Saturday, my host family took me to visit the town of Ely, which is near Cambridge where I’m enjoying a short sabbatical. Much of the medieval cathedral and its monastic buildings are still in existence. While I was there, the Worchester Cathedral Chamber Choir offered a short concert of pieces by Elgar, Handel, John Ireland, and others. Afterward, we all had tea. It was a splendid day.
When I first entered the nave, a gentleman stopped to ask me about my Benedictine habit, where I was from, etc. He was a former Anglican priest, now a traditionalist Catholic. His primary question to me was something to this effect: “Why are Catholics so alarmed today?” He was especially bemused about the situation for traditionalists like himself who have more opportunities than at any point in the past fifty years to enjoy the Latin Mass. He also mentioned the Ordinariate which has normalized the use of Anglican forms of the liturgy within the Roman Rite.
I happen to agree with him. Social media is among the culprits for the rise in anxiety, agitation, and so on. But, as I suggested two years ago, I also think that this trend in inherent in our tendency to rely exclusively on manipulative persuasion instead of rational argument. This trend, if one believes Alasdair MacIntyre, goes back to the rejection of Aristotelian ethics that took place in the sixteenth century. The effects of this rejection have been very slow to manifest themselves, but we all feel them now, when confronted by political opponents, whether in the Church or in the culture, who seem to us completely irrational, dangerous, manipulative, Machiavellian, sneaky, duplicitous…I could go on.
Now it’s always an option for persons to behave as manipulative Machiavellians, but it’s quite dangerous for the Christian to leap too quickly to the conclusion that others are doing so. Certainly this reaction raises the fear and anxiety level and reduces clear thinking.
None of this is to say that Catholics don’t have actual reasons for struggling against fear and anxiety at the moment. I suspect that part of what was perplexing my interlocutor yesterday is connected with the current Synod on Young People (though he also alluded to the abuse scandals). In recent years, these synods tend to be accompanied by rumors about the undoing of the family, change to Catholic doctrine, etc. Bishops, unhappily, contribute to the confusion by off-hand tweets about “new family structures.”
There is nothing new under the sun.
Is there a thing of which it is said, “See, this is new”? It has been already, in the ages before us. –Ecclesiastes 1: 9c-10
The Church cannot change family norms. Why not? Because the family is structured into the very fabric of human existence. Family norms derive not from insights by the pope or anyone else, but from reason.
There are, unfortunately, too many aspects of this problem to deal with in a short post when I’m supposed to be relaxing, but let me offer something of a summary.
I am not sold on the efficacy of synodal discussion and reflection. This is a typically modern response to difficulties. Let’s have a meeting! And share ideas. Often enough, what we’re really seeking in such meetings is the assurance that we’re not the only ones feeling anxious. Part of what I was trying to sort through in my recent post on Alfred Hitchcock’s “anti-expertise” is the often debilitating effect of over-sharing. As we all know, a meeting is only as good as the ideas shared and the efficacy of leadership in the meeting–and after the meeting.
Conciliarism, the idea that Church Councils have more authority than the pope, was tried in the fifteenth century, and it failed. It’s important to consider why it failed. One Catholic answer is that doctrine and the history of Canon Law has established the pope as having supreme jurisdiction and teaching authority. But this just pushes the answer back one stage. Did God establish the office of the pope (and other patriarchs and bishops, by extension) by a kind of fiat? Or is conciliarism doomed, and some version of monarchism vindicated, by rational reflection?
The former idea is the essence of nominalism and voluntarism, the latter would be the preferred view of the great majority of Church Fathers and St. Thomas Aquinas (Aristotle notably felt that reason could establish monarchy as the best form of government). It is also a nominalist mistake to imagine that the pope can change family norms. This would be one critique I would offer to Rod Dreher regarding his important book The Benedict Option (which I hope to gloss more deliberately in the future; we’ll see…). While he frequently criticizes nominalism–it’s a main component in “the roots of the crisis” in his book–I find his thinking often strongly colored by nominalist assumptions. If I work on that gloss, I will give more examples.
A month ago, I exhorted our Oblates to respond to the crisis of episcopal authority with virtue. Here, I would like to extend that exhortation with a further one to the cultivation of reason grounded in natural law. We don’t have to wait until synods of experts weigh in on what to do with young people or how to show charity to persons living in unconventional family situations. We have our own brains and access to God’s Word that unlocks the meaning of the natures of things around us. When we stop trusting our own reason, we’re in a real pickle. The danger is that we will stop acting, spending too much time trying to inform ourselves. But the moral life, as taught by virtue ethics, begins with actions*, and grows when we reflect on our actions. Experience begins to illuminate and make rational our further interaction with others and the natural arrangement of social life. We remain, paradoxically irrational when we await oracles from others to whom we’ve delegated the most basic functions of reason.
It is quite noteworthy how frequently our Lord challenges those who ask Him questions to think and act for themselves. This in no way is contrary to sharing our experiences and living together. Learning to think for ourselves means learning how to bring better ideas into shared reflection. So: your contribution to church renewal is holiness through virtue and reason grounded in natural law.
*Just as learning to play the piano begins with actions. A beginner starts by pressing keys and getting feedback from a teacher, pressing the keys again, and so on. Eventually, the better ones learn to judge their own performances and improve by self-examination, based on what sounds good. In any case, one does not begin by reading several instruction manuals.