All tradition is a product of the 19th century

15 02 2019

I recently learned of the impending canonization of John Henry Cardinal Newman, and honestly it makes me more suspect that canonization process has just become a popularity contest. In an institution with one billion people in it, you are bound to find someone attributing a miracle to anything from a dead 19th century cardinal to the face of Jesus appearing in a piece of toast. I am not sure I will ever consider John Paul II or John XXIII to be saints. Maybe they can be removed from the calendar one day or demoted to mythology just like St. Christopher or St. Philomena. In the case of the latter recent “saint”, that would be poetic justice.

But I am just not writing to gripe. Instead, I want to recall the comments of an old mentor of mine, who in a conversation out of the blue stated that Cardinal Newman was the greatest Catholic theologian in the 19th century. Being that I didn’t really like Newman that much, and still kind of don’t, I strained to think of a Catholic thinker more influential or original than Newman in the 19th century, and I could not think of one. I still can’t. Maybe I am not as smart as I think, and can’t draw up some hidden cult figure who was more notable. Having read the Apologia Pro Vita Sua, I remember how bemused he was at the sight of one of the Papal liturgies while still an Anglican, how it could have been something from another planet in spite of his proficiency in Latin. And he ended up the greatest Catholic theologian of the 19th century. Started from the bottom…

What more strikes me about this is how much of an intellectual desert the 19th century seems in that regard. This isn’t the Church’s fault, as for much of the 19th century, the Church was in a running battle for its life, literally, in much of its most ancient realms. So there was not a lot of room to intellectually develop. We all know the story of the “Benedictine restoration” under Dom Prosper Gueranger, the restoration of Thomism under Leo XIII, the renewed interest in liturgy culminating in the reforms of Pius X in the 20th century, etc. I won’t go over again the reasons and methods behind all of this. I am more interested in the perceived “forgetfulness” leading up to 19th century reform movements that influences Catholic consciousness to this day.

For example, we have been over previously how the intellectual formation prior to Leo XIII was much more eclectic than the stale manual Thomism that would determine the curriculum up to the Second Vatican Council.  Antonio Rosmini, now beatified and a darling of recent Popes, was far from a Thomist and had his writings placed on the Index of Forbidden Books. The emphasis on Thomas Aquinas that governed Catholic formation for about three generations may have been alien to seminarians three generations before. Prior to the French Revolution, for example, the most passionate battles over theological questions hovered around St. Augustine in the Jansenists controversies, with the offending “heretical” group thinking that “Ite ad Thomam” didn’t go far back enough.

The same is true for music. I remember reading in a book that someone was actually there with a primitive recording machine at the musical “changing of the guard” between Pius X’s sparse choir singing only Gregorian chant and Palestrina and the previous personnel accustomed to a more contemporary repertoire. This included the aging Alessandro Moreschi, the famous last castrato. His voice was able to be recorded in the last days before his services were no longer needed.

Of course, we can argue until the cows come home if the “new and improved tradition” was aesthetically or spiritually better than what came before it. But what is not in dispute is that the impulse to innovate, even in the name of restoration, was like opening Pandora’s box. Even if there was an institutional and historical break due to the actions of masses and elites hostile to the Church, was that any excuse to measure the contemporary state of things to an unrecoverable past?

That question has little to do with Newman, I suppose. I dislike Newman generally because he is used to construct ships in bottles concerning Church history, doctrine, etc. To his credit, he came into the Church at its most difficult moment, and stayed on in spite of open hostility to his ideas. And he was awarded with the red hat for it. Still, I can’t help but think that “authentic tradition” is still the tool of the company man who will always be the Vicar of Bray, or its Catholic equivalent, as long as he can claim membership in good standing in Catholicism, Inc.®

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