Over at Commonweal, Luke Timothy Johnson offers a very interesting personal reflection on Vatican II and his own life as a monk during the time of the Council (it is an excerpts from a larger memoir). Among the interesting things he says is the following:
At St. Meinrad, a deep rift developed between the older monks (largely conservative) and the younger monks (largely liberal). The liberals advocated for change on the basis of history, arguing, for example, that patristic-era Eucharistic formulae clearly antedated and were superior to the Tridentine version, while the conservatives stood on the basis of tradition.
This made me think of how I typically use “history and tradition” together, almost as a pleonasm, as a way of talking about our relation to the past. But Johnson’s use of these terms to name a divide among people regarding reform of the liturgy (and monastic life in general) caused me to reflect on the fact that we actually mean quite different things by them.
“History” names a scholarly endeavor: a reconstruction of the past based on documentary evidence and the historian’s own sense of what is or is not plausible (thus the exclusion by most historians of miracles). It was at least in part on the basis of “history” that the so-called Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus was reconstructed as an exemplar of liturgy in the city of Rome in the third century, and it was this historical reconstruction that affected in various ways the reforms after the Second Vatican Council, from the Second Eucharistic Prayer to the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults.
“Tradition,” on the other hand, names a way of living with the past possessed by a community, a sense of “how we have always done things.” Whereas history involves scholarly reconstruction based on documents and a sense of plausibility, tradition is the communal process by which documents are identified as important and authoritative (i.e. canonical) to a community and which shapes the sense of what is and is not plausible. It is, to use a term coined by Peter Berger (whom Johnson mentions in his essay), a “plausibility structure.”
My sense is that history and tradition need each other. They need each other because “tradition” can simply mean “what I am familiar with,” whether or not this is in fact how we have always done things. I have heard young people speak of “Be Not Afraid” and “Eagle’s Wings” as “traditional Catholic music,” because these are what they heard when they were small, these are the means by which they learned scripture, these are things that sound utterly unlike the other music they listen to and which make them “feel” Catholic. Or some older Catholics will speak of the praying of the St. Michael prayer at the end of Mass as “traditional,” because this is what they remember from their youth. Of course a quick Google search (or simply consulting your [grand]parents) will reveal that “Be Not Afraid” et al. are of recent vintage and were considered quite a rupture with tradition when they first appeared, or that the Prayer to St. Michael began to be said at the end of Mass only in 1886. These things in some sense are “traditional,” inasmuch as they are artifacts of the past that genuinely form part of the plausibility structure within which some Catholics live out their faith, but they are not particularly “historical” in terms of the broad sweep of the Church’s journey through time.
Likewise, “history,” meaning “how things were done in the past,” can carry the implication that this is how we should be doing them now, even if it means overturning the way we have been doing things, if not always, at least for a while. This can be a problem 1) because history really only gives us an educated guess as to how things were done in the past and 2) because the way things were done at some point in the past does not always mean they should be done that way in the present. The shifting evaluations of the Apostolic Tradition — now seen as probably largely 4th-century and later, and almost certainly not from Rome, and definitely not written by Hippolytus — shows the tentativeness with which historians must operate. And even when they are fairly certain how things were done in, say, the 4th century, this in itself is not an argument for changing the way people have come to pray in the intervening centuries. The sense of lived tradition should temper our appeals to past precedent as an argument for change (which is always selective: one rarely hears arguments based on 4th-century precedent for segregating worshippers by sex).
I think a healthy sense of tradition involves judicious appeal to our knowledge of history and a healthy employment of history in reforms involves a respect for lived tradition. So in a sense it is probably right to speak of “history and tradition,” not as synonyms but as two different ways of living with the past that need each other as the Church journeys into the future.