Pope Francis on Progressivism and Traditionalism

I found this fascinating quote in the article From Rio de Janeiro to Rome, from Poetry to Prose by Sandro Magister. In it, Magister quotes the Pope’s take on two opposite tendencies, progressive and traditionalist, present in the Church:

The Gnostic proposal. This is usually seen in groups of elites with the proposal of superior spirituality, rather disembodied, that ends up in pastoral attitudes of ‘quaestiones disputatae.’ This was the first deviation of the primitive community and has reappeared, in the course of the Church’s history, in revised and corrected editions. In common terms they are called ‘ enlightened Catholics’ (to be presently the heirs of Enlightenment culture).

The Pelagian proposal. This appears fundamentally under the form of restoration. Before the evils of the Church, what is sought is a solely disciplinary solution, in the restoration of outdated conduct and forms that even culturally have no capacity to be significant. In Latin America this is seen in small groups, in some new religious congregations, in exaggerated tendencies toward doctrinal or disciplinary ‘certitude.’ Fundamentally it is static, although it can  claim a dynamic ‘ad intra,’ of involution. It seeks to ‘recover’ the lost past.

What may be analysed in the Roman Catholic Church will certainly be present in all Churches and ecclesial communities.

This ought to challenge our own motivations, whether we must consciously return to the past to “restore”, or go forward with the flow of history. We should not forget that in time, the cultural and liturgical styles of the 1960’s and 70’s will also be dinosaurs – and are already objects of conservatism. Is that period just as lost a past as the 1930’s or the nineteenth century or the fifteenth? Must history be marked by ruptures through which the past no longer exists?

What is the role of the liturgy? We admire it in Orthodoxy but shun it when our own tradition is in question. Where is Christianity best expressed? In the mass rallies and outdoor Masses attracting thousands of people? In the prayer, toil and slog of everyday life in a small community?

I tend to agree that if we carry on out of a motive of conservatism of the past, we become sterile and irrelevant. Can we carry on with traditional liturgical forms and follow the trajectory of history? Is Continuing Anglicanism an adequate vehicle for old wine in new skins and a resolution of this dichotomy between “right” and “left”?

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5 Responses to Pope Francis on Progressivism and Traditionalism

  1. Stephen K says:

    I think the failure of any analysis of the divides in the church, especially those that pit “right” vs “Left” or “progressive” vs “Traditional”, to satisfy and bring anything to resolution, is because in a sense there is no dichotomy in Christianity: all things have their value. How can anyone possibly unilaterally reject either progress or tradition? Both are part of the psychological fabric of the religion. It seems to me we have to want to progress and have regard to what has come before. We will never all agree on the mix, so the argument is itself a red herring. My preference is for a priest who celebrates a ‘high’ liturgy on Sunday but preaches socialism and gives alms and succour Monday to Saturday. So what? Someone else wants the opposite or an “all or nothing” final solution. We have to start loving, and forgiving, and suppressing our egos. What do others think? Let’s be positive, now!

    • One thing that struck me was that Pope Francis seems to misunderstand both “ends” of the spectrum by falsely characterising them. So-called “liberals” might have something in common with the old Gnostics, but they are not Gnostics. Much has been learned about Gnosticism since the discovery of the Nag Hammadi texts from Egypt and studies of the less “far out” like Origen and Clement of Alexandria. Here is an introduction by an independent bishop whose writings I esteem and respect, both on the Internet and his printed books. I don’t buy Gnosticism myself, and agree with Berdyaev in that Christianity would not have survived in history on a Gnostic basis. There had also to be an exoteric basis with which most people would be able to relate. Gnosticism seeks a more profound experience, more integrated and more individuated than the Pope would give it credit for. I have a lot of time for Jung’s vision of psychoanalysis. If I were persuaded that Pope Francis had more understanding of Gnosticism than most Roman Catholic polemicists, then I might understand what he thinks is wrong with the “left”.

      Similarly, the Pelagians are characterised as those who, in the time of Saint Augustine of Hippo, were more confident in the fruits of their own efforts than in the gratuitous grace of God in questions of sanctification, justification and salvation. He may see things in common between traditionalists and a caricature of the medieval Church: say so many rosaries and you will get such and such an effect. I have known many traditionalists who were not like Counter-Reformation Jesuits (a little backlash doesn’t hurt) but who have a very Benedictine (Benedict the founder of Benedictine monasticism) spirit basing Christian life on the solid foundations or prayer and work, through which God would sanctify the soul by grace. The opposite extreme would be the exaggerations of Augustinian theology found in Calvin and other sixteenth-century Reformers, in Luther and the Jansenists. I would be surprised to see the Jesuit Pope counter so-called “Pelagianism” with Jansenism.

      Does Pope Francis want a uniform ‘middle-of-the-road Church, a re-centred “orthodoxy”, or is he willing to tolerate and foster diversity to take away the frequently sectarian motivations for keeping old forms of the liturgy, whether since the Council of Trent or before? He resumes the theme of “dynamic” as opposed to “static”. Surely some things have to remain constant and stable, and other things should change and evolve in order to maintain communication between the Church and the world. I appreciate that the Pope cannot give a single answer for all, even more of a reason not to go for a centralist policy, but rather a comprehensive and diverse outlook. We will see how it all pans out over the next few years.

      I too am concerned that the Franciscans of the Immaculate may be limited in their liturgical diversity – though I have no idea about what goes on in that congregation. There may be good reasons, or there may be some manipulation coming from elements of the Roman Curia. Any speculation on my part stops right there, because I am unconcerned. We all need to relax and get off the obsessive hobby horses.

      We need diversity and tolerance – perhaps even Anglican comprehensiveness. That too is a double-edged sword.

      • Stephen K says:

        Yes, Father, I think that that is the point: things can always be double-edged swords, especially when we are trying to come up with ‘solutions’ to religious problems. Everything has consequences but not uniformly so. No one person’s thought is “exactly” the same as another’s, though they may act in concert. I think that is part of the mystery of God and the challenge of religious faith. I do agree too, Father, that modern ‘progressives’ (another sweeping category!) cannot be identified with ‘gnostics’, anymore than modern ‘traditionalists’ can be uniformly called ‘pelagians’. On the contrary, much more akin to a gnostic spirit is monastic-like contemplativeness, which does not feature prominently in much modern religion; and much ‘modern traditionalism’ is inclined to downgrade human and individual self-determination when it emphasises the indispensability and pre-eminence of official church-dom. I think we must allow for considerable diversity in religious experience and praxis, and refrain from reducing difficulties to simple universal categories.

  2. raitchi2 says:

    I think the Pope’s quote is a based on a false premise. Namely that we the Church have a unified culture that must be expressed uniformly in liturgical, disciplinary and theological matters. The truth is that even within the Roman Church there is a plethora of societies that are held together by little more than offical channels and adherance to some rubrics. I don’t know if the Pope would be willing, but I always favor a free market approach when it comes to liturgy (and all that comes with that). What if we were to open things up even a little? Say the Pope allowed individual communities to choose what is best for them from say any approved liturgical book since Trent and to feel free to translate it? This would allow for a parish that could have solemn masses of a traditional Carthusian monestary at 7 am and a contemporary praise and worship mass at 9. As long as their both fundamentally breathing the breath of the Spirit, who am I to judge?

    • Stephen K says:

      Raitchi2, I think this is in principle very consistent with the freedom the Spirit and the Good News is supposed to represent. My only concern is, are we humans, who might gravitate to either the 7am or the 9am service, be able to avoid seeing the others as ‘other’? One would hope so if the community had already achieved consensus about the arrangement in the first place.

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