Wednesday, March 7


Tradition and Traditionalism: The Theological Critique

As many readers will recall, in the past two weeks I have dedicated two posts more or less to a liturgical critique of the current usage of the Tridentine Mass as celebrated in indult parishes. This opened up what I thought to be a very good discussion, and I was very pleased at the amount of support my proposals received, both here and on other blogs.

Now I would like to turn towards a theological critique of traditionalism, one which I have implied is stronger and in some ways more important than the liturgical critique. Essentially, this critique stems from my plea at the end of the first post that we be able to have the Tridentine Mass and Vatican II and newer theological movements in the Church. Why these don't seem to go together is an important question, embracing not only the personal opinions of those who attend indult Masses, but also seminary formation and the ability to have healthy relationships with the Church at large.

Essentially, the problem here agains boils down to my charge that traditionalism qua "ism" tends towards freezing the life of the Church at a specific point of time, usually in the 1950's or earlier. This is the case in many ways liturgically, but it is especially so theologically. For traditionalism, "Modernism" is a live issue and neo-Thomism reigns supreme. Any newer theological movements are subject to the suspicion of Modernism, and accountable to neo-Thomism. In order to see why this is the case, it is important to go back in time and see the problematic.

Towards the end of the 19th century, Pope Leo XIII in his encyclical Aeterni Patris emphasized the philosophy and theology of St. Thomas Aquinas as exemplary, and ordered it be taught throughout the whole Church. The reasons for this are many and various, having to do with political and theological issues of the time which are largely forgotten. That being said, in so doing, Pope Leo gave almost all theological impetus within the Church to the so-called "neo-Thomists," a Jesuit-led (at the time) group that sought to critique modern philosophy by the standards of Thomistic philosophy, seen as the philosophia perennis - in other words, common sense. Implied in this was that Thomistic philosophy was the only grounds upon which could build a theology. Build they did, constructing theological manuals for the training of priests in the seminaries according to this Thomistic philosophy. As a result of this, neo-Thomism became the dominant theological ethos in the Church, with such other 19th-century figures as John Henry Newman and Johan Adam Mohler largely left outside of official Church theologizing.

30 years later, the Modernist controversy erupted in the Church, centering around two figures - George Tyrrell and Alfred Loisy. Tyrrell and Loisy were indeed theologically problematic figures, and were thus condemned under St. Pius X. Unfortunately, St. Pius' encyclical Pascendi Dominici Gregis and its labeling of Modernism as "synthesis of all heresies" often had a theologically stifling view within the Church, with its call to set up theological tribunes which often became places in which to carry out diocesan politics rather than serious theological investigation. The accompanying "Oath Against Modernism" continued as a requirement for theology teachers right up until the Second Vatican Council.

All of this was the backdrop against which new theological movements began to develop in the twentieth century, many of them picking up from Maurice Blondel, the French philosopher accused of Modernism but cleared, and the Jesuit Joseph Marechal, who did important work on mysticism and other theological topics. By the 1930's, the ressourcement movement had begun to take root in France, with Jean Danielou, Henri de Lubac, and others working to retrieve manuscripts and produce new translations of the early Church Fathers. Meanwhile, Marie-Dominique Chenu and Yves Congar, both Dominicans, began to challenge neo-Thomism's reading of Thomas, arguing that Thomas ought to be read more as a theologian and more in terms of his sources beyond Aristotle, such as Dionysius the Areopagite and especially Augustine.

At this point, many "conservative" (a word I use advisedly) theologians of the time, notably the Dominican Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, became very upset at the speculations of the ressourcement movement, especially de Lubac's work on nature and grace. The encyclical Humani Generis, though not mentioning de Lubac by name, led to a backlash against the nouvelle theologie that continued into the Second Vatican Council itself, where these theologians were finally vindicated by the bishops and the Council documents.

The problem with neo-Thomism and the notion of philosophia perennis, to put it shortly, was that it was asked to do something it simply could not do. By basically arguing that using St. Thomas and Aristotelian philosophy to knock down arguments of modern philosophers it simultaneously failed to really engage these philosophers on their own terms. In so doing, it resulted in students who were able to refute what they thought they knew of, say, Kant or Nietzsche, but not necessarily to refute someone who knew those philosophers in a fuller way. Furthermore, by abstracting Thomas' philosophy from its sources and from his fundamentally theological project, the approach failed to give an adequate account of Thomas' own genius and engagement with the problems of his time. I think that the reappropriation of the "historical Thomas" by Gilson, as well as the approaches of de Lubac and Balthasar, give one a much greater appreciation of Thomas' fundamental outlook, and thus put the modern-day scholar in a much better position to do what Thomas did rather than simply repeat propositions of Thomas.

