Monday, 2 December 2013

Questions about Tradition and Liturgy

On this blog, I have defended the ideal of Catholic disciplinary tradition on the grounds that Catholic disciplines have an intimate connection to Catholic doctrine, insofar as they are an expression of the truths of faith. This is especially true of the prayers of the liturgy, in which are contained many doctrinal expressions. But is there more than this? Can disciplinary traditions be defended on grounds which are more separate from doctrine? Does tradition, just as tradition, have some worthiness or value in itself?

Following on this question, if a liturgical reform were carried out which was perfectly orthodox, but which broke away from all historic liturgical development and tradition, would this still be problematic? And on what grounds would it be so? So much of the standard traditionalist criticism, including my own, of the Novus Ordo is based on doctrinal or theological considerations, with regard to the content of the liturgical prayers. Traditionalists like myself often point out the novel expressions which have been incorporated into the prayers of the mass, as if in an attempt to accomodate modern mentalities or theologies which are heterodox (though never explicitly promoting them). One observes this tendency manifesting itself very frequently in the texts of the New Mass, either in the ordinaries or the propers. But are there criticisms which can be made apart from these doctrinal considerations? Before we even consider doctrine, is the New Mass problematic simply by virtue of its being new? How so?

I've seen critiques of previous examples of liturgical rupture which have not been founded, as far as I can tell, on doctrinal questions, but simply on the notion of tradition and continuity. Back in the 16th century (if I recall), a Cardinal Quignonez was comissioned by Pope Clement VII to reform the Roman Breviary. The reform was a drastic departure from liturgical tradition, for which it is harshly criticized by liturgists such as Pierre Batiffol and other sources like the Catholic Encyclopedia. Pius V, after the Council of Trent, rejected the Quignonez breviary, and sought to restore the tradition which it had displaced. But this tradition was not a doctrinal tradition so much as a purely liturgical, and hence disciplinary tradition. What is it about this disciplinary tradition as such that renders the departure from it to be so grave a problem?

St. Thomas' teaching on custom and law comes to mind (see this post): he isn't even necessarily speaking about ecclesiastical laws or customs, but about human laws in general. For St. Thomas, then, tradition or custom has some value even apart from doctrinal considerations? What is this value? He speaks of the disturbance which is wrought by change, simply in virtue of its novelty. From this he draws the principle that any change, to be legitimate, must compensate for the disturbance. But why does change cause such a disturbance in the first place? And what is the nature of this disturbance? Why is custom or tradition so venerable?


  1. I think the first thing to do is realize that the liturgy is part of Tradition and not tradition (which is just habitual customs), that it is the active means of communicating grace and the divine mysteries of God and the Saints to us rather than some sort of disciplinary matter (which would make the liturgy the fungible plaything of a Roman office). Tradition is so sacred because it is the way in which we talk to and encounter God, making it a Divine gift ratified by constant use and canonized by time. Moreover, it forms the mindset and lens through which the faithful see God. Sure, a Mass with guitars and a priest dressed as a clown is valid and theoretically conveys the same grace as a pre-Conciliar Papal Mass, but do people in the former realize what they are receiving as much as in the latter?

  2. I've wondered a lot about that distinction between Tradition and tradition. I've thought it to correspond with a distinction between divine tradition and ecclesiastical tradition that I've seen made by scholastics: the one is of divine origin, as in divine revelation, and therefore immutable - dogma is the main example; the other originates with the authority of the Church and is mutable - hence we see the liturgy developing over time. This doesn't mean, though, that there isn't an intimate connection between ecclesiastical and divine tradition, or tradition and Tradition. In fact there is a connection, and one that imposes very strict rules and limits on the change of ecclesiastical tradition.

    Perhaps though you understand Tradition in a different sense than I do? If we take it to mean divine revelation, then how do we explain or justify any change at all?

  3. "And the answer that I receive is always to this effect: That if I wish, or indeed if anyone wishes, to detect the deceits of heretics that arise and to avoid their snares and to keep healthy and sound in a robust faith, we ought, with the Lord's help, to fortify our faith in a twofold manner, first, that is, by the authority of God's Law, then, by the tradition of the Catholic Church.

