In order to get a proper understanding of the role tradition plays within the life of the Catholic Church, we sometimes need to encounter some uncomfortable realities. One of these is that sometimes, traditionalists (and sometimes all Catholics as well!) make an idol out of tradition.
When I say this, please take time to hear me out. If somebody over the next few posts starts complaining with some straw man, I'll just delete you. I will attempt to be as clear as possible here, as I know I can be stepping onto a minefield. In this post, I will give some thoughts on how I think we traditionalists misunderstand traditionalist. In another, I will point out how I feel many "conservatives" misunderstand tradition. In the final, I'll attempt to provide some guidelines I think that will help us avoid these errors.
I think sometimes Catholics have a real problem with antiquarianism. Just because something is old or venerable, we automatically lump it in with Apostolic Tradition, ergo our personal preferences are binding upon the whole Church, and can never be changed. Sometimes our regional customs (or even our personal customs) are made into ecclesiastical tradition, once again forcing others to adopt our views under pain of sin.
Let us provide a popular example. For most of the Churches liturgical history, only men were altar servers who assisted the priest in the sanctuary. It was done to emphasize the doctrine of the male priesthood, and provide a (theoretical) "grooming ground" for priests, as studies show that those who serve as altar servers at a young age are likelier to become priests.
Now some opposed this out of wanting the Church to ordain women, which is dogmatically impossible. Yet others wanted to increase lay involvement in the liturgy, and that included extending altar service to girls. Their reasoning further given that as the attendance of Masses plummeted, so did the available pool of altar servers.
While John Paul II originally condemned the practice of altar girls, he was clearly conflicted by the latter argument. As a result, he allowed dioceses to permit altar girls, but also forbid them. This decision was a very controversial one, as some took this to mean it was a stepping stone to women's ordination. Indeed, some traditionalists treated this as tantamount to women's ordination, and proof that John Paul II was destroying the liturgy.
The problem with this is that the sex of altar servers was not something which was Apostolic tradition. It was not part of divine revelation. The only thing that was part of revelation is that the priesthood is all male, and that it is impossible for the Church to ordain women. It was instead an ecclesiastical tradition, and a pretty old one at that. It was meant to reinforce teachings of the Church. John Paul II accepted as valid that the emphasis on service in liturgy could was just as valid as using altar servers to emphasize the character of and provide a training ground for the priesthood. We don't have to like that decision. I for one do not. Yet the Pope clearly has the authority to make this decision from a legal standpoint, and that is the end of that discussion.
While we can grant the legal authority, we can question the prudence of this change. In the manner of altar girls, many will argue that a few decades of evidence have established that altar girls do little to enhance participation in the liturgy, they aren't leading to increased mass attendance, and have even led to less altar boys. I for one find this argument compelling, and the evidence for it overwhelming. It is why I say that one day the Pope should revisit this question and rule otherwise, just as later popes have issued rulings based on how Catholics should receive Holy Communion. Yet to confuse this as a matter of revelation with our sweeping rhetoric was a mistake.
Even though all of this has been established, I do think traditionalists (and many conservatives) have a point when they oppose this practice, and one of the reasons why will be explored in a future post.