The innovation of “Tradition”

3 09 2009

greg note

The reign of novelty in the Catholic Church in the last 100 years

The monks at St. Vincent had always sung some chant, especially for the Divine Office, but had used the old Ratisbonne edition from Regensburg in Bavaria. In the early 1930’s a young monk-musician was sent to Quarr Abbey on the Isle of Wight where Solesmes monks lived in exile. He was to learn the new chant and introduce it at St. Vincent. The story goes that the old monks in anger rebelled against the new and created a scene tossing the Solesmes books into the middle of the choir. According to the Bavarian tradition, clearly noted in our monastic ceremonial, each antiphon at Vespers was to be intoned by a different monk… To help the monk so designated, I would first play the melody on the organ from the Solesmes edition, only to find that many of the older monks would intone instead the old Ratisbonne version, and this about a dozen years after the old had been abandoned.

-Archbishop Rembert Weakland, A Pilgrim in a Pligrim Church

Those of us who spent some time among the traditionalists will know that this scene was by no means unique. The first person I thought of when reading this was Father Sarmiento in Argentina. The aged ex-Claretian was special, being in his eighties and having been in minor seminary in Spain at the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. He remembered when they first sang the Mass, Signum Magnum, when Pius XII declared the doctrine of the Assumption. An accomplished Latinist who could recite entire passages of Virgil from memory, he thought the ecclesiastical pronunciation that had become hegemonic in the early 20th century distasteful and just a cheap version of Italian. Even when he said Mass, he would do so in the “classical” pronunciation (for the non-Latinists out there, it has a lot of hard consonant sounds, unlike the Church pronuciation.) And he still said the Psalter that he said at the beginning of his priesthood: the mangled Jesuit translation imposed on the Church by Pius XII and now as defunct as the New Coke.

The Society of St. Pius X, for all of its pretensions to tradition, jettisoned quite a few of traditions, such as Pontifical Mass from the faldstool, the mandatory wearing of the biretta, reading the Scripture in Latin at the Low Mass, and so forth. The only reason that no one noticed is that compared to Bugnini’s world-class wrecking crew, this was just like changing the blinds out in a kitchen window. But the regime was the same: prior to Vatican II, there was an atmosphere of change. There was a sense that we could manipulate everything, from the liturgy to piety, from moral definitions to the structure of the hierarchy, if it suited a particular agenda deemed opportune.

Many might see my observations as impressionistic, as not seeing the forest from the trees. As the common wisdom goes, we have to keep in mind what is essential and make sure that that stays the same, while being free to change “accidental” elements to suit the zeitgeist. While this attitude has always existed, it has been taken to a whole other level in the last fifty years, to the point that most people under a certain age really don’t remember the past anymore. Like many tools of human discourse, such distinctions can often be destructive, and what is essential for one person may be completely accidental for another. In the end, at the level we are at, such rhetorical games may be as dangerous as playing with matches in a gas station.

That is why I am giving the stubborn curmudgeons the benefit of the doubt. Though the Solesmes method is the one I learned and grew to love, if I were in that monastery of German descent, I would be the first to throw the book into the middle of the choir. To quote one staunch traditionalist priest who exclaimed his dismay when first shown the table that would replace the altar in the late 1960’s: what the hell is that?



21 responses

9 09 2009
Tom Smith

“Personally, I am becoming more convinced that there is something akin to ‘hypostatic union’ at play here.”

Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. I’m not sure exactly how, or even if, it’s possible to separate the two gradations of tradition in any meaningful way. A real and fully Catholic explanatory system would have to be built upon the interconnectedness of dogmatic tradition and popular custom, as well as take into account the indissolubility of the bond between them.

8 09 2009
Alice C. Linsley

“40 years does not a tradition make” Indeed! The tradition that we call “catholic” is older than the Church. It is first found among Abraham’s people and is characterized by an all-male priesthood, blood sacrifice at altars, expectation of the appearing of the Son of God, and a triune conception of God.

8 09 2009

Not to change the subject, but I would be interested to learn your reaction to Weakland’s book. I was tempted to buy a copy, but the idea of putting money in that man’s pocket prevented me.

5 09 2009

I’m not sure why anyone finds the phrase “small-t tradition” irritating, but it can be avoided by speaking of “the Tradition” vs. “traditions” or vs. “custom”.

Personally, I am becoming more convinced that there is something akin to “hypostatic union” at play here. It seems well nigh impossible, at least beyond a certain point, to separate the two, even if one can distinguish them in theory. This may simply be a matter of perception, however. I fail to see how changing chant tones from one form of Gregorian to another can possibly impact on The Tradition; however, even a change such as this can clearly affect perception.

