On the Outside Looking In

8 08 2008

Catholic Society as Renaissance Faire

Via the Conservative Blog for Peace, I found this Chesterton quote on the Stony Creek Digest:

Those countries in Europe which are still influenced by priests, are exactly the countries where there is still singing and dancing and coloured dresses and art in the open-air. Catholic doctrine and discipline may be walls; but they are the walls of a playground. Christianity is the only frame which has preserved the pleasure of Paganism. We might fancy some children playing on the flat grassy top of some tall island in the sea. So long as there was a wall round the cliff’s edge they could fling themselves into every frantic game and make the place the noisiest of nurseries. But the walls were knocked down, leaving the naked peril of the precipice. They did not fall over; but when their friends returned to them they were all huddled in terror in the centre of the island; and their song had ceased.

– G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, Chapter 9

Of course, one can revel in the Chestertonian love of paradox, but what I would like to address here is something different. When I read things like this, I always feel a bit like I am reading about Rousseau’s noble savage or Claude Levi-Strauss’ description of the organically whole life of Amazonian indigenous tribes. In other words, I find this rhetoric a bit patronizing.

On the one hand, I am not prepared to say that rural Lutheran farmers in the nineteenth century were fuddy-duddy modernists who vacillated between puritanical constraint and debauchery. On the other, this ideology looks at Catholic societies through rose-colored glasses. I can imagine some big Potempkin village where everyone is smiling, whistling and working, beginning the day with the Angelus and occasionally letting out an obscenity for stylish good measure. A place where the food is tastier, the alcohol stronger, and the sex, well, a whole lot better. Every time I dwell on stuff like that, it makes me sick to my stomach.

Really though, here is a dose of reality, from the Catholic borderlands of Mexico:

Finally, far to the east of all these sites, in Ojinaga, Chihuahua, across the border from Presidio, Texas, we find the shrine of El Difunto Leyva (“Leyva the dead man”). Nobody knows the dead man’s first name, although there is some evidence that it might have been Juan. He was a man without family, who, sometime perhaps in the 1920’s or 30s, was accused by a jealous husband. His accuser (who might have caught him in the act) burned him alive. As he died, Leyva raised his right arm and, pointing to heaven with one finger, said, “Al cabo allá está Dios” (“God is there in the end”). His finger was the only part of him not totally consumed in the flames. It was kept in a glass container in the Difunto Leyva’s chapel for many years, although it isn’t there anymore.

-James S. Griffith, Folk Saints of the Borderlands

In other words, thank you for the tourist plug, but really, no thanks. Catholic societies were scary places since human beings are scary. Y, por el amor de Dios, can we stop pretending that Catholicism makes for a happier, better society! Christianity isn’t true because it’s useful or makes for a prettier picture. Probably the opposite is the case.


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16 responses

12 10 2008
11 08 2008
diane

Oops, having sticky-keyboard issues. Graf above should read:

Alice, LOL, I forgot about Lord Peter’s moniker. Well, I refuse to address the gentleman in question as “Death.” Too macabre!

11 08 2008
diane

Here is my old blog, at which I posted a grand total of one (ONE, count ’em!) posts, managing to completely mess up the typography in the process. It contains a little disquisition on “Christmas Is My Name”:

http://dianeski.wordpress.com/2007/06/24/hello-world/#comments

Alice, LOL, I forgot about Lord Peter’s oniker. Well, I refuse to address the gentlema in question s “Death.” Too mcabre!

Diane

P.S. My new blog, containing five entire posts, is here:

http://www.dianonymous.blogspot.com

10 08 2008
M.J. Ernst-Sandoval

Diane wrote:
Protestantism was systematically imposed on an unwilling and resistant English populace. They loved and missed their feasts and festivals!

This brings up an interesting idea. Perhaps it was the suppression of much (though not all) traditional folk culture during the English Reformation that makes certain British and Anglo-Americans look at other cultures with a bit of wistfulness. The grass is always greener…

10 08 2008
Alice C. Linsley

Diane, but that is Lord Peter you’re addressing! : )

10 08 2008
diane

Ooooh, Arturo, you simply must read Eamon Duffy’s The Stripping of the Altars and Christopher Haigh’s (I think that’s the name) work on the English Reformation. Protestantism was systematically imposed on an unwilling and resistant English populace. They loved amd missed their feasts and festivals!

There’s also a wonderful early-17th-c. song called “Christmas Is My Name,” which laments the neglect of Christmas revelry in post-Catholic England. I will post the lyric later–they are fascinating.

