The trouble with traditions

Nothing to do with wings by the way (except metaphorically).  It is about a problem for traditions.  A problem that is probably bigger for religious traditions than secular ones, and bigger again for law-driven traditions like Judaism, Christianity and Islam than for others that look less to a single source of written inspiration.   What I want to say is specific to Roman Catholic Christianity, but I think will suggest extensions to other cultures, religious, philosophical and political.

Being part of a tradition can provide us with many helpful things, like a sense of community and a sense of identity, and it also offers us ways of making sense of different bits of the world.   But the perennial problem is this: what are we to do when we encounter ways of thinking and making sense of the world that seem better and more fruitful than some of the answers provided by our tradition?  If we abandon old answers too readily, we can seem to betray the tradition (and/or the God) that shapes our community and gives it (and us) our identity.  If we cling to the old answers in the face of all evidence or arguments to the contrary, we face the charge of willful stupidity.  If we use whatever comes to hand to defend the indefensible we create porcupine arguments and risk the charge of dishonesty.  It will always be easier either to stop thinking and just believe, or simply to leave and go somewhere else.

We can see something of this intellectual struggle going on in the hundred years before the second Vatican Council.  Then the burning issue was how to allow intellectual integrity into the Church of the modern era – or how to protect it from the corrupting poison of modern thought, depending on your standpoint.   The years after the council gave Catholic theologians a freedom to think outside the traditional boxes that would have astonished earlier generations.  But they also raised questions about core values, core beliefs and Catholic identity.  Core beliefs certainly have been seriously challenged, and yet they prove to be comparatively easy to defend in some form, and even where they are successfully challenged such challenge has comparatively little impact on the views of ordinary believers.  Most of the arguments are metaphysical and so beyond the scope of scientific argument or daily concern.

Identity and ideas

 Identity, however, is more problematic.  It seems to be constructed rather around marginal beliefs or practices (what makes us different) – and these, as we have seen above have become the battleground, from eating fish on Friday to the way Mass is said, to what is and is not allowed in the bed-chamber.  It is here that the porcupines of the last twenty years have most consistently generated much heat and little light.

In the struggle between ideas and identity, those whose ideas appear to challenge the tradition often seem condemned to fight a losing battle.  Who would, in the end, risk losing a deep source of comfort and consolation, for the sake of something new and untried?  Who seem to be living more authentically ‘our way of life’?  Those whose behaviour is indistinguishable from that of their (perfectly nice, generous, respectable) neighbours, or those who maintain our ancestral practices?  Who do we trust more, since we do not have time to read all the books or think all the thoughts for ourselves?  The fiercer and more clearly defined the preaching, the simpler and more radical the message, the easier it is to commit.  Nuance and subtlety is hard work and most of us don’t have time to notice the actual inconsistencies within the world of clear boundaries.

As ever, it is important to appreciate that this is neither a new phenomenon, nor one limited to the Roman Catholic tradition – or even to a religious tradition (explore the rhetoric of political parties of right and left).  Paul’s letter to the Galatians can be read as an expression of baffled fury at the triumph of religious conservatism over theological reason (the Galatians insist on being circumcised).  But in contrast we also find him telling the more enlightened members of the Corinthian community not to do things which undermine the less intellectual faith of their fellow-believers.

Maccabees 1 and 2 offer us a glimpse of a ‘reforming’ High Priest from two hundred years earlier.  Jason had hellenized his name (presumably from Joshua) and wanted to turn Jerusalem into a regular Hellenistic city in the face of conservative resistance.  Eventually unexpected Greek repression and a successful rebellion destroyed that particular line of possible evolution. Hellenization was put on hold and there was a return to strict interpretation of the Law in the territories aligned with Jerusalem.  Elsewhere, however, Jews in the wider world continued to face choices about identity and acculturation that are not dissimilar to those faced by members of religious traditions in the West today.

It is also important to recognize that traditions – even those that make a point of a strong rhetoric of no change – do actually adapt to cope with realities that are beyond their control.  It is worth looking at the techniques that they can employ to juggle the balance between maintaining authority (we have said this and we will continue to say it come what may) and realism (we were wrong, how can we adapt to factor this in).  Outwardly a religious tradition cannot afford openly to negotiate with secular enlightenment any more than a government can afford openly to negotiate with terrorists.  But they have to do so nevertheless, for the sake of long-term survival and for the sake of a better state of affairs at some time in the future.


