass is really nothing more than a sort of community picnic to which God is invited but whose presence is not really all that important.  Mass is about us.  The other side argues that the "sacred diction" will alienate Catholics from their everyday experience of God, leaving them in a fog of complicated concepts and tortured syntax.  Faithful translations of Latin prayers introduces a vaguely foreign feel into the English and will make people feel spiritually queasy.  This side fears that "sacred diction" is a way of reimposing an unhealthy distinction between priestly prayer and the ordinary prayer of the people.  It's important here, I think, to understand that these differences are not merely a matter of taste.  The issues are very real and the concerns are legitimate.  Though I favor "sacred diction," there is a danger of the Mass becoming incomprehensible to the average Catholic.  Mass is about God.  But prayer doesn't change God.  It changes us.  And for it to do so, we must be able to understand it.  Sacred language can be clear, beautiful, and transcendent without being unnecessarily complex.  We'll have to wait and see how the new text actually works.  The delay?  Well, Vatican Two mandated that each bishops' conference is responsible for the translations in its major language.  Once a translation is done, it goes to the Vatican for approval.  The Vatican can send it back with requests for corrections.  This is an arduous process requiring years of hard work and negotiation.  As we have seen, it only takes a handful of bishops to gum up the works!  We've been waiting for an approved English translation of the ordination rite for almost 25 years now.  

More later. . .


  1. "Yes, it is a sin to lie to the Nazis and save the lives of the Jews you have hidden. Your guilt here is mitigated by duress."

    No, you've misanalyzed this. Augustine (as quoted in the Catechism #2482) says that: "A lie consists in speaking a falsehood with the intention of deceiving." From which it follows that speaking a falsehood is, by itself, not sufficient to qualify as a lie -- since there is an additional qualification given as also needed, the intention of deceiving. In the case of giving false information about the Jews, the intention is to make sure that the Jews are not unjustly killed. (A more thorough analysis of this would use the principle of double effect.)

  2. Father, can you explain the difference between lying and equivocation? How do we cope with episodes in Scripture where Jesus appears at first blush to be saying things that are not true (e.g., John 7:1-10; Mark 13:32)?

  3. Anita, I'll give it a shot...stay tuned.

    Paul, re-read my post. I say quite plainly that object, will, and intention all go into the analysis.

    The intent of the person in my example is to deceive the Nazis. If his intent were to save the Jews, he could have found many other, non-sinful ways of doing this. However, caught off-guard, he lies. I would say that his culpability is near zero, but we don't want to say that he did not sin. That's a tragic slippery slope. Kant, e.g., would not allow him to lie. Period. Mill would tell him to go ahead and lie to save as many as possible. The danger for us in these examples is to fall into consequentialism.

  4. Anonymous11:13 AM

    Regarding kissing a priest's hands, I disagree with nothing you've written Father, but I think this addiiton will be helpful, too. In addition to the custom in some cultures of kissing a priest's consecrated hands - the hands that transform bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ and may then hold them - there is another similar but distinct custom. When one kisses the Pope's hand or a bishop's hand, one is not kissing the hand at all. One is reverencing the episcopal or fisherman's (as the case may be) ring, as a sign of reverence.

  5. Anonymous3:44 PM

    Thanks for that clarification on lying Father. I don't how many times I've knocked heads over this one. The moment one allows lying in special circumstances into your system, you render the whole untrustworthy because the question of whether this is one of those special circumstances taints it all. While I can't recommend watching Family Guy, there is one scene that illustrates it nicely when Peter remarks that "Everything I say is a lie...except for that...and that...and that...and that..." It is one thing to fall. The moment you formally permit falling, you get trapped in a circle.

    Scott W.

  6. Father, you say: "The intent of the person in my example is to deceive the Nazis."

    You state that as though it was an obvious conclusion. But I deny that it is necessarily so.

    To see why I deny it as something obvious, consider the circumstances. Suppose I am hiding Jews in my house, and wish to prevent their unjust capture and execution. Whatever I choose to say, or not say, my goal is to prevent this injustice. I intend that the words I use will further the goal of preventing a great injustice, by refusing to aid in that injustice.

    Suppose I say: "Yes, there are Jews hidden here." Plainly, conveying that information is sinful.

    Suppose I say: "". I.e. I say nothing, or some form of words that amount to not answering the question. In the circumstances, this could all too easily be taken as a particularly pointed silence, and immediately give cause for the Nazis to decide to search the house. In other words, saying nothing may actually convey information to the Nazis.

    OK, so if silence may give the information away, what do I say? What form of words do I choose that will deny to the Nazis any information about where the Jews are hiding?

    Given such a conundrum, it is easy to see why people came up with idea of saying something that may in fact be a material falsehood, but is a form of words that denies information to the Nazis. Because although the Nazis end up being deceived, that wasn't the intention -- the intention was to deny them information that would aid them in a great injustice. Deception may result, but it wasn't the intention.

    Hence why I say this is a classic example of double effect (with, alas, all the problems of getting people to properly understand double effect).

    Now there is no particular reason for you to listen to me -- for all you know, I may be just a weaselly commenter, and you a smart and sophisticated Dominican. But a look at Church history does not show the absolute clarity of teaching that would be necessary to support your conclusion.

    Example 1: John 7:8-10
    Example 2: The praxis of pope-to-be-John-XXIII's aid in distributing misleading baptismal certificates to Jews.
    Example 3: The careful analysis of the Venerable John Henry Newman (here), where he does agree that there are some occasions in which a material falsehood is permitted.
    Example 4: In Catechism #2489, it is taught that "discreet language" may be used to hide information. That could hardly be so if things were to be viewed as you claim they absolutely must.

  7. Anonymous8:39 PM

    I grew up in a very traditional Irish home (like my grandparents still spoke Gaelic) and we were always taught to kiss the priest's hands and ask for his blessing on the street or when he came to the house. This was always the same priest who would help out with harvest or help to butcher livestock. It led importantly to my own vocation.

  8. No, please read the new liturgical translations -- the problem is simply that they are bad English, producing no sacral vibes whatsoever.

  9. Joe, I have read the new translations...a 2004 version...in the UK. The 2009 version is substantially the same. It isn't perfect but it's light years better than that 1970.

    Where and when did you read the new translation?

  10. on the topic of appropriately greeting a priest.....as a nurse and mom....kissing anyone's hands is just gross. I mean I don't KNOW WHERE those hands have been....really. (I cringe at shaking hands actually~~it's a nurse thing)

    but what about hugs? is it appropriate to greet a Priest with a hug?

  11. Hugs are fine with me. Italians greet with pecks on the cheek. I guess is depends on the priest but personally I have no problem with hugs. At UD, one little girl would run to me after Mass, hug my knees, and say, "Thank you for Mass, Father!" I was always happy to see her.