Searching for the Tradition
by James Hennesey, S.J. in the Catholic
©Copyright, 1992, Texas Catholic Historical Society.
In his essay On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine the Venerable John Henry Newman spoke forcefully of the question of where the authentic tradition of the Church is to be found:
I think I am right in saying that the tradition of the Apostles, committed to the whole Church in its various constituents and functions as one unit, manifests itself variously at various times: sometimes by the mouth of the episcopacy, sometimes by the doctors, sometimes by the people, sometimes by liturgies, rites, ceremonies, and customs, by events, disputes, movements, and all those other phenomena which are comprised under the name of history. It follows that none of these channels of tradition may be treated with disrespect; granting at the same time fully that the gift of discerning, discriminating, defining, promulgating, and enforcing any portion of that tradition resides solely in the teaching Church.(1)
The future cardinal penned those words for the English Catholic journal, The Rambler, in 1859. His declaration spoke strongly of the authentic Catholic understanding of tradition and its role in our quest for God's self-revelation, but it rang strangely in some English Catholic ears. Newman was delated to Rome, and, because his words were misunderstood as a challenge to papal teaching authority, instead of a clarification of its proper place in the scheme of things, his relations with the papacy lay under a cloud for nearly a decade.
Newman's position was solidly based in Catholic theology and in knowledge and appreciation of the Church's history. He was aware that "tradition" was a many-splendored thing and determined that none of the channels by which revelation might be discerned should be ignored. He was particularly interested in securing that theological source known as the 'sense of the faithful." Six years before the Rambler article, he had explained it in his Lectures on the Turks, when he spoke of the first three Christian centuries:
In that earliest age, it was simply the living spirit of the myriads of the faithful, none of them known to fame, who received from the disciples for the Lord, and husbanded so well, and circulated so widely, and transmitted so faithfully, generation after generation, the once delivered apostolic faith; who held it with such sharpness of outline and explicitness of detail, as enabled even the unlearned instinctively to discriminate between truth and error, spontaneously to reject the very shadow of heresy and to be proof against the most brilliant intellects, when they would lead them out of the narrow way.(2)
That the "sense of the faithful" should be an informed sense went without saying. The faithful must not be cut off "from the study of [the Church's] Divine doctrines and the sympathy of her Divine contemplations." To base everything on an "implicit faith" in the Church's word would lead to a situation "which in the educated classes will terminate in indifference and in the poorer in superstition."(3)
The Venerable Newman's ideas were not widely accepted when he wrote them. No more were those of his contemporary, the Bavarian priest Ignaz von Dollinger, of whom his disciple, Lord Acton, wrote: "No part of Christian history, no portion of genuine Christian thought, no manifestation of perfect Christian life, could be omitted. That was, he thought, the only way to know Christianity."(4) But times have changed, and ideas such as Newman's and Dollinger's found a startling resonance in the work of the Second Vatican Council and particularly in its Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei Verbum, adopted by the council on 18 November 1965.
A "Catholic" understanding of Christianity has always meant that we attend to the way in which Revelation--God's self-disclosure--has been understood and expressed in the lived experience of Christian people, in the thought of the ancient Christian writers, in the writings of Christian theologians through the centuries, in the prayer formulas and the worship experience of Christians, and in the authoritative statements of Church leaders, of councils, bishops and popes. These last also have the function of interpreting the tradition for us, of distinguishing contingent, passing moments from what Walter Burghardt has described as "the tradition," which he called "the whole truth and reality originally communicated by Christ and the Spirit to the apostles, preserved and presented ceaselessly by the whole Church in the fullness of its vital existence and operation."(5)
What is tradition? It is that sense of who we are as God's people, that sense of what God has revealed to us, that we find in the life, the worship, and the teaching of the Christian community which is the Church down the centuries and across the world. I am here following the exposition in Dei Verbum, chapter two, beginning with article eight. The council text explains that the apostolic preaching was preserved in a special way in the canonical Scriptures, a final list of which was approved at a church council held in Rome in 382 A.D. But, as Catholics understand the provenance of Revelation, we have to take into account what the sixteenth-century Council of Trent set down, in a consecrated phrase, as "Scripture and Tradition." This phrase is understood by the Second Vatican Council as something dynamic, not static, a sense found in the ongoing life, thought, prayer and worship of the Christian community. It involves progress and development and change. No longer can Catholics accept the dictum of the fifth-century Vincent of Lerins that "what is Catholic is that which has been believed everywhere, always and by all."(6)That philosophically "substantialist" mindset is no longer acceptable. It produced an image of the Church as unchangeable and allowed for only accidental, external, changes in the Church's passage through time. "Tradition," in this understanding, was a sort of arcane treasure trove of propositional statements waiting authoritative enunciation. It is no longer seen that way.
