Tradition is the Democracy of the Dead

I became Catholic because I wanted to be part of that living tradition and to plant my roots deep.

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G.K. Chesterton wrote, “Tradition means giving a vote to most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead.”

I’ve been pondering this for some time from a couple of different perspectives. First of all, in the present political maelstrom, when all seems uncertain and insecure, where the old definitions are dissolving and new alliances are being forged, one looks for a different kind of democracy. The “democracy of the dead.”

In other words, when we value tradition we value what has stood the test of time. We value what our ancestors also believed stood the test of time. This is one of the main reasons why I am a Catholic today — because I went to England looking for a historic Church. The Church that was founded not 50 years ago, but 500 years ago. That quest led me further east from England to France, and from France to Italy and from Italy to Israel — and wherever I went I found a Church that was not just 500 years old, but 2,000 years old. And that Church reached back not only to its roots in the Roman Empire, but to its foundation on the apostles and prophets who were God’s people the Hebrews — and their tradition stretched back another 2,000 years.

I wanted to be part of that living tradition and to plant my roots deep. That’s why I am not only a Catholic, but a Catholic who treasures the traditions of the Church. The traditions I treasure are the Sacred Scriptures, the Sacred Liturgy, the timeless teaching of the Church in all its aspects and the lives of the saints — in which we see the traditions of the Church enfleshed in history. Pope Benedict XVI said, “Scripture can only be interpreted in the lives of the saints.” It is also true that the teachings of the Church in both morals and doctrine can only really be seen in their full glory in the lives of the saints.

Trying to live this tradition in modern America is not easy. One is besieged by a host of demonic “ism’s” — materialism, relativism, scientism, sentimentalism, utilitarianism and more. The Church herself is swamped by the onslaught. So I do what I can to pray the tradition, live the tradition and worship in the tradition. I worked to build a beautiful traditional Church, observe (as best I can) a beautiful liturgy in a traditional fashion, attempt to keep alive the musical traditions of the Church, and to instill in the children of our school and parish the traditions of love, service, worship and joyful evangelization.

There can be a problem with valuing tradition, however. It is possible to make tradition a kind of false religion or ideology and to cling to the tradition and imagine that it is unchanging and must be unchanging. It is true that there are certain, immutable and unchanging truths. These are the truths revealed by God in matters of faith and morals. These things cannot change, and even the Church herself does not have the authority to change these truths.

However, there are many things which can and do change according to different times and cultures, and it is the Church authority that determines what can change and what cannot. Here is a good example: the sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood is present when wheat bread and wine from grapes is transubstantiated at Mass into the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of the Lord Jesus Christ. This cannot change. 

Even for good cultural reasons it cannot change. A priest ministering to tribal people in the jungle who have never heard of bread or wine (and who have yuca root and coconut milk as their staples) cannot use yuca and coconut milk for the Eucharist. It must be bread and wine. This cannot change, because the matter of the sacrament was revealed by Christ himself. Neither can the words of consecration be changed. These too were given by Christ and confirmed by his Church.

However, the form and language of the liturgy can change.

How much, and how it can change, is up for debate, but what is not up for debate is the fact that it can change.

The trick, therefore, in valuing tradition most effectively is to discern how to not only keep alive the traditions of the Church, but to re-enliven them and keep them fresh for a new generation. The ways to do this can also be debated, but that it must be done cannot be debated.

If there is a temptation among some to ossify the tradition and even turn the tradition into a kind of anti-religion of unchanging rules and regulations, the other temptation, in the desire to enliven the tradition and make it relevant to a changing world, is to throw out the tradition altogether and fall into the trap of iconoclasm. One of the disastrous results of the Second Vatican Council is that liturgists, clergy and religion who were so zealous to make the faith contemporary and relevant, felt that they could best do this not by valuing and re-invigorating the traditions of the Church, but by demolishing them in revolutionary zeal.

I sometimes think that being a Catholic is like living in a grand old house like the one in Brideshead Revisited. It is an ornate, ancient and venerable structure, full of corridors of memories and alleyways of tradition. The walls are lined with the banners from ancient battles and the ancestors of grand reputation. The attic is full of curious and precious antiques and the kitchens and cellars are full of fine wine, casks of provisions and bundles of equipment for battle and for housework. The gardens are lush and expansive — some formal and fruitful, some still wild and untamed.

The modernist would demolish such a house and send the contents to auction.

But a Catholic should decide to live there, dust and shine the antiques, clean the carpets, polish the silver, restore the paintings, sharpen the halberds and shine the armor…

…and then he should draw back the drapes to open the windows and let in the fresh air and the morning light.

Read Fr. Longenecker’s blog, listen to his podcasts, browse his books and be in touch at dwightlongenecker.com