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The End of a Tradition

The End of a Tradition

by Rama P. Coomaraswamy

This essay appeared in the World Wisdom book
Ye Shall Know The Truth: Christianity and The Perennial Philosophy


It is often stated that “traditional man”—by which we mean men whose lives are rooted in the great religious traditions that have their source and origin in a Divine Revelation—has no “historical sense.” With this one can agree, provided one understands by a “historical sense” the attitude that modern and so-called “enlightened” man has assumed towards all that has gone before him in the sphere of time. In point of fact however, traditional man has a profound and much more accurate historical sense than his modern counterpart. He does not see the modern world as the result of “evolutionary” and “progressive” achievement brought about by “historical processes” and “dynamic forces” that will inevitably lead to higher and higher states of “civilization,” and ultimately to the “perfection of mankind.” Rather, he sees the present situation as the outcome of regressive and degenerative patterns of behavior arising from the sequential abandonment of those principles and truths divinely revealed by God in some remote age for the guidance of mankind. In his view, the crisis in which the world finds itself is due to the replacement of traditional values and truths with “humanistic” principles, and the precepts of “Faith, Hope, and Charity” with the pseudo-ideals of “Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity” which in the practical order mean: a liberty from the restrictions God has placed on mankind; an equality of the profane with the sacred; and the brotherhood of all men in their opposition to traditional values. For him, it is not religion, but these distortions of reality along with the superstitions of “progress” and “evolution” that are the “opiates of the people,” giving man a false “faith” in humanity, and holding out to him the false “hope” of an earthly millennium in which society will be so organized as to remove from mankind the very need to be good. Within such a worldview “charity” is profaned to the level of “helping mankind” along its pilgrim road to this false utopia.

Insofar as such ideas permeate the world in which we find ourselves, traditional man recognizes that we have arrived at what has been called the “latter days,” the Kali Yuga or “dark age” when those faithful to tradition are but a “remnant,” and a persecuted remnant at that; an Iron Age in which all the lesser possibilities inherent in creation will have their brief but all too deadly opportunity to come to fruition. And thus it is that the Christian Scriptures describe the nature of the civitas mundi built in opposition to the civitas Dei by a society that at best ignores, and at worst openly wars upon the sacred.

This know also, that in the last days perilous times shall come. For men shall be lovers of their own selves, covetous, boasters, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, without natural affections, trucebreakers, false accusers, proud, blasphemers, incontinent, fierce, despisers of those that are good, traitors, heady, high-minded, lovers of pleasures more than lovers of God; having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof: …ever learning, and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth. (2 Timothy 3:1-5; 7)

Now the Spirit speaketh expressly, that in the latter times some shall depart from the faith, giving heed to seducing spirits and doctrines of devils; speaking lies in hypocrisy; having their conscience seared with a hot iron. (1 Timothy 4:1-2)

Hippolytus, one of the early church fathers, in his discourse, “On the End of the World,” describes the last days in these words:

The temples of God will be like houses, and there will be overturnings of the churches everywhere. The Scriptures will be despised and everywhere they will sing the songs of the adversary. Fornications, and adulteries, and perjuries will fill the land; sorceries, and incantations, and divinations will follow after these with all force and zeal. And, on the whole, from among those who profess to be Christians will rise up then false prophets, false apostles, imposters, mischief-makers, evil-doers, liars against each other, adulterers, fornicators, robbers, grasping, perjurers, mendacious, hating each other. The shepherds will be like wolves; the priests will embrace falsehood; the monks will lust after things of the world; the rich will assume hardness of heart; the rulers will not help the poor; the powerful will cast off all pity; the judges will remove justice from the just, and blinded with bribes, they will call in unrighteousness.

From the Catholic point of view, if one can be allowed to simplify the situation somewhat, it can be said that when God created the Angels, and man “in His own image,” He endowed them with both an “Intellect” and “Free-will.” In doing so, He not only provided them with a means of “knowing, loving, and serving” Him, He also endowed them with the possibility of refusing obedience and of rebelling against Him. Thus it was that Lucifer, the Angel of Light, refused to serve and fell from heaven with a host of his fellows. So also man, tempted by the serpent in the Garden of Eden, chose to disobey, and, as a result, he was cast forth from his paradisic state, and carries with him for all time that “stain” of rebellion which the Church characterizes as “original sin.” Such was required by Divine Justice.

