Talking truth to theological chicness

22 06 2009


Above: St. Philomena, victim of theological chicness, in a church in Metairie, Louisiana

Anyway, what Vatican II gave us, at least to judge from the majority of the American blogs I’ve visited, is: minimal orthodoxy.

Minimal orthodoxy is: let’s parse our way through the thicket of Church teachings and traditions, especially traditions, ignore or delete whatever is not specifically required, and move on….

But how does Welborn think that faith and religion are sustained, if not in a culture that is at least receptive to them? Does she have any idea why it has been so difficult to enact meaningful Catholic evangelization in American culture? I mean, aside from the hostility encountered by generations of redneck, nativist Protestants, which still obtains today?

Similarly, those from dessicated religious traditions, such as evangelical Protestantism, see anything other than the most minimal as a resurgence of “medievalism” or the bad, old days that antedated Vatican II…

See, there’s little, if any, difference between the uninformed, secularized cradle Catholics of the Vatican II era and the Protestant converts of today. They both inhabit a world where dessicated liturgies and dessicated thought-forms are dominant, if “valid.” And that’s just fine with them.

-from the Gregorian-Rite Catholic blog

I am not at the point that I will say such things in such stark and unnuanced terms, but to say that I am only a little sympathetic to these positions would be far from the truth. Visiting the sites of popular bloggers and “Catholic luminaries”, one does get a real taste for what some would have Catholicism become: a sentimental version of conservative Presbyterianism with hard dogmas, uplifting moral behavior, and maybe a few statues (but let’s not overdo it). After all, who needs culture? We Americans do just fine without it, and all that matters is how much I love Jesus, and try to be nice to everybody, and maybe read a few ancient authors who make me feel good about what I believe. Let us not get too preoccupied by issues of Catholic culture, since things are really not so bad. The seminaries are full, the faithful militant, and the Church is growing by leaps and bounds…

I went to Mass at the SSPX chapel in Kenner on Saturday morning, and I picked up the latest newsletter from the rector of the Winona seminary, Fr. Ives le Roux. There was a rather strinking paragraph in which the good priest summarizes one very traditional attitude of the relationship between Christ and the Church:

It is my opinion that Christ and the Church are One,” said St. Joan of Arc, who, in her rough wisdom, while answering her iniquitous judges, refused to distinguish the Holy Church from Her Head – what Bossuet, in his precise theological language, will repeat in a profound formula: “The Church is Jesus Christ continued and communicated”.

Some will of course find it ironic that a “schismatic” group will speak of the Church in such absolute terms, but to understand their perspective it is necessary to look at things less from the view of theology per se and more from the view of human memory itself. A mark of humanity’s transition to modernity is a profound forgetfulness. The only thing that matters is what is occuring now. What philosopher today could proclaim with Plotinus at the beginning of his work that his doctrines were ancient and by no means his own; he was merely repeating the perrenial truth that had been passed down to him by his teachers, who had it passed down to them from their teachers, and so on? At the beginning of the modern man’s thought is the idea that he is sufficient unto himself, that the present is the most privileged, and the past has nothing to teach us that we do not already know. He speaks of centuries as if they were days, he feigns remembering a millenium ago as if it were last Thursday. When confronting the mortality of the human mind and the sheer distances of centuries, he is not afraid, precisely for the same reason that he is not afraid of death. He simply does not think about it.

When we read Bossuet’s quote, then, we read it from the perspective of the Church as bureaucratic institution, as if the Church were a network of bureaus issuing memoranda straight from the Office of the Holy Ghost. We consider that which is most privileged to be what the Church does today, not what it has done, and it bothers us not if it has not been done for a long time. A long time for us is ten years, the deposit of revelation is only that which applies to our own social, political, and economic situation, in spite of our pretensions of living in a global society. God is instantly accesible to me, as an individual consumer, by just a click of a spiritual mouse… In other words, we have a problem with the idea of tradition. We find it degrading, convoluted, and at the end of the day, dead.

And perhaps it is in some things, but the fact that some can be so cavalier about it is neither noble or practical. The fact that we can harp on and on about essentials without seeking to preserve the distinct taste of the Faith of centuries marks a very naive, very American attitude towards history. At the very least, tradition should be studied and appreciated, even if we do not take it so far as to create a Potempkin village out of our homes. As I have said before, the preservation of Catholic culture is not some useless part on the machine of Catholic evangelization. Unlike with our Protestant neighbors, our culture is our message.



