Sunday Scribble

“Traditional Catholicism will either evolve or die a pathetic death as it slips further and further into self-parody and irrelevancy.”

Those were my words at the advent of my return to Catholicism in 2011—words which I implicitly disavowed over the course of several years where I found myself not only sympathizing with, but defending, traditional Catholic culture. At the same time, however, I could never quite shake the feeling that the posture of traditional Catholicism, as it was struck from roughly the 1970s onward, suffered from the usual pathologies that attend any “movement” which becomes intentionally insular. This insularity was, to some degree, foisted upon traditionalism. As years shifted into decades, though, this insularity became almost a badge of honor. There was, to be sure, an “opening” created in 2007 by Pope Benedict XVI, but the “Francis Effect” seems to have closed it up again. Yes, traditional Catholics attached to the classic form of the Roman Rite still retain a significant amount of breathing space. The price for that “breathing space” is silence, and so it comes as little surprise that instead of keeping their mouths closed, traditionalists have instead returned to the ghetto in which they had carved out a fairly healthy spiritual space since the dark days following the Second Vatican Council.

This reality has been back on my mind as of late, not because I have some “reform proposal” for Catholic traditionalism, but because there now appears to be a looming temptation for all orthodox Christians, regardless of confessional commitment or intra-ecclesial orientation, to find solace in the ghetto, that is, to disengage and preserve some semblance of their identity, regardless of what is going on in the larger world. Few advocating for such a move seem to recall the experience of the Russian Old Believers—an experience which allowed them to retain a surprising degree of homogeneity of rite, belief, and lifestyle, albeit at the cost of failing to win souls for Jesus Christ. Any exotic interest in their manner of being should, for a Christian anyway, give way to a depressing acknowledgment that whatever they’ve retained could not possibly be worth the cost of failing to save souls.

But maybe they were able to save their own souls, or at least some of them. And that is, in isolation, a good thing. Still, that is not the totality of Christianity. The Church is not, and cannot, be about erecting a fortress in which those inside work out their salvation while caring not for the pagan horror that surrounds them. This is, to say the least, a tricky situation, particularly in these dark times where the final connections between Church and society have frayed nearly to the point of nonexistence. The world has become too dangerous, or so some opine. The culture is too corrupt, so why save it? Why work for the “restoration of all things in Christ” when that work could—as some, for mixed reasons, fear—have the unintended effect of bringing the rot within the “safe zone,” that is, corrupt what is supposed to be incorruptible?

8 comments

  1. Personally, I think there is a need to reflect upon the imperialist history of both Christianity and Christian states. “Christus Vincit, Christus Regnat, Christus Imperat.” Imperat has a lot of nuance, but imperial might is definitely part of that nuance.

    Both the far-right nationalists and the far-left anarchists, along with their respective religious manifestations in “Culture Warrior” Christians and “Secularizing” Christians, are simply manifestations of the same problematic ideology – the faith once delivered is limited to “us” (the nationalists) or is private (the anarchists). They believe, firmly, that the faith is limited. Evanglization is seen as a magic occurrence that happens through “witness” (again, some sort of magical occurrence to most people’s mind), which really only magically extends the limitation.

    Either way, they refuse to acknowledge the Lord’s command to go out and “baptize all ethos.”

    Imperialism is, I contend, the antidote. Such imperialist activity was not perfect in the past, but no activity will be in this vale of tears. Imperialist activity, though, acknowledged that the imperial head has been granted some great truth and way which is to be shared among all peoples. Rome wasn’t expansive simply because it was greedy (though Romans, as individuals, clearly were). Rome believed in uniting the world under a pagan-transcendent order (thus its imperialism was not only political or military but even religious).

    Christianity recognized that the impulse of Rome, ultimately futile when aimed towards the flesh, onwards this world, was perfected when oriented beyond this world. Thus the importance of conquest for Christianity (“conquering hearts” has become a saying eviscerated by our weak sense of “heart – focus on the conquest, though, and it becomes an action worth of fear and trembling). The early monks were soldiers, conquering the devils of the world. The early missionaries were similar, conquering the forces which held man in bondage and away from recognizing Christ as Lord. The whole investiture crisis and the struggle with the Holy Roman Empire was an imperial struggle in the Church – the existential fight between whether the Church was an empire of this world (the Holy Roman Empire position) or one which, while present in this world, was ultimately aimed toward something higher (thus the Papal position of religious obedience to the priest of the emperor).

    The imperial impetus degraded, no doubt. Napoleon succeeded in repaganizing the imperial impetus after the revolution had sought to kill the right Imperial order – that of nations in obedience to the Church. Where the Christian imperial impetus was not, new pagan imperialism sprouted (the Japanese empire being a good example – the American empire is an unholy syncretism of the pagan and “Christian” imperial impetus, at best). The Russian Empire experienced something similar to France in the assassination of Nicholas II – Putin is, perhaps, no more (or no less!) than their Napoleon, though I withhold final judgment.

