March 29, 2001
volume 12, no. 88

Christian Order

A scholar examines the root cause of present tensions within the ranks of faithful Catholics

By Father Chad Ripperger, F.S.S.P. part one

Operative Points of View

    In 1996, a group of friends had lunch in Rome at the Czechoslovakian college. One of the priests who offers Mass according to the New Rite was a bit dumbfounded. He had written an article in which he had discussed certain aspects of the liturgical reform. His puzzlement came from the fact that the traditionalists had attacked his article and he could not understand why. A seminarian, who was a traditionalist, said to the priest, "we agree that something has to be done about the liturgy, but we do not agree on what should be done." Traditionalists (1) and neo-conservatives (2) often find each other mystifying and the reason for this has to do with the relationship each position holds with respect to ecclesiastical tradition.


    In classical theological manuals, textbooks and catechisms, the word "tradition" was given a twofold meaning:

    The first signification of the term "tradition" was taken from its Latin root word which is tradere, which means "to pass on" (3). In this sense, the word tradition refers to all of those things which are, in any way, passed on from one generation to the next. This would include all of the divine truths which the Church passes on to the subsequent generations in any way (4), including the Scriptures (5).

    The second sense or more restrictive sense of tradition refers to a twofold division within that which is passed on and not written down, (6) viz. divine tradition (7) and ecclesiastical tradition(8).

    Divine tradition is that tradition which constitutes one of the sources of revelation, i.e. a source of our knowledge about those things which were revealed to man by God. This means that divine tradition is intrinsic to the Deposit of Faith, which constitutes all of the divinely revealed truths necessary for salvation and passed on by the Church in an uninterrupted tradition. Since it is intrinsic to the Deposit of Faith, this form of tradition is sometimes called intrinsic tradition, a prime example of which is the magisterium of the Church and the sacraments since they were established by Jesus Christ and passed on and will be passed on until the end of time (9).

    Ecclesiastical tradition is all of those things which are not intrinsic to the Deposit of Faith, but which form the heritage and patrimony of the work of previous generations graciously passed on by the Church to subsequent generations for their benefit. Because it is extrinsic to the Deposit of Faith, ecclesiastical tradition is also called extrinsic tradition, examples of which include the Church's disciplinary code as set out in canon law and non-infallible teachings of the ordinary magisterium. This would include those things contained in Apostolic exhortations and encyclicals in which infallibility is not enjoyed, e.g. Pope Leo XIII in Immortale Dei asserts that the Church is a perfect society.

    Because God Himself entrusted the Deposit of Faith to the Catholic Church, the Catholic Church is inherently traditional. Since all men by nature desire to know (10), the Church cannot help but develop an ecclesiastical tradition. Once man was given the Deposit of Faith, he naturally reflected upon the Deposit resulting in a greater understanding of it. That understanding was then passed on. This also means that the Church herself would pass judgment upon the Deposit in magisterial acts (11) and these magisterial acts become part of the ecclesiastical tradition. The ecclesiastical tradition, therefore, was formed over the course of time i.e. in the life of the Church throughout the twenty centuries of its existence.

    Ecclesiastical (or extrinsic) tradition then developed according to two principles: The first principle, was the Deposit of Faith itself. The members of the Church used the teachings within the Deposit to develop schools of spirituality, Church discipline and legislation, as well as all of the other things which pertain to ecclesiastical tradition. Since the teaching of Christ must govern the life of the Church, it was necessary for any authentic extrinsic tradition (e.g. Canon Law) to be consistent with those teachings. Anything that was contrary to the teachings contained in the Deposit caused the Church great affliction but over time it was cut off from the life of the Church (12).

    The second principle was the nature of man. Since Scripture itself tells us a great deal about man and as philosophical systems advanced in an understanding of the nature of man, especially in the medieval period, the extrinsic tradition was fashioned based upon the knowledge of that nature. Furthermore, it was known to be a wounded nature, i.e. one affected by Original Sin and so the extrinsic tradition was designed to aid man in his condition. For example, many schools of spirituality and rules of the religious orders were designed in order to help man overcome his proclivity to self-will and concupiscence in order to conform himself to the ideals taught within the Deposit. Those who fashioned the extrinsic tradition were often saints who were guided and helped by divine aid in establishing some custom or aspect of the extrinsic tradition which was passed on to subsequent generations. The extrinsic tradition came to form a magnificent patrimony and heritage of all Catholics.

Subversion of Extrinsic Tradition

    As the Modernist crisis grew under the impetus of modern philosophy, the extrinsic tradition was eroded and subverted due to several factors. The first was a change of view about the nature of man. With the onslaught of rationalism (13), then empiricism (14) and later Kantianism (15) and other modern innovations about the nature of man, the Thomistic view, i.e. the realist view of man, was supplanted. At first, this occurred outside the Church and was kept at bay by formal teaching within the Church which maintained a proper view of man. The Protestants, not having an intellectual heritage, quickly succumbed to the modern philosophies. As the Modernist crisis spread within the Church and the curiosity and fascination with modern philosophy grew, the view of man held by Catholics began to change in the latter part of the nineteenth century and during the twentieth century.

