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The Joy of Traditional Catholicism

Mark Jordan is a Catholic academic and writer whom I always find stimulating and exciting.  He is highly regarded for his historical work as a medievalist, but that historical perspective has also made him a notable commentator and analyst on issues facing the Catholic church. Far too often,  people (and I am including here a great many who should know better) speak glibly of Catholic or Christian “tradition”, totally ignoring the simple fact that the positions they are presenting are not traditional at all. In their historical research, Jordan and others have clearly shown just how much of what is presented as “tradition” on sexuality and marriage is nothing of the sort. (See, for instance, my summaries on these points in “Give me back that Old Time Religion“, and “The Church’s Changing Tradition” ).

Early Christian Agape Feast, Catacomb painting (Wikimedia)

This is an important point in the continuing discussion about Vatican II.  There are those who see it as a dangerous attempt to overturn the “traditions” of the Church in the interests of “modernity”.  It was not.  An important part of the significance of the council was precisely that it was an attempt to go behind the (relatively ) “modern” innovations of the modern period, to return to truly “traditional” teaching. Bishop Geoffrey Robinson has usefully summarised some of the ways in which the Council returned to authentic tradition.  It:

  1. went behind the neo-scholastic categories that had dominated for a long time to the riches of the early Fathers of the Church;
  2. went behind the same more static neo-Scholastic categories of the church as a “perfect society” to a more dynamic concept of a church on a journey and involved in history;
  3. went behind the second millenium’s emphasis on hierarchy to the first millenium’s  greater balance between hierarchy and communion;
  4. went behind a thousand years of exclusively clerical decision-making on all matters of faith to revive the ancient idea of the sensus fidelei, the “sense of faith” of the whole people of God;
  5. went behind a thousand year’s of teaching that a bishop’s authority came from the pope, to the idea that all of a bishop’s power comes from ordination;
  6. went behind a thousand year’s of teaching that only truth has rights to the idea that it is people who have rights, even when they are in error;
  7. went behind much of both the first and second millenium to a rejection of the idea of  “Christendom”;
  8. went behind Gregory VII’s virtual rejection of the bishops in his confrontation with the emperor, to a teaching concerning the college of bishops as a equal holder of supreme power within the church;
  9. went behind the council of Trent and the whole Counter-Reformation to an appreciation of the independent reception of the great tradition by the separated churches and to open dialogue with them;
  10. went behind the same council of Trent and Counter-Reformation to a better balance between Scripture and tradition in the life of the church;
  11. went behind the attitudes and style of Gregory XVI, Pius IX and Pius X in their condemnations of “modernity” to the sentiments expressed in the first sentence of “Gaudium et Spes“.

St Clare of Assissi, who frequently defied the pope

Other features of the early church worth noting, which could usefully be seen as part of the “traditional” Church, are:

  1. an intensely collegial, democratic form of governance and decision taking;
  2. recognition of women’s value, and their active participation at many levels of the church, as apostle (Junia), prophets, and deacons, and (later) by powerful abbesses, who often were more influential than the local bishops (see Gary Macy, “Visitors in the past”);
  3. active ministry which was not reserved to an exclusive band of professionals, but which was participated in by many;
  4. an emphasis on love and compassion and the teachings of Jesus Christ, through the Gospels, ahead of submission to legalistic decrees of religious “authority”.

Now, Dr Jordan has an important short article up at Religion Dispatches, in which he discusses this far more effectively than I can do. Jordan was responding to an article by Peter Steinfels who claimed in  the New York Times, which contrasted  significant elements of traditional Christianity, Judaism, Islam and other faiths against leading voices of political and cultural liberalism.” In this piece, Dr Jordan clearly and usefully shows how this apparent distinction, which is so widely assumed as axiomatic, is in fact, fallacious, misleading and dangerous to rational discussion. These are some extracts from his article, which fully deserves to be read in full by all Catholics, whether “traditional” or “progressive”:

I don’t know whether Steinfels is right about increasing polarization across all traditions and topics. It’s as much as I can do to keep up with Christian debates around sex. But I can see that Steinfels gets one thing right, if unintentionally. He deploys the most familiar rhetorical device from the last two decades of church debates: the fight is between “significant elements of traditional Christianity” and “political and cultural liberalism.” Religious tradition against secular liberalism: Steinfels’ neat divide has been immensely useful for those on the “traditional” side. Of course, the division is also misleading—to use no stronger word. It depends on two sleights-of-hand. First, Steinfels has to forget that “significant elements” of Christianity hold, often for traditional reasons, that same-sex marriage is religiously justified—indeed, that refusing it constitutes a religious fault. Then Steinfels has to ignore all the ways in which current “traditional” positions aren’t traditional at all.

The first trick is easier to catch than the second. While there are of course figures who criticize church teachings on “cultural and political” grounds, there have been for half a century now dozens of theological and historical writers in favor of changing those teachings. Those writers don’t take themselves to be resorting to secular principles to make their arguments. Indeed, they have frequently been critical of social views toward gender and sexuality.

Take Sherwin Bailey, who published Homosexuality and the Western Christian Tradition more than fifty years ago—thirty years before Steinfels began his column. As a writer and church lecturer, Bailey helped lead the Church of England to review its teaching on homosexuality. An Anglican priest, a pastor, and a historian, he had theological reasons for thinking the churches should change their teaching on sex, some of them drawn from new medical or psychological discoveries. But he also knew—he meticulously argued—that “traditional” church teachings on sex had themselves been cobbled together over centuries out of dubious material: misreadings of biblical passages, undisguised social prejudices, fantasies masquerading as science. When “significant elements” of the Church of England began to change their view on homosexuality, it wasn’t because they wanted to throw over religious tradition in order to embrace some passing secular trend. It was because they had been led, for religious reasons, to re-examine what was being claimed as traditional.

