How Tradition Can Unlock the Church’s Future

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Photo by Silas Köhler on Unsplash

I love the online Eastern Orthodox ministry Ancient Faith Radio. Their free streaming service plays continual Orthodox music and teaching on their app and website.

You can download podcasts, lectures, and interviews from some of the leading Orthodox scholars, writers, and clerics of our day such as George Demacopoulos, John Behr, Sr. Vassa Larin, Nicole Roccas, Aristotle Papanikolaou, Angela Doll Carlson, Scott Cairns, Thomas Hopko, and several others.

There are some duds too, but you can judge that for yourself.

One of the great pleasures for me is listening to Metropolitan Kallistos Ware. As a cleric and prominent professor of Eastern Orthodox Studies at the University of Oxford and chairman of the board of directors of the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies in Cambridge, Metropolitan Ware has influenced an entire generation of Orthodox thinkers and church leaders. He continues to speak to pressing issues facing Orthodoxy today.

Before finding his recorded lectures, I had read some of his books. The Orthodox Church and The Orthodox Way have introduced Orthodoxy to countless people.

His erudition, long white beard, and very proper diction of the Queen’s English belies his subtle and good-natured sense of humor.

I recently stumbled across one of his lectures from the 2012 Cambridge Orthodox Forum entitled “The Neo-Patristic Synthesis.”

The first half of the talk traces the influence of major Orthodox scholars in Paris during the early 20th century. These were exhilarating and formative days for the understanding and practice of Orthodoxy. Major players included Russian émigrés Vladimir Lossky, Georges Florovsky, and Sergei Bulgakov.

These priests and scholars rejected the trend of equating Orthodox theology with a Slavic agenda and rediscovered the so-called Greek “fathers” of the church — people such as St. Gregory the Theologian, Maximus the Confessor, and Gregory Palamas. (Sadly, there is very little reference to the church mothers for several reasons.)

More than simply bringing these names into the Orthodox consciousness, they created methodologies for applying the ideas of the Greek fathers to the modern situation they lived in. They came up with creative approaches that have shaped Orthodox liturgy, theology, and ecclesiology for the past century.

This explains the idea of a “Neo-Patristic Synthesis.” What do the ancient church fathers have to say to our present situation? More than just a one-to-one correspondence, at its best this synthesis takes principles from the ancient texts and enlarges them to apply to modern times.

These scholars produced ideas and methodologies that continue to shape Orthodoxy today, and Metropolitan Ware sees this as a blessing and a problem.

The blessing provides a rich source of prayer, spirituality, and practice. However, because these 20th century thinkers were so influential, Metropolitan Ware suggests that their interpretations of the fathers have unintentionally become normative — without most ordinary Orthodox people ever knowing who the scholars were or how they changed the course of Orthodoxy.

Ware proposes that for the Neo-Patristic Synthesis to be persistently effective, people must apply the fathers to the issues of our day in ways that the 20th century scholars had not envisioned. This is not to be done as a simplistic overlay. Instead, it requires asking the kinds of questions the fathers and the 20th century scholars asked without necessarily reaching the same conclusions.

Metropolitan Ware illustrates his point by drawing attention to the Byzantine flag that has a two-headed eagle looking in opposite directions. He imagines the eagle looking into the past and into the future. He emphasizes that the image is that of an eagle, not a parrot. We look with courage in both directions; we do not simply repeat what was said in the past.

The 20th century Orthodox scholars in France interacted with the influential French Catholic scholars of the same period whose ideas shaped the second Vatican Council. Prominent ones include Yves Congar, Marie-Dominique Chenu, Jean Daniélou, and Henri de Lubac.

These French theologians began rejecting the official Thomistic approach to Catholic thought, and they (like their Orthodox counterparts) began appropriating at ancient sources. This approach became known as ressourcement.

Ressourcement was a movement to scrape away centuries of Scholasticism to rediscover the early foundations of Catholic faith, liturgy, and spirituality. This rediscovery led to a reapplication, or aggiornamento, of those sources to update modern Catholic theology, worship, and practice.

The Orthodox approach became known as the Neo-Patristic Synthesis and the equivalent Catholic method was known as ressourcement and aggiornamento.

Of course, not all Catholics then or now approve of such reapplication. They tend to see tradition as a once-for-all stratification of rules and regulations that must be applied strictly regardless of the specific question, situation, or culture. For them, tradition consists of the Latin Mass, flamboyant clerical garb, and women covering their heads and shoulders during the liturgy.

