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Tradition and traditions


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Juan Luis Lorda |

Professor at School of Theology

The post-conciliar crisis showed a dialectic between progressivism, which wanted another Council "at the height of the times", and traditionalism, hurt by the novelties of Vatican II or the post-conciliar period. Among the labels that require discernment is the Catholic notion of Tradition.

"Tradition" is a very important word in the Christian vocabulary. In a very broad sense, but very authentic and plenary session of the Executive Council, it can be said that, for the Christian faith, tradition is the same as Church. But without identifying the Church here with ecclesiastical sociology, the men and representatives of the Church, but with the Church as God's mystery of faith and salvation that traverses history until its consummation in heaven. The Church understood as the Body of Christ, "le Christ repandu", the expanded Christ, as Bossuet happily called it. And animated, yesterday and today, by the Holy Spirit.

This represents the most plenary session of the Executive Council concept of tradition, as Joseph Ratzinger made clear from his work at the Council to his addresses as Pope. From the brilliant lecture essay on the concept of tradition (1963), published together with another writing of Rahner in the notebook Revelation and tradition, to his brief and beautiful general audience on Tradition as communion in time (26-IV-2006). In addition to many other contributions on Fundamental Theology, his first subject of specialization, collected in volume IX of his Collected Works. 

The "monuments" or testimonies of tradition 

However, the Lord has not left his Church a simple system for consulting him about faith or about what he wants from us. Unlike some current cults, such as Buddhism, we do not have "oracles" who can enter into trance or direct communication and speak on behalf of God. And this is because revelation has already been full in Christ; therefore, there will be no more prophets or new essential revelations, although there will be new lights. 

If we want to know what we should believe or what we should do we have the whole long historical witness of the Church, in her Liturgy, teaching, law, and in the lives of the saints. And the Holy Scriptures. There we find what the Church believes and lives. They are the "monuments" or testimonies of the tradition or life of the Church. Of course, in this immense treasure and patrimony, not everything occupies the same place or has the same importance.

Traditions in human life

Human beings are mortal, but societies are less mortal than individuals. They survive by preserving and transmitting (tradition) their identity and functions. This makes "tradition" a vital and deep-rooted human phenomenon, which we can only mention here because it is also influential. Human societies and corporations transmit their particular culture: their effective ways of organizing and working, but also other uses and customs that serve as ornamentation and signs of identity. Both cities and families celebrate festivals and periodically repeat customs that give color and profile to life. And they appreciate them as part of their identity and belonging, and, many times, of the bond and gratitude they feel towards their ancestors. 

Traditions in the life of the Church

In the Church, with such a large and ancient extension, there are and have been many uses and customs that are and have been loved by the faithful, encourage their adherence and underline their identity: feasts, processions, songs, vestments, traditional foods... Uses such as the blessing of the cross on certain occasions or sprinkling with holy water. And many others. 

But what is most central to the Church's tradition is what we have received from the Lord: the Gospel. A message of salvation, which is also a way of life. To specify it more in familiar terms, he gave us a doctrine, a morality and a liturgy, with the celebration of the Eucharist and the sacraments. In reality, going to the center, the Lord himself gave himself to us. "God so loved the world that he gave his Son" (Jn 3:16). Because we believe in Him, we live in Him and we offer what He Himself offers, His death and resurrection. Christian faith, morals and worship are centered on Christ. What we know is primarily because of Him, what we live is in Him and with Him. Therefore, the most "traditional" thing there can be in the Church is to be united to Christ and to "keep his word" or his message (cf. Jn 14:23). 

The Lord gave to his Church his Spirit and his Mother

The Lord gave himself for his Church, he gave her his Word, his Gospel, but he also gave her his Spirit. This generates an interesting relationship between Word and Spirit. The Christian message is interpreted, lived and developed in the Spirit. And it has been so from the beginning by the will of the Lord, who lived only three years with his disciples. " The Paraclete, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you" (Jn 14:26). The Holy Spirit has shaped the early Church, ever since she came forth as a new Eve from the side of the Lord who died on the cross, as the Fathers like to recall. This presence of the Lord in his Church, with his Word and his Spirit, means that tradition cannot be considered either as a pure set of customs or as a memory of the past. It is alive in the present.

And among these gifts of the Lord, he also gave us from the Cross his Mother, intercessor and model, who occupies such an important place in the first Christian community and later in the communion of saints. And she gives the appropriate style and tone of Christian life, made in the face of God and a mixture of simplicity, piety, gratitude, submission and joy, as can be seen in the Magnificat

Early stages in the tradition

In 1960, Yves Congar published an important historical study on Tradition and Traditions. essay historical, which was followed by a second theological part (1963) and a summary, Tradition and the Life of the Church (1964); all three translated into Spanish. In the first part, he studies the great historical stages of tradition.

In the first steps of the Church, in apostolic times, with the financial aid of the Spirit, the celebration of the Eucharist was organized, giving rise to the primitive, diverse and legitimate liturgical traditions in the world, in the East and in the West. The Gospels were written. And the ecclesiastical structure was developed: bishops, presbyters and deacons. "It seemed to the Holy Spirit and to us" declared the Apostles when making the first decisions (Acts 15:28-30). The early Church is conscious of having received a "deposit" of doctrine and life. And it should be noted, by the way, that this first tradition is prior to the New Testament, which is one of its first fruits.

