The following exchange is a real dialogue that truly happened between a high-profile Catholic theologian, disgruntled with the Pope, and an archbishop trying to set him again on the path of obedience to the Church:
“Archbishop: Let us now begin to work again for our Holy Church.
Theologian: Indeed, for the Church of old.
Archbishop: There is only one Church, that is neither old nor new.
Theologian: They have made a new church.”
The theologian in this conversation was called Ignaz von Döllinger. The Pope with whom he was disgruntled was Blessed Pope Pius IX. The “new church” he is referring to is a post-conciliar Church: the Church after the First Vatican Council, where the “new” doctrines of papal primacy and papal infallibility were defined. The dialogue happened in 1870, according to historian John W. O’Malley’s book “Vatican I, the Council and the Making of the Ultramontane Church” (a book that, if not balanced and neutral, seems to me to actually be a bit biased against the ultramontane movement.)
In light of this, it is not surprising that those who resisted the First Vatican Council’s doctrines would call themselves “The Old Catholic Church“.
Fast forwarding a century and a half or so, we encounter an organized movement bent on resisting Pope Francis’ teachings, reforms and leadership. The people belonging to this movement claim to be the actual defenders of the true Catholic faith. Their argument is that Francis’ teachings obviously contradict previous magisterial statements and should, therefore, be dismissed. Their reasoning is that, if the Church has believed something for millennia and a pontiff comes along and overturns it, then a faithful Catholic should adhere to the traditional understanding and reject the Pope’s changes.
But, since they seem so bent on defending doctrine, one must then ask them where they get the notion that a Catholic can or should behave like that? Where does it say, in any authoritative document (emphasis on the word “authoritative”), that the faithful should prooftext Church documents against past magisterial teachings, and that if they find an alleged contradiction with the Magisterium of the current Pope, they can dismiss it and disobey him? Mind you, this is a similar exercise to asking a Protestant where he finds Sola Scriptura in the Bible. Claiming external validation along the lines of “it’s just obvious” (or some other convoluted variation of that) just doesn’t cut it.
On the other hand, if we study Church History long enough, we can see that this way of reasoning has been at the root of many (if not all) heresies that Catholicism has fought against. It appears that this happens through two mechanisms. I’ll try to explain them in the remainder of this article.
But first, a disclaimer: when I say that heresy pretends to be tradition, I’m not saying that tradition is heresy. Quite the contrary, Tradition is one of the deposits of the Word of God and one of the pillars of Truth. And even traditions (lower case “t“) have a structural and fundamental role in the Church in general and for each faithful in particular. I do not include in my critique any Catholic who labels himself “traditionalist” and exercises his/her liturgical preferences in full communion with the Pope. Rather, I’m talking solely about people who dissent from the Pope, who spread division and confusion by alienating the faithful from the Vicar of Christ, and who misuse the word “tradition” to mean their personal interpretation of the faith, separate from the Magisterium.
The first way a misguided view of tradition can lead to heresy is illustrated masterfully by none other than C.S. Lewis (my emphasis):
“I feel a strong desire to tell you—and I expect you feel a strong desire to tell me—which of these two errors is the worse. That is the devil getting at us. He always sends errors into the world in pairs—pairs of opposites. And he always encourages us to spend a lot of time thinking which is the worse. You see why, of course? He relies on your extra dislike of the one error to draw you gradually into the opposite one. But do not let us be fooled. We have to keep our eyes on the goal and go straight through between both errors. We have no other concern than that with either of them.”
— Mere Christianity, Book 4, Section 6
This is astoundingly true, if we study Church History at length. For example, during the Christological debates in the first millennium, the fierce fight against the Arian heresy (overemphasizing the human nature of Jesus) produced the diametrically opposite heresy of Monophysitism (exaggerating Jesus’ divine nature).
So, while it is true we should hold on to tradition in order to avoid falling prey of novelties which have nothing to do with Christian doctrine, it is also sadly true that clinging too much to tradition can result in a kind of idolatry. This can distance us from God’s truth.
