Monday, May 21, 2018

Sola traditio

At the bottom of this post I'm going to quote two Catholic bloggers. The Francis pontificate is becoming a clarifying event for doctrinally-minded Catholics. There are, of course, many Catholics who remain blissfully oblivious to the civil war currently raging in the hierarchy and Catholic commentariat. Thus far it's what Ross Douthat dubs an "elite crisis" since it's primary the concern of prelates and Catholic intellectuals. However, that will have a trickle down effect. The side that wins will dominate church policy for the laity. 

John-Paul II had RadTrad critics. They were especially incensed by his interfaith summit at Assisi. However, mainstream Catholic conservatives generally felt that John-Paul II was in their corner. They held the center. That continued with Ratzinger (aka Benedict XVI), who mended fences with the RadTrad wing. He was succeeding at solidifying two factions on the right. But age and palace intrigue sabotaged his papacy. Not having the stamina to ferret out the fifth column in the Vatican, he withdrew. 

But Francis is forcing Catholic elites to take sides. The conservative center is rapidly shrinking. Middle-ground is disappearing. No room for Catholics who identified with the vision of Ratzinger and John-Paul II. Catholics of that stripe are being squeezed out. If they wish to remain Catholic, they have few options. They can move left, move right, or wait out the clock, hoping the next pope will swing the pendulum back to the Ratzinger/John-Paul II era. 

But some aren't waiting. On the one hand we have blank check Catholics. Whatever the latest pope says is truth for now. We go with that. If the next pope contradicts it, we whip out our erasers. Truth is relative. The deposit of faith is written in pencil rather than ink. That way lines Etch-a-Sketch Catholicism. 

There's a certain logic to this alternative. Consider the standard Catholic retort when debating Protestants: "By what authority do you interpret Scripture? That's just your private opinion!"

On that view, tradition is ultimately whatever the latest pope says tradition is. He's the "final interpretive authority" (a la Bryan Cross). As Pius IX put it, "I am Tradition!" 

In the past, there's been a gentlemen's agreement or honor system: the pope has absolute authority so long as he doesn't act like a despot. It was like the Roman senate conferring dictatorial powers on a magistrate to deal with an emergency situation. He was supposed to relinquish his dictatorial powers after the crisis passed. 

But once you give the pope that unchecked authority, you can't take it back or make him give it back. You've created a doomsday machine. It has an on-switch but no off-switch. 

The blank check approach is the reductio ad absurdum of Catholic apologetics, where they defend to the death the orthodoxy du jour. What they defended yesterday they attack today, what they attack today they defend tomorrow, depending on script changes. "These are my principles! If you don't like 'em, well, I've got others!" 

Another problem is that on this view, since there's no independent interpretation of tradition, there's no independent criterion to assess a religious claimant. Tradition has no intrinsic meaning or authority. It's whatever the latest pope says it is. So tradition ceases to be a yardstick of orthodoxy. Or at best it becomes a rubber yardstick, which will expand or contract as required. 

To be a faithful Catholic apologist under the Francis pontificate, you drop your pants, bend over, clasp your ankles, and take a deep breath. Some apologists like Dave Armstrong are willing to assume the mandatory posture to retain their press credentials as Rome's loyal spokesmen. 

Is there a tipping-point? If the policies of the Catholic church become indistinguishable from mainline denominations, will they pretend that Rome is essentially different so long as there's no official retraction?  

On the other hand are Catholics who measure popes by tradition. The RadTrad ranks are swelling with refugees who held the center under the Ratzinger/John-Paul II regime, but now find themselves banished. Now they're falling back on classic RadTrad arguments. 

Why weren't they RadTrads all along? In theory, maybe they always believed that popes were answerable to tradition, but it wasn't until Francis forced the issue that tradition and the papacy came unstuck. 

This exposes tensions in Catholic apologetics, because there's a side to Catholic apologetics which accentuates alleged continuity with tradition. Protestants are guilty of introducing innovations into what "the Church" always believed–so we're told. By that logic, even popes are accountable to tradition. But they didn't think that was a real problem since they didn't believe it was possible for tradition and the papacy to be at loggerheads. 

