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What is Tradition?

The word tradition means "that which is handed over". In the early church, it was a serious offence to be a "traditor", someone who handed over the sacred liturgical vessels to pagans intent on destroying the Church. This is the origin of the English word traitor.

Tradition and Scripture

It used to be commonly believed (i.e. it tended to be the Official Teaching) that there were "Two Sources" of revelation: Scripture and Ecclesial Tradition. This has been (I believe rightly) repudiated recently. "Vatican II" clearly teaches that there is One (re-)Source of Divine Revelation: "The Word of God" or Logos. The Logos is made flesh in Jesus of Nazareth, the Logos is made conceptual in the Gospel message which is passed on (traditio) from one generation to the next both in written form (Holy Scripture) and by word of mouth (Sacred Tradition). From this point of view, Scripture can be viewed as a sub-set of Apostolic Tradition, and the entirety of this "Deposit of Faith" equated with the Gospel.
    "Christ also assured the Apostles that God the Father would send the Advocate – the Holy Spirit – to lead them into the fullness of the Truth – in other  words to complete His revelation: “But the Paraclete, the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things, and bring all things to your mind, whatsoever I shall have said to you.”[Jn 14:26] Hence, the Apostles received from Christ and the Holy Spirit the revealed Truth in all its wholeness, which they then passed onto their successors in the Catholic Church.  This revelation is known as the Deposit of Faith. And since this Deposit is complete, therefore the doctrines contained within it are unable to change and acquire new meaning according to the ever changing philosophy of man." [Thomas Sparks, private communication: 2003]
This is an accurate statement of the "Traditionalist" or, as I would have it, the orthodox view of Divine Revelation. It must, however, be added that although the objective Deposit of Faith is fixed, the Church's appreciation of it (which is manifested in the doctrine that the Magisterium propounds and that theologians debate and develop) is not fixed: but rather improves and develops with time.

Tradition and traditions

It is vital to distinguish between Sacred Ecclesial Tradition and "church traditions". Traditions (note plueral) are customs and "ways of being" or "ways of doing" that have evolved within the community of the Church. They may be either good or bad (helpful, unproductive or harmful), or they may once have good and are now inappropriate - because of changed circumstances. Some may be of little account (like the tradition, dating back to the Apostle Paul that men should uncover and women cover their heads when praying in Church) and others of great account (like the tradition of making the sign of the cross, or of genuflecting or bowing before the altar and Blessed Sacrament). Traditions of great account are so because (while of no intrinsic merit) they in some way butress or express or celebrate beliefs or attitudes or practices which are of intrinsic merit and are part of the Apostolic Tradition or Gospel.

It can sometimes be difficult to discern between traditions and Tradition on merely technical grounds. This is the case in the examples that I have just given: The unimportant traditions about "hat wearing" are undoubtedly Apostolic in the unimportant sense of going back to the time of the Apostles, being approved by and possibly instigated by one of them! Nevertheless, they are not Apostolic in the important sense of being part of the Deposit of Faith given at first by Jesus to his Apostles and then completed and nurtured by the inspiration and guidance of Holy Spirit.

A liturgical example
Until the liturgical changes imposed after the recent Vatican Council, a number of traditions surrounding the reception of Holy Communion in the Western Church. While these traditions have no intrinsic merit the fact that Holy Communion was received:
  • from the hands of an ordained minister
  • who is wearing vestments,
  • out of a sacred vessel made of a material esteemed as valuable (normally silver or gold),
  • kneeling,
  • on the tongue and
  • after a three hour fast
served to reinforce an attitude of reverence and recollection - which was exactly why they were maintained!

Now that it is the norm for Communion to be received:

  • from the hands of a lay person (even if a cleric is present)
  • who is wearing ordinary clothes,
  • out of an earthenware vessel,
  • standing, and with no sign of reverence,
  • in the hand and
  • after no significant fast:
belief in the Real Presence of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament has hugely declined.

I find it ironic that the late Cardinal Hulme had occasion to publicly bewail the loss of reverence for the Blessed Sacrament, when he was personally and specifically responsible in his own Diocese for imposing some of these innovations. It is most regrettable that although Pope John Paul II specifically apologized on behalf of the contemporary world-wide episcopate for the widespread abuses that had entered the common liturgical practice of the Church, neither he nor they did anything effective to correct them.

To my recollection, the only liturgical abuse that has been systematically suppressed is the practice of the congregation joining in with the doxology of the Eucharistic prayer, and this is (in my view) of little importance one way or the other. The liturgical traditions that have been dispensed with were not part of the Apostolic Tradition, nevertheless their loss has necessarily resulted in a tremendous loss of orthodoxy among the laity. If the intention had been to undermine belief in the Real Presence, the policy couldn't have been better conceived.