This then leads us to the term we began with, ‘orthology’ or ‘right terms’, one of the ways that a tradition avoids painting itself into a corner.  I want to suggest that it is actually misleading to think of ‘orthodoxy’ as at the centre of the Roman Catholic tradition – though the term itself is vital to its foundation myth.  A tradition is defined not so much around what its members believe or think, as around the formulae they agree to use and the things they agree to do.  Those who initially agree the defining formula will (ideally) believe that it expresses truth, but they will not necessarily be interpreting the words they use in the same way (I will give an example of this below).  This is because the formula is as much a means for establishing unity (we all agree on this) and identity (we are the people who agree on this) as for defining a truth.    This is not surprising given the contexts of community conflict out of which many defining formulae arose.

This is relevantly similar to the instructions regulating behaviour within the community.  We may have different levels of commitment to a given rule and different ways of justifying the rule, but we can all (notionally) agree on (a) ‘we are all officially supposed to do this’ and (b)’we are the people who officially do this’.  This explains some of the reasons why, like any political entity, the official Church is intransigent in its public declaration of its positions, irrespective of any legitimate challenges to the truth or virtue of those positions.  Collective identity, consistency and authority are at least as important.

The intransigence is admirable for some – a sign of assurance and reliability in a world driven by changing fashions – and dismaying for others – condemned to live with painful cognitive dissonance.   But it also belies other aspects of institutional reality.  Faithful adherence to timeless truth and the constant practice of ageless virtue are attractive elements in a ‘tradition’ myth, similar to the useful lie Plato tells his philosopher-rulers about their golden origins.  But much of what happens unofficially, or pastorally is different.

The Church’s older understanding of law is Aristotelian (simple rules wait to be adapted to context) rather than Kantian (simple rules absolutely bind irrespective of context).   Similarly with the formulae of faith, the Church insists on a form of words, but does not (and cannot) determine in advance the discussion of the meanings of those words.  And in the end (sometimes after centuries) there is adaptation.   We can officially accept a vaster universe, evolution and the complex genesis of scripture, just as we officially recognize some of the virtues of democracy, intellectual freedom, Mass in English, the secular state, human rights and even left-wing politics.    None of that seemed obvious a hundred and fifty years ago.


We are familiar with the term ‘Post-Catholics’.  They are those who cannot live with the cognitive dissonance any longer and break regular links with the official Church.  But I want to propose another term ‘transcatholics’, making use of the Latin preposition meaning ‘through’ or ‘beyond’.  Some will dislike it for being a hybrid of Latin and Greek, but ‘hypercatholics’ would be more misleading. The term would describe those who have in some degree moved beyond the literal expressions of faith that they have been brought up with. It would include post-catholics, but its reach would be much wider.  In fact, it could be said that all of us are transcatholics.  This notion may seem surprising, but in fact it is closely connected with the idea of orthology, of using the terms that we all can agree on.  Most importantly, for the purpose of these essays, it is this set of ideas that allows us to let the porcupines out of the bottle.

I promised above to illustrate what I meant by saying that people who agreed a formula might not necessarily all be thinking the same thing when they used it.    The example below both illustrates orthology and perhaps helps us see why ‘transcatholicism’ may be helpful for each of us in thinking about our own place in the Roman Catholic tradition.

The Tome of Leo

One of the last big fights in the ancient Mediterranean Church was over the relationship between the divine Word of God, the second person of the Trinity and the human Jesus Christ.  The proposal that initially came out on top was that after the incarnation there was one new individual, who was both human and divine, Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh.

However, there were a lot of people who continued to be very unhappy with that conclusion of the Council of Ephesus in 431.  A major part of their unhappiness was due to the implication that the divine Word could undergo a change and be subject to the same sufferings as created beings.  They pointed to two sets of statements about Christ in the scriptures, some of which clearly referred to his divine self (the miracle worker) some of which clearly referred to the human self.  They preferred a picture of the divine Word dwelling inside the human being as in a Temple.  This would preserve the principle that God does not suffer and avoid the blasphemous idea that God could become a different sort of thing.