A problem with the RadTrad appeal is that you can't simultaneously assail private interpretation while you attack the papacy for breaking with tradition. You must pick one or the other. If you use tradition to measure the papacy, then you're conceding the legitimacy of individual interpretation. You're conceding that it isn't necessary to start with an "authoritative" interpretation. But in that event, Protestants have the same right to pull rank on the papacy by appealing to their interpretation of Scripture. So it's a double-edged sword. 

Of course, "tradition" changes over the centuries, so that's not much different from the blank check position if you take the long view. RadTrads pick an arbitrary chronological benchmark. Nothing before or after that. 

If Catholicism was the only option, it would be an intractable dilemma. Allowed to run their course, unstable positions self-destruct as latent contradictions become patent and mutually annihilating.  

Those were the lessons I learned in those years. And I think it is urgent to recall them today. Because I believe that those lessons need to be re-learned by some Catholic sectors these days… albeit with a twist.

Many of the Catholics that passionately defended the Church against Sola Scriptura have fallen prey of a similar, yet different, error. I shall name it Sola Traditio.

As generally happens with many errors, this one has a comprehensible origin. Since Scripture was being improperly used to attack Tradition, Catholics learned to defend Tradition as an antidote against Sola Scriptura. This meant that Catholics would value Tradition and place it in high regard. That was understandable and laudable.

Unfortunately, as generally happens with many errors, it doesn’t matter where its origin came from. Soon, it spun out of control. Just like Scripture before it, Tradition started to be overvalued and, ultimately, idolized. Eventually, Tradition would be used to attack the other pillars of Truth. This came to be in the pontificate of Pope Francis (although it seems to me that it was in a latent, subclinical state, long before).


It is, therefore, kind of logical that the people who tend to subscribe to Sola Traditio are the ones that have more passionately fought against the errors of protestantism. We can see they are the ones most likely to criticize Pope Francis for his ecumenical approach to protestants, or to accuse the hierarchy of having become protestantized. But, logical as it may be, it is above all tragic, because these antiprotestant folk cannot seem to grasp how their error mirrors Sola Scriptura so well. Let me try to enumerate the more flagrant parallels:

Both claim that they are achieving a purer Christianity, closer to the original, before the popes introduced unscriptural/untraditional innovations.

Both think that their idol is perspicuous, confusing their personal interpretation of Scripture/Tradition with the only correct one.

By doing so, both pit their idol against the pope. They do not afford the pope the same legitimacy in interpreting Scripture/Tradition they self-anointed upon themselves. It is the pope’s interpretation, not theirs, that must be wrong.

Both postulate that the Church derives its authority from Scripture/Tradition and not the other way around. So the pope’s teachings must be constricted to their take on Scripture/Tradition. Both are very proficient in quoting and prooftexting authoritative documents to support their position.

Sola traditionalists borrowed a lot of arguments from protestants, namely the oversimplification of the historical episodes of the alleged “heretical” popes Honorius, Liberius and John XXII. Or Paul’s correction of Peter. Yup, protestants mentioned those first.

Also “papolatry” was coined by protestants as a pejorative term to designate those who sided with the pope against them.

Finally, both seem to subscribe to a “Great Apostasy of the Church” narrative. They just disagree with the timing at which the apostasy took place. Even so, they agree that they, and only they, are the remaining faithful left.


But there is an instance where the similarity between Sola Traditio and Sola Scriptura is more striking and important: Both seem to think that Scripture/Tradition is something fixed. Something “dead”. The texts say what they say and they teach nothing beyond what they plainly say. The Holy Spirit can surely talk through their preferred means… but the texts themselves are unyielding.

Which begs the question… when they postulate that the Holy Spirit talks to them through those predetermined sets of texts, is it really the Holy Spirit talking? Or is it just an illusion, cast by themselves interpreting the text without being contradicted by a voice of another real human being?

They do not understand that both Scripture and Tradition only have meaning if they are “alive”. In other words, they cannot be mere books on a shelf that a person can consult whenever needed. Rather, they are incarnated in a Church of living, breathing, talking men, who have the authority to interpret both Scripture and Tradition according to the circumstances which are presented to them. Only in this way can Scripture and Tradition be truly “alive” in us. That’s why we need a Church.

