Monday, March 1st, 2021

To Handle the Holy

The principle is profoundly basic, but in our times, it would seem, profoundly neglected: Sancta sancte tractanda sunt. And it is a principle that governs the entirety of our worship.[1] ‘The Holy Things must be treated in a holy manner.’

Nobody will disagree with the principle; but there are worlds of conflict contained in that adverb. What exactly does sancte mean, in practice?—It certainly cannot mean that to participate in Catholic worship constitutes a grave risk to one’s health. It certainly cannot mean that the Sacraments and sacramentals must be passed through the sterilizing diktats of public health departments. It certainly cannot mean handling the sacred things as if they were dangerous.

Sancta sancte tractanda sunt. 

And lest anyone think that the above-stated principle were simply a matter of ceremonial niceness, we should remember: the moral life itself constitutes living in a holy way. Human life, under the activity of the grace of Christ, becomes holy—and everything a man may choose is either in accord with or against that holiness given by God. In God’s mercy, a man’s life is either commensurate with the Holy Things or it is not. And how he worships is inextricably bound to how he lives. Sancta sancte tractenda sunt is therefore as much a moral principle as it is a liturgical one.

The objection is basic: public health and safety is a high good. Doubtless it is. But is it the highest good? Especially in the context of a disease of dubious lethality for most of the adult population? And so the arguments proceed from there, seemingly ad infinitum. And yet, one submits, this principle of Catholic liturgical life—Sancta sancte tractanda sunt—does have a force all its own. Those in positions of authority do well to let that principle work on them.

And yet that may well be the very problem. At bottom, we are dealing, not with arguments, but with first principles—and first principles are precisely those that are not meant to be proven with data and syllogisms, but they are truths upon which every datum and syllogism rests. First principles are meant to be devastatingly self-evident, as the principle of non-contradiction is. It is with that force that the principle should strike us: Sancta sancte tractanda sunt.

In the end, what mask-wearing cleric bathed in sanitizer can really feel as if he is handling The Holy Things in a holy way?


[1] Cf The Celebration of Mass: a Study of the Rubrics of the Roman Missal, J B O’Connell, Boonville, New York: Preserving Christian Publications, 2018; p 21. Cf The Council of Trent, session 22, ch 4.

{Art Credit: Felix von Ende (1856-1929), Altar Servers in Prayer (c 1888); private collection.}