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Traditionalist, not Utopian

St. Thomas MoreWhen discussing the doctrine of the Incarnation of Christ, one is provided with almost limitless material to write about.  Today I would like to talk about an issue that is particularly important, but also particularly difficult  for various reasons.  For the majority of the past 50 years, the traditionalist movement has been associated mainly as a reaction to the crisis in the Church.  Most of the discussion centers around what the Church has lost.

When you center your discussion within these terms, we run the real risk of being utopians.  We run the risk of idolizing those previous times, acting as if they were perfection, or at least pretty close to it.  We long for “simpler” times.  Most importantly, we tend to become pretty bitter that things have collapsed the way they have, and we begin to think things will just continue getting worse.  The more we become marginalized due to these changes, the stronger these impulses become.  If we traditionalists know anything, we know what marginalization feels like.

This kind of attitude will never attract many people towards the traditionalist movement, and our marginalization would just accelerate.  People don’t want to live in an environment where everything is a dystopian.   They want to be told the hard things about sin and the last things.  They don’t want to be told nothing can be done about these things other than whatever the latest private revelation states must be done before the golden age is restored.  Then we find out that our utopian age wasn’t actually that utopian, and that they were struggling with most of the same problems we were.  At that point, get ready for despair.

While this isn’t a problem with the majority of traditionalists, it impacts enough of us to be a problem.  The current approach of most of the commentariat and blogosphere to simply whine and complain about it while offering no alternative won’t do:  it just makes things worse.  Thankfully, we traditionalists already have all the tools we need to solve this problem.  We don’t need catchy buzzwords or cleverly marketed ideas to do it either.  We just need The Incarnation of Jesus Christ.

One of the most dangerous ideas facing Christianity today is that Christ simply became man to give us what we once had in the Garden of Eden and nothing more.  In this the Incarnation is hijacked by the utopian spirit we discussed above.  This kind of spirit has troubled the people of God from the beginning.  Many Jews of Christ’s time were more or less utopians:  they expected the Messiah to overthrow Roman Rule and bring back the great purity of the ancient monarchy.  Christ had far bigger plans than some temporal Kingdom:  He was establishing the eternal heavenly kingdom, with Himself as ruler and mankind ruling in communion with Him.  We know that eternal kingdom on earth through the Catholic Church.

Another way this utopian spirit was present in the Old Testament was that the Jews of their time had mostly given into dystopian thinking about the modern age.  Their independence had ended.  (Even the illegitimate kings were simply vassals of Babylon.)  The old Davidic monarchy was (seemingly) smashed to pieces.  There would be no restoration.

With this lack of hope in mind, it is curious how the prophet Jeremiah records their prayer life.  They plea to “the God who delivered us out of Egypt.”  The people making this claim never lived in Egypt!  They more or less treated God as an absent deity who had not done much for them lately.  To put it bluntly, they were worshiping a dead god.

God instructs Jeremiah that in the New Covenant, God will instead be “the God who lives and has delivered us from the countries of the North.”  (Jeremiah 16:14-15)  He wasn’t a god who was simply a past event, but the one true God who answers their current needs.  They forget that God delivered the first Jews out of Egypt for the purpose of “being their God.”  The message was that God was always with them and to never despair: he would be the answer to their problems.

This deliverance wasn’t just bringing things back to the way they were.  Jeremiah speaks of this deliverance in terms of the New Covenant where not just Jews but men of every nation will acknowledge God.  (Jeremiah 16:19-20)  Christ wasn’t just coming on earth to recreate some earthly paradise.  He was coming to earth to bring us to heaven where we can rule creation with him.  The prophets weren’t Utopians.  The ideal age was and is an age ruled by sin and imperfection.  No matter how good it was, it is not what we should be looking for.

Sometimes I think we traditionalists get far to caught up in the details of this or that crisis in the Church today that we forget why we are fighting.  We become very much like the dystopians of the Old Testament. We aren’t fighting to restore some golden age.  We are fighting to reach the golden age promised to the faithful in Heaven.  If we can use the things of this world and this present age to reach that point, then even better.

We need to remember that not only can God deliver us from the present evils, not only will he deliver us from the present evils, he already has delivered us.  He gives us the Mass, where the cross is made present, and we get the opportunity to place our old selves on that cross with Him.  He delivered us through the sacraments, which help to preserve us from the world.  Provided we stay faithful and walk the noble way of the Cross, we breathe our last and arrive to the Kingdom God has prepared for us before the foundation of the world.  This is what traditionalism is about and needs to always be about.


Kevin Tierney is an Associate Editor of the Learn and Live the Faith Section at Catholic Lane.  He also blogs at http://commmonsensecatholicism.blogspot.com.  You may contact him on Facebook, Google+  or follow him on Twitter @CatholicSmark.
  • James

    The problem with the traditionalist movement is that it can easily become about idealizing the novelties of the 1560s against the novelties of the 1960s. (Notably, a significant number of traditionalists are often associated with nostalgic/utopian political movements as well.)

    The Council of Trent and the Counter-Reformation Church had its place. Its purpose was to stop the spread of Protestantism, which was a reaction against the decadence and excess of the Renaissance Church. The Protestant Reformation was in many ways a reactionary movement—though it is rarely taught this way in the USA—and the Church had to move to counter it. But the Counter-Reformation style was becoming increasingly irrelevant in the modern world. What was once an asset had become a hinderance.

