It has become common in certain Catholic circles to label Pope Francis (and the post-Conciliar Church) as “modernist.” This term is applied to stand in opposition to “tradition,” a fundamental Catholic value. After all, Tradition (with capital “T”) is one of the modes of transmission of the Word of God. The Church teaches, of course, that passing down the unchanging tradition is how the Church remains faithful to its core essence, without contradicting itself. In this way, the Church is a reliable teacher throughout the ages in matters of both faith and morals.
The biggest problem with this reasoning, is that even if their premise contains a kernel of truth, it nevertheless proceeds in a new and dangerous way. By setting fidelity to the current pontiff against fidelity to perennial truth, these so-called traditionalists have actually invented a novel and innovative argument that undermines the Magisterium. Clearly, this is by necessity; they cannot do otherwise if they want to follow their personal interpretation of Tradition while claiming to be orthodox Catholics. However, there is absolutely nothing orthodox about challenging popes and ecumenical councils. It is, paradoxically, quite modernist of them to do so.
This point is true, no matter how prevalent this notion of Tradition is, or how plausible it can seem after a shallow and literal reading of the teachings of the pre-Conciliar Church (especially when isolated from its historical context). This idea of Tradition cannot stand, because it undercuts its own roots. For this reason, it will inevitably fail.
As strange as this may sound, we do need a “new” way of understanding Tradition. We need an understanding that stands in communion with both the living Magisterium and the Vicar of Christ, whoever he is. I believe Pope Francis has laid the groundwork for doing so throughout his pontificate and has finally articulated it concisely in his new encyclical, Fratelli Tutti.
In my last article, I explained how Francis strikes a balance between having a strong sense of one’s own cultural identity and openness in encountering foreign cultures. He says, “A healthy openness never threatens one’s own identity” (FT 148). This means that in order to participate in dialogue (a notion so deplored by the pope’s detractors), a person needs to be secure and have a solid understanding of his or her own identity. “Just as there can be no dialogue with ‘others’ without a sense of our own identity, so there can be no openness between peoples except on the basis of love for one’s own land, one’s own people, one’s own cultural roots” (FT 143).
For Pope Francis, cultures need to be well-defined, but they must also be porous. Each culture must have a strong sense of its own identity, all the while being open to enrichment from outside—from other cultures, but always retaining its own distinctiveness.
At a macropolitical level, the Holy Father urges people to protect their cultural identity without falling prey to the extremes of indigenism or nationalism on the one hand, and syncretism or globalism on the other. Francis also deplores ideological colonization. As I mentioned last week, he has used as an example the case of someone who would impose gender ideology in exchange for giving financial aid or providing educational infrastructure to a poor culture. As a solution, the Holy Father illustrates the concept of healthy cultural diversity, by using the concept of the polyhedron:
“When conditions are imposed by colonizing empires, they seek to make these peoples lose their own identity and create uniformity. This is spherical globalization — all points are equidistant from the centre. And true globalization — I like to say this — is not a sphere. It is important to globalize, but not like the sphere but rather, like the polyhedron. Namely that each people, every part, preserves its identity without being ideologically colonized.”
— January 2015 in-flight press conference from the Philippines to Rome
Now, one can ask: what does this have to do with tradition and the Catholic religion? Papal critics might argue that in this encyclical, Francis does not link the concepts of “loss of historical consciousness” and “cultural colonization” to Tradition and Church teaching, but approaches them from a purely secular perspective. This is wrongheaded for two reasons: First, the principles taught in Fratelli Tutti are themselves part of Catholic Social Doctrine, and therefore belong to our treasure trove of doctrinal richness. Secondly, the principles outlined in Fratelli Tutti (both implicitly and explicitly) allow us to apply the concept of the cultural polyhedron to the Church. But how might we do this?
Catholicism is also a culture, and as such it contains an identity. Of course, since Catholicism is universal by definition, Catholic culture will be much more diverse than a simple national or ethnic culture. Catholicism is polyhedral by nature. Yet, certainly Catholicism has elements of culture and identity that are universally held by Catholics and not by others—without these, there would be nothing unique in us compared to anyone else.
Prior to the Second Vatican Council, many Catholics (including much of the hierarchy) viewed other cultures—especially non-European cultures—with suspicion. They saw other cultures as adversaries that needed to be vanquished for Catholicism to thrive. But beginning with the Council, the Church has taken a less adversarial and more diplomatic view towards other cultures. They began to acknowledge that other cultures contained elements of good within themselves with intrinsic value, and that it is wrong to “throw the baby out with the bathwater.” Since Pope Francis’s election, the Church has taught how these extra-Catholic cultures can even enrich our own.
Many people who identify as traditional Catholics believe that openness to other cultures endangers their distinctively Catholic identity. They often retreat to what they believe is a supposed pre-Conciliar approach, in order to preserve their identity in a kind of “cultural sclerosis” (FT 143). By doing this, they rebel against the Catholic hierarchy in a most un-Catholic way.
