Catholic Culture News
Catholic Culture News

[T]radition and [t]radition

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

Yes, I know you’re tired of hearing about it, but one of our most faithful supporters, and a man whose opinion I deeply respect, has posted two highly critical comments in Sound Off in response to my In Depth Analysis from September 23rd, On Waffling, Tradition, and the Magisterium. Both posts challenge not just this particular article but more generally the manner in which I have always portrayed the conflict between Traditionalists and the Church.

The posted criticisms assert three points: First, that my use of the term “Traditionalist” is simply incorrect; second, that Traditionalists “almost never” interpret tradition; and third, that the whole controversy is really over “tradition” not “Tradition”; that is, the controversy is about prudential decisions. As will soon be clear, these three criticisms all hinge on a single disagreement, but let us take each in turn:

  1. Definition of Terms: I noted in the article that people use the term “Traditionalist” in different ways, which is why I made a point of defining precisely how I intended to use the term. To my critic, apparently, my effort to clarify the terminology was rather like defining white as black: Not just unhelpful but actually wrong. There being no definitive standard, I cannot insist that others use the term incorrectly, but I can state that in my own circles, the terms “Traditionalist” and “Traditionalism” are consistently used to denote not Catholics who love past traditions, and who oppose many of the prudential decisions and Church disciplines of the past fifty years, but precisely those who have carried this opposition to the point of separating at least partially from the Church and asserting that the Church has fallen into doctrinal error regarding the meaning of Sacred Tradition itself.

    I would further argue that this is the most appropriate use of the terminology, because adding the suffix “ism” or “ist” to any word is supposed to indicate the elevation of that word into a complete system of thought which excludes alternative equivalent systems. Thus it makes sense that a phrase such as “traditional Catholic” (in which "traditional" is an adjective modifying the noun "Catholic") would refer to a Catholic who is particularly attached to traditional practices within the Church, while the word “traditionalist” (which is a noun) should denote a person who has elevated this attachment into a theory which excludes the validity of other preferences and points of view. In any case, given the obvious differences in the way these terms are used, the most important thing is to clarify one’s own use of them, thereby also clarifying the object of one's judgments and criticisms—in other words, those, and only those, whom this shoe fits.

  2. Interpretation of Tradition: The statement that traditionalists almost never interpret tradition—that, in fact, there is rarely any dispute over what the tradition has been—misses the entire point of the article. It is certainly true that there is little controversy over what various traditions (small “t”) have been, as compared with current practice, for such a controversy involves easily observable changes in liturgical forms, devotional practices, disciplinary rules, and the like.

    But we have no guarantees for the salutary character of any of these traditions, which are not matters of Revelation, whereas Tradition with a large "T" is guaranteed by God Himself precisely because it is one of our two sources of Revelation. Moreover, Sacred Tradition is not written down anywhere, and its meaning and requirements are preserved perfectly only in the mind of the Church. The whole burden of my article was to show that whenever someone thinks the requirements of Tradition (big “T”) are clear, he had better first check with the Magisterium of the Church, which alone has the authority to rightly decide that question. If someone argues that Tradition means or requires something other than what the Magisterium is currently insisting that it means or requires, then that person has self-evidently latched on to an incorrect understanding (a false interpretation) of what Tradition means or requires.

  3. The Quarrel is over [t]radition not [T]radition: Except that it isn’t, at least not the quarrel I’m talking about, which is the whole point. Certainly there are innumerable quarrels over the wisdom of the Church’s prudential decisions as represented by her current disciplines and modes of pastoral administration. But we can quarrel about these as much as we like without separating in the slightest degree from one another or from the Church herself. Everyone knows (or ought to know) that these are the result of human reasoning and human conclusions, that they could be helpful or hurtful to any given person at any given time, and that they might or might not be well-suited to the needs of the Church generally in any particular place or epoch. And in so knowing, each Catholic will allow to himself the same possibility of error that he allows to the Church, and so accept serenely, if he is spiritually sound, the decisions of ecclesiastical authority, even while working for improvement.

    But when the quarrel extends to Tradition (note, again, the big “T”), we are talking about things that are Divinely guaranteed, and about which we may not disagree. We are talking about not whether the Novus Ordo is a fine liturgy, but whether it is valid; not whether current ecumenical activities are bearing fruit, but whether the Church’s Magisterial understanding of the theological relationship between, say, Catholics and Protestants, is false; not whether pluralist states work well, but whether the Second Vatican Council’s doctrinal defense of religious liberty contradicts previous Magisterial texts on the same subject.

In other words, it is my contention that Catholics cannot pit their understanding of Tradition against the contemporary Magisterium of the Church, as if they alone rightly understand Tradition while the Magisterium of the Church does not. My critic may argue that nobody does this, and so nobody ceases to be Catholic as a result. If that’s true, well, then I find myself delighted to have no quarrel with anybody. But neither Pope Benedict nor, for example, the Society of St. Pius X, agree, which is why they are engaging in special talks to see if they can overcome their doctrinal differences—all of which are based on the question of what is and is not required by Tradition with a huge, and hugely absolute, T.

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.

Sound Off! supporters weigh in.

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  • Posted by: New Sister - Oct. 24, 2009 5:19 PM ET USA

    I thank God Almighty that His Church "says so" -

  • Posted by: - Oct. 24, 2009 12:16 PM ET USA

    I am impressed by the article. Macka's comment reflects my prayer as well. I am reminded of Mother Theresa's response to a priest that asked her to pray that the Lord may make his Will clear to him: "the Lord didn't promise certainty - he asked for faith - so I'll pray for your faith" (paraphrased)

  • Posted by: - Oct. 24, 2009 12:14 PM ET USA

    My point was not that "nobody" rejects the Magisterium, but rather that very few who self-identify as "traditionalist" do. That those who consider themselves "traditionalist" are overwhelmingly what you call "traditional Catholics." That anybody who rejects the Magisterium is obviously not Catholic. And that the basic disagreement is other than what you have identified.

  • Posted by: bkmajer3729 - Oct. 24, 2009 7:43 AM ET USA

    In response to the 8:06PM comment below regarding "exasperated parents", "last resort", and "Because I said so", precisely what do you mean? I mean do you suspect that most folks today understand Magisterial Authotity as some kind of prudential justice executed from a position of tyranny as a matter of thought or people control? Or, is this Authority simply our merciful Lord gently reminding us through His Church of His rightful position - Creator, Savior, ...God?

  • Posted by: - Oct. 24, 2009 1:31 AM ET USA

    You would be hard pressed to make a clearer statement of the various positions held in this issue. A definite test of obedience for the faithful. Beyond the technicalities of this error, I am reminded of the many Saints who submitted always to Mother Church, even when human reason urged against it, no matter the justification. I pray God grant me the grace to remain faithful to her especially in times of uncertainty.

  • Posted by: - Oct. 23, 2009 8:06 PM ET USA

    Recalling that the Church that I grew up with so often described the laity as children, the authority of the Magisterium sounds an awful lot like the explanation of last resort that every exasperated parent has used to settle things: Because I said so.

  • Posted by: tgolden3187929 - Oct. 23, 2009 7:34 PM ET USA

    Please give examples of Tradition.

  • Posted by: John J Plick - Oct. 23, 2009 1:18 PM ET USA

    I think the argument stands as being "Can ANY 'tradition' (routine practice established within the Church) in ANY context have a negative impact on worship and/or the Christian life, so that it would have to be modified or done away with according to proper Church protocol." The answer is "yes." Mat 15:6 -- Thus have ye made the commandment of God of none effect by your tradition.