Saturday, 27 July 2013

The tradition problem...

Yesterday I posted something on faux traditions, modern day customs that in some places are being accorded the weight of ancient ecclesial or even divinely instituted traditions, even though in reality they are no such thing.

Now sometimes that is no bad thing.

But I'm inclined to think we should make these decisions consciously, and know our own history.

So today I thought I'd better say something about the principles around what I do think are genuine traditions, as well as their associated longstanding customs.

The tradition problem

First though, I do want to make it clear that I'm certainly not rejecting the idea that there are a collection of longstanding traditions and customs that we should work hard to recover and protect.

There is a hard reality that the Church hierarchy in recent history has made some extremely imprudent decisions to reject or strongly discourage long held traditions and practices that did so much to teach, reinforce and pass on the faith.

How much damage has been done by communion in the hand, altar girls and other such practices!

Traditionalists have made an effort to try and protect that patrimony, and if they are sometimes a tad overzealous in their efforts in guarding particular ones, that is an understandable reaction in the face of  entrenched hostility, opposition and outright sacrilege in many cases.

The issue is always which traditions to dig in on though, and which ones not yet entrenched in our communities to focus on recovering.

Appraising the patrimony: the abuse scandal presents an opportunity

Most traditionalists have not, of course, simply sought to recreate any particular golden era.  Most Latin Mass communities, for example, in Australia at least, tend to favour the sung Mass (missa cantata) and use of Gregorian chant.  That wasn't the norm in the 1950s here, where the low Mass dominated, sometimes with a few hymns thrown in.

And the use of chant is itself a legacy of the liturgical revival of the nineteenth century, for even most Cathedrals and monasteries had utterly abandoned it in favour of first Renaissance polyphony and then subsequent composition styles until Dom Gueranger's efforts took root.

Over the last few years, under Pope Benedict XVI, the recovery of the patrimony has been legitimized once more, and the neo-conservative academic and ecclesial establishment seem, finally, to be starting to appreciate that such traditions can be particularly important to the cause of mission in a post-modern world.

In the area of theology too, the hegemony of the nouvelle theologie and assorted liberal schools of distortion is being challenged on a number of fronts, for example by the work of the Radical Orthodoxy school.  Now a traditionalist won't necessarily buy their particular brand either (they are in reality neither particularly radical nor obviously orthodox).  But their critiques of Balthasar, Congar and the like, and some of the insights they offer, do, I think, potentially open the way, I think, for traditionalists to move beyond simply the recovery of the manualist tradition and Thomism before it all went wrong, and create a genuine orthodox theology that speaks to our times.

We have a positive opportunity, I think, right now, courtesy in large part of the abuse scandal that has exposed both liberalism and the neoconservative camp in the Church for what they are, and, over time will create a clean slate for us to build afresh on.

To do that building, though, I don't think we can be satisfied with what we have now in small, isolated traddie communities.  Rather, I think we need to take a hard look at what we as traditionalists are doing, and what we think the broader Church should be doing, so we can move forward more effectively.

And in fact the International Federation Una Voce has been trying to encourage traditionalists to do just that, with its series of position papers on the 1962 Missal, by providing some history and theological context not just on strictly liturgical questions, but on associated issues such as the Eucharistic Fast and so forth.

The challenge when looking at our practice, of course, is to apply the correct principles, as formulated by the Church, in doing so, not invent our own.

And in this area, there are some particular extremes we have to avoid.

Reject fundamentalism

The first is the fundamentalist approach.

Some, for example, point to St Paul's comments on women covering their heads in Church and when praying as evidence that this must be a divine mandate.  But if inclusion in the New Testament of a custom is the criterion, why don't we follow, for example, the dietary restrictions (viz no eating of blood and its products) agreed at the Council of Jerusalem set out in Acts 15?

At the opposite extreme, to pick a protestant favourite, why has the Church always permitted, even encouraged, infant baptism when Scripture doesn't explicitly authorise it?

