Pope Francis and the double-edged sword of religious tradition

Pope Francis celebrates mass at the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul in Philadelphia on September 26, 2015. Photo courtesy of REUTERS / Tony Gentile
* Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-POPE-PHILLY, originally submitted September 26, 2015.

Pope Francis came to the New World, and spoke in the language of a very ancient Christian Tradition. It was in part the solid old age of this tradition that appealed to many. But part of it was the steadfast, steadfast old age of tradition that troubled others.

We live in a land of Constant New Thing. Much of our religion is as new as the latest version of the iPhone. Not only do American Protestants continue to produce new versions of Christianity. America is also producing new religions, right here on our shores all the time.

Here then is a man representing several layers of the Christian tradition.

There is the 2,000-year-old Christian tradition – which some might also identify as a 2,000-year-old Roman Catholic tradition, while others would date Roman Catholicism proper several hundred years younger than that.

Pope Francis also represents his own 475 year old Jesuit tradition and in some ways consciously adopted the 800 year old tradition of piety and social action around Saint Francis of Assisi.

Then there is the 125-year-old new tradition of Catholic social teaching, which can be dated to Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical. Rerum Novarum.

There is also a 50-year tradition associated with the Second Vatican Council and how it opened the Catholic Church to the modern world.

Those who know something about the Catholic tradition and these particular sub-traditions may hear echoes of it when Pope Francis speaks.

Those who are trained in traditions of such historical depth speak a different kind of Christian language than those who get their understanding of late church Christianity from a warehouse or the latest new religion concocted in the imagination of someone. They have categories of thought, particularities of vocabulary, ways of looking at the world which they did not create and which they are required to represent each time they speak. At its best, this disciplined traditionalism carries forward ideas of depth, grandeur and irresistible power.

Some commented during Pope Francis’ visit that he not only presents the Catholic tradition, but also develops it in new and exciting ways. To be sure, traditions are always developing, especially in the hands of creative leaders who are empowered to offer at least limited innovations during their religious tenure.

But I didn’t hear anything from Pope Francis that struck me as a radical innovation. His concern about climate change represents the majority reading of scientific evidence, including the claim that climate change affects and will most profoundly affect those least able to cope – the poor, especially in countries from South. His opposition to the death penalty and the arms trade reflects Catholic doctrine, as does his deep concern for the poor, immigrants and prisoners. His call on Roman Catholics to wage lovingly rather than cultural wars represents a judgment as to how best to express the Spirit of Christ and proclaim the gospel. This may be a correction of course, but it is not a fundamental break with tradition or historical Catholic doctrine.

This is not to deny the extraordinary charisma, humility and compassion of Pope Francis. This is what seems so new, not his teaching itself.

Of course, tradition is a double-edged sword. The idea that those who represent Christ in the priestly office should be men is also an expression of tradition. The idea that those who take religious orders (priests, monks, nuns) must be celibate is a tradition. The idea that divorce is impossible but that the annulment could be pronounced by such or such process is also a tradition. The idea that (artificial) contraception is immoral is a tradition. These traditions and others are challenged today within the Catholic Church.

This is where the double-edged sword of tradition is particularly striking. Religious tradition has power, because everything it teaches ends up being invested with holiness not only because of its content but because it has become a tradition. But this applies to all aspects of the tradition, those which reflect the best values ​​of this religious community and those which do not.

All of this makes traditionally based faith communities very difficult to change. Sometimes it’s great. Sometimes this is not the case.