Diane

P.S. Mr. Bredon, WADR, I find non-Catholic characterization of all of American Catholicism as “AmChurch” just a tad patronizing, too. Not to mention wildly inaccurate. 😉

9 08 2008
Leah

Not to be vulgar, but one thing romantic agrarians seem to forget is the fact that bestiality was a very common offense in many rural societies, Catholic and Protestant alike. Secular and ecclesiastical court records show countless instances of individuals (male and female alike) being executed for this crime, along with their animal paramours, sometimes involving large flocks of creatures. In some instances, the animals were given lawyers and put on the stand for questioning. What would cause these hearty peasant-types to resort to “barnyard bordellos”? Maybe, as Arturo has said in previous posts, we have simply swapped one set of sins for another.

9 08 2008
Alice C. Linsley

Thank you for this very thoughtful post.

As one with a background in anthropology, I appreciate how patronizing Chesterton’s viewpoint seems. Frankly most English gentlemen of his time were fairly patronizing. I see it in CS Lewis, Tolkien, and Williams. It is evident also in the writings of the British Idealists.

That said, there is an interesting assumption of comfort under the Roman cupola. Is this in part disguised yearning for the pax of old Rome?

9 08 2008
M.J. Ernst-Sandoval

Arturo wrote:
In other words, thank you for the tourist plug, but really, no thanks. Catholic societies were scary places since human beings are scary. Y, por el amor de Dios, can we stop pretending that Catholicism makes for a happier, better society! Christianity isn’t true because it’s useful or makes for a prettier picture. Probably the opposite is the case.

This brought three things to mind:

1.) The heaven day-dream scene in the episode of “The Simpsons” where Homer and Bart become Catholic. In “Protestant Heaven” everyone is playing tennis and wearing white; in “Catholic Heaven” everyone, dressed in various folk costumes, is drinking, dancing, and making love.

2.) The Hilaire Belloc quote: “Wherever the Catholic sun doth shine, There’s always laughter and good red wine. At least I’ve always found it so. Benedicamus Domino!

3.) The author/journalist John Reed’s commentary on the Latin peoples and how, “they can make love or murder at the drop of a hat”.

Leah wrote:
How then, do we reconcile “The Syllabus of Errors” and “Quanta cura” with the American viewpoint of history and government? It might not be possible. I know some traditionalists deny the legitimacy of the United States for these reasons. If Spain had been the primary influence on the US rather than England, who knows what kind of society we’d have now.

When you read the Syllabus you may notice references to previous encyclicals and briefs for each point quoted, and these encyclicals and briefs referred to specific situations. The Syllabus and Quanta cura were a reaction to the European situation at the time. Mazzini and Garibaldi had just tried, unsuccessfully, to take Rome and there was internal turmoil in the two great Catholic powers, France and Austria. These documents were a response to what was seen as a great crisis in Christendom.

Pius IX assembled the document in a bit of haste and even called the Syllabus, “raw meat needing to be cooked.” It was later explained by the Bishop of Orleans that the Syllabus presents universal ideals that are not meant to apply to every country and every situation. I would refer you to Bishop Félix Dupanloup’s commentary La convention du 15 septembre et l’encyclique du 8 décembre for a further discussion of this topic. Dupanloup was even thanked by the Holy Father for this clarification.

9 08 2008
Leah

What then, does “traditional Catholicism” mean in the American context? The Catholic immigrant ghettos of the past were inherently unsustainable, given the fact that assimilation of some sort was bound to occur. The bedrock of American religious culture is Protestantism (specifically Calvinism with a bit of Pentacostalism for good measure) and almost every religion eventually become Protestantized in some way. This is reflected in synagogues that have organs and English language services and Buddhist temples that call themselves “churches.” The United States more than any country in the world illustrates the modernist experiment that Arturo mentions in his previous post. As Americans (I’m assuming we all are) it is almost impossible for us to not to believe that liberal democracy is not the teleological end of history. How then, do we reconcile “The Syllabus of Errors” and “Quanta cura” with the American viewpoint of history and government? It might not be possible. I know some traditionalists deny the legitimacy of the United States for these reasons. If Spain had been the primary influence on the US rather than England, who knows what kind of society we’d have now.

Unlike Catholicism, Protestantism had no problem with aligning itself with the modern world. Hence, you have many intellectuals who draw a straight line between Martin Luther and the Declaration of Independence. Even then, it’s not so simple. Liberal democracy only really developed organically in the Anglo-phone sphere, so maybe it’s a peculiar British quirk.

