Navigating Tradition

Navigating Tradition February 23, 2012

A reader asks:

Wondering if you had any recommendations for books on Tradition- particularly on how it is to be used and interpreted. I understand that Tradition is like the Democracy of the Dead, in that our ancestors in the faith offer us guidance, and can occasionally vouchsafe a proposed dogma. This makes total sense to me- I’ve never had a problem with it.
But every now and then I come across arguments, mostly on Trad or Trad leaning blogs, wherein the subject will be something like, say, the interpretation of the Old Testament in relation to the stories of massacre and violence. Whereas person A will say something like- “B16 says it would be better to interpret these passages non-literally”- the Trad guy will whip out a few quotes from the Church Fathers who interpreted it as literal truth, with a comment to the effect of “Are you smarter than the Church Fathers?”. This is also used, frustratingly, when person A wishes to make the point that certain books were not intended to be read literally, and again early authorities are pressed into service by the Trad in order to shout down his opponent, scholarship be damned.
Of course the same authority can be given to statements of anti-semitism, or misogyny, both of which can be found in even the greatest of historic Catholic personalities. So how do we sort out the good from the bad?
How does the authority of our forefathers work? is basically the question I’m asking.

Three resources I would recommend are:

Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine by Bl. John Henry Newman

Tradition and Traditions by Yves Congar

The Catechism

The first two discuss how our understanding of Tradition develops over time. The latter, of course, lays out what the actual Magisterium (as distinct from self-appointed combox bishops with some personal obsession over geocentrism, or a favorite war, or their pelvic needs, or whatnot) has to say about that tradition and how to apply it to our lives.

The simplicities of combox arguments are an extremely bad place to learn to navigate the Tradition. For example, it is simplistic in the extreme to say either that Benedict would simply reject the literal sense of the OT and allegorize the whole thing away. Likewise, it is simplistic in the extreme to suppose the Fathers would read the whole thing literalistically. If anybody was inclined to allegorical reading of the OT, it was the Fathers. But in fact, the Church has always used all four sense of Scripture when reading the Bible (see my Making Senses out of Scripture, for more info).

Typically, the “Who are you to question the Fathers or medieval theologians?” response is deployed in Trad circles, not to defend the teaching of the Magisterium, but to attack it. (This is distinct from the orthodox Catholic approach, which approaches the Magisterium, not with a hermeneutic of suspicion and contempt, but with the faith of the Church that the Holy Spirit will guide her into all truth as Jesus promised.) Reactionary dissent posits a two Church theory and tends to assume that the Church which allegedly came into existence at Vatican II is a thing alien and opposed to the “real Church” (meaning the fictional “true church” which the reactionary is defending from the Church in union with Benedict and the rest of the Magisterium). But in fact there is only one Church and there always has been. That’s Paul talking, not me. So the magisterial teaching of the Church remains the magisterial teaching of the Church.

Now it’s true that not all (or even most) of the magisterial teaching of the Church is infallible. But then it’s also true that docility to the Church’s teaching requires an infallible doctrine in order to be heeded. We do not live by the motto “That which is not forbidden is compulsory”. So when the Church in her ordinary guidance speaks, our first impulse should be to listen, not to denounce it.

FWIW, I deal at some length with the development of doctrine in Mary, Mother of the Son, taking a look at the very first reactionaries in the history of the Church: the Judaizers (who likewise said, “Are the bishops smarter than our Fathers? Everybody needs to be circumcised!” Precisely the function of the Magisterium is to sort the wheat from the chaff, to tease apart what is essential to the tradition from what is mere convention, or even old sin. Many a traditionalist clings to anti-semitic rubbish or scientific quackery like geocentrism under the mistaken conviction that because something is old, it is therefore part of the Tradition. Exactly what the the Magisterium does (among other things) is help us tell the difference between authentic Tradition and merely human things such as “old sin”.

Learning to navigate the tradition is, like most things Catholic, easier caught then taught, rather like learning to play jazz. The thing to do is immerse yourself in the thought of people who are reliable interpreters of the Tradition. So given a choice between Some Guy with a Keyboard who has decided Benedict is an antichrist for not expounding the sacred doctrine of X in a fundamentalist way and the nuanced, intelligent work of Benedict, I’d opt to read Benedict (who is a luminous thinker and writer). By all means read the Fathers too. But don’t make the mistake of thinking that where the developed Magisterium corrects or contradicts a particular Father or theologian (as, for instance, the developed Magisterium corrects and contradicts St. Thomas on the Immaculate Conception) you are faced with a crisis of faith. All it means is that even Michael Jordan missed layups sometimes.

Hope that helps!

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