Saturday, 7 September 2013

Tradition and traditionalism: more than just dogma; time for genuine debate

For those who follow the blogosphere, there is a very tedious war going on between American neo-conservatives (or 'neo-Catholics if you prefer), and traditionalists.

I'm not going to get into a 'he said/she said' blow by blow commentary on it, because, while some of the contributions are quite entertaining, civil and/or useful, most are anything but.

All the same, I thought it might be useful to correct things that I think are outright errors that are being propagated, and make a suggestion on a way forward.

What genuine 'dialogue' looks like

First, perhaps both sides might take a deep breath, and find some sensible representatives to conduct a more formal debate in one or more suitable forums, rather than continuing to firing flames from their respective bunkers to no useful end.

On this, they might consider, for example, imitating their European counterparts.

A couple of years back, the UK Catholic Herald ran a series of  'letters' constituting a dialogue between Catholic traditionalists and conservatives, with the SSPX perspective represented by Moyra Doorly, and the neo-conservatives by Fr Aidan Nichols OP.

Both sides were extremely respectful of the others positions, and genuinely tried to understand them, and to delineate areas of both agreement and disagreement.

The exchanges have been published in a great book called The Council in Question A Dialogue with Catholic Traditionalism, a book well worth reading (buy it though the link in my sidebar!).

Traditionalists as critics

In fact one of the important contributions of the book, I think, is the attempt to set out what is and isn't the subject of legitimate debate from each perspective.

Someone claimed recently in the comment box on this blog that traditionalists were cafeteria catholics not because they rejected doctrine (as the term is generally used) but because they had the nerve to criticise practices approved by the Church such as communion in the hand, and take issue with things endorsed by Vatican II.  This, my correspondent claimed, constituted setting themselves over the bishops.

Now you might think this is an extreme view - and it is.  But it is a fairly commonly espoused one from a certain extreme of US 'conservatism'.  Over at Catholic Answers, for example Fr Paul Scalia recently wrote something straight along these lines, and someone attacked even the very mild criticisms that appeared on a New Liturgical Movement post on a Liturgical conference Mass which involve a puppet of something that may have been a fish, flame or flying spaghetti monster.  And there have been more than a few blog posts in this vein from the neo-con camp in their current war on trads.

Yet this position stands in stark contrast with that expressed in The Council in Question mentioned above, which comes with a forward endorsing the usefulness of such debate from our very own Cardinal Pell, often viewed as something of a conservative hero in the US.

The Cardinal's forward includes a forthright acknowledgment that "many Catholic communities have been guilty of self-harm, ignorantly encouraging the secularization of institutions".   And he summarises the key question in the book which he hopes will be widely read as "whether this self-harm came from illegitimate appeals to "the spirit of Vatican II" or can be sheeted home to doctrinal errors in the Council teachings." (p viii)

Cardinal Pell's endorsement of debate, and Fr Aidan Nichols' analysis of the question of legitimate debate stands in stark contrast to this US conservative fundamentalism.

Fr Aidan is certainly no traditionalist - though there is much that a traditionalist can agree with in his work, there are also points of departure - for a number of his books include the semi-standard words of dissociation of the Tracey Rowland and friends variety.

All the same, he says:

"We are at one in saying that any Catholic may legitimately call into question the wisdom of the Council's prudential statements - about the reform of worship, say, or the helpfulness or otherwise of the Gospel of contemporary culture.  Where we differ is in this: I do not believe we have a similar liberty where the doctrinal statements of the Council are concerned even if we find these to be in some regard ambiguous in character." (p87)

Fr Aidan also provides a useful summary of just why debate on pastoral decisions is legitimate:

"Matters that turn on the exercise of practical wisdom in particular sets of circumstances do not involve the "charism of truth" given to the total episcopate, under and with the pope..."

He points to many past such decisions now set aside, such as Jews being made to wear distinctive dress (Fourth Lateran Council), and agrees that some Vatican II decisions might well fall in the same category (p99).

Where he differs from Ms Doorly's position is on questions of dogma.  But even on this, he argues that the solution is properly conducted theological debate respectful of what is said, so that, as has happened in the past Councils, unbalanced, ambiguous or insufficiently comprehensive formulations can be supplemented later by subsequent Councils or other interventions by the Magisterium (p 100; a good example in relation to Vatican II, he suggests, may be in relation to the inerrancy of Scripture).

Dogma is not the sum of tradition

One of the underlying problems in this particular war, I think, are some errors about the nature of Tradition.

Big Pulpit, today, for example, provides a link to a piece by Anthony Layne which claims that the problem with traditionalists is they conflate liturgy and devotional practices with the Apostolic Tradition.

It is true I think, that some traditionalists do go a step too far in defending the TLM and other practices from modern assaults on it - rites and devotional practices can and do change over time, even non-organically (consider the reforms of Pius X).  All the same, it is quite clear, as Pope Benedict XVI has repeatedly stated, that the liturgical traditions of the Church are part of the Apostolic Tradition and cannot simply be reduced to the words of consecration in the Mass.

In fact Mr Layne appears to conflate Apostolic Tradition with doctrine, which is just as much as an error as the one he claims traddies succomb to.

He claims that "The apostolic tradition...refers to the entire body of Church doctrine".  Well no.
As I've commented over there:

"The Apostolic Tradition cannot be reduced to just doctrine. Have a look at the Catechism of the Catholic Church - or better still the summary in the Compendium. It defines the Apostolic Tradition as "the transmission of the message of means of preaching, bearing witness, institutions, worship and inspired writings."

The Catholic faith is not just a body of doctrines, not just what we believe, but also a way of praying (worship) and a way of living (morality, the golden rule, charity, joy etc).

The Mass is not simply a discipline, but something intrinsic to the tradition that cannot be reduced to the mere words of institution. That is not to say it can't be modified - of course it can within certain limits, hence the existence of different rites.

Traditionalists are right in insisting on respecting the continuity of our institutions, worship and other means of transmitting the tradition because the Church has always insisted on this - take a look at the Council of Trent (and earlier) pronouncements on tradition, for example, which emphasize that the Gospel is more than just written words."


Fr Mick Mac Andrew, West Wyalong NSW said...

As a relatively late convert to defending Traditionalism, I agree with you and others Kate concerning the very real divide between Traditionalists and neo-Conservative Catholics. There is, in my personal experience, no doubt about the sincerity of neo-Conservative Catholics - I was one of them, but there is a great danger in not challenging them to identify just what are the foundations for their beliefs and practices. Regrets for what has occurred in the Church, sincere desires to renew the Church and experiments and attempts to recover what has been lost in the Church are sincere, but until decisions are made, the consequences of which will demonstrate the continuity of Tradition and Traditionalism, then what is occurring in the neo-Conservative Catholic believer poses an even greater danger than what has gone on in our Church for the past fifty or more years. Saying that is not denying the integrity of any Pope or Bishop or Catholic who recognises Vatican II, for the entire Church must keep on searching for the authentic in that Council. It does exist, it just hasn't yet been allowed to shine its light yet. I am hopeful that Pope Francis, in his narrowing focus on Jesus Christ and His indwelling in the Church will make headway.

The Loon said...

It baffles me how liturgical traditions/customs can be cast aside. When you go for a job interview it's no just the CV that counts but your appearance too.

Doctrine and liturgical customs go together. For example: at Mass we offer sacrifice to God. Thus the tradition (restated in the rubrics of the 1970/2002 Roman Missal) is for the Priest to face the altar/the east i.e. God.

There's nothing from a doctrinal standpoint wrong in facing the people but facing God (where possible) underlines the doctrinal truth that the Mass is preeminently a sacrifice offered to God.