14 responses

27 06 2009

Maybe it’s just me, DB, but I don’t see anything in either type of Orthodoxy which is comparable, for their heterodoxy, to the 39 Articles, and I’m pretty sure I can say the same thing of Roman Catholicism (although the papal stuff comes pretty close).

26 06 2009
Death Bredon

Don’t feel to bad — every tradition and jurisdiction has a heckuvalotta chaff. And, at various times, some more than others. But even this seems to ebb and flow with tides of history. Perhaps Anglicanism in its broadest sense may, by the Grace of God, enjoy a revival.

Still, the question is, “which chaff can you tolerate while trying to be wheat?” (Without using free choice as an excuse to cut your own Church from whole clothe.)

26 06 2009

Alice, I am not sure what you mean, but I don’t think anyone who is devoted to Saint Philomena — or to any other saint, for that matter — fails to hold the Son of God as the center of his or her spirituality. Surely Orthodoxy also has a robust tradition of devotion to the Saints and invocation of the Saints? When you kiss icons of the Saints, do you thereby manifest a failure to put the Son of God at the center? One would hope not.

I am very devoted to Saint Bernadette, Saint Faustina, Saint Francis, and (most recently) Saint Anthony, among others. And above all to the Theotokos. But I have certainly never seen such devotion as detracting from my love of Jesus above all. Au contraire, I always find that the Saints bring me closer to Christ.

If I have misunderstood you, please forgive me. Your comment was brief and cryptic, and I may well be reading way too much into it. But, if I’ve read it aright, it seems to me to smack more of classic Protestant prejudice against Catholicism than of authentic Orthodoxy. But perhaps there is more Protestantism in Orthodoxy than I’m aware of….

26 06 2009

I am sympathetic to your inclusion of Anglicanism in the mix. Certainly a specific Anglican diocese can be a true particular Church; however, the problem with Anglicanism as a whole is its heterogeneousness. There is one heckuvalotta chaff, not only at the grassroots, but from top to bottom: not only unofficially, but officially as well (I am not referring to TEC, et. al. I am speaking of classical, “confessional” Anglicanism). I think immediately of the 39 Articles.

26 06 2009
Death Bredon

perennial, not perineal. Damn spellchecker.

26 06 2009
Death Bredon


The answer to your query is that, despite his rapier wit — I mean, even given that his targets are easy, Arturo cuts so exquisitely — he does not reach the conclusion that his own logic compels, but rather more or less “fence sits” as he indicates the last paragraph of his post, as he reminded you. That compulsory conclusion/solution, which Arturo refuses to expressly reach is, of course, the authentic Christianity “once deliverd” that has not undergone any substantive change or innovation (through perhaps idiomatic translation or reiteration with sympathy for context — be all things to all men): in a word, unadulterated Orthodox-Catholic Christianity.

By Orthodox-Catholic Christianity, I do not mean that all too common contemporary quasi-Orthodoxy that leaps off the surface of your local Greek or Russain Church, which in both is absurd abdication to modernity and simultaneously its absurd traditionalism is just as subject to Arturo’s rapier as is contemporary Catholicism, but rather the unadulterated, perineal theology of Orthodoxy. For sake of simplicity, I refer you to St. John Damascene’s “Exact Exposition” or more laterly (and more easily digested) in Fr. John Baron von Meyendorff’s “Byzantine Theology;” or thirdly, when read in subordination to the former, the New Catechism of the Catholic Church — which I regard as the true fruit of Vatican II. (Arturo, admit it — you know the Baltimore Catechism is ridiculous nasceant SSPX cant.) And if you are die-hard Anglican, try C.B. Moss’ single volume “Introduction,” Bicknell on the Thirty-Nine Articles, or lastly Dean Vernon Staley’s Catechism.

What I do NOT mean the all too frequent cyber-Orthodoxy of “me Orthodox convert, Vladimir Smith; you damned.” Nor do I mean the ethnic, culture-club Orthodoxy that prevails today.* Nor do I mean the Tridentine fetishism of the SSPX or the “I pray in Latin” types. These “solutions” are much too trite and too easy.

