Francis: Church Must Learn to Abandon Old ‘Traditions’

Saint Vincent of Lérins

Today (24th May) is the Feast of St. Vincent of Lérins.  He bequeathed to the generations a few principles of identifying sound doctrine.  I wrote something at length about that HERE.   It might be a good idea to read that in tandem with what I offer here below.

There’s a story today at Breitbart about Francis address to Caritas International, a very influential organization because it doles out money to needy churches.  The head of Caritas is in a position to garner gratitude from many in regions where aid is needed.  But I digress.

Francis made a remarkably odd speech to Caritas.  However, the Breitbart piece explains in part why Francis made his comments.     We should always try to understand what Francis said, no matter how incoherent it seems at first.

Pope Francis: Church Must Learn to Abandon Old ‘Traditions’

It is a mistake for the Church to try to hold onto old traditions or to have clear answers for everything, Pope Francis said Thursday.  [For everything?  No.  But for those things which can lead to or impede salvation, it is our duty to find clarity.  And we can find clarity, with reason and the help of revelation.]

Jesus intentionally omitted telling his disciples many things so that the Church would learn to renounce the desire for clarity and order, the pope told participants in the 21st general assembly of Caritas Internationalis, the Church’s global charitable outreach. [Ummm…. really?  Maybe He didn’t tell them everything precisely so that they would strive to figure them out!  After all, He gave them HIS authority to teach.  What we believe MUST be rooted in some old and traditional, namely, the Apostolic Faith, the Apostolic Tradition.  As far as Christ wanting the  Church to renounce clarity and order, the Apostles seem to have had another impression.  There was the Council of Jerusalem, for example.  Paul, who understood the difference between local customs (as in the case of veils on women) didn’t write to various Church’s to leave them in doubt or to say “do as it seems best to you.”] 

When pagans first embraced the Christian faith, the question arose as to if they would have to abide by all the precepts of the Jewish law, something Jesus never spoke of, the pope noted.

By not always giving “clear rules” that would quickly resolve issues, Jesus was protecting the Church from the temptation of “efficientism,” Francis said, which is the desire for the Church to have everything under control, avoiding surprises, with its agenda always in order.  [And yet… there they were, a very short time after the Ascension, resolving questions and conflicts.]

This is not the way the Lord acts, he continued. He does not send answers from heaven. “He sends the Holy Spirit.”  [And the Holy Spirit isn’t separate in will from the Son.  The Lord said I will send MY Spirit.  Distinct Persons, but one divinity.  They cannot conflict.]

“Jesus does not want the church to be a perfect model, satisfied with its own organization and able to defend its good name,” he said. “Jesus did not live like this, but on a journey, without fearing the upheavals of life.”  [Isn’t this a bit of a mishmash?   “Jesus did not want the church to be a perfect model…”.   Oh?  He did say to His disciples, “be perfect”.  He told them to love on another.  He desired that they “be one”.  Francis introduced the notion of “organization”, as if that’s a bad thing.  The Apostles right away chose deacons.   That was a moment of “organization” that the Holy Spirit clearly guided.]

Living like Jesus demands the “courage of renunciation,” the pontiff said, a willingness toabandon traditions that are dear to us[What just would those traditions be, I wonder?  Is he setting up something for the upcoming Synod?  This is to Caritas after all, and the Synod will deal with places that Caritas works with.  Is this a set up for dropped celibacy?  After all, that’s a “dear tradition”.   What traditions is he talking about?]

Changing and adapting is not about imposing something new, he said, “but leaving aside something old.”  [With all respect, this is hardly to be understood.  Natura abhorret a vacuo.  Nature abhors a vacuum.   Create a vacuum and something else will rush in to fill it.   Think of this in our human, lived experience.  If you have a bad habit, you will more than likely never break it, unless you replace it with a good habit.  In the parable of the Lord about the demons driven out, they return to the empty house in greater numbers – it wasn’t filled with that which could resist the demons.  It was empty.  When there is lack of clarity in law or teaching, unity breaks down as home-brewed ideas and customs fill the blanks.  Also, when you impose something new, you can create chaos, just as what happened with the sudden and largely undesired imposition of the Novus Ordo.  Stability allows for slow and organic development.  Patience and tradition are key.]

Those early Christians had to learn to leave behind “important religious traditions and precepts, dear to the chosen people,” he said, by which their very “religious identity” was at stake.  [Hang on.   Sure, early Christians changed, for example, laws about food and circumcision and the day they worshiped God.   But these changes were explained in light of the Good News, the New Creation in the person of the New Adam, Christ, who made all things new and who will make all things new in the end.  Moreover, the changes were explained even as new practices were introduced… nay rather… imposed even in the face of the resistance of the Judaizers.]

