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Dynamic Ukelele: An Examination of ‘Living Tradition’

In a recent interview with America magazine, Archbishop Rino Fisichella praised the “dynamic nature” of sacred Tradition. Such Tradition, he maintained, is “first and foremost living.” We must not view Tradition as hidebound, the archbishop implied, because denying the “dynamic nature of tradition is tantamount to denying the contemporaneity of the Christian faith.”

Here I do not want to enter into the customary apologetics debate between Catholics and Protestants about the meaning of Tradition. Suffice it to say that Protestants try to build their case around the admonition about not following the traditions of men (e.g., Mt. 15:1–9, Mk. 7:1–9, Col. 2:8), and Catholics understand sacred Tradition, or Paradosis, as complementary to Scripture (see CCC #80–84; Vatican II, Dei Verbum, 8–10) — and as the faithful handing on of the Truth (as in 1 Cor. 11:2, 23; 15:3–11; 2 Thess. 2:15; 2 Tim. 1:13–14). In fact, Dei Verbum refers to sacred Tradition as the “doctrine, life, and worship” of the Church (#8).

Neither will we be concerned here with the erudite question of the development of doctrine, leaving the particulars of that debate to close students of St. John Henry Newman (1801–1890) and others. The question to be raised here is this: are there “permanent things” (as Russell Kirk [1918–1994] continually affirmed), or is change the only eternal and meaningful thing (as Heraclitus [about 540–480 B.C.] insisted)? Among philosophers, this has been, and will continue to be — it doesn’t change! — a matter of sometimes arcane discussion.

For our fellow Catholics in the pews, however, there is nothing abstruse about such a debate: they have seen liturgy and doctrine change, or metastasize, a number of times in the past half-century or so. Is there nothing settled?

Yes: “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Heb. 13:8). The core teaching — the sacred Tradition — of the Church is, and must be, beyond change. The manner in which that teaching may be communicated, however, may change. Therein lies the confusion. “As the centuries go by, the Church is always advancing toward the plenitude of divine truth, until eventually the words of God are fulfilled in her” (Dei Verbum #8).

An easier way to express this concept is that truth does not change, but our understanding of truth may and should develop, and our ability to express that truth — to communicate it effectively to a morally beleaguered world — similarly advances or retreats. Even Archbishop Fisichella is at pains in his interview to argue against caprice in doctrinal development or expression. That it is precisely “caprice” that has accompanied, or spawned, so much change in recent decades seems to have escaped the archbishop.

Permit me a personal observation. I was confirmed on 30 October 1959 at St. Patrick’s Church in Monson, Massachusetts, by the heroic Bishop Cuthbert M. O’Gara, C.P. (1886–1968), who had been imprisoned and tortured by both the Japanese and the Chinese Communists. During his eulogy for Bishop O’Gara on 17 May 1968, Archbishop Fulton Sheen (1895–1979) called the bishop a “dry martyr” because of his prison experience in China from 1951 to 1953. Archbishop Sheen used Bishop O’Gara as an example of an individual who “can pass the breaking point and not break.” When Bishop O’Gara spoke to us at Confirmation about being witnesses for faith, we listened; when he mildly slapped us to remind us to be faithful to Catholic truth despite the lies and seductions of the world, we understood — at least for that moment. The tumultuous 1960s lay straight ahead.

Here, by contrast, is a confirmation “homily” given recently by a ukulele-strumming bishop in Detroit (as the organist, no doubt thunderstruck by the bishop’s “contemporaneity,” seeks to drown out the strains of “This Little Light of Mine”).

It would be as if a military chaplain were to hum “Kumbaya” through waxed paper and comb while offering the invocation to the newest graduates of the U.S. Army Ranger School at Fort Benning, Georgia. Such an invocation would be novel, entertaining, and dynamic — and grotesquely incongruous. Despite its contemporaneity (to use Archbishop’s Fisichella’s noun), such an invocation would be a snapshot of the latitude too often taken over the past six decades with the doctrine, life, and worship of the Church. This is precisely what occurs when Tradition is made “relevant” (at least in someone’s judgment): style defeats substance, the garish drives out the beautiful, personal opinion trumps natural law, and the secular triumphs over the sacred — all in the name of what is current, fashionable, or modern.

In economics, Gresham’s Law tells us that cheap money drives dear money out of circulation. We might suggest a theological corollary to Gresham’s Law: prostration to the gods of the zeitgeist obscures or precludes proper worship of God (see Leviticus 10:1–3, 10).

Thus did G.K. Chesterton (1874–1936) conclude: “Wherever the people do not believe something beyond the world, they will worship the world. But, above all, they will worship the strongest thing in the world.”

Confirmation “gives us a special strength to spread and defend the faith by word and action as true witnesses of Christ, to confess the name of Christ boldly, and never to be ashamed of the Cross” (CCC #1303). We used to talk about Confirmation in the context of “soldiers for Christ.” Let me see: are we more likely to have resolute Catholic men and women after confirmation by Bishop O’Gara or by the ukulele-playing Bishop Hanchon?

