Thursday, 4 July 2013

Why conservatism is not enough: the 'Tradition' problem

In response to my post on conservatism vs traditionalism in relation to the recent Sacra Liturgia conference, I've received a few comments still puzzled about what the distinction is, and/or questioning why I think traditionalism is the more compelling viewpoint.

Accordingly, I thought today I'd put the issue in some context, namely looking at the different concepts of tradition that I think are in play.

In fact there is a 'Tradition' Conference currently on in Sydney at the moment that seems to be trying to grapple with some of these very issues from a conservative viewpoint, and if the tweets from it (#TraditionConference 2013) so far are anything to go by (and obviously one would prefer to hear or see the full papers!), illustrates quite nicely the limitations of it.

Warning: This is targeted at those with an interest in and knowledge of theology, others might want to skim quickly past!  That said, I'm happy to try and tease out or explain any points that may be unclear in response to comments for anyone interested.

Concepts of tradition

At the root of the difference between traditionalists and conservatives, I think, lies a different conception of what can and can't, and should and shouldn't be changed in the Church.  That's unsurprising - traditionalists start from the defence of the Traditional Latin Mass; neo-conservatives from the confected 1970 version.

The difference doesn't just stop at the two forms of the Mass though, but also goes to a lot of associated practices and non-liturgical devotions: many in the Church today are happy, for example, to go with and even invent new rituals, such as the congregation washing each other's hands at the Maundy Thursday Mass, in order to 'adapt to the needs of the times'.  Traditionalists, by contrast, will tend to see such changes as inevitably subverting the underlying meaning of the original rite.

And therein lies the real difference: traditionalists generally see the content of tradition as inseparable from rituals and practices in which it is embedded: change the ritual and you change the implicit meaning and messages.

Traditionalists think, for example, that it is important that only ordained hands handle the blessed Eucharist, not only because it reminds us that the Eucharist truly is the Body and Blood of Our Lord, but also because it reminds us that the ministerial priest is a special sacring ordered to it: different not just in degree but in nature.

Similarly, traditionalists think that gender matters: women are equal but different.  That is reflected in the practice of women veiling, while men enter the Church bareheaded; men enter the sanctuary, women do not; men do the readings, women do not.  Undermine those messages, and the whole system starts to unravel.

Four concepts of tradition

In fact I think there are four broad schools of thought on concepts of tradition, which I'll label Magisterialist, functionalist, traditionalist and pseudo-aestheticist respectively.

Magisterialist: Most conservatives have, until recently at least, fallen into the 'authority' school of thought that asserts a Tradition is true because it has been defined by the Magisterium; that in essence, a practice should be followed because the Church has so decreed and the Holy Spirit is guiding it.

The most extreme formulation of this asserts that only the current Magisterium’s views are truly relevant: so if Pope Francis decrees that beauty in the liturgy should be ditched in favour of a more 'emancipated' approach, that's it folks, the reform of the reform is off.

Yet many of us might think that the primacy of the liturgy as worship of God, and the importance of the transcendental of beauty is actually more important than service of the poor (though of course a both/and issue, not an either/or!).  And as the aCatholics constantly point out, the other problem with this approach is that the connection of the particular tradition and magisterial decree to Scripture and the Gospel is often less than obvious.

Functionalist: A second school of thought, essentially liberal though with a spillover to many conservatives, I think sees practices and traditions primarily in terms of their function and purpose.  It relies heavily on a section of Dei Verbum: “What was handed on by the apostles comprises everything that serves to make the People of God live their lives in holiness and increase their faith.”  A ‘good’ or ‘sound’ tradition, therefore, is one that can be “…conceived in terms of a goal or purpose, for example to make people holy, to guide them to salvation or to lead the community of the Church towards eschatological fulfilment in the Kingdom.”

From this perspective, if the purpose of a practice is not evident, or a practice does not appear to serve an approved objective, then it should be discarded or changed.  Indeed, whereas the magisterial model tends to take a relatively neutral view of historical development – so that practices from the past may be good or bad, depending on perceptions of the current situation - adherents of the functional school of thought tend to start from the assumption that traditions decline in value as time goes on, and need updating to eliminate unnecessary accretions and antique hangovers.