Where is this pure Orthodoxy I speak off, you ask. Well, the wheat is amongst the chaff, where it has always been, as our Lord told us. It’s the wheat amongst Orthodox chaff, Anglican chaff, Roman Catholic Chaff, etc. Though I’d be shouted down by cyberOrthodoxy for saying what I just wrote, anyone who cares to make an impartial study of the matter will find that what I say is not only the express word of the Lord, memorialized in our Scripture (I said express word, not literal word, you pendants), but also the Perennial teaching of Orthodoxy (and Catholicism for that matter).

In sum, on Sunday, go where YOU can digest the Orthodox/Catholic wheat, where ever that may be, even if it that place has lots of chaff, is not cool, is not convenient, could be massively improved if only they would let you dictate the liturgy and give the sermon, etc.

And, I trust that that is what Arturo does. (Though he is required by his patrimony to tell us that unless we are explicitly in full communion with the Pope of Rome were are in big trouble — he never shouts it or says it in a mean spirited kind of way; almost tongue in cheek, me thinks.)

*But notice that almost all Orthodox Patriarchs decry this orgy of ethnicism in the contemporary Orthodox Church, even as they themselves wallow in it and perpetuate it! That admission of error of life counts for something even if no real amendment follows. I’ll give that much credit, and only that much credit, to Rome to for its admission of guilt to the public outing (at last) of its centuries-long pedophilia syndicate.

26 06 2009
Alice C. Linsley

Amazing that the word “Catholic” is even applied to any theological view that doesn’t hold the Son of God at the center.

25 06 2009

what it mean to be Mennonite if you’re not a blond German with the surname of Yoder.

LOL, I know a few of those. Named Yoder, even. 🙂

23 06 2009
The young fogey

P.S. There is a real St Philomena but no devotional cultus around her.

23 06 2009
The young fogey

Again nice work.

All I can add is one historical fact: St Philomena was not a victim of theological chicness. She was expunged from the liturgical books (although as with approved apparitions devotion is OK) in 1961 (nothing to do with Vatican II or the Novus Ordo) because the archæological evidence for her turned out not to be (the bones in the tomb were mixed male and female and the tiles did not spell ‘Pax tecum, Filumena‘). She has been ‘known’ only since the early 1800s. There’s no proof she didn’t exist (so devotion to her is fine) but none that she did either.

22 06 2009

I don’t think the problem is in losing a culture, culture will always be around (and nostalgic types have always been grumbling about losing the Old Ways). Anyways, what is Catholic culture? The culture of Ireland is not the culture of Italy or Guatemala.

What is being lost is what I would call the popular magical pragmatism that informed the actual religious practices of the majority of Christians over the last 2,000 years.

This spirituality is popular because its code is unwritten and it is mostly mastered by uneducated people, it is pragmatic because it is concerned with immediate spiritual (and material) needs and challenges and is not based on any “first principles” of systematic theology. Finally, it is magical because it it appeals to supernatural assistance for all kinds of purposes and ends that fall outside the province of official religion.

It really is not possible to dismiss this stuff as colorful but useless superstition, superfluous barnacles on the ship of the Faith (which is what? some Augustinian formula for salvation?) — because to banish it is to banish the actual content of Christianity, as it was practiced by really-existing Christians in really-existing Christendom. Scraping away these barnacles constitutes a violent rupture in the historical continuity of the Chuch and would even be a kind of transhistorical schism.

Moreover, legendary and folkloric Christianity often ends up permeating the officially sanctioned religion, and it is only afterward that dreary apologists come up with justifications for its incorporation . The legendary episode of the Assumption of Mary, for example, is part of official Catholicism. It is rejected by many Protestants because it isn’t “Scriptural.” Well guess what, they’re right. It isn’t. But neither is the Trinity. Christianity isn’t really “Scriptural” in the way they use the word.

