Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Tradition and innovation

I am still working on a short book about hospitality and immigration in the life and teaching of the Fathers of the Church. But I have done enough that I can see where I will end up. I draw three key lessons about hospitality from the Fathers and Doctors of the Church.

First, all the major Fathers of the Church did indeed take the lessons from Abraham at Mamre and Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount very seriously. They were crystal clear that there is a serious obligation to care for those in need, including strangers. They were eloquent about the blessings attached to serving the poor – both the obviously intrinsic blessings and the less obviously attached rewards for obedience. They were forceful about the punishments attached to a failure to serve those in need, including strangers.

On the other hand, the Fathers did not agree about the identity of a “stranger.” St. Jerome’s opinion was emphatic: there is no limitation to this category: person whom you meet whom you don’t know is a stranger, and strangers have a list of needs, some easily identified such as food and water and rest. Other needs are less easily specified: protection, an intent ear, welcome. At the other extreme is St. John Chrysostom, who was equally emphatic: the list of people in need – including the hungry, thirsty, naked, and strangers – is carefully and deliberately limited by Jesus to the least of the “brethren,” which means followers of Jesus.

Second, the sharp and deep disagreement amongst the Fathers was eventually left in the hands of the monks, who provided hospitality in the name of the Church; and their view was clear. St. Benedict and the monastic tradition were unequivocally universal, following the teaching of St. Jerome. At least in theory, monks offered hospitality to all who knocked on their doors. Quite certainly, in practice, there were some limitations on this hospitality, but these limitations were seen as grave failures to fulfill a solemn obligation.

Third, the Fathers carved out a new pattern of hospitality, built explicitly on the model of Abraham, intent explicitly on obedience to the demands in the Sermon on the Mount – and yet significantly different from Mosaic and Apostolic hospitality. The law of Moses addresses a social responsibility: the people of Israel must offer hospitality to other peoples, recalling how the nation of Egypt treated the nation of Israel. The teaching of Jesus emphasizes individual responsibility: when I (singular) was hungry/thirsty/naked/stranger, you (singular) provided food/water/clothing/welcome. But in the life of the Church for over a thousand years, the emphasis is on the duty of the Church, generally monks. Seeing and understanding this third pattern is fundamental to understanding the crisis in our time, for at least two reasons.

For one thing, if religious communities carry out the tasks of hospitality, and then convents and monasteries are suppressed, who assumes the duty? When monasteries are suppressed, the remnants are more likely to focus on the needs of fugitive priests than the neglected duties of the porter. Good people will step forward to act with charity – but what’s the pattern, the model, the prompt and automatic response to the needs of strangers?

But there’s another point to draw from this third pattern of service that the early Church developed. If there’s a third pattern, following the spirit of Moses and Jesus but different in approach, then there can be a fourth pattern, or fifth, or tenth. To insist that everyone must always and everywhere offer hospitality precisely the way Jesus did it – to demand a single pattern of service – is to overlook and set aside the experience of the Church for centuries. So systematic attacks on the new patterns of service set forth by the Second Vatican Council are not just criticisms of modern innovations; they are also attacks on Patristic and medieval teaching, dismissing the universal practice of the Church up to the time of the Reformation.

Even as the Vatican makes peace with Luther, a new force comes forth, insisting that we return to the purity of the Gospel without any taint of monkish aberrations. Perhaps the fight against the Social Gospel – from Leo XIII up to and through Vatican II – somehow misses the point of Tradition. Tradition carves out abundant space for innovation.