Tradition and conservatism

It is quite proper and correct for the Church in any age (even the Apostolic) and in any culture to adopt conventions and manners that are deemed to be appropriate in that context. It is quite improper and wrong to confuse such mores with Sacred Tradition. It is when such a confusion takes place that the problem that Jesus is so insistent upon regarding "human tradition" arises:
"For the sake of your tradition, you have made void the word of God. You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said: 'This people honours me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the precepts of men.'" [Mat 15:6-9]
This is characteristic of  forces within the Church that can be labelled "conservative" or "reactionary". These tend to identify the common belief, practice or official teaching current at some time (typically either the 1950's or "now") with the Tradition and seek to impose it universally by diktat: the use of threats, penalties and denunciations.

What verses Why

The conservative does not seek to enter into Tradition, to empathize with its spirit and to come to a knowledge of why it is what it is. The Conservative does not want to enter into a dialogue that might change his or her ideas or heart. The Conservative wants to see the Tradition as something that is inert and fixed and safe - a source of security and comfort, not as an unsettling challenge to growth. The Conservative is only interested in outward forms: what Tradition seems to be. The outward forms are all that can be imposed and policed; the inward vitality is hidden.

Hence the Conservative's interest in a detailed knowledge of "what": of laws and precedents and the latest (or earliest!) word from some authority or other. These are matters that can be imposed. Debate and dialogue is not important, a familiarity with the diverse corpus of nuanced Patristic teaching is not required, only the "proof texts": conformity is the only object in view.

"Conservatives grasp onto the status quo and in so doing lose the 2000 year perspective of things. They do not know or particularly value the past. They do not dare disturb the present by questioning anything. They do not trust the future enough to consider any needed changes. Both conservative and traditional catholics base their faith and practice of it upon a higher authority. For traditional catholics this is the divinely revealed Holy and Living Tradition (of which the Holy Scriptures are a part), supported by and interpreted by ecclesiastical tradition, liturgical tradition, the papal magisterium, and the sensus fidelium. For the conservatives, ultimate authority lies with the Pope's pleasure, and their veneration of him can degenerate into a Stalin like personality cult."
[Private Communication from a Catholic Priest, 2004 AD]
The basic problem here is ignorance. While the Magisterium pays lip service to the idea of an educated laity (and lower clergy), and to a dialogue at the heart of the Church, in practice it does everything in its power to maintain the laity in ignorance and to cow the presbyterate and diaconate. Knowledge - and still more, understanding - is power: power to contradict and admonish the hierarchy when the hierarchy deviates from Tradition. This is something that the hierarchy hates and fears. In these days, as in the days of Caiaphas [Jn 11:49], what is required is a flexible mind: one that can make any "yes" into a "no" and any "no" into a "yes" [Jas 5:12]. On the contrary, St. Thomas teaches:
"There being an imminent danger for the Faith, prelates must be questioned, even publicly, by their subjects. Thus, St. Paul, who was a  subject of St. Peter, questioned him publicly on account of an imminent danger of scandal in a matter  of Faith. And, as the Glossa of St. Augustine puts it (Ad Galatas 2.14), 'St. Peter himself gave the example to those who govern so that if sometime they stray from the right way, they will not reject a correction as unworthy even if it comes from their subjects... '

"Some say that fraternal correction does not extend to the prelates either because man should not raise his voice against heaven, or because the prelates are easily scandalized if corrected by their subjects. However, this does not happen, since when they sin, the prelates do not represent heaven, and, therefore, must be corrected. Those who correct them charitably do not raise their voices against them, but in their favour, since the admonishment is for their own sake... For this reason, according to other [authors], the precept of fraternal correction extends also to the prelates, so that they may be corrected by their subjects." [IV Sententiarum, D. 19, Q. 2, A. 2]

This is how corruption sets in: when traditions which have outlived their applicability are prolonged and enforced. Once a tradition has no reason for being, it tends to devolve in accordance with ignorance and laziness. The true Traditionalist is not content with asking what was done or what was believed but instead will insist on knowing why. Without an understanding of why some practice was followed or why some proposition was maintained, one is in grave danger of entirely missing the point and perhaps even of seeking to bind burdens on others that there is no rational and objective need for them to carry:
"Then said Jesus to the crowds and to his disciples, 'The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses' seat; so practice and observe whatever they tell you, but not what they do; for they preach, but do not practice. They bind heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on men's shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with their finger.'" [Mat 23:1-4]