In the end, they did not need a bunch of doctrines and traditions. but the simple announcement that “God is love,” Francis said, and in the face of this great truth, “even convictions and human traditions can and must be abandoned, since they are more of an obstacle than a help.” [!.. !..! Wait just a minute!  Jesus challenged the human traditions of the Jews when he outlawed divorce and remarriage in so stunning a way that even the Apostles gasped for air (Matt 19).  So, Jesus did NOT come merely to teach that “God is love” and leave us on our own. Also in the Council of Jerusalem, Peter, while giving in to Paul’s demands, nevertheless banned Gentile converts from INCEST AND POLYGAMY (porneia). So not everything that looks like marriage is marriage.  From the beginning, the Lord gave rules, structures,
laws and the Apostles, who understood Him clearly, continued in that line probably because of all the things Christ told them before He ascended.  They didn’t just make things up.]

“God often purifies, simplifies, and makes us grow by taking away, not by adding, as we might do,” he said.

“True faith cleanses from attachments,” he said. “As a church, we are not called to corporate compromises, but to evangelical enterprise.”  [Hang on!   Every credal formula of every Council was a “corporate compromise”.  They were the very definition of corporate compromises!  Various factions came together in moments of unclarity to seek clarity.  They fought over language.  They came up with compromise formulas that were simultaneously rooted in Apostolic Tradition but also just ambiguous enough that all parties could sign on.   If every problem wasn’t solved at that moment, what they passed on would be the foundation for another Council’s work when more questions came up.  Rinse and repeat.  Slowly, over centuries, the Church came up with, for example, the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed which we recite at Masses.   Is that something we give up, because it was a corporate compromise?  It is a dear tradition, too.  The documents of the Second Vatican Council were all “corporate compromises”, worked on in draft after draft and eventually voted on.  Let’s jettison those first, since they are chronologically nearest.   Wait, no.  John XXIII when he called for Vatican II also called for a new Code of Canon Law.  That came out in 1983.  That has to go, too.]


I get it, in a way.   Above all law and formulations of doctrine is the love of God, our love for Him and His for us.   That grasped, all our formulations of doctrine and law, all our customs and productions of art and music, our gestures of liturgical worship grow up simultaneously in different cultures, side by side, reflecting at their core the same Apostolic Faith handed down through the Church to us today.

Christ gave Peter the obvious vice-headship of the Church when He renamed him, gave him His “keys” and then revitalized him three times over on the shores of the sea after the Resurrection.   That’s a visible sign of unity for clarity.

The Church has its Four Marks for the sake of clarity, so that know which Church is the Church Christ founded, lest we stray.  The Church has its Attributes, again for clarity and security within her embrace.

Unity in worship is guaranteed by laws so that we do not become, over time, divided in prayer and divided in belief, because how we pray affects what we believe.   Common worship connects us not only with people overseas, but also over the boundary of death, across generations.

I get it, in a way.  He wants to stress the love of God.

I don’t see the need to create a conflict between that vision and the traditions various peoples have evolved, with love, over centuries.

It seems to me that structure also frees us up to love as we ought.

At the top I mentioned St. Vincent of Lérins and a previous post about him   Here is an excerpt.

Tracking back to Vincent of Lérins I found a sobering and consoling passage.

Allow me a slight editing choice from “he” to “you”… which doesn’t change the sense at all!

“….he is the true and genuine Catholic who loves the truth of God, who loves the Church, who loves the Body of Christ, who esteems divine religion and the Catholic Faith above every thing, above the authority, above the regard, above the genius, above the eloquence, above the philosophy, of every man whatsoever; who set light by all of these, and continuing steadfast and established in the faith, resolves that he will believe that, and that only, which he is sure the Catholic Church has held universally and from ancient time; [Here start reading aloud…] but that whatsoever new and unheard-of doctrine you shall find to have been furtively introduced by some one or another, besides that of all or contrary to that of all the saints, this, you will understand, does not pertain to religion, but is permitted as a trial, being instructed especially by the words of the blessed Apostle Paul, who writes thus in his first Epistle to the Corinthians, ‘There must needs be heresies, that they who are approved may be made manifest among you:’ as though he should say, This is the reason why the authors of Heresies are not forthwith rooted up by God, namely, that they who are approved may be made manifest; that is, that it may be apparent of each individual, how tenacious and faithful and steadfast he is in his love of the Catholic faith.” Commonitorium 20.48

Opportunity, dear readers.  Opportunity!

If you hear something strange, then that strange thing becomes the cause of the clearer revelation of the truth.  God even tolerates heresies for the sake of pointing more clearly to the good teachers and teachings.

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