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Traditions, Liberation, and Meaning by Joseph Shaw

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Traditions, Liberation, and Meaning

An image from the 10th 'Summorum Pontificum' Rome pilgrimage on October 30, 2021.

Photo: Courtesy of Edward Pentin (@EdwardPentin) on Twitter.

I wish to place a recent development in the Catholic Church into the context of the wider cultural and political debate. The development is the publication, on 16th July, of a document called Traditionis Custodes, and an accompanying Letter to Bishops, by Pope Francis. These documents seek to restrict, and ultimately abolish, the celebration of the Church’s older form of liturgy.

This may look like an obscure internal dispute, but the Catholic Church, today and in terms her place in history, is large enough to be the arena for an important conflict. For the Church is not simply old: in a certain way it preserves the past. It is a feature of the Catholic worldview to take seriously, within certain limitations, her own past practices and to regard them as action-guiding, normative, for the present and the future. This has long been ridiculed by the Church’s opponents as a matter of doing the same thing as has always been done simply for the sake of it, even when the reasons for the original practice are no longer applicable or have been forgotten. Both the practice of treating tradition as normative, and the criticism of this as obscurantism, are very clearly on display in the history of the Catholic liturgy, though the Church’s legal system, theology, and many other aspects of her governance and culture could also provide examples. 

To give an example, there is a tradition in the Catholic liturgy that the priest, when saying the holiest prayers of the Mass, the Canon, inaudibly at the Altar, breaks the silence to say aloud a single phrase of the text he is reading: “nobis quoque peccatoribus” (“to us sinners, also”). In his 1949 The Mass of the Roman Rite, we are informed by the great liturgical historian Fr. Josef Jungmann SJ, who was also an advocate of reform, that in some century distant from our own this custom was established as a signal for some other liturgical functionaries to do something. Developments since that time have been such, however, that this signal is no longer necessary.

Jungmann’s proposal is in itself perfectly plausible. The question is whether it debunks the meaning of this custom as understood by the worshippers of later generations. Thus, St. Albert the Great points out that the priest’s raising of his voice serves to draw attention to his act of confession: a confession of unworthiness, on the part of the clergy, which is frequently underlined in this liturgical tradition. St. Peter Damian connected it also to the exclamation of guilt by the crowd at the crucifixion, the Sacrifice of Christ which the Mass re-presents. Amelarius of Metz associated it with the confession of Christ’s divinity by the Centurion, which followed Christ’s death on the cross. And so, the tradition of interpretation of the ritual goes on. (For these examples and others, see Thomas Crean’s 2008 The Mass and the Saints).

The idea that a ritual is only capable of bearing the meaning given it by the person who created it is a mistake, parallel to the idea that a word can only mean what its etymology implies. Recovering the forgotten origins of a rite from the old manuscripts can certainly add to our historical knowledge and appreciation, but it does not cancel the significance a ritual may have acquired since that origin. 

An anthropologist would say that this is a fact of life about culture: meanings commonly become attached to practices, not the other way round. A Christian could attribute this kind of development to Divine Providence. In neither case is this a matter of an infinitely malleable meaning: the context sets limits to what makes sense, and later ways of understanding it build upon earlier ones. The more this development goes on, the more meaning there is for the worshipper to discover, and also the more detailed context there is for later commentators. They cannot take a radical new turn in interpreting the ritual without overturning the heavier and heavier weight of tradition. This implies, of course, that developments which fail to respect the earlier tradition are recognized as such and rejected.

This, then, is the paradox of the development of tradition. The richer the tradition, the more there is to contemplate, to inspire art, music, and poetry: and all this can be taken in different directions. At the same time the tradition binds us, and the central meaning, reiterated in a hundred ways by generations of commentators, is rendered the more emphatic.

The view of Jungmann and other critics of the tradition since the 16th century is that the elaboration of tradition—“accretions” is a favorite word of this school of thought—serves to obscure the original and authentic meaning of the liturgy. For those on the inside of a community of belief, however, unless they think that neither Providence nor the Church officials charged with weeding out heterodox developments had any effectiveness, this is a puzzling claim. Those developments, rather, must be understood as building upon, commenting on, elaborating and clarifying the authentic meaning: even, of constituting the “authentic” meaning in cases where there is no useful “original” meaning, as perhaps is the case of using an elevated voice for the phrase “nobis quoque peccatoribus.”

