Monday, 9 March 2009

The hermaneutic of suspicion, private judgment and the neo-con fightback

Extracts from a talk from a couple of years back by the excellent Abbot of Fontgambault, Dom Forgeot, have been doing the rounds of a number of email lists in the last few days, and hooks neatly into a much bigger debate on the legitimacy of traditionalism that has been rumbling around the net for a while now.

I'll come back to the abbot's comments in a minute, but first let me set the scene.

Facing up to the Benedictine revolution

One of the great positives of the last year has been the increasing momentum behind the liturgical revolution (or restoration if you prefer) initiated by Pope Benedict XVI. There haven't been many new dioceses with every Sunday EF masses. But there has been a steady increase in the number of EF masses being said. Quietly so as not to draw too much undue attention from less than supportive bishops and laity in some cases - but happening all the same.

We've seen things like the recent success of the Wangaratta community in gaining first a monthly and now a twice monthly EF mass. There has been a workshop to teach Victorian seminarians the EF. Many more bishops have stepped up to the plate and said the traditional mass.

And this, combined with the increased solemnity of papal masses is it is having an effect on the way novus ordo masses are said, and attitudes to traditions generally. Devotions and practices once despised are once again acceptable.

None of this is happening without a fight of course. Resistance from liberals is to be expected.

But perhaps the greater problem is the backwards somersault with a triple twist that many neo-conservatives are having to do. As ultramontanists, of course, they are eager to take up the Pope's teaching. All the same, it is hard for them to reconcile some of the positions they are now taking with the traddie bashing they have engaged in for the last forty years.

So redefine the terms...

One particular coping strategy seems to be to redefine just what a traditionalist is to suit their cause. Instead of accepting that there has actually been a large group of people who have never left the Church in any sense, never exhibited any 'schismatic tendencies', fought the good fight to the proper limits but obeyed even when doing so meant to suffer, the term traditionalist is now being redefined - by neocons - as meaning sedevacentist, or the more extreme fringes of the SSPX.

1. Traditionalists are not sedevacentists

The Catholic Thing, for example, has had two quite good pieces in the last few weeks, one on the recovery of Latin, one ad orientem. But they had to go and spoil it with this little dozy:

"...I recently came across the website of Most Holy Family Monastery in Fillmore, New York. The “traditionalists” there take the insolitus position that Benedict XVI is a heretic...The view of the Holy Family website suggests, as Jaroslav Pelikan once remarked, that whereas tradition is “the living faith of the dead,” traditionalism is often “the dead faith of the living.”"

When I looked up the Monastery of the Most Holy Family (as I'd never heard of it) it turned out to be a bunch of sedes! Now to describe a group who explicitly reject Peter as traditionalists (no matter how they describe themselves) frankly boggles the mind.

2. Traditionalists are not all members of the SSPX!

And then there was another one. Jeff Mirus on Catholic Culture came up with this definition:

"In using the word “Traditionalist”, I mean someone who insists on his own understanding of certain aspects of Catholic tradition to the point of disobeying the disciplinary directives of the Holy See or of denying the recent Magisterium of the Church—or someone who generally supports and allies himself with those guilty of these excesses."

I've got news for Jeff. 'Traditionalists' like the FSSP, the traditional religious orders recognized by the Church, and many laity do not disobey the disciplinary directives of the Holy See or deny the recent Magisterium. They may, it is true, question the prudence of some discipinary and pastoral directives. They may question the consistency of some of the reformable magisterium with the constant teaching of the Church. But the Church's law specifically allows this. Above all, true traditionalists reject the idea that private judgment is ever the criterion of orthodoxy.

Now I have to admit, there are a few of what I'll call 'SSPX traditionalists' who give the rest of us a bad name. You see them in the comboxes all the time. But they are a noisy minority rather than representative of the vast majority of Catholics who regularly attend an EF mass and describe themselves as traditionalists.

