The Debate on Tradition

I have just been reading parts of the debate at Vatican II on the sections of Dei Verbum dealing with Apostolic TraditionRatzinger summarizes the debate in his commentary, and now I have read translations of some of the actual speeches of the council fathers. Part of the debate is quite similar the discussion that has been going on in the comment thread of my post on unwritten Tradition. I have been defending there the account of Tradition developed by by Pope Benedict XVI long before he became pope. He understands Tradition as “the living process whereby the Holy Spirit introduces us to the fullness of truth and teaches us how to understand what previously we could still not grasp (cf.  Jn 16:12-13),” and the “remembering” by which the Church “can come to recognize what it had not caught sight of previously and yet was already handed down in the original Word.” Aelianus and Thomas Cordatus have been objecting that Ratzinger’s account seems dangerously close to the modernist idea of continuing Revelation. They insist that Tradition must be the handing on of definite ideas, though not in set formulas.

Very similar objections were brought up by some of the council fathers in the debate on Dei Verbum. The peritus Ratzinger had given a speech which had influenced the 4th draft of the Document–especially Article 8–and several of the fathers objected to this. Here is Ratzinger’s summary:

The dynamic concept of tradition, with which the Council here develops its positive conception of traditio, was strongly attacked from two quite opposite directions. On the one hand, Cardinal Ruffini rejected it from his position of traditionally neoscholastic theology, but on the other, Cardinal Leger attacked it from an ecumenical standpoint. In spite of the sharp division in their general theological orientations, the arguments of these two Council fathers were astonishingly similar Ruffini firmly emphasized the idea of revelation being concluded with the death of the last Apostle, rejected the idea of including disciples of the Apostles among the origins of revelation, and opposed the idea of a living and growing revelation, for, in accordance with the text of Trent and Vatican I, he considered that this should be mentioned only in connection with a strong emphasis on the strict unchangeability of a revelation that had been concluded once and for all, with which he referred to an appropriate text by Vincent de Lerins, quoted at both Councils. In the concept of the schema, and especially in its emphasis on spiritual experience as a principle of the growing knowledge of revelation, he detected theological evolutionism, condemned as modernism by Pius XII. In another tone and with other reasons Cardinal Leger insisted on the same point, He found that the Schema, especially in its idea of progress, which seemed to refer not only to the knowledge of tradition, but tradition itself (Haec … Traditio … proficit), blurred the strict distinction between apostolic and post-apostolic tradition and endangered the strict transcendence of divine revelation when it was confronted with the statements and actions of the teaching office of the Church. The Cardinal was concerned that the Church should bind itself firmly to the final and unchangeable word of God, that does not grow, but can only be constantly assimilated afresh and cannot be manipulated by the Church. The Theological Commission considered the question carefully, but decided not to make any major alterations in the text. It pointed out that the clause ” … Traditio proficit” is explained by a second clause “crescit … tam rerum quam verborum perceptio“, i.e. the growth of tradition is a growth in understanding of the reality that was given at the beginning. (Commentary pp.186-187)

A key question here is the interpretation of John 16:12-13: “I have yet many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth.” The two sides interpret these verses in almost opposite senses. Ratzinger takes it to refer to the “livingness” of tradition through all the ages, Ruffini takes it to refer to the completion of the Revelation in the Apostolic Age. Here is a translation of a translation of Ruffini:

The Divine Revelation, which we must accept with that faith which we owe to God alone, was completed with the death of the last Apostle, which the historical tradition tells us was the Apostle John. For, on the night before His death, Jesus said to His Apostles gathered in the cenacle: “I have yet many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth.” These words are as clear as the sun. If the Holy Spirit will teach the Apostles all truth, then one cannot expect any more truths after the time of the Apostles which could be part of  the depositum revelationis […] The draft says of Tradition that it lives and grows. These words the Council of Trent borrowed from Vincent of Lerins; but here in this draft the words of Trent are sadly mangled and abbreviated. Therefore I beg, for the love of truth, that the witness of Trent might be quoted in full: Hence, too, that meaning of the sacred dogmas is ever to be maintained which has once been declared by Holy mother Church, and there must never be any abandonment of this sense under the pretext or in the name of a more profound understanding. May understanding, knowledge and wisdom increase as ages and centuries roll along, and greatly and vigorously flourish, in each and all, in the individual and the whole Church: but this only in its own proper kind, that is to say, in the same doctrine, the same sense, and the same understanding. I will boldly speak my mind, venerable fathers […] the draft presented can scarcely be reconciled with the magnificent teaching of Trent. [For we read in the draft that] Tradition grows not only through contemplation […] but also through the interior experience of spiritual things. Such experience seems at least hardly distinguishable from the “religious sense” that the courageous defender of the Catholic Faith, Pope St. Pius X, condemned in  his encyclical Pascendi Dominici Gregis.