Clearly an additional interpretative principle is required as to what is and isn't a mandatory tradition. And the short answer as to what that principle is lies in the duty of the Magisterium to safeguard genuine traditions, to interpret Scripture and the broader Tradition, and to legislate for the good of the faithful.

Not all such guidance will be infallible or inerrant of course.  But neither should such guidance lightly be rejected.

Take the case of infant baptism.  In fact the Church holds fast to it firstly because we have the testimony of the Fathers that it was indeed an Apostolic Tradition.  Moreover in that light we can reread Scripture with eyes opened: St Paul tells us for example, that baptism replaces circumcision - and circumcision, of course, normally took place when the child was but a few days old.  Then too, there are those references to 'x and all of his household' being baptised both in Scripture and early Christian documents.

Nor is tradition utterly immutable

The rituals associated with baptism also provide us with an example of the opposite error, and one to which traditionalists are perhaps particularly predisposed, namely thinking that all aspects of a traditional practice are immutable forever.

Some for example, have suggested that since the Missal approved by Pius V was promulgated with a statement that said missal was valid 'now and forever', that Missal could never be abrogated or changed (which would presumably render the 1962 Missal illicit or invalid, as well as the Novus Ordo which was their intended target).

Others have fallen into the Orthodox trap of viewing any changes to what the Church has deemed, down the centuries, inessentials, as a rejection of tradition per se: so communion under one kind, baptism by pouring of the water instead of full immersion, and similar such changes down the centuries are disdained or outright rejected as examples of 'Latin [heretical] minimalism'.

The fact is that the Church has, at various points, made radical changes to its practices down the ages, even including its rituals and liturgy (think of Pius X's wreckovation of the Roman Office for example).

Traditionalism is inherently conservative

That said, the very basis of the Catholic Church is its unbroken history, and it does not and should not lightly abandon long-held traditions, and that includes the words, gestures and other aspects of them.  The danger is always that if you change something that might seem on the surface not to be important, in fact you can undermine the whole edifice.

So what is it that we should treasure?

Our Church is firstly the inheritor of (genuine) Jewish tradition.  Jewish Scriptures are our Scriptures, for the New Testament is contained in the Old, and the New must be read in the light of the Old. Its monuments of Tradition are our monuments - the Septuagint being a prime example. So when we insist that we are a liturgical Church, for example, we are basing ourselves in large part on the testimony and prescriptions of the Old Testament, as well as the New, not inventing for ourselves as if from nothing.

Secondly, we have the new or modifying Divine traditions instituted directly by Our Lord or through the Apostles, and handed down to us by the Apostles and safeguarded by their successors, the bishops.

Thirdly we have the Apostolic ecclesial traditions that are so ancient as to surely be worth protecting in the different Eastern and Western Rites of the Church: the differing dates of Easter being an obvious example.

We should also treasure the ecclesial traditions granted to us through the working of Providence - things like Gregorian Chant, the works of the great saints, and so forth.

Finally, there are many practices and customs that have always been part of the Churches tradition in one form or another, but do tend to be adapted to the times - the practice of fasting, for example, is something we have inherited from the Jewish tradition; the particular rules around compulsory fasts however, have changed considerably down the centuries.

Recovering tradition

In all these areas there is often room for nuance, interpretation and in many cases, compromise.

On the date of Easter for example, the difficulties of two competing calendars in one country led to an agreement in the English Continent, for example, back in 664, to stick with the Roman date.  So it is not altogether outrageous, I think, for some modern day places to reach similar accommodations in one direction or the other.

On the other hand, some of the traditional monasteries for example, actually have prohibitions on using anything but Gregorian chant in their churches.  That may be consistent with their particular charism, but in the traditionalist movement more generally would we really want to write off the possibility of performing the great Renaissance, baroque and classical  compositions in the setting which they were originally written for?

So what traditions should we make our priority; how can we shape our communities going forward?  These are the issues we must ponder.

1 comment:

Gervase Crouchback said...


Thanks always illuminating and makes this one time Proddy think .
Every time I go up to receive the Host I realise I have inherited a rich Faith and Tradition