Law and Tradition

In two weeks (September, 2011), all of the dioceses in the U.K. will reinstate the pre-Vatican II law requiring (not recommending) but requiring abstinence of meat on Fridays. This is a very welcome development from a region of the Church that is known for its wackiness and extremely progressive tendencies. We should all applaud this move by the British bishops as a step in the right direction and pray that such measures would be contemplated and enacted by their American counterparts.

How often have we all wished that the bishops of the world and the Holy Father would take definitive stands for the restoration of tradition! Imagine if this directive was followed up by another directive forbidding communion in the hand, or abolishing altar girls, or forcefully asking the bishops to stop relegating all the major feast days to Sunday, or forbidding drums in Mass, mandating chant, etc. How beautifully we would all rejoice in such happy directives!

But, for the sake of argument, let me pose a question: Were all these things to take place, were the Magisterium to do nothing for the next two years other than legislate against abuses and forcefully impose traditional Catholicism, would Tradition be restored?
My answer is no. Tradition, in its fullest sense, cannot be restored by force of law. The loss of tradition was permitted by a relaxation of law, but a constricting of the law is not enough to bring Tradition back. Imagine a tank full of water that has a hole in it. The hole in the tank may certainly have allowed the water to seep out over time, but once the water is gone, repairing the hole will not bring the water back. Repairing the hole is integral in preparing the tank to receive water again, but we cannot be deluded into thinking that repairing the hole alone is sufficient to restore what was lost.

There are two elements to restoring Catholic Tradition and Catholic culture: one, of course, is the restoration of discipline from the top down. This involves the Magisterium being a bit more assertive in cracking down on abuses, restoring practices that have fallen into disuses, and backing up its wishes with canonical legislation, if necessary. The second element, however, is a docile and obedient flock who have hearts that are truly converted and are already predisposed to live out the full expression of Catholicism within their homes and spheres of influence.

Even if we were to have all the legislation and "top down" changes we all desire, unless they were embraced by a flock willing to put them in to practice, we cannot really say Tradition has been restored. Certainly we would be a lot better off than where we are now; perhaps some such moves on the part of the Magisterium would "trim the fat" of the Church by encouraging people who are Catholics in name only to "sh*t or get off the pot," so to say.

Even so, we as Traditionalists cannot become legalists. We cannot imagine that a true restoration of our culture can be simply imposed from above. That would be a very important step, just like it is an important step in refilling the tank to first repair the hole. But culture cannot be regained in the same manner it was lost. Though we speak of culture being "restored", in actuality we have to start over. With great care and intentionality we have to cherish and nurture a cultural and spiritual heritage that may not yet be a tradition for ourselves or our kids but will one day be so if it is faithfully passed on. This homegrown expansion of Catholic culture will be solidified, reinforced and given direction by a Magisterium that legislates in favor of discipline and tradition rather than against it.

There are two sides to this issue - one that comes from above, and one that comes up from below. We have to realize that both are necessary. Unless we personally are forming Catholic culture in our homes and families, we can't expect the Magisterium to form it by passing some new directives. Unless we are obedient, we can't expect new demands for obedience to be heeded. Unless we are pious, we cannot expect new legislation to create piety (though it can reinforce it).

I will share a personal story, the sort of which I do not usually share on here. Several years ago, perhaps around 2003, I was attending Mass at a local parish. It was one of those days when someone was sick, I had to stay home in the morning and catch a Sunday evening Mass to make up for it. Well, the liturgy was terrible. Music awful. People in tank-tops, Daisy-dukes, flip flops, etc. Priest gave an awful homily. Scores of people leaving Mass after communion. It was a disaster.

As I sat praying after communion, I was lamenting to God about the sad state of things in this parish, essentially complaining about the lack of reverence and extraordinarily shallow spirituality. I was pleading with God to renew His Church and wondering why the priests and bishops allowed this sort of thing. Then God spoke to my heart in a very firm manner, a manner in which one has a fair degree of moral certainty that the Holy Spirit is telling you something. He said to me, "If you think the Church lacks piety, you be pious. If Catholics do not pray enough, you pray. If there is a lack of reverence, you be reverent. If they there is a lack of penance, you do penance."

I don't think the message was that other people do not need to reform or that the Church on the institutional level doesn't need to make some serious changes; the point was that renewal starts with the individual. Laws and disciplines given by the Church are given for the purpose of building up and empowering individual Catholics to have a more dynamic relationship with the Lord and make true success in pursuing holiness.

I applaud the bishops of the U.K. for reintstating the Friday fast. But with what we know about the state of the Church in the U.K., how will this legislation play out when the people there are so poorly formed? No doubt it will beneficial to some; no doubt it is a step in the right direction. But unless we have true conversion from our hearts, we will find these sorts of legislation always bringing us up short of where we want to be.