The dispute over the continuing value of the Traditional Latin Mass has drawn attention to the question of tradition and its role in the Church.
That’s a complicated matter. Tradition is important, but not the most important thing. It has a strong human component, so divine revelation and natural law limit its authority. When the Pharisees asked Jesus why his disciples broke the tradition of the elders, he answered “why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition?” (Matthew 15:1-3)
On the other hand, it is through tradition that revelation is passed on and our understanding of natural law developed. That is why Jude urged the brethren “to contend earnestly for the faith once delivered to the saints,” (Jude 1:3) and Paul told the Thessalonians to “stand fast; and hold the traditions which you have learned, whether by word, or by our epistle.” (2 Thess 14)
Once the apostles passed away, it fell to saints, councils, popes, bishops, theologians and all the faithful to receive, apply, develop, and pass on the complex of beliefs and practices that constitutes the tradition of the Church. We live by the Faith, but also by the Catholic tradition that embodies it.
Historians can help us understand the specifics of how all this has happened. But there’s one aspect of the matter that hasn’t drawn much expert discussion because it’s too open-ended: the role of tradition in human life generally. That’s hard for us to discern, because tradition is so pervasive, and it’s difficult to discuss in America today, because the accepted public view of things provides no way to make sense of it.
Foreigners noticed long ago that among us “new” means “good.” Novus ordo seclorum, “a new order of the ages,” is even one of our national mottoes. You might say that such attitudes are part of our tradition. But it’s not just America. The modern world has defined itself by rejection of tradition, and the 1960s deprived it of what social authority remained. If “deeply rooted social stereotype” means “destructive and wrong,” as it has since then, then the function of tradition can only be to show us what not to do.
In recent times that tendency has deeply affected the Church. Neither aggiornamento (“updating”) nor “New Pentecost,” phrases used to describe the goals of the Second Vatican Council, are friendly to tradition. And the response to the Council within the Church, which reflected the excitement of the period immediately after its conclusion, often became quite radical.
The changes in the liturgy are an example. The approach taken in Sacrosanctum Concilium was quite moderate—retention of Latin and chant, for example, and an intention that there would be “no innovations unless the good of the Church genuinely and certainly requires them.” What was done, and forced on the faithful almost overnight, was of course more radical.
No doubt that seemed like a good idea at the time. But excitement dies away, and grand schemes based on hopes and untested theories often come to nothing. Also, modernity has its own deeply rooted stereotypes that are not necessarily true, some of which deal with the role of tradition.
The issues are worth discussing. In general, tradition is experience writ large and summarized in a system of attitudes, practices, and symbols that are respected and lived by rather than analyzed. As such, it’s necessary for dealing with situations that are too subtle, complicated, or all-embracing to sum up in clear ordered statements—in other words, situations to which the modern conception of expertise, which takes modern natural science as its model, is inadequate.
If experience is needed to do something well, that thing needs a tradition. That’s why tradition is basic to how we deal with human life as a whole and its major departments. Even natural science requires tradition to be carried on successfully. Science is a complex and demanding practice that demands insight and judgment, so it can’t be made perfectly scientific. That is why it is learned in part by apprenticeship: it is important who a researcher trained under.
All of which makes the relationship between tradition and expertise as now understood extremely complicated. The latter is often extremely powerful, not only in technical fields but in human affairs generally. Modern public administration has, for example, revolutionized politics and government.
But the power of modern expertise is not always for the best. What questions do we ask of it, and how do we interpret the answers and fit them into the pattern of human life? Above all, do we get carried away by its power and end up destroying what we should be fostering, because the power isn’t power to do exactly what’s needed? A chain saw is a powerful way of dealing with wood, but it doesn’t make someone a better wood carver.
Architecture provides an example of what can go wrong. New materials, modern engineering, and the new concepts of design they make possible have transformed it, but not always for the better.
What should be done with such things? Modern industry created modern civilization, so many designers thought architecture and urban planning should be remodeled on industrial lines. Decoration would be abolished. Buildings would be steel skeletons with facades hung on them to keep out the weather, and partitions arranged and rearranged so the floor plan suits the purpose at hand. Offices, factories, retail establishments, and residential areas would all be separated, and linked together by high-speed rail lines, motorways, and electronic communications.
Anything else—houses with gables, cozy breakfast nooks, traditional European villages—seemed sentimental and dishonest—“kitschy,” as the critics said. People might like such things, and architects were happy to live in them as long as they were old enough to be “authentic,” but designers thought they were immoral, a denial of the times in which we live.
The public didn’t like the results. The professionals said they would eventually come around, and start to like what they were being force-fed. That didn’t happen. The response of top professionals was not to wonder whether their approach was really creating an environment suitable for human life. Instead, they became confrontational. The public had to be shown who’s boss. So the elegance of Lever House and the Seagram Building gave way to the aggressiveness of Tilted Arc, an obnoxious prestige sculpture in the shape of a rusty wall that bisected a plaza in lower Manhattan, ruining it for its users.
Modern architecture wanted to recreate buildings and cities as machines for living. It was a bad idea, because life is not mechanical, but the experts thought it would usher in utopia. They didn’t realize there is no utopia, only myriad arrangements and practices that facilitate and reconcile human needs, loves, and aspirations. Such things grow up as a system through the development of tradition.
That process gave rise to the classic and vernacular architecture that has given us built forms that people still love: the French chateau, the European cathedral, the New England village green, as well as their equivalents elsewhere in the world. But nobody is allowed to build such things today. The building codes mostly don’t allow them, and the designers think they’re all wrong. Theoreticians like Christopher Alexander offer counter-theories arguing that built forms ought to model themselves on living forms rather than machines, but so far with little result.
I can’t help but think that something of the same situation exists within the Church. Ideas that once seemed advanced, because they were thought to reflect exact knowledge of functions and how to achieve them, turned out not to work because fundamental considerations had escaped notice. Instead of a “new springtime” the new ideas led to disintegration, but instead of responding rationally those who supported the changes have dug in their heels. What the public wants is wrong, and they must be taught a lesson.
No doubt official balkiness will eventually soften. If minds don’t change personnel eventually do. In the mean time those who see problems in the official view need to keep remembering the past, working for the future, and improving our understanding of human life and the conditions that help it thrive. That applies to both architecture and liturgy. In the end, when old battles have been forgotten, what makes life better will no doubt prevail.
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