Kneeling Ban: Good Liturgy or Loss of Religious Freedom?

Some religious leaders in the Latin Rite are pressuring Catholics not to kneel at the Consecration, or to genuflect at their reception of the Eucharist. This trend has gained a great deal of traction in recent years, and is causing alarm among those who see it as a restriction of religious freedom. As Catholics, we have come to expect that our secular government wants to restrict our religious freedom, but it’s a new and disturbing trend when it comes from inside the Church.

This trend, which is being fostered by serious religious groups and orders, is being promulgated in both explicit and subtle ways. Whether it’s by making an actual rule, or by merely showing disapproval, participants in these liturgies are no longer free to “fall to their knees” in adoration. Instead, everyone must stand, sit, or bow—depending on the “rules” of that particular group. Deviation is not welcome, and in some cases, is forbidden.

What is behind this restriction? Is it a good thing? What does the Church say about the ways an individual may show adoration? The purpose of this paper is not to judge or condemn those who favor restrictions, but to show that such restrictive rules are incompatible with Church teachings, and even with the commonly accepted idea of religious freedom.

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First, let’s be clear: the issue is not to stop anyone from standing, sitting, or bowing if their consciences tell them to do so during the liturgy. They should be free to do so! By the same token, those who wish to kneel should be free to do that as well.

Later, we will use Church teachings and documents to support the contention that a ban on kneeling is incompatible with our God-given religious freedom. For now, let’s examine the practical outcomes of such a ban: Under the “sit, stand, bow, or else” scenario, worshipers are being forced to think about “the community,” when they should be devoting their whole “body, soul, mind, and strength” to our Lord becoming truly Present in the Eucharist. In a restrictive atmosphere, even when an individual feels called by conscience to kneel in adoration, they will wrestle with nagging questions: “Am I offending my fellow worshipers?” “Will I be seen as a religious fanatic?” “Will it hurt my ability to stay in the group?”

It’s wrong to force such uneasiness (for some, it could even amount to a troubled conscience) on anyone during what should be a moment of profound adoration of God! However, that’s the effect of this trend. Even though the motives of these “trendsetters” may be pure, the hope is, they will reconsider their direction. They may believe that conformity will provide a more pleasing communal experience. But that’s not the goal of Catholic liturgy. The goal of our liturgy is to bring each individual into closer relationship with our Creator—not to please each other or the “group.” In short, it is wrong to coerce Catholics to act against a centuries-old tradition of “bending the knee” at the Consecration and Communion of the Eucharist. This is not a personal opinion, this is the position reflected in Church documents and teachings.

“Falling down in adoration” Is Fixed in Christian Worship
Pope Paul VI teaches that, after the Consecration of the Mass, the “physical reality” of Jesus Christ is “bodily present.” This means that what was “physical” bread before, is now the “physical” body, blood, soul, and divinity of the person Jesus Christ. This knowledge awakens in believing Catholics an urge to fall down in adoration.

This urge to fall down before Jesus has always been there. This is so, whether it is the Magi “falling down” before the baby Jesus in Mt 2:11; Mary Magdalene in Mt 28:9 “embracing his feet” after the Resurrection; or St. Paul saying in Phil 2:9 that “at the name of Jesus, every knee should bend.”

By the time the Christians emerge from the catacombs (c. 313), adoration of the Eucharist through bowing down and prostration was already in place. St. Augustine of Hippo (AD 354-430) says that we are to adore the Eucharist prior to receiving it: “No one eats of this flesh unless he has first adored … not only do we not sin by adoring, but we would sin by not adoring.” He also says: “Therefore, when you bow and prostrate yourself even down to the earth in whatever way you please, it is not as if you are venerating the earth, but the former Holy (One) whose footstool (i.e., flesh) you adore.”

Clearly this “falling down” is present in the Christian Liturgy, from fourth century St. Augustine up to thirteenth century St. Thomas Aquinas’s famous Benediction hymn, “Tantum Ergo Sacramentum” (“Down in Adoration Falling”) and the time of St. Francis of Assisi, who stated that, in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament in Mass, “everyone should kneel down” giving praise to God “living and true.”

Vatican II Supports “Bending the Knee” in the Eucharist
In our times, from the Second Vatican Council onward, Church norms have supported and encouraged the tradition of “falling down” before the Eucharist. The Council’s direction in this matter must be taken seriously. Those who would deviate from its direction should ponder whether they even have the authority to eliminate a liturgical tradition such as kneeling. That’s because the Council clearly sets the authority for regulating the Sacred Liturgy “solely … on the Apostolic See and as laws may determine on bishops” and “within certain defined limits” on “bishop conferences.”

The New Roman Missal states: “But, unless impeded by lack of space, density of crowd, or other reasonable cause, they (the faithful) should kneel down for the Consecration.”

