Saturday, 15 September 2012

Continuity in the present

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Since the start of this blog, I have noticed another theme emerging, in addition to the one about saints and the related roles of orthopraxy–orthodoxy and dissent. Namely, the question of traditionalist versus liberal Catholicism and more generally the concept of neatly-packaged, pre-cooked labels or categories. Looking at my 56 posts so far, I note a greater propensity for opposing those who self-apply the traditionalist name, which leads me to today’s question: am I a liberal or a traditionalist, on the left or the right of the Catholic spectrum, a dissenter or a wholehearted follower of Catholic teaching?

I find this question quite challenging as I don’t come to an easy answer when I ask myself: “Who would you rather spend an hour with in a stuck lift - someone who calls themselves a traditionalist or a liberal?” Indulge me therefore during the next two paragraphs, while I share with you my thoughts on two imperfect and incomplete stereotypes.

What I value in traditionalists is their dedication to continuity: what the Church has understood throughout its history and as a result of the Holy Spirit’s acting in and among the people of God, is to be treasured and must be built on. The heritage of the Church - including its saints, liturgy, practices and dogmatic teaching - throughout its 2000 year history is a precious gift to us, members of the Church Militant today. After all, the starting point of tradition and its continuity is Jesus himself and the value of preserving it is unquestionable. We can only be Christians if we follow Jesus’ teaching and example, handed down to us by tradition. Just picking up the Gospel today and trying to apply it without the benefit of our predecessors’ insights and lived experiences would greatly impoverish it or even falsify it. Where I part ways with traditionalists though is on the point of whether what tradition teaches is immutable or open to adaptation. My impression here is that traditionalists tend to fall into the trap of considering the past homogeneous (i.e., “this is what the Church has always taught”) and implicitly that it was in a perfect state typically at some date before their birth, e.g., see the Society of Saint Pope Pius X. Incidentally, note that Pope Pius X has introduced numerous changes versus the tradition that has preceded him, such as allowing children to receive the Eucharist instead of them having to wait until adulthood. The result often is a distancing from neighbours whom Jesus called us to love.

Liberals, on the other hand attract me for their desire to bring Jesus to today’s men and women, who live in a culture other than that of the traditionalists. The role and rights of women, the participation of divorcees and homosexuals in the life of the church, the role of the laity, an openness to other Christian denominations, religions and society at large and the broad question of how those who do not live in complete accord with Church teaching (which liberals often see as covering everyone) are to participate in Her life are all of great relevance to me. What does distance me from them though is a seemingly great ease of slipping into dissent - a lack of humility that places their own views above those of the Church and that gives preference to interfacing with contemporary trends and challenges over ensuring that one’s actions and views are those that Jesus would have done or thought today. Then there also seems to be an element of pride and personal importance that doesn't gel with the beatitudes.

So, what is the right answer, as neither traditionalism nor liberalism look like the way forward in their reductio ad absurdum. I believe that the answer is to develop a personal relationship with Jesus, by seeking and loving Him in the people I meet - regardless of their views, actions or allegiances, by encountering him in the Eucharist, the Gospel and the teachings of the Church and by listening to His voice as made accessible to me via my own, imperfect conscience. Whether the result will look like traditionalism or liberalism or whether it will be foreign to both is irrelevant, and, I believe will also lead to solutions that neither extreme school of thought would arrive at by its own means. What Pope Benedict XVI said about ecumenism - that “the most important thing is that we listen to each other, since as fellow Christians we cannot create unity, which is a gift from God.” - is a template that can be applied more broadly.