TIA Quotes Pius XII on Tradition

In this instance, TIA avoids yet another conspiracy theory or batty prophecy – and makes a valuable point…


Tradition Is Complementary to Progress

When people use the word traditionalist, they imagine someone who is locked in the past and unwilling to admit any progress. This is a wrong notion of tradition. True tradition is the foundation for an authentic and stable progress. The following words of Pius XII make it very clear.


(Quoting Pope Pius XII)

Tradition is something very different from a simple attachment to a bygone past; it is the very opposite of a reaction mistrustful of all healthy progress. Etymologically, the word is synonymous with advancement and marching forward, synonymous but not identical. In fact, while progress indicates only a forward march, step by step, in search of an uncertain future, tradition also signifies a forward march, but a continuous march as well, a movement both brisk and tranquil, in accordance with the laws of life, escaping the distressing alternative “Si jeunesse savait, si vieillesse pouvait!” “O, if youth only knew… O, if old age only could…” …

By virtue of tradition, the youth, enlightened and guided by the experience of the elders, moves forward with a surer step, and the elders can confidently pass on the plow to stronger hands, to continue the furrow already begun. As the word itself indicates, tradition is a gift handed down from one generation to another; it is the torch that one runner passes to the hands of the next at each relay, without the race slowing down or coming to a halt. Tradition and progress complement each other so harmoniously that, just as tradition without progress would be a contradiction in terms, so also progress without tradition would be a reckless enterprise, a leap into darkness.

Pius XII, Speech to the Roman Nobility and Patriarchate,
January 19, 1944, Discorsi e Radioessaggi, vol. 5, pp. 179-180.

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One comment on “TIA Quotes Pius XII on Tradition

  1. James Kalb, the Catholic-convert, paleo-Con, and lawyer-independent scholar, has written many pieces on the subject of tradition; among some recent ones:

    When Should We Ignore Tradition?

    One of the most important services of tradition is that it takes into account realities current ways of thinking leave out. It summarizes experience, and experience changes how things look to us.

    Catholic World Report
    June 18, 2016

    Last month I noted that tradition is not self-contained or absolute. It’s complex, so that superior, subordinate, and parallel traditions often come into conflict. Local tradition may say one thing, Church or national tradition quite another. Also, tradition is not about itself but about goods toward which it’s oriented, so it’s relative to something higher, and it can improve or go downhill. And there are other ways in which we come to know the world—reason, revelation, personal observation—so other authorities are necessary as well, and may say something contradictory.

    Even so, breaking with tradition is breaking with authority. People today romanticize “breaking the rules,“ but it needs a special justification. There are similarities to declaring a state of emergency, in which constituted authorities authorize themselves to ignore normal standards of legality, or to engaging in conscientious objection or civil disobedience, in which individuals do the same thing. Such things are sometimes called for, but if they become habitual authority stops being orderly and respected, and power becomes crude, brutal, and devious. The progression is common in revolutionary movements.

    The issue of rejecting authority is particularly difficult to sort out in the case of tradition. It is usually informal, lacking in explicit justification, and often somewhat ill-defined, so when it’s rejected it can be difficult to determine how far the rejection is likely to go and what the results are likely to be. What, for example, have been the consequences of rejecting traditional Catholic attitudes toward ecumenism? It’s hard to know, but it seems likely that one result has been further scattering of the Christian flock, since Catholicism no longer presents such a clear, steady, and self-confident point of reference.

    To add to the difficulties, all human order depends on tradition. What is thought to justify other authorities, that of the state for example? What is the meaning of the language in which they express their judgments? How seriously should we take them? A law, for example, may be taken literally or as a general rule subject to unstated exceptions. It may also be viewed as a specific instance of a more general requirement, or disregarded as a dead letter. Which possibility applies depends on accepted practices and understandings, and so on particular traditions. That is why such questions are answered differently in Italy and in Sweden.

