September 2013 Print

Theological Studies: True and False Ideas of Tradition

By Fr. Davide Pagliarani, SSPX

The Crux of the Problem

The true or false concept of Tradition is, in a certain sense, the crux of all the problems, all the errors, and all the problematic passages of the Second Vatican Council, and John Paul II understood this very well when he said, in the famous motu proprio Ecclesia Dei Adflicta1 of 1988 “excommunicating” the four bishops consecrated by Archbishop Lefebvre, that at the root of that act there was an incomplete and contradictory notion of Tradition which does not take into proper account its “living character.”

We are faced with a concept to which the adjective “living” is added which qualifies it in a new way, even if this adjective is not an invention of Vatican II, because Tradition had been called “living” earlier, but of course, for quite different reasons. The supporters of this concept of living Tradition put it in opposition to a Tradition that is dead or fossilized, which would be the Tradition of the so-called Lefebvrists, they claim. This is our status quaestionis.

To understand this issue, we present a truly revealing sentence taken from a work of Von Balthasar. In 1952, ten years before the opening of the Council, Von Balthasar wrote, in his book with the very significant title Razing the Bastions,2 “The truth of the Christian life is like the manna in the desert. It cannot be set aside and preserved. Today it is fresh, tomorrow it is rotten.” It is a reference to the manna which fell in the desert, of course. God had commanded that the Jews gather every day only a certain amount of manna in order to teach them to trust in Providence, which would make the manna fall again from heaven the next day. Any extra manna that was collected would be found rotten the next day. So the truth, according to Von Balthasar, is like the manna: fresh today, rotten tomorrow.

“A truth that only continues to be transmitted without being rethought thoroughly has lost its life force,” continues Von Balthasar. “The vessel that contains it, for example, the language, the world of images and concepts, gets dusty, it rusts, it crumbles.” Just like the manna of the next day. Thus the truth cannot be simply transmitted over the years and the centuries, but must be reconsidered completely. What does this mean? That what conveys revelation must be thoroughly rethought continuously in order to be always alive and always continue to be true. To be faithful to revelation one must continually rethink it thoroughly, Von Balthasar asserts.

We are once again facing the great theme of hermeneutics, philosophical hermeneutics of the twentieth century, and this is interesting because it shows how all the doctrines related to the Second Vatican Council are perfectly consistent with each other. Error has its own logic, so it is normal that even if you start with different analyses and from different points of view, you end up with the same underlying principles.

The Definition of Tradition

Tradition. But what is it? Why is it necessary? How do you justify its presence and especially how and by whom it is transmitted? Tradition is, along with Sacred Scripture, the source of revelation. God, in the course of the Old and New Testament, reveals Himself, makes Himself known, and finally does so in the fullest possible way, in the most perfect manner, through the Incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ, who, in His own person, through His humanity, reveals the Father, reveals God.

Jesus Christ, through His humanity performs gestures and teaches, preaches. But where are the sermons of our Lord? Where are His teachings? Who collected them and, above all, those who listened to them? Who heard our Lord? It is clear that two thousand years ago our Lord preached in a particular historical context surrounded by twelve men with a particular charism, with a particular mission. After preaching and after ascending into heaven, He left His twelve Apostles the mission to complete Revelation. This is why the Apostles are fully considered the columns on which Jesus Christ founded His Church. With the death of the last Apostle, St. John, public revelation is closed, which terminates the formation of the deposit of faith that the Church will guard until the end of time. From the death of St. John, the problem is something else, the problem is guarding the deposit of faith, not increasing it.

Here we find the distinction between Sacred Scripture and Tradition, a distinction that is necessary, a distinction which, if well understood, shows the absolute superiority of Tradition over Sacred Scripture itself.

Why? Our Lord is the example of all perfection, the example of the perfect revelation. He speaks, preaches, teaches, but does not write anything. His teachings are collected by the Apostles and are put in writing, just as facts of His life and the miracles He performed are written down. So Sacred Scripture comes later. It is preceded by this oral teaching that is at the origin of the foundation of the Church. Herein lies the superiority of Tradition over Sacred Scripture. The same applies to the Apostles. Most of them do not write anything, at least not anything that was revealed. St. Paul and the Evangelists write a lot, but most of the Apostles are not sacred writers.