Joseph Ratzinger, now a Roman cardinal and the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, put paid to the substantialist approach when he wrote that Vincent of Lerins's "static semper [always] no longer seems the right way" of expressing the nature of historical identity and continuity.(7) We have, commented another German theologian, Walter Kasper, to face up to the "radical historicization of reality" in our time.(8)Cardinal Ratzinger has emphasized "the historicity of the Church,, which is still underway and will first become itself when the ways of time have been travelled and end in God's hand."(9)
What does all this mean to the church historian, for that is what I am? It means that I must deal with the Church, which is my subject, as a reality that changes, that finds different forms and shapes according to the changing demands of time and place, that embodies, as the great French Dominican theologian, Yves Congar, has said, "the one content of faith diversifying and finding expression in different cultural contexts." Congar has also pointed out that this historical approach to understanding the Church has been highlighted by the council's emphasis on the description of the Christian community as "the People of God."(10)
That primary description of the Church as "a people," God's people, bring us back to Cardinal Newman's writings. In a very real sense, Vatican II was Newman's council. Its orientations vindicated many of his ideas. Perhaps this fact was nowhere more evident than in the conciliar emphasis on viewing the Christian community as "the People of God." Their sensus fidelium, the sense of the faithful, is a genuine and accepted theological source. For sometimes, as Newman wrote in Consulting the Faithful, the tradition manifests itself "by the people" and must be looked for in their instinctive, and graced, reactions, in the way they live precisely as Christians. This sort of argument went down no more easily in some quarters in Newman's day than it might in our own time, but he was insistent on it and found his "palmary example" in the Arian era at the beginning of the fourth century. Looking back, he was convinced that "in order to know the tradition of the apostles, we must have recourse to the faithful." "Every constituent portion of the Church," the future cardinal wrote, "has its proper function, and no portion can safely be neglected. Though the laity be but the reflection or echo of the clergy, yet there is something in the 'clergy and faithful combined,' which is not in the pastors alone."(11) In an article appealing for "rethinking the theology of marriage," Lisa Sowle Cahill a few years ago stated the position succinctly, "Tradition, as another source, includes not only authoritative church teachings, but also the faith and practice of the whole believing community more broadly understood."(12) Tradition, Cardinal Ratzinger has explained, is handed on in the Church in its teaching, life, and worship. It is "identified with, and thus defined, [as] the being and faith of the Church."(13)
The church historian searches out and identifies to the best of his or her ability the teaching and the worship of the Church down the ages and across the world, but it is the particular role of the practitioners of the historical art to study the life of the Church, of its institutions, its leaders, and its community, the people who make it up. We try to discern in the way Christian lives have been actually lived what understanding of Christianity has been passed on.
What relevance does all this have for our history writing? What relevance does it have for writing the history of the Church in Texas? An immediate caution is necessary: there is a difference between "Tradition," with a capital T, and "traditions," with a small t and a final s. Vatican II's Constitution on Divine Revelation and Cardinal Ratzinger's commentary address the former; the latter are the proper object of the historian's craft. It is by the study of traditions, the ways of living and thinking found among Christians, that we historians make our admittedly partial contribution to the Church's discernment and recognition of Tradition. Our conclusions, as liturgical historian Robert Taft, has reminded us, are "always instructive, but never normative. What is normative, is Tradition . . . a living force whose contingent expressions . . . can change."(14)
To the Church of Texas! What is it? A Christian community, the People of God, built layer upon layer of people of many different cultures and religious approaches, yet claiming a basic unity. At the foundation the two cultures--native and Spanish--fused to produce a new world culture, with a worldview at the same time unique but child to both, with traits inherited from both. Religiously this fusion resulted in a particular local manifestation of the Church universal, with its own lived faith, seen in the Christian lives of the people, their art, their music, and their devotions. For Ernest Sweeney, Mexican piety is one "of faith and suffering," marked by strong belief and confidence in the availability of God in daily living, inspired by devotion to the humanity of Christ-- often dramatically expressed--and to the Blessed Virgin Mary, especially under the title of Guadalupe. He added: "The spiritual dynamics of the masses do not spring from complicated theological speculation, but form the deeprooted personal conviction that God is present to his people in concrete ways and special place."(15)
Other layers followed. French-born bishops and priests introduced Gothic revival architecture and a variety of devotional practices that were hallmarks of the ultramontane Church of nineteenth-century Europe. Polish farmers settled in 1854 near the confluence of the San Antonio River and the Cibolo Creek and established at Panna Maria the first Polish settlement in the United States. A church and a school were soon built, and customary Polish religious traditions introduced there and in other towns whose names recalled a people's heritage: St. Hedwig, Czestochowa, Polonia.(16) The Moravian "painted churches" in Fayette County further enrich the traditions of Texas, as do the German-style churches designed by architects like Leo M.J. Dielmann, with their decorated interiors "illustrating [Christ's] message to humanity." As Willard B. Robinson pointed out in the 1991 issue of this journal, "symbols and representation, both with painting and sculptural work, were employed to present various beliefs."(17) Myriad other traditions have contributed to the whole. The Church of Texas is not a monolith; it has in it "many mansions."