    All these issues have become acute in the Church in the wake of the Second Vatican Council, with wholesale rejection of traditions leading to confusion of discipline and doctrine. It turned out to be impossible to limit changes to those desired by legitimate authority, and the resulting unsettled situation sometimes led people troubled by many of the changes to attempt extreme remedies—the unauthorized ordination of bishops in the Society of Saint Pius X is a striking example—on grounds of a “state of necessity.“

    Such ways of thinking and the resulting divisions and uncertainties continue. The image of a Church of the peripheries, or the Church as a field hospital, is the image of a Church operating in a sort of permanent exceptional or emergency state in which normal standards cannot be applied and everyone must simply do the best he can in the situation in which he finds himself. The alternative, it is thought, is Pharisaical worship of the law and spiritual death. Hence proposals for greater local control of disciplinary and even doctrinal matters, communion for those in nonmarital or invalid unions, and also talk of regularization of the SSPX with few if any concessions from them.

    The emerging picture is that of a Church in which definitions, rules, structures, and precedents normally play a much smaller role and immediate needs, opportunities, and improvisations a much greater one. The hope is that such a situation will allow more room for all the faithful to contribute and the Holy Spirit to act. The fear is that abandonment of specific standards will cede effective control to local tyrants, hobbyists, and careerists, and to the ever more imperious standards that govern secular life. The Pope and most bishops may not like gender ideology, for example, but how will the Church resist it without definite common standards, understandings, and disciplines? And how can such things be maintained, understood, defended, and applied intelligently if the Church becomes a great mass of ad hoc emergency measures?

    With such issues in mind we need to think through what situations justify disregarding traditions that present themselves as authoritative or at least advisable. Some cases seem easy. Abuse doesn’t legitimate itself through repetition, so even local practices to which people are attached must change in the face of clear higher authority. That has been a common method of reform in the Church, for example with regard to suppression of clerical concubinage and periodic efforts to restore religious communities to their original mission and rule.

    A standard that seems equally obvious today is what might be called the reality check. Truth is the supreme authority, so we reject tradition when what it tells us can’t be true because it makes no sense—or so it seems. The standard seems obvious, but raises questions. If something literally made no sense, how would it gather enough support to become a tradition?

    Times change, but human nature does not, so the situation is often a sign that we do not understand all the considerations involved. One of the most important services of tradition is that it takes into account realities current ways of thinking leave out. It summarizes experience, and experience changes how things look to us. As Mark Twain commented, “when I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.” What was true of Mark Twain’s father is usually true of traditions that have played an important role in the life of a community.

    The “culture wars“ provide examples of bad reality checks. People today are utilitarian and egalitarian. The basic public outlook is that people want stuff, and their wants are equally wants, so they equally call for satisfaction. That is considered the hardcore truth of human nature, disputed only by those in the grip of some religious ideology. With that point granted, the purpose of morality and social order becomes establishing an orderly and effective system for maximum equal preference satisfaction. Traditional loyalties and connections—for example those related to family life—don’t fit into such a system, since they operate on different principles. It follows that they, and the standards and expectations that support them, lack a basis in how things really are and are therefore pointlessly oppressive.

    There are lots of problems with such an approach. They mostly have to do with man’s nature as a rational being who wants to base his life on what he thinks is ultimately real, a spiritual being whose understanding of reality goes beyond what is given by sense, a social being whose goals mostly depend on the beliefs, attitudes, and habits of other people, and a physical being whose functioning as such, for example with regard to reproduction, cannot be reduced to simple rational concepts. Those features of human life make man far too complex for happiness to reduce to a checklist of individual desires.

    So reality checks themselves need a reality check, a reflective one that takes into account what other people, times, and places have noticed about life and the world. Such an approach leads to a conception of human nature and natural law, and involves reflecting on experience and observation, together with what tradition tells us about the world, the good, and how the former comes to foster the latter.

    The issues are subtle and complex, and people spin them in accordance with their interests and biases. It follows that our reflective conclusions need a further check, and that’s an important role of revelation and the hierarchical authority of the Church. Those authorities must also be interpreted, however, in ways that can also be erroneous or manipulated, so at some point the system of checks must come to an end. Even if we take advantage of all available authorities we do not have a system that runs of itself.

    Grace, good will, and love of God are eternally necessary, and no authority can keep those who lack those things—and we all lack them to some degree—on track. In the end, after doing what we can, we can only rely on God. And that is why, in spite of the value of definite standards, the Faith is referred to as the Faith rather than as the Law.

