Tuesday, March 13


Tradition and Traditionalism: Unrealistic Expectations

Having read today's Apostolic Exhortation and looked at some of the commentary regarding it, I find a surprising amount of anger and disappointment which, in my view, is completely uncalled for. To have expected this exhortation to be anything else than what it was, was to have unrealistic expecations, and to be disappointed due to its not meeting these unrealistic expectations is essentially to appoint ourselves judge and jury over Benedict XVI's legacy. As F.C. Bauerschmidt has widely commented over on NLM, Benedict is someone who believes that theology works, and that opening minds is a way towards opening hearts. I fully agree, as my last post was precisely about the point that theology matters with respect to the issue of tradition and traditionalism. The liturgy is an issue on which anathematizing and blanket condemnation would be completely disastrous, if the goal is bring people together within the Church and not to start petty fights of which we've already had enough.

As Drew and I have noted, the "smackdown" approach from Rome did not work in the early twentieth century, and it's certainly not going to work now. Furthermore, corrective measures have already been taken in this regard through documents such Liturgiam Authenticam and Redemptionis Sacramentum. At this point, such detail work is more the responsibility of those working on the local level than of clarion calls from above.

This leads towards the next point in my critique of "traditionalism" as such, which is unrealistic expectations. For many traditionalists, there can be no peace unless the Church admits 1) Vatican II was a mistake that we can all forget about and 2) the 1962 Missal is objectively spiritually superior and conveys more grace than the 1970 Missal. A form of the latter was actually stated by one of my critics, arguing that I had to address this important assertion which he took to be necessary for any discussion of these issues.

The fact is, neither of these propositions hold water, for several reasons. First of all, the Church had gone centuries without a comprehensive re-examination of the Tridentine model of the Church, and was long overdue in getting to this point, largely due to various historical events that prevented such a thing from happening any earlier. Secondly, tied in to this, there was a legitimate need for some kind of liturgical reform, and indeed this was begun in an official way during the pontificate of Pius XII. The time had come for a move towards what Andrew Greeley calls a more "medieval" model of the liturgy in which legitimate differences could be allowed, and in which the question of the vernacular could be reopened after the Reformation pre-empted earlier attempts to look at the question, yet Trent left the door open for an exploration.

Furthermore, the actual documents of Vatican II are orthodox statements of the Faith that are both continuous with the tradition yet also seek to move that tradition forward in important ways, such as the document on religious freedom. The chaos that followed after the Council, both in the Church as a whole and especially in the liturgy, had more to do with pre-existing issues both in the surrounding culture and in the Church on the local level than with the Council itself. I would point especially to an over-emphasis in previous times on the fixed nature of the Church and the Mass, such that any insinuation of change opened the floodgates since it was so hard to comprehend any change that introducing the idea of change meant everything was up for grabs.

We have spent 40 years with the growings pains of the Council and of the early reception of the liturgical reforms (much of which had more to do with the time between 1965-70 than with the 1970 Missal itself). Yet we are making progress at moving past the trivial approach that was often taken to reform, but the way towards this progress is gradually changing the discourse, and this is precisely what the Pope is continuing to do. At this point, a take-no-prisoners approach would simply turn this issue into a back-and-forth tug of war between different sides, as Ephrem at NLM has pointed out.

This brings us, then, to the rumored motu proprio concerning the Tridentine Mass. One of the things that has worried me about a potential motu proprio authorizing greater use of the Tridentine Mass is the potential misreading of such a document in such a way as to think it is authorizing separatism, especially in the theological senses that we have discussed. I also fear the mentality of thinking that the Tridentine Rite is the solution, rather than part of the solution to our liturgical woes. The agenda here is integration, not restoration.

The fact is, any motu proprio will come precisely to discourage separatism, and to encourage the reintegration of the Tridentine Mass into the life of the Church. This is precisely so that the average parishioner will no longer associate it with the "ism" portion of traditionalism, but rather will view it as an important part of the Church's heritage that was unfortunately forgotten and misrepresented on all sides in the chaos of the 1960's and '70's. The ultimate goal, I think, perhaps in 50 years or so, would be a new Missal that integrates the best of the 1962 and 1970 Missals, whose options would extend from something like a reverently celebrated Missa Normativa combining Latin and the vernacular, to something looking more like a Tridentine High Mass.

This is, I think, what the Pope is up to with the new Apostolic Exhortation and ultimately the motu proprio, and this whole discussion on tradition is precisely an attempt to open up some of the important issues in moving forward. In the meantime, I think we need to look forward with hope that recent dark days in the Church are increasingly behind us, and that extremism will continue to give way to a better appreciation of the necessity of tradition and progress in the Church.

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