Contra Traditionalists: Engaging With Tradition
With the close of the Synod of the Family, there is much discussion in the blogosphere about the outcomes. My own post on St. Augustine has attracted for more commentary than I expected, and Julia recently posted the Pope’s insightful speech that closed this year’s synod. To continue this discussion, I want to share an article I found thanks to conservative Vaticanista Sandro Magister. As I have noted previously, Magister has been positioning himself as a critic of Pope Francis, and has devoted his weekly column to supporting those bishops and theologians most critical of proposed changes to Church pastoral practice on divorce and remarriage. (See, for instance, the article linked to here.)
A couple days ago he posted on his blog a very long article by Fr. Paul Anthony McGavin, an Australian priest and theologian who is not an uncritical supporter of Pope Francis. As he writes about himself:
I am not attracted to the present Holy Father. I think he needs to step out of his Latin American emotivism. I think he needs to step out of his Jesuit authoritarianism. There are things in his first sole-authored major writing as Pope, “Evangelii gaudium,” that I think are unsustainable.
(The article where he discusses this Exhortation in depth can be found here, again courtesy of Sandro Magister.) In his current article, Fr. McGavin provides a thoughtful and supportive analysis of Pope Francis’ sustained critique of traditionalists, showing how Francis is not rejecting tradition but rather is willing to engage with it in a serious way. He opposes this to traditionalists, whom he describes as “fixed-traditionalists”: those who read the tradition as fixed, unchanging and as having given us the last word. He criticizes this position as follows:
This fixed-tradition mindset lacks recognition that all reasoning takes place “within a context”. Making this recognition does not mean that all reasoning is simply “contextual” or “situational”. The fixed-tradition mindset lacks recognition that particular reasonings involve “modes of thought”, and that differing personalities and differing cultures have differing modes of thought. Making this recognition does not mean that all reasoning is culturally relative and relativistic.
I am not going to try to summarize this very detailed argument: I commend you all to read it carefully. However, as a follow up question to it, and mindful of the interesting questions raised by the guest post by Mike McG: what is the approach to traditional Church teaching among those on the other side? Here I am thinking of the people criticized by Pope Francis as those who succumb to
[t]he temptation to a destructive tendency to goodness [it. buonismo], that in the name of a deceptive mercy binds the wounds without first curing them and treating them; that treats the symptoms and not the causes and the roots. It is the temptation of the do-gooders, of the fearful, and also of the so-called progressives and liberals…. [and also] The temptation to neglect the depositum fidei [the deposit of faith], not thinking of themselves as guardians but as owners or masters [of it].
Fr. McGavin has carefully unpacked the Pope’s critique of the temptation of traditionalism; can we do the same with his critique of the temptation of liberalism (for want of a better word)? The final result will have to be very different: echoing the comments I made to Mike McG, the two sides are not symmetric and have their own particular shortcomings. My own take is that they do not (or at least the majority do not) simply reject or dismiss the tradition. But they are willing to ask hard questions about it—e.g. their critique of the Tradition and slavery or the death penalty—which can lead to a hermeneutic of suspicion towards it. What is needed to bring them and their perspective back into a living exchange with tradition, so that in the words of Fr. McGavin, both sides can
listen carefully to what he [Pope Francis] is saying and engage pro-actively in dialogue as a means – again in the words of the lead quote – of “grasping those possibilities which the past has made available to the present”.