Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Saturday, June 08, 2024

Guest Post: Is there really an "anarchic" character to modern Catholicism?

19 years ago today, a 26 year old wrote a post entitled "Kick-off" in these virtual pages, declaring his intention to try his hand at blogging. It's odd to think how long this blog has been a part of our lives, but one of the very best things about it is having made a number of friends whom we met here.

One of those is named Agnes and writes from Hungary (where she was once kind enough to host our eldest for a couple days during her semester in Europe.)  She sent an email in response to my recent post on "The Anarchic Character of Modern Catholicism" which struck me as detailed and thoughtful enough to be a good guest post on its own, and so with her permission I post it below:

This is about my fifth attempt to reflect on your latest blog posts - so many thoughts are jumbling in my head that I couldn't pick what to write about. However, I decided to tackle the main point of your post rather than the whole background situation of Catholicism in our age, and the state of the Western society as a whole, which would rapidly grow into The Life, The Universe and Everything (and I couldn't just make it into Forty-two). 

I'll try to summarize your message.  

You state that Catholicism in the US in the post-Vatican II era has become anarchic as well as conservative and orthodox. This happened as a reaction to the liberalization after Vatican II that involved the clergy and the formulation and teaching of the faith itself, so faithful Catholics began to self-educate and rely on themselves rather than the clergy and the institutions of the Church.

The positive result is the existence of very well educated, active people creating "vibrant ministries", and the danger is that people may become ng mislead by "hucksters and kooks" and may go down "some very strange rabbit holes". 

 While we are used to the thought that progressive Catholics are "individualistic, with people wanting to believe that the Church will change to adopt their views on whatever issues." However, Orthodox Catholics are also individualistic (you called it anarchistic) in the sense that they still feel they may be more right about the true teaching (or the true Catholic viewpoint, the true Catholic prayer, liturgy, role in society, whatever) than the official and institutionalized Church. 

At the same time, Orthodox Catholics wish the Church as an institution to teach the truth decisively and to distinguish truth from error. Therefore, you imply, we should "hand the control back to them" - but we're "used to the idea that the self-trained layman is often going to be more faithful than the person who went through the Diocesan-approved masters in theology". 

By now, you say the bishops of priests of "our own generation" are more and more in position in the institutionalized Church [implied, they are of the group of Orthodox/traditionalist Catholics who would do better than the immediate post-Vatican II clergy] and they try to realize "better catechesis and liturgy" through "institutional enforcement" - which is in a way what you wanted, and yet it results in the inevitable backlash of institutionalization, like when an attempt at quality control prioritizes the formal requirement of attending a teaching course to being a trustworthy Orthodox Catholic who practices NFP and family life in a committed way, and so is a witness as well as a teacher (as Pope Paul VI said). 

If I understand correctly, you conclude by stating that the best of the core of the Catholic community has an "anarchistic streak" deeply embedded in their character - a reluctance to rely on the appointed leaders. Your word choice suggests that this is a bad thing, and you imply that you don't really know the right way forward/towards healing. 

I have a few thoughts that reflect on all this. 

1. I'm not sure that "anarchistic" is the right way to describe the Catholics who are faithful to the Orthodoxy and tradition and this commitment is realized in self-education and thinking for themselves. Do they, in fact, cause anarchy? If I understand correctly (and since I think you and I both belong to this group, I speak from the inside too), we are trying to the best of our ability to acknowledge the sacred position of Bishops and the Pope and the institutionalized Church, to listen to them as much as we can, to be loyal to them in spite of seeing their faults. 

On a side note, we have been lucky for having had quite committed and saintly Popes for all our lives and most of the lives of our parents too (from the Vatican II popes onward). I include Pope Francis in that too, even if I have some problems in how he relates to the modern world (and the circles that have the reins of the whole Church in their hand - I'm not at all sure they are the same type as the ones you mention in regard to the Church in the US). At the same time, there have been official Church leaders who morally left a lot to be desired: in Hungary, collaborators with the Communist system; in the US, those liberalist ones and the people involved in the pedophile etc. scandals who scandalize the faithful and should deserve the proverbial millstone around their necks. 

Back to the main idea, I don't think you and I and the groups we identify with are anarchistic in any of the usual sense. We do not desire, we do not bring about anarchy. We do not have anarchy in our personal lives and in our family lives as a consequence of being self-taught and taking responsibility for our own (and our children's) grounding in the doctrine etc. Is individualistic the right word? I'm not even sure it is the case, not in the sense of the progressives you described. I don't think we mean to be so, at any rate. However, it is very difficult not to conflate our own cultural background, preferences, society subgroups' values, political ideology or our own spiritual movement within the Church (!) with the Christian doctrine, and from the very best motivation even, trying to enforce it all on everyone else as if it was the core of Catholicism. We are, after all, of the intellectual elite. Not to do so requires a great deal of intellectual honesty and repeated self-examination with the express purpose of uncovering any such tendencies. And this is very uncomfortable. 

