Novelty in the Medieval Era:
The second thesis which David Palm (DP) seeks to establish as supporting of his overarching theory is that novelty was rejected in the Medieval era. The section of the essay you are reading will examine the veracity of this assertion by looking at the proofs David brings forward to sustain the second thesis of his theory.
Moving from the patristic era to the medieval we encounter an interesting discussion in St. Thomas’ Summa Theologica.  Although he does not use the word “novelty”, he does address the question of whether changes, even in matters of human law, are beneficial to the common good.  In answer to the question, “Whether human law should always be changed, whenever something better occurs?”, St. Thomas cited the Decretals, stating that, “It is absurd, and a detestable shame, that we should suffer those traditions to be changed which we have received from the fathers of old.” (Decretals, Dist. xii, 5). 
The author will touch on the Decretals in a moment.
The Decretals were the collection of canon law compiled by Gratian; they embodied various legal precedents that extended back into the Church’s antiquity.
They also included many forged texts as well -not that Gratian knew they were forged of course. To quote from the Catholic Encyclopedia article on the False Decretals:
The Middle Ages were deceived by this huge forgery, but during the Renaissance men of learning and the canonists generally began to recognize the fraud. Two cardinals, John of Torquemada (1468) and Nicholas of Cusa (1464), declared the earlier documents to be forgeries, especially those purporting to be by Clement and Anacletus. Then suspicion began to grow. Erasmus (died 1536) and canonists who had joined the Reformation, such as Charles du Moulin (died 1568), or Catholic canonists like Antoine le Conte (died 1586), and after them the Centuriators of Magdeburg, in 1559, put the question squarely before the learned world. Nevertheless the official edition of the "Corpus Juris", in 1580, upheld the genuineness of the false decretals, many fragments of which are to be found in the "Decretum" of Gratian. [1]
For this reason, David's appeal to St. Thomas' justification of a point from the Decretum of Gratian is automatically suspect since he has not demonstrated that the portion he is quoting is part of the authentic texts in that compendium. But even if the text David is quoting is genuine, his thesis here still has serious problems. Again the Catholic Encyclopedia article already referenced explains why this is so:
[U]ntil the middle of the eleventh century the false decretals did not obtain an official footing in ecclesiastical legislation. They were nothing more than a collection made in Gaul, and it was only under Leo IX (1048-1054) that they took firm hold at Rome. When the Bishop of Toul became pope and began the reform of the Church by reforming the Roman Curia, he carried with him to Rome the apocryphal collection. Anselm of Lucca, the friend and adviser of Gregory VII, composed an extensive collection of canons among which those of Isidore figure largely. The same thing happened in the case of Cardinal Deusdedit's collection made about the same time. And finally, when in 1140 Gratian wrote his "Decree" he borrowed extensively from Isidore's collection. In such manner it gained an important place in schools of law and jurisprudence. It is true that the Gratian collection had never the sanction of being the official text of ecclesiastical law, but it became the textbook of the schools of the twelfth century, and, even with the false decretals added to it, it retained a place of honour with the faculty of canon law. [2]
In short, though the Gratian collection was considered highly authoritative in the twelfth century -akin perhaps to a collection of commentaries by Cardinal Pietro Gasparri in the early twentieth century- it was not the official text of ecclesiastical law. Therefore, in a discussion about ecclesiastical law, it does not have the authority that David seeks to give to it.

Then St. Thomas himself states in reply to the question:

As stated above, human law is rightly changed, in so far as such change is conducive to the common weal.  But, to a certain extent, the mere change of law is of itself prejudicial to the common good: because custom avails much for the observance of laws, seeing that what is done contrary to general custom, even in slight matters, is looked upon as grave.  Consequently, when a law is changed, the binding power of the law is diminished, in so far as custom is abolished.  Wherefore human law should never be changed, unless, in some way or other, the common weal be compensated according to the extent of the harm done in this respect.  Such compensation may arise either from some very great and very evident benefit conferred by the new enactment; or from the extreme urgency of the case, due to the fact that either the existing law is clearly unjust, or its observance extremely harmful.  Wherefore the jurist says . . . that “in establishing new laws, there should be evidence of the benefit to be derived, before departing from a law which has long been considered just.”[9]

Of course St. Thomas said much more than this on the matter. Here are a few more examples from that section:

