Wednesday, 14 May 2014

Tradition and the Papal Magisterium

St. Pius V, pray for us!

As a traditional Catholic, it is my belief that the tradition of the Catholic Church is in a very real sense prior in authority to the authority of the pope. The pope is certainly the highest human authority on earth, but tradition I say is not a human authority. It is indeed a particular manifestation of divine authority. But there are various kinds of tradition, so I will treat the main ones of my concern individually - namely divine tradition and liturgical tradition:

I. Divine Tradition, i.e. that tradition which is a source of our knowledge of divine revelation. The First Vatican Council implies, though it does not explicitly state, that this tradition, alongside sacred scripture, is prior to the authority of the Church. The authority of scripture and tradition is not dependent upon the approval of the authority of the Church, but because in and of themselves they constitute the inspired word of God, their author, and were given to the Church as such. The Church approves of scripture and tradition because they have authority; they do not have authority because the Church approves them. Thus, in the chapter on Revelation, the Vatican Council contains the following passage: 
Now this supernatural revelation, according to the belief of the universal Church, as declared by the sacred Council of Trent, is contained in written books and unwritten traditions, which were received by the apostles from the lips of Christ himself, or came to the apostles by the dictation of the Holy Spirit, and were passed on as it were from hand to hand until they reached us. 
The complete books of the old and the new Testament with all their parts, as they are listed in the decree of the said Council and as they are found in the old Latin Vulgate edition, are to be received as sacred and canonical. 
These books the Church holds to be sacred and canonical not because she subsequently approved them by her authority after they had been composed by unaided human skill, nor simply because they contain revelation without error, but because, being written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, they have God as their author, and were as such committed to the Church.
This certainly indicates that scripture at least is prior to the authority of the Church. Scripture was written under divine inspiration first, and then bequeathed as such to the Church. And while tradition is not inspired - this being simply because it is not a single written document of the sort that scripture is - nonetheless in its content it has the same level of authority that scripture does. Both, as sources of divine revelation, are inerrant, for the sole reason that they contain the inerrant revelation of God. It is the Church's role to proclaim the teaching contained in these sources to all Christians, binding them to firm belief in the truths that are there revealed.

The Council implies that the gift of infallibility is granted to the pope in order that, under the defined conditions (ex cathedra), he might judge without error what is in accordance with the doctrine of scripture and tradition, and then proclaim it as formally binding in conscience for all to believe. Thus,
The Roman pontiffs, too, as the circumstances of the time or the state of affairs suggested, sometimes by summoning ecumenical councils or consulting the opinion of the Churches scattered throughout the world, sometimes by special synods, sometimes by taking advantage of other useful means afforded by divine providence, defined as doctrines to be held those things which, by God's help, they knew to be in keeping with Sacred Scripture and the apostolic traditions. 
For the Holy Spirit was promised to the successors of Peter not so that they might, by his revelation, make known some new doctrine, but that, by his assistance, they might religiously guard and faithfully expound the revelation or deposit of faith transmitted by the apostles.
Here, the doctrine of the faith, as transmitted by tradition and contained in scripture, is presented as something to be guarded and protected by infallible papal authority, not created or determined by it. Infallibility and authority are means to the end of protecting and faithfully expounding the doctrine that is already contained in these most sacred sources. Indeed, to put it bluntly, the authority of the Church and the papacy is here presented as the servant of tradition and scripture. I am reminded of some quite beautiful quotes from Pope Benedict XVI on the role of the papacy. The first quote is from his book The Spirit of the Liturgy, and so - this is pertinent for what follows just below - the original context applies these words to the liturgy as well as to doctrine.
In fact, the First Vatican Council had in no way defined the pope as an absolute monarch. On the contrary, it presented him as the guarantor of obedience to the revealed Word. The pope's authority is bound to the Tradition of Faith ... Even the pope can only be a humble servant of its lawful development and abiding integrity and identity ... The authority of the pope is not unlimited; it is at the service of Sacred Tradition
The second quote comes from Pope Benedict's first homily at St. John Lateran, when he took possession of the chair of St. Peter in 2005:
The power that Christ conferred upon Peter and his Successors is, in an absolute sense, a mandate to serve. The power of teaching in the Church involves a commitment to the service of obedience to the faith. The Pope is not an absolute monarch whose thoughts and desires are law. On the contrary: the Pope’s ministry is a guarantee of obedience to Christ and to his Word. He must not proclaim his own ideas, but rather constantly bind himself and the Church to obedience to God’s Word, in the face of every attempt to adapt it or water it down, and every form of opportunism.
That is a faithful, traditional, and Catholic understanding of the authority of the papacy. Neither the liberal, Protestant, or Orthodox rejection of papal authority, nor the other extreme of radical ultramonatanism (the power of the pope is unlimited) is the authentic understanding. Catholicism lies between the extremes. The pope is a servant of the truth, and therefore a servant of the Catholic tradition, and not its creator or arbiter.  His power and authority are bound by the limits which God has set, and among those limits is tradition. The pope's authority is authentic because it has its footing in the self-authenticating authority of tradition, and not the other way around.