5 09 2009

I think there is a pretty strong fideist case for checking your brain at the door. On Eagle’s Wings is pretty ugly …. but the ugliest piece of art ever may be Bernini’s centuries-old canopy in St. Peter’s Basilica which is a most grotesque confection. (It is wonderful, but it is ugly in its terrible Baroque way.)

Theological correctness is neither here nor there since some of the best religious art is theologically incorrect, usually representations of the Trinity will involve some kind of terrible heresy or error. Really any painting of God the Father is suspect. But who cares?

5 09 2009


I agree with you completely on what happens when error is given equal tolerance along with truth. Having renewed my Oath Against Modernism after None yesterday (i.e. St. Pius X’s feast-day), this is probably a great time to reflect on the implications of the saying “Error has no rights,” both when that statement is put into practice and when it is practically ignored.

5 09 2009

Actually, I don’t much care for the phrase “small-t tradition,” either (it sounds like something a five-year-old would say). I only used it because I’m just not sure if everybody would understand any of the other terms.

Though it wouldn’t be the most irritating thing ever. I’d have to say that prize goes to the cooked-up phrase “Extraordinary Form” (Summorum Pontificum itself being just another innovation being passed off in the name of “tradition!”). Now there’s a phrase that I absolutely can’t stand!

4 09 2009
Tom Smith

Is it just me, or is the phrase “small-t tradition” not the most irritating thing ever? I hate it.

4 09 2009
Arturo Vasquez

As many a wise person has said, tolerence of both truth and error often leads to the truth being supressed since error is much easier to follow. A reign of little white lies about “inessential things” may lead to a regime where the truth is altogether unpalatable.

4 09 2009

This is the part where those “potential insights” from the Protestant worship wars might come in handy, especially as a cautionary tale.

Think of it this way. To a Catholic — and once upon a time amongst mainline Protestants — a good “trad vs. modern” lithmus test could consist of simply saying the versicle “The Lord be with you.” A die-hard Traditionalist/Continuist would respond “And with thy spirit” (2 Tim. 4:22) or “Et cum spiritu tuo,” while a Modernist (or even just somebody who grew up not knowing any better) would say “And also with you.” Up until the late 70’s or so, this would have been a reliable result for both Catholics and Mainliners alike.

Now fast-forward thirty years, to the current “Worship Wars” as found amongst Protestantism. The concept of “Traditional” versus “Contemporary” has now changed so much that with the exception of older folks and extreme holdouts in the Traditional or Continuist movements, nobody even remembers “And with thy Spirit.” The concept of traditional worship is Novus Ordo-style (LBW, 1979 BCP, etc.) “And also with you,” while the concept of “contemporary worship” includes praise bands, speaking in tongues, songs that make Gather look like a compendium of classical masterpieces, and other stuff that many of us would simply find downright abominable. In thirty years, the concept of “traditional worship” has changed that much, and we’re not even talking about the “radical” Calvinist/Anabaptist hybrid groups out there — we’re still talking about mainliners!

My point in bringing this up is that we, as Catholics, should regard this as a cautionary tale. When any ecclesial community which originally based itself strongly on a specific tradition — be it Lutheran, Anglican, or Radical — suddenly changes even those things it considers adiaphora, and does so for the sake of novelty (these changes were generally made for the sake of conforming to N.O. uses), then that community runs the risk of alienating its future generations not only from its small-t traditions, but from the core of its Big-T Traditions as well.

But then, that’s exactly what the Modernists wanted all along; I’ve yet to find anything (or hear any convincing argument) to persuade me otherwise.

4 09 2009
Arturo Vasquez

That is where theological criteria comes in. “On Eagle’s Wings” may be what is done, but what is done is not necessarily what is right. You can speculate all you want about 2040, but it isn’t here yet. The future may be much better, or far worse.

As I said, theological populism would be checking your brain at the door. In other words, tradition may be democracy of the dead, but that does not mean that everyone has an equal vote. If something cannot be squared with the past, maybe that just means that it has to be thrown out. To argue that it must be forcibly accepted as official praxis could lead to all sorts of disasters.

Does that mean that I think a “regression” will happen? Probably not. But that does not make the dictatorship of sap like “On Eagle’s Wings” right, and Christ did not promise the indefectibility of the Church in that regard. As I posted on my Jansenism posts, maybe the trajectory of the Church is one of a downward spiral. And perhaps it has been going down hill for a very long time.

4 09 2009
Ben George

I absolutely agree, except…

If something hasn’t been done for 40 years, does that a tradition unmake?

