FRIDAY
March 30, 2001
volume 12, no. 89

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 two

"Magisterialism" and Positivism

    This has had several effects on the members of the Church. The first is that those things, which pertain to the extrinsic tradition and do not touch upon the intrinsic tradition, are ignored. This manifests itself in the fact that some ecclesial documents today do not have any connection to the positions held by the magisterium prior to the Second Vatican Council. For example, in the document of Vatican II on ecumenism, Unitatis Redintegratio, there is not a single mention of the two previous documents which deal with the ecumenical movement and other religions, viz. Satis Cognitum by Leo XIII or Mortalium Animos by Pius XI. The approach to ecumenism and other religions is fundamentally different from the approach of the Vatican II document or Ut Unum Sint by Pope John Paul II (38). Moreover, the problem is not just with respect to magisterium prior to Vatican II but even with the magisterium since the Council (39).

    This type of behaviour coupled with the modern philosophical encroachment into the intellectual life of the Church and the bad theology resulting therefrom has led to a type of "magisterialism" (40). Magisterialism is a fixation on the teachings that pertain only to the current magisterium. Since extrinsic tradition has been subverted and since the Vatican tends to promulgate documents exhibiting a lack of concern regarding some of the previous magisterial acts, many have begun ignoring the previous magisterial acts and listen only to the current magisterium.

    This problem is exacerbated by our current historical conditions. As the theological intellectual community began to unravel before, during and after Vatican II, those who considered themselves orthodox were those who were obedient and intellectually submissive to the magisterium since those who dissent are not orthodox. Therefore, the standard of orthodoxy was shifted from Scripture, intrinsic tradition (of which the magisterium is a part) and extrinsic tradition (which includes magisterial acts of the past, such as Pius IX's Syllabus of Errors), to a psychological state in which only the current magisterium is followed.

    Neo-conservatives have fallen into this way of thinking i.e. the only standard by which they judge orthodoxy is whether or not one follows the current magisterium. Traditionalists, as a general rule, tend to be orthodox in the sense that they are obedient to the current magisterium, even though they disagree about matters of discipline and have some reservations about some aspects of current magisterial teachings which seem to contradict the previous magisterium (e.g. the role of the ecumenical movement). Traditionalists tend to take not just the current magisterium as their norm but Scripture (41), intrinsic tradition, extrinsic tradition and the current magisterium as the principles of judgment of correct Catholic thinking. This is what distinguishes traditionalists and neo-conservatives i.e. their perspectives regarding the role of ecclesiastical tradition and how the current magisterium relates to it.

    Inevitably, this magisterialism has led to a form of positivism (42). Since there are no principles of judgment other than the current magisterium, whatever the current magisterium says is always what is "orthodox." In other words, psychologically the neo-conservatives have been left in a position in which the extrinsic and intrinsic tradition are no longer included in the norms of judging whether something is orthodox or not. As a result, whatever comes out of the Vatican regardless of its authoritative weight, is to be held, even if it contradicts what was taught with comparable authority in the past. Since non-infallible ordinary acts of the magisterium can be erroneous, this leaves one in a precarious situation if one only takes as true what the current magisterium says. While we are required to give religious assent even to the non-infallible teachings of the Church, what are we to do when a magisterial document contradicts other current or previous teachings and one does not have any more authoritative weight than the other? It is too simplistic merely to say that we are to follow the current teaching. What would happen if in a period of crisis, like our own, a non-infallible ordinary magisterial teaching contradicted what was in fact the truth? If one part of the magisterium contradicts another, both being at the same level, which is to believed? Unfortunately, what has happened is that many neo-conservatives have acted as if non-infallible ordinary magisterial teachings (e.g. the role of inculturation in the liturgy as stated in the Catechism of the Catholic Church) are, in fact, infallible when the current magisterium promulgates them. This is a positivist mentality (43).

Collective Amnesia and Mutual Suspicion

    As the positivism and magisterialism grew and the extrinsic tradition no longer remained a norm for judging what should and should not be done, neo-conservatives accepted the notion that the Church must adapt to the modern world. Rather than helping the modern world to adapt to the teachings of the Church, the reverse process has occurred. This has led to the neo-conservatives being overly concerned about politically correct secular matters. Rather than having a certain distrust of the world which Christ exhorts us to have (44), many priests will only teach something from the pulpit as long as it is not going to cause problems. For example, how many priests are willing to preach against anti-Scriptural feminism? The fact is that they have adopted an immanentized way of looking at what should be done, often from an emotional point of view. And this coupled with political correctness has incapacitated ecclesiastical authorities in the face of the world and within the Church herself where the process of immanentization, with its flawed understanding of the nature of man and his condition as laboring under Original Sin, has severely undermined discipline. Even those who try to be orthodox have become accustomed to softer disciplinary norms, which fit fallen nature well, resulting in a lack of detachment from the current way of doing things and a consequent reluctance by neo-conservatives to exercise authority - precisely because they lack the vital detachment required to do so.

    All of the aforesaid has resulted in the neo-conservatives rejecting the extrinsic tradition as the norm. This is why, even in "good" seminaries, the spiritual patrimony of the saints is virtually never taught. Moreover, this accounts for why the neo-conservatives appear confused about the real meaning of tradition. Since it is not a principle of judgment for them, they are unable to discuss it in depth. In fact, they ignore extrinsic tradition almost as much as the "liberals." Even when neo-conservatives express a desire to recover and follow the extrinsic tradition, they rarely do so when it comes to making concrete decisions.