Tradition and Development

Cardinal Newman brought the Catholic Church to realize that the Tradition was not static [Development of Doctrine, Arians of the Fourth Century]. While the objective content of the Gospel is "once and for all", our subjective understanding of it (under the guidance of Holy Spirit) improves and expands as time goes by: just as Jesus promised [Jn 16:13]. The expression of Tradition in terms of traditions is bound to evolve and change with time. The process of handing on the Gospel is not regimented, nor should it be. Tradition is a process as well as (and perhaps more than) an object: it is a "coming into being" as well as a "preservation of what is" [2 Thes 2:15]. It is a dynamic part of the life of the Church, open to the influence of Holy Spirit. Each new generation is necessarily in dialogue with the one that precedes it. As it receives the Word of God, it asks questions [Acts 8:34], some of which will be novel; and proposes insights, some of which will be valid.
"Another difference is, that traditional Catholics are not all necessarily closed to any change, where change can and should be effected. I know traditional catholics amongst the people who attend the Traditional Mass which I celebrate, who are perfectly orthodox and tradition-minded, and yet are open to the possibility of a married clergy for the Latin Rite, who do not find Humanae Vitae to be the last word or even the best word on the subject, and who even advocate  translating the Traditional Mass into the vernacular for occasional use on weekdays. All things not in contradiction with Orthodoxy and Tradition, and thus possible (though one can justifiably argue whether such changes would be prudent and advantageous.)" [Private Communication from a Catholic Priest, 2004 AD]
This is not to say that anything foreign to the Tradition can be added to it, nor that anything uncongenial to the new age can be set aside. There is a central necessity to "test the spirits" [1 Thes 5:21]. This is part of the role of the Magisterium. When Platonism was grafted on to the Gospel, it was so judiciously, and because of its consonance with the Gospel and utility in evangelism. The Church does not have a monopoly of truth. While Her inheritance contains all that is necessary for salvation, there is much of value outside the formal borders of Her domain [Acts 14:17, Rom 2:11-39]. She should neither be conceited, nor reticent to adopt any and all wholesome wisdom to the service of the Gospel.

The Traditionalist should be concerned to reinterpret and reapply the content and meaning of the Tradition as circumstances change. Though the Gospel is fixed, the circumstances of mankind are not. Unlike the Liberal-Relativist who is happy to change the significance and content of his message to conform to the "Spirit of the Age", and the Conservative-Authoritarian who is only concerned with external conformity: the Traditionalist's concern is to communicate the unchanging message of salvation in new words and using new forms - if it is clear that they are pastorally appropriate and effective [1 Cor 9:20-23]. It is not good enough that the audience likes what they see or hear. It is not good enough that some set of rules or official form of words is maintained. What matters is that orthodoxy is communicated, and communicated in a manner that arouses the will and intellect. The greatest exponent of this methodology was Thomas Aquinas, whose life-work was to anticipate the renascence by re-expressing Gospel Wisdom in Aristotelian terms (though, as a Platonist, I think this was not an unqualified success).

Often, of course, the traditional words and forms will be found entirely fit for purpose: they may have stood the test of time and proved their worth by speaking to and inspiring many generations. If so, it is reckless to dispense with them. All change, even necessary change, is traumatic. For some tradition to be set aside in favour of a new approach or practice or formula, it must be reasonably clear that an advantage is to be obtained. The natural way of proceeding is not to outlaw and suppress the old tradition, but to let it co-exist alongside the new initiative. In that way, it is to be hoped, the best of both will prevail and a synthesis develop which will be richer than either the old or the new way. This is exactly what was not done in the liturgical changes of  recent years. The sociological, psychological and spiritual damage that resulted is becoming clearer and clearer as time passes.

"Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven  is like a householder who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old." [Mat 13:52]

Tradition and the Magisterium

Sacred Tradition is no more to be equated with the Magisterium or any activity of the Magisterium than is Scripture. Neither does the Magisterium have any authority over Scripture or Tradition. The Magisterium is entirely subservient to both. The Gospel rules the Church, not vice versa! The only role of the Magisterium is to elucidate, identify, discern, proclaim and defend Sacred Tradition; with an attitude of reverence and fearful respect. The Magisterium is the servant of Tradition or it is nothing. The great Pope Pius IX (of Vatican Council and Infallibility fame) was seriously wrong if he ever did opine (as reported by his detractors) that "I am Tradition".

One influential commentary on the Second Vatican Council's Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation stresses the significance and consequences of such a view of the magisterium:

"When seen against this background, the explicit emphasis on the ministerial function of the teaching office must be welcomed as warmly as the statement that its primary service is to listen, that it must constantly take up an attitude of openness toward the sources, which it has continually to consult and consider, in order to be able to interpret them truly and preserve them: not in the sense of "taking them into custody" (to which sometimes the activity of the teaching office in the past may have tended), but as a faithful servant who wards off attempts at foreign domination and defends the dominion of the word of God both against modernism and against traditionalism. At the same time the contrast between the "listening" and the "teaching" church is thus reduced to its true measure: in the last analysis the whole church listens and, vice versa, the whole church shares in the upholding of true teaching."  [Joseph Ratzinger: Chapter II, in "Commentary on the Documents of Vatican II, vol. 3" Herbert Vorgrimler ed.  (New York: Herder and Herder, 1968)]
I take it that Ratzinger here uses the word "traditionalism" to mean what I have called "conservatism".

