A Radical Traditionalist Pope

This is the title of of an opinion piece by Mary Eberstadt in the October 7 print edition of Time Magazine.  Unfortunately, the editors of the online version chose to give it a title that really, IMHO, weakens the author’s point: “The Pope Is no Radical.” When I posted it on Facebook, with a comment that I liked the term “Radical Traditionalist,” someone asked, “Isn’t that an oxymoron?”  My reply: “Actually, no; not if you understand the true meaning of the words.”

First of all, the word “radical” means, in its origins, “deeply rooted”.  A true radical is one who is what he/she is (whatever that may be) to the very core of his/her being. And an authentic traditionalist is one who knows and respects the whole of tradition, not just what appeals to one’s own ideologies.  Self-proclaimed traditionalists tend to be very selective about what they call tradition.

Genuine tradition first of all understands that teaching is based on faith, not the other way around.  In other words, teaching strives to articulate and communicate faith – the living faith of the believing people of God throughout history, a history that sees both continuity and development of understanding. Church teaching seeks to articulate faith that is always beyond any expression of it that is limited by the impossibility of adequately encapsulating divine truth in human words. Magisterium serves to reflect the faith of a previous heritage to a future generation.

Genuine tradition always seeks to ground developments that respond to the contemporary situation in the heritage and lessons of the past. One of the earliest traditions, articulated at the heart of revelation is the primacy of love. Faith is the foundation from which love springs; it is not the straightjacket that bind and constrains love. Doctrine is of value only when it serves he primacy of love.

When I read these two recent interviews (last month’s Jesuit one and today’s in La Repubblica), I sense that he has a profound sense of history and the lessons of the many ups and downs of history. One cannot be informed by history and be a rigid ideologue. Throughout history, one can discern the traces and threads of God’s interaction with humans, and these are articulated in the authentic tradition of the Church – and they cannot be denied or ignored.  But they must still be kept in perspective, and that perspective is based in the dignity of the human person – every human person – and the proper response to that dignity is love. Unconditional love, imitating the love of the Father. Neither abortion nor social justice is a litmus test allowing one to concentrate on the one to the exclusion of the other, which so often characterizes today’s liberal-progressive/conservative-traditionalist polarization.

Francis, grounded in history, humanity, and humility, simply rises above that polarized frenzy, like the Kingdom of Heaven’s householder who brings both old and new out of the same treasury.  (See Matthew 13:52) A radical traditionalist indeed, who knows where he stands – upon the solid faith heritage of the People of God through the centuries – and where he’s going – into the depths of the world with confidence and bravery, with Jesus.

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Author: tomwelbers

I have been a Catholic priest for nearly fifty years, most of that time serving in parish and college campus ministry. I also have professional degrees in theology and liturgy, as well as institutional management, and continue avidly to explore pastoral theology, Scripture, liturgy, ecumenical and interfaith relations, and spiritual direction. I have a passion for sharing insight into our Christian heritage through teaching, writing, and leading pilgrimages, especially to Early Christian World sites in Turkey. Now actively retired from parish ministry, I live at Nazareth House in Los Angeles.

5 thoughts on “A Radical Traditionalist Pope”

    1. Good to hear from you, Enza. One could say that, although, in the same vein, I think one could look back even further to Moses and the Hebrew prophets. Our tradition really goes back beyond Jesus to Abraham; and Moses and the prophets called the people back to that tradition – the faith of Abraham. My best to Mitchell.

  1. Hi Fr Tom – I hope all is well with you !

    I have to admit that I am one of those Catholics who has had difficulty understanding some of the Pope’s recent statements. For example, this exchange for his most recent interview:

    Your Holiness, is there is a single vision of the Good? And who decides what it is?
    “Each of us has a vision of good and of evil. We have to encourage people to move towards what they think is Good.”

    Your Holiness, you wrote that in your letter to me. The conscience is autonomous, you said, and everyone must obey his conscience. I think that’s one of the most courageous steps taken by a Pope.
    “And I repeat it here. Everyone has his own idea of good and evil and must choose to follow the good and fight evil as he conceives them. That would be enough to make the world a better place.”

    I have always understood Catholic doctrine as holding that there is such a thing as objective good and evil, and that we have an obligation to order our consciences accordingly. The Holy Father seems to be saying that we can and should embrace our own individual understanding of good and evil. Isn’t this an invitation to moral relativism? What am I missing here?

    1. Hi Jim. It’s really good to hear from you. There’s a scholastic philosophical principle, “quidquid recipitur secundum modum recipientis recipitur.” (I said that out of academic machismo to show myself, at least, that I still got the Latin goods!) It means, literally, “whatever is received is received according to the mode of the recipient.” As a principle, however, it’s understood in an exclusive and imperative sense: “Whatever is received can only be received in the way that the recipient is able to receive it.”

      The problem that the Holy Father points out is that correct moral teaching has mostly been presented in a way that made it appear more of a punitive club than a life-giving truth. Shouldn’t people first be encouraged to seek the good as they see it, and accepted and loved for their good will? Then, in an atmosphered of mutual respect, one can explore with them what might be the deeper truths. Francis is certainly not introducing moral relativism, but he is convinced that to help people discover objective truth it is essential to enter through the subjective. To win people over, one must lead with love; only then, can doctrine be explored.

      Jesus did much the same, and scandalized the most devoted law-abiding folks of his day – the scribes and Pharisees – when he reached out to tax collectors, prostitutes, lepers, and other “undesirables” of his day, and first invited and forgave and ate with them. He transformed them with freely given, unconditional love, and in that transformation, empowered them to seek and live the true good.

      Please give my best to Marilynne and your family.

      Anybody else care to venture an opinion or insight on this?

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