Traditionalism's theological agenda, then, is to juxtapose this narrative with the narrative of the liturgy, and thus to see the culmination of both these theological movements and the movements for renewal in the liturgy as a disaster, coming either as intrinsically part of or as at the very least a bad effect of the Second Vatican Council. As a result, both the nouvelle theologie and in some cases Vatican II itself, are seen as responsible for the crisis of liturgy and Church life that followed shortly upon the heels of the Council. Upon such a narrative, the natural response is seen to be a return to neo-Thomism, presumably the support structure for healthy Church life and liturgy, as opposed to ressourcement and its ushering in of ecclesial and liturgical chaos. Thus, preaching, seminary formation, and othere areas in which theology enters the life of the Church must meet these "traditional" standards.

This, I believe is a fundamentally incorrect presupposition. The traditional Roman liturgy, extending back as it does into the early centuries of the Church, has not ever relied upon a single theological foundation, and certainly not one as historically late in coming as neo-Thomism. Furthermore, the liturgical problems coming out of Vatican II are not easily attributable to one source, whether it be the liturgical movement, the nouvelle theologie, or even Vatican II itself. They are rather attributable to a whole swirl of social and cultural issues whose power was perhaps underestimated by some at the time (not least those who thought nothing in the Church needed to change!). As a result, I think it actually does harm to the cause of the traditional form of the Mass to attempt to latch it on to a certain theological structure, especially one erected in the late 19th century. This would seem precisely to validate the claim that the Tridentine Mass is simply for those nostalgic for another time, rather than a liturgy that can speak to us now.

Furthermore, by embracing (or at the very least not scorning as Modernist) the nouvelle theologie and the work of related theologians like von Balthasar, those sympathetic to the traditional Mass can gain a greater voice in the theological mainstream of the Church, which I would argue is something much to be desired. Now, more than ever, we need a theological "center" position in the Church where conversation can be had by all who wish to be there, rather than choosing an apocalyptic "remnant" mentality either of the right or the left. Those who take part in the Tridentine Mass can and should be there, but not by making assertions about Modernism on the part of those who do not share their views. Even if they wish to continue arguing in favor of neo-Thomism, it needs to be tempered by the realization that a plurality of theological approaches enriches the Church, and did so notably in the time of St. Thomas himself (I'm thinking in this case of the great but very different approaches of Thomas and Bonaventure).

The problem, then, is not so much neo-Thomism and the manuals as the attempt to cling to them as the only possible bulwarks of orthodoxy. To do so is to take an overly narrow view of orthodoxy that both leads to the alarmism of "Modernist!" charges and to take an anachronistic reading of the history of theology. This kind of approach ultimately handicaps one's ability to have a conversation with the broader Church, and to win others over to causes dear to one's heart. Thus, I would argue that tradition without "ism" must embrace and not fear new theological developments - indeed, there is no need to fear the likes of de Lubac or Balthasar, as if they are going to take something away from St. Thomas. Rather, they open up new worlds of theological riches that enhance the life of the Church, and are certainly fully compatible with celebration of the Tridentine Mass.

This is especially important for priestly formation, because we do not need priests for the 1950's, we need priests for now. To rely too exclusively on manuals and older textbooks as if they were somehow the only way to preserve orthodoxy and liturgical purity is a severe mistake, especially because it seems clear that those texts did not work back then. The crises of the 1960's were due in no small part to inadequate intellectual formation for priests due preicsely to an over-reliance on such books. This is not to critique manuals as such, but rather their exclusive use as theological resources. Thus, it is important especially for those training priests to say the Tridentine Mass not to make this category mistake and assume they must be using old textbooks to get good theology. Rather, embrace orthodox new theology, such as that of the Holy Father, de Lubac, or Balthasar, so that your priests can engage with the Church of the present day. This, I think would bear abundant fruit for the Church as a whole and especially for the future of the Tridentine Mass, by opening it up to new audiences and freeing it from an artifically imposed theological captivity.

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