The Church's Faithfulness to Tradition is is part of what is meant by asserting that the Church is Apostolic as well as Catholic. Her doctrine is identifiable as extending geographically over all the World, in the belief of both Her lay and clerical members and historically back to Apostolic roots. By both tests it is not particular or partisan (the root meaning of heretical).

Tradition and the Laity

Necessarily, the part of the Church most involved in Tradition is the Laity: because they are the majority of the Church they do most of the talking! Cardinal Ratzinger has recently pointed out that Canon Law envisages that one can (only?) tell when the Magisterium has spoken "definitively" by the response of the laity [Can 750] :
"All that is contained in the written word of God or in tradition, that is, in the one deposit of faith entrusted to the Church and also proposed as divinely revealed either by the solemn Magisterium of the Church or by its ordinary and universal Magisterium, must be believed with divine and catholic faith; it is manifested by the common adherence of the Christian faithful under the leadership of the sacred Magisterium; therefore, all are bound to avoid any doctrines whatever which are contrary to these truths. Moreover, each and everything definitively proposed by the Church regarding teaching on faith and morals must also be accepted and held: namely, whatever is required for the holy defence and faithful explanation of the deposit of faith. Therefore, whoever rejects these propositions which must be definitely held is opposed to the teaching of the Catholic Church." [Can 750, New Code of Canon Law]
The italics in the above are mine. According to the Code, for it to be apparent and known that the Magisterium has "definitively taught" something, it is necessary for the laity to "adhere to" this teaching! This is extremely refreshing. It is pleasing to see the central role of the laity in professing, preserving, and proclaiming doctrine featured in this way. This does not mean that the laity have any kind of role in ratifying or approving doctrine. The "Gallican" idea of "receptionism" has been rightly and roundly condemned. It does mean that Tradition recognizes Tradition! The sheep are neither stupid nor passive. They recognize the voice of a good shepherd [Jn 10:1-5], because he talks sense, with personal integrity, and in faithfulness to the Gospel. God's holy people, on whose hearts are written His Law [Jer 31:33-34], recognize that same Law when it is enunciated, clarified or proclaimed by orthodox proponents of the Apostolic Tradition.

Tradition and the Papacy

Whenever someone who is generally thought of as being the Pope (e.g. Pius IX) apparently attempts to Teach infallibly, the following questions always necessarily arise:
Does he really intend to teach this infallibly?
Partly this can be determined by what formula of words is used: but this is all convention, and bound up in the uncertainties of human language!
Is he orthodox?
If not, he's not a Catholic, having (temporarily) lapsed from the Faith (as Pope Honorius certainly did) and so he can't be Pope, so he can't enjoy the charism of infallibility! The Church as a Whole inevitably judges the orthodoxy of the Pope continually, just as the Pope teaches and admonishes the body of the faithful continually. Tradition recognizes Tradition.
"In the case in which the pope would become a heretic, he would find himself, by that fact alone and without any other sentence, separated from the Church. A head separated from a body cannot, as long as it remains separated, be head of the same body from which it was cut off. A pope who would be separated from the Church by heresy, therefore, would by that very fact itself cease to be head of the Church. He could not be a heretic and remain pope, because, since he is outside of the Church, he cannot possess the keys of the Church. [St Antoninus OP: 1389-1459]
"A pope who is a manifest heretic automatically (per se) ceases to be pope and head of the Church, just as he ceases automatically to be a Christian and a member of the Church. Wherefore, he can be judged and punished by the Church. All the early Fathers are unanimous in teaching that manifest heretics immediately lose all jurisdiction. St. Cyprian, in particular, laid great stress on this point." [St. Robert Bellarmine  SJ: 1542-1621]
"Now when [the Pope] is explicitly a heretic, he falls ipso facto from his dignity and out of the Church, and the Church must either deprive him, or, as some say, declare him deprived, of his Apostolic See." [St. Francis de Sales: 1567-1622]
"If ever a pope, as a private person, should fall into heresy, he would at once fall from the pontificate. If, however, God were to permit a pope to become a notoriously and contumacious heretic, he would by such fact cease to be pope, and the apostolic chair would be vacant." [St. Alphonsus Liguori C.S.S.R.: 1696-1787]

"It has always been maintained by Catholic theologians that for heresy the Church may judge the Pope, because, as most maintain, by heresy he ceases to be Pope. There is no variance on this head amongst theologians that I know of, except that some, with Turrecremata and  Bellarmine, hold that by heresy he ipso facto ceases to be Pope: whilst others, with Cajetan and John of St. Thomas, maintain that he would not formally [as opposed to materially] cease to be Pope until he was formally deposed." [Fr. Henry Ignatius Dudley Ryder: 1837-1907]

What does what he says mean?
Over to the theologians!

