It's been said that Catholicism is a both/and kind of faith. (I don't know who first said that, but as Mark Shea has said, "The beautiful thing about being Catholic is that you can plagiarize people and call it 'Being faithful to the tradition.'" I wonder who he took that line from?) Rather than choosing between one thing or another, we can often affirm the good found in each. Scripture or Tradition? Both! Fast days or feast days? Both! Latin or vernacular Mass? Both! Why pick one when you can have both?
We can apply this method, too, when considering different ways of looking at history, especially history within the Church. Too often people fall into one of two systems of thought regarding history: one subscribes to the Myth of the Golden Past, the other to the Myth of Human Progress. These two camps line up against each other, frequently throw spears at the other side, and occasionally make full-frontal assaults. What do their battle standards say?
The Myth of the Golden Past says that once upon a time, before the corrupting influences of [insert bogeyman here] ruined everything, the Church and every single one of its members was perfectly pure and holy and orthodox. Everyone spoke Latin fluently, everyone went to Mass every day of the week and twice on Sunday, and everyone knew the contents of the Summa Theologica by heart. Heresy and dissent were virtually unheard of, and when such flames of error began to smolder, they were quickly snuffed out... well, that one fire in Germany got a little out of control, but they were always suspect anyway, so good riddance. Then along came the modern world, with its Enlightenment thinkers and its Modernist popes and its sham of an ecumenical council, and everything fell apart. Ah, for the good ol' days! If only we'd abolish communion in the hand, we'd have our seminaries brimming with young men in no time!
The Myth of Human Progress echoes the Beatles' mantra, "It's getting better all the time." The Church has progressed and grown and matured through its 2,000 year history, becoming more open and tolerant and accepting, and no doubt some time soon it will enter a true Age of the Spirit where we will all become one in consciousness or something. If only these ultra-conservative popes would implement all the goals the Council really wanted to achieve, we would soon reach that great and glorious day. We have nowhere to go but up, as long as we follow the great four Fathers of the Modern Church: Curran, Kueng, Schillebeeckx, and... oh, actually, I should probably toss in a female theologian--we can't appear to be patriarchal! The four great.. uh... Parents of the Church, then! Someday we'll be perfected. Someday we'll realize that all religions are just different paths to the same mountaintop. Someday we'll celebrate our communal ecclesial celebration in a celebratory fashion with Protestants... and Muslims... and Buddhists... and atheists... and Scientologists!
OK, these are caricatures. But you get the point. There are those who think the Church's true self lies in the past, while others think it waits for us in the future. Which is it? Both/and!
The Holy Spirit has imbued the Church with God's grace and truth and love and holiness since Pentecost, so that perfection has always been there. But at the same time we are constantly seeking its perfect manifestation, in ourselves, in our structures, in our teaching. The Church is always perfectly what She is, and yet, as St. Augustine says, She is always semper reformanda, "always needing to be reformed." Doctrine can develop while still maintaining its substantial integrity. Liturgy can alter its outward form organically while still maintaining its essence. We can hold fast to the tradition while we advance on our pilgrim journey. Indeed, the two need each other: if we lose the truth of our destination, our journey is likely to wander off. You can't progress unless you know where you're going. Many aspects of the past were great and glorious; and many needed to be renewed. Pope St. John XXIII understood this, which was why he set ressourcement ("return to the sources") and aggiornamento ("opening up") the two guide rails of the Second Vatican Council: to proclaim the Gospel to the modern world, both are needed. Both. Both/and.