Objection 1. It would seem that human law should be changed, whenever something better occurs. Because human laws are devised by human reason, like other arts. But in the other arts, the tenets of former times give place to others, if something better occurs. Therefore the same should apply to human laws.
Reply to Objection 1. Rules of art derive their force from reason alone: and therefore whenever something better occurs, the rule followed hitherto should be changed. But "laws derive very great force from custom," as the Philosopher states (Polit. ii, 5): consequently they should not be quickly changed.
Objection 2. Further, by taking note of the past we can provide for the future. Now unless human laws had been changed when it was found possible to improve them, considerable inconvenience would have ensued; because the laws of old were crude in many points. Therefore it seems that laws should be changed, whenever anything better occurs to be enacted.
Objection 3. Further, human laws are enacted about single acts of man. But we cannot acquire perfect knowledge in singular matters, except by experience, which "requires time," as stated in Ethic. ii. Therefore it seems that as time goes on it is possible for something better to occur for legislation.
Reply to Objection 2. This argument proves that laws ought to be changed: not in view of any improvement, but for the sake of a great benefit or in a case of great urgency, as stated above. This answer applies also to the Third Objection. [3]
Obviously St. Thomas found the second and third objections to be viable ones for changing laws. As far as the response to objection one goes, anyone who thinks the Church taking four hundred years to revise the major disciplinary and liturgical laws did not take a lot of time obviously has a strange notion of "time." St. Thomas himself expressed the sentiment that "as time goes on it is possible for something better to occur for legislation." He also argued that laws ought to be changed "for the sake of a great benefit or in a case of a great urgency." And of course anyone with an active memory of the time period who is honest about it admits that there was a great sense of urgency -so much so that even Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre supported a reform of the liturgy initially. This factor will be dealt with in brief later on in this essay.

This passage was brought to XXXXXXXXX's attention that very evening during which we discussed XXXXXX's book.  The traditionalist argument ran that if such a principle applies to human laws in the secular sphere, a fortiori it would apply to ecclesiastical laws. 

And of course the parts of St. Thomas which do not support the agenda of the so-called "traditionalists" -such as the ones this writer noted above- are simply glossed over.

Law is always bound up with both authority and precedent. 

This is true. However, every change in precedent represents a novelty at some point. If tradition was so opposed to novelty as David Palm and his allies claim, then consider all of the things that never would have happened:

With regards to the mass itself -the Tridentine formularies would not even exist because:
The author could extend this list out into infinity -indeed visit any anti-Catholic fundamentalist website and a whole host of so-called "Catholic Inventions" you will see. The apologetical argument against these kinds of people is (of course) that the Church grows and develops different customs, different practices, and different disciplines to meet the needs of various times. But to listen to the Remnant crowd, novelty is "opposed to tradition." They cannot have it both ways.

The reason for this is because (i) either novelty is not opposed to tradition in and of itself or else (ii) the so-called "traditionalists" in every area where they deviate from what is noted above are engaging in ancient novelties of their own. The very acceptance of the above list of changes is a tacit affirmation of the first premise; ergo David's thesis for this section (and his entire theory which this thesis aims to support) is confuted by demonstration. After all, everything they accept that differs from what is noted above was at one time a novelty. And if novelty is ipso facto opposed to tradition then no amount of time can change the nature of what they accept unless somehow error can become truth simply with the addition of enough time. This is the atheist "something can come from nothing if you provide enough time" argument in substance.

If laws are changed willy-nilly then precedent is destroyed and thus so is the binding force of the law.
Changing the liturgical and disciplinary laws put in place in the aftermath of the Council of Trent -after four centuries- is now "willy-nilly" apparently.
This will apply more to ecclesiastical law than to civil law since the Church is supposed to seem solid, perennial and immoveable.
This is of course the very Counter-reformation myth of the "unchanging Church" being brought forward by DP. Indeed this myth is at the very forefront of the entire theory that he and the authors -whose "scholarship" he is defending in this essay to a large extent- build their house of cards on. This writer already pointed out forty areas where the Church at one time accepted innovations. If not for wanting to keep this writing as brief as possible, several pages could be filled with more examples.