Cardinal Ruffini’s rhetoric is magnificent, but it had hardly any effect on the final version of Dei Verbum, which left almost unchanged the passages to which he objected. Bl. Pope John Paul II saw this question, or rather the Ruffini-ite answer to it, as the main error of Archbishop Lefebvre. In the Motu Proprio Ecclesia Dei he has written:

The root of this schismatic act can be discerned in an incomplete and contradictory notion of Tradition. Incomplete, because it does not take sufficiently into account the living character of Tradition, which, as the Second Vatican Council clearly taught, “comes from the apostles and progresses in the Church with the help of the Holy Spirit. There is a growth in insight into the realities and words that are being passed on. This comes about in various ways. It comes through the contemplation and study of believers who ponder these things in their hearts. It comes from the intimate sense of spiritual realities which they experience. And it comes from the preaching of those who have received, along with their right of succession in the episcopate, the sure charism of truth”.

Unwritten Tradition

Searching through the passages of Catholic teaching on the relation of Scripture and Tradition in the indispensable pdf of Denzinger-Hünermann, I was struck by how often they use some variation on the formula “written or unwritten” to refer to Scripture and Tradition respectively. This seems to be derived from the locus classicus on these things 2 Thessalonians 2:15: “Therefore, brothers, be steadfast, and preserve the traditions you were taught by us whether by word of mouth or by letter.” The teaching of the Apostle is both written and unwritten, and this is true of Apostolic Teaching in general: it is handed down in two forms, distinguished by whether they are written or not. Thus the Council of Trent:

[This Gospel] our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, first promulgated with His own mouth, and then commanded to be preached by His Apostles to every creature, as the fountain of all, both saving truth, and moral discipline; and seeing clearly that this truth and discipline are contained in the written books, and the unwritten traditions [in libris scriptis et sine scripto traditionibus] which, received by the Apostles from the mouth of Christ himself, or from the Apostles themselves, the Holy Ghost dictating, have come down even unto us, transmitted [traditae] as it were from hand to hand.

Now, one can ask are these “unwritten traditions” essentially unwritten, or is their unwrittenness merely an accident; that is, are they doctrines which the Apostles simply didn’t get around to writing down, but could in principle be written down later, or are they the sort of thing that can’t be written down. Continue reading

Corpus Christi in Heiligenkreuz

Usually the first stational altar in the Corpus Christi Procession is in the courtyard of the Hochschule, but this year, on account of construction work there, the firt altar was at the huge mosaic-sundial which is a monument to Vatican II’s teaching on religious liberty. Thus giving a kind of visual representation of Dignitatis Humanae-as-read-with-a-hermeneutic-of-continuity. I confess to finding this slightly amusing. Remember what Trent says about Corpus Christi processions?

The holy Synod declares, moreover, that very piously and religiously was this custom introduced into the Church, that this sublime and venerable sacrament be, with special veneration and solemnity, celebrated, every year, on a certain day, and that a festival; and that it be borne reverently and with honour in processions through the streets, and public places. For it is most just that there be certain appointed holy days, whereon all Christians may, with a special and unusual demonstration, testify that their minds are grateful and thankful to their common Lord and Redeemer for so ineffable and truly divine a benefit, whereby the victory and triumph of His death are represented. And so indeed did it behove victorious truth to celebrate a triumph over falsehood and heresy, that thus her adversaries, at the sight of so much splendour, and in the midst of so great joy of the universal Church, may either pine away weakened and broken; or, touched with shame and confounded, at length repent.

Klaus Obenauer on the SSPX and Rome

Klaus Obenauer is one of very few German academic theologian who is also a strict Thomist. Recently he has written some rather interesting things on the question of the reconciliation of the Society of St Pius X (FSSPX) and the Holy See. A lecturer at the University of Bonn, Obenauer used to be assistent to Prof. Karl-Heinz Menke. When Menke gave an interview in which he said that a reconciliation was impossible and implied that that was a good thing, Obenauer answered with an impassioned article arguing that it was both possible and urgently necessary.

