Sunday, July 12, 2015

The Troubling Presuppositions of Neo-Traditionalism

In regard to my last post, I received this following comment that merits some attention. 
Mark 4:35-41
A noble attempt that will fall on deaf ears for the tired Catholics who would like to believe that there's something more to Catholicism than toeing an ever-changing Party Line. The Traditional Latin Mass is not the Mass of power-hungry reactionaries, but of defensive, bewildered Catholics who yearn for at least symbolic stability in a world of doctrinal ambiguity. Right or wrong as they may be, those "preconciliar teachings" are what generations of Catholics have been taught and have told their children to believe and take seriously. It's one hell of a reverse course that they are being asked to take lying down.
I think the commentator highlights two of the problems with the neo-traditionalists who favor the usus antiquior, or as it is popularly often called, “The Traditional Latin Mass,” or the Tridentine Mass. 
The first problem the commentator identifies is the problem of change and the fact that change is a very threatening concept for many people.  In a world in which so much is changing so fast—from the Supreme Court’s legal establishment of Same Sex Marriage to the shifting geo-political boundaries of Central and Eastern Europe; from the rise of militant Islam to the breakdown of gender identities; from issues of global climate change to electronic video-games and instantaneous communication, the world seems at times to be spinning out of control.  In such an environment of a perceived chaos, the image of a Church which offers a fixed and immovable standard of practice and belief provides a refuge for those suffering from a sociological vertigo set off by this spinning planet.  Entry into a darkened church with candles providing pin-points of light and air scented with beeswax, incense, and musty vestments provides us not only with a respite from the confusion of daily life but entrance into a magical world that offers escape from the realities of today’s world.  We are permitted to hide ourselves in a fixed past that lets us, at least for an hour or two, avoid facing the uncertainties of the future.  Expand this magical world now with the gentle tones of Gregorian chant, the aroma of the incense, the white-noised drone of Latin prayers from the altar, and mindless immersion into the sensual stimulation of it all and you have a Spiritual Spa Day that gives you the emotional strength to face a week of the madness of the world around us. 
Sounds wonderful but the problem is that is not a life of discipleship.  The disciple is called not into a passive endurance of the spiritual vicissitudes of the world in which we live, but a confrontation with that world.  As Blessed Titus Brandsma, a Carmelite Friar who died at Dachau for his resistance to Nazi policies in occupied Holland wrote: “If you want to win the world for Christ, you must have the courage to confront it.”  We cannot retreat into the past, no matter how comforting. We cannot take our Catholic Faith and make it a freeze-dried relic of the Eisenhower years to be our spiritual security blanket.  God did not incarnate himself into this world so that we can escape it; Christ did not preach a Gospel of hiding ourselves in the Temple instead of facing the realities of human suffering—and human sin; Jesus did not hang on the cross for us to find comfort and escape and he was not raised from the dead so we could bury our faces in piety and pretend that we are somehow close to him because we feel the thrills of religion. 
The Christian knows that he or she must put on the armor of God so that we may stand firm against the tactics of the evil one and having done everything possible to hold our ground.  We cannot flee in this conflict to places of refuge but we must stay on the field of battle.  Change is inevitable.  The struggle is to make the changes work for the better.  Blessed John Henry Newman wrote “To live is to change and to be perfect is to have changed often.” The strategies and tactics of our struggle to be faithful cannot be the strategies and tactics of our parents and grandparents.  The world has changed.  An insistence on unchanging dogmas and doctrines may have served well in the past to fend off the challenges of Ratramnus of Corbie or Abelard but today they fail to win the hearts and the minds of the potentially faithful.  The baroque architecture and glorious strains of Palestrina or Gabrielli may have drawn the faithful of the 17th century to faith, but today their power is lost on all but the effete and the savant.  