    The Crisis is one not of rejection of old ways, but of how to adapt to a changing world. It is not the first crisis the Church has faced, nor will it be the last. It started long before Vatican II. The biggest issue that the Church has been struggling with is how to engage an increasingly informed, though not necessarily well-formed, laity. The old “we’ll tell you what to believe and how to act and you will believe and obey” discipline of the counterreformation simply won’t work. Finding what will, of course, is the difficult part.

  • Guest

    “The old “we’ll tell you what to believe and how to act and you will believe and obey” discipline of the counterreformation simply won’t work.”

    Really? While I reject the caricature that the pre-Vatican II Church was simply “pray, pay, and obey” as if they were just a bunch of ignorant sheep following their shepherd, how is it that the discipline of the counter-Reformation won’t work? Granted, no age is without its sin and problems and there will be no utopia, but immediately prior to Vatican II the Church was enjoying far more vocations, conversions, baptisms, weddings, etc. So it’s not like it was failing in any sense of the word.

    And jettisoning all of the old disciplines and replacing it with what we have now has turned out to be a complete an utter failure. So what now? Make up some new disciplines out of whole cloth since the counter-Reformation ones don’t work and the new ones are failing today?

    • Almario Javier

      “prior to Vatican II the Church was enjoying far more vocations, conversions, baptisms, weddings, etc.”

      How many of those vocations were sincere, and not just something expected of people who could not (or would not, let’s not kid ourselves) find a spouse, as opposed to a genuine calling to the priesthood? How many of those weddings truly lasted, and did not merely dash to pieces the instant Reagan’s laws took effect, or soon after? Conversions I would not know, but even today the baptisms of adults are certainly not rare, and this becomes more true when you go out into mission country. Let us not forget too that many of the pro-abortion politicians in many countries, especially the older ones, were around as children before the Council, and formed by pre-conciliar clergy and religious.

      At least in the Anglosphere, in many areas the Counter-Reformation disciplines had become caricatures of themselves. Many bishops attempted to stop this – certainly many of the Popes tried – but the situation in the ground was in the West, by the 1950s, largely, yes, “pray, pay and obey” People learned, say, that one was to abstain from meat on Fridays or not use the Pill for contraceptive purposes, but why was often simply, “do as I say or you will go to hell”. This engendered a thinking that “Father is always right”, and that mentality meant when priests after the Council went off their moorings, many just went along. When you don’t explain in detail why the Church does what it does, and simply threaten them, don’t expect resistance when the threat is gone. I agree that Counter-Reformation discipline might work – but only if we disabuse ourselves of the notion that the subtype exercised before the Council was best-practices. Even the Pope Emeritus would be shocked at that suggestion.

      And I would not necessarily characterize the Vatican Council, or any council, as necessary a failure. Perhaps, had it not occured, the Crisis would be worse. Instead of 1 in 20 practicing Catholics in such-and-such a country, the caricatures of Trent (as opposed to actual Trent) would have engendered a situation where only 1 in 40 did.

      • Brennan

        Of course I am not advocating in the least that we have a situation where we don’t explain the faith and our explanation for everything is “because I said so”. I also think the “pray, pay, and obey” is something of a caricature as if the pre-Vatican II Church catechized no one and did not provide or have answers as to why one shouldn’t contracept for instance.

        The idea that things would have been worse if not for the Council I find completely absurd as I’m not one who believes that since one can find an auto-demolition in virtually every area of the Church’s life after Vatican II one can simply blame it all on outside cultural forces. And yes, I’m aware of the “post hoc ergo propter hoc” argument, but that has to be an actual argument and not merely cited as some sort of talisman that wards off any blame from the churchmen who decided it would be a good idea to jettison nearly every traditional aspect of the faith including the liturgy which effects all Catholics everywhere (even those in the religious life and monastic orders).

  • http://www.fromtheabbey.com/ Jeffrey Arrowood

    Your blog post makes a lot of great points Kevin! I especially like your paragraph

    Sometimes
    I think we traditionalists get far to caught up in the details of this
    or that crisis in the Church today that we forget why we are fighting.
    We become very much like the dystopians of the Old Testament. We aren’t
    fighting to restore some golden age. We are fighting to reach the
    golden age promised to the faithful in Heaven. If we can use the things
    of this world and this present age to reach that point, then even
    better. – See more at: http://catholiclane.com/traditionalist-not-utopian/#sthash.ExYUBiKP.dpuf

    Instead
    of complaining about what was lost, I think we need to be voicing the
    solutions. For example, people get really turned off when you start
    saying that they shouldn’t receive the Holy Eucharist in the hand
    because it’s not the prescribed way, because it’s disrespectuful, etc.
    But I’m surprised at how many people are willing to stop and think when
    you talk about receiving Our Eucharistic Lord by mouth because doing it
    that way is completely receptive and is a beautiful reminder that the
    Eucharist is Christ giving himself to us.

    Promote the positives
    and the solutions and lead people to the Golden Age that is to come in
    Christ’s Kingdom. Stop the griping. Again, great message Kevin!?