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.