Susanna Spencer has a masters in theology from the Franciscan University of Steubenville. She is a writer and the theological editor for Blessed is She, and writes on her own blog Living With Lady Philosophy. She is a homeschooling mother of four and lives with her family in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Rigidity. Pope Francis seems to talk about that a lot. And the instance that struck home for me most recently was from a recently released interview he gave in 2007 in which he spoke of the rigidity of young traditionalists. I am a recovering rigid traditionalist. Before that I was a rigid charismatic. I have experienced firsthand what is it like to be rigid, standing in cold judgment of a perceived wrong way of doing things, and I have encountered firsthand what is it like to be snubbed by the rigid, seeking to be understood and finding no sympathy.
In many instances rigidity breeds rigidity. For example, as a result of my rigid traditional years, I cannot discuss preferences for liturgy among some people I am close to without a certain amount of coldness entering into the conversation. The sad part of the whole matter is that my insistence on everyone seeing that I was right had started off as a great love story of my discovery of the richness of the Church’s liturgical tradition. It really was like falling in love with a part of the Church I had never known about. I let my love turn into a defensive argumentativeness against those who questioned my position and resentment against those who caused the changes. And it was only when I rediscovered my first love for our liturgical tradition that my stony heart was restored back into a heart of flesh, which sought to understand those whom I encountered and to see the diversity within our church with some sympathy.
When our Holy Father talks about people who are rigid, he says that these people are placing trust more in themselves than in God. They focus more on upholding law than loving individual people. These are errors to be avoided indeed as we navigate the path to understanding and knowing truth as it has been revealed to us by God in nature and in Divine Revelation. My personal love for Sacred Tradition which is part of Divine Revelation and my love of the liturgical tradition have stemmed from a trust in and relationship with the Holy Spirit, whom Christ promised to the Church, to guide her as an Advocate until the end of time.
Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman, in An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, talks about seven notes through which to examine whether something is a genuine development in the Church. I am not going to go through all of them here, but the last note points out that a non-genuine development will eventually decay away. He says, “The course of heresies is always short; it is an intermediate state between life and death, or what is like death; or, if it does not result in death, it is resolved into some new, perhaps opposite, course of error, which lays no claim to be connected with it” (Newman, An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, Notre Dame Press, 1989, p. 204). If one looks at the history of the Church, many heresies and errors have become popular, and they have all decayed away, changed their course, and lost their influence over the Church. In my love of tradition, I can take comfort in knowing that things that are happening in the Church, especially those that make me a little uncomfortable in my seat, will not ultimately harm the purity of the Church’s doctrine. And, as Newman also points out, the evil that is in the world does “not fill up its measure and overflow” as the “external counteractions of truth and virtue” arise to “bear it back” (Essay, p. 204). We cannot see where the Church is going or know what decisions are going to be made within the Magisterium, but we can pray for charity, understanding, and guidance from the Holy Spirit.
In the face of the current turmoil in the Church, especially in light of the five Dubia presented by cardinals to the Pope about reception of Holy Communion for the divorced and remarried, this concept about the development of doctrine is helpful to remember. The Holy Spirit is guiding the Church, and she will not ultimately go astray. We again must put our trust in God and remember that he will not abandon the Church he established. I am reminded of the words of the Pharisee Gamaliel, considered a saint by tradition, in the Acts of the Apostles when the council of the high priest was determining what to do about the early Christian Church: “So in the present case I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone; for if this plan or this undertaking is of men, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them. You might even be found opposing God!" (Acts 5:38-39)
The Pharisees are typically a prime example of what rigidity looks like: strict law enforcement without charity. Yet the Scriptures give us examples of those who came from the Pharisees whom, from the tradition of the Mosaic Law, were also able to put their complete trust in God as they genuinely sought truth, from Nicodemus, the follower of Jesus in the Gospels, to Gamaliel in Acts, willing to let time show whether God was the source of Christianity. And let us not forget St. Paul, who lived as a strict Pharisee until he had his vision of Jesus showing him the fulfillment of the promises of the Old Testament. St. Paul never did abandon the steadfastness with which he stood for the truth as he understood it, as can be seen in his letters. A zeal for the law and tradition is only rigid when it lacks charity and trust in the Holy Spirit, and it is charity and trust that will keep traditionalists from the coldness of rigidity.