Monday, 5 August 2013

Saint Thomas on Tradition

St. Thomas Aquinas

St. Thomas Aquinas has a brilliant passage from the section in the Summa on law, which contains some very important points that Catholics, particularly the hierarchy, in today's crisis ought to remember. In this passage, he discusses the mutability of human laws, and the limits and principles which govern the change of them. I'll quote the passage here: 
Human law is rightly changed, in so far as such change is conducive to the common weal. But, to a certain extent, the mere change of law is of itself prejudicial to the common good: because custom avails much for the observance of laws, seeing that what is done contrary to general custom, even in slight matters, is looked upon as grave. Consequently, when a law is changed, the binding power of the law is diminished, in so far as custom is abolished. Wherefore human law should never be changed, unless, in some way or other, the common weal be compensated according to the extent of the harm done in this respect. Such compensation may arise either from some very great and very evident benefit conferred by the new enactment; or from the extreme urgency of the case, due to the fact that either the existing law is clearly unjust, or its observance extremely harmful.
These are no weak words. There is a lot to unpack from this passage, so I will distinguish the various points here as follows:

1. Law should be changed only when this is demanded for the benefit of the common good. This should be obvious enough to any reasonable mind.

2. However, we must also consider that the mere change of law, just by virtue of the change, can be damaging to the common good when the observance of that law is founded in custom. This is because a law seems less binding which is subject to change.

3. Change in custom thus weakens the force of law. I think this should also be evident, since custom indicates consistency, and a consistency of law indicates that the persons in authority know what they are doing.

4. Therefore, not only should the change be beneficial, but it should very beneficial and very evidently so, as in the case of when the previous law was unjust or harmful. In other words, the benefit should be of such a degree that the common good will be compensated for the disturbance caused to it by the change in custom.

In the same article, in the reply to the first objection, St. Thomas states, following Aristotle, that because law derives very great force from custom, it ought never to be quickly or suddenly changed, even when the change is for the greater benefit.

So it is important to note, from this, that it is not enough that the change be beneficial in certain particular aspects. The benefit has to arise from an urgent necessity, so as to compensate for the disturbance brought about by change. Thus, this benefit must be very great and very evident. And finally, it ought to occur slowly and gradually, and not suddenly and arbitrarily. This is essentially a description of the concept of organic development. This development may be likened to the growth of a plant, which, in its slow and gradual maturity, becomes healthier and stronger and more perfect, warding off the destructive forces of nature which might afflict it otherwise. 

Further, in every change which occurs, a compensation must be made for the disturbance in custom. This means that, as best as possible, the pattern of custom is to be retained as the norm, whatever disturbances in the flow may come. This pattern is the norm, and this norm is not to be changed, even if exceptions to the norm are made here and there. But custom must ever be held high as the standard. 

Thus, as a general rule, it would be very wrong for a ruler to completely overthrow the customary practices of his people. The only changes that he can morally bring about are to be made with extreme caution, and only sparingly. He must do everything in his power to preserve the substance of the customs which he is addressing, so far as the common benefit allows. This is how the liturgy of the Church developed before the time of the Second Vatican Council; never was there a general revision or recasting of the entire liturgy. Changes were only introduced with the utmost caution and care, so as to preserve the substance of tradition.

It is important to point out that this principle is binding particularly on rulers. In the case of the Church, therefore, this principle is binding on the Pope especially. And indeed, the Popes themselves had always acted in accordance with this rule. In fact, Pope Pius VI explicitly refers to this passage from St. Thomas, in his letter Quod Aliquantum, stating that even the Popes would always conform to these principles. 
It is most certain that discipline cannot vary temerariously and capriciously, since the two greatest luminaries of the Catholic Church, Saint Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas, openly teach that matters regarding discipline must not vary, except when required by necessity or some great usefulness; it being the case that changing a custom, even when that redounds to some benefit, nevertheless, by the novelty itself, is disturbing to people, and there must not be a change (as the same Saint Thomas adds) 'unless, in some way or other, the common weal be compensated according to the extent of the harm done in this respect.' Then it is therefore unthinkable that the Roman Pontiffs have ever corrupted discipline, but on the contrary, with the authority of God conferred on them for the building up of the Church, they have always sought to improve it and make it more amenable.
This is highly significant in that Pope Pius VI here speaks of Papal authority in light of the principles laid down by St. Thomas, and that he is applying these principles to matters pertaining to the discipline of the Church. It is only reasonable to conclude that Pius VI considered the Pope to be subject to these principles, and hence subject to the rule of tradition, even in disciplinary matters. This, along with several other statements of the Popes - not to mention the constant practice of the Popes down through the ages - seems to me to make a quite strong argument in favor of the traditionalist position, particularly the position that even the Pope is in some way subject to the disciplinary traditions of the Church.

1 comment:

  1. In accord with the fine offering above, I add this drawn from Fr. Kramer's, The Suicide of Altering the Faith in the Liturgy, p. 11:

    Clearly, it is the duty of the pope to regulate the liturgy, but it does not pertain to his office to suppress it and create new liturgies. Pope Pius XI summed up what has always been the mind of the Church regarding the pope's responsibilities towards the liturgy when he stated in Divini Cultus (1928):

    "No wonder then, that the Roman Pontiffs have been so solicitous to safeguard and protect the liturgy. They have used the same care in making laws for the regulation of the liturgy, in preserving it from adulteration, as they have in giving accurate expression to the dogmas of the faith."

    It is the duty of the hierarchy and especially the Pope to "safeguard and protect the liturgy" as well as "preserving it from adulteration."

    Departing now from Fr. Kramer's words, I would just add my own obvious observation: how stark is the contrast of this perennial duty noted by Pope Pius XI from the reality of what the Popes and hierarchy have allowed in the post-conciliar period!