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Tradition vs. Traditionalism

September 5, AD2013 94 Comments

The Communion song this last Sunday at the 11:30 a.m. Mass was “The Servant Song”. One might say it’s one of those Gather Hymnal songs that traditionalists point to whenever they compare the richness of the traditional Latin Mass to the relative poverty of the Novus Ordo Mass that’s been with us the last forty-odd years.

Okay, “The Servant Song” as it’s sung now is truly dreadful: with quarter notes stomping the diatonic scale on the beats, it plods along like a man flat-footing it up a sidewalk. However, I have a faint quasi-memory that at one time the melody was much more syncopated … light, sweet and inoffensive, though still too much “all about me/us” to be appropriate for worship.

So I’m a child of the 1970s. The Gather Hymnal is what I grew up with. Occasionally, though, the chorus will sing an older song, like “Lift High the Cross”, and something in me lifts up with it. And Mozart’s Requiem, though not his best work, still beats out anything by Marty Haugan.

De gustibus non est disputandum: there are times when I can really appreciate the traditionalist perspective on liturgy, especially when it comes to my first love, music. The cultural heritage of the Church is one of great aesthetic richness and beauty; when done well, the Tridentine Mass is a glorious concentrate of everything the Latin Church did right for centuries.

The great danger in traditionalism, however, is the tendency to conflate liturgical and devotional traditions with the apostolic tradition. Doctor Taylor Marshall speaks of “the [radical traditionalist] belief that Latin Mass Catholics are ‘A Team’ and Novus Ordo Catholics are ‘B Team’”, but that’s actually a bit mild: the further you move to the right, the more you run across the sentiment that Novus Ordo Catholics, or “neo-Catholics”, aren’t really Catholic at all — we’re crypto-Protestants with an idiosyncratic fondness for the pope.

First, let’s go back briefly to some basic catechesis, so we can make proper distinctions.

The word tradition has different meanings according to the context in which it’s used. For instance, when we speak of oral tradition, we speak of an old method of teaching the faith by rote repetition. You can find an example of it in 1 Corinthians 15:3-7, where the pattern of and … and … signals the repetition of things to be memorized: that the Messiah died in accordance with Old Testament prophecy, and that he was buried, and that he rose on the third day, and so forth and so on.

Besides being a rather effective pedagogical tool, this sense of tradition is fairly obviously connected to the sense in which we speak of rituals as traditions: we do and say the same things on a particular occasion every time that occasion arises because it carries meaning and forms a connective bond over the years. As an example: To outsiders, it may appear that teaching American soldiers how to march makes little sense in the age of mechanized transport. However, learning to march not only builds unit cohesion, it also creates set identification by bonding those soldiers to Baron von Steuben and the men at Valley Forge, more remotely to Caesar and his legions, and more broadly to soldiers all over the world.

But there’s another sense to tradition that’s more abstract: “system” would be a close synonym. The apostolic tradition, which refers to the entire body of Church doctrine, fits this sense. It comprises not only Scripture but also the writings of the Church Fathers, the decrees of the various ecumenical councils and the popes, and so much more. It’s one thing to claim through selective quotation of Scripture that the first Christians believed X; the apostolic tradition, by contrast, gives a teaching its provenance, our chain of evidence that the Church has believed X since the beginning. The apostolic tradition, of course, is the Church’s main concern, because that’s what carries Catholic belief through time and insures our continuity with Jesus and the apostles.

Perhaps now you begin to see what I mean by “conflating liturgical and devotional traditions with the apostolic tradition”.

Let’s give the traditionalists some justice: Nothing in the documents of Vatican II mandated Mass in the vernacular, or that the priest should face the people, or that piano and organ should give way to guitars, tambourines and harmonicas (yes, harmonicas … one accompanied “The Servant Song” last Sunday), or that the old-style confessional booth should be replaced by cozy little nooks where penitent and confessor can natter face-to-face. While many people reacted positively to these changes, the facts remain that the changes were mostly imposed upon the people by their liturgists, pastors and bishops without consultation or preparation, and that those who wanted no part of the flower-child madness which often accompanied the changes were pushed to the margins of the Church.

With full justice and not a little irony, then, we could say the “spirit of Vatican II” reformers themselves gave birth to the traditionalist movement. At the same time, though, the marginalization endowed a segment of that movement with the kind of rancor and siege mentality that armchair psychiatrists find irresistible. While many people rightly blame the ham-handed implementation of excessive changes, some go as far as to blame the bishops of Vatican II, even to the extent of rejecting it as an authentic ecumenical council. At their worst, radical traditionalists become a magisterium unto themselves, stopping just shy of full sedevacantism.

It’s no part of my argument to say some mindless ersatz truism like “You can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube.” Rather, I spent time discussing the different aspects of tradition to make a distinction between that which is part of the apostolic tradition and that which is merely traditional. It is the unity of our beliefs which defines us as members of the universal Church, not the language or the liturgy:

 As I have already observed, the Church, having received this preaching and this faith, although scattered throughout the whole world, yet, as if occupying but one house, carefully preserves it. She also believes these points [of doctrine] just as if she had but one soul, and one and the same heart, and she proclaims them, and teaches them, and hands them down, with perfect harmony, as if she possessed only one mouth (St. Irenaeus, Against Heresies 1:10:2).

Elements of the Mass, especially the words of the Institution, are part of the apostolic tradition. The Mass, considered as a whole, is not, because it is a discipline and not a doctrine. Certainly, if we learned nothing else in the last forty years, it’s to not reject out of hand the ancient on the theory that “newer = better”. But the Tridentine Mass itself was a late reform of St. Pius V, and underwent several modifications prior to 1962. Because the Mass is the servant of the apostolic tradition — to paraphrase Jesus, the Mass was made for man, not man for the Mass — it is open to change whenever change can better instruct and make more devout.

Or, as Sir Thomas More says in A Man for All Seasons, Latin isn’t holy. It’s just old.

Photography: See our Photographers page.

About the Author:

Born in Albuquerque, N. Mex., and raised in Omaha, Nebr., Anthony S. Layne served briefly in the U.S. Marine Corps and attended the University of Nebraska at Omaha as a sociology major while holding a variety of jobs. Tony was a "C-and-E Catholic" until, while defending the Faith during the scandals of 2002, he discovered the beauty of Catholic orthodoxy. He currently lives in Denton, Texas, works as an in-home caregiver, participates in his parish's Knights of Columbus council and as a Minister to the Sick, and bowls poorly on Sunday nights. Along with Catholic Stand, he also contributes to New Evangelization Monthly and occasionally writes for his own blogs, Outside the Asylum and The Impractical Catholic.

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