Unintended novelty

It probably does not need to be said, but simply retaining the practices of the past, as many so-called “traditional” Catholics wish to do, does not preserve that past. Nicholas Lash likes to tell a story about the market place in Cambridge that makes this point beautifully. If, Nicholas says, you went down to the market place in Cambridge in the early thirteenth century and you saw a man with an undyed wooden robe, a rope for a belt and sandals you would probably think, “Drat, another stupid beggar. Get a job!” If you went down to the market place today (and it is in exactly the same place, and, in my opinion, selling the same cheeses), and you saw a man with an undyed woolen robe, a rope for a belt and sandals, you would probably think “There goes a mildly eccentric, but harmless ecclesiastic.” To do the same thing in a different cultural context or historical period is really to do something very new and different. It is a form of unintended novelty. To say the Rosary, or hear the Mass in Latin outside the world that included and created the movies “Going My Way” and “On the Waterfront” is to introduce something brand new to the Church, not to preserve its past. This may be a good thing or a bad thing, but it is certainly a new thing. The loss of the past is inevitable, and not to face the inevitable is psychologically, culturally, and, I suspect spiritually dangerous.

Gary Macy, “Impasse passé: Conjugating a Tense Past,” Proceedings of the Sixty-fourth Annual Convention, Theological Society of America, vol. 64, 1-20, here 19.


  1. I suppose the Council and Consilium were a bit misguided in trying to recover practices lost through accidents of history, like the Prayer of the Faithful, Sign of Peace, and homily based on the readings. 🙂

    More seriously, I can understand the concept that people of different historical and cultural contexts inscribe different meanings upon different rituals and texts. I’m sure that my understanding of the Pledge of Allegiance is much different from that of my parents, who grew up in the ’50’s and ’60’s. It’s never been “new” to me, but the context in which I learned it was very different

    By comparison, I’m sure that my parents’ understanding of a Latin Mass was very different from some of their ancestors (being literate and having access to Hand Missals). Does this mean that something “new” was being introduced? Not necessarily, but it does mean that their understanding was different.

    Were I to sing a Gregorian Gloria, the meaning I inscribed would be very different from that of my parents. For them, I’m sure there would be some nostalgia. For myself, it’s simply one of several ways of praising God passed down in my tradition. It might be very “new” to me, but even so, I recognize that it doesn’t just belong to me. I’m curious to know what Gloria VIII will mean to my daughter in 20 years (and for that matter, the Gloria from the “Mass of Creation”).

  2. I think a lot of traditionalists see themselves as reviving something traditional for the benefit of the Church today. It isn’t an attempt at preserving the 1950’s (I wouldn’t tie the Latin Mass to that period) or a failure to “face the inevitable loss of the past.”

    1. I think that’s a very fair point. We can recover something for use in our present situation, rather than simply wanting to recreate a past. I’ve encountered a number of traditionalists online who do seem to want to recreate the 1950’s (or earlier). Even so, most of those I’ve known in the real world are more like what you’ve just described.

  3. To say the Rosary, or hear the Mass in Latin outside the world that included and created the movies “Going My Way” and “On the Waterfront” is to introduce something brand new to the Church, not to preserve its past.

    The author is living in a very strange bubble if he thinks that either of these things ever went away.

  4. One definition of maturity: the joyful acceptance of a limited reality. It’s easy to love the “ideal” church; the invitation is to love the Real Church.

      1. Indeed. Also pragmatists in the center.

        It’s very hard to truly accept the fact that the Church is a hospital of sinners, not the retirement home for the already healed. Starting with ourselves.

  5. There are, perhaps some very legitimate criticisms of “Traditionalism” as a form of sentimentality. Unfortunately, this isn’t one of them. The kind of traditionalist that the author describes is a minority even among traditionalists. The author is analyzing a mere stereotype.

    1. I find that a lot of the criticism waged against traditionalism here seems very out of touch – more like guess work from folks who don’t really want to try and understand people they disagree with rather than criticism that comes through sympathetic understanding. The gist I tend to get from many here is that the EF really has nothing going for it and is completely impoverished compared to the OF, so there must not be any good reason for anyone to want it. There must be something “wrong” with people who want it, be it unhealthy sentimentalism, an unhealthy inability to let go of the past, an unhealthy clericalism, or an unhealthy fetish with rubrics and fine music that borders on idolatry (these are the general themes I’ve picked up from articles posted here, anyway).