    "Here, it may be, someone will ask: ‘Since the canon of Scripture is complete, and is in itself abundantly sufficient, what need is there to join to it the interpretation of the Church?’ The answer is that because of the profundity itself of Scripture, all men do not place the same interpretation upon it. The statements of the same writer are explained by different men in different ways, so much so that it seems almost possible to extract from it as many opinions as there are men. Novatian expounds in one way, Sabellius in another, Donatus in another, Arius, Eunomius and Macedonius in another, Photinus, Apollinaris and Priscillian in another, Jovinian, Pelagius and Caelestius in another, and latterly Nestorius in another. Therefore, because of the intricacies of error, which is so multiform, there is great need for the laying down of a rule for the exposition of Prophets and Apostles in accordance with the standard of the interpretation of the Catholic Church.

    "Now in the Catholic Church itself we take the greatest care to hold that which has been believed everywhere, always and by all. That is truly and properly 'Catholic,' as is shown by the very force and meaning of the word, which comprehends everything almost universally. We shall hold to this rule if we follow universality, antiquity, and consent. We shall follow universality if we acknowledge that one Faith to be true which the whole Church throughout the world confesses; antiquity if we in no wise depart from those interpretations which it is clear that our ancestors and fathers proclaimed; consent, if in antiquity itself, we keep following the definitions and opinions of all, or certainly nearly all, Bishops and Doctors alike.

    "What then will the Catholic Christian do, if a small part of the Church has cut itself off from the communion of the universal Faith? The answer is sure. He will prefer the healthiness of the whole body to the morbid and corrupt limb.

    "But what if some novel contagions try to infect the whole Church, and not merely a tiny part of it? Then he will take care to cleave to antiquity, which cannot now be led astray by any deceit of novelty.

    "What if in antiquity itself two or three men, or it may be a city, or even a whole province be detected in error? Then he will take the greatest care to prefer the decrees of the ancient General Councils, if there are such, to the irresponsible ignorance of a few men.

    "But what if some error arises regarding which nothing of this sort is to be found? Then he must do his best to compare the opinions of the Fathers and inquire their meaning, provided always that, though they belonged to diverse times and places, they yet continued in the faith and communion of the one Catholic Church; and let them be teachers approved and outstanding. And whatever he shall find to have been held, approved and taught, not by one or two only but by all equally and with one consent, openly, frequently, and persistently, let him take this as to be held by him without the slightest hesitation."

    St Vincent of Lerins' "Commonitory" ch 4

    Tradition is our reception of the deposit of faith and how we have understood it. The liturgy is part of that. We can certainly add to it by improving, clarifying, gaining new perspective without novelties, but we cannot re-invent.

    JP2, in his "Ecclesia Dei addflicta" against Marcel Lefebvre, conflated this Tradition with tradition (an amalgamation of customs, like novenas or Blessed Sacrament processions) in order to condemn the Frenchman.

    I think the Saint above was spot on.

  4. If we maintain that the liturgy is in all its aspects a part of the deposit of faith, and if, as an implication of that, we maintain that it is wrong to re-invent the liturgy, would it not follow that such a re-invention would amount to heresy? And then the Church would have committed such an error by re-inventing the mass - is this possible to say though? The Novus Ordo, by such a judgment, would have to be condemned as directly against the faith (unless we maintain that it was not a re-invention of the liturgy...).

    I won't deny that the heart of the liturgy - i.e. the doctrines it expresses, the sacraments, the sacrifice of Christ, etc. - are part of the deposit of faith. But the practical aspect of the liturgy, the way in which these things are expressed and presented, seems different.

    Also, the difference between doctrine and practice is that any change in the latter actually constitutes a change in the thing itself, whereas the only change permitted with regard to doctrine is in men: they grow in their understanding of the faith. But the truths themselves do not change in the least. So it is unclear to me exactly how St. Vincent's principles apply equally well to the practices of the liturgy as they do to doctrine. I agree that the quote you provide from St. Vincent is spot-on, but I'm not entirely sure how it implies that liturgical practices are part of the deposit of faith.