    Rationalism also changed how man viewed revelation. Since rationalists do not believe that one can come to true intellectual knowledge by means of the senses, then that which pertained to the senses was systematically ignored or rejected. Since revelation is something introduced into sensible reality (16), revelation came under direct attack. Moreover, if one is cut off from reality, then one is locked up inside oneself and so what pertains to one's own experience becomes paramount. After Descartes (17), came Spinoza(18) who systematically attacked the authenticity of oral tradition regarding the Scriptures (19) and through his philosophy he began to change people's view of the world. As empiricism rose, the view of man as simply a material being led to fixing man's meaning in the "now" or always in the present. Since for the empiricist, man's meaning is found in what he senses and feels, this led eventually to a lack of interest in the past since the past as such (and future for that matter) cannot be sensed nor fulfil our sensible desires (20). With the advent of Hegel (21), the intellectual groundwork was laid for a wholesale lack of interest in and distrust of tradition. With the scepticism of Spinoza about the sources of Scripture, (22) coupled with the Hegelian dialectic, the past (including all forms of tradition) was now outmoded or outdated and tradition was to be distrusted. As a consequence, those who wanted to impose some religious teaching based upon tradition or history became suspect.

    At the same time in which the intellectual underpinnings for trusting tradition collapsed in the minds of modern intellectuals under the impetus of modern philosophy, a growing immanentism(23) arising from three sources(24) became entrenched.

    The first was Kant, who, through an epistemology (25) which was founded on Cartesian and empirical scepticism of the senses (26), left one locked into one's own mind, logically speaking (27). This meant that everything is within oneself or one's own mind which means that man's experiences are essentially immanent, i.e. they are within or remain within himself (28).

    The second source of immanentism was the location of the theological experience within the emotions and this was done by Friedrich Schleiermacher (29). For Schleiermacher, religion was primarily an expression of piety and piety is found only in the emotions. Religion could not be satisfied with metaphysical treatises and analysis, i.e. a rational approach to religion; rather, it had to be something emotional. This led to the immanentization of religion since piety or religious experience was something within the individual. We often see this today: people expect the liturgy to be conformed to their emotional states rather than they conforming themselves to an objective cult, which conforms itself to God.

    The third source which led to immanentization and therefore provided an intellectual foundation for acceptance only of the present and a rejection of the past was the work of Maurice Blondel (30). Blondel held that:

    "modern thought, with a jealous susceptibility, considers the notion of immanence as the very condition of philosophizing; that is to say, if among current ideas there is one which it regards as marking a definitive advance, it is the idea, which is at bottom perfectly true, that nothing can enter into a man's mind which does not come out of him and correspond in some way to a need for expansion and that there is nothing in the nature of historical or traditional teaching or obligation imposed from without that counts for him..."(31)

    For Blondel, only those things which come from man himself and which are immanent to him have any meaning. No tradition or history has any bearing upon his intellectual considerations unless it somehow comes from himself. These three sources of immanentism as they influenced the Church during the waning of an intellectual phase of Modernism in the 1950s and early 1960s (32) provided the foundation for a psychological break from tradition as a norm. As Peter Bernardi observes, Blondel was "working at a time when the Church was just beginning to become conscious of a certain break in its tradition" (33). The work of Blondel and the influx of the other modern philosophical points of view, which were antithetical to the ecclesiastical tradition (34), had a drastic impact on Vatican II (35). By the time Vatican II arrived, all of the intellectual foundation was in place for a systematic rejection of all of the aspects of ecclesiastical tradition.

    In summary: Blondel and others, under the influence of modern philosophy, thought that modern man could not be satisfied with past ways of thinking. They provided an intellectual foundation upon which the Church, with a Council as a catalyst, could "update" itself or undergo an "aggiornamento" (36). With the foundations for the extrinsic tradition having been supplanted, the extrinsic tradition was lost. In other words, since the view of man had changed and since the view of the Deposit of Faith was subjected to a modern analysis, the extrinsic tradition, which rested upon these two, collapsed. We are currently living with the full blown effects of that collapse (37). The members of the Church today have become fixated on the here and now and the past traditions are not only irrelevant but to be distrusted and even, at times, demonized.

Tomorrow: Part Two

For Footnotes 1-37, see FOOTNOTES.

Father Ripperger teaches moral theology and philosophy at the seminary of the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter in Lincoln, Nebraska. You may e-mail him at

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March 29, 2001
volume 12, no. 88
Exspectans exspectavibus Ecclesia Dei
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