Although it did not make it into the pages of The Wanderer, Mr. XXXXXXXXX did address this passage from St. Thomas in an original draft of his essay which he was kind enough to share with me.  He states that St. Thomas draws a clear distinction between civil and ecclesiastical law and that the principle enunciated by the Angelic Doctor simply does not apply to ecclesiastical law. XXXXXXXXX makes the following distinction:

Thomas [sic] is very clear that positive and ecclesiastical law are different things altogether.  Their ends are different; their means for achieving their ends are different; there is a rectitude associated with ecclesiastical law that is simply not existent in positive law.  They are different kinds of law that call forth different levels of obedience from their subjects.
All of this is true, but the conclusion he draws from it is a non sequitur: “One can apply a principle of natural law to the civil, but one cannot go the other direction and start applying principles from a lower, less-perfect law to a higher law.”  Now at best one could say that only some principles of a lower law could be applied to a higher.  But all forms of law share certain principles in common.  And this is one, that changing the law without adequate reason disrupts the common good and diminishes the binding force of the law.  This is true for civil law, it is even more true for ecclesiastical law precisely because it calls forth a higher adherence and obedience than the civil, and most disruptive of all would be a change (per impossible) in divine law.

This writer does not disagree with DP here except in how he would apply these principles.

And although Mr. XXXXXXXXX says that “the application of this article of Thomas’ [sic] to the Church is an abuse”, he has missed one detail in the article itself that completely undermines his argument.  For he fails to observe that the Decretals, which St. Thomas cites to provide an authority for his argument, are an embodiment of ecclesiastical law, not civil law.  St. Thomas is in fact arguing from the higher to the lower.  If, as the Decretals say, “It is absurd, and a detestable shame, that we should suffer those traditions to be changed which we have received from the fathers of old”, then this principle applies also to the civil law. 
This writer has already dealt with DP's reference to the Decretals. To summarize it again (i) he has to demonstrate that the quote he is giving from St. Thomas is not part of the False Decretals unknowingly incorporated into the compendium by Gratian. And of course once he does that (if he can) he must then explain how the Decretals of Gratian could be "an embodiment of ecclesiastical law" when they were never promulgated as such. (As was the case according to the 1913 Catholic Encyclopedia -surely DP would trust them as an authority of some merit on this issue.)

This provides the legal precedent within the Church that the changing of laws and customs is inherently prejudicial to the common good and ought not to be done except for the most grave reasons.

As far as what constitutes "grave reasons" for changing laws, that will be addressed later on in this writing.

The Catholic Church has experienced unprecedented change in every aspect of her life.  Certainly those who made the changes and those who now defend them seek to argue that they were for the Church’s benefit. 

Of course whether they have or have not been beneficial does not detract from the fact that they have been made. And obedience to the laws promulgated by the ecclesial magisterium is a requirement of the faithful Catholic in keeping with the common good of the Church. And inasmuch as DP and his allies by opposing themselves to the authority of the ecclesial magisterium are themselves undermining the common good of the Church, they are doing damage akin to any priest, choir director, or liturgist who free-wheels with the liturgy.

But as we see from the Angelic Doctor, it is not sufficient that changes to fundamental aspects of the Church’s life be merely beneficial.  Significant changes should only be enacted either in response to some harm or injustice—and I hope that not even neo-Catholics will argue that the traditional Roman Rite, for example, just had to be completely overhauled because it was unjust or harmful—or if the changes will certainly provide “very great and very evident benefit” to the commonweal.  And this is precisely where the post-conciliar statistics documenting the precipitous decline in every aspect of the Church’s life become highly significant. 

Mark Twain once noted that there were three kinds of lies: lies, damn lies, and statistics. And anyone who knows even the rudiments of how statistics are gathered knows that they can be easily manipulated. Further still, there have been sociological studies on the Church's decline and in no case does the data fit the claims that David and his allies make. This will be touched on later in the essay you are reading.

For though the author has long sought to avoid addressing this fact, since David and his allies continue to make the argument from statistics, this writer will meet them on their own turf and demonstrate that their understanding of the sociological dynamics involved is as flawed as is their core theory that DP manfully seeks to defend in the article being responded to here.

Neo-Catholic defenders of the post-conciliar changes are unable to cite any obvious benefits at all, let alone “very great and very evident” benefits.  It is also true, as I think all will have to admit, that so many customs being changed in so short a period has resulted in the “binding power of the law [being] diminished”. 

