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.

The Church of St. Ignatius of Loyola (Chiesa di Sant'Ignazio di Loyola in Campo Marzio) in Rome. (Image: Clay Banks/Unsplash.com)

“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?


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About James Kalb 121 Articles
James Kalb is a lawyer, independent scholar, and Catholic convert who lives in Brooklyn, New York. He is the author of The Tyranny of Liberalism(ISI Books, 2008) and, most recently, Against Inclusiveness: How the Diversity Regime is Flattening America and the West and What to Do About It (Angelico Press, 2013).

30 Comments

  1. Perhaps, in short, the choice is between The Gospel of Jesus (a faith tradition), or Jesus of the Gospel (the Tradition). A distinction with a difference…

    The latter phrase is compatible with the “deposit of faith” (alleged as “ashes”?) which is to be safeguarded even as we move forward. Indeed, enabling the Church to move forward! However, the phrase used in the synodal Preparatory Document (Section III, “Listening to the Scriptures”) is the former which settles more for gospel values than it does for the once-only historicity and facticity of the Incarnation at a certain time and place.

    In the Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on Revelation (Dei Verbum), it was an intervention of Pope Paul VI that amended “the words” of Christ to read “the words and deeds”, removing all accidental ambiguity about His miracles and, oh yes, the physical Resurrection.

    Also this—-the document was further clarified to re-assert the value of Tradition: i.e., “the result is that the Church draws its certainty on all things revealed not from Scripture alone [!]” (n. 9). It asserts the historical nature of the Gospels: “whose historical nature it (the Council) affirms without hesitation [!]” (n. 19).

    Rather than Jesus pointing to the gospels, the Gospels witness to Jesus the Christ.

  2. From Fr. Gerald E. Murray of the Archdiocese of New York was published in The Catholic Thing Feb 16, 2017, “Slogans and euphemisms. A slogan is meant to stop discussion. Euphemisms intentionally steer the reader away from precise and accurate descriptions of reality. A seminary professor of mine once noted that verbal engineering always precedes social engineering. In this case, it’s doctrinal engineering.” This slogan/euphemism fits the example and confuses the listener so that the speaker establish his false narrative.

    • Thank you for this. Yes, a slogan or name-calling stops dialogue and stops it cold.

      However, euphemisms are a bit different. Recently, the charge of ‘terrorism’ has been leveled against users of the euphemistic phrase “Let’s Go, Brandon.” As far as I can determine, it seems to mean, “Take a hike.” OR the meaning is more curse-like or caustic, as in “Go Get F—ed.” The receiver of the euphemism has interpretative liberty. OTOH, such euphemistic slogans as ‘Heil Hitler,’ or ‘Amoris Laetitia’ beg the thinking man to shout: “Contradiction.”

      Clear courteous true speech is rare today. People fear to speak truth. If they dare, serious exclusion or cancellation may follow. People now are simply choosing not to work, not to participate, not to vaccinate, not to communicate. We shall forget how. Time to pray now.

      • Speaking of euphemisms, we Americans have mastered the art and given the English-speaking world a lot of it. Instead of torture, it’s “enhanced interrogation.” Civilian or non-combatant casualties of war, “collateral damage.” Prisons for children separated from parents who are undocumented immigrants, “tender age shelters.” Lies, “alternative facts.” Occupation and war (especially in Iraq), “liberation and peace-keeping.” Billionaires and oligarchs, “people of means.” Estate tax, “death tax.” Tax cuts for the rich, “tax relief.” Inconvenient truth, “fake news.” Presidential binge TV watching and golfing, “executive time.”

        • Yes, that might be true. But don’t forget the other euphemism – calling “self-righteous pontificating and claiming a moral high ground you don’t actually occupy” being “progressive.”

          • Athanasius: I agree with you. LOL. However, you forget that your definition or description of this euphemism can equally refer to a “conservative.” LOL.

        • parents who are undocumented immigrants(sic)

          Which is a euphemism for the statutory term illegal alien.

          Behind every double standard lies an unconfessed single standard.

    • Sounds like you’re quoting “Smith’s rule” from the late Monsignor William Smith, one of the influences of my conversion to Catholicism, from whom I also learned the concluding remark in my brief reflection below:

      When you’ve abandoned the thread of a Christian understanding of the human condition and the nature of evil, of what is really wrong with the world, which is entirely the fault of human pride acted out through personal sins with individual and collective repercussions, you turn to a secular leftist understanding of everything. And this has even poisoned the thought of such individuals like Francis and his acolytes at today’s Vatican. There is no longer much place for the traditional modes of personal reform when it is assumed that what the world needs are the “resets” of massive social reengineering of the human condition. Why believe in unchanging eternal (traditional) truths like humility and repentance when you can align yourself with secular global saviors.