Jungmann and others are correct, nevertheless, that this liturgical tradition is a kind of burden. It limits our options. The recent action of Pope Francis, in expressing his desire to wipe from the face of the earth the Church’s more ancient liturgical forms, is the latest attempt to free the Church from having anything to do with it. Even something only celebrated by a tiny number of priests and attended by a tiny number of lay Catholics was, in a telling phrase from his 2021 Letter to Bishops, deemed something which threatened to “block her path.” For when his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, declared in his Letter to Bishops in 2007 that “what earlier generations held as sacred, remains sacred and great for us too,” he was declaring the validity of something that claims the authority to bind us, to condition future developments, to rule out certain things.

A version of this conflict lies at the heart of the post-Enlightenment debate about politics and culture. There are those who view the institutions and forms of life that have grown up organically in human society over time as not only offering us, as individuals, basic protection, but also as giving us meaning, making possible complex life-projects, beauty, and understanding. This can be so even if these institutions and forms of life, usually lacking the guarantee of a revealed religion, are imperfect and in need of reform, and even if a wide range of non-conforming lifestyles are in practice tolerated. Those on this side of the divide will nevertheless want to preserve these institutions and forms of life, to improve them if possible, and to pass them on to future generations.

On the other side of this distinction, there are those who think that all such institutions are oppressive. Detailed argument about specifics need not detain us, as human freedom is impeded, on this view, whenever our understanding of the world or our life-options are decisively influenced by pre-existing cultural norms. On such a view, loosening such norms is progress, but abolishing them altogether is the ultimate goal. Only when there are no cultural expectations, no categories, and no conventions, will we be truly free, and truly able to express ourselves and develop authentically, because only then will the full range of possibilities be open to us without impediment.

To illustrate, legislation to permit divorce under certain circumstances is presented as increasing the freedom, the options, of married persons. These options are still further increased if divorce is made easier, and easier, and easier. Sooner or later, in the implementation of such reforms, we arrive at the point when there is no longer any difference, legally, between being married and not being married. This is the situation, for the liberal, of ultimate freedom, but it is also the point at which marriage ceases to exist for practical purposes.

The conservative points out that this process has not increased freedom at all. When marriage is abolished, it is removed as an option: people can no longer marry. They can only do what they could have done anyway, namely engage in some form of open-ended cohabitation. Not only that, but the option represented by marriage is an extraordinarily rich and interesting one, since the life-long, socially-recognized, sexually-exclusive commitment makes for an especially fulfilling kind of relationship, and opens up possibilities for relationships within and between families which are not otherwise possible. 

A society in which the idea of life-long commitment is absent, where there is no legal or social norm which allows a couple to be publicly recognized as committed to each other, is obviously a society in which one cannot seek fulfillment through married life. It is one in which the goods offered by marriage as traditionally conceived are not available. It is not only poorer from the point of view of the welfare of children, but for the life-options of adults.

Just as certain liturgical liberals within the Catholic Church will not be happy until the ancient forms of the liturgy are completely obliterated, so those who regard traditional marriage as oppressive will not rest until no one is permitted to marry. It is not enough that some people, with varying degrees of legal toleration, may live lives which conflict with established norms. The norms themselves must cease to exist, lest they even influence people’s life choices. As Simone de Bouvoir famously said in a 1975 interview about the vocation of the housewife: “Women should not have that choice, precisely because if there is such a choice, too many women will make that one.”

The process of loosening, trivializing, and ultimately abolishing all the cultural institutions, expectations, and shared meanings of Western culture is the great project of Enlightenment liberalism. It is not, ultimately, a coherent project, because it is impossible to live without anything resembling these things, and after each liberal victory society tends to coalesce around reformed or simplified versions of the various institutions, or else reacts against the process, as I have discussed in an earlier essay, with new forms of allegiance and solidarity, often taking ugly forms. What is possible, nevertheless, is what liberals are pleased to call “progress”: the weakening of one institution or norm after another, or their replacement with artificial substitutes, which offer less restraint, and less meaning.

Liberalism’s victims are soon forgotten; so too are its opponents. We may hope for a reaction, and indeed some degree of reaction is inevitable. Unless conservatives win the fundamental argument about the role of cultural norms in giving us worthwhile options, however, in the long term this will turn out be only another temporary pause for the liberal juggernaut.

At the same time, we must devote ourselves in practical ways to the preservation and restoration of the traditions which give life meaning. In this context, the battle over the liturgy of the Catholic Church is not something which outsiders can afford to ignore.

Joseph Shaw is a senior research fellow at St. Benet’s Hall, Oxford, and a member of the faculty of philosophy. He is a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, chairman of the Latin Mass Society, and president of the Una Voce International Federation.


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