According to John Thiel’s analysis in Senses of Tradition (154), innovation in the church often seems initially to be a threat to tradition:

“The ecclesial investment in constancy often leads to the eclipse of the ‘still’ of the present and the ‘will be’ of the future by the ‘always’ of the past. This is particularly true of the traditional duration that extends from the present through the open future. Prospective conceptions of tradition, whether classical or modern, make the shape of the religiously meaningful future predictable with regard to at least an assured content and at most an assured form. Prolepsis here becomes inexorable. . . . the possibility of development that the future offers tradition can present itself as a threat to the ‘always’ of a literal sense wrenched from its holistic relation to the other senses. The traditional future’s ‘will be,’ then, is claimed by an anxious and falsely hypostatized literal sense as inevitability governed by the authoritative past. The future duration of ‘will be,’ however, is better understood in terms of possibility as ‘might be.’”

This seems a threat especially to Catholics: “as though its apparent randomness were out of joint with the continuity one expects of religiously valued time. It suggests a sheer, temporal openness, an unending duration utterly resistant to tradition’s patterning of time—in George Steiner’s provocative phrase, a ‘Satanic chaos.’”

In such a context, it’s essential to remember who has the future: “if one recalls that time in all its durations is a divine gift to which the giver remains ever present, then the contingency of the future belongs not to Satan but to the Spirit.”

More on: Reform, John Thiel

Articles by Peter J. Leithart

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