    So I maintain that liturgical practices do not constitute part of the deposit of faith, and so they are changeable in theory. But nonetheless that they are intimately connected to the deposit of faith, giving expression to it and aiding us to practice that faith in our spiritual lives. And for that reason, the prudential limits of their development are quite strict.

  5. Liturgy is much more important than doctrine (but not dogma), hence St Prosper's dictum lex orandi legem statuat credenda. The presence of Christ in the liturgy creates and frames our understanding of Him, which we would call doctrine, which is precisely why I said the liturgy is indicative of our reception of the faith. If we are to believe that the Church is guarded by the Holy Spirit in all truth and remains with us always then how can we possibly call the Spirit's nurturing of the Church's praxis and worship over the years fungible and malleable. St Vincent admits to a development of praxis and of doctrine, but not a change of it (much like Newman). In "Banished Heart" Hull recounts that when Cardinal Quiñones' Office was introduced into some churches during Holy Week the people near rioted and drove the clergy out upon recognizing that the services were not the true Tenebrae offices. If the annual Corpus Christi procession had been cancelled the people probably would have been disappointed. Tamper with the actual worship of God? Worthy of a riot!

    To reduce the liturgy to either an expression of doctrine or a series of practices that should not be altered for the sake of cultural continuity is a sort of minimalism that got us in the current malaise. The collect for the first Sunday of Advent asks the Lord to "come" and the collect for Pascha says the Lord "has overcome death" on "this day." Examples of this East and West are literally endless. The actual work and presence of Christ's redemption is before us in the liturgy and in the particular sacred rites of the Church, not just the minimal presence in the Host and the Chalice. If that were the case why bother with the Mass? If it is all a matter of prudence would it not be prudent, in our fast paced American culture, to just have the consecration, Communion, and the dismissal?

    No, the liturgy is very much attached to Tradition.

  6. I'm still unclear as to how that answers my previous question: do we therefore say that the Novus Ordo is against the faith? If the liturgy is part of Tradition and divine revelation, then to re-invent it would be the practical equivalent of heresy - no? And can we honestly say that the Church could have committed such a fault?

    I still have a difficult time applying St. Vincent's principles to praxis in the same way that they can be applied to dogma - there are similarities in the laws of their development, of course, but there is also this important difference: with regard to dogma, the truth itself never changes or even develops. The only development that occurs is extrinsic to dogma itself, and is in the understanding that men have of dogma. We can't make that distinction with regard to the liturgy though: the practices themselves do change. At one time there one practice, and then there is another. So it's hard for me to put liturgy at the same level as dogma.

    I suppose I don't mean to REDUCE it, pure and simple, to a matter of prudence or cultural continuity. There is also a real spirituality about it. The preservation of the traditional liturgy is a sacred action, an act of piety - and the re-invention of it an act of impiety. But this is only insofar as the liturgy is connected to the deposit of faith, and not because it belongs to the deposit of faith per se. Not every act of impiety is directly against faith. The Church might make mistakes, but because she infallible in faith or morals, she could never offend against faith, at least not directly.

  7. St Vincent's words are applicable because while the truth does not change, our perception of it might in that our perception can get better and better or clearer. For example, did the earliest Christians know Our Lady was immaculately conceived? I rather doubt they would know what that meant and the Scotistic background. The early Christians would *probably* have said something like "She was sinless from the beginning" or "God made it so she wouldn't sin." Time, prayer, and discernment under the guidance of the Holy Spirit clarified what that meant and allowed for a definition to eventually take place. The liturgy is something like that: while it is not part of the deposit of faith, it is part of Tradition in that it is inextricable from the deposit. Removing the liturgy from the deposit would be akin to removing all the Marian titles, devotions, Mariology, artwork, and writings, instead being content to live with Pius IX definition and nothing else.

    I do not put liturgy on par with dogma. I simply say that one cannot remove it from its proximate relationship with dogma.