Engaging church crises: how 'traditionalism' betrays a truthful tradition

By Simon Barrow
March 5, 2013

Robert Pigott, Religious Affairs correspondent for BBC News, is an affable man who does a good job of compressing, translating and commenting on often complex religion stories to a general audience that increasingly lacks background knowledge and understanding on these issues.

Nevertheless, there's one trope he (and others) regularly employ that reinforces, rather than challenges, the stereotypes which good religion journalism - as part of its mission to report and explain - should try to dispel.

This is the notion that most church disagreements boil down to a straightforward conflict between so-called 'traditionalists' (who, depending on the context may be Catholics or evangelicals) and so-called 'liberals'.

The (mistaken) implication is clear: Christian tradition and scripture is mostly about fixity and conservatism, whereas change and development mostly arises not through proper engagement with this deposit of faith, but through the alien intrusion of modern liberal ideology.

This, of course, is precisely the kind of slanted interpretation that those who oppose ecclesiastical change like to employ. But theological and historical investigation frequently shows it to be misleading, both as a diagnosis and as an antinomy.

For example, those who are taken to be 'traditionalists' within the Catholic Church, including those around former Pope Benedict XVI who have resisted enlivening reform, and who have further sought to claim that Vatican II has been misused to sanction the abandonment of 'tradition', are themselves appealing to a particular and later change within the life of the earlier Church community. Whatever this makes them, it is not 'traditionalists'.

For as Hans Kung, now professor emeritus of ecumenical theology at the University of Tubingen, has pointed out, in arguing against those who seek to thwart a 'Vatican Spring':

In fact, the church got along for a millennium without a monarchist-absolutist papacy of the kind we’re familiar with today.

It was not until the 11th century that a “revolution from above,” the “Gregorian Reform” started by Pope Gregory VII, left us with the three enduring features of the Roman system: a centralist-absolutist papacy, compulsory clericalism and the obligation of celibacy for priests and other secular clergy.

He continues: Even the Second Vatican Council, from 1962 to 1965, while addressing many concerns of the reformers and modern critics, was thwarted by the power of the Curia, the church’s governing body, and managed to implement only some of the demanded changes.

To this day the Curia, which in its current form is likewise a product of the 11th century, is the chief obstacle to any thorough reform of the Catholic Church, to any honest ecumenical understanding with the other Christian churches and world religions, and to any critical, constructive attitude toward the modern world.

Under the two most recent popes, John Paul II and Benedict XVI, there has been a fatal return to the church’s old monarchical habits.

Kung's article in the New York Times (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/28/opinion/a-vatican-spring.html?_r=0) is well worth reading in full. He finally suggests that what is needed is "a pope who is open to the concerns of the Reformation, to modernity. A pope who stands up for the freedom of the church in the world ... for theologians, for women, for all Catholics who want to speak the truth openly. A pope who no longer forces the bishops to toe a reactionary party line, who puts into practice an appropriate democracy in the church, one shaped on the model of primitive Christianity" (emphasis added).

In other words, a leader who, while facing the modern challenge, takes his (or her) orientation from the founding dynamic of the Christian movement in the world -- not from a merely superficial contemporary polity.

I don't always agree with Kung's interpretation of modernity and how we should respond to it (he is not sufficiently critical of 'the modern spirit', in my view), but his overall prescription in this case sounds pretty 'traditionalist' to me - in the right sense of that term, which recognises that Christianity is about personal and social transformation, not being wedded to the status quo; and that it involves fidelity to the Christ who turns our lives upside down, not an ancien regime derived from an 11th century reversal of a previous openness.

In short, semper reformanda is and should be a good, protesting principle of the (re)new(ing) catholicity that the whole church, not just the Roman Catholic Church, needs as we move out of Christendom and further into territory uncharted by the 'church of power'.

That in turn requires a hermeneutical approach to tradition (what we have inherited) based on re-interrogating those sources in connection to contemporary questions in such a way that they can nourish the future with wisdom that is both ancient and new.

This alternative to a discordant, fruitless 'traditionalist'-v-'liberal' standoff might be called ressourcement and aggiornamento. As one of its articulate exponents within Catholicism, Dr Marcellino D'Ambrosio, has put it, what we discover when we so engage is that "the Christian tradition is a vital and dynamic force which is not retrograde, but [forward looking]."

* Hans Kung's forthcoming book is entitled Can the Church Still Be Saved?

* Marcellino D'Ambrosio, 'Ressourcement theology, aggiornamento and the hermeneutics of tradition': http://tinyurl.com/9gp2m

* FAQ: Is Ekklesia liberal or conservative in its theological orientation? http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/about/faqs/12

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(c) Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia. A member of the Scottish Episcopal Church with strong Anabaptist/Mennonite leanings, he has worked at a Catholic university college in the past, as well as within the ecumenical movement. He has a long-standing interest in, and appreciation for, Catholic spirituality and liturgy, alongside the peace and justice traditions of the Catholic Church.

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.