This was followed by a patristic period in which the various Churches consulted each other on the received traditions, in the face of doubts about the canon of the Scriptures, the ways of Christian living or doctrinal problems caused by aberrations and heresies. The doctrinal criterion formulated by St. Vincent de Lerins in his Conmonitory will become famous and representative: "What has always been believed, everywhere and by all": quod semper, quod ubique, quod ab omnibus. The Age average will collect and study this bequest 

Tradition and Protestantism

Luther was a great breakthrough. Scandalized by certain ecclesiastical abuses, he rejected "tradition" en bloc as suspect. He chose Scripture as the sole criterion of Christian truth: Sola Scriptura. What is not there is human invention, which may be legitimate, but it is not God's revelation and has neither its value nor its authority. With this he carries out an enormous "pruning" that affects both accessory and central questions: the sacrificial value of the Mass, purgatory, the sacrament of orders, the monastic life....

The Council of Trent wanted to respond with an authentic reform of the Church and also with greater precision of doctrine. It defends that Christian doctrines are sustained both in Scripture and in Tradition. From this stems the idea that there are two sources of revelation, or two places where one can look for what it is like. Within tradition, an important place is occupied by the Magisterium of the Church which, over the centuries, has authoritatively defined Christian doctrine and corrected errors, since the first Creeds of Nicaea and Constantinople.

In thinking about the theological method, Melchior Cano postulates that the truths of faith are argued by having recourse to theological places or "monuments" of tradition. Manualistic theology will embrace this method and, until the twentieth century, will justify the theological thesis with quotations taken from Scripture, from the tradition of the Fathers and from the Magisterium.

Subsequent contributions

The Protestant crisis makes the tradition become a great "Catholic" topic , which needs to be deepened and well defended.

The great Catholic theologian of Tübingen, Johann Adam Möhler, dedicates a solid effort to compare Catholicism and Protestantism, and spreads the idea of a "living tradition", precisely because of the constant and mysterious action of the Holy Spirit in the Church.

For his part, the Anglican theologian from Oxford, John Henry Newman, studied whether there was a legitimate development of Christian doctrine in history, precisely to see if the points that Luther had removed from the dogma could be justified. And when he concluded that they could, he became a Catholic and published his essay on the development of Christian doctrine (1845).

Franzelin, with the Roman School, added some opportune distinctions between the sense goal (the deposit of doctrines) and the active sense of tradition (life in the Spirit), and between what is divine, apostolic and ecclesiastical tradition, according to its origin.

At plenary session of the Executive Council , the Second Vatican Council dedicated its first document(Dei Verbum) to the great themes of Revelation and, in brief, beautifully and nuanced exposition of the profound relationship that exists between Scripture, Magisterium and Tradition.

About the current moment 

Since the end of the twentieth century, the Catholic Church has experienced some traditional or traditionalist reactions that deserve attention. On the one hand, the separation of Church and State in the former European (and American) Catholic nations is continuing, causing traditional Christians to suffer as they see Christian customs and practices disappearing from their midst.

plenary session of the Executive Council In addition to this process, the strong post-conciliar crisis, neither wanted nor originated by the Council itself, but by a kind of anarchic application, where the winds of the moment blew. On the one hand, the Marxist pressure that pushed the Church towards a revolutionary commitment. On the other hand, the spirit of the times demanded the elimination of everything "strange", "annoying" or "old-fashioned".

The more traditional Christians suffered especially from liturgical arbitrariness, which often obeyed much more to the improvised fashions of clerics than to the spirit of the Council, which sought above all a deeper participation of the faithful in the paschal mystery of Christ.

As this crisis has been so complex and difficult to judge, the traditionalist reaction launches a general suspicion on all factors: theology, Council, Popes, liturgical reform..., obscurely attributing responsibility to some or others (modernists, Freemasons...). He understands that, in one way or another, the Catholic tradition has been broken. And he tries to return to the way the Church lived in the fifties of the twentieth century.

In this process, the position of Monsignor Lefebvre was special in judging the Council heretical for its change of criterion regarding religious freedom(Dignitatis humanae). This question has its importance, but it hardly has any impact, because it is incomprehensible to the majority who, in addition, would be of agreement without realizing it, with the conciliar doctrine, with the basic right to freedom of conscience and with the non-discrimination for religious questions. For this reason, in the internship his successors join the same criticism, the same remedy and the same aesthetics: to erase the last decades and refund the life of the Church to the fifties. But in a rather untenable schismatic position (to be more Church than the Church) which, as history sample, will hardly evolve well if it is maintained.

This process seems to require considerable discernment.

It is important to understand the causes of the post-conciliar crisis in order to learn from it, to avoid making false attributions, to find just remedies, and to continue the process of an authentic reception of the Council's doctrine and, especially, of its liturgical renewal. 

-It is necessary to defend the true idea of tradition in the Church, distinguishing what is nuclear (what Christ himself gave us with the Holy Spirit) from what are secondary or even accessory usages and customs, varied and rich in history. For it is not the same thing to rely on one thing as on another. And to err in this would not contribute to improve things, but to make them worse. We Christians may love certain feasts, certain vestments, certain rites, certain customs, a history, but above all we love the Lord present in his Church.
-There is a legitimate pluralism in the life of the Church which must be respected and which, unfortunately, in many cases, was not respected in the process of implementing the Council, causing unnecessary wounds and naively destroying a patrimony of traditional piety which, if not always perfect (nothing is perfect outside of God), was nevertheless authentic. However, precisely because tradition is alive and animated by the Holy Spirit, it is capable of generating even today new legitimate, beautiful and satisfying forms of Christian life, which do not enter into controversy with others, but are added to a magnificent multi-secular patrimony.