Since the pontificate of John XXIII, the institutional Church has rejected the stratification of tradition. It’s not that the Church has discarded tradition, but ressourcement and aggiornamento respect tradition enough to apply it judiciously and subtly, and not with broad strokes. Pope John remarked “ “It is not the Gospel that changes; it is we who begin to understand it better…The moment has arrived when we must recognize the signs of the times, seize the opportunity, and look far ahead.”

Whether Orthodox or Catholic, questions swirl around what exactly constitutes tradition. Today’s tradition was once invention, creation, and even innovation. As Orthodox Christians will astutely notice, the insertion of the filioloque into the Creed by Catholics was a rupture of tradition.

Other traditions — like clerical clothing — were just ordinary things that happened to get carried forward.

At one time every act of the Church was groundbreaking or even revolutionary, and sometimes tradition came about in unsavory ways. Augustine fought with Jerome. Desert monasticism was a de facto judgment of the new Constantinian Christianity. Gregorian chant was innovative music. People looked askance as Thomas’ synthesis of Christian faith and Aristotelian logic. Bishops who participated in every ecumenical council disagreed with the processes and outcomes.

And when did tradition wrap up? With Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Trent, Vatican I, or Vatican II? Why then?

Is tradition a living organism in service of the Church, or does the Church exist to perpetuate tradition? Was tradition made for people or were people made for tradition?

Our world and Church today face issues that ancient bishops and medieval philosophers never could have imagined. So we damage tradition and ourselves by pretending that a direct transference of their ideas and practices will address our questions and challenges today.

Nevertheless, we can look back to tradition and apply it in creative ways suitable to our current condition. In so doing, we build upon tradition, keeping it vibrant. We have the tools — and the tradition — of an ongoing ressourcement and aggiornamento to enliven the Church.

Pope Francis did this in his encyclical letter Laudato Si’. By starting with the Canticle of the Creatures by St. Francis, the pope applied and 800-year old beloved Catholic tradition to our current ecological emergency. By resourcing the medieval chanson, Pope Francis updated the theme of that song to set the Church’s agenda for helping us avert an environmental catastrophe.

Today’s Catholic Church is experiencing an existential crisis. The corrosive abuse scandals, bishops using payola to advance their careers, prelates publicly opposing the pope’s agenda, professors accusing the pope of heresy, and the role of dark money in Catholic para-church organizations and media are just a few issues that have caused deep internal wounds.

Neither Augustine, Thomas, nor the Council of Trent analyzed the unholy matrimony of nationalist political advisors joining with wealthy donors and high-ranking Vatican officials to disseminate anti-papal propaganda through Catholic news outlets and on social media using bots, sympathetic priests, and compliant laypeople.

We may not locate specific answers in the tradition, but the Church can look to its tradition to find principles and approaches to guide us through this quagmire.

Metropolitan Ware used the symbol of the double-headed eagle as a sign for the Orthodox to look to tradition and the future without simply parroting the views of the fathers. I would like to suggest a similar figure for the Catholic Church.

The Vatican flag has two crossed keys; the silver one points to the left while the gold one leans to the right. Like the Byzantine eagle, the two keys point to the past and to the future. One key unlocked truth for the Church in the past while the other opens the future.

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The Vatican City Flag

Can the Church have the courage to use tradition without blithely applying yesterday’s solutions to today’s questions? Tradition can guide the Church to unlock new truth as it relates to marriage for priests, communion for those who are divorced and civilly remarried, LGBTQ persons, women’s ordination to the diaconate and priesthood, and other questions?

The key of tradition might call on the Church to unlock new traditions — fresh modes of thinking, worshipping, and being. The Church should be open to this; otherwise, it potentially refuses to follow the lead of the Spirit.

Christ promised that the Holy Spirit would guide the Church into all truth. The Church — from laity to papacy — has a responsibility to attune itself to the Spirit’s direction through scripture, tradition, the magisterium, and the sensus fidelium.

Tradition, then, is not locked in the past. It resides in the hearts and hands of those who are “traditioning.”

Continual ressourcement and aggiornamento enables to see when and how ancient tradition came into being, developed, and often disappeared. This is why professional church historians are important. They use the keys of the past to open the locked doors in service of tradition. The work of historians never ends, and as our understanding of history develops, the entire Church (not just the institutional gatekeepers) cuts keys to open the door for tomorrow’s Church.

Metropolitan Ware makes the bold assertion that the age of the fathers and mothers continues today. By standing in the unique position of the present, can we today have the faithful audacity that the ancient fathers and mothers did as they shaped tradition in their day? Or will we use the key to lock tradition and shut up any further inquiry into what is true? We honor those of the past not by merely mimicking their conclusions but by following their quest.

Written by

A former elementary educator with a physical disability. @disabledsaints

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