Pope Leo produced a compromise formula in Latin, which was developed into the official formula of the later Church Council of Chalcedon (in 451).  Interestingly, though, the Pope did not want that further council called.  It is worth asking why.  I suggest (though I am not an expert here) that Leo had carefully crafted a form of words that made it possible for those alienated by the Council of 431 to be reconciled.  He knew that a second council would inevitably disambiguate and make reconciliation of the two extremes harder.

Thus Leo is careful to be deferential towards the memory of Cyril, sponsor of the first council and he takes pains to endorse the council’s conclusions.  Yet he actually spends a lot of time affirming the exegesis of Cyril’s adversaries.  Yes it is important that we recognize the two different natures at work in Christ’s activity, as found in scripture, and that we don’t mix up the divine and the human together to create a new thing.  Finally he suggests the formula of two natures in one ‘persona’, the standard word in Latin theology for an individual.  However, in Latin, the word ‘persona’ also permits the reading ‘actor’s mask’.   This gives just that inch of possibility for the opponents of Ephesus to see their favoured image preserved.  The Word sits in the human temple and speaks through the human self.  However the moment the Latin ‘individual/person/mask’ is translated into the unambiguous Greek ‘individual’, that possibility vanishes.  The language is instantly confrontational.

The point of this example is that its driving principle is to find a formula that everyone can agree on, that will allow as many as possible to continue talking to each other and sharing their religious life together.   But with this comes the implicit acknowledgement that the formulae of faith are susceptible of varied readings.  To be defined is not the same as to be disambiguated.  It follows that all of us who learn to declare the formulae of Catholic faith, as we go through life reflecting on the words we use, can (and do) create different meanings for them, according to the different stages of our development as people, as thinkers and as believers.  And this has always been so.

Creative fidelity

This is what allows Paul’s simple believers of Corinth to live alongside their more intellectually self-confident fellows.  It is what allows Jewish and Christian writers to find truth in the sentences of the Old Testament in the light of philosophical enquiry.  It is why many modern Christians find few problems with something like a theory of evolution and modern cosmology.

This freedom of interpretation is something we are now very used to applying to our reading of the Bible, but we Catholics (unless we have had the luxury of a theological education) have not yet grown used to applying it to how we read the sentences of our tradition.  Yet that freedom is only a reflection of a truth recognized by Plato, that the written word is unable to defend itself.  An argument or an idea only exists as a living thing in the minds and on the tongues of those who are speaking it and arguing for or against it.

Just as there are those who read the Bible literally and who believe that the way they happen to be reading it is the only possible way of doing so, so too with Catholics who claim the one ‘authentic’ reading of the tradition.  In a sense, they are the lucky ones, enjoying the luxury of certainty.  The words of the tradition are powerful and luminous, rich in clear meaning for them.  They will happily organize the rest of their (and other people’s) reality around its maxims and adjust their understanding away from alien challenges.   They will find it easiest to declare these words, to do these things, to believe these mysteries.

These are the people who will be at the strong heart of the tradition, most of the time admirable human beings, occasionally intolerant and judgmental (like the rest of us).   And yet, for all their clear definitions, they are still transcatholics.   They are interpreting, like everyone else.  They just don’t know they are doing it.

For others, however, the realities of experience will modify their relation to the tradition, to what we are supposed to do, to what we are supposed to believe, to how we are supposed to worship.  Sometimes they will be led in a good direction, sometimes not.  Sometimes they will recover things that official readings have forgotten.  Sometimes they will discover that the official tradition is wiser than they are.

Here is the breathing space for those who still value the words and rituals that have opened up the experience of God for them, but can no longer understand them in the same way as when they began.  These words, these rituals, these communities remain their home, and yet they recognize that there is more to be dealt with and dealt with differently as humanity learns new things about itself and about its world.

It is in this space (hard to live in, hard to defend before a panel of literalists, but vital for the growth of the community) that people of all religious traditions and none can speak to one another, enrich one another’s world and work together, sharing a confidence in the mysterious love that we glimpse behind all things.   It is here that we see how we can live together as a community of believers without doing violence to our intellectual integrity.

Every tradition (religious and secular) builds systems of arguments to defend its certainties, but (to adapt a phrase of Epicurus) confronted with Life, we live in a city without walls.  If we acknowledge this, then at last we can let the porcupines go free.