Another reason for this superiority—it is important to remember this today—which demonstrates the superiority of Tradition over Sacred Scripture is contained in the question: how do we know which ones are the sacred texts? Who says that the Gospel of St. John is not apocryphal? Who tells us? Luther? No! The Church tells us. But who told the Church that? The Church was told that by the Church itself, that is, the testimony of the previous generation. If we go back in time it is clear that we come necessarily to the original source, which is Tradition, which is the preaching of our Lord and the Apostles. The Canon of Sacred Scripture comes, therefore, directly from the initial preaching of the Church.

But the issue now is another one, which interests us most closely. With the understanding of Tradition made clear, the problem is how it can be transmitted over the centuries. The Evangelists, except St. Matthew, write in Greek, and we do not all understand Greek. These books have been handed down, and translated, always under the supervision of the Church. But for Sacred Scripture, the problem does not arise so much, because the sacred text is what it is; there may be some translations, there may be some philological studies, but they are anchored to a text that cannot change. It can be translated but not re-formulated.

With Tradition, however, we are faced with an oral preaching. It is clear that when we preach, we use expressions, images, and examples to illustrate a particular concept, [and these expressions] legitimately and necessarily change over the centuries, because for men of today to be able to tap into a certain teaching, we need to speak to them with a certain language. This is perfectly true, and no one denies it. The Church, over the centuries, did not simply limit itself to celebrating Mass in Latin without ever engaging a certain sensibility which, of course, changed over the centuries. The Church has always taken into account all of this.

Is Tradition Living?

Even the Councils have taken into account these requirements and have more clearly defined some truths of faith. But we are faced with a process, a completely homogeneous development. There is no new truth that is not contained in that baggage, in that deposit closed with the death of the last Apostle. There is no new truth. It is in this sense that Tradition can be said to be alive—and the term is not an invention of the Second Vatican Council—since it is embodied concretely, is transmitted from a living Church, attentive to the needs and sensitivity and problems of men of every age.

In the past, this term was used by theologians, but in some specific contexts, especially in contrast to the dead letter of Protestants. Protestantism, from the beginning, attaches itself to only one source of Sacred Scripture, the written source. As there is no mediation of the Church which explains, which gives access to written texts, it is clear that you are in front of something dead. In regard to this written text, which is not enough in itself, Catholic theology spoke even in the past—especially the Tübingen school in the nineteenth century with the ontologist Müller3—of living Tradition.

Just to give a concrete example, take the word transubstantiation, a difficult word that neither Jesus nor the Apostles ever uttered. So where do we find this concept? Is it in Revelation or not? Of course it is in Revelation, of course it is in Tradition, but it is a new and old term at the same time. It is materially a new term, but which expresses faithfully, perfectly, an ancient concept, a concept contained in the deposit of Tradition. Transubstantiation is a word that over the centuries has revealed itself to be the best for defining what happens on the altar during Mass: the change of substance. Does this mean that there can never be another word even more perfect, more precise? Theoretically there may be a word even more precise; this is possible, but what is not possible is to revisit the concept of transubstantiation.

Who in particular has the duty to faithfully transmit the revealed deposit? This really is the central issue, the topic of topics. The task falls to the Magisterium. The Magisterium is the organ that our Lord instituted to faithfully preserve the deposit of Tradition, the deposit of Faith, to explain the content in a manner ever more suitable, ever more perfect. The relationship of Tradition to Magisterium is very delicate because Tradition, in its content, is closed. The acts of the Magisterium in relation to Tradition are defined as active Tradition, in the sense that they translate into more consistent and more precise language the content which is not active, but which is objective. I apologize for these concepts that can be a bit technical—objective Tradition and active Tradition—but we need to better understand the current problem.

What is this current problem? After reading the words of Von Balthasar which state that the truth must be thoroughly rethought, we read some passages of the discourse of Benedict XVI on April 26, 2006,4 about a year after his accession to the papacy. The text has been reported in L’Osservatore Romano: “The Spirit appears as the guarantor of the active presence of the mystery in history and the One Who ensures its implementation over the centuries. Thanks to the Paraclete, the experience of the Risen One”—Pay attention to this part!—“had by the apostolic community at the beginnings of the Church will always be experienced by succeeding generations to the extent that it is transmitted and actualized in the faith and in the worship and in the communion of the pilgrim people of God in time. The Apostolic Tradition of the Church consists in this transmission of the goods of salvation that makes the Christian community the permanent actualization of the original communion in the power of the Spirit.”