II. Liturgical Tradition. In a way, I must admit, the naming of the above sort of tradition as "divine" and the neglect of that name with regards to liturgical tradition is somewhat misleading. I think both traditions are perfectly divine and equally important, but just in different senses. (I have recently been led to sometimes wonder about the advisability of even making the distinction between these kinds of tradition.) But in both senses of tradition, I think the same principle applies: the pope's authority is at the service of the tradition; tradition is higher in authority.

With regards to the liturgy, it is perhaps not as easy to see how this is so. After all, is not the liturgy merely "disciplinary" and not a matter of "doctrine"? In a way, the liturgy is certainly not "doctrinal," but that does not place it altogether within the category of discipline and Church governance either. It would be a narrow way of thinking about the Church indeed if we were to confine ourselves to these categories. The Vatican Council does not speak much about any other categories, granted, but that does not mean they do not exist. The Vatican Council does not speak about the spiritual writings and meditations of the saints which have been passed down to us; but that does not mean that they do not constitute a category of their own within the life of the Church. They are not merely "disciplinary" in the sense of pertaining to Church governance and ecclesial-political structures and canons and so forth, but neither are they exactly "doctrinal" in the sense that we normally conceive of magisterial teaching. I am thinking of spiritual writings of the sort like St. Francis de Sales' Introduction, or John of the Cross' Dark Night, or Therese of Lisieux's Story of a Soul. These are not the sort of things that the pope declares as official Church teaching in an encyclical - not that they couldn't be so declared, or indeed that the popes haven't oftentimes spoken of such things. But the fact is that they constitute a category on their own, and a category which is just as much a part of the entire body of traditions that we have received as official doctrine is.

The liturgy is similar: it is a category unto itself. In a way it is "disciplinary" insofar as it is practical - that is, in the liturgy we do things rather than simply learn or know things speculatively. But it is certainly not disciplinary merely in the sense of Church governance. Like the spiritual writings of the saints, the liturgy pertains essentially to the supernatural life of Christians, not simply the mere externals they must follow as members of an organization, for the sake of its organized unity. This is not say that this is not one aspect of the liturgy; but it is not the only, nor even the most essential thing about the liturgy. The liturgy is an act of worship; and just as there is a right doctrine that is in tradition prior to its formal proclamation by the Church, so is there are right worship that is in tradition prior to its formal codification by the Church. This is not only true in theory, but history shows this to be the norm. Indeed, for about the first 1600 years of the Church's existence, the liturgy was performed and developed almost entirely on the basis of tradition without the need for legal codification by the Church's authority. It was not until the 20th century that Catholics definitively reversed their attitude toward the papacy's role in the liturgy: the pope now became the arbiter rather than the guardian of the liturgy; no longer was he at the service of liturgical tradition, but he could discard it on a whim.