Nowadays, the Church faces a widespread indifferentism in the West, if not an all-out hostility from more liberal and secularized sectors (whether they are dissenting Catholics or atheists). This indifferentism and hostility stems from Modernism, i.e. the notion that the Catholic Church must adapt its teachings to modern society’s expectations and values, no matter how antithetical they are to Catholic doctrine. Pope St. Pius X, a champion against the modernist heresy (and unfortunately, a pontiff whose name is often abused to foster dissent and disobedience against the current pope or the post-conciliar Church), has dubbed Modernism “the synthesis of all heresies” (Pascendi Dominici Gregis #39).
Yet, in spite of the grievousness of the modernist heresy (or precisely because of it,) a Catholic must guard himself from falling into the opposite error: a kind of fixism, whereby the Church is presumed to remain immutable throughout the ages, without any development whatsoever. This Catholic, used to fight against widespread Modernism at all times, may start to see Modernism crawling under every rock, falling into what Joseph Ratzinger is on record as calling, during the Second Vatican Council, an “antimodernist neurosis” (Theological Highlights of Vatican II).
By doing so, this fixist extremist may even turn against his own Church, who he supposedly defends, if the Church does not conform to what his views of tradition may be. This fixism can even be purely practical, in that one acknowledges the possibility of development while outright rejecting any development actually happening in front of his eyes. Every development of doctrine or change in practice (either disciplinary, pastoral or liturgical) will be received with suspicion as a subtle and slowly infiltrating Modernism.
The problem with this approach is… each development of doctrine, if approved by authoritative / magisterial sources is also a part of doctrine, just like the more traditional teachings are. In other words, a Catholic can’t just dismiss them without falling into what Pope St. John Paul II called “Cafeteria Catholicism.” Furthermore, development of doctrine itself is also a part of our doctrine. It is part of our doctrine the acknowledgment that doctrine can develop. Just like it’s part of our doctrine that the Pope has the freedom to carry out changes to disciplinary and pastoral practices.
We can’t fight against an error by falling into the opposite error, as C.S. Lewis warns us about. It is telling that even Pope St. Pius X, champion of the antimodernist cause, was able to condemn in equal measure the “rigorism” (that’s the term he actually used) opposing his liberalization of the access to the Eucharist. In this way, Pope Francis is in very traditional grounds when he decries rigorists who oppose his sacramental reforms in Amoris Laetita.
Some may raise the objection that development of doctrine must be done in continuity with previous teachings. The fact that doctrine develops does not mean that it can contradict itself. So, if a Pope issues teachings that contradict previous doctrine, we should hold fast to the previous interpretation. After all, if Catholics were not wrong to assent to the previous teaching that also had magisterial weight, how can they suddenly be wrong now?
There is a fatal flaw in this argument: both teachings, the old and the new, receive their authority from the same source. Therefore, why should the Catholics of old be the ones who got it right? If someone must be wrong, and doctrine actually changes to its contradictory form, why should we be on the side of antiquity by default? Rather, if both teachings are contradictory, then all the foundations on which the Catholic Church rests crumble, and the old teachings do not survive this collapse. Just yelling “tradition” and then burying the head in the sand of previous teachings won’t preserve the integrity of Catholicism, since it mandates a living and trustworthy Church to preserve such teachings.
Nevertheless, can’t we say that Tradition is the deposit of faith handed down since apostolic times and that heresy always constitutes a departure from that deposit? In other words, isn’t heresy always a novelty? And therefore, shouldn’t we always be distrustful of new teachings that seem to contradict old ones?
The problem with this reasoning is that it ignores a fundamental fact, clearly visible but also widely overlooked when we study Church History. Even if it is true that heresy is always “novelty,” it is also true that heresy never views itself as such. Rather, heresy always sees itself as restoring Christianity to its original purity, what it was before the introduction of “traditions of men” by Church authorities.
Let us take a look at Protestantism. Protestants read the Holy Bible and find some teachings there that seem, on the surface, to contradict Catholic doctrine and praxis (eg: venerating images) or that do not seem to have any scriptural basis (eg: praying for the intercession of the saints). They claim that Sola Scriptura is the way to access what Jesus Christ actually taught, and to understand the primitive Church before a general apostasy overtook all of Christendom until Luther finally got it right again.