A Divergent Path

We are facing a completely different conception of Tradition. Tradition, for Benedict XVI, is the communication over the centuries, under the guidance of the Holy Ghost, of the original experience of the Christian community. It is not the transmission of dogmatic contents in the strict sense, of dogmatic truths taught by Christ and the Apostles, of a deposit explained perhaps in a new way, but with its precise concepts. It is the transmission of an experience, or in other words, the continuation of a life. Here the Pope is even more precise: “This permanent actualization of the active presence of the Lord Jesus in His people, worked by the Holy Spirit and expressed in the Church through the apostolic ministry and fraternal communion, is that which is meant in a theological sense by the term Tradition.”

Another passage that further highlights the link between the initial experience and our experience is as follows:

“Tradition is the communion of the faithful around their legitimate pastors throughout history, a communion that the Holy Spirit nurtures, assuring the connection between the experience of the apostolic faith, lived in the original community of disciples”—he is very clear—“and the present-day experience of Christ in His Church.” Tradition, in other words, what does it guarantee us? That we have the same experience that the first Christians had. Not that we believe the same dogmas. They are two different perspectives.

In this next and last citation, Benedict XVI says what Tradition is not, bringing up the concept of living Tradition. “Tradition is not the transmission of things or words,”—so it is not a transmission of dogmas or formulas—“a collection of dead things.” On this we can agree, but be careful: what is meant here by dead things? Something that is not living. But what is it that is not living, according to this line of thought? Dogmas and formulas. “Tradition is the living river that connects us to the origins, the living river in which the origins are present. The great river that leads us to the port of eternity.”

The idea of ​​the river is very interesting. A river, by definition, is what flows, what is flowing. What is flowing in this experience that goes from the Apostles, through us, to the end of time? History flows. And history is never the same. The protagonists of history, in every moment, are different from what they were before. In relation to this morning, you are much more tired. This is obvious. Why? Because after a certain number of hours it is clear that we are no longer the same.

Thus, Tradition is not a collection of things, it is not even a collection of words such as transubstantiation. So then, in this context, in this perspective, what sense does it have to speak of transubstantiation? Because, apart from the extreme Modernists, no one denies the use of this term. In this perspective, the term transubstantiation manifests a linguistic modernity through which the Church expresses her experience of the Risen Christ, her own experience in a particular historical moment and which is connected to her origins. In this perspective, the term transubstantiation has a great value, a value which, however, is tied to a historical moment. According to this line of thought, this word is perfectly part of the Tradition of the Church, but of a living Tradition, and cannot, therefore, be anchored to any formulas, otherwise it would betray itself and, paradoxically, could mean something false.

What does all this mean? If the truth itself must be rethought in every historical moment in order to be spoken, to be enunciated always in a consistent way, in a manner appropriate to the sensitivity of the man who evolves and to history which evolves, the great risk in the continued use of words used a thousand or five hundred years ago, is to be anchored to a petrified Tradition, a dead Tradition, one that is no longer alive and that, therefore, paradoxically, risks saying something that is no longer understandable and therefore risks conveying something false.

The Risk of Historicism

It is very logical as a principle. Let us return, however, to a Catholic point of view, to a traditional perspective. It is true that certain words can be replaced with even more precise ones. That’s why throughout history the Church has proclaimed new dogmas, dogmas which, however, were already contained in Revelation. The Church has explained and made them more clear, but did not invent anything, did not rethink the truth. This is very important, because, if not, one falls into a form of absolute historicism.

Benedict XVI, in his famous speech of December 22, 2005,5 says that the condemnation of religious liberty and its promotion are contradictory only in appearance, but which all forms part of the one Tradition of the Church.

This is simply a way to revisit and then to explain the same truths in different times and circumstances. The hermeneutics or interpretation of the facts has shown us that things are not exactly so. If really those two statements mean the same thing, the course of history would not have changed, along with all the consequences that we know.

This constant revision of the truth, that truth which Von Balthasar wrote must be continually rethought (the key word is: rethought), this making present in every day of the life of the Church of the original experience that connects us to the origins is not done so much under the guidance of the Magisterium, because it is an experience, a communication of a life, but rather it is done under the guidance of the Spirit. It is the Spirit who, Benedict XVI says, makes present this original life, which brings us back to this presupposed experience of the origins.

It is a rather pneumatic and spiritualist vision, because it gives us the guarantee of this experience, assuming that the Christians today are having the same experience and still believe in something. Who can guarantee that this experience is really the same as that of the martyrs of the first centuries? Who guarantees it, if there is no Magisterium, but it is the Spirit who acts? It is a bit of a neo-Protestant concept, if you will. Just as in the Protestant world, the Holy Ghost is the guarantor of a correct interpretation of Sacred Scripture—we know well the consequences of this “brilliant” idea of ​​Luther—so the Holy Ghost is the guarantor of this continuity over the centuries.

