Monday, August 19, 2013

For goodness' sake

Msgr. Pope does it again with this post titled The Church is a bride, not a widow:
But I want to say to all the negative ones: the Church is a Bride, not a widow.

I have, in twenty-five years as a priest, found a great deal of affinity with traditional Catholics. I love the Traditional Latin Mass (and have celebrated it since 1989), chant, polyphony, traditional churches, stained glass, and I toe a line in rather strict conformity to the Church’s teachings and Scripture’s admonitions. I preached Hell and Purgatory even when it wasn’t cool.

But in recent years I have found my relationship to many (not all or even most) traditional Catholics tested and strained. I say “tested” because I have found that if I do not adhere to a rather strict, and I would say “narrow” line, I am relegated to be thrown out of the feast, and there in the “outer darkness” to wail and grind my teeth.

It would seem that for some, I am required to bash bishops, lament that the Church has “never been in worse shape,” and that every single solitary problem in the Church today is “due to Vatican II” and the “Novus Ordo” Mass. Stray too far from this, either by omission or commission, and I am in the hurt locker, the penalty box, and relegated to being no better than one of “them.”

Last week on the blog was especially hurtful. All I did was quote what I thought was an interesting statistic, that the average number of priests per parish in 1950 was “1″ and that in 2013, the average number of priests per parish is also “1″. There are many interesting questions that can be raised about this number. Perhaps there were more ethnic parishes then, perhaps church closings now are a factor, perhaps many of us remember the Northeastern Urban experience, but knew little of the rural experience back then which balanced our reality. Yes, there have been closings and declines of late, but overall there are 17K  parishes nationwide today, slightly more than in 1950, and double the number of putative Catholics. And at the end of the day, the number averages out to “1″ priest per parish. More here: [01] and here: [02]

Anyway, while one may dispute how helpful or illuminating the statistic is, the real grief came to me with just how hostile and even nasty some comments (many of which I had to delete) were. There were personal accusations against me, there was a bevy of bishop-bashing, and Pope-bashing statements, and any number and variety of venomous attacks against perfectly legitimate Church realities, liturgical forms, and the Second Vatican Council itself.

Like Msgr. Pope, I would never assume that all those who love and attend the Traditional Latin Mass  (a.k.a. the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite) are sour, bitter people who see no good from Vatican II and think that all bishops today are bad men who just want to oppress them.  I know a few joyful Trads.  I'm sure there are plenty.

But I have also encountered, both online and in real life, Trads like the ones Msgr. Pope is describing above.  And, being me, I'm starting to develop a theory about it all.

We human beings have a strong yearning to believe that at some time in the past, people were much more virtuous and holy, much more focused and directed, much more responsible and organized, much better at being good and holy priests and nuns and husbands and wives and fathers and mothers and children than we are now.  I think that what we can truly say is that there were ages during which the very notion of virtue wasn't so much under attack--that is, that there were ages during which men and women greatly praised, say, monogamy and saw no real conflict between their appreciation of its virtues and their personal sins involving affairs, or ages during which a priest might have a shining reputation for sanctity at the same time that he was quietly pilfering out of the collection box for his own gain, and that despite the conflict between the public praise of virtue and everyone's private evils, there was at least some social cohesion possible around the idea that it was a good thing to be good or at least to strive for goodness.  And that made life at least theoretically better for the vast majority of people who didn't have affairs or pilfer out of collection boxes or otherwise commit big sins unrepentantly all the time, because the illusion of the public's goodness, coupled with the presence of the confessional as a quiet reminder that sin wasn't eradicated just because it wasn't displayed, made it seem like everyone was more or less on the same page about the desirability of virtue and holiness.   Which, when you think about it, made the job of parents, teachers, religious superiors, and so on that much easier: plenty of time for Junior to learn that adults could be horrible sinners and hypocrites after he'd first learned to admire and appreciate goodness.

