The day I stopped being a Catholic traditionalist

6 12 2019

The title of this post is misleading. I didn’t stop being a Catholic traditionalist suddenly on a single day. That would not have been feasible anyway as I was living in a seminary on another continent with no way of promptly leaving. I don’t think I even knew at this point whether I would continue at the seminary or not. On the other hand, just as a crack in a foundation can indicate the certain demise of a building, there was one incident that signaled to me that my days of adherence to fundamentalist Catholicism were numbered.

I have to explain that the Society of St. Pius X seminary in Argentina is about 20 miles  from the shrine of the Virgin of Lujan, the patroness of Argentina. Every year, we had to do a pilgrimage to the shrine on foot, twice. Once was at the beginning of the school year in the middle of the hot summer. Then we had to do it under slightly more favorable conditions accompanied by the faithful who used the seminary as their starting point. The latter pilgrimage was an official function of the SSPX district of Argentina. It was also separate and in contrast to the far larger official yearly pilgrimage that the Catholic Church in the country holds that starts in the city of Buenos Aires itself and ends at the Lujan basilica.

The anecdote I wish to tell must have taken place around the time of the official pilgrimage when I was sitting at the same table with a seminarian who was one year behind me (he’s now a priest). The table conversation after the lunch reading drifted to the topic of the “Novus Ordo” pilgrimage. I don’t know what the seminarian said that triggered me; like me, he was a “convert” to the SSPX and hadn’t grown up in it. I just remember that the way he talked about those pilgrims irked me. He was saying that they were barely Catholic, that they didn’t really know what they were doing, and they were loud and irreverent. I probably told him that they were Catholic and that he had no right to judge them. I was so adamant I may have banged on the table a few times. The topic was awkwardly dropped after that.

I realize that it was at that point that I grapsed that I couldn’t do it. I had tried to “convert” my family to “Tradition,” and they had quietly put up with me. Like most traditionalists in the same situation, I had to live with the cognitive dissonance of indirectly judging as heretics the people who taught me morality and the rudiments of devotion. I had tried to push the party line of the SSPX with ever-diminishing degrees of fervor. That guy at the table could pull it off, and that’s probably why he got ordained and I left. I like the SSPX priests and faithful to this day: they often lead edifying lives of abnegation and sacrifice. That abnegation and sacrifice is founded on certainty in their Faith, something that others don’t have in their opinion. I am probably in no way more ascetic and I am certainly not as devout as the Lefebvrist faithful, but I don’t give myself the luxury of that certainty.

As I said, I didn’t stop being a traditionalist right away, and I still maintain a (perhaps unhealthy) obsession with the small Catholic traditionalist movement, at least online. It’s all very “Inside Baseball” for me, a hobby of knowing the obscurities of this ritual or that group. It’s healthier than knowing sports statistics, I suppose, and I have years of emotional and physical distance to not take it too seriously. (For instance, I don’t think I have been to a traditional Latin Mass in over a year, simply due to lack of regular access and other personal commitments). Longtime readers know that I switched rites and became a Greek Catholic the middle of last decade (though I am even less enthusiastic about Uniatism than I am about Roman Catholic traditionalism, another cautionary tale about hasty youthful decisions). To the extent I have any affinity for Christianity at all at this point, it takes the form of Roman Catholicism prior to 1960, along with the various weird folk traditions that are more likely to be found in a Latino supermarket next to imported laundry detergent.