Francis has shown that openness does not jeopardize identity. And if there were doubts about whether he just meant this in a secular sense and not in a religious sense, Francis has been explicit in defending Catholic identity as well.
“This has nothing to do with watering down or concealing our deepest convictions when we encounter others who think differently than ourselves… For the deeper, stronger and richer our own identity is, the more we will be capable of enriching others with our own proper contribution” (FT 168).
In Querida Amazônia 33, Francis asks indigenous young people to care for their native roots. In the same paragraph of the same document, the Holy Father explains that for those who “are baptized, these roots include the history of the people of Israel and the Church up to our own day. Knowledge of them can bring joy and, above all, a hope capable of inspiring noble and courageous actions.”
The pontiff takes up this call for Catholic young people to rediscover their roots to a new level in a document that was released very recently and which, sadly, has been overshadowed by the expectation with Fratelli Tutti. In his apostolic letter Scripturae Sacrae Affectus, Francis urges:
“I would like to pose a challenge to young people in particular: begin exploring your heritage. Christianity makes you heirs of an unsurpassed cultural patrimony of which you must take ownership. Be passionate about this history which is yours.”
Also, we must not forget that Francis is very clear about how openness is a two-way street. In Fratelli Tutti, the Holy Father asks that “in those countries where we are a minority, we be guaranteed freedom, even as we ourselves promote that freedom for non-Christians in places where they are a minority” (FT 279). As he makes clear in FT 276-277 (and in several other documents and interventions as well), Catholicism has an inherently public character, one that cannot be relegated by outside influences and ideologies to the private sphere. Catholicism is meant to go out into the public square and transform society. Francis, like Benedict before him, is also clear that this transformation is not to be achieved through ideological imposition, but through a “culture of encounter.”
Silencing the public (and even political) voice of religion in civil society—including that of Catholicism—is no different from the ideological colonization Pope Francis deplores. To that point, Pope Francis teaches:
“It should be acknowledged that ‘among the most important causes of the crises of the modern world are a desensitized human conscience, a distancing from religious values and the prevailing individualism accompanied by materialistic philosophies that deify the human person and introduce worldly and material values in place of supreme and transcendental principles’. It is wrong when the only voices to be heard in public debate are those of the powerful and ‘experts’. Room needs to be made for reflections born of religious traditions that are the repository of centuries of experience and wisdom” (FT 275).
By applying the principles of Fratelli Tutti to Catholic culture and tradition, we are not—contrary to what papal critics might argue—endangering tradition or our Catholic identity. Quite the contrary, we are defending Catholic tradition and identity. Our capacity to absorb what is good from other cultures, is also intrinsic to Catholic tradition and identity. Inculturation has been practiced by the Church since the earliest centuries. Also crucial to our tradition and identity is our obligation to love and respect our neighbors, even when they hail from a different tribal or religious circle. Clearly it is not a coincidence that Francis explores the parable of the Good Samaritan in this encyclical.
When we love our neighbors and embrace their cultures, we defend our Catholic tradition and identity. And we do this in a way that is better suited to the world today. Even if it was desirable to do so (which it isn’t), it would be very difficult to restore Catholic monarchies and inquisitions in the way that many self-described traditionalists would like. Openness to others, however, is a hallmark of modern and secular society. Openness clears channels of evangelism that we can utilize, that will allow the faith to grow instead of atrophy. Additionally, proceeding along these channels is much more charitable than engaging in worldly politics and power struggles.
More importantly, this approach to Catholic tradition and identity has one additional advantage, one that is not found in the false traditionalism proposed by dissenters: It is in line with the living Magisterium. It is, therefore, intrinsically coherent within itself.
Let us take up Pope Francis’s words and teachings on this matter. Let us not be afraid that openness and dialogue will lead to the error of syncretism, especially because Francis has clearly laid out the path that will protect us from falling into this trap in his encyclical. Let us explore our Catholic heritage in communion with the Pope, by remaining open to dialogue and other cultures. If we do this, we will be both culturally enriched and authentically Catholic.
Image: Adobe Stick. Alfombra, sawdust carpet with parrot on street made for Semana Santa, Easter, Santiago Atitlan, Guatemala. By Loes Kieboom.
To read more about the Guatemalan Easter tradition of sawdust carpets, read “For the Domestic Church, a Paschal Hour” by Carlos Colorado.
Pedro Gabriel, MD, is a Catholic layman and physician, born and residing in Portugal. He is a medical oncologist, currently employed in a Portuguese public hospital. A published writer of Catholic novels with a Tolkienite flavor, he is also a parish reader and a former catechist. He seeks to better understand the relationship of God and Man by putting the lens on the frailty of the human condition, be it physical and spiritual. He also wishes to provide a fresh perspective of current Church and World affairs from the point of view of a small western European country, highly secularized but also highly Catholic by tradition.