Not Traditional? I Don’t Think So!

One of the most misunderstood and misused words found in the language and rhetoric of the contemporary Catholic Church is the word ‘traditional’. It is a word that, when used in the wrong context, often drives me to distraction, mostly because of the judgement often implied in its use.

I say that because I consider myself to be a traditional Catholic, by which I mean that I live and minister in the light of the long tradition of Catholic belief and faith that has been handed down from one generation to another across more than two millennia. Tradition, however, is not the handing on of stagnant doctrine – as John Henry Newman so adequately pointed out in his An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine (1845) – but the handing on of a living faith, a faith that has been the subject of development and refinement, that has been the subject of different means of ritual expression in different settings and cultures, and which, necessarily, has been added to by the continuing theological enterprise that seeks to deepen the understanding of the Christian faith that human beings are able to engage with. Seeing myself as traditional means that I am constantly seeking to transmit the Christian faith to the society in which I live in ways that might appear to be new but which are intimately and intrinsically linked to those who have engage in that same process in the past, and on whose shoulders I now stand.

On the contrary, the use of the word ‘traditional’ in the way present in the above article contains an implicit judgement, a judgement that says that those who act or believe differently to the group claiming to be ‘traditional’ are, in fact, not traditional. The presumption one makes then is that those judged not to be traditional are something else, and that something else is dubious at best and dangerous at worst to the transmission of the faith into the future. The unstated presumption, at least in my mind, is that those who consider themselves to be truly traditional see themselves as the guardians of the authenticity of the Christian faith, and those who wish to be authentic in their Christian faith need to embrace the same mindset and methodology as those who claim the title of ‘traditional’.

Let me give you an example.

In the 12 March 2017 edition of The Catholic Weekly, there is a story about the establishment of a new Benedictine foundation in Tasmania, the Notre Dame Priory of Our Lady of Cana, connected to the Benedictine Abbey of St Joseph de Clairval in Flavigny, France. The article describes this particular member of the great Benedictine family thus:

“The Flavigny Benedictines are traditional, celebrating Mass in the Extraordinary Form, and have been travelling to Australia to offer retreats for men and women since 2007. The monks takes vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, living a life of contemplation and prayer.”

The use of the word ‘traditional’ here contains an implicit judgment, that those who don’t celebrate Mass in the Extraordinary Form are not traditional, but this is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the significance of the word.

I contend that the inherent limitation in this use of the word ‘traditional’ is detrimental to the life of the Church, and it does so because it immediately creates a divide. This divide, between ‘traditional’ and ‘progressive’ for example, means that far too much energy is expended on internal church matters, with the result that the fundamental mission of the Church – the proclamation of the Gospel in every age and generation – is sidelined in favour of less edifying pursuits.

A more appropriate word for use in this particular context may have been ‘traditionalist’, a word that more aptly refers to those who reject or question the kind of development in Christian faith and doctrine that Newman alluded to in 1845. Such a mindset and ideology rejects the results of such developments – developments that include such monumental events as the Second Vatican Council, and which is constantly found in magisterial statements and theological investigations – in favour of a more stagnant and staid expression of the Christian faith that is rooted firmly in a particular point in history. The appeal of such a position is perfectly understandable; there is certainty and solidity behind a determined and fixed understanding of the Christian faith, its theological underpinnings, and its expression in practice and morals. To embrace such certainty and solidity, however, has an associated cost in reality and relevance that can be too high.

I do not consider myself to be traditionalist by any means, if for no other reason than I have seen within myself a development in theological understanding of the Christian faith that is innately part of who I am and what I am called to be about. That development has been necessarily because of the new situations I have faced in the intervening years, situations that could never be imagined at the time I first seriously studied the Christian faith and its theological underpinnings some twenty five years. I suspect that there are yet further unimagined situations in the as yet unknown future that will require further development as my life and minister continues. Such a task will not be an easy one, but it will be a necessary one for anyone – myself included – that considers themselves a traditional Catholic.

I’m not traditional? I don’t think so!