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The samadhi of Srila Jiva Goswami in Vrindavan

Here this becomes another Hare Krishna post: I listened recently to a conference by one devotee on the life of Jiva Goswami. To give the CliffsNotes version of who Srila Jiva Goswami is, one could say that he is the Hare Krishna version of St. Thomas Aquinas. In other words, he took the ecstatic and charismatic movement of Sri Krishna Chaitanya and gave it a definitive ritual and intellectual form. Most notably, he synthesized the teachings of Lord Chaitanya and showed how they conformed to traditional Indian Vedanta. It is no surprise then that he had a pinch of zealotry in him. For example, there was a man who was walking around India challenging various renowned figures to intellectual fights to show his prowess. When he came to Vrindavan, he sought out Rupa and Sanatana Goswami to challenge them to a dialectical argument. Both meekly refused and signed a document saying that the man had bested them in an intellectual joust. Jiva Goswami, their younger disciple, knew that they had only done this to protect their humility, and he challenged the man to a debate and won. Both then chastised Jiva Goswami for this act. Later, Jiva Goswami was banished from Vrindavan altogether for correcting another man who had mistakenly tried to correct his guru Rupa Goswami. He was later readmitted to Vrindavan after a period of extreme penance.

As a “good Catholic,” I found these anecdotes rather compelling because I have always been told that one should be meek and humble in everything except in matters of faith. It is unthinkable to the Catholic mind that one doesn’t (intellectually) curb stomp someone who confronts you with an erroneous (i.e. heretical) opinion. One should do it with the right spirit and disposition, of course, and as far as I can tell, Jiva Goswami had such a  disposition. But on one level, he seems to be still have been in the wrong. There are many instances in Gaudiya Vaishnava history when Lord Chaitanya and His followers had to defend their doctrine before Muslims and impersonalists, but one never gets the sense that it was primarily a matter of doctrine.  I guess there is a time, place, and circumstance for everything. You should not hide a light under a bushel basket, but neither should you shove it in someone’s face either.

I was listening to an interview with another devotee of Lord Chaitanya and Srila Prabhupada, Bhakti Tirtha Swami Maharaj, in which he said that the urge to be right even in a religious argument is just lust. For the Hare Krishna, all love in the material world is lust, so why should religious zealotry be any different? Especially online (most people feel they have to be nicer in person), even when there is a pretense toward meekness, there is still a certain titillation at besting heretics and unbelievers in polemical arguments. This is especially true when one gangs up on people with other coreligionists. I am still guilty of doing this at times, but I know that it is unhealthy. I was listening to another Hare Krishna devotee recently who was talking about how Srila Prabhupada’s pranama mantra refers to his fight against impersonalism and voidism, but the devotee said that one should not look to argue against these errors as found in others, but one should seek to fight these errors within oneself. Really, if you see the error as only afflicting others but not yourself, what point is there even bringing it up?

The difference here is one of urgency. If one thinks that there is only one life to live to determine one’s eternal fate, then of course you have to make people believe the right thing by hook or by crook. If there is more than one chance, one can be a little more patient and go for the soft sell. You can believe that people are doing their best and that this must count for something. That was my attitude toward those “Novus Ordo” pilgrims in Argentina. Perhaps I have fallen into error in thinking that Catholic traditionalism is the only way Christianity makes sense. On the other hand, if your means doesn’t seem to sit well with your ends, perhaps your ends simply aren’t right. If you have to come across as “uncharitable” at times to do the right thing, if you have to resort to a lusty zealotry as a “necessary evil,” perhaps you should go with your gut and conclude that you are doing the wrong thing.

To not put too fine a point on it, I wasn’t mean enough to stay a Catholic traditionalist (and perhaps stay a Catholic, period). Don’t get me wrong, I am mean, but for more selfish and petty reasons. However, I can’t tell people that they are going to Hell, or if they keep doing this or that that they will likely be condemned for all eternity. Yes, I think people can do bad things, there may even be bad people. But at bottom, there is something in them that evil can’t touch that will not perish in an eternal dark fire. I know this because they have life and they exist. They will return back home, back to Godhead, maybe not in this lifetime, maybe not in a million lifetimes, but they will go back. How could there be a God otherwise? But my wanting to unnaturally push that process outside a “soft sell” indicates that I want to be the controller and cause of their salvation, and, simply put, I am not. These people aren’t my servants, they don’t exist for my pleasure, but for God. As the years pass, I get less and less pleasure from “being right”.  There is no good or righteous way to “be right” in this world, but there is no bad way to forgive and to serve.


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