Old Wine in New Skins

By Jorge Gracia, 2003

In this short book, based on the 2003 Aquinas Lecture at Marquette University, Professor Gracia tries to explain what traditions are and how they function.  Gracia assumes that a tradition must be either a “belief” or an “action”.  Since traditions seem to be more flexible than beliefs (that is, they have a greater capacity to change while maintaining their self-identity), he reasons that tradition must be a species of action.  In particular, it is an action which is also a conscious reenactment of a previous action.  Since reenactments don’t have to be precise to count as reenactments, this definition explains the flexibility of tradition.  Gracia thinks this property of identity through change is necessary if tradition is to fulfill its role of binding people across space and time.  Applying his definition to the Catholic faith, which he takes to be a tradition, Gracia concludes that being a good Catholic consists entirely of making the correct ritual responses at Mass, that beliefs have no meaning except for their implications for ritual, and that the only way to be a heretic is to disrupt the ritual functioning of the Church.  Thus Gracia seems to adopt the absurd position that an atheist could be a perfectly good Catholic as long as he says “Amen” on cue with everyone else at Sunday Mass.  What would Gracia say about this case?  This lecture suggests that he would recite some mumbo-jumbo about the “Hermeneutic Circle” to claim that belief in God has no meaning except to tell us how to reenact rituals.

When one reaches an absurd conclusion, one should reexamine one’s premises.  Either traditions have a greater belief component than Gracia admits, or Catholicism is more than a tradition.  I think that we must admit a strong belief component to traditions.  The Eastern Orthodox theologian Jaroslav Pelikan has compared tradition to a religions icon:  its function is to point to something beyond itself.  This, I believe, is the key point Gracia is missing.  Tradition does indeed solve the problem of the Hermeneutic Circle and make communication possible.  However, once communication is possible within a tradition, it becomes possible to make real statements about God, the world, or whatever.  Of course, only people inside the tradition will understand these statements, but that doesn’t change the fact that they are statements about these things themselves, not just statements about how we talk about them.  One might say that that the creed, scriptures, and rituals of the Catholic Church form a single complex designed to make special forms of communication possible.  Living as a Catholic gives one a certain understanding of mysteries like the Incarnation.  And when two people are living under this umbrella of shared meanings, it certainly is possible for one to know that the other is a heretic.  In fact, I’d say the truth is the opposite of what Gracia claims.  It is only because of tradition that we can confidently identify and denounce heretics, because when one says “The Resurrection just means that Jesus’ memory lived on in his disciples” or some other such crap, we know damned well what he means.

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