The Cappa Magna and Ecclesiastical Dignities

Apparently a post at The Deacon’s Bench has gotten some people talking about the Roman Catholic garment called the cappa magna, and whether it should be worn by those to whom the Roman Catholic Church grants the privilege. Some think it emphasizes too much, for the taste of our age, the pomp and glory of the Roman church; others believe the dignity conveyed by the garment is ædifying precisely because it offends liberals’ idolatrous sensibilities. Ever the moderate, perhaps, I sympathize with both ideas.

’Tis a truism of the Church that the Son of Man, Jesus of Nazareth, begotten of the Father before all ages, came into the world clothed not in visible glory but in the humble womb of a humble maid, and once born was laid in a manger. The scene, whatever its further import, is a rustic one, far from the glittering court of King Herod. For he shall grow up before him as a tender plant, and as a root out of a dry ground: he hath no form nor comeliness; and when we shall see him, there is no beauty that we should desire him. The inference is clear enough that God has no need of majestic form to set forth his own majesty.

Yet the same God is also not shy of clothing his truth in splendour. When we look at the abundance of nature, we see that it exceeds what is strictly necessary for us to know God exists. However elegant its form, God is not a minimalist. Likewise, God has never instructed his people to shun gold and silver and to put away from themselves all signs of wealth. To be sure, modesty and sobriety are virtues that he enjoins for all men, but chaste æsthetics are more than what the sour liberals imagine them to be – indeed, those puritanical folk in their outrage cannot imagine chastity. Thus it is that decadence is found even in the most strongly professed purism, and pharisaical fervour even in the worst decadence. A call to keep ‘the Church’ poor may well be a thinly disguised bid to plunder the dignity of the weak for the lustre of the strong: not godliness, but capitalism. Judas Iscariot would be proud. So we should not trust an image for its apparent iconoclasm; for the iconoclasm may itself be an image in which fools glory. That churchly vesture may offend this false glory is a virtue, not a vice.

But our purpose in tearing down an idol is only to build up the pure worship of God. Have we aught to do with lengthening the trains of bishops simply to offend the pagans? We have not. Our object is not to puff up one man by cutting down another man, but in putting down the mighty pride of one man to lift up the Son of Man. And with the eyes of faith we see that the glory of a miracle is not its spectacle, a feast for the eyes, but its holiness, a feast for the soul. The majesty is not of lesser goods but of the greatest good of them all, not for the appetites but for charity. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.

What we seek, then, is the dignity of what is common – common, that is, to all. Money privately held is nothing worthy of dignity. To ornament money with what money affords, it may be said, is a currency of no worth. To be worth his clothes, a man must be greater than his clothes; or else, as a jewel of gold in a swine’s snout, so is a fair woman which is without discretion. More precisely, so is outward beauty on a woman whose inward character is unworthy of praise. In contrast, what is intrinsically good is worthy of honour, and it behoves us to acknowledge its gravitas by clothing it with an honourable appearance. So the Christ child, humble in circumstances, received gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

So the natural order, and the offices of men subservient to this natural order, whether ordained directly by God or to devised by human wisdom to maintain better the ordinance of God, should be held in outward honour. To inward reverence we should add some outward. Though we are incapable of adorning the perfection of God except that as the mystical body of the incarnate Christ we adorn that sacred Head with the works of our bodies, yet what is good but not very goodness itself we can clothe with lesser dignities. For the weakness of the flesh, a magistrate is given lictors bearing fasces; a bishop is given deacons; a father is given a motherly helper. So too we use all kinds of even smaller things to clothe the finite good of these human orders.

Perhaps a bishop is a lord among men, whose virtue at its best is well portrayed by a cloak with a train and someone to carry that train. But I find it more likely that what we best honour is exemplary piety, in the white rochet, and learning, in the sober black chimere. Vague honours, and the easy heaping of privilege upon privilege, will do little but cloud the judgement. Let us find, in human society, the most ædifying honours for what is honourable, that we may all remember in God what is best and greatest.


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