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“Reverence Is Not Enough: On the Importance of Tradition”

Wednesday, October 26, 2016 5:22
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The text of the lecture I gave in Prague for the launch of the Czech translation of Resurgent in the Midst of Crisis is now available at Rorate. A few excerpts:
Prior to all arguments about which practice is better or worse is the overarching principle of the primacy of tradition, meaning the inherent claim that our religious inheritance, handed down from our forefathers, makes on us. We do not “own” this gift, much less “produce” it. Tradition comes to us from above, from God who providentially designed us as social animals who inherit our language, our culture, and our religion; it comes to us from our ancestors, who are called antecessores in Latin—literally, the ones who have gone before. They are ahead of us, not behind us; they have finished running the race, and we stand to benefit from their collective wisdom. St. Paul states the principle in 1 Thessalonians 4:1: “We pray and beseech you in the Lord Jesus, that as you have received from us how you ought to walk and to please God, so also you would walk, that you may abound the more.”

The rejection of tradition and the cult of change embodies a peculiarly modern attitude of “mastery over tradition,” which is the social equivalent of Baconian and Cartesian “mastery over nature.” The combination of capitalism and technology has allowed us to abuse the natural world, treating it as raw material for exploitation, in pursuit of the satisfaction of our selfish desires. In a similar way, the influence of rationalism and individualism has tempted us to treat Catholic tradition as if it were a collection of isolated facts from which we, who are autonomous and superior, can make whatever selection pleases us. In adopting this arrogant stance, we fail to recognize, with creaturely humility, that our rationality is socially constituted and tradition-dependent. By failing to honor our antecessores, we fail to live according to our political nature and our Christian dignity as recipients of a concrete historical revelation that endures and develops organically over time and space.[4] The Psalm verse comes to mind: “Know ye that the Lord, he is God: he made us, and not we ourselves” (Ps 99[100]:3). Ipse fecit nos et non ipsi nos. We do not make ourselves, nor do we make our religion or our liturgies; we receive our existence, we receive our faith, we receive our worship. Tradition comes to us from outside ourselves, before and beyond us. It unambiguously expresses our dependence on God—as creatures, as Christians, as coheirs with the saints. An heir is one who inherits, not the “self-made man” of capitalism. 

St. Paul states to the Romans: “Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom 12:2). Massively changing the liturgy to make it apparently more suited to “modern man” was, in fact, a form of yielding and conforming to the world rather than standing all the more firmly over against it with a supernatural alternative, holding fast what was already known to be “good and acceptable and perfect.”[8] While earlier ages of the Church witnessed the enrichment of the liturgy with elements from the cultures through which it passed, there had never been, prior to the twentieth century, a systematic attempt to reconfigure the liturgy according to the pattern of a certain epoch or worldview. There had been pruning and adjustment, but never wholesale reconstruction and whole-cloth invention. The very ambition to attempt such an audacious feat could have arisen only in an age bedazzled by the Myth of Progress—a myth that played upon the well-known gullibility of rationalists and romantics alike. The liturgical reformers for the most part surrendered to the temptation without resistance, like springtime lovers in Paris. We could adapt what St. Paul says elsewhere in the Epistle to the Romans: “they became vain in their thoughts, and their foolish heart was darkened” (Rom 1:21).

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