Now Obenauer has written an article on why, given that a reconciliation is possible in principle, relations between Rome and the FSSPX seem to have come to a standstill. I have been asked to translate Obenauer’s article, but as its rather long I shall just give a summary. Continue reading

Missa Latina: On the 50th Anniversary of Vatican II

The latest CD from my monastery’s record label ( is meant in part to promote a more faithful implementation of the Second Vatican Council’s document on the liturgy. The following is a translation of my confrere Pater Karl Wallner’s preface to the CD booklet.

The enthusiastic reception of our CDs shows the timeless fascination of Gregorian chant, which has been moving souls for over 1000 years. The calm melodies allow both singers and listeners to plunge into the sphere of the mystery of God. The texts are taken mostly from the Bible. We sing the Word that God has spoken to us back to Him. Chant is not simply song; it is divine worship. Therefore in the Cistercian Abbey of Heiligenkreuz we sing Gregorian chant only during the Liturgy, especially during the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.

“Chant – Missa Latina” is meant not only as an “advertisement” for the beauty of God – we are certain that all who hear this chant, whatever their faith, will be moved by the Eternal Splendor – but this CD is also meant as an “advertisement” for the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, which, as the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) taught, is “source and summit of the Christian life” (Lumen Gentium 11).

Particularly we want to promote the celebration of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass in Latin. The Mass can and should be celebrated in Latin. Not only in the so-called “Extraordinary Form of the Latin Rite,” which was usual before the Second Vatican Council, and whose celebration Pope Benedict XVI facilitated in 2007 (Summorum Pontificum, Art. 1), but also in the “Ordinary Form.” That is, Latin has its place in the “post-conciliar” Mass usual today. It was certainly good that the Council opened up the possibility of a limited use of the vernacular in the Liturgy. But it is entirely beside the intention of the Council that today the ancient and noble liturgical language of the Latin Church is almost unkown. The Second Vatican Council states explicitly: “Care must be taken to ensure that the faithful may also be able to say or sing together in Latin those parts of the Ordinary of the Mass which pertain to them.” (Sacrosanctum Concilium Nr. 54)

“Chant – Missa Latina” is meant to promote this forgotten mandate of the Second Vatican Council. Hence the golden cover which is meant to refer to the “golden jubilee” of the opening of the Council, 50 years ago. “Chant – Missa Latina” includes all the chants of the Mass of the Sacred Heart from the Introit to the “Ite Missa est.” The faithful can even use it as a kind of practice CD for learning the parts of the Mass in Latin. The Council also gave high praise to Gregorian chant (Sacrosanctum Concilium Nr. 116); it would be a great enrichment if it were to be sung more often during Mass…

But, dear listeners, one can of course simply listen to this CD and be moved by the beautiful music. The beauty of music of itself gives glory to God – as the Ensemble Vox Gotica shows so well with the “Missa Sine Nomine.” May God bless all who listen to this CD!

Father Karl Wallner, O.Cist., October 11, 2012.

The Sillon, Religion, and the State

Pio-XYesterday was the centennial of Pope S. Pius X’s Apostolic Letter Notre Charge Apostolique, condemning the Sillonist movement. One of the problems that S. Pius saw with the Sillon was the position they came to hold that political action ought to be neutral toward religion. Originally a Catholic organization, they came to invite into their movement persons “of all religions and of no religion, with or without beliefs, so long as they forego what might divide them – their religious and philosophical convictions, and so long as they share what unites them – a ‘generous idealism and moral forces drawn from whence they can.'” Saint Pius points out that this supposed neutrality toward religion ends up becoming itself a religion:

the end result of this developing promiscuousness, the beneficiary of this cosmopolitan social action, can only be a Democracy which will be neither Catholic, nor Protestant, nor Jewish. It will be a religion (for Sillonism, so the leaders have said, is a religion) more universal than the Catholic Church, uniting all men become brothers and comrades at last in the “Kingdom of God”. – “We do not work for the Church, we work for mankind.”

Where does the Sillon’s error come from? S. Pius sees the root of this (and all Sillonist errors) in a false conception of human dignity:

at the root of all their fallacies on social questions, lie the false hopes of Sillonists on human dignity. According to them, Man will be a man truly worthy of the name only when he has acquired a strong, enlightened, and independent consciousness, able to do without a master, obeying only himself, and able to assume the most demanding responsibilities without faltering. Such are the big words by which human pride is exalted, like a dream carrying Man away without light, without guidance, and without help into the realm of illusion in which he will be destroyed by his errors and passions whilst awaiting the glorious day of his full consciousness.