22 06 2009

In my various Internet travels, I have a tendency to lurk on the blogs and web sites of other religions. My findings seem to suggest that a similar identity crisis is plaguing many other groups as well. For example, the Quakers were once characterized by some very distinct practices: plain dressing, the use of thee and thou, and the use of First Day, Second Day etc. when referring to the days of the week. These practices have largely died out and the only really distinctive thing about the Quakers is the Peace Testimony, which has caused the group to devolve into a liberal social club rather than a peculiar people who “quake” out of fear of God. Similarly, most Mennonite groups save for the Old Order ones have abandoned their own distinctive practices (e.g., farm living, shunning technology, plain dress) and many covert fret about what it mean to be Mennonite if you’re not a blond German with the surname of Yoder. And of course, there is the 200+ year debate among Jews about what it means to be Jewish if you’re not Orthodox and following the Mosaic Law literally. It seems that the only way to have a traditional religious culture in America is to completely cut yourself off from the Protestant mainstream and shun anyone who leaves, as is the case with the Amish, the Hutterites, and the various haredi Jewish sects. While I suggest that many Catholics might enjoy the notion of living in a place like Kiryas Joel, New York (,_New_York), the organizational structure of Catholicism isn’t really built to accomodate that kind of lifestyle. Hasidic Jews like the Satmar are used to living separate lives from the mainstream, so it doesn’t matter as much.

It also seems to be virtually impossible to evangelize a Protestant country to Catholicism on a widespread basis. When a Catholic evangelizing pagans, the former gets to determine the terms of Christianity. When a Catholic evangelizes Protestants, they’re dealing with someone who already knows about Christianity and thinks that the version they have is superior. Therefor, the Catholic has to argue on the grounds of sola scriptura, which is already conceding to the terms of the Protestant. However, I think it is possible to create a real Catholic culture in the US, but it will require thinking outside of the box, particularly outside of the suburbs and outside of the First Things/Commonweal conversation.

22 06 2009
Arturo Vasquez

I think you have to read the last paragraph of this post again. In medio stat virtus.

22 06 2009

See, there’s little, if any, difference between the uninformed, secularized cradle Catholics of the Vatican II era and the Protestant converts of today. They both inhabit a world where dessicated liturgies and dessicated thought-forms are dominant, if “valid.” And that’s just fine with them.

“Feel the love,” as they say. Your author is right of course..But here’s the rub with your author’s stark and un-nuanced terms, and to a certain degree, your own pedagogy, Aruturo:

You cleverly eviscerate the white middle class suburban parish for its lack of catholic culture on Monday. (I mean…really, it’s not that hard.)

Then mock its feeble attempts to recreate an authentic Catholic Americana as being too bourgeois on Tuesday. (Plenty of meat to work with here too).

Then inform us on Wednesday that the concept of choosing/recreating a tradition is so antithetical to tradition itself that the whole project is damned from the get-go by its self-conscious picking and choosing.

But rightly point out on Thursday (similar to your chosen author in this post), that the modern, ex-Protestant, culture-less catholic milieu which dominates the blogs, is a modern experiment that’s fixated on it’s realized eschatology and un-rooted in any real tradition, (other than a slightly converted Reformed Presbyterianism) say like the folk traditions of Mexican Catholicism…and is therefore, perhaps incapable of transmitting an authentic, historical Catholicism via culture…since it really has none.

Only to re-eviscerate the suburban parish, once more, on Friday.

So, how does the neo-cath project find it, Arturo? Real culture. Real tradition. Real catholicism. It can’t, according to your criteria.

It can’t because it’s carrying out the disruptive traditions is rightfully inherited in the rebellion in American Catholicism which erupted in the throes after Vii. It’s being the only thing it knows how to be. It’s carrying on in its own authentic tradition-less tradition.

And, if I apply your logic on history, culture, and the choosing of tradition…this project is being more true to itself in its current form, than in following through in change you may proscribe for it.

Not that you are proscribing change, because I realize you aren’t. You have valid, legitimate, criticisms which I typically enjoy reading, and make me think deeper about the meaning I’m trying to find as a convert in this faith.

But clearly, as advertised, you have no solutions.

So, I’m going back to my dessicated liturgy and dessicated thought-forms. Because caring to much about which direction father faces in the liturgy probably isn’t all that traditional, anyway.

And to your author, such more Catholic than I ever will be, I say, “Good on you. Try not to squash the faith of too many on your quest to be above reproach in liturgy and tradition.”

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