The Liturgy of the 1570 Missal was a powerful tool in combatting the Protestant Reformations but it is totally ineffective against either the inroads of the self-proclaimed “evangelicals” or the far more dangerous religious and spiritual indifferentism that infects contemporary western culture.  You must remember, I am a historian and I love a visit to colonial Williamsburg. However, I have no reason to want to live—or pray—in the eighteenth century.  If God had wanted me to live in Rome of the Counter-Reformation he would have had been born in Rome in the Counter-Reformation.  But God had me born for the dawn of the 21st century—and you too—and he expects us to live in our time and place. 
But this brings me to the second element of the above response to my previous post: it is not only a matter of change, even more basic is the understanding of what is faith.  The response presumes “faith” to be an acceptance by intellect and will of certain doctrines and practices or disciplines of the Church.  This has been a common misconception of “faith” by many Catholics at least since Leo XIII’s establishment of Neo-Thomism as the Church’s official theological framework.  Faith empowers the will and intellect to accept certain doctrines and practices but it should not be confused with the assent of the intellect and will.  Faith is a dynamic of the individual’s relationship with God, not with the Church or doctrine or even morals.  It is the relationship in which the believer is graced to put his or her trust in God.  An individual can have faith and yet not pass theological or even moral muster.  A person can have faith and be mistaken as to faith and morals.  This is not to imply that faith is a feeling—like charity and hope, the other theological virtues—faith is an act of the will in which the individual, empowered by God’s loving action (grace) yields to God’s will as the individual perceives it.  Abraham had faith—this yielding to God’s will—and it was counted to him as justice.  Faith is in many ways the antidote to the sin of Adam who trusted not in God but in his own will.  This sort of faith in which we put our trust in God enables us to ride the waves of change undisturbed knowing that while he may seem to be asleep, Christ is indeed in the barque of Peter and while the winds of the world and the waves of change may buffet the boat and even blow it this way and that, God will bring the barque to port.  Faith empowers us to face change without panic knowing that, in the words of Julian of Norwich, “It was necessary that there should be sin; but all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.” Or, as Teresa of Avila writes: Let nothing disturb you, let nothing frighten you, all things are passing away: God never changes.  Patience obtains all things. Whoever has God lacks nothing; God alone suffices.
Of course, faith—to be authentic—must not be some abstract surrender of the will to God but one that bears fruit in concrete action of “hearing the Word of God and putting it into practice” as Jesus himself says in the Gospels.  But that Will of God is not something frozen or even stable.  The Law of Moses forbade certain work on the Sabbath but Jesus permitted his disciples to pick grain on the Sabbath: Jesus did not perceive the Law to be a frozen ideology, immutable and unbending, as did the Pharisees.  Jesus stopped the crowd from stoning an adulteress, even though that was the punishment prescribed by the Law.  Jesus did not mandate his disciples to keep the traditional Jewish fasts.  He was not concerned with the ritual purity that mandated the washing of various household items when they had been “contaminated” by something or someone that rendered them unclean.  He himself broke the Law by sitting at table and sharing a meal—a sacred action in Judaism—with sinners and the most gross sort of sinners.  Jesus warned the religious of his day that he would see the tax collectors and prostitutes enter the kingdom of God before them.  My impression is that the stability for which some are looking for when they turn to pre-Conciliar Catholicism is in fact a lack of faith, an empty piety.  I think it is dangerous pastoral practice for the Church to offer what is essentially an unsafe harbor.  To sum it up, a quote I recently heard and found thought provoking: “the opposite of faith is not doubt, it is certainty.” Should this be true how sinful it is of us to look for those islands of certainty in the name of faith.  


