“Traditionalism” mostly has a bad name among commentators. Critics often quote a comment by historian Jaroslav Pelikan:
Tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. Tradition lives in conversation with the past, while remembering where we are and when we are and that it is we who have to decide.
People treat that as a good summary of the situation. But where does it take us?
The comment seems to make tradition a matter of current views (“living faith”). We converse with our predecessors, as with our contemporaries, and then decide what’s what and what we should do about it.
So where Jude tells us to “contend earnestly for the faith once delivered to the saints,” Pelikan wants us to contend earnestly for what we now believe. That, of course, is not the same. It might have made sense from his point of view, since he was Lutheran when he made the comment, but not all of us are Lutheran.
For Catholics “traditionalism” has something indispensable to say, because it’s something we don’t decide. That means it can give us truths that seem dead to us, because we are dead. It keeps them in front of us until eventually we notice them. That’s how dry bones can live.
The original liturgical movement provides an example. People had forgotten what the liturgy was about, so they needed to look at it anew and see what’s there. There was no notion that the Church should scrap her inherited liturgies, because people no longer understood them very well, and compose something that seems more meaningful today.
Pope Francis, however, seems to take an anti-traditionalist view. In an airborne press conference a couple of years ago he put it this way:
Tradition is the guarantee of the future and not the container of the ashes….
The tradition of the church is always in movement. The tradition does not safeguard the ashes.
The idea seems to be that tradition shows where things come from, and it should inspire where they go, but that’s it. The specifics are up to us and our discernment of present needs.
Many people agree with that view, but it’s not clear how far they want to take it. To what extent, for example, does it apply to scriptures, creeds, councils, and dogmatic definitions? People don’t say. Instead, they talk about how it’s bad to be a “fundamentalist”—apparently, someone who takes specific religious propositions seriously—and good to be nuanced and take context, pastoral needs, and contemporary insights into account.
The result though is that interpretation becomes open-ended, and different people will take it very different places. As a practical matter, then, an emphasis on current interpretations means an emphasis on personal authority. We learn whose interpretations are binding, and the Faith becomes what that authority says it is.
That might be one person, a council, or the consensus of experts or the people collectively. Whatever the approach, it won’t work if it’s understood as political. The faithful must believe the interpretations are correct and follow from principles that bind everyone, leaders as well as followers. If they think what’s decided just shows what the higher-ups want, they will lose interest and drift away.
That’s a big reason exercises of interpretive authority have normally been rather limited, with an emphasis on the authority of the system as a whole rather than the interpreter. Judaism and Islam rely on the findings of experts, and their more durable forms are extremely conservative. The Eastern Orthodox, who rely on councils, are also quite conservative. And the more congregational Protestant churches, at least the ones that last, tend to be rather literal-minded.
Some suggest a pope can do anything, but actual popes have also been quite restrained: they haven’t claimed prophetic gifts, rarely appealed to infallibility, and have dependably fallen in line with the historical consensus of bishops, the faithful, and other authoritative figures.
But every age brings its own problems. Today we’ve developed a technological way of thought that weakens tradition as a principle, denies the fixity of linguistic meaning, and views social order as a human construction. If the Church is viewed that way, as one construction among many, her discipline, doctrine, and governance become human decisions that can be changed if those in charge prefer a “different way of being Church.”
Catholics of course don’t want to look at the Church as a human construction. They would rather emphasize her divine origin and see any changes as following the lead of the Holy Spirit. But the temptation to view everything as a matter of the will of those in power is basic to modern ways of thought, and it’s hard to keep it from affecting attitudes and conduct even among us.
That’s a strong reason to be very cautious today about the Pelikan view of tradition and traditionalism. The faithful need assurance that those in charge of the Church are bound by some authority above themselves, and it helps for that authority to be as visible as possible. Appeals to the principle that God can be trusted to guide his Church shouldn’t be presumed upon. That principle can also be understood in a nuanced way, and a great many things are done in the Church that are obviously not attributable to God’s guidance. So if you press the principle hard you’ll lose people.
Those at the top easily overlook the problem. For them the Church is their life and livelihood. It’s a solid, this-worldly reality that isn’t going to evaporate. So if they undertake to create a “different Church,” their confidence in the Church isn’t going to weaken. They believe their authority guarantees that what they do will be as valid as what their predecessors did, and the bigger the changes they make the more they can tell themselves that God is active in his Church.
Others, who see the human flaws of their leaders and may not be impressed by their projects, are likely to be less confident. Even if they retain their faith in God and his Church, they’re likely to have less confidence in particular things the Church says and does.
That reflection may help us understand some of the difficulties following the Second Vatican Council. Those involved were looking for a “new Pentecost.” Instead, the Church visibly declined. Belief and activity lessened. Many priests, religious, and laity dropped out altogether. The Pope retained celebrity status, but the world mostly lost interest in the Church herself. Like other Christian groups she grew in Africa as indigenous religious traditions weakened, but where she had been established she rapidly lost ground.
But why, when so many intelligent, responsible, and devoted men intended and expected otherwise? There are a variety of reasons. One was that a formal assembly of prelates and academic advisors does not seem a likely vehicle for a new Pentecost, the subsequent actions of administrators even less so.
Church councils have mostly limited themselves to dealing with practical issues, like disciplinary problems and doctrinal disputes. Inspiration has been for saints, and has had very little to do with planning, process, voting, hierarchy, or academic qualifications. Benedict, Francis, and other saints who renewed the Church didn’t have formal positions or qualifications, and didn’t come out of action plans or a global listening process. They saw what they had to do, did it, and that changed the world.
Also, the Council and later actions led to a sudden sense that everything in the Church could change overnight if those in charge so decided. For the people making the changes that must have seemed exhilarating, but for many others it meant the Church could no longer be relied on. However, if the Church cannot be relied on, why build your life on her?
The point of traditionalism as a movement today is that if you try something new and it leads to problems you start looking at what your predecessors did. If there are practices and understandings that have actually sustained the faithful, why not give them a try? To all appearances, that approach has been helping many people. Among other things, it has given them a stronger sense of the solidity of the Faith. Even so, many want to crush it. How can that be the right thing to do?
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!