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

Monday, June 09, 2008

A rad-trad converts

As I work out in my head what I shall say in my next installment on the infallibility of the ordinary magisterium, I want to pause to take note of one man's significant choice, and an argument for it, that pertain directly to this blog.

A sophisticated, articulate trad Catholic about whom I've posted before has converted to Orthodoxy. For reasons he and his friends will know, I shall refer to him simply as "Ben." Since his blog has been a good feeder of traffic to mine for some time now, I thought I should comment on Ben's conversion, if only for the benefit of readers who are led by his blog to mine.

Given what Ben had been complaining about for quite some time, I am not totally surprised by his move. He is not the first disaffected Catholic of conservative bent to have doxed, and will not be the last. (I've also known disaffected Orthodox to become Catholics, but the reasons are naturally quite different from those operative when the change goes the other way.) But I am somewhat taken aback all the same. When I posted about Ben's critique of contemporary Catholicism, I accused him of being a "hermeneut of discontinuity," i.e. of being one of those Catholics who believe that the post-Vatican II Church is, in doctrine as well as in sensibility, sharply discontinuous with the (Catholic) Church of the past. (The main difference between progs and trads is that the former approve, and the latter disapprove, of what they both agree is the practical and theoretical discontinuity.) I contrasted Ben and the HDs unfavorably with the HCs, the "hermeneuts of continuity," among whom are the present and previous popes and those who loyally follow them, such as yours truly. But in the last comment he addressed to me in the combox to my post, Ben objected to my criticism. He said that he just "wanted the Mass back," for good reasons of his own, and only then would he welcome seeing "the theologians and their ponderous apparatus [i.e., people like me—ML] play catch-up." My reply was, in effect, "fair enough." And sure enough, not long after Ben and I interacted, the Pope gave back to him and his ilk what they refer to as "the Mass." Yet less than a year later, Ben was chrismated into Orthodoxy. Obviously, getting "the Mass" back wasn't enough. Why not?

I was rather shocked to find the reason in an entry of his own in the combox to his last post. Here it is:

I have come inescapably to the conclusion that of the two views (broadly) of the Roman Papacy persisting from the first millennium, one is substantially correct and the other – the one that leads inexorably to the Roman Magisterium waging a pitiless forty-year campaign of extermination against the objective Catholic patrimony and most profound sensibilities of its own faithful – is not.

It's tempting to explain that explanation by posing a dichotomy: either Ben has changed his mind since he and I last interacted, or my initial accusation was correct and, despite his protestations, he was an HD all along. But I think it would probably be more accurate to say that the road he was headed down when we last interacted would, barring something altogether unforeseen, inevitably lead to the "conclusion" stated above even if he was not then ready to reach that conclusion. It includes a stark formulation of the rad-trad version of the HD. Regardless of its provenance, that's what I want to focus on.

I still want to fair to people like Ben. Thus I'm willing to grant that in liturgy, popular devotion, ascesis, and art, much was tossed overboard in the dozen or so years between the end of Vatican II and the end of Paul VI's papacy. I came of age during those years, during which I developed the distinct if somewhat blinkered impression that the Church had lost interest in precisely those aspects of the "Catholic patrimony" which have the strongest influence in forming the sensibilities of the faithful. Many loyal Catholics, even among HCs such as the present pope, had the same impression. Even though I actually prefer the Missal of Paul VI—at least when Mass according to it is celebrated rubrically and in Latin—I could not help feeling some sympathy for Catholics who objected to the post-Vatican-II devastation of Catholic culture and who, in that spirit, wanted the old Mass back along with much else to which I had been exposed as a young cradle-Catholic.

But when one looks closely at the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, of whose minds "the Roman Magisterium" of the past thirty years has been a very important expression, do we actually find "a pitiless forty-year campaign of extermination against the objective Catholic patrimony and most profound sensibilities of its own faithful"? As a cradle-Catholic with broad and deep experience of Catholic life over five decades, I must say that we find absolutely nothing of the kind. Since the mid-1980s, we find instead not only a clearly expressed awareness of much that was good in the liturgy, devotional life, and art of the pre-Vatican-II Church, but also actions designed expressly to encourage the restoration of that goodness. Admittedly, in those sectors of the Church where prog sensibilities have taken firm root, such encouragement has often fallen on deaf ears and even elicited protest itself. But that is mostly in spite of Rome, not because of her. And much to the consternation of progs, the restoration of sensibility about which Benedict XVI has been so open actually is taking place in many sectors—especially among younger, more intellectual Catholics.

Indeed, I don't think that the HD-HC debate can be plausibly sustained on the salient of esthetics anymore, as important as esthetics are and have always been. The real debate is, and I'm beginning to think always has been, at the level of doctrine. But this is where the hermeneutic of continuity is on firmest ground. Resistance to the discontinuants effectively began with Paul VI himself, in his courageous encyclical Humanae Vitae (1968); even though the widespread rejection of HV left him deeply dispirited, the Resistance has picked up steam in the subsequent papacies. That is why I make my own HC case on doctrinal grounds. And that, I suspect, is why I've seen very little in Ben's work, either in the past or now, that is both expressly designed to rebut the HC case at the doctrinal level and shows sufficient understanding of the history of doctrine to make such a rebuttal plausible. Once we get past an esthetic critique that is steadily becoming outdated, there's no there there.

No doubt Ben and his ilk will believe I'm missing the point. And I probably am missing the point. I think that what Ben and his ilk really want is what scholars of religion are wont to call "the re-enchantment of the world," with "the" Church leading the way. I am very sympathetic to that. Ever since the "dis-enchantment" of the world started taking hold with the rise of modern science and secularism, human sensibility has been slowly and steadily starved of that transcendent Beauty which alone can satisfy the human soul. The Catholic Church has not arrested that process and, at times, has been complicit in it. The devastation that ensued on Vatican II made the problem worse still. Perhaps the world is now so far down the road of disenchantment that there's no respite save in some ornate world of liturgy, devotion, or mysticism. That would explain why rad-trads like Ben become Orthodox. But explanation is not the same as necessitation. There is always hope in the barque of Peter.
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