Traditionalism: True and False


To be a Catholic is to accept Tradition, both Divine and ecclesiastical. Divine or Sacred Tradition comes to us from the apostles and is built up, by way of dogmatic development, by the Magisterium (teaching office) of the Church, exercised by the Apostolic College (the bishops in union with the Pope) or the Pope personally. Sacred Tradition requires the adherence of divine and Catholic faith and only the Magisterium has the supernatural charism to authentically interpret its content.

Ecclesiastical traditions, on the other hand, are not part of the Catholic faith but of the way of life of the Church, as determined by legitimate authority, in various ages and places. There is an ecclesiastical tradition for each of the over 20 Rites and Churches which make up the communion of the Catholic Church (Roman, Byzantine, Maronite, Ruthenian etc.). The ecclesiastical tradition of the Roman Church (the Latin Rite) encompasses such matters as the ceremonies and prayers of the Mass and sacraments (in those things not determined by Sacred Tradition), the Liturgy of the Hours, penitential discipline (laws of fast and abstinence), forms of sacred art and sacred music, clerical discipline (such as celibacy) and many other matters and practices that are mutable and which can thus be changed by the supreme ecclesiastical authority.

We can also speak of pious traditions which arise from the popular piety of the People of God. They often have some foundation in Sacred Tradition or ecclesiastical tradition, without having the authority of the Church behind them. An example might be the practice of sprinkling some holy water when taking it from a font as an act of suffrage for the Poor Souls. As expressions of the personal faith of the believer they have great value.

So being traditional in any of these senses is good not bad, as long as our practices are rightly ordered. Pious traditions must be subject to ecclesiastical tradition, which in turn must be subject to Sacred Tradition. It all cases it is the Magisterium of the Church which decides what kind of tradition it is and what the implications for Catholic faith and practice are. Today there are many who describe themselves as traditional Catholics in that they adhere to the Magisterium, as well as to ecclesiastical and pious traditions which many others seem to be abandoning. Such piety is the piety of the saints and doctors of the Church.

False or exaggerated traditionalism. Unfortunately, some today arrogate judgement in these matters to themselves. This can be out of ignorance, certainly. Taught a certain way as a child it seems to such persons that ALL the practices of the faith are of equal gravity. No distinction is made between teachings and practices based in Sacred Tradition and those of ecclesiastical origin or from popular piety. Any change, no matter how minor, in the familiar practices from before Vatican II is seen as a mortal wound in the fabric of Catholicism. Generally all that is required is education in the true theological and historical facts of the case.

A spiritually more dangerous variety is the intellectualized traditionalism of those who have rejected Vatican II, or some portion of it (such as liturgical renewal or ecumenism). This rejection is rationalized as obedience to "Tradition" as they understand it. The bishops and even the Pope are seen as being unfaithful to the deposit of the faith (at least in practical matters), with only the traditionalist remnant upholding to true Catholicism. Pope John Paul II has referred to this error as Integralism. This name was first used earlier in the century by the popes to describe  certain super-orthodox persons who rejected any accommodation with intellectual movements outside the Church and who took it upon themselves to ferret out heresy and  heretics within it. Such traditionalism, however, is really a distrust of the Magisterium and its ability to authentically deal with, and occasionally incorporate, new intellectual currents and movements  into the Church's life. Only by guarding and holding fast to the Integral Faith is one safe, rather than by holding fast to the living Magisterium. Had this been the attitude of the Church through the centuries we would not have the neo-Platonism of Church Fathers such as St. Augustine or the Aristotelian approach of Doctors such as St. Thomas Aquinas, among others. Both these "views" belonged "to the world" before they belonged to the Church. But under the guidance of the Magisterium they were "baptized" and have been of great value to the Church.

It should be noted that in the area of liturgy the Holy See has recognized the legitimate aspirations of those who love the Rites of the Roman Church as they existed before the Second Vatican Council. This was manifested by the apostolic letter Ecclesia Dei granting the privilege of using the Missal of 1962 to those who desired it and who accepted the Vatican Council and the authority of the Holy See over the Liturgy. The Pontiff encouraged the bishops of the world to be generous in granting this privilege in their dioceses to those who wish it.

There is, however, a false traditionalism which does not remain in communion with the Magisterium. Divine Revelation and the documents of the Church make it clear that only the Magisterium can ultimately judge these matters and that the salvation of the faithful does not depend on having to privately interpret the Sacred Tradition or govern oneself in ecclesiastical affairs.

Mt. 16:18
And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it.

Lk. 10:16
Whoever listens to you listens to me. Whoever rejects you rejects me. And whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me."

First Vatican Council on Papal Primacy
We renew the definition of the Ecumenical Council of Florence, by which all the faithful of Christ must believe "that the Apostolic See and the Roman Pontiff hold primacy over the whole world, and that the Pontiff of Rome himself is the successor of the blessed Peter, the chief of the apostles, and is the true vicar of Christ and head of the whole Church and faith, and teacher of all Christians; and that to him was handed down in blessed Peter, by our Lord Jesus Christ, full power to feed, rule, and guide the universal Church, just as is also contained in the records of the ecumenical Councils and in the sacred canons.