In fact much of Mr Mirus' article isn't too far off the mark - but I did have to laugh at some of his assertions, not least the claim that the Diocese of Arlington has been a model of rectitude (try reading this item from Inside Catholic as a taster on the subject) of some of what traditionalists are reacting to, namely the prevalence of modernism, liturgical abuses and a scandalous laxity in the Church.

The hermeneutic of suspicion

I think it is fair comment though that traditionalists do tend to engage in a hermeneutic of suspicion when it comes to the hierarchy rather than starting from an attitude of obedience and docility. The Abbot of Fontgambault's comments go to this, and worth listening to.

Fontgambault, for those who don't know, is one of the most successful Benedictine monasteries around, with flourishing vocations and several recent foundations (including Clear Creek in the US). It was forced to stop using the TLM for a period in the 1970s pretty much at the point of a threat of excommunication; it went back to the TLM as soon as the 1984 indult permitted. In short, they are the kind of faithful traditionalists I've been talking about.

The abbot said, in 2006:

"I note, here in the States just as in Europe, a kind of suspicion of the authorities in the Church, of bishops and even sometimes of Rome and the Holy Father himself. Such a position is not good. It is, on the pretense of orthodoxy, a tendency towards the free examination of the Protestants, where everyone judges for himself what is good and what is not. Here, we have to cultivate the spirit of good sons, filial spirit...The filial spirit, in accord with the axiom of common law, will always give the superior the benefit of the doubt."

I think the abbot overstates the case somewhat. What we often see strikes me as the sensus fidei in operation, that bone deep instinct of the Church that shudders in the face of error, rather than private judgment. And when we question and challenge authorities in the Church, we are I think doing no more than St Benedict actually allows for in his Rule, which, for example, while requiring obedience to the final decision, encourages the abbot to listen to the advice of all before making that decision, and suggests that visitors to the abbey with criticisms to make may have been sent with a message from God!

And above all, there is an important difference in the type of obedience owed by a monk to his abbot, and by the laity to their priests and bishops: the laity have not taken a solemn vow of obedience.

Getting the balance right

All the same, there is something in what he says, and in the end, I think it is all a matter of balance. We should start from an attitude that avoids judgment, that presumes the best. But when we have concerns we have, as Canon Law 212 affirms, the right, even the duty at times to make our needs and views known.

There is a certain irony I have to say in finding in the same email publicizing the Catholic Culture article above, a link to a post by Diogenes - specifically inviting us to question our bishops when they do or say particularly dangerous things.

The particular case is an example of exactly the failure of the hierarchy to defend Catholic moral teaching that I referred to in my post on International Women's Day, relating to the Boston Archdiocese's involvement in a contract to provide abortion and related services through a third party.

The thrust of the article though, goes to my point today. It is entitled 'Rex Mottram, Model for the Catholic Laity'. Mottram, you might recall, was a character in Brideshead Revisited who converts to catholicism in the interests of marrying Julia. There is a wonderful scene, which Diogenes quotes, on the frustration of his instructing priest:

"Then again I asked him: 'Supposing the Pope looked up and saw a cloud and said "It's going to rain," would that be bound to happen?' 'Oh, yes, Father.' 'But supposing it didn't?' He thought a moment and said, 'I suppose it would be sort of raining spiritually, only we were too sinful to see it.'"

Neocons would have us all be Rex Mottrams.

At the moment, we can at least rejoice that they are at last grasping the nettle when it comes to the liturgy. But in the longer run, both neocons and traditionalists need to move positions somewhat - away from a hermeneutic of suspicion, and to a respect for legitimate debate and diversity.

There is a way to go yet though, in terms of clearing out the augean stables, before that can realistically happen. In the meantime traddies probably just need to grit their teeth to stop themselves from saying repeatedly 'I told you so'.

1 comment:

Stephen said...

I am a traditionalist but I am certainly not a neo-conservative. I would depart from the conservatives on a number of issues, but I hold to the Catechism of the Catholic Church on all.