Have I an authority as prestigious as that of the Vatican Council to support my claims? Perhaps not an ecumenical council, but certainly there is the authority of the sensus fidelium, which the Church has always recommended as an authority not to be disregarded. This is just the basic Catholic assumption of almost 2000 years of history: the liturgy is an inherently tradition-ruled entity, and this must be respected even by the authority of the pope. And indeed, in at least an indirect way, this opinion of the sensus fidelium is supported by the action of the first pope to intervene legislatively in liturgical matters, St. Pius V. It is probably one of the worst lies of history that Pius V's liturgical reform was essentially the same in kind as that of Paul VI. While the post-Tridentine reform was certainly significant, the liturgical product was in all essentials the same as the liturgy of the preceding 1000 years, namely the Roman Rite, which itself grew from the primitive traditions of the early Church and the apostles. The motive for which Pius V explained that he undertook that reform was to restore the liturgy according to the sound tradition of the fathers. It was this motive that prompted him to abolish the infamous breviary of Cardinal Francis Quignonez, which, due to its radically untraditional construction, had been a complete failure of liturgical reform. (Interestingly, many of its principles were adopted in Paul VI's own new "Liturgy of the Hours.")

But, it is objected, is it not the case that the liturgy is extrinsic to divine revelation and has been established by men in the Church after the time of Christ? Does not this make it subject to the Church's jurisdiction? Yes and no. Yes, in practice, the liturgy came into existence through the work of man, but never solely on the basis of his own conceptions. Always the liturgy developed on the basis of a received tradition. At the beginning, that received tradition was in fact part of divine revelation, namely the sacrifice and the liturgical structure which Christ handed on at the Last Supper. Within and on the basis of that structure, the apostles  and the early bishops contributed further developments to the liturgy; and elements of what they added eventually also became subsumed into the process of tradition, and were passed on simultaneously with the tradition of Christ Himself. The process repeated itself throughout history. So yes, while each individual part of the liturgy might have originated from the contributions of a man to liturgical development, hardly can it be said that this was anything but an addition within an already received traditional structure. Precisely because every contribution to development was done on the basis of something received, each generation viewed itself, in practice, as primarily receptive of the liturgy rather than creative of it - the popes no less than anyone else. Tradition was viewed as an expression of God's special providence for the Church: it was something given to man, not created by him, and it was given to him by none other than God Himself, working through the hands of men in ages past.

Even the current Catechism of the Catholic Church, for all its imperfections, recognizes the limitations of papal authority in regards to the liturgy: "Even the supreme authority in the Church may not change the liturgy arbitrarily, but only in the obedience of faith and with religious respect for the mystery of the liturgy" (1125). Cardinal Ratzinger, again, comments on these words of the Catechism, echoing the thoughts posted above (which, as I said before, were also applied to the liturgy in their original context):
It seems to me most important that the Catechism, in mentioning the limitation of the powers of the supreme authority in the Church with regard to reform, recalls to mind what is the essence of the primacy as outlined by the First and Second Vatican Councils: The Pope is not an absolute monarch whose will is law, but is the guardian of the authentic Tradition, and thereby the premier guarantor of obedience. He cannot do as he likes, and is thereby able to oppose those people who for their part want to do what has come into their head. His rule is not that of arbitrary power, but that of obedience in faith. That is why, with respect to the Liturgy, he has the task of a gardener, not that of a technician who builds new machines and throws the old ones on the junk-pile. The “rite”, that form of celebration and prayer which has ripened in the faith and the life of the Church, is a condensed form of living tradition in which the sphere which uses that rite expresses the whole of its faith and its prayer, and thus at the same time the fellowship of generations one with another becomes something we can experience, fellowship with the people who pray before us and after us. Thus the rite is something of benefit which is given to the Church, a living form of paradosis the handing-on of tradition. (Preface to Alcuin Reid's The Organic Development of the Liturgy)
Thus, the implications of the Catechism and the words of Cardinal Ratzinger are that the liturgy is something that is given to the Church, and is thus prior to the authority of the pope. The pope has a duty to respect the mystery of the liturgy, as if that mystery exists independently of his will. It is precisely in tradition that the liturgy exists; indeed, it is impossible, historically, to separate the idea of liturgy from its roots in tradition. To disrespect the tradition of the liturgy would then be to disrespect the very nature of right worship. The pope, no less than all other Catholics is subject to this same principle. 

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