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Tradition is the Democracy of the Dead


Change is in the air.  It would seem that in many quarters of the Church, and at the highest levels, tradition has a bullseye on its back.  What has always been is not in fashion; rather, the fleeting satisfaction of novelty is back in style.  Indeed, to borrow from Bob Dylan, “The times they are a changin’.” Again.

Just this week we have been told by Rome that the Mandatum, the washing of the feet often included within the Holy Thursday liturgy, can now licitly be extended to women. It was news to many that this was even news, as their pastors and parishes had often been illicitly washing the feet of the fairer sex for years.  However, much in the tradition of communion in the hand and altar girls (progressives love “new” traditions), years of persevering disobedience paid off.  Of course, this has been par for the course these past forty years.

Some dismiss novelty and innovation, particularly liturgical innovation, as being small matters.  Some see any (eventually) sanctioned change as being the movement of the Spirit. It is simply the God of surprises being his improvisational self.  Some type of Divine jazz riff.  I disagree.

This constant state of reinventing and, when “needed”, disregarding what has been handed down is very troubling.  Indeed, it’s actually dangerous.  In his brilliant and concise treatise, The Binding Force of Tradition, Father Chad Ripperger makes the following observation:

“Our current generation…is in the habit of novelty and that is why tradition is so difficult for many of them, because the tradition is not just a thing, but an action, i.e. it is a way of living.  Novelty ultimately militates against virtue because it does not seek good habits but (rather) intellectual or appetitive delight in the new thing.”

This of course is what so many find so difficult: tradition requires this current generation to humbly receive and then authentically pass along the faith in total to the next. Even if they disagree with it. For many of the Vatican II generation, such heroic virtue is lacking. The innovator refuses to be restrained by the past.

All of this brings to mind what G.K. Chesterton wrote in his classic, Orthodoxy:

“Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead.”

In addition to lacking humility, those who constantly seek change and reinvention lack charity. They disenfranchise our ancestors when they fail to hand on what they were given. Chesterton continues:

“Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death.”

Fr. Ripperger speaks to the presumption that underlies this tendency to innovate. In speaking of Catholic monuments (the Liturgy, churches, etc.), Father notes that “there is a great presumption among those who destroy the monuments as if it was their place to destroy the product of generations of faith and piety.” He continues:

“To act contrary to the tradition, to overhaul it and constantly change it, even in small matters as if it is at one’s own discretion, is presumption.”

This is of course what happened in the years immediately following the Council. A New Mass, new rites, new altars, new music, a tonal shift away from the four last things and instead onto the latest and greatest. The immutable and eternal of the sacred gave way to the ever changing and destabilizing influence of the profane. Changes such as lay ministers, girl servers, and communion in the hand were always “inspirations of the Spirit”, even though they were fruit borne from the tree of disobedience.

That the stakes are high and the culpability of the responsible parties real is also addressed by Fr. Ripperger:

“Those who pass on the tradition have an obligation to be selfless in relation to the tradition. What needs to be realized is that the tradition is not about us; it is about God and the salvation of souls.”

Pray that all of those in positions of authority, from bishops to pastors to fathers, humbly recognize that fidelity to tradition is not something to ridicule or resent, but rather as something to faithfully preserve and obediently hand on.

Pictured above: Archbishop Hanna of San Francisco, circa 1930

Photo: Bancroft Library

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