... the faithful of whatever rite and dignity, both as separate individuals and all together, are bound by a duty of hierarchical submission and true obedience, not only in things pertaining to faith and morals, but also in those which pertain to the discipline and government of the Church spread over the whole world, so that the Church of Christ, protected not only by the Roman Pontiff, but by the unity of communion as well as of the profession of the same faith is one flock under the one highest shepherd. This is the doctrine of Catholic truth from which no one can deviate and keep his faith and salvation." [Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Vatican Council I, DB1826-1827/DS3059-3060]

First Vatican Council on Papal Magisterium
To satisfy this pastoral duty [primacy], our predecessors always gave tireless attention that the saving doctrine of Christ be spread among all the peoples of the earth, and with equal care they watched that, wherever it was received, it was preserved sound and pure. Therefore, the bishops of the whole world, now individually, now gathered in Synods, following a long custom of the churches and the formula of the ancient rule, referred to this Holy See those dangers particularly which emerged in the affairs of faith, that there especially the damages to faith might be repaired where faith cannot experience a failure. The Roman Pontiffs, moreover, according as the condition of the times and affairs advised, sometimes by calling ecumenical Councils or by examining the opinion of the Church spread throughout the world; sometimes by particular synods, sometimes by employing other helps which divine Providence supplied, have defined that those matters must be held which with God's help they have recognized as in agreement with Sacred Scripture and apostolic tradition. For, the Holy Spirit was not promised to the successors of Peter that by His revelation they might disclose new doctrine, but that by His help they might guard sacredly the revelation transmitted through the apostles and the deposit of faith, and might faithfully set it forth. Indeed, all the venerable fathers have embraced their apostolic doctrine, and the holy orthodox Doctors have venerated and followed it, knowing full well that the See of St. Peter always remains unimpaired by any error, according to the divine promise of our Lord the Savior made to the chief of His disciples: "I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not: and thou, being once converted, confirm thy brethren" [Luke 22:32]. [my emphasis]
So, this gift of truth and a never failing faith was divinely conferred upon Peter and his successors in this chair, that they might administer their high duty for the salvation of all; that the entire flock of Christ, turned away by them from the poisonous food of error, might be nourished on the sustenance of heavenly doctrine, that with the occasion of schism removed the whole Church might be saved as one, and relying on her foundation might stay firm against the gates of hell. [my emphasis, DB1836-1837/DS3069-3070]

1983 Code of Canon Law
Can. 331 The bishop of the Church of Rome, in whom resides the office given in a special way by the Lord to Peter, first of the Apostles and to be transmitted to his successors, is head of the college of bishops, the Vicar of Christ and Pastor of the entire Church on earth; therefore, in virtue of his office he enjoys supreme, full, immediate and universal ordinary power in the Church, which he can always freely exercise. [canon 218 of the 1917 Code of Canon Law]

Can. 333
1. The Roman Pontiff, by virtue of his office, not only has power in the entire Church but also possesses a primacy of ordinary power over all particular churches and groupings of churches by which the proper, ordinary and immediate power which bishops possess in the particular churches entrusted to their care is both strengthened and safeguarded.
2. The Roman Pontiff, in fulfilling the office of the supreme pastor of the Church is always united in communion with the other bishops and with the universal Church; however, he has the right, according to the needs of the Church, to determine the manner, either personal or collegial, of exercising this function.
3. There is neither appeal nor recourse against a decision or decree of the Roman Pontiff. [canons 218, 228 of the 1917 Code]

Whatever good, therefore, false traditionalism might seem to do in preserving the faith is undone by the attitude toward papal authority that it engenders by its overt and sometimes bitter criticism. This "fidelity" then becomes a "trap," one which seems to offer security but instead offers only the security of one's own judgment and one's own will. Instead Catholics are willed by Christ the security of a living connection with Him through His Vicar. The texts of Vatican I cited above show that the purpose of the Petrine office is precisely to maintain a unity of faith, discipline and hierarchical communion that reflects in the world the unity of the Kingdom founded by Christ. Those who misinterpret the faith as presented by the Second Vatican Council and the recent Popes, or who through a spirit of disobedience violate the liturgical or others norms of the Holy See, distance themselves from Peter (in some degree). This is true for those who "hold the faith" in their own way on the right, as well as for those who "progress" in their own way on the left.

On the other hand, as St. Thomas teaches concerning scandal, those who adhere to the good do not falter, nor are they scandalized into rebellion themselves by those who do stumble [ST q43, a5]. This good of the unity of faith, of the discipline of the sacraments and of hierarchical communion, is obtained by adhering steadfastly to the Pope and thus to remain "one flock under one highest shepherd" (Vatican I).

Unfortunately, we see that while in Christ's time Jesus Himself was the skandalon or stumbling stone upon which Israel was broken, today in the New Israel of the Church that "scandal" is given by Peter. We must therefore ask ourselves which character in the drama of the Passion are we: Judas (who betrayed our Lord), Peter (who relied on his own strength), John (who remained close out of love), Thomas (whose faith was shaken by doubts), Mary (whose total faithfulness and love merited her the highest participation in the mission of Her Son), the women (who sought to comfort the Shepherd), the priests and lawyers-theologians (who thought only of their own prerogatives), the soldiers (who were "only following orders"), or Pilate (whose human respect exceeded his respect for the truth). Something can be learned from all of them, but the principal lesson, I believe, is to have more loving adherence (piety),  rather than less (impiety), to the teaching, sanctifying and governing decisions of Christ's Vicar.

Finally, recalling the dream of St. John Bosco who foresaw our times, we know that those who remain in the barque of Peter with the Eucharistic and Marian Pope will be secure, whereas as those who act independently, even if on the winning side, risk being swamped. This may apply to men of good will in other religions, but it probably also applies to those in the Church who do not fully embrace the teaching and discipline of the Roman Pontiff, but want instead to decide for themselves the direction of the Church (i.e. be their own pilot). They do so at their own risk.


Answered by Colin B. Donovan, STL

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