Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary
Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary

On Waffling, Tradition, and the Magisterium

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Sep 23, 2009

Over the past week or two, I’ve had a fascinating yet frustrating exchange with a priest on the question of whether is “waffling” on Church affairs when it is willing to criticize prudential decisions and strategies of modern popes and bishops while fully accepting the modern Magisterium. By modern, I mean of course the Magisterium from the Second Vatican Council to the present.

There is no question that this priest is concerned about our good and the good of the Church. He was responding to my fund-raising messages, and he was simply making clear that he could not support us unless we quit “waffling”. In his mind, we “waffled” when we failed to admit that the Magisterium of the Church has contradicted itself in modern times, and that when this happens, Tradition must be our guide to the truth. “Tradition”, he maintained, “is God’s gift to keep us on track.”

An Uncatholic Position

I replied repeatedly but in vain that his position was not Catholic. It is, in fact, heretical. But his statement at least provides the benefit of clarity, for if I might be permitted a small flight of intuition, it seems to me that this is precisely what Traditionalists typically believe, even when they are trying their hardest to prove that nothing that either the Second Vatican Council or subsequent popes have taught has been expressed with the full weight of Magisterial authority.

Knowing from past correspondence that not everyone uses the term “Traditionalism” in the same way, I hasten here to define it as a position that rejects the contemporary exercise of the Magisterium in favor of a prior understanding of what the Catholic Tradition demands. In other words, I am not referring to those Catholics who, in complete fidelity to the Magisterium at all times, believe that a greater emphasis on traditional ideas and disciplines will be far better for the Church. These, among all others who hold different but equally obedient views, I call simply “Catholics”.

Having clarified my terminology, the insight I wish to propose is that, whether they argue that the teachings of Vatican II and modern popes on certain neuralgic points are non-Magisterial, or that the current line of apparent popes is bogus, or that the recent Magisterium has in fact contradicted earlier authoritative teachings, all Traditionalists who reject post-1960 conciliar and papal teachings, including their authority over the liturgy, uniformly behave as if they believe that “Tradition is God’s gift to keep us on track.” Let’s take a quick look at why this is not only wrong, but actually impossible.

A sound, well-formed Catholic will immediately realize that a proper formulation of the Catholic position on this question runs as follows:

Scripture and Tradition are the two sources of Revelation. While all may draw on their riches, the Magisterium of the Church alone possesses the power of Christ to interpret Scripture and Tradition rightly, to correctly affirm what Scripture and Tradition affirm, to correctly condemn what Scripture and Tradition condemn, and to faithfully elaborate their meaning. Since Scripture and Tradition are properly termed sources of Revelation, they cannot also serve as guides to their own self-interpretation, whereas the Magisterium is properly termed a sure guide, and is in fact the guarantor of the meaning of both. Thus it is the Magisterium that is “God’s gift to keep us on track.”

In contrast, for Traditionalists the role of the Magisterium is usurped by one of the two sources of Revelation, namely Tradition.

The Nature of the Error

I have long maintained that this alteration of the role of Tradition is simply the Protestant error affixed to a different personality type. For the Protestant very clearly holds that “Scripture is God’s gift to keep us on track.” Indeed, just as the Protestant believes that the meaning of Scripture is clear and open to all, and so is sufficient to protect us from error, so too does the Traditionalist believe that the meaning of Tradition is clear and open to all, and so is sufficient to protect us from error. But it is necessary to note to the contrary that the meaning of Scripture and Tradition are very frequently unclear. Moreover, different aspects of both seem more or less clear to different people at different times, and in different cultures which occupy different historical, geographical and even psychological and mental space. But even setting this obvious rejoinder aside, it is immediately obvious that both the Protestant and the Traditionalist share a common procedural method, the method Catholics call “private judgment.”

Just as the Protestant is more than willing to affirm the “plain meaning” of Scripture against the Magisterium of the Catholic Church, so too is the Traditionalist more than willing to affirm the “plain meaning” of Tradition against any contemporary exercise of the Magisterium which contradicts his own judgment of what that “plain meaning” might be. Now, in the Traditionalist’s defense, one must recognize that prior statements of the Magisterium constitute part of any legitimate understanding of Tradition, and this does pose a problem when a more recent statement of the Magisterium appears to contradict what has been taught earlier.

In response to this problem, I have consistently insisted that it is necessary for Catholics to also accept the “living Magisterium” of the Church, and not just past Magisterial statements. My priest correspondent asserted that this was a “Modernist” concept, but by “living” I do not mean “changing in meaning”. What I mean is that the exercises of the Magisterium we are most directly called by Christ to obey are those that speak to us in our own time to correct our own errors. Just as it is not obedience for a child to use his understanding of previous paternal instruction to reject the current command of his living father, so too it is not obedience for a Catholic to use his understanding of previous Magisterial teaching to reject an unwelcome teaching of the Magisterium when it exercises its authority here and now.