It might be nice if infallibility was neater than this little old mess, but I don't see how (in the kind of world which we actually inhabit) it could be so. Remember the Church can never proclaim anything that is new, unknown or surprising to Herself! The Gospel will always be what it always was, though it might (in the fulness of time) turn out to have implications (taught us by Holy Spirit) that take us aback at first. Though we may drift away from it, the Word of God is unchanging and He is Faithful. When we repent and return to the Gospel we will find it uncomfortably familiar.

When something is proposed that is not Apostolic, it will not be recognized as Gospel Truth by the laity and its proposer will be exposed as heterodox; be they putative Pope or Synod! Given the indefectability of the Church, this is inevitable. When Nestorius, Patriarch of Constantinople, preached that Mary Mother of Jesus was not the Mother of God it was the laity that rose up in revolt against his teaching. The common folk of God knew very well that it was not Apostolic, but rather novel teaching: and would have none of it!

In the days of the Arian heresy, it was the laity who defended the faith. Of the hierarchy, almost all compromised with the enemies of the truth, signing any number of (not so) ambiguous conciliar texts. Pope Liberius did so at Sirmium in 357AD. Leo, Pope of Rome and Athanasius, Pope of Alexandria were the only notable clerics who bothered to defend orthodoxy.

Tradition and the Local Church

As I write (in 2001 AD), the Synod of Bishops is meeting in Rome. The topic of their debate is the balance of power between the local Church and the Universal Church: i.e. between Diocesan Bishops and the Vatican Curia. I find myself almost entirely uninterested in this question. In principle, I deplore the modern appropriation of power to the centre. In particular, the denigration of the ancient Patriarchates: the loss of significance of Primatial Sees; the appointment of all Bishops by Rome rather than their election by Canon Presbyters. However, I think that it would be counter-productive in the present climate for the typical Diocesan or Primate to affect more authority or freedom than is currently the norm. This is my judgement because of what one hears them say and see them do already. They have no concern to preserve orthodoxy, but only to innovate. Bishop MacMahon recently made a plea on live BBC radio that doctrinal matters should be decided at the diocesan level. If his Grace meant anything by what he said, he was making a bid for himself to be declared locally infallible! Manifestly, such an idea is absurd. It is profoundly contrary to the Tradition, which maintains that orthodoxy is to be judged by Oecumenicity, not by any individual Bishop: not even the Bishop of Rome in isolation from the Fellowship of Bishops!
"What then should a Catholic do if some part of the Church were to separate itself from communion with the universal Faith? What other choice can he make but to prefer to the gangrenous and corrupted member the whole of the body that is sound. And if some new contagion were to try to poison no longer a small part of the Church, but all of  the Church at the same time, then he will take the greatest care to attach himself to antiquity which, obviously, can no longer be seduced by any lying novelty."  [St. Vincent of Lerins: C400-C450]
The key issue for the UK Bishops at the present time is that of the vernacular version of the New Rite of Mass. In law, this is supposed to be a translation of the latin typical edition. In fact it is no such thing. It is a bad paraphrase. Here is not the place to tediously detail its many errors and inadequacies; one glaring horror will suffice. The Preface of the Fourth Eucharistic prayer opens with the truly Arian proposition "Father in Heaven, you alone are God, living and true". Needless to say, this is not the sense of the latin! Some translator was either so ignorant or incompetant or careless of orthodoxy as to stamp the heart of the Missal of Paul VIth with pure Arianism. After a generation of complaints, Rome has at last decided that the ICEL version of the Missal of Paul VIth is defective and must be brought into conformance with the official latin text. The UK Bishops do not like this. They are arguing strenuously that the texts that are used in the UK should be decided by UK authorities: namely themselves, and that they are perfectly happy with the current "translations" except that they should have all gender specific language removed! So the hierarchies of England, Wales and Scotland (and perhaps others) are presently implicitly defending Arian heterodoxy.

Until Bishops are appointed whose paramount concern is to defend and preach the Tradition, the only effect of Diocesans exercising more power will be to further undermine the Faith. While the Vatican is itself deeply implicated in the process of  "auto destruction" that Pope Paul VIth so famously identified, it has the one advantage of being (more or less) a single voice. Whereas much of what the Vatican has been propounding for the last forty years (e.g. compromise with first Protestantism and Marxism and now Islam) is profoundly wrong, it is not a cacophony of different voices all shrieking in order to command attention. This is, I have no doubt, what any empowered New Age Episcopacy would rapidly become.