    Either way, the politically Christian impetus is unable to regain a footing so long as imperialism of Spirit – the CONQUEST of hearts, the baptism of all ethos – is lacking in the faith. That is, perhaps, in my mind, why Dreher’s project is not a viable option. Unless he places not only a withdrawal but a militant expression to the Benedict Option (and the Benedictines were, perhaps, the western perfection of the Imperialist Christian Spirit, blooming in the Cluniacs and their guidance of the High Middle Ages), Dreher’s project will be nothing more than a last stand.

    “Christus Imperat.” Perhaps the question of governmental forms that so plague us is but an unintended smokescreen. Perhaps the real issue is whether our faith is imperial, national, or individual. Whether it is meant for all people (and the radical form of cult, culture, and law that requires), or limited to “us” or “me”.

    Apologies for the length. I’m not quite as focused as I should be.

    1. Your final paragraph pretty much sums it up for me, except I do not think culture has become too corrupt, but too aggressively anti-christian. My Polish grandparents embraced the culture and everything Vatican II had to offer and all of their 7 children eventually abandoned the Church in one way or another. I guess I don’t understand what you mean by, ” corrupt what is supposed to be corruptible”? I can’t stop thinking about my duty to protect my children.

      1. Nate,

        I meant simply that the Church, the Body of Christ, is incorruptible at some level. But the fear today is that by engaging with the wider world, the rot will get into the Church and somehow bring her down. That is the fear which has surrounded the Synod, namely that the “ways of the world” have penetrated the Church and now it’s only a matter of time before some decision will be taken in Rome that brings her down into the dust. I confess I have harbored these worries myself, but I don’t believe it is right and proper to turn the Church into an impenetrable fortress. We can’t just cut and run.

  2. I would like to begin my comment by saying how much I appreciate your genuine concern for the RC Church, even though you are no longer on that side of what I call ‘the family divide’.

    That said, I would agree with your thesis sentence, that ‘Traditional Catholicism will either evolve or die a pathetic death as it slips further and further into self-parody and irrelevancy.’

    I would also say that if Traditional Catholics remain in a self-imposed ghetto, they are more likely to die the death that you describe.

    The Apostle Paul has bade us as follows: “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” Romans 12:2. This has been translated as “be in the world, but not of it.” By remaining in their ghetto, the Traddies would appear to be saying: “we will neither be IN the world, nor OF it.”

    A part of the problem is that Traditional Catholicism is fighting a battle on two fronts: both against the post Christian Protestant milieu that some neo-reactionaries (including me) have called the Cathedral, as well as against the iconoclastic modernist ‘Catholic’ Church that has entrenched itself in most ecclesial systems of power, and which basically shares the beliefs of the Cathedral. I suspect that your recognition of this fact is one of the reasons why you chose Orthodoxy, because Her hierarchy at least still know and are teaching the Faith.

    Any evolution which may occur in Traditional Catholicism which actually accomplishes something will probably have to involve that ‘renewing of the mind’ written of above. It will probably involve much study, of Scripture, Tradition, and the magisterium of the Councils and the Popes. It will also have to involve much prayer and fasting, as our Lord has taught us that only those will be able to cast out the ‘dumb’ spirit which currently plagues the Church.

    1. Traditionalism has been usurped by the Lefebvrists and, latterly, by neo-conservatives. In its early years traditionalism was marked by militant defiance of the changes imposed by Rome and a commitment to pre-1956 liturgical praxis. This has given way in the last thirty years to sycophancy and sell out after sell out. It is on this basis I genuinely hope that traditionalism dies a pathetic death. If the movement had continued as it had done before Quattuor Abhinc Annos (1984) then I would give it my every support. As it is, most traditionalists have no conviction, are intransigently ignorant, and simply aren’t interested in historical liturgical accuracy.

      I cannot understand why someone putatively Orthodox would have any interest in the RC traditionalist movement for the reasons I’ve just explained. I have more sympathy for the Roman Catholic womenpriests movement than for Rorate Caeli or the “new liturgical movement.”

    2. Bernard,

      I am dwelling just east of Rome these days, in the borderland I will call my “spiritual Galicia,” but I’ll drop you a line on this later. I think it is well documented that I am a horrible correspondent.

      I believe Bishop Schneider hit the nail on the head when he said that the Society of St. Pius X (and, by extension, a great number of traditional Catholics) overemphasize Vatican II, just as the mainline Church overemphasizes it. By pouring so many of its resources into critiquing the Council, the SSPX inadvertently misses the importance of the councils which preceded Vatican II and the magisterium. Sure, attention is given to the first Vatican council and the writings of the post-18th C. popes, but that simply is not enough. There has to be a much wider appreciation of tradition, one which doesn’t fall prey to absolutizing this-or-that period in history.

      The same could be said for the Orthodox as well. There is a tendency to both absolutize certain periods in history (Patristic era, Byzantium, “Holy Russia,” etc.) at the expense of others, which are sometimes demonized (again “Byzantium,” or the “Latin Captivity” of Rus, etc.). But the Orthodox, unlike Catholics, have to contend with a very real “dark age,” one that stretched for nearly 500 years. The process of recovery, which is really a process of appreciation, has not been a smooth one for the Christian East. Ideological squabbling and romanticism has become a crucial problem for them.

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