Continuity and progress in a living Church


Is nothing sacred? With the moving of some Holydays of Obligation (Epiphany, Corpus Christi and Ascension) to the nearest Sunday, the bishops of England and Wales have begun the process of consigning to history yet another point of continuity with Catholics who have gone before us. Holydays of Obligation appear to be in danger of joining abstention from meat on Fridays, kneeling for communion and praying in Latin as relics of traditional Catholicism lost to future generations forever. In the interests of modernity, the Catholic faith is being stripped down to its barest essentials. No room for smells and bells, statues and birettas, in this bland new world.

Changes to Catholic life and practice that lessen our sense of connectedness with the past are not just aesthetic; they strike at the core of Catholic identity. As Catholics, we are in communion not only with fellow Catholics throughout the world, but also in a real sense with Catholics down through the ages. We share their faith, are nourished by the same sacraments and are united with the same chief shepherd – the Bishop of Rome. The Church stands in direct continuity with generations past, back to Christ himself. It is this characteristic which distinguishes the Catholic Church of Rome from other denominations which can only trace their institutional roots back to when they broke away from Rome.

However, in the last 40 years, many feel that progress within the Catholic Church has gone beyond organic development of outward forms in continuity with the past. With the huge changes in Catholic liturgy following Vatican II, many have felt that the baby has been thrown out with the bath water.

A devout old Catholic lady was recently asked how things had changed since she was a girl. ‘Everything was in Latin back then,’ she reminisced, ‘the priest faced the front, we had to fast from midnight before taking Communion and the liturgies were always very prayerful and reverential. Today, well, a lot has changed and disappeared.’ So many points of continuity with the past – her past – had disappeared for this woman, and she was left feeling almost bereft.

Change, or rather progress, is not a bad thing in itself – in fact, everything alive must keep on changing or it dies – but if everything ‘old’ or ‘traditional’ is discarded in the Church, it becomes difficult to see where the line in the sand must be drawn. This is not just in terms of liturgy, but also in terms of doctrine. Since Vatican II, Catholics have been collectively fumbling around in the dark, unclear what remains and what has disappeared. Do we still have to believe in mortal sin, hell, papal infallibility, and so on?

This atmosphere of confusion and loss helps to explain the attachment many Catholics have to the pre-Vatican II Tridentine Mass. It is not only the undeniable beauty and reverence of the Old Rite, as it is often called, that draws young and old alike, but the continuity it represents with the past. The Church and the world may have changed radically, but in the Old Rite one can feel connected to centuries of Catholic tradition and worship. However, some have gone beyond a simple attachment to the Old Rite and have rejected the very concept of progress or change altogether. In particular, the followers of the late Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre have separated themselves from the jurisdiction of Rome, while continuing to acknowledge the Pope’s position, at least officially.

Healing the schism with the Lefebvrists is a major concern of the present Pope, which is why it was high on the agenda when the cardinals met for a closed-door meeting in Rome in March. Some might wonder what all the fuss is about, and why Pope Benedict cares so much about reconciling a comparatively small schismatic group boasting only four bishops and a few hundred priests, and which, to date, has shown very little enthusiasm for returning to the fold.

As Cardinal Ratzinger complained in 1988, ‘Some descriptions give the impression that everything was different after Vatican II, and that nothing that came before it could still be considered relevant, or could be relevant only in the light of Vatican II. Vatican II is not treated as a part of the greater living tradition of the Church, but as a totally new beginning. Even though it did not issue a single dogma and wanted to be considered a humble pastoral Council, some recount it as though it had been a kind of superdogma which makes everything else irrelevant.’

Those who reject progress altogether, and those who reject the value of tradition, have more in common with each other than they might think. Both reject the dynamism, continuity and authority of the Church. The Catholic Church is neither a museum, nor a child of the age. It is a living, evolving organism, able to develop its outward forms by means of the divine authority granted to it, while remaining true to its unchanging faith and in continuity with itself.

So, let us celebrate our Catholic tradition, and those aspects of faith and practice which bind us to those who have gone before us; but at the same time celebrate the dynamism of our Church which preaches Christ anew to every generation. Throwing out the ‘old’ and the ‘traditional’ is just as un-Catholic as is rejecting progress and development altogether. Valuing tradition and accepting progress go together, and only by valuing both can we rediscover the full beauty of our faith – Holydays of Obligation and all.

(C) DB 2006


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