Fortunately, His Mercy is greater than His Justice, and so God provided man with a means of returning to that condition which God always envisioned as being “natural” to him. We have little detailed knowledge of the “paths” provided to early man for regeneration, but paths there certainly were. Thus it was that Abel, born of Adam shortly after his “fall,” made sacrifice, “and the Lord had respect to Abel and his offerings” (Genesis 4:4). He further established moral codes of behavior and said to Cain, “if thou do well, shall thou not be accepted?” Throughout the Old Dispensation, or the tradition as established before the historical coming of Christ, we have a series of repeated manifestations of God’s intent to save His Creation, followed by a series of “falling aways” as mankind rejected grace and turned away from his true and proper end. St Clement speaks of the Spirit of Christ “who has changed his forms and his names from the beginning of the world and so reappeared again and again in the world” (Homilies, III.20). That is to say, God repeatedly renewed His Covenant with man, calling man back to the rightful dignity of his vocation; and time and again man broke this Covenant and followed in the paths of his own “lusts.” All this is summarized in the historical aspects of the Old Testament, the prophets of which are venerated by the Catholic Church as Saints, even as their utterances are venerated as being inspired by the Holy Spirit. This all culminated with the coming of Christ who established the New Covenant which was to last till “the end of time.”

Inevitably then, Christians look back with fervor and veneration to the times when the Divine touched the earth, whether by means of the great Prophets or, as in the present dispensation, through Christ and the Apostles as they actually walked upon the earth. What greater time to be alive than when one might have sat at His feet and listened to His words, or at least to those of the men who were His immediate followers? And if Catholics listen to the traditional Church today, it is because she preserves as a precious “deposit” what He and the Apostles taught and did—those doctrines and those rites provided for their regeneration and their salvation even down to the present time.

Now every efficacious Divine intervention has to allow for man’s “freedom” to oppose it, for grace can only build on a nature that accepts its saving intervention. The Spirit can blow when and where it will, but man is always at liberty to refuse it entrance into his own heart. Thus it was that from the moment Christ manifested Himself on earth, forces rallied to oppose and even to destroy Him. If the Magi came to pay Him reverence, Herod slaughtered the Holy Innocents. If the Apostles rallied round Him, Judas betrayed Him. If the true Jews followed Him, the “perfidious” Jews (perfidious to their own tradition) crucified Him. The battle lines were established between those who sought to be alteri Christi—other Christs—and those who were to be “anti-Christs.” It is a battle as old as Adam, but still played out in our own times, and above all, in our own hearts. If the majority of mankind are indifferent to this Jihâd, it must be remembered that, in the Divine economy, as Christ said, “those who are not with Me are against Me,” and He warned that the “lukewarm” would be “vomited forth.”

Now Satan has always attempted to confuse the issues, and above all, to convince mankind that there is no battle to be fought at all. Throughout history he has used a variety of different ploys with varying degrees of success. It would seem that in modern times he has been successful to an extraordinary degree; such is not only permitted by God, but even predicted in the sacred writings of all the traditions. “The final coming of Christ will be immediately preceded by a very awful and unparalleled outbreak of evil, called by St Paul an Apostasy.… This will be when revolutions prevail and the present framework of society breaks to pieces.…”[1] Thus it is that modern man is a collectivity deprived of any true roots and alienated both from his neighbor and himself. But if throughout history this process of alienation has always gone on, God has provided in his love an antidote: TRADITION. To quote a passage from the Chandogya Upanishad (VII.26.2), “from taking hold of the traditional teachings there is release from all the knots [of the heart].” A true historical perspective therefore requires that we see in tradition the preservation of the Divine Revelation, and in a departure from this precious deposit the source of all the aberrations that prevail in our times.

