Sunday, September 26

Custom, Heritage and Tradition - words have meaning

We had a discussion on Wednesday at church about Tradition and what that word means in relation to being Catholic. The discussion, like all of the Chatauqua talks, was fruitful and respectful...but. The 'but' was niggling in the back of my head for a good part of the week and it came to the fore today at mass when our priest mentioned 'it is our custom and tradition at Light of Christ....".


Custom isn't tradition. The distinction is both subtle and important.

A custom is a practice which is performed frequently enough in a specific manner that it becomes ritualized. In short and brief, it is a fixed method of action which is objective and sociologically ingrained. Perhaps the least problematic and most obvious example in liturgy is something which happens every mass. "The Lord be with you" "and also with you". You don't hesitate, there's no profound theological basis for the forms of the exchange and it never varies. It's just the way 'its done'.

Conversely, tradition is a subjective interpretation of ideas, events and beliefs which are transmitted, principally orally or by practice, from generation to generation. Note, then, that tradition is subjective in nature and it is both conserved and transformed by each succeeding generation. In our church, the gesture of genuflecting towards the altar before you sit in the pews would be a tradition. Some folks do this, some don't. Ask those who do and they'll tell you that's how they were taught. Ask those who don't and some will say it's not how THEY were taught and some will give a reason why they don't do it even though they were taught that way.

Heritage....heritage is a different animal all together.  Heritage is our inheritance, whether it be religious, racial, ethnic, cultural or national.  It is the combined thought, wisdom, tradition and custom of hundreds (possibly thousands) of generations. It is this which traces a line from the here and now into the misty past and creates a bond to all those who come before.  Heritage can be accepted or denied, but it is almost totally fixed.  I say almost because our generation is creating the heritage of the future, adding our own small contribution to the collective just as each generation did before.  In liturgy, the signal representation of heritage is the Eucharist, or Communion if you are Protestant.  In both forms, we celebrate and commemorate the act that all Christians have done in memory of our Lord.  By doing so, we re-affirm the faith of untold billions of the course of thousands of years and add our voices to the choir.

The Roman church (and it's progenitor, the Orthodox church) have taken the general term tradition and made it a technical term, Tradition.  In the Roman church, that Sacred Tradition is, using the above definitions, the heritage of the Christian faith, but interpreted as the Magisterium sees fit (just as Sacred Scripture is to be only interpreted as the Magisterium sees fit).  As an aside, I should note that I find great irony in the fact that an institution which dates to Vatican I sees fit to speak with the authority of the whole of Apostolic Succession and tell the laity how it has always been.

And...this is where things get dicey.

A lot of what people think of as Tradition is, in fact, tradition or custom.  The use of Latin, altar rails, or 'by mouth' aren't linked to the Apostolic Era, but are traditions which developed over time for a variety of reasons which may or may not still have validity today.  Sacred Heart of Jesus?  A tradition.  The rosary?  A custom.  Mariology as it is practiced in the Roman church?  A tradition.  What needs to be noted here is that I am not questioning the value or purpose of these things.  Let me say again.  I am not questioning the value or purpose of these traditions or customs.  Rather, I am saying that these things are not the apostolic heritage passed down to us from ancient times, they are not Sacred Tradition.  They are traditions and customs which, depending on the catholic community in which you participate, may have more or less importance.  

If a community wishes to change their customs, then the community decides to change them.  If a community wishes to alter traditions, then the community teaches their successive generations different traditions.  Heritage, as I said, can only be embraced or denied, it can't be twisted to serve the agenda du jour.  A authoritative body cannot arbitrarily ret-con history (despite what some political parties may believe), they cannot flip a switch and force a people to change what has meaning to them as a tie to previous generations or what they have always done.  To attempt to do so is to invite the whirlwind.  Welcome to Vatican 2.

So, how does a hierarchical structure affect a change in custom or tradition?  Education and gradual change.  Explain why it was done the old way, why it was valid then and is no longer applicable and how the changes to the customs and traditions are applicable while holding to the spirit of the old.  After that, gradually (over a number of years) implement the changes.  All of these things are very important.  Validation of what was is important because it shows respect for the past and an explanation of what was held important. Why the transition is needed is a question which must be answered for reasons of continuity as well as recognition of the validity of the needs of the people.  Explanation of of the new is vital, for it informs and allows for acceptance of the importance of the new.  Gradual implementation is needed to acclimate folks to changes.  Will everyone be all sweetness and light about it?  Of course not.  But they will understand.

hmm...this isn't where I started at all, but it's a lot better than what I had thought originally.  Thanks Dad!  :)

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