Can traditions be harmful to the spiritual life? If so, what makes them harmful? Even more importantly, how could a tradition become harmful if it was once beneficial?
As Catholics, we are called to hold fast to a certain tradition. St. Paul tells the Thessalonians to “stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by our letter.” In Rod Bennet’s wonderful book The Apostasy that Wasn’t, he describes how the Early Church stayed true to the Faith by clinging to a certain tradition about the divinity of Christ, long before the Bible was codified or the Church had defined any dogma on the matter.
Yet in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus says to the Pharisees, “So, for the sake of your tradition, you make void the word of God.” God had commanded children to honor and support their parents, but the Pharisees had created a tradition that allowed children to neglect this duty. When a “tradition of men” runs counter to “the word of God” in this way, traditions can become hazardous to the spiritual life. Every “small t” tradition should be judged by its relationship to the “big T” tradition of the Faith.
The Bronze Serpent
Christ’s encounter with the Pharisees is not the first time in the Bible that we see a tradition gone wrong. Numbers 21:6-9 recounts the story of the Bronze Serpent. God himself told Moses to set up this image to heal those suffering from the bites of poisonous snakes.
The story doesn’t end with Numbers 21:6-9, however. In 2 Kings 18:4, we learn that the image was eventually broken to pieces by the reformer King Hezekiah. Apparently, the people had come to look upon it as an idol and were worshiping it.
Several things can be learned from this story of the Bronze Serpent. Most importantly, the value of a tradition, ritual, or custom is almost entirely dependent on the mindset of those participating in it. Therefore, a custom that is harmless or even beneficial in one era may be harmful in another. It is also notable that in some cases, a tradition has to be suppressed entirely to eradicate a harmful mindset. We can also conclude that some customs or traditions are suitable for one era but are not necessarily destined to continue.
Changing meanings of the Tridentine Mass
The case of the Tridentine Mass has some striking similarities to the story of the bronze serpent. 100 years ago, it was the predominant liturgy celebrated in the Roman Catholic Church. It was instituted by the Church and many saints had celebrated it and attended it. Traditionalists often emphasize this; they ask how something beneficial could become harmful, merely by the passing of a few years.
The problem was that over time, unhealthy attitudes and flawed understandings had developed around these liturgical traditions. Also, some practices had become less useful and needed to be updated. Still, before the Council, it was possible to worship at the Tridentine liturgy without being infected by these flawed understandings. Most Catholics in the pews didn’t worry about the deep meanings of the ritual details: the devout concentrated on Christ, the undevout concentrated on what was for dinner. For those who desired more understanding, there was a wide range of interpretations available; the negative understandings had by no means “cornered the market.” The Tridentine liturgy at this point was truly traditional, just “the way things are.” Like all authentic traditions, it was largely unconscious and habitual.
The development of “traditionalism” changed all this. For one thing, it is now a sign of division and superiority, the banner of a group that sees itself as superior to the rest of the Church. As others have pointed out, the celebration of the old rite now threatens one of the fundamental elements of the “Big T” tradition: the unity of the Church.
It has also become part of an ideology, an “ism.” From a fairly fluid, evolving, unconscious practice, it became codified and formalized. Since traditionalists had to argue its superiority as opposed to the Mass of Vatican II, the meaning of every detail became a point of contention and debate. In the process, the traditionalist movement concentrated and intensified the problematic liturgical understandings that had predated the Council, understandings that were contrary to the tradition of the Faith.
In particular, the Catholic understanding of the Incarnation is obscured, not by the Tridentine liturgy itself, but by the way traditionalists understand their liturgy.
The Incarnation is the central element of our Faith, the concept which sets it apart from all other religions. The claim that a poor village carpenter was also God is absolutely staggering. We’ve perhaps grown too familiar with the idea to grasp its full implications.
Among other things, the Incarnation upsets the normal human understanding of the sacred and our relationship to the divine. In the Old Testament, God often shows himself a loving Father. Still, the narrative emphasizes the unbridgeable chasm between the lowliness of created humanity and the greatness of God.
One symbol of this separation was the veil or curtain. When Moses came back from speaking with God, his face shone with a faint reflection of the glory of God. Even this faint reflection was too much for the people to bear, and Moses had to veil his face. In the tabernacle, and later the temple, the Holy of Holies was marked off with a great curtain or veil. Only the High Priest could pass through it, and only once a year. There was a clear boundary between the sacred and the common.
This chasm seemed unbridgeable. It truly was unbridgeable from our side of the chasm. We are creatures, and fallen, rebellious creatures at that. God, however, built the bridge in Jesus Christ. Jesus became one of us. The unapproachable majesty became a man like other men.
The Letter to the Hebrews says “we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh) . . .”
To symbolize this, the veil of the temple was torn across when Jesus died. The separation had been broken, and now even the most mundane things were sacred because God had entered into his creation.
This proximity of God is a hard doctrine to bear. In one sense, a God we relate to from a distance is less threatening. Besides, it seems so preposterous to say that God was a baby! So it is not surprising that all through Christian history there have been attempts to downgrade or dismiss this teaching. Some heretics have claimed that Jesus was just a creature. Others have claimed that the Incarnation was just a sort of sleight of hand, that God only looked like a human being for our benefit.
