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Pope Francis and Museum-Piece Catholicism

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Jaroslav Pelikan once called tradition the living faith of the dead and traditionalism the dead faith of the living. I am reminded of this pithy observation as I watch right-wing Catholics react to Pope Francis' warm-spirited evangelization. The comments on Rorate Caeli (in Latin, "let the heavens fall like the dew"), were frightening in their intensity. Speaking of the pope's decision to wash the feet of women convicts on Holy Thursday, one commentator wrote: "Wonder why he didn't wait until tomorrow [Good Friday] to stick a spear in the side of the Bride of Christ?" Another commentator added, using bold print: "Francis is being OPENLY DEFIANT to Tradition in the Church." (See Comments section to "The Official End of the Reform of the Reform -- By Example," Rorate Caeli, March 28, 2013).

It is this idea of tradition that is worth considering. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the "living transmission" of the message of salvation is "called Tradition, since it is distinct from Sacred Scripture, though closely connected to it" (paragraph 77).

The right-wing furor over the pope's foot-washing puts into stark relief two ways of viewing Tradition. The first approach is that of the commentators on Rorate Caeli. Tradition is fixed and unchanging. What was done yesterday must be done today, and tomorrow, and the day after that, world without end, Amen. The role of priests and the hierarchy on this model is not unlike museum curators. They preserve the past, seal it in glass cases, reverence it, bring it out on special occasions, surrounded by pomp and glory. And it is the duty of the laity to gaze on with due admiration at the delicacy and the intensity of these wonderful old masterworks.

Nowhere is this reverence for a fixed and unchanging past on better display than among ecclesial conservatives in today's Catholic Church. Mass must be exactly as it always was. The priest must chant. Communion must be on the tongue. Women must wear headscarves. And only men may have their feet washed at the Holy Thursday because, well, Pope Pius XII decreed it. But this idea of the fixed and unchanging Church goes far beyond the details of liturgical celebration. Just look at the debates over moral teaching.

The language of the Catechism, however, cautions against static conceptions of Tradition. After all, it refers to the "living transmission" of practice and doctrine. The adjective "living" insists upon a dynamic application of Tradition. It is tradition that is adaptive and forward-looking, not enclosed and self-referential.

And indeed, if we look at Church history we do not find static, changeless, timeless truths but a dynamic response to changing conditions. Consider just one fundamental issue: the composition of the Christian New Testament. The Bible was not automatically known to the first Christians. It was developed incrementally, in stages, through reflection, discussion, disagreement and debate over the first four hundred years of Church history.

Important theologians, still respected and revered by the Church, relied on books that are not considered canonical today. Clement of Alexandria (c. 150 - c. 215) made use of the Gospel of Thomas and the Traditions of Matthias. The Acts of Paul and Thecla, the legendary account of Paul's travels with his feminine companion Thecla, was invoked by a number of orthodox writers. St. Ambrose, that paragon of proper belief and practice, presided over his diocese from the Cathedral Church of St. Thecla and recommended to the nuns of his diocese the life of St. Thecla as a model of virginal dedication. Other orthodox writers meanwhile, rejected books now considered canonical. Thus the sainted fourth-century bishop Gregory Nazianzus maintained that the Book of Revelations was not biblical and should therefore be excluded from the Scriptures.

The point of this historical exercise is to demonstrate that even on big issues -- and no question is larger than defining what counts as Scripture -- tradition played the leading role in determining what got in and what was omitted. It was a messy, dynamic process. Tradition was not handed down in a single moment of radiant light on Calvary, but was developed by Christian communities trying to learn the authentic Word of God for themselves and to shape their lives accordingly. Tradition is not static, but dynamic.

The same phenomenon repeats itself in the area of moral teaching. John Noonan has shown how Church doctrine developed in areas like usury (see his book, "The Scholastic Analysis of Usury"). In the early middle ages, the Gospel verse instructing us "to lend freely, asking nothing in return" was taken literally as forbidding all interest on loans. In the high middle ages, canonists and theologians invented legal fictions that allowed for the taking of moderate interest where it could be shown that the money lent otherwise had productive value. And by the time we reach the 18th and 19th centuries, even the fictions disappeared as moral theologians, learning from the experience of Christian merchants, concluded that the taking of interest was not sinful but a necessary part of commercial life. It was not a crime, but an engine of prosperity for many people.

Pope Francis grasps this. He understands that tradition is a continually unfolding process and that individuals are not passive observers but must play a role in the constant renewal and re-creation of what it means to be Church. Nothing can ever be handed on exactly, because historical context is constantly shifting, altering our vantage point and making all things fresh. It is this deep self-awareness that makes him so very appealing to such a large audience of Catholics and non-Catholics alike.

And it is this openness to revision that so deeply threatens what the conservatives take to be the eternal verities. When he declined the elaborate vestments at his first appearance on the balcony of St. Peter's, when he asked for the crowd's blessing, when he referred to himself modestly as the "Bishop of Rome," he was symbolically altering the way people look at the papal office. And if we view how the papacy can change, conservatives fret, then there is nothing that can't be accommodated to fit the temper of the times. Hence the alarm at washing the feet of women -- and Muslims -- on Holy Thursday.

The Church cannot be all change, all flux, lacking all core or conviction. But at the same time, the Church has been most alive when it has been swept by change -- whether that be the ascertainment of the Books of Scripture, the founding of the great religious orders, like the Franciscans and the Jesuits, or the shifts in Church teaching brought about by the Second Vatican Council. Who knows, perhaps we are once again about to experience an exciting time of change?