Going back to my original point of “what is American traditionalism,” maybe the hard truth is that the post-Vatican II innovations is what constitutes Catholicism in the United States; consumer-driven, watered-down, and meant mostly for entertainment.

9 08 2008
Death Bredon

Good insight in the post.

I have a Catholic friend of Irish extraction that was very disappointed to find that, on his pilgrimage to mother Ireland, the Prot neighborhoods of Belfast were not only more prosperous but also cleaner and safer than the Catholic near-slums.

His disappointment only reinforced what I had been telling him, “You may be nominally Catholic, but you are AmCath, which means that, subconsciously, you have bought into the Puritan Protestant Gospel of Earthly Prosperity.” The orthodox catholicism of the undivided Church, and some still hold to it, recognizes that we are first citizens of a kingdom not of this world.

9 08 2008
Arturo Vasquez

“Christianity isn’t true because it’s useful or makes for a prettier picture. Probably the opposite is the case.”

I should clarify this to mean this in a Weberian sense. I would not dispute that in order for modern society to emerge, the bourgeoisie had to break the power of the Church in society. In a lot of places, like England and Latin America, this meant the mass usurpation of ecclesiastical lands. Postivist politicians in Latin America saw that the only way to bring progress to their backward lands was to break the power that “Christian superstition” had over the people, and the power of the clergy.

No matter how much we condemn the actions of these ideologues, we are living in the technocratic paradise that they conceived. Condemning modernity in a modern setting, with the comforts of modern people, smacks a whole lot of “biting the hand that feeds you”. We live in an age when our ancient beliefs swim against the fierce current of a society that was born by the breaking of the power of the Church, and it is rather naive to say that there is a simple solution to our situation.

9 08 2008
Visibilium

Well, Spanish Catholicism can display an emotional extremism and starkness that I haven’t seen anywhere else. Generally, Western history demonstrates the tendency of Latin Christianity to display a fondness for festivities and a tendency toward moral leniency relative to Protestantism. This general tendency is roughly illustrated by the contrast between the Cavaliers and Roundheads during the English Civil War. In our modern age, we can see a similar contrast between Christians who celebrate Halloween and those who won’t.

8 08 2008
Leah

A similar view to the Chesterton quote can be found in the book “The Lord of the World”, in which persecuted Catholics from around the Western world flood the primitive Papal States. There are no modern amenities or anything, but dang it, everyone’s a happy and devout Catholic. I’m not saying that you need a pile of gadgets and cash to be happy or devout, but the way that Middle Age Catholicism and modern majority Catholic countries are often romanticized is suspect. In general, people who imagine themselves living in other countries and/or other times are assuming that they’re would have been exactly the same as they are now, only wearing different clothing. Presumably such individuals are also assuming that they are something like a nobleman, a monk-scholar, or a cardinal and not the guy who has to clean out the castle latrine at the end of the day.

Furthermore, Catholicism is not a twelve-step program that can magically turn gang bangers and prostitutes into accountants and homeschooling mothers. While turning to the Church has helped countless people turn around their lives, it’s not a guarenteed thing. Some people just like to wallow in sin, for whatever reason. Even in Catholic countries you have drug dealers, prostitutes, and murderers and I imagine they all have their own shrines and devotions in their little rooms.

8 08 2008
Phil

Christianity is not true because it is good for society.
But that does not mean it is not good for society.
Original sin and bad humans notwithstanding, there is a lot of good in Catholic society like Music (Mozart for example), Art (Michaelangelo for example), and institutions that help society like schools, orphanages, universities, hospitals etc.

The Catholic Church is probably the largest social service provider in the World.
Not to minimize non Catholic cultures, as all cultures have some redeeming values and it is not always good to compare apples to oranges–Catholic culture is quite beautiful and practicing Catholics (or practicing of Jehovahs Witnesses) are better for a stable and ordered society (even non believers and some of your Marxist friends believe that)

Catholicism is good for society. That does not mean it proves its true. It certainly does not mean it is perfect or that there are bad people in that society(ies). You paint a dark picture and are not accurate or logical in your conclusion in my opinion.

8 08 2008
FrGregACCA

“On the one hand, I am not prepared to say that rural Lutheran farmers in the nineteenth century were fuddy-duddy modernists who vacillated between puritanical constraint and debauchery.”

Well, in the mid-twentieth century, they tended to be fuddy-duddies who were either dominated by puritanical restrain or a somewhat guilty debauchery.

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