And how can I, say as a child in the year 2040, go to my parents and grandparents and say “Your beloved Gather hymnal is hokey junk, please ditch it for this Gregorian which you have never heard.”

I am fiercely and deeply for beauty and preservation of tradition, and I give thanks that I did not live during the really horrid times of the 60s and 70s, I could not have borne seeing the altars torn down and replaced without having been moved to violence…

I am not really making a statement here, I am asking questions, I don’t know. If living memory only includes sentimental glop, and tradition has not been heard, then how does one re-establish it as tradition without seeming to spit in the face of one’s elders?

4 09 2009
Arturo Vasquez

40 years does not a tradition make. If your parents remember something different, and they tell you about it, what comes afterward is not tradition, but hollow (and tacky) sentiment.

I always find it bizarre that scholars sneeze at a thousand years as if it were two minutes ago. The chasms of time have as much to say as manuscripts, and if something has been done for, say, five hundred years, questioning its wisdom is something that we do at our own peril.

3 09 2009

It’s more than just tradition vs non-tradition. It’s good tradition vs bad tradition.

My cousin wanted “Eagle’s Wings” played at her wedding because that was her favorite song growing up. IOW, the Gather hymnal is rapidly approaching what your average pew sitter would call “traditional.”

If I bust in there with my Gregorian Missal and throw the Gather hymnals to the ground, then I’m actually the anti-traditionalist in that context… If in turn someone threw my Solesmes chants out the window and replaced them with Old Roman chant books, then is that good, seeing as how they’re older? More traditional?

I want to be traditionalist, but if in 40 years the Gather hymnals are still in the pew-racks, then I don’t know if I can bring myself to defending them just because those are the the songs grandma knows. At best (worst?) I will simply not attack them, which is more or less what I do now unless I am pretty certain that I’m preaching to the schola.

Am I, are we, really traditionalists or are we simply aesthetes?

Or just contrarians?

3 09 2009
Agostino Taumaturgo

Actually, my acolyte is a convert from the Baptists, and the only man I ever consecrated to the episcopate is a convert from the Episcopalians. I have a priest-friend who’s a convert from the Church of God, and at this Sunday’s Mass, I will be confirming a married couple who converted from the Baptists.

I know this is off-topic, but I just wanted to address the convert-vs.-“real” Catholic idea. . . the way I see it, the line isn’t whether or not a person is a convert, but rather it’s whether the individual has actually begun to think and act (culturally) like a Catholic, or if he/she simply insists on calling him/herself “Catholic” while in reality remaining a Protestant who merely claims to believe in Purgatory and Transubstantiation. When I rail about converts, its this latter category (particularly when they turn “internet apologist”) that I’m talking about.

So Andrew, please don’t feel like anything less than a “real” Catholic simply because you’re a recent convert. Everybody has the right to bring their experiences and perceptions to the table, and in the past year I’ve found that the Protestant “worship wars” regarding traditional vs. contemporary have a lot of potential insight to contribute to exactly this conversation.

3 09 2009
Arturo Vasquez

I suppose I would agree that a “liturgico-theological agenda” isn’t essential to being a “real” Catholic (that’s just historical fact, not theological wishful thinking), but I would add that a lot of these questions are not set in erudite terms as I set them here. Nor am I then willing to admit that “every liturgy is equal because the masses care little for liturgy”. The masses care little about not fornicating, but that lack of care does not sanctify fornication either. Vox populi vox Dei non est.

I would say that in more “lay terms” the resistance to ecclesiastical change has been just as virulent, even if not as consistent as say, the traditionalist critique. My mother, for example, will still not go to Mass at the new church in her town since she thinks it too ugly. Instead, she goes five miles out of her way to go to a traditional country chapel with statues and high altar outside of Hollister. My grandparents go to the two hundred year old mission in San Juan Bautista. When the “Luminous Mysteries” came out, my grandparents asked me if they should start praying them, and I said that the way they had said the rosary all their lives was fine, so they have never said them. My grandmother who died in the early 1990’s never took off her mantilla. I have written on this blog about the fierce wars within villages in Mexico of priests who refuse to celebrate the feasts of the patron saints, and so on. There are some innovations that are accepted by the masses (i.e. the guitar at Mass in the Mexican community, yuck!), but others that are not so accepted.

I am all for learning from the “simple ways” of the Catholic masses, but I am by no means a theological populist. To become one would be to check my brain at the door, and that is the caricature of Catholicism that I still find distasteful. We have to be realistic both about what happens “on the ground” and what is intellectually true, and these two tendencies often conflict, especially nowadays.

