A Vindication of Tradition

Modern times don’t like the authority of tradition, any more than they like prejudice or deeply rooted social stereotypes. We know more today than people did in the past, so why should we view the unreflective habits and attitudes they happened to fall into as somehow binding?

People today believe in science, which relies on observations that can be repeated and checked; expert bureaucracies, which base their decisions on the latest objective studies; and free markets, which determine prices by reference to current supply and demand. Those methods have been enormously successful in many important settings, and they don’t care what people did or thought last year, 200 years ago, or in the days of Gregory the Great.

So if that’s what people want to rely on today, what should the Church do? The obvious answer is that she should adapt to her setting. If the Church wants to impress people, especially those at the top and the ever-growing and ever-more-influential ranks of the miseducated, she has to do things the way that makes sense to her audience. Modern methods work better in many connections, and people have come to expect them, so they won’t take anything seriously that doesn’t follow them even if the advantages don’t carry over.

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Perhaps for that reason, there has been a tendency in recent decades to downplay tradition and traditional observances in the Church. Traditional devotions are less used today, liturgy has been brought in line with popular culture, and the angularities of Catholic doctrine are softened where possible. Such tendencies have been accompanied by demands for greater scope for theological innovation, more popular influence on Church governance, and other supposedly progressive reforms.

Unfortunately, the apparent effect of the changes has been growth of bureaucracy, loss of focus and influence, and loss of interest among ordinary believers. So it’s worth considering the function served by past attitudes in the Church. In Pascendi Dominici Gregis, his encyclical against modernism, Pope Saint Pius X summarized those attitudes as he saw them:

For Catholics nothing will remove the authority of the second Council of Nicea, where it condemns those “who dare, after the impious fashion of heretics, to deride the ecclesiastical traditions, to invent novelties of some kind … or endeavor by malice or craft to overthrow any one of the legitimate traditions of the Catholic Church” … Wherefore the Roman Pontiffs, Pius IV and Pius IX, ordered the insertion in the profession of faith of the following declaration: “I most firmly admit and embrace the apostolic and ecclesiastical traditions and other observances and constitutions of the Church.”

That kind of traditionalism is out of favor today, but there’s something to be said for it. Revelation and conversion aren’t a matter of neutral scientific analysis. Religion deals with the transcendent, with aspects of reality that observation may point to but doesn’t contain. The methods of modern science and scholarship, which restrict themselves to what is observable, can’t deal with such matters. For that reason religion evaporates where modern methods have supreme authority. If only naturalistic explanations are admissible, for example, it becomes impossible to understand the Bible and Church history as vehicles of revelation.

Nor is religion a simple matter of authority. Authority is necessary, but a movement of resistance to radical modernity that (for example) simply relies on papal leadership is not adequate to the situation. Such a movement fights an over-emphasis on what is explicit and demonstrable by emphasizing something explicit and demonstrable, and that’s not enough.

What’s needed is for the faithful to feel spiritual truths as concretely real. The sensus fidei fidelium—the sense of the Faith on the part of the faithful—can seem a bit mysterious, and indeed the Catechism refers to it as supernatural. Still, grace completes nature, so the sensus fidei has something in common with other forms of knowledge. It is a grasp of transcendent reality that goes beyond clear demonstration in somewhat the way recognition of beauty goes beyond objective measurement and analysis of proportions. As such, it has a great deal to do with the ability, an ability that can be cultivated, to recognize and respond to patterns and what they express.

That ability is extremely important. We can’t deal with many actual situations scientifically, by measuring all their aspects, reducing them to their elements, and applying principles of mechanical causation. There are too many uncertainties, subtleties, and complications. Instead, we must deal with them through recognition of patterns and their implications. “What sort of situation is this,” we must ask ourselves, “and what does it point to?”

Modern tendencies of thought degrade our ability to do so by reducing assertions either to will, which ignores realities because it looks only to itself, or modern scientific objectivity, which makes meaningful patterns disappear because it abolishes meaning and downplays patterns in favor of immediate mechanical causation. The result is that we become less able to deal with the world. Modern tendencies have made evaluation and belief seem a matter of individual choice, so that people are convinced that beauty is simply in the eye of the beholder, and orthodoxy and heterodoxy are just “my doxy” and “your doxy.” The result is that decisions become arbitrary. Those tendencies have also resulted in the disappearance of common sense in public life, for example with regard to abandonment of natural moral law, and with regard to adoption of “zero tolerance” policies that on principle reject common-sense exceptions.

Common sense, it seems, is just not demonstrable enough to accept today. To get beyond that situation we need to develop what Pascal called the intuitive mind (esprit de finesse) and Newman the illative sense, the ability to grasp complex matters through sensitivity to multiple indications, each of them ambiguous in itself, and the patterns of converging probabilities to which they give rise. That ability is partly a matter of natural talent—some people will always be better at picking stocks or horses than others—but it can be greatly developed through attention and experience.

The latter sources of knowledge are not merely individual: writ large and made social they become tradition. When a symbol, practice, or belief, a devotion or way of making music perhaps, grows up and fits the patterns of experience people become attached to it. As it gathers support and becomes widespread and habitual it becomes a tradition. When a network of such things forms a structure sufficient to order the life of a community it becomes not a collection of single traditions but the overall tradition of the community.

So tradition is not simply a matter of doing what’s been done before. It is a way of dealing with the world that allows fleeting insights, successful accidents, half-understood implications, and a huge variety of experiences to accumulate and take concrete form in symbols, practices, and beliefs that respond to the obscure patterns found in life, put them in usable form, and carry them forward so a community can live consistently with them. A tradition of cooking, to take a simple example, takes the patterns of human need, function, and response relating to the availability, preparation, and consumption of food, and brings them into a concrete but flexible system that enables people to make that side of life far more civilized and rewarding than it would be otherwise.

Tradition and traditionalism have their critics, and the criticisms are familiar: traditions differ by time and place, and they are sometimes wrong or misleading, so they are not altogether reliable. The problem today though is not over-reliance on tradition, but its neglect. Traditions sometimes conflict, and they may need to be tested and corrected by other sources of knowledge, but the same can be said about expert opinion, popular consensus, conscientious decision, and every other way of deciding an issue. Tradition is necessary to knowledge, to the arts, and to any remotely satisfactory way of life, because it is uniquely able to make insights and experiences available that would otherwise be lost because they relate to matters that are difficult to state explicitly. Without it, we will never succeed in acquiring a true sensus fidei. With that in mind, we can’t toss it out or treat it as a mere collection of suggestions.


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