      Some traditionalists are the same way when criticizing the OF (like the annoying obsession with Clown Masses), but most trads have a lot of experience with the OF and still depend on it, so their criticisms of it tend not to have the outsider quality that many criticisms of traditionalists have.

  6. “To do the same thing in a different cultural context or historical period is really to do something very new and different. It is a form of unintended novelty.”

    A fascinating critique of the those who want to preserve 1970s music in liturgy forever. That explains the alienation I feel when I travel and land in parish that is stuck in the past of 30 years ago and refuses to progress.

  7. I’m always surprised to see how people who disagree with a post don’t bother to argue but prefer to insult the post. The short statement here is in fact an argument, or the tip of one, that is important and won’t go away just because people here despise it.

    The point the author is making is one of the fundamental observations that arise with historical consciousness. In fact, it is one which I always imagined traditionalists—of all people—would be most concerned to address. Namely, what actually constitutes tradition? How is it that we reconcile the existence of a Church in time with its claims to eternal verities? How do we acknowledge the indisputable facts of historical development without resorting to process theology? How do we relate the present to the past without resorting to crude picture-thinking or play-acting, or the willed denial of historical consciousness altogether? And finally, what is it, really, that the past has to tell us?

    One important response to these issues in the realm of liturgy and theology in the twentieth century was ressourcement. As I understand it, traditionalists reject ressourcement as betrayal of the tradition. I’d love to hear people discussing this question seriously, rather than dismissing it.

    1. Rita, thank you. I was looking forward to the discussion of the post, and was very disappointed by the quality of the comments.

    2. I think people decided not to address the argument because it’s not one that really applies to traditionalists. People have rightly pointed out that the type of traditionalist referred to in the article is a minority amongst people serious about Latin Masses. If the basic premise of an argument doesn’t apply, then I fail to see why it *must* be argued as if it does. Recognizing a flawed premise isn’t an insult to the post.

      The post brings up some interesting points about traditional practices being unintentionally new, but unfortunately it seems to characterize traditionalists as being something they are not.

      As for resourcement, I would say that most traditionalists are not opposed to it per se, but are rather opposed to the type of resourcement that has characterized the late 20th Century liturgical reform which seemed to only value ideas that could be tenuously tied to what the early Christians supposedly did and seemed to distrust and shun handed-down tradition.

    3. Yes! and key to the conversation is seeing past, present, and future in a more cyclical way, rather than in a linear way.
      History, even the “dangerous memories” is an important part of the present, and, the task is to re-appropriate that past in new and deeper ways for the future.

    4. Rita;

      I think the problem that many commenters are having (at least it’s the problem I’m having) is that the author posits a false premise and then criticizes the entity that he has created. While it’s true that there are indeed traditionalists who would like things to be as they were in the 1950’s (an odd choice of decade, I have to admit), such traditionalists are a small minority of those who advocate for the EF. A large and growing number of traditionalists are young families with young children who approach the EF with no sentimentality and no thought that it is something from the past. For a great many and increasing number of traditionalists, the EF is the forward -looking liturgy, while the OF is the form that seems frozen in time. There is a certain quality of timelessness to the EF that allows for it to be experienced as past, present and future without taking on the characteristics of a specific time. That’s why I’m a bit septical about the author’s association of the EF with the 1950’s… it seems more personal than an actual characteristic of the EF liturgy.

      So why even accept the author’s premise that it’s not possible to recreate the past in the present time as the foundation for criticism when very few have any thought of even trying to “re-create the past” in the context put forth in his argument? That’s not insulting the post, it’s simply a refutation of the argument.

      1. Hi Jeffrey,

        It seems to me that the reference to traditionalists was an illustration, not the argument. I can see objecting to the illustration, but that doesn’t dispose of the argument.

