In a recent column I noted that tradition is not self-contained or absolute. It’s complex, so that superior, subordinate, and parallel traditions often come into conflict. Local tradition may say one thing, Church or national tradition quite another. Also, tradition is not about itself but about goods toward which it’s oriented, so it’s relative to something higher, and it can improve or go downhill. And there are other ways in which we come to know the world—reason, revelation, personal observation—so other authorities are necessary as well, and may say something contradictory.
Even so, breaking with tradition is breaking with authority. People today romanticize “breaking the rules,” but it needs a special justification. There are similarities to declaring a state of emergency, in which constituted authorities authorize themselves to ignore normal standards of legality, or to engaging in conscientious objection or civil disobedience, in which individuals do the same thing. Such things are sometimes called for, but if they become habitual authority stops being orderly and respected, and power becomes crude, brutal, and devious. The progression is common in revolutionary movements.
The issue of rejecting authority is particularly difficult to sort out in the case of tradition. It is usually informal, lacking in explicit justification, and often somewhat ill-defined, so when it’s rejected it can be difficult to determine how far the rejection is likely to go and what the results are likely to be. What, for example, have been the consequences of rejecting traditional Catholic attitudes toward ecumenism? It’s hard to know, but it seems likely that one result has been further scattering of the Christian flock, since Catholicism no longer presents such a clear, steady, and self-confident point of reference.
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To add to the difficulties, all human order depends on tradition. What is thought to justify other authorities, that of the state for example? What is the meaning of the language in which they express their judgments? How seriously should we take them? A law, for example, may be taken literally or as a general rule subject to unstated exceptions. It may also be viewed as a specific instance of a more general requirement, or disregarded as a dead letter. Which possibility applies depends on accepted practices and understandings, and so on particular traditions. That is why such questions are answered differently in Italy and in Sweden.
All these issues have become acute in the Church in the wake of the Second Vatican Council, with wholesale rejection of traditions leading to confusion of discipline and doctrine. It turned out to be impossible to limit changes to those desired by legitimate authority, and the resulting unsettled situation sometimes led people troubled by many of the changes to attempt extreme remedies—the unauthorized ordination of bishops in the Society of Saint Pius X is a striking example—on grounds of a “state of necessity.“
Such ways of thinking and the resulting divisions and uncertainties continue. The image of a Church of the peripheries, or the Church as a field hospital, is the image of a Church operating in a sort of permanent exceptional or emergency state in which normal standards cannot be applied and everyone must simply do the best he can in the situation in which he finds himself. The alternative, it is thought, is Pharisaical worship of the law and spiritual death. Hence proposals for greater local control of disciplinary and even doctrinal matters, communion for those in nonmarital or invalid unions, and also talk of regularization of the SSPX with few if any concessions from them.
The emerging picture is that of a Church in which definitions, rules, structures, and precedents normally play a much smaller role and immediate needs, opportunities, and improvisations a much greater one. The hope is that such a situation will allow more room for all the faithful to contribute and the Holy Spirit to act. The fear is that abandonment of specific standards will cede effective control to local tyrants, hobbyists, and careerists, and to the ever more imperious standards that govern secular life. The Pope and most bishops may not like gender ideology, for example, but how will the Church resist it without definite common standards, understandings, and disciplines? And how can such things be maintained, understood, defended, and applied intelligently if the Church becomes a great mass of ad hoc emergency measures?
With such issues in mind we need to think through what situations justify disregarding traditions that present themselves as authoritative or at least advisable. Some cases seem easy. Abuse doesn’t legitimate itself through repetition, so even local practices to which people are attached must change in the face of clear higher authority. That has been a common method of reform in the Church, for example with regard to suppression of clerical concubinage and periodic efforts to restore religious communities to their original mission and rule.
A standard that seems equally obvious today is what might be called the reality check. Truth is the supreme authority, so we reject tradition when what it tells us can’t be true because it makes no sense—or so it seems. The standard seems obvious, but raises questions. If something literally made no sense, how would it gather enough support to become a tradition?
Times change, but human nature does not, so the situation is often a sign that we do not understand all the considerations involved. One of the most important services of tradition is that it takes into account realities current ways of thinking leave out. It summarizes experience, and experience changes how things look to us. As Mark Twain commented, “when I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.” What was true of Mark Twain’s father is usually true of traditions that have played an important role in the life of a community.
The “culture wars“ provide examples of bad reality checks. People today are utilitarian and egalitarian. The basic public outlook is that people want stuff, and their wants are equally wants, so they equally call for satisfaction. That is considered the hardcore truth of human nature, disputed only by those in the grip of some religious ideology. With that point granted, the purpose of morality and social order becomes establishing an orderly and effective system for maximum equal preference satisfaction. Traditional loyalties and connections—for example those related to family life—don’t fit into such a system, since they operate on different principles. It follows that they, and the standards and expectations that support them, lack a basis in how things really are and are therefore pointlessly oppressive.
There are lots of problems with such an approach. They mostly have to do with man’s nature as a rational being who wants to base his life on what he thinks is ultimately real, a spiritual being whose understanding of reality goes beyond what is given by sense, a social being whose goals mostly depend on the beliefs, attitudes, and habits of other people, and a physical being whose functioning as such, for example with regard to reproduction, cannot be reduced to simple rational concepts. Those features of human life make man far too complex for happiness to reduce to a checklist of individual desires.
So reality checks themselves need a reality check, a reflective one that takes into account what other people, times, and places have noticed about life and the world. Such an approach leads to a conception of human nature and natural law, and involves reflecting on experience and observation, together with what tradition tells us about the world, the good, and how the former comes to foster the latter.
The issues are subtle and complex, and people spin them in accordance with their interests and biases. It follows that our reflective conclusions need a further check, and that’s an important role of revelation and the hierarchical authority of the Church. Those authorities must also be interpreted, however, in ways that can also be erroneous or manipulated, so at some point the system of checks must come to an end. Even if we take advantage of all available authorities we do not have a system that runs of itself.
Grace, good will, and love of God are eternally necessary, and no authority can keep those who lack those things—and we all lack them to some degree—on track. In the end, after doing what we can, we can only rely on God. And that is why, in spite of the value of definite standards, the Faith is referred to as the Faith rather than as the Law.
Editor’s note: This column first appeared June 18, 2016 in Catholic World Report and is reprinted with permission.