“To be a Catholic is to be rooted in tradition and anchored in Heaven.” It’s something I say a lot in my writing and interviews and so on. I think it’s rather poetic, to be honest, and it has the added benefit of being true. But what does it actually mean, in practice?
Let’s start with what it means—as human beings, as a culture, and as a Church—to the “rooted.” In my book, The Prodigal Church: Restoring Catholic Tradition in an Age of Deception, I open with an analysis of a famous radio address given by then-Fr. Joseph Ratzinger (the future Pope Benedict XVI had not even been consecrated a bishop yet). He said in 1969, during an extremely difficult moment for the Church in Germany and around the Western world that should be recognizable to us today, “The future of the Church can and will issue from those whose roots are deep and who live from the pure fullness of their faith.”
The concept of rootedness orients us backward in time, and downward in space. We think about the ways we can cultivate not just an appreciation for the past and the deep, but an everyday participation in the truths to be found there. But, as I describe in the book, that only gets us so far:
The other essential fact about roots is that their purpose is not depth for its own sake, but for the sake of the growth and flourishing of the plant above the soil. Strong roots for a flower that has been strangled or a sapling that has been starved of sunlight are useless: The point is to anchor and sustain something that’s living, maturing, developing. A living faith tradition, then, is one that is both deeply rooted and responsive to the world around it, both anchored in timeless truths and, precisely due to the confidence that comes from that anchoring, eager to innovate.
To use philosophical language, roots are a necessary condition of growth and renewal, but they are not sufficient. We need the boldness of life that comes from confidence in the second half of that opening sentence: our anchor in heaven. You see, a person (or culture or Church) who is genuinely rooted in a tradition of virtue and justice and faith does not obsess over his own rootedness: Rather, he thrives in the world, oriented forward and upward, with full knowledge of the strength of his rootedness.
Traditions, if they are truly alive, are not stagnant. A vibrant tradition, one in which we truly participate as opposed to one that we visit, like a museum or a Renaissance Fair, is therefore one which is open to innovation. This growth, of course, must be within the logic of the tradition itself: It must not be willy-nilly, lest we uproot ourselves. But it is just as necessary as rootedness to a lively tradition that can animate a culture. Here’s how I put it in The Prodigal Church:
Traditions are dynamic. They exist in and through time, adapting to circumstances, changing through the choices of the human beings who live within them. They are anchored in timeless truths, rooted in past experiences, informed by accumulated wisdom in the here and now, and—crucially—oriented toward the future.
… A tradition that can imagine only how things were but not how things could be is not a tradition at all, but a reenactment. And when we mistake that kind of role-playing for the real thing, we embrace a corpse, while ignoring our duty to keep genuine, living traditions alive.
We can fulfill this duty to be, in that classic Catholic cliché, “both/and” by clinging tightly to the heavenly anchor that is the grace and truth of Jesus Christ, mediated to us by the Church and Her saints. We can be both observant of the past and working toward a better future; both pious toward our ancestors and open to the (well-ordered!) passions of the young; both adoring of the beauty of centuries-old art and music and excited about the application of their principles to modern forms.
This confidence, rooted and anchored, is fundamentally a godly confidence, one that comes from participation in His divine life of grace. That is: It is the fruit of prayer, of liturgy, and of the everyday practice of the virtues that confirm us and those around us in that grace.
As Catholics, and specifically as Catholic men, we are called to be fearless not just in our embrace of tradition, but in our application of tradition to the world of today—and of tomorrow. After all, today is tomorrow’s past, and a living tradition is one that informs tomorrow just as surely as it teaches about yesterday.