    Tradition: Its Necessity and Its Discontents

    Crisis Magazine
    MAY 16, 2016

    I noted last month [see article below] that living well is difficult apart from a definite and well-developed tradition of life. Otherwise we simply won’t know what we’re doing, and we’ll have to make up everything as we go along without any idea of ultimate results or significance, or of what we might be missing.

    Such claims for the necessity of tradition make no sense to many people today.

    One objection is that they are meaningless, since everything people do is part of a tradition. There is Catholic tradition, Mafia tradition, Buddhist tradition, Bolshevik tradition, anarchist tradition, and so on. So praising tradition tells us nothing about what anyone should do.

    Another is that it’s the genius of tradition to develop, so a break in tradition can better be seen as a variation or new development. If people are starting to do something, it’s part of their tradition as it now exists. And besides, traditions are complex, as complex as the situations they deal with. In a Catholic society there are likely to be traditions of devotion, orthodoxy, and rigor, but also of laxness, skepticism, heresy, atheism, and criminality. Much the same applies to other communities, so why pick out some tendencies within a community’s overall tradition of life and call them the tradition of the community to the exclusion of all others? Don’t all the parts come together to make up the whole?

    A different sort of objection is based on liberal individualism. I have my life, and I’m responsible for it, so why should I give special preference to what some restricted group of people did in the past? Why wouldn’t it be better to choose freely from all the possibilities offered by human thought and experience, or decide on some new departure if that seems better? That’s what founders of traditions do, and traditionalists don’t complain about them, so why shouldn’t I have the same privilege?

    A related objection has to do with pluralism. In modern society there are a variety of traditions present, and it would be unfair, discriminatory, and divisive to deny any of them equal status. That’s why we’re told we need to celebrate diversity and be careful to include equally those who are different. But if we do that each tradition will be deprived of authority, even informal authority, in anything that matters to other people. Otherwise, some people will be marginalized. So traditions can’t have authority that matters socially, which means they can’t exist as traditions but only as collections of optional private opinions and practices.

    And then there’s the practical problem of how people live today. Life has changed, so why should old habits and attitudes still make sense? And besides, tradition exists within networks of specific enduring human relations: the life of a village, or of a particular religion, region, nation, or social class. Today though communication and travel make such things much less relevant. We deal with most of life through impersonal commercial and bureaucratic structures, and through electronic networks that connect us immediately to everyone in the world and bathe us in commercial pop culture. So tradition, as a way of understanding the world and establishing patterns for living, falls into disuse, and gives way to image, impulse, what’s happening now, and highly organized arts of persuasion.

    The objections seem more impressive than they really are. Some of them simply note that tradition is subject to disruption. That may be true, especially today, but it says nothing about its human necessity.

    Others deny human nature, in line with the modern ideal of man-his-own-maker. But man doesn’t make himself. Complex functional systems like human life work in their own way, and it’s not possible simply to make them do what we want. Also, man is a social animal whose words and deeds begin with suppositions and commitments that precede them and must mostly be picked up from the world around us. So we can only make sense of ourselves and our lives as participants in a community and its traditions. Even a rebel needs an authority to rebel against, and a tradition and community of dissent to define the nature and point of his rebellion. And in any case it’s impossible simply to invent arrangements that deal minimally well with something as complex, subtle, and fundamental as (for example) the relation between the sexes. For that the experience of generations as to what works, what people ultimately find satisfying, and what comes into focus when you live with a situation for a lifetime is indispensable.

    The objections also take an overly external and literal-minded view of what tradition is. It’s not simply a list of dos and don’ts or a register of what particular groups of people have done. It expresses a patterned vision of human goods, and ultimately the good life, that can’t be adequately known or realized without its aid. To pick a small example: it’s hard to become a good musician, and it’s evidently impossible to do so in general, without regard to any particular style or tradition of music. But if you have the talent you can do it by finding someone who knows a particular style and learning from him how it’s done—which he in turn will have learned from his predecessors.

    Since man is social and cultural, he’s traditional by nature. He’s also rational, and acts in accordance with (mostly implicit) principles and ideals. For that reason tradition is directed toward something higher than itself. The point of musical tradition is beauty and joy, the point of religious tradition is coming closer to God, and the point of an overall tradition of life is the good life in general. It’s therefore natural for tradition to admit change when it better realizes or brings into focus its goods. Such changes most often escape notice, since they usually result from a gradual change of emphasis as some aspects of the tradition get called on more and others less, and from formulations or practices that originally looked like minor variations but accumulate and establish themselves as more than that. Examples within Catholic tradition include the development of various rituals and devotions, and the development of doctrine as understood by John Henry Newman.

