Friday, 26 July 2013

In praise of small families: The feast of SS Joachim and Anna

Today in the Ordinary Form and the traditional Benedictine calendar it is the feast of SS Joachim and Anna, parents of Our Lady.  In the Extraordinary Form it is the feast of St Anna alone.

Perhaps this feast provides a suitable occasion to reflect on what I personally think traditionalism is and isn't about.

In the last few weeks, there have been more than a few attacks on traditionalists, the latest running the 'there are anti-semites in our ranks' flag up the pole yet again.

Unfortunately, in response a number of traditionalist blogs and websites have presented what seems to me to be close to a caricature of a traditionalist in response.

Apparently, to be a real traditionalist woman one must be an amish-style dressing/mantilla wearing mother of at least six children who homeschools; to be a real traddie male, one must be a pipe-smoking creationist and who takes rejects the concept of the time cost of money (interest rates) and other such newfangled notions.

So let me just for a moment try and poke a few holes in this picture, and suggest where our thought and action might, in my opinion, better be directed!

Faux traditions

First, let me suggest that many of the things mentioned above may well be views and practices open to Catholics to adopt, may well even be good and pious customs.  But - and feel free to disagree - in my view there is nothing inherently traditional about may of them.  Let me give a few examples.

Head covering for women

Mantillas (aka chapel veils), for example, are a sixteenth century Spanish practice that spread to the European aristocracy and some other European cultures and their colonies.  But by the early twentieth century, even in Spain, the mantillas typically only came out for weddings and other special occasions.

And before Vatican II, in Australia at least, most women (post war migrants from some particular countries aside) wore hats to Mass.

Before that, bonnets were the thing (think of that flying nun style headgear that reflected french peasant wear?).

Now the modern traditionalist adoption of mantillas is, I think, quite a nice pious custom.  I often wear, for example, for sentimental reasons, a black lace mantilla given to my mother by her's.  But my grandmother brought it back as a find from a European trip in the early 1960s, and when my mother first wore it to Mass, it met with decided disapproval in her (Irish dominated) parish (scarves, too, I gather were regarded as an emergency measure that were 'not the done thing'!).

So while head covering for women in Church is a long-held tradition, and was part of Church law until recent decades, mantillas per se are not.

Moreover, we need to keep the whole head gear issue in a broader cultural perspective.  Until recently, women didn't just wear hats to Church, they wore them everywhere both because of cultural norms about modesty and for purely practical reasons (viz the absence of modern heating and aircon!).  Accordingly, given that the historic associations with, and practical reasons for, women's headgear have become entirely alien, not to say alienating, to our culture (unless you are a Muslim), I don't think it should actually be compulsory (or de facto compulsory courtesy of well-meaning 'helpers' in the congregation).

Homeschooling is not a right

There is a similar issue with homeschooling.

I understand the reasons why many feel they have no choice but to go this route.

It is worth remembering though, that if you tried to insist on homeschooling your children before Vatican II and the current Code of Canon Law there is a good chance you would have found yourself excommunicated.  That is because under the 1917 Code, Catholics were required to send their children to a Catholic school, however inadequate the education offered there might have been.

The Churches previous insistence on Catholic schools is not new - in fact the Church attempted to establish the first universal schooling system under the Emperor Charlemagne, and monasteries and convents continued to play a key rule in education throughout the middle ages.  Convent schools, moreover, were an important weapon of the counter-reformation.


Thirdly, this particular feast day, when we celebrate a family with only one child, viz Our Lady, serves as a reminder that what we are actually called to do is be obedient to God's will for us (in marriage, or the call to celibacy/virginity for the sake of the kingdom), and that doesn't necessarily mean having fifteen children.

I understand and am sympathetic to the arguments for promoting the joys of large families as a counter to the contraceptive mentality.

But keep in mind that in our times in particular, for some would-be parents the heroism lies in resisting the temptation to use IVF or other immoral interventions in order to have a family.

And it may lie in imitating St Joseph by adopting a child.

Many good Catholic families today create a family by giving a home to those unwanted children from around the world, thus providing a counter to one of the claimed justifications for abortion.

Still others may have no children because they have in fact been called, as some of the great lay saints were, to a Josephite marriage.

Good traditional Catholic families, in other words, come in all shapes and sizes.

So how do we give witness?

It is of course an entirely human tendency to invent membership recognition cues for sub-cultures.

And within certain limits, such cues and practices can be positives.  Large happy families that produce many vocations, for example, are indeed something to be lauded; maintaining traditions like head-covering for women is a good thing if done for the right motives; and care for the proper education of one's child is indeed a vital parental duty.  And we do need to be conscious of the need for modesty in a society that often seems to have lost all sense of it.

But we should never, in my view, loose sight of the fact that our real witness should flow not from pious practices, however helpful they may be, but from our orientation to heaven, and our love of God and neighbour.  I'll say more about what I think this implies for what traditionalism if put into practice today might really look like in some subsequent posts, but let me set the scene by putting before you the wonderful, in my view timeless, commentary on properly Christian forms of witness contained in the Letter to Diognetes (circa 130 AD):

"Christians are indistinguishable from other men either by nationality, language or customs. They do not inhabit separate cities of their own, or speak a strange dialect, or follow some outlandish way of life. Their teaching is not based upon reveries inspired by the curiosity of men. Unlike some other people, they champion no purely human doctrine. With regard to dress, food and manner of life in general, they follow the customs of whatever city they happen to be living in, whether it is Greek or foreign. 

