A Return to Tradition

A new interest in old ways takes root in Catholicism and many other faiths

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Celebrating the Latin mass at St. Mary, Mother of God in Washington.

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In all faiths, the return to tradition has different meanings for different people. To some, it is a return to reassuring authority and absolutes; it is a buttress to conservative theological, social, and even political commitments. To others, it is a means of moving beyond fundamentalist literalism, troubling authority figures, and highly politicized religious positions (say on gay marriage and contraception or abortion) while retaining a hold on spiritual truths. In short, the new traditionalism is anything but straightforward.

And that is one reason it is so hard to quantify. Mary Bendyna, executive director of the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University, laments the lack of hard data on traditionalist developments in the Catholic Church but plans to launch a large study on sacramental life in January. Even without the numbers, though, Bendyna is confident that a change is afoot. "There has been a renewed interest in traditional life, in traditional devotions, even among young Catholics," she says. (Bendyna doubts, though, that the Latin mass will catch on in a big way. "There just aren't that many priests who are prepared to celebrate it," she says.) More broadly, Bendyna wonders whether a renewed interest in traditional devotions or religious orders correlates directly with conservatism on such matters as papal infallibility, contraception, or the exclusively male and celibate clergy. Determining that relationship, Bendyna says, is one of the greater investigative challenges.

"Hype." Some liberal Catholic clergy are completely skeptical about the scope and meaning of the traditionalist turn. "It's more hype than reality," says the Rev. Thomas Reese, a Jesuit priest and political scientist at Georgetown's Woodstock Theological Center. Reese thinks the church should focus less on the Latin mass than on the three things that draw most churchgoers: "good preaching, good music, and a welcoming community." He is equally dubious about all the attention being devoted to the habit-wearing Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia and a few other traditional religious orders that have enjoyed an uptick in younger members. "I have no problem with their habits," says Reese. "On the other hand, if the church ordained women, we'd have thousands more women coming forward."

But Sister Patricia Wittberg, a sociologist at Indiana University-Purdue University in Indianapolis, sees more substance in the new traditionalism. "I think churches that can articulate what they do and what they stand for tend to grow better." To that extent, she says, the conservative turn in the church makes sense. But she points out that there are two kinds of conservatives. "One group," she says, "would like to take things back to the [16th-century Counter-Reformation] Council of Trent, but I don't think the future's with them. I think the future is with a group that is interested in reviving the old stuff and traditions in a creative way. Sisters in traditional orders may wear habits, but they often live in coed communities." Sociologist Finke agrees: "Members of traditional religious orders want to be set apart, to have a more active spiritual formation and a strong community life. But while they are obedient, they are less submissive to authority and want to make more of their own decisions and be active professionally in outreach activities. It's a structured life, but it's a structure they are seeking and not simply submitting to authority."

Contradictory? To be sure. And it becomes no less so in other denominations and religions. That may be why George Barna, whose Barna Group does extensive polling on religious life in America, does not identify neotraditionalism as one of the four "megathemes" in his most recent survey of the American scene. But one of those themes, "Nouveau Christianity," speaks to the conditions that some say are giving rising to it: "'unChristian' behavior by church people, bad personal experiences with churches, ineffective Christian leadership amid social crises." Such factors have led, the Barna Group reports, to new spiritual practices that embrace diversity and tolerance, emphasize conversations and relationship, blend all forms of art and novel forms of instruction, and foster new spiritual communities. But how do tradition and orthodox practices enable attempts to build a stronger spiritual life?