Etymologically, “tradition” simply means “that which is transmitted” or “handed on.” According to the Catholic Encyclopedia (1908), “traditional truth was confided to the Church as a deposit which it would guard and carefully transmit as it had received it without adding to it or taking anything away.…” It should of course be abundantly clear that the Christian Revelation was complete with the death of the last Apostle. There is no such thing as “ongoing revelation” or of revelation constantly adapting itself to the changing exigencies of time and circumstance. Thus it is a de fide (must be believed) proposition that:

The Revelation made to the Apostles by Christ and by the Holy Spirit whom he sent to teach them all truth was final, definitive. To that body of revealed truth nothing has been, or ever will be added.
   The meaning of the sacred dogmas must always be retained which Holy Mother Church has once taught, nor may it ever be departed from under the guise of or in the name of deeper insight.… If anyone shall say that, because of scientific progress, it may be possible at some time to interpret the Church’s dogmas in a different sense from that which the Church understood and understands, let him be Anathema! …The doctrine of the faith which God has revealed has not been proposed to human intelligence to be perfected by them as if it were a philosophical system, but as a divine deposit entrusted to the Spouse of Christ to be faithfully guarded and infallibly interpreted.

Now what the traditional Catholic Church teaches, its “Magisterium,” is precisely this Tradition. Neither the Pope, nor the hierarchy, nor an ecumenical council, can depart from it legitimately. Hence it is important to understand the meaning of the term.

If this Tradition is defined from the point of view of its subject matter as dogmas (truths) and disciplines (rites etc.), from the point of view of origins it can be said to derive not only from Revelation itself but also from ecclesiastical traditions which are precepts and customs long observed in the Church and which, even if they might be revelatory, can only be traced back to post-Apostolic times. Thus, for example, in the Canons of the traditional Mass apart from the words of consecration we can by no means be sure which parts are of Apostolic origin and which parts derive from ecclesiastical traditions although it would be reasonable to assume that the post-Apostolic authors to whom innovations were Anathema, codified many “customs, precepts, disciplines, and practices” that were truly Apostolic in origin, and hence the Church has always venerated them as being part and parcel of the revealed Tradition, such an attitude being incorporated in the Canons of various Ecumenical Councils which “insisted that the unwritten traditions shall have sway,” and that “if anyone disregards any ecclesiastical tradition, written or unwritten, let him be anathema.”[2] It will thus be seen that Tradition (with a capital T) as a source of Revelation refers to immutable things which cannot be rejected or changed.

Inevitably, a further extension of the concept of “tradition” is to be found in the various “organs” that are used to transmit the “customs, precepts, institutions, disciplines, and practices” of the Church to our generation. Among these “organs” are the dogmatic definitions of the Roman Pontiffs, of Ecumenical Councils, Professions of the Faith and theological censures. Equally important are such things as the universal customs or practices associated with dogma and, above all, the traditional liturgical forms.

The Magisterium which is defined as the “teaching function of the Church,” as a whole as well as in its constituent parts, is as the Catholic Encyclopedia states, “the official organ of tradition.” The faith is totally dependent upon tradition and cannot under any guise depart from it. “Tradition is thus the faith that the Church teaches, for she has received it from the Apostles, and it is the norm of truth.” And how could it be otherwise, for as Cardinal St Bellarmine has said, one of the characteristics of tradition is that it is “perpetual—for it was instituted that it might be continuously used till the consummation of the world.…”

There is of course a still broader sense in which the word “tradition” can be legitimately used—this broader sense is, as the Catholic Encyclopedia states,

not always clear, but we endeavor to explain it to ourselves in the following manner: we are all conscious of an assemblage of ideas or opinions living in our minds…a common sentiment…a common spirit.… The existence of tradition in the Church must be regarded as living in the spirit and the heart, thence translating itself into acts and expressing itself into words and writings.… This sentiment of the Church is peculiar in this that it is itself under the influence of grace. The thought of the Church is essentially a traditional thought.

And why is this so? It is because those who are deeply steeped in their faith, whose patterns of life conform to the established and formal “traditions,” find that their every act and thought is correspondingly influenced. Generosity, gentleness, courtesy, dignity and a whole host of similar qualities that reflect the divine virtues become a normal part of living—qualities that are conspicuously absent from the modern world which is in its essence anti-traditional.