Tradition and Common-sense

It shouldn't need to be pointed out that Tradition is not the same as common-sense: even in the sense of "the consensus of the Laity", or Church in all her orders. It is quite possible for The Church as a Whole to mistake something that is commonly held to be true (e.g. the "Earth is Flat", "The Sun circles the Earth", "the Jews are all personally guilty of killing God", "The Patriarchal Family is a good thing",  "lending money at interest is gravely sinful", "Democracy is a bad thing", "Slavery is legitimate", "Dolphins don't have souls", "all dancing is gravely sinful", "Praying with Protestants is mortally sinful", "Democracy is a good thing" ....) to be Gospel Truth. On the whole, in retrospect it is amusingly easy to identify these mistakes and to wonder why they were ever made. The fact that they were made, and moreover strenuously defended by the Magisterium and/or saints at the time, should be a cause for present humility. John Paul II has made it his business to apologize for a few of the worst historical errors of his predecessors, as also for the gross irreverence and many scandals common in contemporary Catholic worship: however there is no present sign that anything has been learned in practical terms from the fact that these historical mistakes occurred.

The difficult Dialogue between Traditionalism and Conservatism

One of the most difficult and distressing encounters for the Traditionalist is with his brother, the Conservative. In some ways they share a common concern. They wish to see the restoration of Catholic Order within the Church and the overthrow of the Liberal stranglehold on the cultural and intellectual consensus and the Church's power structures. In others they are at loggerheads.

Very soon after encountering a Traditionalist, the Conservative will figure out that the other is not interested either in reading the latest Roman missives or in toeing the party line. The Conservative will immediately decide that the Traditionalist is disloyal and little different from a Protestant. Disloyal because there will (in contemporary circumstances) likely be any number of issues regarding which the Traditionalist will have firm views that are at variance with the "Roman Line", and this is unacceptable to the Conservative. Little different from a Protestant (and here the term is certainly abusive) because the Conservative views the way in which the Traditionalist comes to theological conclusions as indistinguishable from private judgement. Instead of the Pope as the final arbiter of truth, he sees the Traditionalist appeal to his own subjective and partisan view of and interpretation of "Tradition". It is almost inevitable that the Conservative will accuse the Traditionalist of heresy, claiming that any number of teachings and Papal policies, such as:

  • the impossibility for a woman to be ordained into the Apostolic Ministry;
  • the intrinsic evil and sinfulness of all forms of "artificial" contraception;
  • the absolute necessity of explicit allegiance to the Roman Pontiff for salvation;
  • the essential equivalence of all "christian churches" as regards the salvation of their members;
  • the unacceptability of praying with heretics and or infidels;
  • the necessity of praying with heretics and infidels;
  • the encouragement of the laity to read the Scriptures;
  • the forbiddence of the laity to read the Scriptures;
  • the duty of a Catholic state (grounded in the dignity of the truth and the fact that error can have no rights) to prevent non-Catholics promoting error in public, whenever the common good is not threatened by such a policy;
  • the duty of a Catholic state (grounded in the "dignity of the human person") to recognize in its constitution the right of non-Catholics to promote error in public, as long as civil disorder is avoided [Dignitatis Humanae #2];
  • the Lutheran-Catholic declaration on Justification;
  • the "reform" of the Liturgy;
  • the irreformability of the Liturgy;
  • the "reordering" of Churches;
  • the ICEL translations of the liturgy of Paul VI.
are orthodox, wise, and to various extents binding; perhaps quoting the recently promulgated Catechism:
"Divine assistance is also given .... to the bishop of Rome .... when, without arriving at an infallible definition and without pronouncing in a 'definitive manner' .... in the exercise of the Ordinary Magisterium, a teaching that leads to better understanding of Revelation .... To this ordinary teaching, the faithful 'are to adhere .... with religious assent' [LG #25], which though distinct from the assent of faith, is nonetheless an extension of it." [CCC 892]
which itself refers to, and is an interpretation of, the non-infallible teaching of Lumen Gentium.

Any criticism of the manifest policy of the Papacy and any dispute of any moderately solemn teaching will be viewed as a serious matter and as revealing the Traditionalist to be essentially heterodox. It will be argued that to dispute one Papal teaching is to deny, in principle, the whole of the Catholic Faith; and that any attempt to distinguish between defined dogma and official teaching is dishonest: no more than a poorly disguised attempt to set oneself up as the final authority in religion. The Traditionalist will be accused of being a Cafeteria Catholic: picking and choosing those doctrines that are congenial to his mind and ignoring those that are not so. The Conservative will assert that the Catholic Faith is a single package, a seamless garment. One either assents to it all or one dissents from it all. No intermediate position is possible.

Of course, the Traditionalist will agree; but differ on what the contents of the package are and the extent of the folds and frills of the garment. The Traditionalist will perceive the Conservative as being in as much danger of accreting spurious doctrines to the Apostolic Tradition as the Liberal is of throwing the baby out with its bath water. The Conservative can easily be guilty of an illiberal and Pharisaic inverse Cafeteria Catholicism; especially if the reigning Pope is of a conservative mind-set.