Again, this presumption will be dealt with later on in this essay.

Isn’t it true that recent reversals in Church policy have convinced “dissenters” that their particular agenda will eventually be enacted, if only they hold out long enough? 

It seems that the self-styled "traditionalists" are part of this group as well: hold out long enough and eventually "Rome will return to tradition" or some similarly arrogant presumption. Indeed DP's allies in their "suspension of obedience" by their holding out for a future declaration of a sedevacantist period are doing precisely what DP refers to here. What is disturbing is that an intelligent man such as David cannot see the obvious in this case.

Thus traditionalists are well in their bounds to say that the number and scope of the post-conciliar changes represent an imprudent breach with the perennial wisdom of the Church, which dictates the utmost care and hesitancy in changing even customs and practices, lest the common good be harmed.

Wait a minute, if tradition is "opposed to novelty" -as the subtitle of David's essay claims, then the very notion of changing customs and practices is not permissible. Nonetheless, the medieval period has been vindicated from the theory set forth by David's associates and defended by David in this essay. The one source David quotes is of questionable authenticity and (even if authentic) has no binding authority any more than an authoritative commentary would. That St. Thomas was unaware of this is understandable -as he was not a canonist and the forgeries included in the Decretals were not known at the time to be forgeries. However, those who attempt to argue from them today had better make sure that (i) they are quoting an authentic and not a forged source and (ii) they recognize that the Decretals even if quoted accurately are not the weighty authority that St. Thomas thought they were.

Furthermore, St. Thomas Aquinas on his deathbed in making his proclamation of faith in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist declared that if he had ever written "anything erroneous" on the Eucharist or any other subject that he submitted all of his writings "to the judgment and correction of the holy Roman Church" in whose obedience he declared in his final words to be fully in submission to. So DP and his allies in arguing against the magisterium by using St. Thomas' writings essentially find themselves opposed to the intention of the Angelic Doctor who presumed that Rome would correct him (if need be) not the other way around. That is sufficient to deal with David's examples from St. Thomas' writings.

Before moving onto the modern popes, let us touch a bit on a doctrinal teaching from the Council of Trent which the writings of the later popes must be viewed as in harmony with if they are to be properly understood. The teaching being referred to here is from Session 21:

It declares furthermore, that in the dispensation of the sacraments, the Church may, according to circumstances, times and places, determine or change whatever she may judge most expedient for the benefit of those receiving them or for the veneration of the sacraments; and this power has always been hers. [4]
The principle behind this teaching is that the Church has the authority to modify the application of the divine laws according to circumstances, times, and places if she judges this to be expedient. Nothing in what David will quote from the modern popes can contradict this principle. Oh and lest you forget, to change something is to innovate it. And to recap the last two parts of this essay, just as the evidences presented by David on "novelty" in the Fathers did not withstand scrutiny, neither have his evidences and arguments in this section on "novelty" in the Medieval period.


[1] Catholic Encyclopedia: From the article "False Decretals" (c. 1913)

[2] Catholic Encyclopedia: From the article "False Decretals" (c. 1913)

[3] St. Thomas Aquinas:  "Summa Theologiae" Ia,Iae Q97 (circa 1270-73)

[4] Council of Trent: Session XXI "Decree on Communion Under Both Kinds and the Communion of Little
 Children" (c. 1547)

Other Notes:

The citations from the Catholic Encyclopedia (1913) article "False Decretals" were obtained at the following link:

The citation from St. Thomas Aquinas' "Summa Theologiae" was obtained at the following link:

The citation from the Council of Trent Session XXII was obtained at the following link:

©2004, "The 'Tradition is Opposed to Novelty' Canard", written by I. Shawn McElhinney. This text may be
downloaded or printed out for private reading, but it may not be uploaded to another Internet site or published,
electronically or otherwise, without express written permission from the author.
To all visitors Grace of Christ to you!

Page created by: Matt1618. Send email with questions to Shawn McElhinney at


Go to Next Section of "The 'Tradition is Opposed to Novelty' Canard" Essay


             Return to Index Page of "The 'Tradition is Opposed to Novelty' Canard" Essay


Return to Miscellaneous Page


Return to UltraTraditionalist Page


Return to Matt's Catholic Apologetics Page