So let us suppose you claim that Pope Francis is overturning Church doctrine on matters where Tradition and previous magisterial teachings have weighed in on the past. You have, for example, a quote from a previous pope that Pope Francis clearly contradicts.

Well then, I will reply to you that it is not clear to me that Pope Francis is contradicting previous Church doctrine, just mere discipline. At least, it doesn’t seem more glaringly contradictory than the current Catholic praxis regarding statues and the scriptural prohibitions against graven images. For these contradictions seemed obvious too.

It seems we’re at an impasse. You have an interpretation of Tradition and I have another. Both are mutually exclusive: either Pope Francis is overturning Church teaching or not. So, what do we do? We take it up to the Church, of course, which has the authority to interpret correctly the Word of God. We then go talk to a priest. But which priest? There are priests that agree with either interpretation! So, we take it up to the bishops. But again, which bishop? Well, then, all that it remains is to take it up to the… pope.

Catholics, many of whom were close allies during the pontificates of St John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, find themselves looking across an unbridgeable and widening canyon between two dramatically different ways of how to understand the Church.

Those who support the position of Pope Francis, and accept his authority on matters of faith and morals to be binding take what can be called an ecclesial approach to Church teaching. In this context, ecclesial is defined as someone who gives a pride of place to the Magisterium: the teaching authority of the pope and the bishops in communion with him. The ecclesial Catholic assents to the teachings on faith and morals handed down by legitimate authority in the Church, and trusts — based on Christ’s promise and with the help of the Holy Spirit — that the Church and the see of Peter will remain faithful to Christ in perpetuity. Along those lines, the ecclesial Catholic respects the pope’s role as guarantor of obedience to the Word of God, and the authentic interpreter of Holy Scripture and Tradition. In addition, the ecclesial Catholic attempts to think with the Church, rather than to criticize the Church.

The ecclesial Catholic is receptive to the official teachings of the Successor of Peter, and trusts the living Magisterium to faithfully teach and explain the doctrines of the Church. The ecclesial Catholic does not reject the understanding that the faith must always correspond to reason, or that new reforms or disciplines must conform to Tradition, but the ecclesial Catholic recognizes that human reason is corrupted by sin. Instead, they operate with the understanding that the pope and the bishops in communion with him are provided with divine assistance to make the final determination in such questions.

Many of those who reject Francis’s position, and instead appeal to earlier teachings or scriptural understandings as the higher authority can be said to have a fundamentalist approach. For the fundamentalist Catholic, the highest Magisterial authority is the Tradition itself, as understood by the Church as handed down from the Apostles. The fundamentalist will reject Petrine authority or new doctrinal developments promulgated by the Holy See, if, in light of their understanding of Tradition, they determine that the new teaching does not conform to it. If the teaching of the current pope does not appear to them to align with the traditional understanding, they will appeal to the teachings of prior popes that they believe contradicts the new teaching.


  1. It is thus because Rome said it was thus--circular reasoning.

  2. In Peter De Rosa's brilliant the Vicars of Christ: the dark side of the papacy, he has an interesting vignette.

    An early 19th century Irish Catholic got questions guide had this question: is the pope infallible? The answer was: no. That is a protestant fiction.

    As De Rosa noted, by the end of the century, a protestant fiction had become Catholic dogma.

  3. Hey Steve just to clarify, the blank Check Catholics you are referring too are the ones quoted below right?

  4. So let us suppose you claim that Pope Francis is overturning Church doctrine on matters where Tradition and previous magisterial teachings have weighed in on the past. You have, for example, a quote from a previous pope that Pope Francis clearly contradicts.

    So far, there has always been plausible deniability: While “Pope Francis” nibbles around the borders of “church teaching”, the official gatekeepers always can say “he wasn’t quoted officially” or “what he said cannot be verified”. At least, they always have said so.

  5. //So let us suppose you claim that Pope Francis is overturning Church doctrine on matters where Tradition and previous magisterial teachings have weighed in on the past. You have, for example, a quote from a previous pope that Pope Francis clearly contradicts.

    Well then, I will reply to you that it is not clear to me that Pope Francis is contradicting previous Church doctrine, just mere discipline.//

    This is why Sola Scriptura is so important and how this relates to Mark 7. When you choose the wrong authority and assume it is infallible, you won't be able to detect the contradictions that are actually present.