Yet does not Bishop Hanchon display an innovative and dynamic style? Bishop O’Gara, by contrast, spoke to us about suffering for the Faith. I will resist belaboring an obvious point by painful contrast between the two bishops. By the way, this is not meant to question Bishop Hanchon’s sincerity, but one must be perplexed that about what, on Earth, would lead him to speak to confirmandi at a critical time of their growth in and for Our Lord by playing “This Little Light of Mine”? Can one play “Faith of Our Fathers” on a ukulele? (I hope not.)

There is no crisis in modifying the verities and virtues of Christian truth to appeal to the moral vagaries and values of the secular world. At that, we are highly accomplished — to the point, in fact, of syncretism. Rather, the crisis lies in our failure to raise the debauched ways of the world toward the plane of divine wisdom so that we might know what is “conformable with [God’s] commands” (Wisdom 9:9).

Are we not called to know what endures (cf. Psalm 119:89–176, Hebrews 1:12, Jude 1:25, John 8:58), to know what is eternal, to know what is permanent? When we fail to discern these things, we lose sight of the natural moral law, which is immutable (CCC #1958) and ought to guide the positive laws and customs that govern secular society. But if all is changing, then we are left with “virtue vertigo,” shifting images of right and wrong, without the moral stability we need to act correctly and courageously (cf. Gal 5:19–21). Be very careful, one might say to Archbishop Fisichella: do not too hastily exalt what you may see as “dynamic.”

We are good — no, expert — at dynamically loosening the bonds of our religion (and religion refers to that which binds) in order to accommodate a society committed to what it sees as fun and frivolity. We see that as necessary compromise, as evangelization, as modernization. So we Protestantize the holy Mass, kiss the Koran, and insist that personal reflection trumps the natural law. We invent weasel words like “subsist,” “seamless garment,” “inculturation,” and “exceptional circumstances” to lighten the burden of the Faith.

We are good — in fact, expert — at compromising the teachings of the faith in order to appeal to or accommodate the way of the world when, by contrast, we are called to raise the ways of the world, always working to have them conform to divine teaching (Rom. 12:2). We forget the admonition of St. James: “Unfaithful people! Don’t you know that to be the world’s friend means to be God’s enemy? Whoever wants to be the world’s friend makes himself God’s enemy” (4:4).

The gods of the air (Eph. 2:2) are not the God of the Bible, yet we are so influenced, or, better, infected, by secular knowledge (see Gal. 1:6; 1 Tim. 6:20–21) and by the zeitgeist that we embrace style over substance: thus do we see drums and, yes, ukuleles at Mass, but worse, thus do we, in sermons, hear pablum rather than bold confession (parrhesia) of Christ’s name and teaching (cf. Rom. 10:14). Bishop O’Gara, to his credit, would never have understood this contemporaneous instructional dereliction.

We often think of bishops (and priests) as learned men and wise counselors. Not a few, thank God, may correctly be so described. But many, we have learned to our sorrow, are poorly educated, lacking intellectual and moral formation, not just in theology and philosophy, but in history, literature, and classical politics. Moreover, they have little knowledge of, and no experience in, organizational leadership, having managed not even a high school baseball team. One priest I know told me that his initial diocesan salary check was the first money he had ever earned (any previous income had been a present from his family)!

In the past five or six decades, we have modified sacred Tradition — the doctrine, life, and worship of the Church — in ways Bishop O’Gara could never have predicted. By their fruits we know them: as David Masci and Gregory Smith of the Pew Research Center tell us, the Catholic Church has seen “a greater net loss due to religious switching than has any other religious tradition in the U.S. Overall, 13% of all U.S. adults are former Catholics [my emphasis] — people who say they were raised in the faith, but now identify as religious ‘nones,’ as Protestants, or with another religion. By contrast, 2% of U.S. adults are converts to Catholicism — people who now identify as Catholic after having been raised in another religion (or no religion). This means that there are 6.5 former Catholics in the U.S. for every convert to the faith. No other religious group analyzed in the 2014 Religious Landscape Study has experienced anything close to this ratio of losses to gains via religious switching.”

Can we imagine any serious organization losing 13% of its “supporters,” “customers,” or “faithful” and then its officers persisting in in the delusion that what is needed is more of the same “dynamic tradition” which has produced the catastrophe in the first place?

Can it be that the greater good today is not “dynamic” development, but faithful stewardship, including the restoration of the Paradosis that we have too frequently mindlessly squandered, or betrayed, these last six decades? As Vatican I told us in Dei Filius:

[T]he doctrine of faith which God revealed has not been handed down as a philosophic invention to the human mind to be perfected, but has been entrusted as a divine deposit to the Spouse of Christ, to be faithfully guarded and infallibly interpreted. Hence, also, that understanding of its sacred dogmas must be perpetually retained, which Holy Mother Church has once declared; and there must never be recession from that meaning under the specious name of a deeper understanding.

Eric Voegelin (1901–1985) reminded us in The New Science of Politics of the plea-promise of Richard Hooker (1554–1600): “Posterity may know we have not loosely through silence permitted things to pass away as in a dream.”

Bishop Cuthbert O’Gara understood. May we also, by the grace of God, come to understand and then work to restore what has been so profligately squandered in the fraudulent name of “progress.”

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