      The whole of secular human history has never been anything more than the constant replaying of Satan’s deception to Adam and Eve: “You shall be as Gods.”

  3. Thanks to Peter Beaulieu and Fr. Perozich for their comments.

    A lot of my piece had to do with the sociological conditions for acceptance of an interpretation by the people. That’s important from a pastoral standpoint, so it seemed worth discussing now that there’s such an emphasis on pastoral considerations.

    These readers’ comments have to do with what is true and how to
    avoid being misled, and so are very helpful in filling out the
    picture.

  4. A fine assessment what for many inclusive of faithful Catholics a bete noire to be destroyed or ashamed of. “They saw what they had to do, did it, and that changed the world” (Kalb). Great saints free of complex agenda had simple motive in witness to the faith. That is why James Kalb rhetorically asks “Why destroy it?”. We’ve arrived at the historical moment that the religious radical, traditionalist and uncompromising has achieved what almost all others have lost, preservation of the faith as revealed and held in tradition. Evident in the weak compromise of the bishops on Eucharistic coherence. As much as I know and love some of them they’ve become politicians rather than the Ignatius of Antioch prepared for death rather than compromise. Why are we here? The art of deception is mastery of nuance. A friendlier kinder [Bush 41’s candidacy motto] Church is free to embrace with compassion the struggling, the many in disordered relationship. Be free! Don’t remain enclosed in restrictive precepts that inhibit kindness is the motto of His Holiness. Proclaim the traditional doctrines, balance that with openness to reality. Allow the disenfranchised to enter and with the grace of the holy Spirit they’ll change. Loosen the hawsers a bit God is in charge. Attractive. Appealing to anyone with a heart. Therein lies the nuance of deception. Christ disavowed the median neither hot nor cold and rhetorically spit it out. A duality that relinquishes what the witness of the saints and martyrs left us. The holy zeal of a Judas Maccabeus. A spiritual fire that embraced the Cross willing to suffer and die for truth that the world neither possesses nor can destroy. By radical witness the saints and martyrs left us the narrow, rough, sometimes dangerous road not for cowards but for lovers that alone gives Life.

    • Yes, it’s all about truth, the fundamental (to use a dirty word) reality that makes us all nervous because truth impeaches all of God’s sinful children. So now we talk endlessly about impersonal processes and wind up with a Pope who bristles at the very idea that the voices of the past, who talked a lot about sin, much like Jesus, are not very relevant to the progressive spirit of the present. What does coherent scholastic moral theology have to do with the “concrete” circumstances of an adulterer struggling with guilt feelings from abandoning his first family that just won’t go away? Doesn’t he need “the new repentance-free mercy” too? Don’t we all need to advance to the magical land of “going forward?”
      The word Gospel itself is no longer the traditional expression of God’s invitation to salvation and the freedom of truth but a rallying cry for globalist revolution. The past is so dreary, so inhibiting to secular modes of perfection.

    • Perhaps we all should read and take to heart the writings of St. Alphonsus Liguori, Doctor of the Church. As with the other Doctors and Fathers of the Church, their counsel and teachings are timeless. There are hard sayings because they constantly quote our Redeemer’s own words. Read this great saint and find the way to the narrow road and how to stay on it. As the Apostle says “work out your salvation in fear and trembling”. God is a jealous God and He will not be mocked.

  5. “Traditional” or “traditionalism” have become euphemisms when in reality the right words, I suggest, to describe the people, process, and phenomenon should be “extremist,” or even “taliban.”

    • That seems just a tad bit extreme. Most people who embrace traditional perspectives are actually decent people with good intentions. If you were willing to listen to people with the goal of developing a deeper understanding and appreciation for other viewpoints, that would be clear to you. Tough to do if you’re an ideologue, however.

    • Thanks for raising the Taleban issue. My response:

      It matters what you’re traditionalist about.

      Compare “idealism.” There is Bolshevik idealism and civic do-gooder idealism. They aren’t the same sort of thing. Something similar is true of different types of traditionalism.

      The Taleban are traditionalist in a sense, because they want to take seriously something passed down, but the differences between Christianity and Islam mean huge differences.