Our own age is demonstrably unlike this.  Society no longer believes in virtue or goodness, not in any cohesive way.  Sure, people might say, for instance, that it's wrong to lie, or cheat, or steal, but then they'll parse the definition of those words down to their smallest particles until they mean less than nothing, and it all becomes about to whom you lie or your motivations (the noble lie), with whom you cheat and whether the person you're cheating on is okay with it (the mongamish relationship), or from whom you steal and whether or not you steal boldly (the corporate raider or the stock market coup).  If hypocrisy was once the tribute that vice paid to virtue, today vice pays no tribute at all to virtue but insists that it is virtue, after all, and that virtue is vice, being intolerant and all that.

So some people look at earlier ages, realize this strange distortion in the notion of goodness, and wonder: what happened?  The real answer (the Fall happened) isn't all that satisfying, because if the present age's degeneracy is, like all of man's degeneracy, the result of the Fall, then there's no guarantee that we ourselves or those we love won't end up suffering either because of the vicious or by becoming vicious themselves.  It is much easier to find and blame a certain Thing for the loss of the sense of goodness.  That Thing has been, at times, the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, Electricity, the War, the Second War, Communism, Atheism, and Feminism, just to name a few.  Within the Church in our recent past, that Thing has been Vatican II, primarily--that Thing on which we can blame all the other Things, all the bad Things that have happened since that time, both inside the Church and out in wider society.

You see, once you have identified that Thing that leads to badness, all you need, for goodness' sake, is to set yourself at opposition to that Thing.  You might become a self-sustaining farmer who shuns electricity and machines, or you might marry the sort of man who sincerely believes that women are an inferior creation and tells you so at every opportunity, or you might become the most spendthrift of capitalists.  Or you might blame the Novus Ordo (a.k.a. the Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite) for everything (or at least for everything that isn't the direct fault of the Democratic Party).  Once you've done that, why, all you need to safeguard your goodness (aside from Mass, confession, frequent daily prayer, almsgiving and other good works, of course, but that goes without saying) is to avoid that bad Thing that has caused, in your carefully studied opinion, all of the trouble.

And so knowing where others stand regarding that bad Thing becomes a kind of shorthand.  Just like Glinda's question to Dorothy, "Are you a good witch or a bad witch?" the questions about which form of the Mass in the Roman Rite a Catholic attends can become a shorthand to assess a person's overall goodness or badness.  If someone says, "Oh, I only attend the Latin Mass!" he or she can safely be regarded as a good person, but if someone says, "I go to the Latin Mass when I can, but there's a nice Novus Ordo near my house..." then further questioning is needed.  If that person then fails to show unqualified support for the right sort of politicians or the proper level of disdain for certain types of entertainment, etc., then one's hands may safely be washed of that person (and not a moment too soon!).

To be fair, there are people who do this in reverse, asking whether the TLM attendee thinks the pope is a real pope or whether the Latin Mass attendee accepts Vatican II--and those questions are only properly asked by one's bishop or pastor, so lay people are being extremely rude to ask them.  But I personally haven't seen this reverse questioning as frequently (your experience may be different); most people I know who ordinarily attend the Ordinary Form are fine with the Extraordinary Form and have maybe tried it a few times and are perfectly happy for those drawn to it to have it free of any unjust restrictions (just ones, like the lack of availability of priests trained in the Extraordinary Form, are a different matter, of course).  Now, they also don't tend to think that all the problems in the Church and in the world could be solved once and for all if the Church just jettisoned the Ordinary Form and admitted it was a bad mistake, immediately substituting the Extraordinary Form complete with a ban on females on the altar (except to clean it) and a requirement for females to cover their heads and an absolute prohibition on any music composed after 1560 and/or not written in chant notation: but this is because they are sane.

Alas, the only thing we can do for goodness' sake is keep trying to be good, and to share the joy we find in that pursuit with those most broken by our culture's weird tendency to call evil, good and good, evil.  Which is the only thing anybody has ever been able to do: to take up our Cross and follow Christ, and find great joy in doing exactly that.


bjerabek said...

Behold, the general superiority of the old over the new!

Red Cardigan said...

And not just the old, Father--the rosy-hued old that never really was, I'm afraid!

(Is that your cat on yesterday's blog post? Cute!)