Catholic historians today are turning their attention to the story of the people who are the Church, as Philip Gleason suggested in the inaugural number of this journal, and Gilberto Hinojosa has spelled it out in some detail for the Hispanic faith community.(18)There are good models: Thomas Wangler traced the devotional practices and patterns of the Catholics of Boston. He looked at the iconic evidence, the spiritual reading, the architecture, decoration of sanctuaries, hymnology, liturgies and para-liturgies prevailing in that predominantly Irish Church in the years from World War I to World War II.(19) Ann Taves has done much of the same in a broader sweep,(20) and Robert Orsi has concentrated on life and religion in Italian Harlem.(21) I look forward to many such studies in this journal telling the story of Texas's "many mansions." Then we shall see, as the Venerable John Henry Newman wrote, how "the tradition of the Apostles . . . manifests itself at various times, sometimes by the mouth of the episcopacy, sometimes by the doctors, sometimes by the people."(22)
*. Reverend James Hennesey is a Jesuit historian at Canisius College, Buffalo, New York.
1. Vincent Ferrer Blehl, S.J., ed., The Essential Newman (New York, 1963), 276.
2. Charles Stephen Dessain, C.O., John Henry Newman (London, 1966), 115.
3. Blehl, ed., Essential Newman, 278.
4. Acton Manuscripts, Cambridge University Library, Add. Mss. 4907, 53, quoted in Kathleen C. Keating, S.S.J., "John Acton and the Church of Pius IX," Ph.D. dissertation, Fordham University, 1973, 27.
5. Walter J. Burghardt, S.J., Christian Tradition, a Paulist Videocassette (New York, 1984), reviewed by Gerald F. Finnegan, S.J., Review for Religious (1988), 796-797.
6. Vincent of Lerins, Commonitorium II: 3.
7. Joseph Ratzinger, "The Transmission of Divine Revelation," in Commentary on the Documents of Vatican II, ed. Herbert Vorgrimler (New York, 1969) 3: 187.
8. Walter Kasper, "Are Church and Theology Subject to Historical Law?" in Walter Kasper et al., The Crisis of Change (Chicago, 1969), 7.
9. Joseph Ratzinger, "The Ecclesiology of the Second Vatican Council," Communio 13 (1986): 249.
10. Yves Congar, O.P., "Church History as a Branch of Theology," Concilium57 (1970), 87.
11. Blehl, ed., Essential Newman, 277.
12. Lisa Sowle Cahill, "Divorced from Experience: Rethinking the Theology of Marriage," Commonweal (27 March 1987), 171.
13. Ratzinger, "Transmission," 184-185.
14. Robert Taft, S.J., "The Frequency of the Eucharist throughout History," Concilium 152 (1982), 21.
15. Ernest S. Sweeney, S.J., "The Nature and Power of Religion in Latin America: Some Aspects of Popular Beliefs and Practices," Thought 59 (1984): 149-151.
16. Wieslaw Walawender, "Polish Settlement in America and Its Connections with the Church," unpublished paper, Christ the King Seminary, East Aurora, N.Y., 1990, 8-9.
17. Alden Blanar Smith, letter to the editor, New York Times (10 December 1990), on the Moravian churches; Willard B. Robinson, "To the Glory of God: Texas Churches Designed by Leo M.J. Dielmann," Journal of Texas Catholic History and Culture 2 (1991): 47.
18. Philip Gleason, "Searching and Finding the Catholic History of Texas" and Gilberto Hinojosa, "The Enduring Hispanic Faith Communities: Spanish and Texas Church Historiography," Journal of Texas Catholic History and Culture 1 (1990): 7-19, 20-41.
19. Thomas Wrangler, "Catholic Religious Life in Boston in the Era of Cardinal O'Connell" in Catholic Boston: Studies in Religion and Community 1870-1970, ed. Robert E. Sullivan and James M. O'Toole (Boston, 1985), 239-272.
20. Ann Taves, The Household Faith: Roman Catholic Devotions in Mid-Nineteenth Century America (Notre Dame, 1986).
21. Robert A. Orsi, The Madonna of 115th Street: Faith and Community in Italian Harlem, 1880-1950 (New Haven, 1985).
22. Blehl, ed., Essential Newman, 276.
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