      Christianity is based on God personally present in this world. That means we have a lot to work with, but what we have we grasp only partially. So Christian tradition has various aspects and passes down a variety of things that help us get a grip on this inexhaustible reality. Some like the Bible are always fixed, some like doctrinal definitions become fixed, and some, like liturgy and devotions, evolve and take varying forms as various implications of the fixed parts come into focus.

      All are necessary, and for Catholic traditionalists all must be respected. Even the parts that aren’t really fixed can’t be changed arbitrarily because they have emerged slowly from the life and devotion of the saints and the people over the centuries, presumably with the aid of the Holy Spirit guiding the Church. We can’t possibly replace that overnight that with something of our own construction.

      Islam in contrast is based on a text, something fully possessed. God himself is inscrutable, all we have is his arbitrary commands. Also, there’s no idea of natural law or the Holy Spirit, so it tends to be more self-contained than Christianity. The result is that it’s much simpler than Christianity and tends toward literalism, legalism, and a sort of rationalism. Further, there’s no way to establish a universally binding interpretation, just various scholarly schools of thought. So it tends toward sectarianism.

      The result is that Islam can only be minimally traditionalist. It’s too simple and rational. Instead, there’s a recurrent “protestant” tendency – people want to strip off later accretions and return to a rigorous purified form of Islam. The problem though is that it leaves out too much to serve as a comprehensive view of the world so it goes insane. From that standpoint it’s rather like modern thought.

      People will say “what about Sufism?” “What about Indonesian folk Islam?” Or whatever. The point though is that the Taleban reject all that. They stand for a particular sectarian version of Islam. Think of them as rather like a protestant fundamentalist sect only more so since the materials they’re working with tend more toward extremism. That doesn’t make them like traditionalist Catholics.

    • That’s an interesting assertion. Can you cite some instances of Catholic “traditionalists” carrying out terror bombings, forcing women to conceal their faces, amputating the limbs of men condemned for petty crimes, administering public floggings to young girls for “immodesty,” and others for “slandering Islam,” etc., etc.? I guess that Latin Mass really does a number on some of us, eh?

  6. Mr. Kalb touches the problem’s essence when he says, “So if they [at the top of the hierarchical Church] undertake to create a ‘different Church,’… [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.”

    It seems that some in the hierarchy do literally believe that their actions are consonant with God’s being “active in his Church,” seeing and saying it is the Holy Spirit inspiring and guiding their action. QED. “Anathema!” to anyone suggesting something different.

    To rationalize the truths of their own devising, some find it right, just, and necessary to accuse traditionalists of holding too firmly, too rigidly, too assuredly, and with hate-filled Pharisaic authority to rituals, rules, commandments, and ancient rubrics. Imagine the magnitude of their sin!! How dare those ungodly whitened sepulchres of dried old bones, incapable of any life of charity, claim the name of Catholic! How dare they!

    • “Some men think the Earth is round, others think it flat; it is a matter capable of question. But if it is flat, will the King’s [bishops’] command make it round? And if it is round, will the King’s [bishops’] command flatten it? No, I will not sign” (St. Thomas More in Robert Bolt, “A Man for All Seasons,” 1962).

  7. It is axiomatic that the subtitle is true. If there is any formal heresy “at the top” then the faithful must look for the true pope.

    Christ promised to be with His Church. St. Paul called anathema on any who would preach a different doctrine from his.

  8. Thanks, James – I love the careful, insightful, and respectful analysis. It’s such a vital and nuanced topic, something that comes up all the time in discussions about matters relating to the Church. Yet it’s not considered carefully very often. Great topic for your next book!

  9. The “Custodians of Tradition” have orchestrated idolatry and are attempting to outlaw the prayers of the Roman Catholic Mass handed down to our parents.

    James Kalb has rightly warned Church authorities that “those in charge of the Church” are increasingly being revealed to be men who are NOT “bound by some authority above themselves.”

    And that is the supreme betrayal, which Father Imbelli warned about in his essay “No Decapitated Body.”

  10. “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”

    “Our Father who art in heaven Hallowed (sacrosanct, worshipped, divine, inviolable) be thy Name” Our most fundamental belief is that God’s Word (Will) is Inviolate, and sits at the base of all the Sacraments. He cannot contradict Himself; this belief is vital to the intelligibility of faith and life. Without it, the concept of truth loses all meaning.

    Yes we are bound by some authority above ourselves and the Church has been given the means to concur with that ‘authority in a visible’ manifestation of an image of Broken Man which has been given by God Himself to the faithful (Those who serve the Truth) by venerating it in the present moment.

