A Universal Apology Point Eleven: ON TRADITION


I am recounting the several reasons I have for accepting that the Catholic Church is what she says she is. I had become convinced that any denomination with no continuity to the historical church could be a guard of the traditional Christian faith.

This lack of history logically necessitates a lack of tradition, which implies also a lack of completeness, of universality, or of depth in art and ritual.

During this period of my life, I went to services of one denomination or another weekly or biweekly. Hand in hand with my growing sense of discontent to be in the midst of Christians utterly isolated from their Christian fathers, I began to notice how frequently the preaching lingered on the words of the founder of the particular sect I was visiting, and how comparatively infrequently on the words of Christ and His Apostles, and how no disciple of any Apostle was mentioned even by name, much less quoted.

I felt like a man starving for stew, and being given a watery broth without meat and without substance. It was thin soup indeed.

It was not just one sect or two where I noticed this: while the founder of the denomination was never placed above Christ in honor, nonetheless the founder was the only other person mentioned, revered, or quoted. The Kingdom of God consisted of Christ and Calvin, with no one else in sight; and by some slight of hand, the features of Christ are nearly identical to those of Calvin. (I mean no disrespect to Calvin in particular, for the same could be said of any founder of a dissenting sect, Luther or Zwingli or Sun Myung Moon).

This lack of history logically necessitates a lack of completeness. The Catholic doctrine of necessity has countless authors, all in agreement with Church teaching. The Lutheran doctrine has Luther and — I cannot bring a second name to mind. Original and daring theologians born in the Lutheran Church no doubt started their own denominations. So only the philosophical and theological concerns of the one founding writer have any emphasis. Everything else is life is either copied from the Catholic writers, or not addressed at all.

This lack of history logically necessitates a lack of  diversity, of universality. Suppose I wanted to read inspiring books either by or about the main figures of this denomination. Every scrap of paper ever written by or about, say, the Seventh Day Adventists or the Unification Church of Sun Myung Moon, would not fill up the same bookshelf as the collected works of the Antenicene Fathers, much less the writings, century after century, merely of authors canonized as saints by the Catholic Church.

This lack of history logically necessitates a lack of art. Or suppose I wished the refreshment of reading some work of popular art or elevated literature in keeping with the moral mood and atmosphere of whatever denomination I chose? On the one hand, we have Bunyan’s PILGRIM’S PROGRESS and Milton’s PARADISE LOST. I can think of not one book of fiction or adventure taking place in the moral atmosphere of the Christian Scientists or the Quakers or Calvinists, and of anything redolent of Mormonism, I can think only of HOMEGOING by Orson Scott Card.

But if I want to read something with a particularly Catholic character, then everything from Tolkien’s LORD OF THE RINGS to Chaucer’s CANTERBURY TALES is open to me, and from Dante’s INFERNO to the ballads of Robin Hood, the songs of Roland, and the Death of Arthur, and I am in the company of every romantic figure from Boethius to Prester John to Friar Tuck to Zorro.

And, again, in terms of religious art or architecture or fine music, the Puritans have neither art nor decoration to display to engage the eyes and stir the ear or uplift the heart to divine things. Not all Protestants spend their efforts smashing statues and stained-glass windows, but their general output is less, and they have the grievous disadvantage of having begun over an millennium after the Catholics.

I also began to wonder how empty heaven seemed to be for the Protestants. Aside from God and Jesus and the founder (whoever he happened to be, depending on the sect) there was yet another great blank emptiness. The was no Virgin Mary mentioned as having any heavenly presence, no apostles, no saints, no martyrs, and the angels seems to have no hierarchy.

Their heaven was as blank and depopulated as a diagram, not crowded like a family portrait.

As for rite and ritual, prayer and sacrifice, and sacraments, the Protestants once again had a simplified and oddly empty library of forms of worship. They have neither Benedictines nor Augustinians nor Knights Hospitalier. Some of the denominations allow that baptism and marriage are sacraments, while others, showing more logical consistency but less humanity, have no sacraments.

None of the denominations I visited had any historical roots older than a few centuries. Some were less than two hundred year old, younger than my nation.

Far different was the result when I turned to the Catholics and inquired of them. Even the least well catechized seemed to know about the Arian controversy, or why and when the Eastern Orthodox Church had broken with Rome.

They were absolutely laved in history, and therefore in everything that came with it: a rich tradition with many branching arms and variations, a rich  sacramental life, a rich devotional life, rich ornamentation, a wealth of forefathers, a library of theologians and philosophers and devotional writings, a museum of art. And finally the universal Church portrayed an image of heaven as rich and varied as the court of a king, complete with scribes and ministers and elders in gold crowns and martyrs carrying palms, and in a place of special honor, the Queen Mother; and Christ at the center of it all.

It took me a while to put these disparate facts into a pattern and see the conclusion, and I apologize if this essay reflects that confusion. The pattern is this: orthodoxy is organic and alive, and it is something like a family portrait, something which appeals to all aspects of human nature; whereas heresy is simplistic and dead. Heresy is like a diagram that appeals to the intellect alone, and ignores most of human nature, or all of it.