When the Traditionalist asserts that Tradition necessarily judges the Ordinary Magisterium, not the other way round; the Conservative replies by saying that the Magisterium is the only authentic interpreter of Tradition, and so the dynamics of any such judgement are solely the business of the Magisterium. Others may observe, but even to comment on the process is inappropriate: the only agent competent to evaluate Tradition is the Magisterium. The business of the Laity is to watch events unfold, and listen and learn from the outcome of the process. It is not to evaluate, criticize and discuss its execution: only to explore and acknowledge its results.

When the Traditionalist points out, in conformity with the testimony of Pope Adrian VIth:
"If by the Roman Church you mean its head or pontiff, it is beyond question that he can error even in matters touching the faith. He does this when he teaches heresy by his own judgement or decretal. In truth, many Roman pontiffs were heretics."
that the Ordinary Magisterium has made errors, even in its solemn teaching, the Conservative will take each example proffered and find some means of viewing or disputing the facts so that they become innocuous - at least to his satisfaction!
  • When the fact that synods have issued formal affirmations of undoubted heresy is pointed out; he will reply:
  • the decrees of these synods were never ratified by any Pope; or
  • were not addressed to the Universal Church; or that
  • the Fathers of the Synod were not representative of the Catholic Episcopate.
  • When the fact that individual Popes have fallen into heresy is pointed out, he will reply:
  • the letters or decrees formalizing that heresy were neither intended to be nor were in fact taken by anyone as being definitive; so that in all cases the Pope was teaching as a private and speculative theologian, not as the Sovereign Pontif.
  • When the fact that the Church as a Whole has held and taught various doctrines for extended periods of time, that are now either formally repudiated or tacitly decried is pointed out, he will reply:
  • the doctrine did not relate to faith and morals, was therefore never part of the Catholic Faith and so could never have been proposed to the People of God as such; or that
  • the doctrine was never so proclaimed and the contrary supposition is a malicious fabrication; or that
  • the historic teaching is being misinterpreted and was in fact identical to the present teaching; or that
  • the present position of the Church, though now perhaps unclear, is in fact the same as the previous
  • as is most convenient.
  • With enough ingenuity, it is always possible to make out some such case. In doing so, however, the Conservative falls into exactly the kind of sophistry that he accused the Traditionalist of indulging in, with the purpose of avoiding the necessity of assent to doctrines not congenial to his mindset. The purpose of the Conservetive is to defend the indefensible, extravagant, heterodox, specious and quite un-necessary proposition that the Ordinary Magisterium has never erred and cannot do so!

    Moreover, the Traditionalist will not wish to argue that the Ordinary Magisterium ordinarily falls into error. He will always be willing to give a Pope or Synod the benefit of the doubt: out of a religious respect, and a confident expectation that Holy Spirit regularly, continually, and habitually assists and guides (but does not coerce, constrain or inspire) the hierarchy in the exercise of its ministry. It is therefore inevitable that the Traditionalist will often concede part of the argument to the Conservative. For the Traditionalist the issues are complex and subtle: a matter of degree, for the Conservative they are simple: the Pope does not err. EVER.

    The Conservative, of course, fails to perceive the corollary of his argument. It is legitimate for us to look back to earlier epochs  in the story of the development of dogma and reconcile apparent discrepancies in such a manner that earlier witnesses to the Tradition discover themselves to mean by their statements things that they would never have explicitly recognized. Similarly, we must expect that our future interpreters will look back on us and elucidate meanings from our expressions of faith that we are presently incapable of guessing! We should not be so confident that we fully understand the significance of our own words and thoughts, let alone the truths that they seek to grasp and express.
    • The Fathers of the Vatican Council intended to secure a greater vision of Papal Infallibility by their infallible definition. In fact, because of the interpretation put upon their decree by the Church as a Whole when it was received by the faithful, and by its Traditional contextualization, they succeeded in circumscribing its scope and exercise.
    • It may be that in the fullness of time the fallible declarations of Humanae Vitae and Famularis Consortio may turn out to form staging posts on a journey of faith in the precise direction that their authors explicitly sought to exclude! Only time and the dynamic unfolding of the living Tradition will tell.
    The Conservative will (correctly) say that the development of doctrine is not an evolution from one thing to another quite distinct from itself. He will (falsely) extend this principle to argue that what a Pope or Council declares must always be given the signification explicitly and manifestly intended by its author(s). He will conclude that the eventual outcome envisaged by the Traditionalist is impossible. Of course, exactly this argument has in the past have been used to bolster any number of official policies and teachings that are now entirely repudiated. For example the solemn teaching of the Oecumenical Union Council of Florence that circumcision is mortally sinful in all circumstances, and the inescapable damnation of all non-Catholics.