    Since tradition has a basis and function in human life there can be traditions that don’t make sense as such. A tradition of radical choice, change, and self-sufficiency makes no sense because it denies the aspects of human life—the need for continuity and the slow accumulation of experience, insight, practical wisdom, and organizing symbols and practices through the events of many lives—that give tradition its authority in the first place.

    What’s needed is tradition that is intelligent and self-consistent enough to understand and accept its own limits and necessity. Such tradition includes at least implicitly a principle of self-criticism, since it knows it can be better or worse depending on how good its purpose is and how well it achieves it. Today, for example, there is a tradition of elevator music within the larger tradition of Western music. Those who carry on the former most often recognize what they are doing as a decline from the latter, and would rather pursue better things.

    Something similar applies to more general traditions of living. If you look at recent accounts like those by Charles Murray and Theodore Dalrymple of what’s been happening to old-line non-elite Americans and Englishmen over the past five or six decades, and more anecdotally if you look at changes in popular culture, it’s hard to avoid thinking that recent cultural changes represent a deterioration of cultural tradition. That judgment is not a matter of taste: even something as brutally objective as death rates show that something has gone wrong in how people live. Those living within the tradition generally agree. While Western elites believe the world is getting better and better under their management and tutelage, their people have noticed that it’s getting worse.

    So praising tradition isn’t arbitrary and it doesn’t mean praising every possible tradition. It’s pointing out that tradition must have authority because it’s necessary for understanding and realizing almost any basic human good. Dealing with tradition of course brings in all the difficulties that arise in dealing with authority generally: it might be wrong, it has sometimes been destructive, different authorities tell us different things, and so on. Authority has its deficiencies, like all human things, and must ultimately be completed by other authorities and by grace. Nonetheless, we normally accept it, because we are social and social life requires it. It’s true we sometimes need to reject it when something goes wrong and it starts destroying the goods for which it was established, but that is a very serious matter—one that marks the boundaries of social order—that applies equally to every possible human authority and for which few general rules can be given.

    Tradition: A Guide for Better Living

    Crisis Magazine
    APRIL 29, 2016

    Last month [The Advantages of Natural Law Over Ideological Fantasies] I suggested that the most effective argument for taking human nature, natural law, and natural human goods seriously is that doing so leads to a better way of life.

    It’s not hard to see why it should. People do not in fact invent their own ways of life. They’re too social, and the world is too complicated. So the disintegration of inherited culture, with its acceptance of natural human goods, in an industrialized, commercialized, networked, and bureaucratized society means people live by careerism, consumerism, pop culture, and propaganda, supplemented by the advice of therapeutic professionals.

    That doesn’t sound inspirational, but in America we’re big on advertising and PR, so a better face gets put on it. That’s why we’re always hearing about “dreams”—the American dream, the dreams of immigrants, the dreams of young people. That’s the way we talk about ideals of life, at least the ideals that make it into public discussion.

    In general, the dreams seem to relate to career success and material prosperity, which are understood as the basis for all other good things. In public, at any rate, people today don’t dream of knowledge, virtue, sanctity, heroism, peace of mind, a good marriage, happy family life, having children, an honest way of living, happiness in general, or the beatific vision. They dream of this career or that, the idea apparently being that the right career will bring with it a generally satisfying way of life.

    Poverty, boring drudgery, and the dole usually don’t make people happy, so there’s something to be said for a nice career. Even so, the view that prosperity and a favored line of work is the one needful thing from which all else follows seems naive. Surveys confirm the old saw that money doesn’t bring happiness, and while there are a few people with special talents or inclinations that make some particular line of work specially suitable, how many are there for whom it really makes sense to dream of being a lawyer or sales representative?

    The basic vision of life seems to lack something, an element of depth or spirit that the “dream” language can’t cover up, and people with aspirations think they can do better, so they look to see if something minimal can solve the problem. They often start by dressing up career with coolness and connoisseurship, and learn about arugula or craft beers or whatever. That usually isn’t enough, so many of them try to refurbish the spiritual world in which they’ve landed to make it seem less sterile, for example by emphasizing “relationships” or ideals of some sort.

