Pork Roasts, Shadow Traditions, and the New Year

Once upon a time there was a newly married couple. Every few weeks, the new missus would buy a pork roast, cut off an inch or so from both ends, and pop it in the oven. This went on for several months till one day the new hubby asked, “Why do you cut off the ends of the pork roast?”

She replied, “It’s what my mother always did.”

So he asked her mother, “Why do you cut off the ends of the pork roast?”

She said, “It’s what my mother always did.”

So he went the Shady Grove Retirement home and visited his wife’s Grandmother. “Why do you cut off the ends of the pork roast?” he asked.

“Well, I had to. Our oven was so small.”

As a Catholic, I’m a big believer in Sacred Tradition. I take St. Paul seriously when he says ” So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter” (2 Thessalonian 2:15). But not all tradition is Sacred Tradition.

As Our Lord warns, some tradition is just human tradition. And human tradition is a mixed bag. Some human tradition is just ducky: birthday candles, Presidential oaths of office, Christmas trees, blessing kids at bedtime, Chinese New Year, barbecues on the Fourth of July, etc. All this is just part of what it means to be human and, as long as you don’t confuse it with Sacred Tradition, you’re in good shape.

But sometimes traditions outlive their usefulness–as with the pork roast. Other times (and this is much more sinister) people make the mistake of thinking “This is really old, therefore it’s Sacred Tradition”.

An example from the Church’s history shows what I mean. You don’t have to look too far in the writings of ancient Christians to find revolting things said about Jews–things which the Second Vatican Council decisively repudiated as contrary to the Faith, as that all Jews are guilty of the death of Christ. Now there are anti-Semitic Catholics who dissent from the Church’s teaching out there who collect such quotes from ancient Christians and reason thus: “This is old. Christians said such things long ago. Ergo, this is part of the Tradition!” From these grounds, they then conclude that Nostra Aetate was wrong when it taught “neither all Jews indiscriminately at that time, nor Jews today, can be charged with the crimes committed during his Passion. . . the Jews should not be spoken of as rejected or accursed as if this followed from holy Scripture”.

In fact, however, Nostra Aetate is not wrong. For the mere fact that a Catholic said something long ago does not baptize his sentiment as “Tradition.” In this case, the claim that Jews are somehow collectively guilty of the death of Christ is not Tradition, it is simply old sin and error. Sin is not transmuted into Tradition simply by being around a long time.

One of the things we have to grapple with is the fact that Paul told us 2000 years ago, “the mystery of lawlessness is already at work” (2 Thessalonians 2:7). In other words, there is no Golden Age. A sinister “shadow tradition” dogs the Church throughout history and us throughout our lives. It is what makes the work of discernment necessary and vital, for the mere fact that something (like slavery) has been around a long time does not mean that it is really part of the Tradition.

That’s why New Year’s Day matters. Jesus came to proclaim “the year of the Lord’s favor”. Every New Year reminds us that we live in the Jubilee of Christ: that we can put away old things and receive new life. The Faith is not only old, but new. It goes through times of renewal, just as we do. Renewal, as distinct from radical novelty, is always something the proceeds organically, from within the authentic Tradition by the Spirit of Life. It consists, not of saying “Let’s get rid of whatever is old and lunge after the latest fad!” but of discovering what is eternally young and true in the Holy Spirit. Sin is as old as death. It’s always been around. And the Spirit has always been conquering it. This New Year, ask the Holy Spirit to help you distinguish between what is authentically part of his revelation to us and what is just old sin in your life.


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