Of course, the Church permits people to stand, sit, or bow for good reasons. But this does not mean that they have the authority to forbid people to “fall down” in worship at the Consecration and Communion.

It is also clear that liturgical expression is carefully and reverently defined by the Church. In other words, you can’t just do “any old thing” to express adoration of the Blessed Sacrament.  Pope John Paul II’s most authoritative 1984 Ceremonial of Bishops states that “The genuflection, made by bending only the right knee to the ground, signifies adoration, and is, therefore, reserved for the Blessed Sacrament, whether exposed or reserved  in the tabernacle.”

Can a bow substitute for kneeling at these times? Yes, when necessary. But, signification is essential to all sacraments and official liturgical worship, and the “bow” does not “signify” adoration in the Latin Rite Liturgy.

In fact, the Ceremonial continues: “A bow signifies reverence and honor toward persons or toward objects that represent persons.” A bow of the head is made at the names of persons, like Jesus and Mary and “a bow of the body, or deep bow,” is made to holy things like “the altar” and “the bishop.”

By contrast, the actions performed by an individual before God—whether it be kneeling, genuflecting, bowing down to the ground, or prostration—have one particular quality. They are each a type of “falling down,” and are designed to place the person lower than the One Whom they are adoring. These acts are “significantly” different from standing and sitting, eye-to-eye, as if everyone were equal.

While sitting, standing, or bowing may be acceptable, the act of “falling down” before God is the only completely definitive and unmistakable sign of reverence before God. Every other gesture can have alternative meanings—but to kneel is to say something very intentional about what you believe. John Paul II puts it this way: “Whoever comes before the Eucharist with faith can only prostrate himself in adoration, making his own, the words of St. Thomas: ‘My Lord and My God’ (Jn 20:28).”

In other words: a person’s act of kneeling or prostration is their act of faith. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger says about the act of “kneeling” during the Liturgy: “Here the bodily gesture attains to the status of a confession of faith in Christ: words could not replace such a confession.”

So does this also apply to posture when receiving Communion?

Yes. In no. 11 of the Second Vatican Council’s 1980 post-conciliar document, Inaestimabile Donum, the Church says:

When the faithful communicate kneeling, no other sign of reverence towards the Blessed Sacrament is required, since kneeling is itself a sign of adoration. When they receive communion standing, it is strongly recommended that, coming up in procession, they should make a sign of reverence before receiving the Blessed Sacrament. This should be done at the right time and place, so that the order of people going to, and from, communion should not be disrupted.

But why does the Church only “strongly recommend” this act—why not require it? First of all, not everyone is able to make a genuflection and keep their balance. Some may only be able to give a bow, sign of the cross, or bow of the head. This is acceptable.

But there is a more important reason.

The Church understands the importance of the individual response at this most intimate moment of receiving Holy Communion. Pope Benedict XVI saw the importance of the option to stand or kneel when receiving Holy Communion. Towards the end of his office as pope, he had a kneeler brought out at his communion station to give people an option to kneel when receiving.

There is a time for unity, and a time for diversity. Here the Church wants the communicant to be free to authentically respond from the heart by kneeling, genuflecting, bowing the body, making the sign of the cross, or just bowing their head. This is preferred to the impersonal “herd instinct” where one mechanically does what everyone else is doing just because they are doing it, and to avoid appearing different.

Pressure to Restrict Adoration: A Mark of the Protestant Reformation
Throughout Church history, adoration and kneeling have been intimately connected with how we believe, and how we proclaim and spread the Catholic Faith.

During the Protestant Reformation, men like John Calvin (1509-1564) condemned and killed Catholics for adoring the Consecrated Host because they believed the Consecrated Host was still a piece of “physical” bread. To Calvin, this was worship of “idols.”

In response to Calvin and his followers, the Council of Trent (1545-1564) defined the act of adoration due to the Eucharist as an act of “latria” which can only be given to the Holy Trinity. Trent also pointed out that this action, when expressed outwardly, involves a “falling down.”

But most importantly, Trent infallibly defined as a dogma of faith: “If anyone says that in the holy sacrament of the Eucharist, the only begotten Son of God is not to be adored even outwardly with the worship of latria (the act of adoration) … or is not to be set before the people to be publicly adored … let him be anathema.”

Clearly, then, we can point to divine law, which protects Catholics from anyone who would tell them not to make an act of “latria” outwardly by “falling down” before the Blessed Sacrament. Therefore, anyone who would knowingly try to restrict an individual’s mode of adoration from including the most obvious and traditional form of latria—falling to one’s knees—should think very carefully about what he or she is doing. To tell a Catholic that he or she should not kneel at the most intimate moments of their relationship with Christ, at the Consecration and Communion of the Eucharist, recalls the warning of Jesus, when he says that anyone who would come between God and “one of these little ones,” “it would be better for him to have a millstone fastened around his neck and thrown into the sea” (Mk 9:42).

