In Black and White: Tradition vs. Relativism

By Héctor Aguer, Archbishop Emeritus of La Plata, Argentina

First Published at InfoCatólica


The title that heads this note does not refer to the cinema before the invention of technicolor, but to the astonishing criticism of current ecclesiastical officialdom that is directed against the members of the Church who love the great Catholic Tradition, and who recognize that homogeneity is what should characterize the development of ecclesial realities: dogma, liturgy, law, institutions. I have often quoted St. Vincent of Lerins and the formulas he coined in his Commonitory. Those realities can be expressed nove (in a new way), according to the cultural contexts of certain times and places; but in the deposit to be transmitted one cannot include nova, new things, novelties, which imply a heterogeneity with respect to the origins.

For more than half a century (the Second Vatican Council ended on December 8, 1965), the Church has been torn by an undeniable division: on the one hand, fundamentalists or conservatives (I use the names with which they are usually disqualified), and on the other hand, progressives or liberals, who are delighted with the current pontificate. Am I oversimplifying the complexity of ecclesial processes and phenomena? There is a very wide intermediate range: those who, with a great effort of study, thought, and evaluation—among whom I would place myself—try to gather the positive heritage of the Council, which, as Benedict XVI reminded us, must always be read in light of the great ecclesial Tradition, but who, at the same time, do not accept the alterations that were imposed in the name of the “spirit of the Council”—a supposed spirit that is not, by the way, the Holy Spirit.

In the last decade, a relativistic conception of faith has been consolidated in the Church, which struggles to find a place in the global sphere of a de-Christianized, secularized culture; its promoters do not wish to appear and to be considered foreigners in that world, and so they try to find their place by watering down with muddy water the exquisite wine of Catholic Truth. Although history records analogous phenomena in the past, it would seem that those times of which St. Paul spoke have arrived: “difficult times” or “perilous times” (2 Tim 3:1: kairoi chalepoi).

The “shrinking” of the Church in countries that once had a Catholic majority is being disguised. Historical studies do not ignore the vicissitudes Christianity has undergone since apostolic times, although it is difficult to make value judgments on the various stages. It is more complicated to consider what has happened in the last half-century, because the din of a diversity of opinions close to us continues to make itself heard.

In this context, it seems to me that the best criterion for evaluation must be sought in the sources: how did the apostles; their immediate successors, the Fathers of the Church; and the later magisterium conceive the relationship of the Church and the world, with all the variables of culture? Is it possible to have a safe interpretation that can be adopted as a criterion? Here lies the crux of the problem I wish to examine. I will limit myself to what the Apostle Paul recommended in rigorous terms to his disciples, who constitute the next link in the chain of apostolic succession.

The “officialist” critics of today (i.e., those of officialdom) attack those they consider rigid, severe, clinging to the securities granted by the identity of Tradition; they attack those who see things in black and white instead of adopting the multicolored flag. They would be the same ones who know only one side of the “polyhedron” that the Church has become, in order to make the progressive faces fit into the Body. Now, between black and white there is an enormous range of grays, which must be taken into account; I mean that there can be intellectual positions and voluntary attitudes that recognize and respect the two terms from which the range of gray takes origin. Those who notice the grays without falling into relativism are slandered; yet this or that shade is so only by reference to the black-white polarity that must always be recognized as its origin. Along comes technicolor to add color to the fables or myths of the New World Order, which we pretend to adopt for ourselves because it would be the “aggiornamentoed” truth.

So there can be nothing wrong or bad in seeing things in black and white, if one is voluntarily color-blind. This is how St. Paul saw them; here are some quotations that seem to me opportune.

From the prison where he is suffering in Rome, he writes to Timothy: “Take as a rule (upotupōsin eche, 2 Tm 1:13f) the salutary lessons (logōn) of faith and love of Christ Jesus which you have heard from me”; and he continues in the same letter: “Know (touto de ginōske) that in the last days (en eschatais ēmerais) difficult times (kairoi chalepoi) will come,” and he goes on to enumerate the “types” with whom he will have to deal; the advice, or command is: get away from such people! (toutous apotrepou) (2 Tm 3:5). Exhortation, which is a most solemn incantation (diamartýromai), in the name of God and Jesus Christ, universal Judge, involves arguing, rebuking, exhorting, timely and untimely (eukairōs akairōs), for men will no longer endure sound doctrine (didaskalía) (2 Tm 4:1 ff), but will seek false teachers to flatter their ears, and will give themselves up to fables, to myths (mýtous).

How many times, throughout the centuries, will a similar situation have arisen? It occurs to me that the Apostle is prophetically seeing what is happening today in post-Christian society and in the Church. Guarding the deposit of faith is the fundamental requirement; the deposit is everything, it is the gift of Christian salvation that is concentrated in faith and love (the friendship of agápē).

In 1 Tm 6:20 we see the task involved in guarding against the novelties of false science (tēn parathēkēn phylaxon), which are hollow, empty words (kenophōnias). This command reminds me of the aims of Irenaeus of Lyons, in his Adversus haereses, who fought against gnosticism, who fought against the everlasting lure of “gnosis“that reappears today.

In 2 Tm 1, 14 we read about “the good deposit” (tēn kalēn parathēkēn); the adjective kalós expresses much more than good, its meaning is very rich: beautiful, noble, ideal, authentic. Let us note the love with which the Apostle commends what is fundamental in the organization of the Christian community. It seems incredible to renounce the love of our origins, and the forcefulness of that love, which is always love for the Truth.

The First Letter of St. John is addressed to communities in Asia Minor, which were facing a serious crisis due to the action of false teachers. Hence the exhortation of the Beloved Disciple to discern the spirits so as not to be deceived by the false prophets who have appeared (1 Jn 4:1) (dokimazete). The basic problem is love of the “world” (kósmon), in which reigns a triple epithymia: the lust of the flesh and of the eyes, plus the pride of life (alazoneia tou biou) (1 Jn 2:16). These expressions designate essential problems of Christian faith and life, which can occur in any age in a similar way, according to the pressures of a culture that is under the dominion of the prince of lies, the god of this age (cf. Jn 8:44).

Today, it is the same evil spirit that infiltrates the ranks of Catholic to weaken all their resistance. Paul VI, after Vatican II, went so far as to say: “Through some fissure the smoke of Satan has entered the temple of God.” The height of confusion and deception is registered when one does not want to recognize the black and white of reality, and tries to distract the faithful with a technicolor vista, painted by the Hollywood of the eternal enemies of the Church. That this maneuver is conducted from Rome itself causes an enormous sadness to the faithful, who are not interested in being “accommodated,” in looking for some worldly advantage. It is terrible that preaching is done without reference to the truths of Holy Scripture, and that only the official teaching of today’s pastors is presented as an argument.

The frequent condemnatory allusions to those of us who lovingly follow the Church’s Tradition, which is always the same and always new, are in reality a form of praise; they are a badge of honor. May the Lord grant us to persevere in this spirit of fidelity. And may the Blessed Virgin and her Rosary help us to recognize the glimmers of Heaven that pierce the darkest clouds.

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