Someone may object that a father can give a contradictory command, and this is true, but our logic is perfect in the case of the Magisterium precisely because the Magisterium of the Church cannot contradict itself. Therefore, no matter how much it may seem to us to do so, it is absolutely essential for the Catholic to assume that whenever a conflict appears to arise, it is his own misunderstanding of the matter which creates that appearance of conflict. The confusion is with the individual Catholic, not with the Magisterium. For it is impossible, without eliminating the essential character of Catholicism and making it a religion just like any other, with no guarantee of truth, to hold that the Magisterium of the Church can be self-contradictory over time. (One might also note in passing that if this were possible, we would have absolutely no legitimate basis for preferring either the earlier or the later teaching.)

The Only Solution

Therefore, when any Catholic notices an appearance of conflict, one of four things must be true: (1) The Catholic is assigning some earlier document(s) an authority they do not possess; (2) The Catholic is assigning some later document(s) an authority they do not possess; (3) The Catholic misunderstands one or more of the documentary authorities in question; or (4) The Catholic’s understanding of the “plain meaning” of tradition is, in fact, incorrect. To correct it, he must adjust his understanding in such a way that all statements of the Magisterium which bear on the question at hand are acknowledged to be true.

This final point is exactly the same as what Catholics always enjoin upon Protestants in the interpretation of Scripture: Only that understanding of Scripture can be true which admits the truth of all the passages that bear upon the issue, as well as the applicable truths we derive from Tradition, and also the truth of everything the Magisterium has taught to clarify either Tradition or Scripture on this issue. For Scripture, Tradition and the Magisterium are all guaranteed by the same Spirit of Truth. In the same way, on any given point, only that understanding of Tradition can be true which admits the truth of everything in Tradition revealed upon this point, and also of all Scriptural passages which bear upon it, and finally of every statement of the Magisterium which similarly addresses the issue at hand. And just as the Magisterium is the final arbiter of what truths are actually contained in Scripture, so too she is the final arbiter of what truths we may legitimately derive from Tradition.

It goes without saying that none of this touches the very important question of whether the policies and strategies of any particular set of popes or bishops have been wise, prudent or salutary. Nor does it deny the real problems created for the Church when she allows herself to be too much shaped by men and women of weak faith, or those who are far too secular in their habits of thought, or those who actually hold the errors of Modernism. Nor does it exonerate ecclesiastical authority from its consistent contemporary failure to discipline. But neither practical wisdom, nor prudence, nor effective discipline, nor a certain percentage of sound priests and bishops, nor good results are essential to the identity of the Catholic Church. Hence none of these things is protected by the Holy Spirit.

But the truth about faith and morals is essential. It is therefore guaranteed by a living and infallible authority, the same as when Christ walked on this earth. This is why my correspondent is so very seriously wrong, so wrong, in fact, that he has unknowingly created, for himself and for those who share his ideas, a Catholicism in name only, without its essential note of authority, which is actually a different religion. It may seem refreshingly dogmatic, but unfortunately it has no warrant to dogmatize. Through its rejection of the Magisterium whole and entire, it has become purely human, completely fallible and—in its soul if not yet in all its externals—already wrong.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: - Oct. 21, 2009 10:45 PM ET USA

    I looked at this again: what a mess! Traditionalists almost never "interpret" tradition: they simply point it out--seldom is there dispute over what the tradition was in the past..the debate is whether the change was good/bad. And why the discussion of Tradition instead of tradition? These issues are nearly always about prudential decisions--not protected by the Holy Spirit--which are alleged to have catastrophic consequences for the faith. The Magisterium doesn't enter into it.

  • Posted by: - Oct. 19, 2009 4:55 PM ET USA

    "Traditionalist" does not mean what you imply. There is a mirror term used by a few traditionalist: "Novus Ordo Catholic." By this they seek to imply that everybody who attends the ordinary right is a member of Call to Action, loves abortions, and uses artificial birth control, denies the Real Presence, etc. Both are Strawman arguments. It is not that different people have different definitions: these definitions are simply wrong. There is a dispute, but you are mistaking the core of it.

  • Posted by: shenanigans03650 - Oct. 09, 2009 8:07 PM ET USA

    We are so fortunate to have such intelligent devoted Catholics as you to respond to people with sincerity and logic. You do a great job of responding, and you make it seem so effortless. I'm sure the priest you were trying to inform knows down deep you're right on point.