The point here is not to judge the new “rule makers” who would stop others from kneeling, any more than anyone should judge a worshiper who chooses to stand or sit. The issue should be, what are the theological implications of restricting an individual Catholic from adoring God in what, to them, is the most full and complete manner of latria possible? While this may not be the intention of the new “rule makers,” their kneeling ban puts them on a theological course that is compatible with the mindset of the sixteenth-century Calvinists, who believed that the Eucharist is not really Jesus Christ. They believed that the spiritual presence of Jesus in the Community is more important than the “physical reality” and Divine Person of Jesus Christ.

This mindset also includes the Calvinistic Presbyterian belief that there is no essential difference between the priest (ministerial priesthood) and the congregation (priesthood of the laity), and, therefore, all should stand or sit at the Consecration and Communion to show this unity and equality. Again, we cannot judge. However, the practical effect of forbidding others from worshiping as their conscience dictates, especially when it includes falling in adoration or bending the knee, has certain unavoidable implications. The most obvious one is to remove the visible “sign” that the “physical reality” of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist is to be believed and adored. There is also the implication that there does not need to be any distinction between the ministerial priesthood and the priesthood of the laity.

Red Alert:  Freedom Endangered
Of course, the most obvious impact of this movement to ban kneeling from the Eucharist is that it restricts individual religious freedom.

The implication is that a Catholic’s personal faith is less important than local “unity.” But this idea—that “the collective” is more important than the individual—has been refuted most clearly in the new English translation of the Mass, which was introduced in 2011 to conform more closely to Catholic theology. In this revision, over and over again, the Church asserts the role of worshipers is to proclaim their faith as individuals: Take, for example, the revised language of the Creed, which now requires that worshipers say “I believe in God…” rather than “We believe….” Later in the Mass, the revised language of the liturgy now leads worshipers to say, “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof….” Again, this reinforces the relationship of the individual who is approaching God by having today’s Catholics pray the humble words of the Roman soldier who approached Jesus. It’s much more personal than the formulaic “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you,” which it replaced.

What can we learn from this? That even the most modern, contemporary thinking in the Church is emphasizing the role of the individual at the time of worship! Therefore, it is clearly “going against the grain” to force individuals to give up the time-honored, natural, and very human impulse to kneel before God, if their conscience so dictates.

In fact, it’s unconscionable that a group which has received “special permission” to substitute standing, sitting, or bowing in place of kneeling to better conform to their beliefs, would then deny permission to others who wish to worship according to their beliefs!

But this is now occurring in parishes, seminaries, religious life, and in so-called privileged and “approved” movements which regularly celebrate private and “exclusive” Masses.

Vatican II’s Document on Religious Liberty clearly says about the person that “he must not be forced to act contrary to his conscience. Nor must he be prevented from acting according to his conscience, especially in religious matters.” Once more, the Council says that “freedom and immunity from coercion in religious matters” is “the right of individuals.” This was stated to protect Catholics and others from pressure from totalitarian civil authorities. The writers of the document would surely be appalled to think that Catholics today have to worry about “coercion in religious matters” within their own Church!

Therefore, the hope is that all Church leaders would reflect on the teachings of our faith up to our present day, and encourage, rather than restrict, freedom of worship. We pray everyone supports the right of Catholics, especially young Catholics, in the Latin Rite, to openly adore Jesus Christ, particularly by kneeling at the Consecration, and by bending the knee at Holy Communion, if their conscience so dictates. Then the focus of the Sacred Liturgy would settle—not on ourselves, or on a group—but on where it belongs, which is the Person of Jesus Christ.

Editor’s note: This essay first appeared July 12, 2015 in Homiletic and Pastoral Review and is reprinted with permission. Footnotes can be found in the original HPR version here. In the image above, navy corpsmen kneel while attending an open air Mass during World War II.


  • Fr. Regis Scanlon, O.F.M. Cap

    Fr. Regis Scanlon, O.F.M.Cap., is spiritual director and chaplain for Mother Teresa of Calcutta’s Missionaries of Charity in Denver, as well as being one of the spiritual directors for the Missionaries of Charity in the western United States. He was director of prison ministry for the Archdiocese of Denver, from 1999 to 2010; a chaplain for Missionaries of Charity at their now-closed AIDS hospice, Seton House, and at Gift of Mary homeless shelter for women in Denver from 1989 to 2008. His articles have been published in Homiletic & Pastoral Review, The Catholic Faith, Soul Magazine, Pastoral Life, and The Priest. He has also made three series for Mother Angelica’s EWTN: “Crucial Questions,” “Catholic Answers,” and “What Did Vatican II Really Teach?”

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