The Beauty of Tradition

“Traditional” Catholics have all the best stories and music and art, if for no other reason than that moral indifference does not a drama make.

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The divide in our Church between people who believe in the richness and the rightness of her theological tradition and those who do not is, in many ways, not an equal divide. The inequality should be a comfort to those who hold, as I do, that the casual dismissal of past customs and hard-won and well-defined truths is foolish, even if all you want is what a canny politician would want—that is, success.

Set aside the issue of what is true. One distinguishing feature—I see this divide going back into my youth, when young priests and sisters preached “values clarification” with an air of those too sophisticated for definition—is that the traditional believers hold that there is such a thing as moral truth, while the others do their best to skirt the matter. That, I think, is not mere bad faith. It is a failure to see virtue as a life-giving dynamism and vice as immediately and inevitably deadening. 

Everyone knows that leukemia does what it does; no one says that the difference between a red blood cell and a white blood cell is culturally determined. But sin is like a disease, and deadly sin is like a deadly disease, though God may delay or dull its effects. Would you trust your health to a doctor who does not believe in health and sickness? Whose beliefs about these things come merely from what is popular at the time? Who says that though he may get present diagnoses wrong, he is really excellent at prophetic visions of what shall be considered an illness? 

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Why then trust your soul to a spiritual director who does not believe in the real and personal threat of sin? To a confidence man, clapping you on the back and telling you that you’re all right after all, when your heart tells you that you are not?

Forget about how ineffective it is. Consider how silly it is to be a director with no direction, while you gesture vaguely toward what you are confident is going to be, if only those noisome believers can be gotten out of the way. You end up sounding like a Right Reverend Ralph Kramden, trying to hawk the Truth of the Future.

“Can it core a apple?” asks Brother Norton.

“It can core a apple!” stammers Father Ralph.

The vagueness is like a noxious spreading mist. When you don’t have a firm grasp on what simply is good and what simply is evil, but resolve them into pleasant or unpleasant attitudes, you won’t be likely to write the greatest novels or direct the greatest films. Sigrid Undset could not be a vague “I’m OK, You’re OK” modern church lady and still write Kristin Lavransdatter, The Master of Hestviken, and all the other golden works she has given us. Georges Bernanos could not be vague about the soul-threatening power of evil, whether the cold moralistic kind (The Diary of a Country Priest) or the vitiated sensualist kind (Monsieur Ouine).

Flannery O’Connor could not shrug her shoulders at the flattering lies that modern man tells about himself and still give us the deadly battle between the bland schoolteacher Rayber and the ferociously wicked and potentially prophetic young Tarwater (The Violent Bear It Away).

In other words, “traditional” Catholics have all the best stories, if for no other reason than that moral indifference (in anything intensely personal, such as sex, for example) does not a drama make.

What of the other arts? What has most baffled me about the miserable saga of Marko Rupnik is not that such a monster could exist. Monstrous evil is common enough in human history. But the stubborn persistence of awful taste is something else; it is not like hammering someone else’s foot, but like hammering one’s own, deliberately, over and over. Somehow, there were still people in high ecclesiastical places who thought that Rupnik’s soulless pseudo-primitive human figures were capable of moving anybody.  

There was a time when the pseudo-primitive was all the rage, like beating bongo drums or wearing Birkenstocks. Those days are gone, and good riddance to them. Such art somehow fit the facelessness of modernist architecture. But every church and every Catholic school built from 1965 to the present, except for those built by people who loved architectural tradition, is a dull place, inspiring nobody, and likely, by now, springing leaks in the roof and sporting mildew on the drywall.

Then we come to music. New cantatas by Johann Sebastian Bach used to be heard every week, one after another, in the main Lutheran churches in Leipzig, though the people seem not to have been aware that the greatest titan of composition was in their midst. It was not, I have been advised by a historian of music, that the people were dull, but rather, that the quality of sacred music in Germany was so high that it was hard for them to see Bach as soaring above the rest. There was a time when polyphonic motets of the most piercing beauty were not only to be heard in every large Catholic church in Europe, but were performed by choirs whose highest and most salient parts were sung by mere children. 