And so come people like this Harrison Butker who says that the Traditional Latin Mass is an essential requirement [I have a much worse opinion of his speech as a whole, but let's see it in the best possible light for now] or that women who have just graduated should rather think about becoming homeschooling mothers because that's their true vocation. Or that even NFP is wrong as such. 

Not to be sidetracked, my point is that we might be individualistic when we try to prioritize some aspect of Catholicism that isn't the whole and hold it up as the only way. On the other hand, we still are community-centric rather than individualists, for the most part. 

I think I'd describe the quality you refer to as self-reliant, taking responsibility for themselves and being committed to finding the truth by thinking and researching rather than just listening to "teachers". I will, after all, quote the whole Pope Paul VI saying (I suspect you will have heard it too, I grew up with it since my early teens): 

 "Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses". 

My opinion is that this is not necessarily as bad a thing as your word choice implies. For one thing, the whole society and cultural paradigm has undergone a great change, in particular on the issue of how individuals and community are viewed. Individual, personal decisions and commitment has become more important, more in focus than before (as opposed to following authority and norms and what the "sages" tell us to do). 

In the traditional world, a community was usually prioritized over the individual; in Old Testament era, they were almost conflated. Israel is both Jacob himself, and the people growing from his loins. In the story of Abraham and Isaac, the story writer doesn't even think (nor does he expect his audience to think) about Isaac carrying on his back the wood that is intended for burning him as a sacrifice. It's Abraham's sacrifice and trial, not Isaac's. He is an accessory. (We may imagine his participating in the sacrifice in filial obedience and thus being the symbol of the Son giving himself in sacrifice in obedience to the will of the Father, but it just isn't in the text, it's an interpretation, however legitimate. I'm digressing again, sorry.) 

Then there is the situation where, in the past, whole groups of people were baptized together because the King or the tribe chief was converted by the missionary. At least, this is how the story goes about Hungarians becoming Christian (around 1000 AD) because our King was a Christian and decreed that the people should be, too. And as they embraced the faith in a while, they became one of the "Christian nations" - so it was for the Lithuanians, Poles, and if I understand correctly, it happened similarly to many natives in other continents as well. 

And authority was differently viewed too. Everyone in the Middle Ages believed that the authority of the Monarch came from being God's Anointed. I'm sure you are familiar with the idea so I won't expand on it any more. However, even as nations and societies were Christian/Catholic, individual people, and even individual leaders weren't necessarily committed people in the same personally committed way you and I would expect. The whole background of society promoted some ideas that were in accord with Christianity, and pushed some others in the background (hence, Christian nations putting up with slavery, social inequalities, less-than-human treatment of servants, marriage becoming a business arrangement and the wow of fidelity just a formality for whoever could get away with adulterous liaisons etc.). Because of the general idea about authority, obedience and the less important role on individual responsibility, many people were ready to overlook the faults that caused scandals (until some weren't, and so came the Reformation and other problems). I know I am simplifying things, but what I mean is that contrary to these attitudes in the past, in our age, we are expected (and also, enabled) to responsibly nurture our faith, be personally committed to our Catholic faith (and not just go to Confirmation because it's the expected family celebration and coming of age step like getting a driving licence). Other ages had different temptations and pitfalls in the Christian spiritual life, and different things in society that helped them. We have this opportunity to individually develop and the challenge to still keep up the respect for tradition and the respect/obedience to clerical authority. I think it's not necessarily a bad thing if our reliance on them is different from other ages' reliance on them. We have to find a way to be the People of God according to the images Vatican II sets before us - and still being anchored in the tradition that the post-Council era tried to throw out of the window as no longer relevant.

The examples when I saw this working - admittedly, on a small scale, so I can't say how this could work on a national level, or for the whole Church - were when Catholic communities as networks were connected through in personal relationships with each other, and they also were familiar (yes, exactly, and it doesn't breed contempt - the phrase was quite incorrectly used by Butker!) with the priests and bishops who were, in a way, one of their own. This may work at parish level, or diocese level, and at the level of spiritual movements. 

I have a closing thought to offer that gives me hope: the Cornerstone who is also the stumbling stone is Christ himself. As long as we are in Him and focus on our relationship with Him rather than on ideology, religion, tradition, reforming society, or any other institutionalized or formalized goal, we will have a living Church around us. If we want to build a powerful and influential Church, even for the sake of reforming society, we don't build the building around the Cornerstone, and so we will end up stumbling (see 1 Peter 2:7-8). 

I suppose I have said a great deal that you know very well too. It wasn't my intention to preach or to pretend I know all the answers to the difficult questions you raised. I have a somewhat different perspective because of my different experiences in Hungary, but the same ideals and commitment. I hope that it makes sense to you, and looking at the picture from this angle helps overcoming the insecurity and negative feelings that you mentioned. 

All the best, 



Bellomy said...