        You say, and I’m sure others agree with you, that the EF has a timelessness about it. How important that is to you, I don’t know. But, as of course you are aware, that’s an opinion with which others would disagree. Rather than timeless, it seems to many to be an anachronism posing as timeless. The “pose” is the problem for me.

        By the way, I don’t think everyone who likes the Latin Mass is a traditionalist by a long chalk. A traditionalist, of which the SSPX is a prime example, rejects other forms of the liturgy as error, because they believe the liturgy they celebrate is the unique bearer of the tradition. A lot of people seem to prefer the EF as a matter of taste and personal spirituality. They are not saying it is the unique bearer of the tradition. I would not call these people traditionalists.

      2. So… all this time that I was led to believe that the EF was timeless, it was merely an anachronism posing as timeless?? Boy, do I feel deceived! To think that a liturgy could be so devious… all of those fancy clothes, bells, incense and those unintelligible words were just a ruse? All the time, the EF was just posing as something timeless??

        By the way, if something is anachronistic at all points in time, isn’t that much the same as being timeless? I’d be interested to hear how the two are different. That, or I’d be interested to hear an explanation of exactly when the EF became anachronistic. I suspect that the contention would be that it became an anachronism just about the same time that the OF came into being. But if that’s true, then why is the OF not an anachronism now, it being so definitely connected to a very specific time?

        This is a truly ludicrous argument, but a rather good illustration of the “great chasm” that exists between two points of view.

      3. Perhaps terms need to be defined. Some people would call virtually anyone with a preference for the Latin Mass a “traditionalist,” others would only use that term for SSPX, while still others would define it as something in between. When speaking of traditionalism, I’ve found that the only real unifying descriptor is a preference for the Latin Mass while everything else might vary considerably (i.e. adherence to traditional fasting/abstinence, degree of acceptance of Vatican II or the Novus Ordo).

      4. Jeffrey H. wrote: So… all this time that I was led to believe that the EF was timeless, it was merely an anachronism posing as timeless?? Boy, do I feel deceived!

        I’m not sure that the alternatives are simply “timeless” versus “anachronism.” Surely we can discuss the OF versus the EF on their own merits, assessing their strengths and weaknesses.

        As for the “timelessness” of the EF: if someone really did lead you to believe this, then you were deceived. Any basic history of liturgy will show that it has changed over time, even if the text and rubrics were mostly frozen since 1570.

        Of course, since only God is, strictly speaking, “timeless,” I am presuming you intend “timeless” as a metaphor, indicating something of enduring value. In that case, sure the EF is timeless, as is the OF or the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom or the Ordo Romanus Primus or the liturgy of Serapion or the Gallican liturgy. What makes them of enduring value (i.e. “timeless”) is that they have been the means by which Christ has made himself present — body and blood, soul and divinity — for the sanctification of his people. God has used them to give us pilgrims a taste of eternity. But, it seems to me, that is the only sense in which any liturgy is “timeless.”

      5. Jeffrey said “This is a ludicrous argument” but because I never said (or imagined) any of the things he attributes to me, I can only say that I agree. The argument he imagines is ludicrous; but it’s his creation, not mine.

        Something else came up here, though, which is interesting. Need it be said that “fancy clothes, bells, incense and those unintelligible words” don’t make something timeless? Perhaps here is the nub of the confusion.

        Tokens of the past, reminders of antiquity, symbols of the trans-generational nature of a gathering, push us out of the all-encompassing awareness of the present for a purpose, but they function that way precisely because they are recognizable as old. If they were actually timeless, they would be immediately perceived as contemporaneous.

  8. “To say the Rosary, or hear the Mass in Latin outside the world that included and created the movies “Going My Way” and “On the Waterfront” is to introduce something brand new to the Church, not to preserve its past”

    Last time I checked, the rosary has been and is still the devotion of choice for millions of people throughout the world. It never went away except in the minds of some academcs.

  9. Jacques
    Are you by any chance from near Toulouse? As I run along the rue du Craslin I wonder when you will next join us.
    A bientôt

  10. I am actually in print (in a book review somewhere) criticizing Gary Macy for holding that the relativities of history undercut any claims for normativity, so in what I’m about to say I am not defending one of my heroes or buddies.

