Tuesday, 3 June 2008

What is a traditionalist? Last part!

I thought I'd better get around to finishing off this series I've been writing on what a traditionalist is. Let me do a quick recap. The word ‘traditionalist’ is used many different ways.

Many people who attend the Traditional Latin Mass call themselves traditionalists, in the sense of liking and respecting the traditions of the Church. But that’s not really the sense in which I’m using it here.



What I’m talking about here is about traditionalism as a school of thought.

One can be a neo-conservative, for example, like Cardinal Pell, or a ‘ressourcement' theologian like the current Pope and respect or even like the Traditional Latin Mass. But that doesn’t make you a traditionalist in the same sense that I’m talking about here.

So far I’ve suggested four propositions on what a theological traditionalist is, loosely based on Fr Chad Ripperger’s article, Operative points of view.

Let us take a quick look at them again.

A traditionalist employs a hermaneutic of continuity, with the history and traditions of the Church as their guide.

I should note that the phrase ‘hermeneutic of continuity’ is sometimes used in rather different ways. The traditionalist approach is to take received Tradition, and use this as the basis for testing new ideas. Other schools of theology start from the new ideas and contemporary concerns to see whether or not the new can be interpreted in the light of the old. The traditionalist, in other words, sees ideas as developing organically from the state of knowledge and practice; other approaches look back to the past to throw light on the concerns of the present.



  • A traditionalist is loyal to the Pope but believes that (1) Tradition is a quite distinct concept from the Magisterium, and (2) there are limits, prescribed by the Church, to papal infallibility.

A traditionalist, by virtue of the history of the last forty years or so, can never be a ‘Magisterialist’ or pure ultramontanist. All the same, in the interlude we discovered that a sub-group of traditionalists (the 'roundheads') are essentially ultramontanist in temperament, working on the principle that if only we had the right Pope and bishops, everything would be fixed.



  • Tradition has content that is distinct from Scripture and to the Magisterium.

On the other side of the ledger to the Magisterialists are those who essentially conflate Tradition with Scripture, and deprive Tradition of any substantive content. A good summary of their position comes, I think, from Fr Benedict Ashley (in Living the Truth in Love):

“Where do we hear God’s word? The first Christians heard it from the lips of Jesus and then from the Apostles who witnessed to what he had taught and done. Their witness was kept true by the Holy Spirit whom the Risen Lord had sent them to guarantee the essential accuracy of their preaching. [Notice as an aside that the ‘their witness’ refers to the first Christians not the Apostles or their successors. In this version of the theory, it seems to be the sensus fidelium that is the guarantee of Tradition and Scripture, not the Magisterium.]


This handing on the Word by the power of the Spirit is called Apostolic Tradition (from tradere, to transmit) in distinction from mere human traditions which quickly becomes vague and even distorted. [Here is the core of the argument - Tradition is simply the process of handing on, anything else is human invention!]. In the apostolic age this Tradition was soon embodied in the New Testament writings along with the Jewish Scriptures which these writings presupposed and which they guaranteed as consistent with the New Testament.[ie Scripture captures the content of Tradition]. Hence the Bible was recognized by the apostolic Church as a trustworthy formulation of the Tradition because written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.”



  • Traditionalists believe that due reverence should be given to (extrinsic or small t) traditions

The big issue with the Magisterialist or 'Scriptura Prima' formulations from a traditionalist perspective is the idea that everything that is not part of the Apostolic Tradition per se (whether this is reduced to received understandings of Scripture, the ‘sensus fidei’, or to the dictates of the Magisterium) is regarded as inevitably of human origin and distorted. In this mode of thinking God sustains physical creation – but not culture.


Fr Ashley provides a rationale for this view. Under the Old ceremonial and judicial law, he argues, God dictated detailed regulations of living that functioned to define the identity of the People as a distinct race chosen by God, and educate them through the symbolism of the practices they were required to follow. But under the New Covenant, Jesus freed us from these laws. This ‘left room for the further elaboration of religious ceremonies in each local church according to its own culture’ (ie small t traditions that can be suppressed at will).


Yet God surely sustains not just physical creation, but also the ‘culture’, and most particularly the Church and its institutions: the great theologians and saints were not just accidents of history, but part of God’s providential plan.


Orthodox Catholics, for example, believe that God (the Person of Jesus aside) is not, strictly speaking, male or female (since he doesn’t have a physical body). All the same, through the Old Testament God teaches the people of Israel to think of him as male, and institutes a male priesthood in the Levites, a tradition carried forward under the New Covenant as well. This was not an arbitrary thing, an accident of history, but a deliberate choice.


Not everything in the culture, even a fully Christian culture, is from God of course. Just as sin led to the loss of original justice and led to the introduction of physical suffering, distorting our experience of physical creation, so to the devil and the flesh attempt to distort our social culture. That‘s why we have false religions, and laws that do not conform to the natural law.

When it comes to traditions within the Church at least though, a traditionalist will take as his starting point the idea that what we have inherited is the cumulative result of the working of the Holy Spirit.


The neo-conservative, by contrast, will assume that it is the work of human hands in the main.


That is not to say that traditions don’t have a view in supporting belief in the neoconservative framework, they do – but they are essentially viewed as things that can be manipulated for teaching purposes at the will of the Magisterium. Much modern theology starts from an assumption that what comes down to us needs to be pruned of human accretions, and reconnected to its authentic sources – hence the search for the ‘real’ St Thomas, or the ‘real’ St Augustine.


A 'ressourcement' theologian will be deeply interested in patristics, for example, and the works of the great saints as sources which can throw fresh light on modern concerns. The subsequent reflections and approaches inspired by these saints, however, are generally regarded as syntheses appropriate to a particular age only, to be discarded in favour of a bringing of the works of the originals into the language and context of today.


By contrast, the traditionalist generally starts by assuming that that ecclesial traditions are the high point of a process of inspired development, and hence the later syntheses, and are in fact the proper test of the orthodoxy of new ideas and practices.

And in fact this is my final proposition.

  • Extrinsic tradition is the primary test of new ideas and practices.

So! What do you think? Have I understood it correctly??? Does it explain some of the differences in perspective you sometimes run up against?

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