Respectfully, Agnes, even in your attempt to be charitable, I don't think you accurately represented Butker's speech.

1) You characterize Butker saying that "women who have just graduated should rather think about becoming homeschooling mothers because that's their true vocation." I think this is, again, half true about what he said. He did not tell them that's their true vocation. He told them to CONSIDER that that's their true vocation, because the culture is lying to them that this is some sort of lesser vocation. And he's right!

2) While Butker used the word "essential" to describe the traditional latin Mass, there is again a charitable and uncharitable way to read it. Butker did not say that Masses besides the TLM are not valid; he instead explains that he believes it is the best way to worship God, and that people should be prioritizing the best way to worship God; in that sense, the TLM is essential. Now, you can push back against that, say with eastern Catholic liturgies (though I bet if you did Butker would be perfectly happy with those as well), but it is a little different than implying people who don't attend a TLM are lesser Catholics.

And frankly while I do not go to a TLM I think as advice it is perfectly valid. The TLM IS better than the Novus ordo, objectively more beautiful and more reverent.

3) Butker's talk about Catholic birth control can be uncharitably read to be against all types of NFP, but even the Church condemns a "contraceptive mentality" when using NFP. You accuse him of condemning ALL NFP, but I don't know if the text of the speech supports that interpretation.

Agnes said...

I am sorry yyou feel that I don't accurately represent Butker's speech. I used it as an example of presenting some elements of Catholicism, some spiritual movement as the core of Catholicism that should be followed by everyone. The TLM in his speech is one of those points.
I appreciate that Butker sees the TLM as "the best way to worship God", but he even says that it is the way God wants to be worshipped. I respectfully disagree with this. Firstly, because the liturgy of the Church has evolved throughout the life of the Church. The Tridentine Rite of the Mass was established at the time of the Council of Trent so the Church worshipped legitimately in different ways for one and a half millennium before. Secondly, because I don't think a Council like Vatican II could have introduced significant changes that are contrary to God's will. Since the Council Vatican II changed the Missal it is a valid way to celebrate the Mass and not something God doesn't really agree with. I also disagree that people should "pick a place to move where [TLM] is readily available". If someone is moved to do so, all to the good, but other life circumstances also quite legitimately determine where we live. These are exaggerations that show Butker's personal conviction and preference, not "the" Catholic teaching.
I concede the point about NFP because Butker really is ambiguous about what he criticizes. The issue of women's vocation is too complex to discuss it here, and it is true Butker doesn't actually tell women what to do.

Anonymous said...

Bellomy here. When I wrote on a phone I can never log in properly.

In fact, you are quite wrong about Vatican II changing the Mass in the way you say. Sancrosanctum Concilium certainly outlined some recommended changes but the wholesale change to an entirely new Mass was never recommended nor suggested by the text. In fact the Novus Ordo was created AFTER Vatican II.

I think there is a core to his point that is affirmable, and that is that we need to prioritize our decisions based on what we think God wants us to do. It need not be the only factor to consider, but it does need to be a factor, and the liturgy in this case matters.

Like you I actually don't consider the TLM an essential component of Catholicism and while I do love it it is not my normal Sunday Mass. So I do appreciate your point! I think, though, that he does make a larger point, thatI do agree with - you can't,t just divorce things like a good liturgy or finding the best way to worship God from your life choices. And if Butler finds the TLM that spiritually fulfilling, he is right to move to be near it.

Agnes said...

I think this discussion highlights one of my points: how difficult it is to distinguish between being a witness to what I find spiritually fulfilling among the treasures that are to be found in Catholicism, and saying that it should be everyone's choice. I quite agree with you that we need to try to discover God's will and prioritize it when making our life choices rather than pushing it back behind all sorts of worldly concerns. Butker was a powerful witness to how he and his wife live according to God's will as they discover it in their lives - but in some aspects (it seemed to me at least, as I read his speech) it gave the impression that everyone should make these choices the way he did, even if he didn't actually say it in so many words.

Bellomy said...

My mind goes to certain things that certain Saints say about things like particular Marian devotions, such as the Rosary, or certain Scapular devotions, or things like monthly Confession.

You will often read Saints talk about these things like if you don't do them, you might as well be damning yourself - I recall a story of an old woman who supposedly received a vision of Mary holding her up out of Hell by the Rosary, symbolizing the single Rosary she had said the previous day, and all of her other prayers were not enough to save her.

This is, of course, strictly speaking wrong, but Saints like, say, Lous de Montfort will often speak in this way to emphasize the point that we shouldn't be taking our salvation lightly, and we have these easy to access and simple to use tools RIGHT THERE, to the point it would be neglectful not to use them. Or something along those lines.

My point is that this sort of exaggerated language, while not true when using the strict sense of words like essential, is very common in Catholicism even among our Saints. Therefore when I see something like "The Latin Mass is essential" I tend to view it in the same way as "The Rosary is essential": It isn't, strictly speaking, but I do get the point.