Tradition and Ideology

J.L. Wall, writing in response to Scott’s treatise on 21st Century Conservatism, writes:

There’s a danger in a self-conscious tradition, and a tradition in which it’s acceptable to toss off a limb for the sake of the whole — traditions, in addition to being billion-headed rabbis (not letting that analogy go, folks), are like starfish: limbs re-grow after time. (But a limbless tradition, like a limbless starfish, is less likely to survive: it’s probably more a danger with tradition than a starfish.)

The problem, on the other hand, with an ossified tradition is that it has ceased to live and lapsed into reflexive (more or less) dogma. An ossified tradition fails because the existence of a tradition within history inherently causes changes to the circumstances of that tradition — and that can necessitate changes to the tradition itself. To borrow (again) from Eliot’s imagery, the creation of a new work of art, by its existence, alters the relation of all previous works of art within the tradition to one another, even if imperceptibly.   Any tradition that is not dying or dead is a living tradition.

So now on to William Brafford’s debut post here at the League.  In his grappling with the concept of ideology, he writes:

We all need some kind of framework for interpreting the world around us and for guessing at the consequences of our actions, and we need to acquire these frameworks from those who came before, even if we modify them in the process of application. Such a framework I prefer to call a tradition. The key feature of a vibrant tradition is its continued grappling with its own internal problems and contradictions. Traditions always change and grow over time. A tradition that ceases to do this is a dead tradition, and a tradition that is dead or near death I will call an ideology.

So this becomes an exercise in connecting-the-dots.  On the one hand we have Scott urging conservatives to embrace “self-reflective traditions.”  But while this can be necessary and good, J.L. Wall also urges caution against cutting off the “limbs” of our traditions lest they become too fragile to survive.  Then again, a tradition that cannot continue “grappling with its own internal problems and contradictions” risks dying and transforming into an ideology rather than a tradition.

Now, I’m not sure entirely that ideology can be quite so easily boiled down to a dead tradition – some ideologies, like Marxism for instance, had very little in the way of a living tradition to precede them – but William’s argument does make a good case that relying on a strong, vibrant tradition whilst maintaining an open, honest dialogue within that tradition is probably a better way to approach cultural and even political problems than from within the confines of ideology.  As Larison puts it, ideology

will condition the mind to force every event into the mold provided by the ideology. If a person approaches the world with an ideological frame of mind, whatever events dominate the historical memory of his fellow ideologues are perceived as constantly recurring again and again as part of a progressive narrative of successive triumphs, each one more important than the last. The simple framing, the certainty of victory and the quick and easy interchangeability of extremely different groups as different faces of the same enemy are all very useful for purposes of propaganda and the acquisition and exercise of power.

Which leads me at once to the current collapse of the GOP and to the state of affairs at the Vatican and throughout the Catholic Church at large.  I think it’s safe to say (or perhaps it’s actually not at all safe to say…) that the GOP and the Church are suffering from similar, though certainly not identical, setbacks.   So here’s where I’m running into difficulty.  On the one hand, the GOP is currently spearheaded by a very strong, if somewhat fragmented, movement of idealogues and pundits.  On the other hand, the Church is a hierarchical organization with no express ideology which at least ostensibly relies upon tradition rather than ideological loyalties in its treatment of social issues and organizational decisions.

I suppose my question is, at what point does the refusal of the Vatican to continue down the path of reform – and make no mistake, despite (or perhaps because of) my self-professed “civilizational conservatism” I am staunchly in favor of reform within the Church – at what point does this translate into an unwillingness to grapple with its own internal problems, its own problematic traditions?  In other words, at what point does the Church risk abandoning living tradition in favor of mere ideology?  I understand that on the flip side of this is a Church which caves too much to the oft-flighty pressures of a rapidly changing society, but that is why it is important to be critical and to have an open and honest discussion going on within the Church.  That is why Vatican II was so important, whether or not you prefer a Latin or an English mass.  The conversation was going on.   The traditions were examined.  The Church emerged – I believe – much stronger for it.  Compromise was made to preserve the institution, which is really the dynamic at play between progress and conservatism at any given moment, and the foundation of civilizational conservatism. Change the world to fit the vision.

Conservatism has an easier time of it.  The rise and fall of political parties is insubstantial compared to the collapse of the Roman Catholic Church.  Republicans can get away with a few years or a couple decades of hubris and intellectual bankruptcy.  Glenn Beck can do all the damage he wants to the GOP and conservatism will, nevertheless, rise up out of its own ruins stronger and smarter and able to win again.

I’m not sure the same can be said for the Church.  Granted, there are over a billion Catholics in the world so there is no great risk that a few more years will lead to the downfall of the Church altogether, but I think there comes a point where some sort of critical mass is reached – a turning point, if you will.  Once you hit that point it becomes much, much harder to recover.  You can see it in American parishes, I think, following the mollestation scandals.  Certainly at some point in European history that point was reached and Europe has never again recovered its flock.  The number of new priests is dwindling.  There is no reason Roman Catholics shouldn’t adopt the Eastern practice of allowing Parish priests to marry while still forbidding monks to do so.  It would be a step toward critically examining the traditions of the Catholic faith and hierarchy that could very well save the Church from itself.  Other changes are needed as well.  I hope the Church will find a way to address them while retaining its foundation in a living tradition rather than a stagnant ideology.

