Tradition and Ideology
There’s a danger in a self-conscious tradition, and a tradition in which it’s acceptable to toss off a limb for the sake of the whole — traditions, in addition to being billion-headed rabbis (not letting that analogy go, folks), are like starfish: limbs re-grow after time. (But a limbless tradition, like a limbless starfish, is less likely to survive: it’s probably more a danger with tradition than a starfish.)
The problem, on the other hand, with an ossified tradition is that it has ceased to live and lapsed into reflexive (more or less) dogma. An ossified tradition fails because the existence of a tradition within history inherently causes changes to the circumstances of that tradition — and that can necessitate changes to the tradition itself. To borrow (again) from Eliot’s imagery, the creation of a new work of art, by its existence, alters the relation of all previous works of art within the tradition to one another, even if imperceptibly. Any tradition that is not dying or dead is a living tradition.
So now on to William Brafford’s debut post here at the League. In his grappling with the concept of ideology, he writes:
We all need some kind of framework for interpreting the world around us and for guessing at the consequences of our actions, and we need to acquire these frameworks from those who came before, even if we modify them in the process of application. Such a framework I prefer to call a tradition. The key feature of a vibrant tradition is its continued grappling with its own internal problems and contradictions. Traditions always change and grow over time. A tradition that ceases to do this is a dead tradition, and a tradition that is dead or near death I will call an ideology.
So this becomes an exercise in connecting-the-dots. On the one hand we have Scott urging conservatives to embrace “self-reflective traditions.” But while this can be necessary and good, J.L. Wall also urges caution against cutting off the “limbs” of our traditions lest they become too fragile to survive. Then again, a tradition that cannot continue “grappling with its own internal problems and contradictions” risks dying and transforming into an ideology rather than a tradition.
Now, I’m not sure entirely that ideology can be quite so easily boiled down to a dead tradition – some ideologies, like Marxism for instance, had very little in the way of a living tradition to precede them – but William’s argument does make a good case that relying on a strong, vibrant tradition whilst maintaining an open, honest dialogue within that tradition is probably a better way to approach cultural and even political problems than from within the confines of ideology. As Larison puts it, ideology
will condition the mind to force every event into the mold provided by the ideology. If a person approaches the world with an ideological frame of mind, whatever events dominate the historical memory of his fellow ideologues are perceived as constantly recurring again and again as part of a progressive narrative of successive triumphs, each one more important than the last. The simple framing, the certainty of victory and the quick and easy interchangeability of extremely different groups as different faces of the same enemy are all very useful for purposes of propaganda and the acquisition and exercise of power.
Which leads me at once to the current collapse of the GOP and to the state of affairs at the Vatican and throughout the Catholic Church at large. I think it’s safe to say (or perhaps it’s actually not at all safe to say…) that the GOP and the Church are suffering from similar, though certainly not identical, setbacks. So here’s where I’m running into difficulty. On the one hand, the GOP is currently spearheaded by a very strong, if somewhat fragmented, movement of idealogues and pundits. On the other hand, the Church is a hierarchical organization with no express ideology which at least ostensibly relies upon tradition rather than ideological loyalties in its treatment of social issues and organizational decisions.
I suppose my question is, at what point does the refusal of the Vatican to continue down the path of reform – and make no mistake, despite (or perhaps because of) my self-professed “civilizational conservatism” I am staunchly in favor of reform within the Church – at what point does this translate into an unwillingness to grapple with its own internal problems, its own problematic traditions? In other words, at what point does the Church risk abandoning living tradition in favor of mere ideology? I understand that on the flip side of this is a Church which caves too much to the oft-flighty pressures of a rapidly changing society, but that is why it is important to be critical and to have an open and honest discussion going on within the Church. That is why Vatican II was so important, whether or not you prefer a Latin or an English mass. The conversation was going on. The traditions were examined. The Church emerged – I believe – much stronger for it. Compromise was made to preserve the institution, which is really the dynamic at play between progress and conservatism at any given moment, and the foundation of civilizational conservatism. Change the world to fit the vision.
Conservatism has an easier time of it. The rise and fall of political parties is insubstantial compared to the collapse of the Roman Catholic Church. Republicans can get away with a few years or a couple decades of hubris and intellectual bankruptcy. Glenn Beck can do all the damage he wants to the GOP and conservatism will, nevertheless, rise up out of its own ruins stronger and smarter and able to win again.
I’m not sure the same can be said for the Church. Granted, there are over a billion Catholics in the world so there is no great risk that a few more years will lead to the downfall of the Church altogether, but I think there comes a point where some sort of critical mass is reached – a turning point, if you will. Once you hit that point it becomes much, much harder to recover. You can see it in American parishes, I think, following the mollestation scandals. Certainly at some point in European history that point was reached and Europe has never again recovered its flock. The number of new priests is dwindling. There is no reason Roman Catholics shouldn’t adopt the Eastern practice of allowing Parish priests to marry while still forbidding monks to do so. It would be a step toward critically examining the traditions of the Catholic faith and hierarchy that could very well save the Church from itself. Other changes are needed as well. I hope the Church will find a way to address them while retaining its foundation in a living tradition rather than a stagnant ideology.