Monday, November 14, 2016

Is Traditionalism a Spiritual Malady?

Judging from the number of readers and comments, my article from a while back, “On Needlessly Problematizing Our Situation,” seems to have struck a nerve. One commenter in particular raised what I consider to be important points, often met with and deserving of a fuller response.

The commenter maintained:
There is nothing wrong with a robust and loyal devotion and defense of Tradition, but the Pharisee temptation, the temptation to a fanaticism that protects us from what we neurotically fear, usually some post-traumatic-stress form of fear of contamination and intimacy and loss of control, is as powerful among those with the particular charism to defend Tradition as it is undetectable by them once it is given in to. I speak from personal experience. I have found that the awareness of this temptation, and one’s susceptibility to it, once it is has been given in to repeatedly, decreases as a function of the spiritual urgency of one’s need to recognize it in order to be free of it through repentance. In other words, it is the kind of sin that makes repentance nearly impossible — for it is “they” who need to repent, who are impure and disloyal and traitors to God, not me! … [W]hat is seldom mentioned is the possibility of “adherence to tradition” becoming a sign of one’s spiritual superiority and initiation into the “inner circle” of the REAL Catholics. Or, even worse, when adherence to tradition becomes a way of avoiding intimacy with God, oneself, and other people.
       Indeed, being a “traditionalist,” in the best sense of this term, meaning, simply, being steeped in Holy Tradition as the indispensable means — not an end in itself! — to encountering and loving God as He truly is in Himself, is a prerequisite for holiness, and hence the humble simplicity that is its essential quality. 
In reply, I wrote:
It seems that you are saying that while we cannot and should not try to escape from tradition, we can and must try to escape from pride. This is absolutely correct — but for that very reason, your position should never lead to contempt for tradition, the kind of contempt that is all too obvious in the past 50 years of experimentation, novelty, and the rationalistic (and Americanist) “we can do it better than everyone before us.”
       The great saints would agree with all you have said about finding God in the present moment — but they would not then pit that against being fully and traditionally Catholic. This is not an either/or but a both/and situation.
       If Tradition is an indispensable means, let us love it and treat it precisely as such. For example, if there were a single bridge by which one could cross a river, one would love, value, repair, and frequently use that bridge, not because it is an end in itself, but because by it one can reach the land one is seeking.
My interlocutor retorted:
I agree with everything you have just written, and you put it beautifully, as usual. But I do not think you got the essence of my point, which is not simply that we should avoid pride, and that loving and being loyal to Tradition is precisely the way to avoid such pride. It’s a more subtle point I am making, one that suggests that there is a dangerous temptation bound up with the adoption of a certain “inner circle” stance and attitude vis-à-vis the Church and the world and other people, and a unhealthy spiritual and psychological and emotional condition as both its cause and effect.
Here is my response to that objection.

Subtlety can be the undoing of us. Sometimes good, plain, honest judgment is better. When you look at something beautiful, noble, and reverent, you say (and you ought to say): “This is good, this is as it should be. Let’s embrace it wholeheartedly and use it to praise God and win eternal life.” When you see something that is the opposite, you say (and you ought to say): “This is bad, it will not help us, and it deserves to be rejected.” This is how matters stand, for example, with the proposal that bigamists or adulterers should be admitted to Holy Communion. A true Catholic simply says: “No way, not in a million years. Jesus taught the evil of adultery; St. Paul taught it; St. John the Baptist and St. Thomas More died over it; I am ready to die for it, too. I don’t care who says otherwise.”

Yes, sometimes we will make mistakes in our particular judgments, but it is a peculiarly modern (post-modern?) temptation to want to float in a region of non-judgment, where we can avoid the painful necessity of making up our minds and coming down on this or that side of the fence. We’d rather sit on the fence and pretend we have a superior disposition because we are not like those Pharisees down there on the one side, or those liberals on the other, all of whom have chosen decisively. Ironically, it sounds like the “view from nowhere” myth of the Enlightenment, which is a still subtler form of Pharisaism whereby those who keep themselves pure from definite positions can consider themselves clear-seeing, free from ideology. According to this stance, the people most free are those who do not bind themselves to a particular path, a way of life, a body of spiritual practices, a worldview. After all, since we could always be wrong, we need to refrain from such commitments.

This, of course, is the very essence of modernity’s error — an error no less pernicious for its being utterly incapable of actually being lived. For it is notoriously true that men who claim to be free from all prejudices often prove to be the most entrapped by a web of them. It is more honest to admit that all human beings have loves and hatreds, and that we are responsible for getting them sorted out and well-aimed, not for ridding ourselves of them. It is a form of reverence to God to acknowledge that He intends for us to seek true knowledge, to reach real conclusions, to make judgments about right and wrong, and to lay our lives on the line for what we believe.

We have to make choices about how and what we are going to do with ourselves as Catholics. Anyone who thinks that it’s as easy as “just listening to the Church” had better have his head examined. Who or what is the Church? Is it just whatever the Pope or any bishop says? Would that it were so simple, but it has almost never been so — and now, far less than ever before. From the dogmatic battles of the early Church to the political chaos of the Dark Ages, from the tangled allegiances of the Great Western Schism to centuries of compromise with worldliness (and, at times, overzealous opponents thereof), the story of Christian orthodoxy cannot be mechanically derived from the hierarchy as if one were retrieving files from a hard drive.

Our forebears in the Faith were content to believe and to do that which was handed down to them; there was no legalism, no hyperpapalism, no need to study reams upon reams of Vatican documents,[1] no need to apologize for loving what one’s ancestors loved. While it is impossible, at this time, to recapture fully that blissful simplicity of yore, there is much to be said for imitating it to the extent that we can. It uncomplicates Catholic life by focusing it on what is tried and true, rather than on this decade’s academic theories or this week’s tabloid revelations.

It is easy to bring up the specter of the Pharisees and Sadducees (for each of us has a little or a lot of them inside of us) without recognizing who, in the Church today, most fits their profile.[2] Jesus, after all, was the one who had the vastly more demanding teaching on marriage and family, and on the worship of God “in spirit and in truth.” Compared to Him, even the most rigorous Jews were compromisers and materialists. How about the neoconservatives who think they are the only “reasonable” and “moderate” people? Or the liberals and progressives who are convinced that the future would be theirs, if only ignorant throwbacks like NLM writers and readers would bite the dust? If one is not careful, one will end up saying that only those who are superficial and ignorant are spiritually safe, because, having no deep attachment to orthodoxy or orthopraxy, they are free of all Pharisaical dangers.

But the problem we are dealing with today goes deeper. It is not enough to stay on the level of spiritual generalities. One must also have the courage to look at the particular ways in which the Catholic Faith and its practice have been dismantled and corrupted. For this has had and will continue to have the most profound consequences for the encounter of men with God in Christ.

Let me put this point as succinctly as I can. There is no way to circumvent the temptations my objector pointed out, which will come upon every serious Catholic; and running away from traditional dogma, morals, liturgy, and devotion, as so many have been doing for decades — as indeed some have always done in every age — is never going to be a successful solution to the temptations that confront us in the spiritual life, any more than Protestantism was a solution to the corruption of the late medieval Church. It is a “solution” that contradicts the very essence of Catholicism, one that tosses out the baby with the bathwater.

The desire to not know or to look away; to not care whether one is divorced from one’s inheritance, and to assume that as long as churchmen are okay with deracination, one need not think twice about it; to imagine that these hard questions cannot or need not be asked; to be unaware of the enormous problem of rupture and discontinuity — these are signs of a spiritual sickness far more pervasive and dangerous than the supposed Phariseeism of traditionalists. For it is easier to be aware of a discrepancy between one’s noble ideals and one’s personal sanctity than it is to be aware of a fundamental disjunct between a modern reinterpretation of Catholicism (call it neo-modernism, with its paradoxical ultrapapalist commitment) and the Catholicism of the ages, that is, what would have been recognizable to any Father, Doctor, scholar, king, or peasant for the first 1,900 years of the Church. The reason is simple: we have to live day after day with our limitations, our flaws, and our sins (and if we are married or have good friends, we won’t be allowed to go for long without being reminded of them), but most people alive today cannot remember what things used to be like in past generations, do not make an effort to know history, and have little knowledge of the relevant principles by which to evaluate ecclesiastical affairs. This, incidentally, is why the battle of the modernists has always been a battle of attrition: if they can make their fabrications and falsehoods last long enough, they feel sure of triumph.

No wonder St. Pius X was so earnest and intent on smoking out the clever, subtle, and “edifying” errors of modernism. He did not call it the “synthesis of all heresies” for no good reason. It would be the most amazing naivete to think that the modernist crisis was a flash in the pan at the start of the 20th century and that it doesn’t exist anymore. On the contrary, as Hilary White said, apropos the last half-century: “The New Modernism had, in fact, become the new conservatism.” That is what we are seeing all around us, as Catholics scramble to rewrite their catechisms based on the latest Mormon-style revision from above.

For those who close their eyes or stop up their ears, of course, there is no problem; nothing’s really the matter. Such culpable cluelessness is a great spiritual malady of our times — one that prevents the Church, always in need of reform, from actually reforming her post-conciliar self.

A metaphor of the post-conciliar Church


[1] It would hardly be an exaggeration to say that contemporary churchmen have created a new form of Rabbinical Judaism, in which only canonical experts can sort out the big and little questions.

[2] I highly recommend this article: "The Pharisees and Sadducees of Our Time" by Roberto di Mattei.

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