Finally, it should be clear that the sacred Scriptures—constituting what we call the Bible—are themselves a part of tradition. As Cardinal Manning has pointed out:

We neither derive our religion from the Scriptures, nor does it depend upon them. Our faith was in the world before the New Testament was written.

This is not to say that the Scriptures do not hold an important place within tradition, but rather that it is tradition that guarantees to us their validity, and that to understand them correctly one must have recourse to the writings of the Church Fathers and the Saints. As Tanqueray, a most authoritative theological source, puts it clearly,

[Tradition] is more extensive than Scripture, and embraces truths which are not at all contained in Scripture or are contained there only obscurely; also Tradition is more essential to the Church than is sacred Scripture, for revealed truth at first was handed down orally by the Apostles, it was always proclaimed orally, always and everywhere.…

Indeed, it is thought that parts of the New Testament were written as long as six decades after the death of Christ, and the definitive corpus of the Bible was not established until the fourth century.

Those familiar with the Christian Scriptures are aware that, even in the days of St Paul, there were those who departed from Tradition and taught doctrines other than those revealed by Christ and the Apostles. Such were described by him as “clouds without water” and “clouds tossed in whirlwinds, to whom the mist of darkness is reserved.” They were “seducers,” “anti-Christs,” and “dissolvers of Christ” who brought in “sects of perdition.” These were to be shunned by the faithful who were instructed to “stand fast, and hold the traditions which they had learned, whether by word or by our epistle.…” Such an attitude has always been preserved throughout the history of the Church which has ever shown herself intolerant of error, though always tolerant of the repentant sinner. And always, Western man has had the Church as an ever-living witness to that tradition established by Christ—indeed, the history of Western civilization can be described as the waxing and waning of this very “force,” and of mankind’s willingness to accept or reject its teachings and practices. Prior to the Renaissance, despite its many defects and problems, the Western world was in effect a Catholic world, a world in which the dominant political, social, and economic structures were Christian in principle and practice. With the revival of what is termed the “new learning,” which was in fact a return to the pagan and pre-Christian values of the Graeco-Roman world, the Christian Tradition was progressively eroded.

Nevertheless, it is perhaps erroneous to place the break with the Renaissance as such. Prior to this historical phenomenon, there had been a decline in spiritual values which tended to give the Church an increasingly “exoteric” character, and which further obscured the always tenuous relationship between the “sacerdotium” and the “regnum”: between the spiritual authority and the temporal power, between Church and State. An increasingly worldly quality manifested itself in both orders by which one was greatly weakened and the other virtually destroyed. Economic forces came increasingly to control the civil order, till, as R. H. Tawney says, men persuaded themselves that “greed was enterprise, and avarice economy.” Religion was tolerated only in so far as it did not interfere with economic development, while on the political level, royalty was either forced to cooperate with the rising moneyed classes, or else were simply deposed in favor of the so-called “democratic governments,” that is to say, governments more easily manipulated by the new power structure. As proof of this new orientation one can point to the destruction of societal structures based on hierarchy such as caste or function, and its replacement with a new aristocracy based exclusively on money and power. Usury, condemned by all orthodox traditions, becomes accepted, and indeed, extolled in what is called “the art of making money.”

On the theological level, under the slogan “Reformation,” Calvin and Luther attacked the Church and refused to accept any aspect of the Christian tradition which was not based on Scripture alone. And if the Reformation theologians refused to acknowledge Revelation as an ultimate source of truth, the philosophers of the age in turn restricted the function of the Intellect to one of its faculties only—that of Reason. Thus we have the birth of what has been called the “Age of Reason,” as if what had preceded it had been an age of un-reason, and as if manas could exist in the absence of bodhi.