This conception of human dignity is exactly what Charles de Koninck calls “personalism” (in the subtitle of his book On the Primacy of the Common Good: Against the Personalists): “personalism” in this sense is defined as the assertion of the primacy of “personal,” private goods over the common good of a community. The common good, for the personalist, is merely instrumental, the sum-total of those conditions which allow the person to realize his own dignity.

How does the error of the neutrality of political action toward religion (what Leo XIII would call “separation of Church and State”) arise our of this “personalism”? I have tried a rough sketch of how this works in a comment on Aelianus’s excellent post on “theistic neutrality” at Laodicea. There I argue that “separation of church and state” arises directly from the misunderstanding of the distinction between “private goods,” which are inferior to and ordered to the one for whom they are good, and “common goods,” which are more excellent than those who share in them. Those who share in common goods really share in them as their own good, but they are ordered to the good rather than the other way around. The common good par-excellence is God himself, and every other common good is intrinsically ordered to him. The intrinsic good of any community is order which is a reflection of the unity of God. Reason is naturally ordered to the common good, but because of the fall man is more apt to pursue the private good, which is above all the good of the senses. S. Thomas teaches that it is impossible to love the common good properly without grace:

It is manifest that the good of the part is for the good of the whole; hence everything, by its natural appetite and love, loves its own proper good on account of the common good of the whole universe, which is God. Hence Dionysius says (Div. Nom. iv) that “God leads everything to love of Himself.” Hence in the state of perfect nature man referred the love of himself and of all other things to the love of God as to its end; and thus he loved God more than himself and above all things. But in the state of corrupt nature man falls short of this in the appetite of his rational will, which, unless it is cured by God’s grace, follows its private good, on account of the corruption of nature. And hence we must say that in the state of perfect nature man did not need the gift of grace added to his natural endowments, in order to love God above all things naturally, although he needed God’s help to move him to it; but in the state of corrupt nature man needs, even for this, the help of grace to heal his nature. (Ia IIae 109, 3)

Thus religion is not merely necessary to the state insofar as the state is the order of men and men have a duty to worship God, but it is necessary for the state, if it is to be a real political community at all, to order itself to the divine Good. Hence De Koninck writes:

When those in whose charge the common good lies do not order it explicitly to God, is society not corrupted at its very root? […] Political prudence rules the common good insofar as the latter is Divine. For that reason Cajetan and John of St. Thomas held that the legal justice of the prince is more perfect than the virtue of religion.Undoubtedly the reasons why we are ignorant of the common good are the very same ones on account of which we are ignorant of political prudence. “We have too long been in error concerning the role of the intellect. We have neglected the substance of man. We have believed that the virtuosity of low souls could assist in the triumph of noble causes, that clever selfishness could lift up the spirit of sacrifice, that aridity of heart could, through the wind of discourse, found fraternity or love.” The intellect has succumbed to the senses, to the senses riveted to the singular good. The conflict which exists between man and society does not come from the perfection of the person, nor from a supposed common good which is contrary to the person; it comes properly from the sensible part of man, from the revolt of this inferior part of man against the good of the intellect. […] The common good, and not the person and liberty, being the very principle of all law, of all rights, of all justice and of all liberty, a speculative error concerning it leads fatally to the most execrable practical consequences.

Even the pagans such as Aristotle seemed to have an inkling of this (Speaking of the offices which are essential to the state Aristotle writes: “Fifthly, or rather first, there must be a care of religion, which is commonly called worship.” (Politics, Bk. VII, ch. 8, 1328b 13)), but of course the rebellion of sensible nature against intellectual nature is the effect of the fall (cf. De Civitate Dei XIV), and the only one who can save us from that is Christ the King.

Unfortunately the changed strategy of the Church’s social Magisterium on these matters since the council, a strategy which arises from the new situation of the Church in a radically secular world, has lead to formulations on “healthy secularity” that are easy to read through a Sillonist lens. It is of pressing concern to develop a reading of the post-conciliar social Magisterium which uses a “hermeneutic of continuity,” reading,  for example, Dignitatis Humanae by the light of Notre Charge Apostolique and Immortale Dei (and visa-versa). Incidentally, it is precisely the failure to make any serious attempt at such a reading that lead to Archbishop Lefebvre’s schism, and it is the unlikelihood of such an attempt being seriously made in the near future that make me pessimistic about the chances of the Holy See’s recent attempts at reconciliation with the “Society of St. Pius X.”