There was a tweet from yesterday's Tradition conference that seemed to reflect this mindset:

"Too often tradition has ceased to live, maintaining itself in toxic and pathological modes."

The problem is, whether or not a particular practice is helpful tends only to be obvious in retrospect.

It is arguably easy to see now, for example, that communion in the hand has subverted belief in transubstantiation.  And it is easy to see now, I would argue, that an overemphasis on the liturgy and suppression of devotions has led to a loss of commitment to personal prayer and hence to the sense of a personal God.

In reality, it is often difficult to distinguish between what is mere convention, and what is a valuable custom that serves to constitute a community and create a sense of continuity with the past.   And it is often hard to strike an appropriate balance between the competing functions of a practice, such as between ‘communication’ and providing a sense of identity.  More fundamentally, this model tends to be blind to the supernatural ‘functions’ of practices as channels of grace, for it is at heart an anthropomorphic, rather than theocentric, approach.

What really sinks this viewpoint, though, in my view, is that it depends on making an explicit distinction between the content of a tradition (‘the message of Christ’), and the way it is handed down (‘by means of…’).   While this distinction may be theoretically valid, it is normally understood that what is termed the ‘objective’ and ‘active’ aspects of tradition are so intertwined as to be inseparable in practice.

Many, if not most, traditional practices are linked to the mysteries of our faith, and so it is questionable whether a full understanding of them can ever really be gained or fully articulated in words.  And even when it can be done, the task of elucidating and explaining what is contained in the deposit of faith ‘only obscurely and implicitly’ can take centuries to achieve.

Traditionalist: A third school of thought stresses a more historically-based approach that sees Traditions and traditions as Divine gifts manifested at particular points in history as part of God’s Divine Plan, and brought into our lives through the rituals of the Church.  In this school of thought the Magisterium does play a key role, but it is one of safeguarding correct and appropriate practice in the universal church rather than specifying every aspect of it as in the Magisterial model.  Traditional practices in this school of thought are not optional extras or pretty decorations: rather, practice is intended to ‘contain, convey and strengthen the reality it signifies’.  

Pseudo-aestheticism: That's not to say all who call themselves traditionalists follow this approach mind you.  What I suspect Dr Rowland was getting at when she talked about the problem of aestheticism, for example, is that sub-set of people whose criteria for practice is not obedience to what is prescribed and handed down to us, but rather what they personally deem 'pretty' - so randomly import practices from other rites into their masses for example.

And that pseudo-aestheticism is apparently not confined to traditionalists: one of the speakers at the Tradition Conference apparently argued that "The burden of persuading others to love a tradition is completely on the person who is in love with that tradition."

Tradition and traditions?

Personally, of course, I'm in the traditionalist camp.  Even so, there does remain a question which particular practices and approaches in the tradition we should use, and which ones change in this school: why the 1962 Mass rather than the actual Pius V Missal for example.

To answer that question, I think we need a richer concept of tradition than is generally used today.

The Tradition Conference, for example, doesn't actually seem to be about tradition in the sense that traditionalists use the term, but rather conflates quite different levels of traditions and practices.  Here is what the conference blurb says:

"Each year we mark birthdays, religious festivals and secular celebrations with rituals and ceremonies; cakes and candles, palm leaves and ash. But what role does tradition play in the modern world? And why is it a concept worth defending?

The Tradition Conference 2013 brings together Australian and internationally renowned speakers to explore how religious and cultural customs shape our understanding of ourselves and the world we inhabit.

The conference will culminate in a lively debate moderated by ABC Radio National’s Phillip Adams at the ABC Studios, led by notable philosophers Mark Kingwell and John Haldane. They will discuss the Catholic Church's role in forging and maintaining Sacred Tradition as well as the often fraught relationship between religious and cultural tradition. Tradition: a friend or foe of freedom?"

What is Tradition?