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9 thoughts on “Tradition and Ideology

  1. Weirdly enough, I think that given the terms and definitions I've adopted, Marxism has at many times been a tradition. It depends on which Marxists we're talking about. I'm no expert on Marxism, but I'm under the impression that Marx developed his theory in conversation with a broader European socialist movement, e.g. his arguments with Proudhon. Traditions in general are quite promiscuous; they change and wander and blend and split, just like literary genres.

    I don't really know how to use the word "ideology" consistently, so I prefer to couch everything in the language of more and less vibrant traditions whenever I can. When I say ideology, I probably just mean that I think the tradition is ossified.

    I'm not Catholic, but as an outsider it always seems to me that the Catholic Church keeps moving; it just does it very, very slowly. Debate takes much longer to percolate through the Catholic hierarchy than it does through the media of western democracies, and I don't think this is an entirely bad thing. The Catholic church is big enough to contain scores of theological subtraditions all in conversation with each other, which is why it takes so long to make changes.

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  2. William, regarding the "slowness" of change within the Church I agree. Proper change should be slow. That's the point, often as not, of conservatism in general – that slow change is better than rapid, or haphazard change. The issue of marriage in the priesthood, though, I think has had a long enough incubation period and it's simply time for parish priests to be allowed to have families. Of course, I think that the proper way to decide this is through a forum similar to Vatican II.

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  3. You talk like cultural evolution doesn't and your self-examination is happening in some sort of sterile laboratory.
    This is like the TAS post dismissing evolutionary psychology as "vulgar evo psych".
    While the catholics and the conservatives are bizzy navel-gazing and contemplating the triumphs of the past, science and technology are whizzing past into detailed explanations of human nature.
    Behold, my new favorite mindtoy……
    Cognitive Anthropology.

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  4. The issue not discussed, at least directly, is the origin of any particular tradition. While some in the GOP might like to claim they are doing God's work none would claim, I hope, that the GOP speaks for God. The GOP remains a secular institution. The Catholic church on the other hand does claim such authority. When the pope speaks ex cathedra he is doing so on God's behalf , the Holy Ghost has intervened making sure that such statements are error free.

    As has been pointed out the Church is slow to change doctrine. And much of the debate arguing for or against change is behind closed doors or off the radar of the faithful in the pew. So even long debated issues once resolved may come as a shock to the average catholic. And regardless more conservative catholics may well refuse to accept the change. Even after 50 years of Mass being offered in the vernacular widespread objections exists.

    Changes in traditions of the Church are dangerous, they open doors to questioning all traditions or dogma. Did God change His mind? Indeed it seems the perfect slippery slope. This accounts for the election of the current pope, a counter reformation. Vatican II is much disdained. Even young Catholics seem more enamored of their great-great grand fathers church. A certainty of authority. The majesty of the Latin Mass. Shelter from modernity.

    Regardless of the lack of Priests Benedict will never allow for a married priesthood. And he is insuring that legacy with his appointment of conservatives to the College of Cardinals. In fact Benedict's election confirmed the resurgence, and dominance of, the conservative wing of the Catholic Church. The Cardinals knew the were electing God's Rottweiler, Defender of the Faith.

    Changing the traditions of the GOP are nothing compared to changing the Church.

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  5. Lots of good points, Bob. What baffles me about the priesthood is simply that in Eastern Catholic and East Orthodox traditions parish priests have been allowed to marry for thousands of years. So there is a strong Christian tradition there – and in Eastern Churches that are part of the wider Latin Church this has been allowed for centuries. So there is precedent. And it would be good for the Church.

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  6. E.D., I can't explain it either. I don't know what sort of rational irrational institutions, or folks, use when confronted with the sort of issues you bring up. ( I would guess that Western Catholics still consider the Eastern Church hetrodox,, in error on many issues. ) It's akin, exactly the same actually, as some Christians venerating Old Testament injunctions against homosexuality while ignoring other equally strong commands. Seems irrational to me.

    BTW, I'm the "Bob" that previously posted here. With the change that you recently initiated I had to change my user name. Nothing nefarious afoot.

    I like the change, now that I can navigate it.

    The Old Bob (new Roth)

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  7. Actually the Eastern Catholic Churches are in full communion with Rome. (So, not East Orthodox, but actually East Catholic) and yet still are allowed to have married Parish priests (not monks).

    From the wiki:

    Most Eastern Churches distinguish between "monastic" and "non-monastic" clergy. Monastics do not necessarily live as monks or in monasteries, but have spent at least part of their period of training in such a context. Their monastic vows include a vow of celibate chastity.

    Bishops are normally selected from the monastic clergy, and in most Eastern Churches a large percentage of priests and deacons also are celibate, while a portion of the clergy (typically, parish priests) may be married. If a future priest or deacon is to be married, his marriage must take place before ordination to the diaconate. While in some countries the marriage continues usually to be arranged by the families, cultural changes sometimes make it difficult for such seminarians to find women prepared to be the wife of a priest, necessitating a hiatus in the seminarians' studies.

    This seems like a very smart, very doable compromise…

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  8. Well I guess I guessed wrong. But I guess that makes my Irrational statement rational.

    I don't make any pretense to know how or what religious folk believe, it's all oogedy-boogedy.

    Smart? Maybe. Doable? I'm not holding my breath.

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