    That doesn’t really work either. The relationships tend to be free-form and subject to constant renegotiation—how could they be otherwise?—so they’re not much to build a life on. And the ideals usually take the form of progressive social views, which tell us that problems caused by current trends can be cured by more of the same, or a free-form spirituality that doesn’t tell us much at all, except that our feelings are very, very special.

    A basic problem with the current approach is that it doesn’t take into account the difficulties and complexities of life. It’s designed for people like its high-end proponents, those who are clever, successful, and well-connected enough to promote their views effectively in a competitive and hierarchical public culture, and are too busy or distracted to reflect much on life. So it’s for people with money, good health, and a future to look forward to (or so they believe): hipsters, yuppies, upscale professionals, students at high-end universities, and so on.

    It’s also for people who think they are winners. Hence the contempt for bitter clingers and other unfashionable losers noticeable among today’s progressives. That’s a problem for an outlook on life that wants to be usable, because life has many losses, we cling to what’s best in it, and we eventually lose most of the things and people we care about. And we all die, so we all, from the world’s point of view, end up losing everything.

    Also, the tendency of modern life—especially since the 60s, with their apotheosis of mass market “youth culture“ and their abolition of tradition and the transcendent as legitimate authorities—has made a great many people losers in more comprehensive ways. Everyday experience, and even statistics, show that more and more people have lost their families, their religion, a stable livelihood, and a settled place in society. Such tendencies have their defenders, since fewer ties and loyalties make people freer and more autonomous—how, for example, can women be equal if they have family ties? And they have the implicit support of people who run things, since the changes make labor markets more flexible and otherwise reduce resistance to change—that is, to ordinary people doing what they’re told.

    From a more personal and practical standpoint, though, the changes have made people worse off, especially those who weren’t notably successful to start with. Charles Murray has documented the radical decline of social participation in institutions as basic as marriage among lower-class whites in his book Coming Apart. More crudely and concretely, statisticians have noticed a rise in death rates among white people that becomes downright catastrophic among the less successful and educated. (White Americans are not, of course, worse off than black or Mexican Americans. But they are the largest group, and as the group that constituted close to 90 percent of the country on the eve of the 60s, their situation shows the effects of recent trends most clearly.)

    Something better is evidently needed. But how as a practical matter can Americans reverse these trends and get out of the situation they’ve fallen into? The question has political and economic components, but politics and economics should serve the good life, so the real question is how people can best carry on their lives. What’s life about, what’s our goal, and how should we go about attaining it? To say that such questions have answers is to say that we have a nature that corresponds to principles—natural law—that help us realize our good.

    To take that view seriously is to emphasize goals that appeal to pretty much all of us simply because we are human: health, knowledge, friendship, family life, aesthetic experience, responsible participation in society, peace of mind, and a sense that our life makes sense, and we are at home in a world that can be sensibly understood as a home.

    Such things don’t come up in public discussion today except as occasional asides, and when they do they’re mostly lumped into “work-life balance.” The idea seems to be that career comes first, because that’s the fundamental and serious part of life, but it’s also good to make space for leisure-time activities like having children. That approach is, of course, irrational. We work to live, not live to work, so we need to be able to discuss, with each other and in public, what the “life” part of the work-life balance should look like. That’s especially true since basic human goals can’t be picked out separately like items from a menu. Life is a structure, not an agglomeration of separate pieces, so more than anything we need patterns of life that connect and forward basic human goods throughout life’s changes.

    To put it another way, we need to take into account human nature, which means that we need to recognize natural human goods and the natural law principles of conduct that promote them systematically. But how do we do that when life is so complicated, subtle, and difficult? Much needs to be said, but to start we need a tradition of how to live that has developed to deal with life and its goods as a whole. That can only be one that has grown out of the lives of many people over generations and become a lasting and comprehensive culture. Without that process of development a way of life won’t reflect more than a little of what has to get sorted out in the mix.

    A tradition is not all we need, of course. Traditions all differ, none of them are perfect, and they all need correction by other realities. But life is complicated, and experience is the only way to accumulate some kinds of knowledge, so they’re indispensable. Attention spans are finite, though, so a discussion of what else is needed will have to await another time.

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