    I actually think he has something of a point. Of course, as Jeffrey Tucker noted, it is a point that applies to “progressives” as well as “traditionalists.” As Kierkegaard put it, to repeat is always to repeat differently. Or, as Maurice Blondel put it, “To think in our day in precisely the same terms as five centuries ago is inevitably to think in a different spirit” (“Letter on Apologetics,” 149). Just as texts only have meaning within a context, so too liturgical acts. Just because the text and rubrics of the Mass remained more or less unchanged from 1570 to 1965 does not mean that the liturgy remained unchanged. To think otherwise (and I have encountered self-described “traditionalist” who speak in this way) is to mire oneself in illusion.

    Of course (and here I might differ from Macy), there is significant continuity across time; the 20th century Cambridge Franciscan is not entirely divorced from his 13th century confrère. There is some sense of “sameness” that allows us to identify both as “Franciscan.” Similarly there is some sense of continuity that allows us to identify what is celebrated in 1570, 1930 and 1985 as “the Eucharist.”

    1. I should clarify my reaction, the initial comment in this thread. By unqualified, I meant that the quote in its unqualified form presented here was not an argument that merited much argument in return.

      The sentiments expressed in the quoted passage beg many questions. What does it mean to be “past” vs “present”; how do we know and who gets to say?

      The emphasis on inevitability in the quoted passage also betrays the influence of a kind of linear or Hegelian sense of progression; very contestable assumptions. And, by sentimentality, I was trying to convey that it partakes of a 19th century attitude about progress and modernity. The 20th century, by contrast, has reminded us how much of and about humanity – both the human person and human societies – perdures despite ostensible “Progress”. And many human cultures have a non-linear sense of the interrelationship of past, present and future (which coexists with the supposed linearity of Christian and Jewish eschatology).

      Oh, and how the Rosary of all things got shunted into the box labeled Past is entirely mysterious to me. The practice of the Rosary remains very much alive and with us among Catholics of many flavors….

  11. Thanks to Rita, FC…..we do seem to get caught in the same battles and same war but Rita framed the essential question well.

    In the study of history; in the training of historians (which is more art than craft) you find that excellent history has the ability to capture insights and truth that are eternal even though the actual events, people, questions, issues are different; have changed; or (with good revisionism) have been studied, ressourced, and re-interpreted in order to convey a deeper and more comprehensive truth.

    What I find in the lturgy wars is a constant repeat that confuses “tradition” with “traditionalism”. All liturgy, theology is based on analogy – see David Tracy: http://www.religion-online.org/showchapter.asp?title=1626&C=1575

    This is a fairly heavy description so here is a more concise description:

    “A retrospective understanding of tradition offers a realistic account of how believers actually shape lines of meaningful continuity. The continuity of tradition is an act of faith in which believers together affirm their meaningful relationship to the faith of past believers. Past believers did exactly the same. They affirmed tradition in their own day by retrospectively configuring lines of continuity to the faith of previous generations, who did the same again. Most of these retrospective acts of faith in any present moment repeat the claims of the previous present moment, which accounts for the continuous stability that we expect.

  12. cont…..”Most of these retrospective acts of faith in any present moment repeat the claims of the previous present moment, which accounts for the continuous
    stability that we expect a tradition to be. Even this repetition, though, develops in ever-renewed acts of faith in passing time. Through repeated acts of faith of claiming the continuity of tradition, the tradition grows or develops in time. This means that what
    we call the “continuity” of tradition and what we call the “development” of tradition are exactly the same thing. The continuity of tradition is not alien to development, as was thought under classical assumptions. Nor is the continuity of tradition an essential content manifesting itself in historical developments but from which it remains distinguishable, as has been thought under modern, Romantic assumptions. Rather, the continuity
    of tradition is claimed in a communal act of faith that is utterly temporal and so develops in every passing moment as the tradition-shaping act of faith is made again and again. Tradition, we might say, continuously develops (see Thiel 1999 ; 2000, 84-85).

    This is a long article by John Thiel on Faithfulness to Tradition:


    1. Bill, the passage you quote is very helpful indeed. I am not a big fan of David Tracey, but Theil’s synopsis is a very elegant way to frame the question. Thanks.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *