If our religion is something objective, then we must never avert our eyes from those elements in it which seem puzzling or repellent; for it will be precisely the puzzling or the repellent which conceals what we do not yet know and need to know. – CS Lewis (The Weight of Glory)
Had someone told me as recently as a year and a half ago that I would identify myself as a traditionalist Catholic I would have told them they were nuts. Today, however, it sometimes feels that I am sounding and thinking more like a traditionalist Catholic with each passing day. As time passes the process seems to become more organic and more natural. I still have trouble with certain Church teachings (I’d be lying if I didn’t), and in some respects I still think a liberal, but I am finding my cognitive dissonance dimishing the more that I come to understand the Catholic worldview. I am beginning to understand Father Barron’s response to Father James Martin on the “hot button” issues. In a nutshell, Father Barron states:
- Look at fundamental questions and convictions before hot button issues;
- Become drawn in to in the life of the Church;
- Only through these disciplines can you get at the hot button issues.
I still have a lot to do so far as entering into the life of the Church goes, but generally speaking I can absolutely attest that Father Barron is right, there is a process to understanding the worldview of Catholicism. A lynchpin of that process is the fundamental question of whether Catholicism/Christianity/religion is presenting us with something Objective, or is merely a subjective vehicle. Who, Rev. Rutledge asks ad nauseum, is the subject of the verb: Ourselves? Or God? In his book Crunchy Cons Rod Dreher explains the contrast best:
…religion doesn’t state an opinion about how the world is…it is an accurate guide to factual reality.
No religion that gives you the freedom to make up your own mind about things, particularly matters as powerful as sex, is going to have the power to bind, and to command loyalty.
I don’t think it is possible to be authentically religious without being in some fashion an orthodox traditionalist…the orthodox side believes in transcendent, revealed truth to which believers must submit, while the progressives believe that religious and moral truth tends to be relative to personal experience and that…it is permissible to “resymbolize historic faiths according to the prevailing assumptions of contemporary life.”
In short, if one’s religion is to mean anything, if it is to last, it has to stand outside of time and place. Its truths have to be transcendent. And thought we moderns have to find a way to make the tradition livable in our own situations, we must never forget that we don’t judge the religion; the religion judges us. To be a blunt, a god that is no bigger than our desires is not God at all, but a divinized rationalization for self-worship.
In discussing the question of women’s ordination, Peter Kreeft provocatively suggests that the fact that the Church offends some 20th (now 21st) Century norms is proof of its legitimacy; for the Gospel should be expected to offend someone in every age. In his book Catholic Christianity Kreeft writes
We should not expect the Church’s teachings to coincide with the “wisdom of the world” (1 Cor 1:20) in any age or culture, for her teachings do not come from this but from heaven, not from man but from God.
I realize this makes me sound like a fire-breathing fundamentalist, and it shocks me that I can write such words in an affirmative manner. Even so, there is a certain degree of logic to it I can’t get away from: Reality is recalcitrant to our prejudices and biases, and has an irritating way of offending everyone, goring everyone’s oxen, in some manner at some point. Moreover, the basic cornerstone of orthodox Christianity is the notion that God spoke, revealed himself. Yes, this still leaves the subjective dimension of acceptance and decipering the revelation (more on that anon) but if religion is something real it can’t amount to an endless game of triangulation between different ideologies to find something that appeals to everyone.
I am to some degree a reluctant traditionalist, like most people I’d rather define reality on my own terms and as a product of my own generation I’m not wild about the Church’s sexual ethic. That being said, I’m having a harder and harder time critiquing the logic behind the Church’s teachings-the more I understand it I’m finding Catholic morality to be the finest system of ethics ever articulated. And I’m also understanding the wisdom that the Christian vision of ascestic self-restraint is actually a very liberating approach to life, that brings with it numerous practical benefits in many areas (good for the environment, more holistic/organic lifestyle, etc), along with a sense of inner peace. This is quite true in the area of sex. It doesn’t make the teachings easier, but it does cast them in a new light.
I still balk at accepting the label “conservative”…I’ll take the traditionalist label gladly but I resent being boxed into a right-wing caricature. I still don’t believe one needs to be on the frontlines of the right-wing in the culture war to be a good Catholic, and I have no problem arguing that the sociopolitical vision of the Church should not labeled “liberal” or “conservative” but “simply Catholic.” From the other angle, to be pro-life (for instance) does not make one an “archconservative Catholic”, they are simply “Catholic.” This is not a matter of rigid ideology (which Pope Francis has properly castigated) but of the proper deference to that which simply is, an effort to live in accordance with reality even when it offends us. CS Lewis’s quote above is the perfect summary of the proper mentality.
Nor do I understand Catholicism to be a matter of rote compliance with dead traditions. Tradition is a living thing in both Catholic and Orthodox theology, and great figures from Karl Adam to John Henry Newman have emphasized the organic nature of the evolving Church. Nonetheless, the plant has roots, the oak tree its acorn, and in the “democracy of the dead” the Church is not at liberty to create the Church de novo (or ex nihilo if you prefer). We are binding ourselves to something much bigger and older than ourselves; to something that-as Dreher put it-stands outside of any particular epoch. This understanding, by the way, can have “liberal” as well as “conservative” implications-the Church is not bound to a Medieval mindest for instance, and on matters such as modesty (which has set the Internet a-Twitter these days) the Catechism itself notes the faith is more flexible than we give it credit for. All Catholics must be traditionalists. But we need not be right-wing reactionaries.
Two recent discussions I’ve had with friends got me thinking on this subject. In December I had dinner with a friend who had been raised Catholic but no longer practiced (a member of what Jack Spong calls the “Church Alumni Association”). She remarked to me that she respected her upbringing and missed parts of the Church, but at the same time she disagreed with key teachings (she didn’t name them but I could easily guess). There is something to be said for that attitude I think, and in the name of intellectual honesty I must admit that I myself still dislike certain teachings. The question, of course, is what one does when they find themselves in such a situation. Leave? Stay and “work for change”? Pretend there is no problem? Or is it possible there is another option?
The other discussion was with another good friend of mine who presently attends the Episcopal Church. This friend is a highly intelligent individual but also one who seems unable to get beyond stereotypes and clichés in criticizing Catholicism (he’s one of those who thinks whipping out the name of Galileo is enough to clinch any discussion). We’ve known each other for years, and ironically in college we argued politics all the time, he from the right and I from the left. Years later, the roles have been reversed, or so he claims. As I explained to him, however, the gap is not that he is a liberal and I a conservative, but rather that I am a traditionalist and he is a modernist. When he asked for clarification I told him he had made social liberalism the standard by which he measured Christianity, which-somewhat surprisingly-he bristled at. We went on to discus ecclesiology (we didn’t use the term), during which time my friend critiqued various teachings of the Church and asked where exactly we would find them in the words of Jesus.
My friend was raised Wesleyan and still thinks like a Protestant, insofar as he believes if something can’t be found in the black-and-white (or should I say red) letters of Jesus then it is ipso facto problematic. The problem with this line of reasoning is…well, that it is Protestant reasoning. If I had to pick a particular theological topic for attention in evangelization and catechesis it would easily be ecclesiology. If one does not understand the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church one does not understand Catholic Christianity. As Karl Adam explained in The Spirit of Catholicism pure egalitarianism and “primitive Christianity” are not hallmarks of the Church. That so many progressives fail to grasp this basic fact is indicative that some educatin’ is necessary before questions about “change” in the Church are even brought up.
Incidentally, of course, we do contend that there is “Biblical Evidence for Catholicism“, and we do see in the “red letter” words the investiture of authority in the Body of Christ-the Spirit guiding into complete Truth, binding on earth as in heaven, etc. As noted before the Church does, in a real sense, evolve (Fr. Barron, explicating the thought of John Henry Newman, notes that against modern subjectivism Catholic Christianity is a communal and inter-subjective affair, a play of lively minds and not a private affair). And of course the Church is compromised of sinful human beings who do dreadful things. All human beings are sinners, God has no other material with which to work. The temptation to Donatism is alive and well today, and embraced in different ways by both the right and the left. To seek such “purity”, however, is foolishness. As Cardinal Ratzinger wrote:
I must admit that to me this unholy holiness of the Church has in itself something infinitely comforting about it. Would not one bound to despair in face of a holiness that was spotless and could only operate on us by judging us and consuming us by fire?…it is part of being a Christian to accept the impossibility of autonomy and the weakness of one’s own resources. At bottom there is always hidden pride at work when criticism of the Church adopts that tone of rancorous bitterness which today is already beginning to become a fashionable habit. Unfortunately it is accompanied only too often by a spiritual emptiness in which the specific nature of the Church as a whole is no longer seen, in which she is regarded only as a political instrument, whose organization is felt to be pitiable or brutal, as if the real function of the Church did not lie beyond organization, in the comfort of the Word and the sacraments that she provides in good and bad days alike.
The failure of progressive Catholicism/Christianity/religion, in my view, is that it has long lost a sense of the faith as something objective, and with it any sense of the Church as being objective. To some degree, I think, the roots go deeper still: No longer do we have any sense that the “Fear of the Lord” is the beginning of wisdom. God has been tamed, domesticated, reduced to a sort of heavenly marshmallow as one priest once put it. This was part of the root problem with what I saw in my years at Spiritus, and the same thing writ-large seem to be happening in ECUSA. I recognize that such an approach has its virtues-it is inclusive and compassionate, which are both very good things. But inclusion is not an end in itself, and compassion unchecked is reduced to a blind and impotent sentimentality. Traditionalist Catholicism does need to learn a few things about bringing faith into contact with people in what we today would call their “real lives” if we are to have any hope of sanctifying said “real lives”. To some degree this means learning to speaking in terms other than a narrow ecclesiastical vocabulary.
This does not mean (God forbid) that we embrace every trendy trend (that’s not a typo, just a deliberately irritating pleonasm) that comes along. Likewise while we have many matters to work out as we go forward in terms of ecclesiastical “housekeeping”, but this does not provide a warrant for embracing a demolition approach to tradition. If there is one thing that truly baffles and upsets me about progressives it is their not-uncommon tendency to demand something (say women’s ordination), with the thinly veiled goal of using it as a Trojan horse to, for all intents and purposes, destroy the faith from within. This sounds like an unfair, even paranoid charge, but I’ve spent enough time at CTA conferences to know that the words “change”, “reform” and “modernize” usually mean something much more significant.
I have yet to figure out why some women demand ordination-from ordained bishops-and then turn around and deny the further need for bishops and a set-aside priesthood in favor of pure egalitarianism (I’ve heard such things said). I can’t help but see something pernicious in somehow demanding the legitimacy of approval within their Church while at the same time rejecting every aspect of that Church (doctrine, worship, morality) that they claim to love. The psychology behind such doublethink would be a fascinating study for whoever has the time (mercifully I do not). I can’t help but think that at least one factor has to be a failure of catechesis, particularly when it comes to ecclesiology. If one cannot grasp the basics, I don’t think entering into any kind of dialogue would be remotely productive.
In any case, I must bring this tome to a close, and I shall do so with a final thought: In the cacophony of voices on religion today (see Beliefnet and Patheos) there is something immensely comforting about the rational, compassionate, inclusive to the point of being contradictory, open yet deeply rooted and evolving yet rock solid Roman Catholic Church. A monk friend told me that that the final decision to return to Holy Mother Church brings with it relief and a sense of freedom. And so it does. This is a party I came I came late too, but happily I still arrived in time.