Last week, I wrote a post in which I briefly outlined some of the often very substantial ways in which Catholic magisterial teaching has changed over the course of the Church’s nearly two thousand year old history.

I also implied that Catholics don’t have to choose between acknowledging that Catholic teaching has changed and according authority to Catholic Tradition. Pope Francis really beautifully describes what this sort of approach to Catholic tradition would look like. About Tradition he says,

“Tradition is the guarantee of the future and not the container of the ashes,” said Francis.

“Tradition is like roots [of a tree], which give us nutrition to grow,” he explained. “You will not become like the roots. You will flower, grow, give fruit. And the seeds become roots for other people.”

“The tradition of the church is always in movement,” he said. “The tradition does not safeguard the ashes.”

In other words, the Church’s Tradition exists to nourish us and give us life. It’s a resource and a wellspring, not a set of laws or rules to be handed down unchanged and without regard for context or advances in human understanding of Creation. Rather than a container with fixed and predictable limits, it’s a foundation for future growth.

But, although Francis’ offers this metaphor in order to rebuke so-called Traditionalists, I think it also can accommodate certain conservative Catholic insights about the importance of continuity. After all, more than simply allowing a tree to reach beyond itself, a tree’s roots also hold it in place.

This metaphor therefore helps to explain why Catholics do not have to choose between respecting the Tradition and acknowledging the reality of magisterial change. After all, a tree that has stopped changing is dead. But so is a tree that has lost touch with its roots.

Perhaps this metaphor also could help us imagine a less authoritarian understanding of magisterial authority-one that does not depend upon constructing a false story about the immutability of magisterial teaching. 

A tree’s roots enable its growth as much as they limit it. 

Of course, we don’t want to overestimate the explanatory power of this metaphor–metaphors aren’t meant to answer every question and settle every dispute. But perhaps this metaphor points us in the direction of a new way forward.

What does everyone else think about the metaphor Pope Francis uses here? Does it work? Could it help to resolve some of the seemingly intractable disputes between Catholic “liberals” and Catholic “conservatives?” Is the Pope taking a side, or is he building a bridge?

2 thoughts

  1. Thank you very much for your post. I think Pope Francis’ metaphor of church tradition as akin to a living, rooted tree is very helpful. I am a Presbyterian minister, and many members of my community and congregation unfortunately carry very misguided notions about Catholics as all being staunch traditionalists. I think the metaphor Pope Francis employs could be one very helpful starting point with ecumenical dialogue in communities and in building relationships and understanding across denominations. I also personally think we Protestants learn a lot from this belief in church tradition as something that nourishes us and continually gives us life and future growth. Too many of us view our faith experience as free-floating seeds.

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