  1. How bizarre to attempt to use Bl. Titus Brandsma to bolster this opinion, a priest whose prayer of the unreformed Mass and Office supported him through his imprisonment.

    Our confrontation with the world must be done from a position of identity and strength. That "spiritual spa day" is exactly the environment in which worship should place the worshipper, in seemingly tangible contact with the heavenly realities, experiencing a foretaste of the heavenly Jerusalem, even if only through the veil of symbol and sense. This is exactly the experience which the Eastern Rites that you so admire strive for (yes, worship is Christ's action, not an experience, but pastorally it is both). It is here that the Christian attains the vision of who he is, of what the Church is, and of what the world can and ought to be. If you mean to say that Christians should render their worship purposely adverse, rather than striving to make it an oasis of beauty, truth, and goodness, made of the stuff that edifies the Body, I say that the world brings adversity enough. In confronting the world, we need, as our present Holy Father exhorts us, to get out of the sacristy! The liturgy is not the locus of our confrontation with this world. It is the locus of our confrontation with the heavenly reality.

    To your discussion of faith, I can only say that Neo-Scholasticism (and Scholasticism) are more powerful vehicles of thought than they are generally given credit for being.It is not blind to the gulf between the objective and the subjective realms, but it will never obscure the objective in its concern for the subjective. Perfect, objective faith and conformity to the will of God does involve communion with the Catholic Church. It is our place to admit the possibility that people of goodwill have misplaced their faith, and to allow God, almus scrutator cordium, to make what allowances are in accord with his justice and his mercy, not to debase our own notion of what Catholic faith is.

    And as a final note on musical style, which is particularly close to my heart, two points:

    1) There is a certain wisdom to the Byzantine prohibition of musical instruments. It renders all musical participation non-controversial, as (unlike in the 16th Century) nearly all of our styles of music, both secular and sacred, lean heavily for their identity on different instrumental forces. Also the abundance of sung dialogues provides a solid foundation of musical participation for the assembly that raises no ires or eyebrows, and creates a "flow" out of which the rest of music can more or less spontaneously arise. The Gregorian dialogues, prefaces, orations, &c. that were compulsory at Highmass once did the same thing for the choral music of the Old Mass, and could have been the wellspring of a congregational, vernacular musical participation had the musical reform gone differently.

    2) Perhaps only effetes and savants now *know of* Palestrina, but I assure you he retains his power. I once had the unique experience of singing in the World Choir Games with a choir specializing in Catholic liturgical music, especially polyphony, led by a world-class, Westminster Choir College-trained conductor. We sang a series of "friendship concerts" in which all sorts of choirs from different countries and categories came together for an evening of song. Immediately prior to our singing, a hip, relevant, drum-set and electric-guitar wielding rock-Gospel choir gave a performance. Their joy and faith were evident. Then it was our turn. We sang the old standbys, Palestrina's Sicut Cervus, Vittoria's O Quam Gloriosum, and I think the Mozart Laudate Dominum from his Vespers of a Confessor. Afterwards, there was a flood of members of the rock-Gospel choir who were blown away by the music, telling us that we sounded like angels. That music is still as fresh and powerful as the day it was written, and it stands to be even more powerful than before in this age where it may again be experienced as something brand new by unfamiliar ears.

    1. I sent on your response to an associate of mine in the Netherlands who is a Brandsma Scholar for his reaction and he said that a careful study of the writings of the Dutch martyr show that he was very interested in the liturgical experiments that were going on in Germany and Holland in the 1930's and surmises from Brandsma's writings that he would have very much favored the liturgical changes that came from the Council. The Dutch Carmelites have been pioneers in the Netherlands of a more pastoral approach to the Mass and their churches are among the few churches in Holland that still draw a crowd. As for your points on music--i am a strong advocate of using the best music in our Catholic heritage along with contemporary music --a good steward draws from the storeroom both the old and the new. My objections are not to the use of Traditional Music but to the "unreformed" Rite itself which has some serious flaws that were corrected in the 1970 Missal, most notably the theologically dicey "offertory" rite, communion in one kind, the lack of a proper epiclesis in the the Roman Canon, and the exclusion of the faithful from direct participation by the use of what is for most people an arcane language for the essential prayers. I find it interesting that the permission for the 1962 Missal does not insist on the specific reforms mandated by the Council but gives us a totally unreformed rite.

  2. I read a quote recently that describes how the certainty that people present regarding their beliefs can actually mask a deep sense of despair. Unfortunately, I did not write it down.

    1. I wish you had saved the quote as it could be very interesting. if you find it again, send it on

    2. Don't worry, I remember the book in which I read it. It's from Notes From the Underground: The Spiritual Journey of a Secular Priest. The author was quoting another writer. I plan on buying it, so I will be able to find it again. I'll post it when I do.

  3. Could it be that these people want to participate in what dear old Alan Watts called the celestial whoopie? I don't think he had the autoerotic in mind. A bit more social, I should think.

    Speaking of Alan, I dare not relate his description of the communion service in the BCP in relation to that in the Anglican Missal.