On this point it is necessary to make a small parenthesis, a small distinction. We are not computers, where you just bring a CD with the contents of Tradition and these are captured in a perfect way and we are sanctified. It is true that Christianity, Catholicism in particular, is an experience, that the spiritual life is an experience. It is not mistaken to speak of the experience of God. When you embark on a mission to evangelize the savages, you surely communicate to them the truths of the Faith, but you also communicate a way of relating to the sacred, to God, a way of praying, even a way of feeling. The missionary communicates what he himself has. In this sense it is true that evangelization is the communication of an experience, but this experience is bound by the dogmatic contents that precede it. It is not the experience that precedes the dogmatic contents. It is clear that when a missionary departs to evangelize a nation of savages he brings an experience that is based on very precise dogmatic contents, and he will communicate it through a Creed. Above all he must convert their intelligence, but, at the same time and in full dependence on these doctrinal contents, will convert their souls, transmitting spiritual life to them. This is very important.

Modernism, however, tends to replace completely, to substitute any type of dogmatic content, with a life experience. It is true that dogmas, materially speaking, are a collection of things and words, and are not experiences. The Trinity is not an experience, the Trinity is, above all, a dogma. It is clear that the dogmas are living. They are living, however, not because we continuously rethink them to make them more present. They are objectively living, because they are the expression of a God who is living, true, and unchanging. In this sense, every dogma is extremely living. Is it the dogma’s fault if we lose the perception of its intrinsic vitality? It is not the fault of the dogmatic formulation.

The Impact on the Magisterium

It is clear that in the [Modernist] perspective of living Tradition, the Magisterium is blocked. What can it teach? One cannot teach an experience. In some way one may transmit it, but one cannot codify an experience through declarations. This concept of living Tradition makes the Magisterium go, pardon the expression, completely haywire. And the most obvious manifestation of this is the production of documents upon documents. To explain what? Everything and nothing. An experience, as such, cannot be explained. A dogma, yes, that can be presented and explained. Then this avalanche of paper, this avalanche of documents, is not so much a sign of a precise Magisterium, of a teaching authority that knows what it has to say, but rather the sign of a Magisterium grown desperate. It is symptomatic. Look in the past at three, four encyclicals that are particularly dear to us, for example: Quanta Cura and the Syllabus of Pius IX, Pascendi and the decree Lamentabili of St. Pius X, Humani Generis of Pius XII. They are texts that made history, and that will continue to make history because they are clear. The Nicene Creed is clear; it is not a mountain of paper. St. Pius X did not produce an avalanche of documents. The documents issued by him are extremely clear texts.

It is important to understand the hermeneutical problem because it is central. It is really the key to everything. A concrete example: take the relationship that exists today with Sacred Scripture, not only with Tradition. It is the same problematic relationship. Today people insist so much on the Bible. The liturgical reform has transformed the Mass into a real Bible lesson, the Liturgy of the Word. The biblical passages are often difficult, extremely varied, extremely rich and diverse: Year A, B, C, etc., even years, odd years. The new lectionary is not easy: it is extremely complicated and technically difficult to manage.

But what is today, the relationship with Sacred Scripture? What is the most authentic relationship, according to these same assumptions which we have seen applied to Tradition, but that we can apply speculatively to Sacred Scripture? We find it in resonance. What is resonance? It is nothing magnetic. Resonance is a new way of reading the Scriptures. People will gather, read a passage, proclaim it, because Sacred Scripture is the Word, but make a complete abstraction from the mediation of the Church, the Magisterium of the Church, the Fathers of the Church, then everyone considers the text and presents to the others what reaction it has evoked in him. It is a way of re-enacting the “experience” that, in a sense, Sacred Scripture should convey.

Doctrine and Clarification

What, in all this, is missing? Doctrine is missing. A clarification is missing. The light of the Magisterium is missing. The Church Fathers are missing. What, then, is present or at least assumed to be present? Life is present, a direct perception, a personal perception, both personal and communal at the same time, a perception that goes directly to the source, a perception that is nothing more than what that reading evokes in that moment. This is resonance.

The hermeneutical problem is the synthesis of the philosophy of the twentieth century, and the Second Vatican Council took up this philosophy. When one speaks of philosophy one does not have to do so in purely academic terms. We are not concerned so much what one thinker said rather than another. What must concern us is to understand what are the major themes that have made an age and influenced an era. Existentialism, with phenomenology backing it, the Existentialism of Heidegger in particular, arrives at a knowledge of reality that is absolutely new. Hegel is exceeded, Kant as well. Existentialism is a philosophy in which all boils down to a lived act, all is reduced to life. In this perspective, when I know an object, is this object real? Is it really known? It is known at the moment when my life allows me to know it, when I know it with my perception.