Current theology tends to narrow the definition of Tradition both in respect to its content, and by time of origin.  In terms of time of origin, Tradition in the Catechism, for example, is defined as what has been handed down from the Apostles – thus effectively excluding all traditions subsequently inspired by the Holy Ghost, or resulting from visions of the Blessed Virgin Mary and passing the tests of time and the Church’s approval.  Yet Vatican II's Dei Verbum arguably takes a broader view, suggesting that Sacred Tradition is found in both the words and actions of inspired persons, and thus includes not only the dogmas of the faith and morals but also things such as the sacraments, Holy Scripture and the institutions and hierarchical constitution of the Church.

So when the Catechism of the Catholic Church talks about the need to distinguish big T Traditions from small t traditions – describing the latter as the ‘various theological, disciplinary, liturgical, or devotional traditions, born in the local churches over time’ – this does not mean that all practices can be placed in the category of mere ‘traditions’, and excluded from the body of the faith as of lesser status.

Personally I think it is more helpful to go back to the rather more nuanced pre-Vatican II/Congar terminology on this subject, set out in the Table below.

Basically, my table suggests that 'Sacred Tradition' or big T tradition essentially lines up with what used to be those divine commandments instituted by Our Lord (Divine-Dominical) and Divine traditions instituted by the Apostles.

But below that, there are several different levels of what have now been lumped together as 'small t' traditions, each of which have different levels of authority and principles for when they can and should be changed.

A good example is Apostolic 'ecclesial' traditions - things that aren't technically part of the deposit of faith, but which were instituted, often for particular churches, by one or more of the Apostles and so which one should arguably be very reluctant to ditch (like the different traditions on the date of Easter for example) at this late date indeed!


Other terms often used



Divine - Dominical
Sacred Tradition

Apostolic Tradition
Divine - Apostolic

Ecclesiastical - Apostolic

Ecclesiastical tradition.

Observances & constitutions, venerable customs, sacred customs.

Church’s human traditions
'Mere' Ecclesiastical


The real debate, of course, comes when you get to purely ecclesiastical traditions or even outright human ones.

A good example is the Rule of St Benedict.  No monastery today (or indeed probably has ever!) follows the Rule to the letter (indeed the Rule itself authorises the abbot to make appropriate adaptations).  Yet some of its provisions - such as on the structure of the weekly Office - have, at least until relatively recently been regarded as part of the venerable customs that should not ever be discarded (notwithstanding St Benedict's permission to do so within certain specified parameters).  And the result of deciding that those provisions were mere human customs seems to have been the effective demise of the Order that is still in progress.

Traditionalism, in other words, is essentially a true conservatism that, rather than adopting a principle of constant 'updating', looks to preserve the outcomes of providential moments in ecclesial history, when God offers us spiritual treasures through his saints and other servants.

That's not to say nothing can ever change though: for that providential of guidance and illumination is still happening.  But there is a discernment practice that has to happen, a test of the fruits in particular, that determines whether a new 'tradition' deserves the status of Ecclesial tradition, or was merely a human invention.

I hope that helps explain better where I am coming from, and why I think traditionalism is the more convincing school of thought.  But of course, feel free to take issue with me!


Martin S. said...

Wonderful, thanks Kate.
On tradition, happened upon Jim Kalb's "Liberalism, tradition and the Church"

And the lapsed Catholic philosopher Bill Valicella on a recent article at Rorate Caeli

"I would like to return to the practice of the religion of my youth, I really would. Nothing of the usual sort holds me back: not the sex monkey, not illicit loves or addictions, not worldly ambition or the demands of career, not the thoughtlessness of the worldling mesmerized by the play of transient phenomena, not the Luciferian pride of a Russell or a Sartre or a Hitchens, not the opposition of a wife: mine is a good old-fashioned Catholic girl who attends mass on Sundays, ministers to the sick, and embodies the old-time virtues.

Philosophical and theological questions and doubts are the main impediments to my return.

But the trashy Vatican II 'reforms' run a close second."

jeff said...

Well magisterialist conservatives now can criticize texts in VAT ii due the Walter Kasper's recent admission, and the Vatican has set the bar very low in regards to what acknowledging the licitness of the Novus Oreo actually means