Underlying this altered outlook on life in the spiritual, political, and philosophical spheres was the principle that it was man himself—man qua man—that was central to all creation, and hence that he alone, not immutable and supernatural tradition, was to be the judge of what was just, true, and beautiful. And if man was to replace God as a source of truth, it rapidly followed that the world replaced heaven as the goal of his activities. Reason, no longer guided by Revelation, became the mistress of the emotions, of feelings, and what is worse, of the “unconscious” so beloved of contemporary psychiatrists. Religion became a private affair, a matter of personal feelings; one was entitled to them, but one was supposed to keep them to oneself. They had no role to play in the public forum and everyone’s private judgment was as good as his neighbors. Western man, disenfranchised from tradition, was given a host of slogans to assuage his hunger. First, “Liberty, Equality, and Brotherhood” and then the ideas of “dynamic progress” and the “evolution” of man into some higher state of existence. Those who refused to accept this new and “modern” worldview were now described as “backward”—the term historically being first applied to the Catholics who during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I refused to conform to the new religion of the Anglican Church.

In order to establish the new economic basis of society, it was necessary to disinherit the landed classes and to rob the Church of its wealth—a wealth held in trust for the poor from whom it was originally derived. Just as in India no real modernization could occur without the destruction of the caste system, so also in Europe it was necessary to first destroy the social and economic structure of Christendom. The idea of progress was created in order to provide those who were the victims of “dynamic processes” with a sop to assuage their pain. The laboring classes, the expropriated serfs with no craft skills, were told that it was only a matter of time before all their problems would be solved, before the “new world” would be created in which all men would be “free”—that is, with no limits apart from those they imposed upon themselves. And because this new philosophy could in no way explain the vast differences between human beings with regard to their abilities, nor in any way justify the economic disparities that resulted, the newly created “proletariat” were also promised that poverty would be abolished.

Throughout the period of breakdown that followed the Renaissance, the Church remained a bulwark and a witness to certain truths, and as such became the enemy of a false “progress” predicated on the “evolution” and “advancement” of man’s intellectual abilities from the “primitiveness” of his dependence upon Church and tradition. It was not that she opposed the discoveries of science and the material betterment of man, but that she constantly demanded that the universal principles of justice and truth had to prevail—justice and truth that is, as understood from a traditional point of view. It was inevitable that she would as such come into conflict with the State, which in reality meant, with the economic powers that controlled the State. This conflict was resolved in many ways, but primarily by what is described as the complete separation of Church and State.

There have always been those within the Church who felt that her rigidity (is not one meant to be rigid about the truth, and were not the martyrs who died for the faith guilty of this “sin”?) was the principal reason why modern man refused to listen to her, those who felt that she should adapt herself to the modern world and somehow be brought up to date. After all, they argued, how could contemporary man ever accept a belief in “mystical rites,” in rosaries, in exorcism, in miracles, and how could truths that were valid for primitive man, still be valid for a generation that had intellectually advanced so far along the path of “progress”? It was not that such people wanted the Church to use airplanes and telephones; they wanted her to adopt modern ways of thinking, to accept their belief in “progress,” in “evolution,” in “dynamic processes,” and “historical determinism,” and in essence to achieve an aggiornamento with all that had resulted from the apostasy of the present age. When she refused to do this, some departed from her bosom, while others remained within her to corrupt the faithful from within. Over and above this, education was removed from her control and became, in the practical order, the means to success in the modern world. Through the process of secular education her ablest members were frequently seduced into being proponents of this “modernism” as it came to be called. Even during the 20th Ecumenical Council—Vatican I—held towards the end of the last century, powerful forces gathered in an attempt to make this new outlook part of the official teaching of the Church, and those who are familiar with the Church documents of that era know how promptly and vigorously this intrusion and violation of the truth were rejected.[3]> But time was on the side of the innovators, and by the time Vatican II was convened, many of these individuals had insinuated themselves into high positions in the Church hierarchy. This factor coupled with superb organization allowed for the second Vatican Council to be captured by those who were at heart not Catholic at all.[4]

With Pope Paul VI the Church underwent a series of the most drastic changes—almost no aspect of its traditions being left unreversed—and a host of modern ideas incorporated within the official body of her teachings. To quote from documents directly:

The human race has passed from a rather static concept of reality to a more dynamic evolutionary one.… It is a fact bearing on the very person of man that he can come to an authentic and full humanity only through culture, that is, through the cultivation of natural goods and values.… The progress of the human person and the advance of society itself hinge on each other.… The goal of all social institutions is and must be the human person.…