Here is a concrete example to understand all this. You are now tired and whatever I say, you perceive it as a tired person. Beyond the fact that you are interested or not, you’re watching the clock. Why? Because I am speaking to you at 18:10 and, at this time, the conference should be finished. Certainly some must return home, others have other things to do, probably more interesting things. So, all I could say at this time, if I read, for example, a text, a passage from the Bible or text of the Fathers of the Church, you perceive it through the ears or eyes of a person who is tired. That is just how it is.

In this Existentialist perspective, the intellect, to return to St. Thomas, is never a tabula rasa. In the Realist, Classical, Catholic, Greek perspective—also because Aristotle is on the same wavelength—when I know something, it is my understanding that must adapt itself to that object. That object is there to modify, in a certain sense, my intellect which must mold itself in relation only to the object itself. This is realism. Instead, in the Existentialist and Hermeneutical perspective, the prospect of Martin Heidegger and Martin Gardner in particular, all the authors to whom Benedict XVI is so attentive (in this sense he is a true intellectual, very attentive and responsive to the contemporary culture), when one is tired, his vision is clouded, and he can, therefore, only glimpse the object. If one is sad, one reads Sacred Scripture in a certain way. But then how can one be sure, and perfect one’s perception of reality; how is that possible? It is not the Magisterium that enlightens me according to this perspective. How can I perfect my perception if I realize I am conditioned? In this scheme of things, I perfect my knowledge of reality simply by continuing to ask myself, continuing to represent the same subject in a new condition. In other words, if we were to follow this philosophy, you should come back, rested and refreshed tomorrow morning at eight o’clock, to listen again to these same words. In this way you would have a new perception of the same content, because theoretically I would repeat the same things. In the meantime, though, I too would be changed, but most of all you would be fresher and maybe it would be a sunny day and we would all be more joyful, because we are conditioned by all these things.

In this perspective—excuse me if I present it in such simplistic terms—if we put ourselves on purely subjective terms, there is something true there, but the dogma of Faith is not based on this. Here we are in the world of emotions. The problem is that this perception, coming from emotions which are certainly true and real, current conditions which are true and real, transfers them to a plane that is strictly intellectual and cognitive. This hermeneutic circle is infinite, says Martin Gardner, after Heidegger, the great theorist of this vision of things, this perception of reality. In this sense, what is knowing? It is a vital experience that continues and will continue forever.

What is it that underlies this concept of living Tradition? What underlies it is this hermeneutic circle that is nothing but the synthesis of contemporary thought, twentieth-century thought. Any text, known, evaluated, and put in context determines an outcome that becomes subject to further interpretation. I change, and then the context changes, history changes. This is the process, this is historicism.

The conclusion is very simple. The paradox lies in this Magisterium that produces an avalanche of paper. For the good of the Church, we want a Magisterium that is not paralyzed. The Magisterium of today is a Magisterium that has entered into a condition such that it can no longer be exercised. Why? Because to teach something you need to define, but to define something, you must define the meaning of a concept in an objective way. There is no definition if there is not objectivity. But in the moment when one espouses a concept of the truth in which truth follows in lockstep with the flow of change, with the flow of history, one is no longer able to form a teaching of this truth. One is no longer able to frame a particular concept with precise terms. And so it becomes a value valid for that historic moment, a value that cannot presume to form any lasting concept.

If there is no objectivity, there is no teaching, because the function that Christ left to His Church and to the Magisterium is to transmit to us the eternal Truth, the expression of eternity, a truth that is not only not negotiable, but that cannot change in any way.

1 John Paul II, Motu Proprio Ecclesia Dei Adflicta, July 2, 1988.

2 Hans Urs von Balthasar Abbattere i bastioni (Jaca Book, 2010). [Schleifung der Bastionen (Einsiedeln: Johannes Verlag, 1952).]

3 Max Müller (1823-1900), Indologist and scholar of religion. He founded the so-called school of comparative mythology on the basis of comparative linguistics. His ideas largely determined the direction of studies in the second half of the nineteenth century.

4 Benedict XVI, La comunione nel tempo: la Tradizione, General Audience, 26 April 2006.

5 Benedict XVI, Discorso ai membri della Curia romana, December 22, 2005.