The problem is, Sola Scriptura is itself a novelty. Christianity evolved from Temple Judaism, a very priestly religion (even Scripture confirms this repeatedly, from Leviticus to the Epistle to the Hebrews). All the most ancient branches of Christianity (Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Coptic, etc.) are priestly in nature, with a hierarchy of priests tasked to interpret Scripture and Tradition, who trace their succession line to the Apostles themselves. Christianity was never a Religion of the Book (like, say, Islam) until Luther, 1,500 years after Christ ascended to Heaven.
In their eagerness to preserve the original core of Christianity and to save it from all the alleged innovations of the papacy, the Protestants surreptitiously introduced a novelty of their own, without even realizing it.
Even Modernism, despite all of its connections to modernity and progressivism, claims to be “traditional” in this sense. How many times we see people railing against Church teaching by arguing: “Jesus would never agree with such hateful teachings. He never wanted institutionalized religion, or Catholic sexual mores, or dogmas, or whatever. He was all about love, as I define it. I am the true follower of Jesus, the Church is not!“
Similarly, the current dissent against Pope Francis’ magisterium, which claims to preserve the Tradition of the Church by defending the teachings of previous popes, introduces novelties that are foreign to Catholic doctrine. In order to avoid the cognitive dissonance of being faithful by disobeying the Vicar of Christ, they need to spread non-Catholic ideas about the primacy of Peter, the assent that is owed to non-infallible papal teachings, the nature of mortal sin, and the proper way for the laity to respond when it doesn’t agree with the Pope. None of these ideas have any magisterial backing at all, yet dissenters disseminate these errors in order to promote their so-called Tradition.
If continuity is a hallmark of papal orthodoxy, then I must say that Pope Francis is, indeed, in continuity with most (if not all) of his predecessors. Every single legitimate development of doctrine in Church History was resisted at the time by those who thought they knew Tradition better. But in the end, Roma locuta est, causa finita est. Those who did not accept this would inevitably be viewed as those on the wrong side of the schism.
In fact, this dynamic is so traditional, that it is in continuity with the first Pope, when he needed to fight the first heresy in Church History: the Judaizers.
For almost two millennia, the Mosaic Law was a constitutive part of the Jewish religion. The law had been handed down from God as an irrevocable covenant. The Temple and the sacrifices performed in it, as defined in the Law-containing Torah, were the central part of their religious observance. The faithful would be called “righteous” because they would be the ones who would more perfectly follow God’s given law. Circumcision played a crucial role in the Jews’ religious identity, almost akin to our Baptism. And there were people who were martyred, alongside with their families, because they refused to deviate one inch from the Law.
Just imagine how people would be confused, in the Apostolic Church, when some Paul guy came along saying that Gentiles didn’t need to be circumcised, or proclaiming such revolutionary things as: “Therefore, my brethren, you also are become dead to the law, by the body of Christ; that you may belong to another, who is risen again from the dead, that we may bring forth fruit to God. For when we were in the flesh, the passions of sins, which were by the law, did work in our members, to bring forth fruit unto death. But now we are loosed from the law of death, wherein we were detained; so that we should serve in newness of spirit, and not in the oldness of the letter” (Rm 7:4-6; DRV).
Was St. Paul a modernist? Not at all. In the very next verse, he explains the true purpose of the Law. And if the Judaizers at the time had been able to discern the “signs of times,” they would’ve seen a trajectory — a development along the Prophets — with a progressive de-emphasis on purely ritualistic sacrifices (Hos 6:6; Ps: 51:6) and a progressive emphasis on the inner transformation of the individual through God’s grace (Jl 2:13; Jer 4:4; Ez: 36:26-27.) And if the Judaizers had explored the nuances, they would have understood that the issue was not as straightforward as it seemed at first glance regarding their insistence that Gentile Christians were required to submit themselves to all the ritualistic practices of the Mosaic Law.
Still, the polarization began and there seemed to be no way to quell it. Both opposing parties battled for the heart of young Christianity, even though the Judaizers seemed, on the surface, to be the more “traditional” faction. How to settle the dispute?
In the end, it all boiled down to a decision by authority. A Council was convened with all the Apostles, who had received their authority directly from Jesus, God made man. In the end, the Council, led by St. Peter, the first pope, declared the Judaizers’ position wrong.