Indeed, the faithful are instructed to:

Blend modern science and its theories and the understanding of the most recent discoveries with Christian morality and doctrine. Thus their religious practice and morality can keep pace with their scientific knowledge and with an ever advancing technology.…

One could give a myriad examples. Private judgment in religious matters is approved; common worship with those who deny the teachings of the Church is encouraged; the Pope surrenders his authority and allows it to be shared with the College of Bishops in a “democratization of the Church.” Moreover, everything is so vaguely worded as to allow a multitude of contradictory interpretations. But all this would not in itself have effectively changed the Church without the alteration and adulteration of her Apostolic rites, and especially the Holy Mass preserved throughout history by the Catholic tradition. This, the most central and most sacred rite in Christendom was altered, only those parts being retained that would give the new service some appearance of being similar.[5]

Thus it is that the Christian tradition has been all but destroyed from within.[6] That such would happen before the “end of the world” had always been predicted, both by the saints and by certain passages in Scripture. But for those who have eyes to see, and ears to hear, the unfolding of this process is laid out before their very noses.[7] As Paul VI himself admitted, the “smoke of Satan” has been billowing through the halls of the Vatican. It is this that explains the abandonment of the priesthood by thousands of those committed to the consecrated life, the emptying out of the religious orders, and the falling away of millions of the faithful.

Many are under the mistaken idea that a Pope has the authority to change the faith, to alter the rites, and to depart from tradition. Such of course is not the case, for as Vatican I says in a de fide (must be believed) statement:

The Holy Spirit is not promised to the successors of Peter so that, through His revelation, they might bring new doctrines to light, but that, with His help, they might keep inviolate and faithfully expound the revelation handed down through the Apostles, the deposit of faith.…

Most Catholics do not realize that the Pope can be a heretic, and should he in his public statements prior to election give evidence for this, his election is invalid as are all his acts. This is why, if a Pope should take steps to destroy the Church, the faithful are instructed by Cardinal St Bellarmine to actually “hinder the execution of his will.”

Some may well ask what has become of the promise of Christ that the Gates of Hell would not prevail against His Church, and that it would last till the end of time. The promise is fulfilled in the fact that there are significant segments of the traditional Church still viable in the modern world—a remnant faithful to tradition to use the words of Scripture. These groups are of course reviled by the New Church and openly accused of schism for their refusal to abandon the faith that their fathers believed and practiced. Such are the times in which we live, for truly, the Kali Yuga is upon us. The New Church has not only abandoned tradition, it has gone as far as to introduce with all the weight of its usurped authority, a “counter-tradition” that can only be seen as a vehicle for hastening the completion of the present cycle of time. It has forgotten the warning of Christ:

Woe unto the world because of offences; for it must needs be that offences come; but woe to that man by whom the offence cometh. (Matthew 18:7)


[1] Taken from Cardinal Newman’s description of the latter days.

[2] The first of these quotations is taken from the Councils of Gangra (Canon XXI) and of Carthage (Canon III), and the second, from the 7th Ecumenical Council. Converts to the Catholic Church are required to promise that they “admit and embrace most firmly the apostolic and ecclesiastical traditions and all other conditions and prescriptions of the Church.” Saints have repeatedly stressed the importance of accepting all the “traditions” that fall under this heading.

[3] See the Encyclical letters of Pope St Pius X, Pascendi Dominici Gregis and Lamentabili Sane (1907).

[4] Those who are interested in how this was done are referred to Father Ralph Wiltgen’s The Rhine Flows into the Tiber, Augustine Publishing Company, Devon, England, 1978, a book which carries the official Nihil Obstat and Imprimatur declaring it free of doctrinal or moral error.

[5] See Michael Davies’ Pope Paul’s Mass, Augustine Publishing Company, Devon, England, 1980.

[6] See my The Destruction of the Christian Tradition, Perennial Books, Bedfont, Middlesex, England, 1981.

[7] For a complete documentation of these facts see Michael Davies’ Pope John’s Council, Augustine Publishing Company, Devon, England, 1977.