Bailey’s story has been repeated many times in the last fifty years. It’s impossible even to summarize all the teaching, writing, and preaching that has gone into distinguishing the core of Christian traditions from their accretions and deformations. What we are living through is not a fight between a pristine Christianity and the encroaching world, but a divide within Christianity over what exactly should count as tradition. It isn’t a fight between religious conservatives and activist revolutionaries. It is a deep disagreement inside Christianity over what conserving faithfulness means.

(Read the full piece at Religion Dispatches)


8 Responses

  1. It is true, I think, that Vatican II looked to revive many older traditions, but I don’t think that, in doing so, it had the intention of denigrating the tradition of the last thousand years or the dogmatic work of the second millenium councils.

    Much of what the Council proposed was quite new, but the irony is that that new material, such as the extensive teaching on the family and social engagement in Gaudium et Spes, is what our contemporary progressives find so “reactionary.”

    • I don’t think either that there was any intention to “denigrate” the last thousand years – just to put it into a longer term perspective, which had been forgotten.

      On social teaching, I am at a complete loss to think of any teaching on social engagement coming out of the Council that progressives would see as “reactionary.”

      • I was thinking of passages like this one:

        “Thus the family, in which the various generations come together and help one another grow wiser and harmonize personal rights with the other requirements of social life, is the foundation of society. All those, therefore, who exercise influence over communities and social groups should work efficiently for the welfare of marriage and the family. Public authority should regard it as a sacred duty to recognize, protect and promote their authentic nature, to shield public morality and to favor the prosperity of home life. The right of parents to beget and educate their children in the bosom of the family must be safeguarded.”

        • Rick,

          I don’t see anything in that passage for “progressives” to object to: we also have families, and value strong family life (I personally have two daughters and three grandchildren, as well as a mother and six siblings, all of whom are very dear to me – as are the assorted nieces, nephews, great-nieces, in-laws… the list goes on and on). Where we take issue with others though, is that we value family relationships so deeply, that we would like to see the joys extended to other families too, by recognizing families that don’t always match the standard model. (One of my daughters, for example, is very clear in her belief, often stated in public and in print, that she feels privileged to have had two fathers as well as a mother. “Gay parents?” she says, “I recommend them”).

          But it wasn’t your reference to V2 and families I was querying Rick, but that on “social engagement”. I would have thought that the council’s teachings on social engagement might not have gone as far as some progressive might have wished, but would scarcely have been seen as reactionary. They might, on the other hand, have alarmed some so-called traditionalists who so strongly wanted to keep the modern world at bay.

          Peace & Blessings.

          • ” we would like to see the joys extended to other families too, by recognizing families that don’t always match the standard model”

            I don’t really want to argue that one way or the other. But you had asked about Vatican II, and, in the excerpt above, it had made plain reference to the “sacred duty” of secular governments to protect the “authentic nature” of marriage and the family.

            Nearby in the same document said “authentic nature” is thus described:

            “Marriage and conjugal love are by their nature ordained toward the begetting and educating of children. Children are really the supreme gift of marriage and contribute very substantially to the welfare of their parents. The God Himself Who said, “it is not good for man to be alone” (Gen. 2:18) and “Who made man from the beginning male and female” (Matt. 19:4), wishing to share with man a certain special participation in His own creative work, blessed male and female, saying: “Increase and multiply” (Gen. 1:28). Hence, while not making the other purposes of matrimony of less account, the true practice of conjugal love, and the whole meaning of the family life which results from it, have this aim: that the couple be ready with stout hearts to cooperate with the love of the Creator and the Savior.”

            Again, I quote the above not to argue, not to try to hurt, but only to note that Vatican II taught a particular doctrine about marriage, and enjoined that it should be legally promoted. I know that these points of view are little held these days, even by Catholics, but I write, not to get polemical about it, but to make the smaller point that Vatican II was fairly clear about these points, and provides little support for the current more progressive point of view, or the view that these are matters of strictly private and personal import.

            The Council, as you rightly note, also teaches on other important social topics, which the loudmouth conservatives seem to happily overlook. I’m afraid this just reinforces my fear that most people take their values from their political party rather than from the Church.

          • Right: so your idea of “social engagement”, then, is about restricting marriage to just one, fairly recent, model? (marriage, as based on romantic”conjugal love”, as opposed to property negotiations between families, is a relatively recent development in church history. )

            Now I thought one of the great things about the “social engagement” in church teaching was bout things like combating injustice, as represented by both Marxism and unbridled capitalism, about ensuring that unnecessary excess wealth should be redirected to the poor of the world, about arguing strongly against warmongering, against the use of capital punishment, and to protect and extend democracy across the world – as, to my personal benefit, in South Africa.

  2. ” so your idea of “social engagement”, then, is about restricting marriage to just one, fairly recent, model?”

    Not my idea; that of the Second Vatican Council per the excerpts from Gaudium et Spes cited above.

    But, again, yes, I entirely agree, there is so much more there, in addressing poverty, preventing war, protecting the sanctity of human life, through its entire course. Why so many “public Catholics” seem to “specialize,” to affirm some positions with ferver and ignore others, is to me a very interesting question.

    • Good, then, Rick. I think we can agree on one thing: “Catholicism” means so much more than one or two simple issues – as is “Gaudium et Spes”. I fervently hope that on this site we will get to cover a wide range of these (and even publish conflicting views on these). However, as I’ve noted in earlier response, it will take time to get to them all.

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