In modern-day traditionalism, we find echoes of these ancient heresies. As with the bronze serpent, the meanings behind their traditions have shifted. The traditionalist movement has concentrated and intensified pre-existing patterns of thought that obscure the reality of the Incarnation.
One of the standard arguments for the use of liturgical Latin is that common, profane, secular language should not be used when addressing God. Traditionalists argue that we should instead use a sacred, unfamiliar language in our common prayer. This argument ignores the fact Christ himself used a vernacular, common language. It can make it harder to remember that we should always be in prayer. (The use of a highly ornate, stylized version of the vernacular can also have the effect of making prayer artificial and separate from our real life.) The liturgy only makes sense if our Eucharistic participation flows out into every detail of our lives. Drawing a sharp distinction between the “sacred” and the “profane” can foster the duplicity of life which is so common among Christians today.
Many traditionalist authors argue for the superiority of receiving Communion on the tongue. For most traditionalists, this isn’t a matter of preference but rather a matter of reverence. One of the standard arguments used to support their position is that Jesus shouldn’t be handled by “normal,” unconsecrated, “unworthy,” “dirty” human hands. This argument is another example of the gnostic, anti-incarnational mentality which has grown up around traditionalist practices.
When Jesus walked the Earth, he showed no fear of being touched by sinful human beings—in fact, he seemed to welcome this, even when it scandalized the devout. He left us his Presence under the tangible forms of bread and wine, to show the intimacy he desires with us.
Some traditionalists argue that John 20:17, where Christ says “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father,” proves that after the Resurrection we’re no longer allowed to touch Christ. This is a very weak argument, however, for at least two reasons. The verse in question is rather opaque, so it shouldn’t be used to contradict all the more obvious verses in the Gospels. It is true that St. John Chrysostom thought John 20:17 meant that the risen Christ could not be touched. He obviously didn’t think this interpretation prohibited the reception of Communion on the hand, however, since reception in the hand was the norm at his time. Further, if the verse is to be taken literally, it would mean that we can touch Christ after the Ascension, which could only refer to receiving him in the Eucharist.
Whatever John 20:17 may or may not mean, traditionalists take their prohibition on touching to extreme lengths. I’ve personally suffered from scruples over this, and I know others who have had a similar experience.
Traditionalists also apply this prohibition to touching the sacred vessels—rather as if Christ had forbidden “ordinary” people to touch his clothes. I know a devout traditionalist who suffered from extreme celiac disease, but her pastor would not let her touch the chalice to receive from it. He admitted that the Church allowed this, but claimed that his tradition forbade it. A clearer case of a tradition making void the word of God I can’t imagine!
The traditionalist attempt to keep the liturgy from being “contaminated” by daily life can be most clearly seen in the traditional opposition to inculturation. The use of Latin as the only appropriate language for the liturgy imposed a heavy burden on non-European populations. In many cases, they weren’t even able to pronounce the syllables of Latin, since their languages didn’t include those sound combinations. Similarly, Western art and architecture were used in Church buildings across the world, ignoring local vernacular styles. Modern-day traditionalists perpetuate these colonizing attitudes with their insistence on the perennial applicability of a particular form of the Roman Rite, and by their general tendency to see the Church only through a western viewpoint.
This lack of inculturation is clearly anti-Incarnational. Christ came in a particular social context (which wasn’t European!) and his teachings and actions certainly drew from his cultural background. His Church quickly spread across the known world, adapting itself to different local cultures.
In a recent speech to Latin American Religious, Pope Francis condemns the sort of gnostic unreality that can creep into Catholicism:
Your presence is necessary so that an inculturated theology can be offered and developed, one that can, of course, be adapted to local situations and can be a vehicle for evangelization. Let us not forget that a faith that is not inculturated is not authentic. For this reason, I invite you to enter into what will provide us that reality, that will provide us the true sense of a culture that exists in the soul of the people. Enter into the life of the people of faith; enter with respect for their customs, their traditions, seeking to carry out the mission of inculturating the faith and of evangelizing the culture. It is a pairing, to inculturate the faith and to evangelize the culture. Appreciate what the Holy Spirit has sown in the peoples, which is a gift for us as well.
When this inculturation does not take place, Christian life, and even more so consecrated life, ends up with the most aberrant and ridiculous Gnostic tendencies. We have seen this, for example, in the misuse of the liturgy. . . . This is not the Gospel. Do not forget the pairing: inculturate the faith and evangelize the culture.
In a way, the opposition to inculturation sums up the anti-incarnational tendency in traditionalist thought. Traditionalists try to keep the messiness of everyday reality from intruding on their religion, and by doing so they become lost in a gnostic fantasy of their own making. Nothing can be further from the attitude of Christ, who “came down” to suffer in solidarity with his creatures. In a very deep sense, we can say that traditionalism “makes void the word of God”; it rejects the Word of God himself.
Image: Woe unto You, Scribes and Pharisees. By James Tissot – Online Collection of Brooklyn Museum; Photo: Brooklyn Museum, 2008, 00.159.209_PS2.jpg, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10904550