3 09 2009
Alice C. Linsley

Arturo, you always stir my interest when you speak of “tradition”, something that anthropologist can get her teeth into. So I’m going to toss in my two bits.
Here are three ways Tradition is viewed:
Roman Catholic: complement; Scripture AND Tradition.
Orthodox: vessel carrying Scripture; Scripture IN Tradition.
Protestant: Scripture trumps everything (Tradition? What’s that?)

An anthropologist sees tradition and sacred texts as expressions of communities that have identifiable cosmologies, values, customs, beliefs, artifacts and kinship patterns. The Bible comes from the Afro-Asiatics whose Dominion extended from west central Africa to the Indus River Valley between 12 and 8 thousand yrs ago. Christianity shares the Afro-Asiatic worldview.

Abraham and his people were Afro-Asiatics. As Scripture identifies Abraham as the “father of our Faith” we should look to his religion for clues about tradition using cultural anthropology. When we do so, we discover that the key features of his religion are also features of catholic Faith and Practice.

3 09 2009

You sound pretty much like a “real” Catholic to me. Since most “real” Catholics don’t have pronounced liturgico-theological agendas one way or another. A Catholic baptized in infancy who rails on and on about vestments and whatever sounds like a zealous (i.e., tedious) convert.

3 09 2009
Andrew Cottrill

I know I’ll probably be dismissed immediately, but I’d like to share my opinion on this issue as a convert (I entered the Catholic Church in April this year).

Growing up as a Baptist when I went to my first Novus Ordo I was terrified. I thought it was the “height of popery” (I thought the same thing when I went to an Anglican Church). After a year of the Novus Ordo I am getting tired of what I see as ‘attempted Anglicanism’ and the additions made by priests to the liturgy.

I went to the Traditional Latin Mass said at the local FSSP oratory and I was terrified. It was SO Catholic that whatever remaining Protestantism I had made me feel sick to my stomach. But I’m going back to the TLM and hoping to delve deeper into Traditional Catholicism.

But I feel like the variety of liturgies (Novus Ordo and Traditional Masses) allow people to gradually experience the faith as I did. So I think it’s less of a black and white issue.

Though probably no one considers a Baptist convert a ‘real’ Catholic anyway, I am grateful for Vatican II as well as Trent and all the councils. I think Pope Benedict is a great example of how someone can be Traditional but not completely reject all reform.

3 09 2009

This post reminds me of a local news article that I read either earlier this year or last year. It described how a bunch of parishioners at Ebeneezer Baptist Church (MLK Jr.’s church for those not in the know) were angry because the current pastor was making a bunch of changes to the way the services were run to make it more contemporary. I don’t recall what these changes were, but the primary point of contention was that they wanted the services to remain as they were in MLK’s time. The final straw occurred when the choir director was fired. So in the time honored tradition, the aggrieved members took to the streets in protest. However, since Ebeneezer is surrounded on all sides by sites owned by the park service, the protesters got arrested, because it’s illegal to protest on federal grounds (they all got off with a slap on the wrist). Although I’m generally not interested what Baptists do or do not do in their services, I couldn’t help but be impressed at these people who cared enough about their traditions to take it to the streets. In comparison, when the high altars were replaced by IKEA inspired picnic tables, there was nary a peep. Well played, Baptist church ladies.

3 09 2009

As a Latinist, and a non-classicist at that (I just never cared for Classical Latin, just my own opinion), I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the Italianate pronunciation is a “cheap version of Italian.” Historically, the Romance languages took on the regional pronunciations of Latin as it was spoken in Italia, Hispania, Gallia, etc., and so I’d say that Italiano, Espanol, Portugues, Sardu, etc. pronunciation is actually a cheap version of regional Proto-Romance and/or Vulgar Latin. Other pronunciation schemes — like that found in German classical music recordings — are fully acceptable in my view, but I still find it amusing how so many classicists like to ignore some 1200 years of linguistic evolution (from the Appendix Probi to the Renassaince) and tell us things are the other way around!

So much for my rant. But to the point of this post, I’d have to agree with what you’re saying. There was an attitude of change and experimentation long before Vatican II, and I’m even willing to bet that some of it was honestly introduced with a genuine pastoral intent and could even have produced good results (e.g. Pius XII’s 1953 institution of a 3-hour fast before communion, and his permission to celebrate Mass in the afternoon and evening), had the liturgical movement not been co-opted by the Modernists. Unfortunately, however, so much bad became mixed up with the good that we now may never know, and the idea of “change just for the sake of change,” i.e. of forcing (or attempting to force) people to give up the things they grew up with just for the sake of innovation, is every bit condemnable and deplorable, and I too would count myself in the number of those throwing those books into the middle of the choir.

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