Should we start again?
THE question of Church reform and renewal is high on the agenda and has been for quite some time. The Royal Commission and the upcoming Plenary Council have given the question a focus and, in the minds of the ever-hopeful, the optimism that something might actually be done.
In a culture where we have got used to having the possibility of making significant changes to those things affecting our lives every three or so years, by way of a general election, the apparently glacial movement of the Catholic Church can seem to provide a strong indication that it is either out of touch, or not structurally geared towards leading people in the contemporary environment.
As we contemplate our way forward it is important that we recognise the authentic sources that Catholics must draw upon as we decide how best to more deeply live our faith today. What does it mean to live in response to current concerns while remaining in continuity with the truth we have received from those who have preceded us?
It is an interesting awareness that Catholics are to have: a living attention to that which we have inherited from others. That is to say, we are to take seriously that we have a legacy to call upon that deserves to be heard and respected. Chesterton described this as ‘the democracy of the dead’ – the wisdom that comes down to us through the ages to give us guidance and to provide our spiritual ancestors with an enduring voice.
Central to this is our understanding of Tradition. This can be a confusing notion but is the response to the question that was recently posed to me: “why doesn’t the Church just start again?”
While it is true that all reform must be grounded in a recontemplation of the deep original truths at the heart of our faith, the problem is that any attempt to ‘start again’ would involve a wilful lack of attention to the Holy Spirit-inspired development in Catholic teaching and practice during the last 2000+ years. There is no going back. In fact, there are only two options: stagnant inertia, or going forward with the wisdom we have collectively received to guide and inform our own insights and experience.
Those of you who have had anything to do with Christian faith communities other than those of the Catholic and the Orthodox, will know that Tradition is a significant bone of contention. It can seem odd (and even diabolical) to those who believe that the only source of truth is Scripture. This needs thought.
The first thing to acknowledge is that the Scriptures, while undoubtedly the product of God’s inspiration on the various writers, were actually written by real human beings – people of faith like you and me. They didn’t just fall from heaven complete. In fact, the history of how they came to be in their current form is interesting and complex, as many of you would know.
This means we have to acknowledge that it is the people who were the recipients of the inspiration and, only secondarily, the text itself. The writings of the New Testament get their authority from the apostolic community that wrote the texts under God’s inspiration and, having been written, were assessed by that community for their authenticity.
Not every text purporting to be authentic (e.g. the gospels of Thomas or Judas) were accepted by the community as such. God works through his people. If the source of Scripture’s authority comes from God working through God’s people, even those teachings that came from the apostles and their immediate successors, but not written down, are considered potentially inspired.
We say ‘potentially’ as these teachings had to go through the same discernment and acceptance processes that the Scriptural texts underwent. Not everything that the apostolic communities were taught and did have come down to us as part of the Tradition. This is not to undermine the significance of Scripture. In fact, it is to honour what Scripture teaches on the matter.
For example, in his second letter to the Thessalonians (2:15) St Paul writes: ‘So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter’.
That is to say, it was not St Paul’s belief that his only teaching worth preserving could be found in his letters. He required the people to whom he was writing to pay attention to what he and other recognised teachers of the faith had said. Elsewhere he would require them to pay attention not only to what he had written and taught but also to what he had done (1 Corinthians 11).
So, held in balance with Scripture as a primary source of truth, Tradition is grounded in the same theological reality that provides legitimacy to the Scriptures. That is to say, the same Holy Spirit that inspired the Scriptures is at work in the Christian community, and promises to lead that community to all truth (John 16:13), through that which is accepted by the community as authoritative teaching.
Of course, the community must continue to grow and develop and to find new ways of authentically living the faith it has received in whatever context it finds itself. However, we can only do this, and remain the Church of Jesus Christ, by paying attention to the full deposit of faith we have received as a gift down through the centuries. It is often, it must be admitted, a frustratingly slow business.