To sink from Palestrina and Bach, Tallis and Purcell, Handel and Haydn, Mozart and Mendelssohn to the clumsy melodies and the inept poetry and dubious theology of the songsters that fill our hymnals is like dropping from Michelangelo to paint-by-number pictures of the Holy Family on black velvet, with smiley faces. It will not do for those who scorn the tradition to say that musical tastes change, as if we did not know that; nor will it do for them to accuse us of “elitism,” as if aesthetic beauty were not an objective fact, and as if the sacred music of the past were not itself intimately bound up with the noblest folk traditions of the various Christian peoples. Bad art cannot endure, and once the cultural anomaly that produces the bad art has ceased to exist, the bad art fades into oblivion, and people wonder how it ever came to be taken seriously.

But this unwillingness to address the facts regarding the quality of sacred art and music is related to an unwillingness to address facts in other matters too. You cannot then argue well; you will instead lapse into emotional appeals and emotional condemnations. Examples are ready to hand. I express no opinion regarding how many people ought to be permitted to immigrate to the United States in a given year, and from which places they ought to be chosen. The question requires careful study of the pertinent laws, economic effects, cultural influence, crime rates, and so forth, and I am aware that I do not possess the facts.  

But what strikes me about the “liberal” Catholic opinion is that it appears not to spring from careful study; what the facts actually are seems not to matter. The same may be said about flippant comments regarding the death penalty. I hold no brief for capital punishment. I can imagine a just society with it or without it, and an unjust society with it or without it. But when the “liberal” says we can protect people from murderers by locking them up for life, I am struck again by a refusal to look at the facts. Murderers do sometimes kill other prisoners, or guards, or cooks, or other prison workers; or they are released, to kill again; or they order murders from behind bars. I do not justify the death penalty. I simply note that when such facts are brought up, those who scorn the tradition ignore them. What strikes me about the “liberal” Catholic opinion is that it appears not to spring from careful study; what the facts actually are seems not to matter. Tweet This

They do not want to do the hard intellectual work. We are not talking about John Henry Newman, or Ronald Knox, or Fulton Sheen—whose first book, God and Intelligence in Modern Philosophy, is both brilliant and thoroughly engaged with skeptical, empiricist, and idealist philosophers of the first rank. We are talking about lightweights. I imply nothing about natural talents or brain power. 

When you are not interested in the actual arguments someone makes, because the pursuit of truth at all costs does not excite you, you do not sharpen your mind; and lassitude sets in. So those who love tradition must have all the strong arguments and must attract the most powerful minds, if only because the attitude of those on the other side hamstrings the intellect. If it does not matter whether an argument is coherent but only whether the person making it has the authority to demand that you accept it, then expect the argument to be coherent only occasionally and by happenstance.

That is also the case when we look at Scripture, because the word of God presents us with truths that sometimes appear incompatible. St. Paul tells us that in Christ there is neither male nor female, and then he says that wives should obey their husbands. To suppose that he was merely bowing to cultural pressure, or that he did not notice a contradiction, or that we have two different writers here, is to take the easy way out. But to take both statements as true is to require that we think hard about equality, what it means, how it is made manifest in a Christian life, and whether it is quite the ultimate virtue that our own culture takes it to be. 

Or when Jesus says that it is harder for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God, while His parable of the Prodigal Son presupposes a man wealthy enough to divide his living between his two sons, it will not do simply to say that Jesus was either way engaging in a figure of speech. We have to do the hard work of taking both truths and taking them fully, in the former case even urgently, rather than attempting to split a difference or smuggle one away under cover.

Here we come to education itself. All the movement in founding new schools and colleges, Catholic and otherwise, is in the direction of recovering traditions and being fructified by them anew. The old “new” ways, within the Church and without, have led to a dead end. What the brightest young people want, sometimes without having the words to express it, is something radically different from twelve years of schooling as the drab world about them conducts it, not just more of the same but with a dollop of vague spirituality and a Mass on Sunday. 

Consider the firepower of Augustine, the acute and careful reasoning of Thomas Aquinas, the unforgettable poetic visions of Dante and Shakespeare, and the vast and varied array of Catholic and Christian thinkers, artists, poets, and statesmen, largely ignored or traduced at colleges that have lost their charism—Duns Scotus, Fra Angelico, Camoens, Undset, Caravaggio, Manzoni, Ruskin, Sienkiewicz, Dr. Johnson, Chrétien de Troyes, and so many more, from all manner of cultures, over the course of centuries. What on earth do the modernist curricula have to offer that is nearly as powerful or interesting?

One final consideration. We must do our work because it is good in itself, and good for mankind. Celebration is attractive. Work hard, then, and celebrate, and the people will take notice.

[Image: The Sacrifice of Isaac, Caravaggio]


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