"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

The irrelevance of relevance

When I was young, there was much talk of making Catholicism and the Church "relevant" to the modern world. Vatican II's last major document was its "Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World." 'Relevant' was quite a buzzword in Sixties secular culture; its use went with a kind of optimism arising from an almost unquestined assumption that what we were supposed to be relevant to, i.e., contemporary culture and mores, was both good and exciting. Back then, it seemed self-evidently important that anything and everything be "relevant."

Yet by the time I had some college, I found it rather odd that so many priests and religious went in for the relevance shtik. It seemed that the Church was "opening to the world" precisely when the world—at least as I had been experiencing it—was going crazy. I concluded, again from experience, that all the insistence on relevance was mostly about sex: specifically, the repudiation of sexual morality. Surely the results wrought in liturgy, I thought, couldn't have sustained anybody's interest for very long. Nothing that's happened since has caused me to revise such conclusions; but there is a broader intellectual lesson to be learned.

In a paper referenced by James V. Schall, SJ, theologian Tracey Rowland said of one of my favorite Catholic authors:

What Chesterton understood was that it was precisely one of the great graces of the Catholic Church that she makes it possible for people, poor as well as rich, to transcend their cultural limitations, to rise above their cultural poverty and be citizens, or rather subjects, of an eternal city. The effect of the Church on the culture of the world, and in particular on the life of ‘common man,’ ought to be ennobling, ought to be affirming of an aristocratic status as a child of God, as a member of a royal priesthood, a people set apart. This does not happen when mass culture is ‘baptised’ by its use in the liturgy or when its idioms are taken to wrap the Church’s doctrines. Contrary to the rationale behind such pastoral projects, their ultimate effect is not to make the Church relevant to the modern world, but to make it indistinguishable from the modern world, and this in turn makes it completely irrelevant.

That's it! The "ultimate effect" of trying to make the Church "relevant" in the ways taken for granted in so many quarters since Vatican II has been to make the Church "indistinguishable from the modern world," and thus supremely irrelevant. All one gets in progressive Catholicism is a timid, mediocre version of what's already out there—and what's out there contains a lot more bad than good.

Mind you, I don't believe the alternative is "traditionalism," as that ideology is currently espoused in some Catholic circles. The late, great historian of doctrine Jaroslav Pelikan rightly called that sort of thing "the dead faith of the living." The alternative is the recovery of Tradition, what he called "the living faith of the dead." Tradition, and a lively sense of it in morality, spirituality, and liturgy, is what makes us "a holy nation, a royal priesthood, a people set apart." Therein consists our relevance.
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