    It now becomes clearer why there is a kind of psychological suspicion between neo-conservatives and traditionalists: they have fundamentally different perspectives. The neo-conservatives have psychologically or implicitly accepted that extrinsic tradition cannot be trusted, whereas the traditionalists hold to the extrinsic tradition as something good, i.e. something which is the product of the wisdom and labor of the saints and the Church throughout history.

    For this reason, the fundamental difference between neo-conservatives and traditionalists is that the neo-conservative looks at the past through the eyes of the present while the traditionalist looks at the present through the eyes of the past.

    Historically, the mens ecclesiae or mind of the Church was expressed through the extrinsic tradition. That is to say that the Church, since it receives both its teaching from the past and the labour of the saints and previous magisterium by tradition, always looked at the present through the eyes of the past. In this, she looked at the present not as man under the influence of modern philosophy looked at the present (45), but through the eyes of her Lord Who gave her His teaching when He was on earth (i.e. in the past). Only at the time of Christ, is it possible to look authentically at the past through, what was then, the eyes of the present, since Christ was the fulfilment of the past. But once the work of Christ became part of history and He ascended into Heaven, we must always look back to Christ and to our tradition for an authentic understanding of the present (46).

    This fundamental shift in perspective has left the traditionalists with the sense that they are fighting for the good of the extrinsic tradition without the help of and often hindered by the current magisterium. Liturgically, traditionalists judge the Novus Ordo in light of the Mass of Pius V and the neo-conservatives judge the Tridentine Mass, as it is called, in light of the Novus Ordo (47). This comes from the Hegelianism which holds that the past is always understood in light of the present, i.e. the thesis and antithesis are understood in light of their synthesis. This leads to a mentality that newer is always better, because the synthesis is better than either the thesis or the antithesis taken alone. Being affected by this, the neo-conservatives often assume or are incapable of imagining that the current discipline of the Church may not be as good as the prior discipline. There is a mentality today which holds that "because it is present (Hegelianism), because it comes from us (immanentism), it is necessarily better."

    Furthermore, neo-conservatives love the Church and have a strong emotional attachment to the magisterium which causes them to find it unimaginable that the Church could ever falter, even with regard to matters of discipline. Like the father who loves his daughter and therefore has a hard time imagining her doing anything wrong, neo-conservatives have a hard time conceiving that the Holy Ghost does not guarantee infallibility in matters of discipline or non-infallible ordinary magisterial teaching. Traditionalists, confronted by a Church in crisis, know that something has gone wrong somewhere. As a result, they are, I believe, more sober in assessing whether or not the Church exercises infallibility. That, allied to their looking at the present through the eyes of the past, helps the traditionalists to see that the onus is on the present to justify itself, not the past.

    The dominance of Hegelianism and immanentism also led to a form of collective ecclesiastical amnesia (48). During the early 1960s, there existed a generation which was handed the entire ecclesiastical tradition, for the tradition was still being lived. However, because they labored under the aforesaid errors, that generation (49) chose not to pass on the ecclesiastical tradition to the subsequent generation as something living. Consequently, in one generation, the extrinsic tradition virtually died out. By the late 1960s and early 1970s, seminary and university formation in the Catholic Church excluded those things which pertained to the ecclesiastical tradition. Once the prior generation had chosen this course, not to remember and teach the things of the past, it was never passed on and so those whom they trained i.e. the current generation, were consigned to suffer collective ignorance about their patrimony and heritage.

    A further effect of what we have considered is that no prior teaching is left untouched. In other words, it appears as if more documentation has been issued in the last forty years than in the previous 1,960. Every past teaching, if the current magisterium deems it worthy of note to modern man, is touched upon anew and viewed through the lens of the present day immanentism. The impression is given that the teachings of the previous magisterium cannot stand on their own and so they must be given some form of "relevance" by being promulgated anew in a current document. Moreover, the current documents often lack the clarity and succinctness of the prior magisterium (50), and, with relatively few exceptions, are exceedingly long and tedious to read in their entirety. As a result, the frequency of the documents taken together with their length have eroded their authority because, as a general rule, people simply do not have the emotional or psychological discipline to plough through them.

Conclusion

    The differences between traditionalists and neo-conservatives are rooted in their respective attitudes to extrinsic or ecclesiastical tradition. Even if a neo-conservative holds notionally (51) that the extrinsic tradition is of value, nevertheless in the daily living of his life and in his deliberations, he simply ignores a large portion of it, if not completely. But there is hope, even outside the circles that hold to tradition. Many of the young, even those in neo-conservative seminaries, are no longer weighed down by the intellectual baggage which afflicted their counterparts in the previous generation. Because they have been taught virtually nothing about religion, they lack a perspective that might influence them negatively in favor of one particular view of extrinsic tradition. Many of them are eager to learn the truth and do not have any preconceived ideas about the current state of the Church. As a result, if they are provided with or are able to arrive at the knowledge of their patrimony, many of them seeking it out on their own, then we can be assured of a brighter future. But this requires knowledge of the problem and the willingness to adopt or connect to the extrinsic tradition by embracing it as something good. It is unlikely that the role of ecclesiastical tradition will be sorted out soon, but we can hope that its restoration is part of God's providential plan.

For Footnote References 38-51, see FOOTNOTES 38-51.

For Footnotes 1-37, see FOOTNOTES 1-37.

Father Ripperger teaches moral theology and philosophy at the seminary of the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter in Lincoln, Nebraska in the Diocese of Lincoln under the shepherd Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz. You may e-mail Fr. Ripperger at cripperger@alltel.net

For part one of his thesis, see Part One

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March 30, 2001
volume 12, no. 89
Exspectans exspectavibus Ecclesia Dei
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