    The Traditionalist will defend his position by pointing out that the Conservative cannot quote any infallible authority for his position. No amount of non-infallible declarations that can be used be bolster the Conservative's view will ever answer the need for a certain basis for what otherwise seems to be an extravagant belief. The Traditionalist will also point out that the non-infallible teaching of the Catechism is qualified, relating only to "a teaching that leads to better understanding of Revelation". A teaching that in fact doesn't satisfy this criterion demands no assent whatsoever! He will also point out the content of Canon 750:

    "All that is contained in .... the one deposit of faith .... must be believed with divine and catholic faith;it is manifested by the common adherence of the Christian faithful under the leadership of the sacred Magisterium ...."
    which envisages that orthodox teaching can be distinguished from heterodox by the response it elicits from the People of God.
    What motivates the Conservative's unreasonable stance? This I think is easy to understand. It is the dismayed recognition of the extent of disorder and dissent within the Church. The Conservative simply assumes that the only way of tackling such disorder and dissent is by the exercise of central authority, as exemplified in the past by: To this end it is vital that the authority to be exercised commands unthinking obedience, so this is the position that they attempt to promulgate and popularize. Unfortunately, this will not achieve their laudable objective of restoring Catholic Order. Those whom the Conservative specifically wish to target by the exercise of authority are exactly those who will never give credence to this heterodox vision of authority within the Church! Some "career clerics" and some laity with a vested interest in maintaining good relations with "the powers that be" may be intimidated into professing such beliefs and acquiescing in and co-operating with the exercise of such authority by the Curia. However I do not believe that this will have any significant effect on the culture of the Church, which is now rotten to the core.

    It is always easier to destroy rather than to build. Curial authority was certainly misused during the reigns of Popes Paul VI and John-Paul II to undermine orthodoxy and orthopraxy to great effect. It will be an indefinitely more difficult, daunting, demanding and delicate task to put back together the pieces of the seamless garment of faith torn asunder by the forces of dissolution acting in the aftermath of the disastrous Second Vatican Council.

    "Was the Council a wrong road that we must now retrace if we are to save the Church? The voices of those who say that it was are becoming louder and their followers more numerous. We must be on guard against minimizing these movements. Without a doubt, they represent a sectarian zealotry that is the antithesis of Catholicity. We cannot resist them too firmly." [Cardinal Ratzinger: "Principles of Catholic Theology" (1982) pp. 389-390]
    I am proud to be one of the voices that Pope Benedict here condemns as "sectarian zealots". I am by no means opposed to the whole of the teaching or decisions made by the last Vatican Synod. It is very difficult for anthing to be utterly wrong, and there is much of value to be found in its documents. However, they are thoroughly contaminated with heterodox ideas and breath the heady Spirit of the Age in which they were framed. Readers of my website will, of course, decide for themselves whether the theological and philosophical vision that it promotes is "the antithesis of Catholicity".

    Traditionalism and Radicalism

    I shall conclude by pointing out an amusing irony. Typically one might think that radical and traditional  theologies (or whatever) would be in opposition: as different as chalk and cheese. A little thought shows how wrong this should be, in theory. Both Radical and Traditional mean "going back to origins" [Dr. Elizabeth Stuart, private communication]. I like to think of myself as a "Radical Traditionalist". The contrast is with "Authoritarian Conservative", and "Libertarian Relativist".
    "I vow to change nothing of the received Tradition, and nothing thereof I have found before me guarded by my God pleasing  predecessors, to encroach upon, to alter, or to permit any innovation therein. To the contrary:  with glowing affection as her truly faithful student and successor, to safeguard reverently the passed-on good, with my whole strength and utmost effort.

    To cleanse all that is in contradiction to the canonical order, should such appear. To guard the Holy Canons and Decrees of the Popes as if they were the Divine ordinances of Heaven, because I am conscious of Thee, whose place I take through the Grace of God, whose Vicarship I possess with Thy support, being subject to the severest accounting before Thy Divine Tribunal over all that I shall confess. I swear to God Almighty and the Saviour Jesus Christ that I will keep whatever has been revealed through Christ and His Successors and whatever the first councils and my predecessors have defined and declared.

    I will keep without sacrifice to itself the discipline and the rite of the Church.  I will put outside the Church whoever dares to go against this oath, may it be somebody else or I. If I should undertake to act in anything of contrary sense, or should permit that it will be executed, Thou willst not be merciful to me on the dreadful Day of Divine Justice. Accordingly, without exclusion, We subject to severest excommunication anyone: be it ourselves or be it another, who would dare to undertake anything new in contradiction to this constituted evangelic Tradition and the purity of the Orthodox Faith and the Christian Religion, or would seek to change anything by his opposing efforts, or would agree with those who undertake such a blasphemous venture."
    [Papal Coronation oath, after Pope St. Agatho]

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