Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Random Thoughts on Conservatism and Catholicism

This won't be a long post, it's more of a question that I can't help ask, even though I am not crazy about the answer I usually reach: how can conservatism possibly work in a world already gone "on?"

There is a reverence for the idea of "moving on" in our society. "He has moved on" is said as a mark of great honor and respect when talking about someone who has suffered a loss, or who has made a mistake, or who has been an utter idiot.

But it is also shorthand for the idea that it is better to "move on" that to stay fixed.

There was a time when fixedness of purpose, when "sticking to your guns," when consistency, fortitude, strength of purpose, firm belief, all that sort of thing, were the "right" way to go.

Not so now. John Kerry was actually honored for being bendable. His constant (at least that was constant about him) shifts were seen as mental sophistication - nuance was the word, as I recall. He was not a "shifty sidewinder," he was a nuanced, worldly sophisticate to George Bush's stubborn, inflexible doofus.

I was at a Traditional Roman Catholic Latin Rite Mass the other day, and while I was enjoying the beauty, and the tradition, and the link to history - the brief glimpse into the Medieval World - I was also struck by the fact that the Church, as an entity, has "moved on." The Liturgy has changed, the tradition has been lost, the meaning has been wiped away, and the "other guys" are in charge of the institution. You don't "go back" from there. The only real answer is something akin to schism. Perhaps the Church will be willing to accomodate traditional Catholics, but unless they separate entirely, they will never again be the common voice of the church.

Reading the website of my (geographic) parish, it does not even seem familiar to me. If I were to stumble across it, not knowing what it was and lacking a title that claimed it was Catholic, I would be convinced that this was a protestant church, possibly Episcopal. But I would certainly not mistake it for what I had always believed to be Catholic. But it is these people who are now running the Church - not "my" people.

I was in a religious items store in Olean recently, and I asked the female clerk if they carried Latin Missals. She said they did not, but that they could be obtained. I mentioned that I attended a Latin Mass. She looked skeptical and asked me if it was the one in Bradford (PA). I said no, and she said, good, because they do not accept the pope, they are excommunicated. She then went on to say that it was a good thing the Mass had changed; it was a good thing that one mass featured a rock band and another a folk group. "Different strokes," she said, nodding wisely.

This runs so contrary to my feelings growing up as a Catholic. When I set foot in a Catholic Church as a child, I was reaching back in time - perhaps not so far as to Jesus and the disciples themselves, but certainly to the first millenium of the church. I was touching tradition, seeing rites that had stood firm against time and alteration. The inside of a church was a comforting zone of sameness, of consistency in a mad world, of steadfastness of purpose and belief in the face of all uncertainty and doubt.

Now, I enter a church and I cannot find that light burning above the altar that reminded me I was in the presence of God. I cannot find the beautiful, if romantic, images of the saints that reminded me, again, of individuals who did dedicate their lives to God. When I see a priest or nun, I am not sure they are a priest or nun... I had always assumed the "costume" was to set this individual apart as having dedicated his or her life to the service of God. Now, these folks are really social workers, dedicated to the service of man. This is not a small shift.

Yes, a priest was a "shepherd to his flock," but more importantly, he was a conduit to God. As a person dedicated body and soul to the numinous, he set himself apart from the rest of us, and his job, or at least so I always believed, was to turn our thoughts away from our day to day lives and toward our spiritual lives, our life with God. He was not so much concerned with us as neighbors and "clients" as he was with us as souls and sinners.

Again, one of the reasons I felt a comfort and safety in the Catholic Church was that here, I was a child. Here I could abandon my own "control" of life, of making the decisions and calling the shots and taking the helm, and become, as Jesus suggested, "as a little child." Not in the sense of being irresponsible, but in the sense of giving this control up to the authority of the church and the mercy of God. Even if bad things happened to me, I could trust that it was as it was supposed to be, and the purpose would eventually become clear. (It always has.)

I do not get this feeling in the Novo church. The congregation runs the church. I would not be surprised to learn that rather than a Bishop appointing a priest to serve in a given parish, the parishoners were to start interviewing and hiring as they do in Protestant congregations. At a recent Novus Ordo mass, I was stunned to find that fully 2/3 of the mass was over before the priest spoke so much as a word. It seemed more like a really badly written and acted amateur theatrical put on by the Neighborhood Playhouse than like a mass.

But, that's me. And I don't want to move on. I want to conserve... I want to hold on to the old beauty, pageantry, mystery, dignity. But the church has moved on, and while some few of us may continue to go to the Latin Mass, and may continue to pretend we can maintain the "old ways," as Thomas Wolfe told us, "You can never go home again."

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