I am certain that many who heard of this decision murmured: “Who is this Peter, that he thinks he can stand up to Moses himself? How does he dare to overturn our age-old traditions?“
But Scripture tells us that Peter was not acting out of his own accord or opinion, but as a vehicle of God’s will. In Acts 11, Peter explains that his decision on this topic came from God Himself, so it would be foolish to try to pit Peter against God, as if Peter was contravening God’s eternal law by eating from unclean animals forbidden in the Torah. Peter had Magisterial authority, while those who adhered to their personal interpretations of the Law did not, no matter how traditional they thought themselves to be.
But there is an even greater continuity here. Francis may be in continuity with Peter, but Peter is in continuity with the Lord Himself, for he is the Vicar of Christ.
Remember, Jesus said that He didn’t overturn one iota, or one dot from the Law (Mt 5:18). However, the Pharisees surely had a lot of trouble reconciling this with His apparent overturning of the Mosaic Law regarding punishment for adulterers (Jo 8), or the possibility to issue letters of divorce (Mk 10:2-12), or the Sabbath (Mk 2:23-28), or ritual purity (Mk 7:1-16). Jesus had this to say about them:
“Well did Isaias prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written: This people honoureth me with their lips, but their heart is far from me. And in vain do they worship me, teaching doctrines and precepts of men. For leaving the commandment of God, you hold the tradition of men, the washing of pots and of cups: and many other things you do like to these. And he said to them: Well do you make void the commandment of God, that you may keep your own tradition.”
— Mk 7:7-8 (DRV)
In short, they were not adhering to Tradition, but to their own interpretation of it. The reason we know this is because Jesus was God Himself, the source of both the Law and the deposit of faith that would eventually become known as Tradition.
Nevertheless, the Pharisees didn’t see things that way. They surely thought this Jesus was introducing novelties and confusing the faithful. In the end, they crucified Him, killing God Himself Whom they claimed to serve.
Does this mean that God can contradict Himself? As two millennia of scriptural analysis by all kinds of orthodox writers and theologians attest, the teachings of Christ can be reconciled with a proper understanding of Mosaic Law. However, God wants his faithful to progress in their knowledge of Him, so He has the authority to deepen this understanding in ways that may seem strange at first, but can be reconciled if one is humble enough.
In the middle of so many contradictory interpretations, the only way a person may have to not fall in the error of private interpretation is to stick with the one who has authority: Jesus. And Jesus bequeathed this authority to teach and confirm the faithful — not to theologians and pundits in social media — but to St. Peter, who passed it on along an unbroken succession of popes until the current Vicar of Christ.
Pope Francis has repeatedly stated that all of his developments of doctrine are in continuity with his predecessors. In other words, he has reassured us that not one iota or dot has been changed from Tradition. Those who are traditionally-minded should, therefore, look to the past for guidance on what to do in this kind of situation: do not be deceived by apparent contradictions exploited by false teachers armed with “traditions of men.” Humble yourself and acknowledge that God wants to guide us with new lessons and give us deeper understandings of his unchanging Tradition.
In this vein, I would like to conclude with a quote from soon-to-be-canonized Cardinal John Henry Newman, one of the greatest theologians of all times on the topic of doctrine development:
“A man is converted to the Catholic Church from his admiration of its religious system, and his disgust with Protestantism. That admiration remains; but, after a time, he leaves his new faith, perhaps returns to his old. The reason, if we may conjecture, may sometimes be this: he has never believed in the Church’s infallibility; in her doctrinal truth he has believed, but in her infallibility, no. He was asked, before he was received, whether he held all that the Church taught, he replied he did; but he understood the question to mean, whether he held those particular doctrines “which at that time the Church in matter of fact formally taught,” whereas it really meant “whatever the Church then or at any future time should teach.” Thus, he never had the indispensable and elementary faith of a Catholic, and was simply no subject for reception into the fold of the Church. This being the case, when the Immaculate Conception is defined, he feels that it is something more than he bargained for when he became a Catholic, and accordingly he gives up his religious profession. The world will say that he has lost his certitude of the divinity of the Catholic Faith, but he never had it.”
— Blessed Cardinal Newman, An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent
[Picture: Detail from “Council of Trent”, depicting the Church crushing Heresy; Pasquale Cati, 1588]