And yet there is something extraordinary about their lives. They live in their own countries as though they were only passing through. They play their full role as citizens, but labor under all the disabilities of aliens. Any country can be their homeland, but for them their homeland, wherever it may be, is a foreign country. Like others, they marry and have children, but they do not expose them. They share their meals, but not their wives.  

They live in the flesh, but they are not governed by the desires of the flesh. They pass their days upon earth, but they are citizens of heaven. Obedient to the laws, they yet live on a level that transcends the law. Christians love all men, but all men persecute them. Condemned because they are not understood, they are put to death, but raised to life again. They live in poverty, but enrich many; they are totally destitute, but possess an abundance of everything. They suffer dishonor, but that is their glory. They are defamed, but vindicated. A blessing is their answer to abuse, deference their response to insult. For the good they do they receive the punishment of malefactors, but even then they, rejoice, as though receiving the gift of life. They are attacked by the Jews as aliens, they are persecuted by the Greeks, yet no one can explain the reason for this hatred. 

To speak in general terms, we may say that the Christian is to the world what the soul is to the body. As the soul is present in every part of the body, while remaining distinct from it, so Christians are found in all the cities of the world, but cannot be identified with the world. As the visible body contains the invisible soul, so Christians are seen living in the world, but their religious life remains unseen. The body hates the soul and wars against it, not because of any injury the soul has done it, but because of the restriction the soul places on its pleasures. Similarly, the world hates the Christians, not because they have done it any wrong, but because they are opposed to its enjoyments. 

Christians love those who hate them just as the soul loves the body and all its members despite the body's hatred. It is by the soul, enclosed within the body, that the body is held together, and similarly, it is by the Christians, detained in the world as in a prison, that the world is held together. The soul, though immortal, has a mortal dwelling place; and Christians also live for a time amidst perishable things, while awaiting the freedom from change and decay that will be theirs in heaven. As the soul benefits from the deprivation of food and drink, so Christians flourish under persecution. Such is the Christian’s lofty and divinely appointed function, from which he is not permitted to excuse himself."  


R J said...

I am all in favour of homeschooling as a general 21st-century rule, and have expressed in print my esteem for it. But this blog post suggests that in the matter of homeschooling - as in the matter of mantillas - we're seeing, rightly or wrongly, a certain "invention of tradition" at work ...

(While the phrase "invention of tradition" appears to have been invented by that vile Marxist Eric Hobsbawm, even vile Marxists can say useful things occasionally.)

Kate Edwards said...


I'm not necessarily against such invention - all communities tend to create their own practices as mutual recognition flags and community binding methods.

And practices can reinforce genuine traditions and eventually become them.

In the face of the dismantling of most of the things that clearly identified catholics, like fish on Fridays, the search for new practices or variants on existing ones isn't that surprising.

I have to admit I have my reservations on homeschooling though - wouldn't we be better off putting our effort into creating our own schools, or reforming the systemic ones in which so much money and effort has been invested?

I still greatly value the effect on my own formation of some my own teachers, and even the ones I didn't like and felt I learnt nothing subject matter-wise from, I did learn useful coping and survival skills from the contact!

A Canberra Observer said...

thank you for this post. I think you touch on some important points, of where those who are attached to tradition can go to extremes - tending perhaps to extreme idealism instead of moderate realism, and eschewing the use of reason and reasonableness in much the same way as fundamentalist protestants do.

I also felt unease at the Rorate's extolling of the large family as the singular mark of the Catholic family. There are many reasons couples do not have many children, and I think there is a tendency to infer motives when there may be none - in the west at least infertility (recognised/diagnosed or not) is I suspect increased relative to the past.

On a societal level I was shocked by one poster who blithely and glibly stated that "Dad just has to work harder". Sadly, even if many fathers wanted to do this it would be virtually impossible to work sufficiently, and with what other effect on the family? The structure of societies in the west has slid a long way from Leo XIII's and Pius IX's admonitions for just wages that enable a father to reasonably support his family. The laws and fabric of society have made this very, very difficult (think of the difficulty of mandatory child seats up to seven years old meaning 2 cars or an expensive >5 seater if you have more than 3 children).

A Canberra Observer said...

p.s. that should be 3 or more - many 5 seater cars becomes a 4 seater with child seats.

Kate Edwards said...

CO - While I agree with your sentiment about 'just work harder', in Australia at least, it is not just wage rates we need to look at. The reality is Family Tax payments seem, on the face of it, very generous indeed, at up to $224 per fortnight plus large family supplement plus per family payment. Add to that things like the previous extremely generous (though now much reduced) baby bonus, and you can see why Australia doesn't have much of a child poverty problem.

Ronk said...

Whence do you derive your flat assertion that Our Lady was an only child? There is nothing in tradition or legend which asserts this. There is most certainly nothing in recorded contemporary history which asserts this. And it is most certainly not a doctrine of the Catholic faith. In fact the Gospels seem to imply that Cleophas, the father of James, Jude, Simon and Joses, was Our Lady's brother. For all we know, Our Lady may have had a dozen brothers and sisters.

Kate Edwards said...

Ronk - This detail, together with the very name of Our Lady's parents comes from the Protoevangelium of James, a very early document that while not canonical (ie accepted as part of Scripture) does seem to have considerable historical merit. Later theologians have of course suggested other possibilities, but this is the traditional one.