    So, no it is not presumptuous to assume “The principle that God (Via the Holy Spirit) can be trusted to guide his Church” as we are taught by His ‘living’ Word that “the gates of hell shall not prevail against her” Tradition lives in the serving of the Truth from age to age and this truth still holds true today as the faithful have been given the spiritual authority to call to account the leadership of the church for the breaking of the Second Commandment

    But dry bones (Hearts) in collusion have turned a blind eye before the abuse of God’s Hallowed Name and it could be said that they are ‘dead’ to the serving of the Truth as they have become “blind guides of the blind” In refusing to see the reality/Truth of a hierarchical dishonest self-serving Church. One that covers its sins while pretending to serve the Truth

    For a further understanding of this reality please consider continuing via the link
    https://www.catholicworldreport.com/2021/10/25/authoritarianism-and-the-power-of-catholic-solidarity/#comment-283937

    kevin your brother
    In Christ

  11. Well written priece. “Tradition Living” has a Papal Head. And so does “Anti-Tradition” during this Expanded Petrine Ministry, wherein the two Churches that co-exist but which will be separated at the Second Coming of Christ have seemingly both a Petrine Head. Our still-living Vicar of Christ with the Munus, and the Sankt Gallen Ministerium or Second Bishop in White… What this exceptional situation of a split Petrine Ministry actually means – announced on 11/02/2013 in the morning and accepted by two thunderbolts on St Peter’s Dome in the evening – will only be revealed when this crazy situation is ended. Archbishop Leng suggests within 2 years. God Save Our Munus: Vicar of Christ PPBXVI.

  12. We currently have a group within the US who would prefer to engage only in the EFM — Extraordinary Form Mass, because they do not prefer such things as EMHE — Extraordinary Ministers of thee Holy Eucharist. Hmm. Extraordinary, would mean used only when necessary. Their assertion that they must go back to the Tridentine Mass, established by a previous council (Council of Trent) would deny a portion of what the author says above regarding Councils of the Church. I personally do not prefer a mass or prayer that I cannot fully participate in. I would rather pray the mass in unity with my priest than simply watch a performance, or pray a rosary since I can do that effectively at a different time. However, I am not asking the EFM folks to abandon their preference. I would like them to not denigrate my preference as unholy, or outright wicked. It does not appear they learn much at mass — oh, that’s right, 99% who attend don’t understand Latin.

    • Lori, do not be afraid of Latin: it takes a hold of you because the Logos chose Latin to fix the Bible via St Jerome. The Latin Rite has always had multiple liturgical forms. What it never had until the 70s was a New Form that centred on Man rather than God. A Pope delivering talks and advice with zero reference to God just would not have been possible 60 years ago… Latin Mass is the way Catholics worship God until 60 years ago. And in 2007, Pope Benedict encouraged priests to rediscover it and gave the faithful access to it. It is Benedict’s Ark for those of us who are victims of Vatican II and want our Religion back. God bless.

      • The vernacular helps all to fully understand the prayer that we offer to God. I am not “afraid” of Latin, however, I have zero desire to devote what would be the rest of my life to learning a dead language, when the ordinary, or regular form of the mass is the vernacular. Pope Benedict through Pius X Lefebvrist’s a bone in order to attempt reunification of our Church. Unfortunately, that backfired horribly, and now we have the EFM folks attempting schism. EFM sometimes speaks as though they will be the next Protestant group, and forgets any obedience.

        • Lori, EFM was the Mass until the 1970s. 1900 years is a long time. What changed has been described by Bergoglio as “loss of the sacred.” For many Catholics who lived through the “take over” of a Church -seemingly operating under New Masters -, that loss of the sacred was not an accident but the plan. On obedience: obedience is to the faith, the teachings of 2000 years of sacred tradition. Blind obedience to a bishop in white who says terribly uncatholic things is not obedience as Catholics understood it when their religion was still instructed. A Pope very rarely exercices infallibility. For example, when Bergoglio said on a plane “everything I say is magisterium” that would have to include things like “I do not believe in a Catholic God” and “this is rupture” or “proselytism is a sin,” along with uglier statements. In the past, Catholics have followed a Pope into heresy. For some Catholic intellectuals, this is the case today. Archbishop Ganswein has called the Extended Petrine Ministry – two bishops in white in Rome at the same time – a “divine emergency situation”. For many of us that means God has left us Pope Benedict to reassure the Church we have not been completely abandonned to the wolves.

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