Tradition and Modernity in the Catholic Church Gerry OShea
In an interview after retiring as president of Fordham University, the late Fr. Joseph O’Hare warned Catholics against thinking that the beliefs and rituals of their faith are static and set in stone. He warned that “you can betray your faith by trying to hold on to some frozen moment from the past.”
The Catholic church is in crisis largely because of the division between those who want to change and adapt to contemporary life and traditionalists who fight every movement towards modernity, clinging tenaciously to what has been handed on in beliefs and observance.
The issue of inviting divorced and remarried church members to participate in the eucharist provides a good example of what we are dealing with here. Church law – Canon 915 to be precise - states clearly that a person who is living in serious sin should not receive communion. A cohabiting couple where one has been divorced indicates that, according to church rules, they are in an adulterous relationship and so they are both prohibited from going to the altar rails for communion.
Other theologians assert that sacramental grace is especially appropriate for - and needed by - people who are struggling with difficult personal situations while they try to respect church dogmas and mandates. Indeed, these spiritual writers claim that depriving any churchgoer of the sacraments should be seen as a negative act, hostile to the spirit of the New Testament.
Very few Catholics would want a fellow congregant at mass to be excluded from participation in the communion service, but in Rome four senior cardinals, two German, one Italian and Raymond Burke from America, formally notified the pope that, based on his statements on this issue, he seemed to be guilty of a breach of church doctrine.
When Francis refused to acknowledge their letter, a combination of sixty bishops and scholars publicly accused him of promoting no less than seven heresies. Battle lines were clearly drawn with those claiming that they were following tradition getting substantial minority support throughout the church and especially in the United States.
Accusing the pope of multiple heresies demonstrates how protective traditionalists are of what they view as unchanging church teaching. They identify relativism – the thinking that what is right or wrong often changes because of new cultural and academic insights – as the downfall of modern Catholicism.
This relativist reasoning was the bete noire of all the popes in the 19th century – and beyond. Until Pius X11 the Vatican vehemently rejected a central philosophical insight of the Enlightenment, which asserted that all the community stories in the bible have to be interpreted not as containing a series of absolute truths but have to be understood in terms of various literary genres and according to the culture of the time when they were written.
Another modern example of the clash between tradition and modernity can be seen in Pope Paul V1’s controversial 1968 encyclical, Humanae Vitae, which disallowed the use of contraceptives even by married couples. In rejecting the advice of the clear majority of his own chosen advisors, the pope allied himself with his predecessor, Pius X1, who in 1930 condemned outright the use of any form of birth control – a decision that was seen then as delineating Catholic teaching from Protestants who at their Lambeth Conference in the same year had permitted the use of condoms in limited circumstances.
Paul felt that breaking with the ruling of his predecessor would lessen the credibility of the Vatican. He wondered how he could explain a papal declaration condemning all contraceptive use changing to approval of birth control by Rome forty years later. Whatever the entanglements of the Pope’s difficult decision, few Catholics follow his proscription in this area and the standing of the papacy has been diminished by the unreal teaching on contraceptive use in Humanae Vitae.
When Francis was asked about allowing the ordination of women in the church, a major and growing issue, he answered along similar lines, explaining that John John Paul 11 had ruled that out in a definitive statement so it is a closed issue for him.
According to the gospels and church tradition, Christ did not preach about sexual topics except in expatiating on divorce when he was commenting on Jewish practices at that time. Instead, his sermons focused on promoting a new and humane vision for the people with special emphasis on ending the marginalization of the poor. It is amazing how so much time is spent in church pronouncements over the centuries harping on what they call sins of the flesh. Surely, an ecclesial tradition that has developed because of cultural biases over the centuries but without any basis in the New Testament!
Joseph Ratzinger, Pope Benedict, and his conservative followers tend to view the church from on high, with clear moral principles directing all aspects of church life. The sincere belief in God’s sublime greatness remains the cynosure of their eyes. While always affirming the importance of salvation for all people, they tend to be pessimistic about modern culture and accept that only a small minority of Catholics heed their call promoting a holy lifestyle aspiring to spiritual perfection.
On the other side of the pews we have Pope Francis who preaches an inclusivist vision of a universal church open to all humanity. From this perspective we are all sinners on a pilgrimage. This is a theology surging up from below, anchored on a church that reaches out to suffering humanity, to people who in Shakespeare’s powerful words are confronted “with the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.”
Francis believes that when the church confines itself to the sacristy and the pulpit it gets sick from stuffiness. Instead, he repeatedly urges Catholics to smell the sheep and respond joyfully to the needs of the poor.
Teilhard de Chardin, the great Jesuit scientist and philosopher, is a hero in this company because, just as Darwin explained biological evolution, he promises that spiritual progress is also natural and indeed inevitable – a very positive religious perspective on life.
The French Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, following a strong traditionalist line, condemned the reforms of the Second Vatican Council (1962 – 1965) and he founded the Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX) in Ecole, Switzerland in 1970. He promoted the Tridentine Mass, performed in Latin with all the traditional regalia, rejecting as unacceptable the modern vernacular version of the liturgy in common use since Vatican 11.
By 1975 he was ordaining SSPX priests and consequently was suspended by the Vatican from church ministry, and in 1987 when he ordained four bishops, he was excommunicated by Rome. The authorities in the Vatican have been extremely tolerant of the Tridentine movement, and in 2009 – eighteen years after Lefebvre’s death – Benedict, in a surprise decision, lifted the excommunication of the four bishops only to find out that one of them, Richard Williamson, was a virulent anti-Semite who denied that the Holocaust ever happened. This left the pope and his advisers with mud on their faces trying to explain – especially to the Jewish community - how nobody in the Vatican had checked out the beliefs and credentials of the wayward bishops before inviting them back to the fold.
The Society continues outside of the church to promote its version of traditional Christianity. In 2016 they claimed to have 613 priests, 215 seminarians and 195 sisters scattered over thirty-seven countries.
Conservative Catholics nearly always support the mandate that priests should remain celibate. The sexual abuse crisis and the major decline in the number of seminarians have led to a serious crisis in the priesthood. Many progressive theologians argue that prohibiting priests from choosing a partner in his work and insisting that he can’t marry and have a family have done immense harm. The bible says that “it is not good for man to be alone.” Isolating priests from normal family living has not served the church well.
Ironically, Christ did not choose virgins to accompany him on his journey, and married priests served the church until the Lateran Council in 1139 when the assembly foolishly imposed the celibacy rule for all the clergy. Surely, the traditionalists, those who bow to the wisdom of the past, should favor restoring a married priesthood.
In the early centuries of the Christian story the people selected their priests and bishops from their community as some Protestant churches do today. The current selection system gives very little weight to the people or the priests in a diocese. Again, it would be logical and appropriate for traditionalists to look to the practices and wisdom of the early church to get away from a power structure that has often served the church poorly. Let the people select their leaders and hold them accountable.
In Matthew’s gospel Christ utters a strong admonition to his apostles: “can you not discern the signs of the times?” The way things have been done for centuries no longer meets the needs of the 21st century.Gerry OShea blogs at wemustbetalking