Thursday, January 27, 2011

The "good old days"

I am a conservative Catholic. At any rate, I consider myself to be one. But I went to a conservative Catholic college where I found many people much more conservative than I am.

There's the tendency in any conservative group to compare the present to the "good old days." We're sorted into groups based on what we think the "good old days" were. Neoconservatives get wistful about the 1950's. Back then, the Church was respected! Back then, the Mass was in Latin! Back then, all the priests were Irish!

Back then was also when many Catholics thought their duty ended with Mass attendance and a nice tithe in the collection basket. When the going got tough, they were gone. Yes, there were more Catholics then, but if they had had real faith, they wouldn't have packed up and left the second the Church clarified its position on birth control. Not to mention that the fifties and sixties were when all the sex abuse took place that is coming to light now. Are the fifties-fans saying that sex abuse is okay as long as we don't know about it?

Not to bash the fifties; I'm sure in many ways the fifties were quite nice. I also believe that the 2010's are quite nice in their way too.

More radical conservatives harken back, not to the fifties, but to the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. The Council of Trent is where it's at. Whatever happened to the good old days when the Pope wore a triple tiara and owned a big chunk of Italy? When just about everyone was Catholic and heretics were burned at the stake? These people literally sigh for the Spanish Inquisition.

Personally, I think the Renaissance was a low point for the Church. I'm not a history buff, but you don't have to be to know about popes fathering children, making those children cardinals, and selling offices in the Church. And as for the burning of heretics, it shocks and offends me that anyone would defend this and call themselves Catholic. Heretics were executed for mainly political reasons, and most frequently by the laity, not the hierarchy. Religion was an excuse to these very unreligious men to allow them to do away with their enemies and appear holy at the same time. Executing heretics purely for religious reasons is manifestly immoral, and was condemned by saints like Augustine and John Chrysostom. Vatican II gets a lot of criticism from conservatives, but the fact is, its declaration of religious freedom was completely in accord with Scripture and the early Church, and it's a Good Thing. God does not force our belief, so man has no right to. God wants us to come to him in total freedom. A forced conversion would be meaningless; the execution of a heretic would likely send him to hell. What a horrible thing to do.

In any event, we don't have to defend the deeds of popes and bishops. They could be horrible people and do horrible things. Acknowledging that they were horrible doesn't make us bad Catholics; it's just the automatic response of a well-formed conscience. The only guarantee we have from Christ is that the Church will not teach false doctrine -- not that all the popes would be saints. Obviously, they haven't been. To claim otherwise is to open the Church to ridicule.

I am tired of hearing about how great things were when the Church had tons of political power and worldly respect. Political power corrupts the Church so easily. When power is to be had within the Church, offices within the Church draw ambitious men, not holy men. When the world respects the Church, it is because the Church is failing to challenge it. I am glad that Paul VI had his triple tiara auctioned off to benefit the poor. I don't miss the Papal States; I think it's easier for the Pope to be believed and respected when he is not also the temporal head of a nation.

There was a time when a man could become a priest out of ambition, to rise in social class and the respect in others, and perhaps to make a bit of money. Nowadays to be a priest is to be disdained by a large portion of society; to work six days a week and sometimes the seventh; to have to live on a small stipend; to be required to rush out to sickbeds at a moment's notice; to be required to hear the confession of anyone who asks, at any time; and, as a reward, be mocked and called a pedophile by people who don't even know him. No one would do this except out of great love for Christ.

The world we live in is flawed in many ways, and the zeitgeist is not much in step with the beliefs of the Church. But it does respect charity, humility, and poverty. The only way we will win hearts in the present age is by exemplifying these virtues, not by striving to return to a time when we possessed temporal power and respect. To most conservatives, the present age is a desert. But it is in the desert that the Israelites were purified, that Christ was tempted, and that our Church is slowly being renewed.

So, I am a conservative Catholic, if by "conservative" is meant that I accept all the teachings of the Church and acknowledge them as unchanging. But I'm not conservative in the sense of wanting to preserve the trappings of the "old days," in the sense of power, worldly respect, and wealth. The "old days" have passed away, but our Church is always new. It is never "in step with the times," because the world is never in step with the Church. But it is always the preacher of truth and the bride of Christ. I wouldn't have it any other way.


some guy on the street said...

As my facebook would say, hoc mihi placet.

I can't gauge the idiomacy of the expression, but there it is.

As a point of history, to which His Holiness obliquely referred on the plane to England, the Pope's universally acknowledged status as a Head of State is "an instrument", giving the Church a coherent and unique voice with which to address all other heads of state. And it's a funny story (Brendan McGuire tells it well here) how the papacy sort-of took over Rome when Constantinople was afraid of sending soldiers' pay by boat... Anyways, while the Empire withdrew, the Holy See was inexorably brought into dealing with all manner of local princes who stepped-in to fill the gaps, not all of whom held themselves or their troops above open conflict with the administrator who still paid the Roman soldiers. It was most convenient (in Aquinas' sense) at the time to establish a Papal Princedom, something all the other princes would acknowledge and easily understand.

Yes, obviously there are faults to this sort of human-devised layer on top of the Divine Institution; quite apart from corruption, the right reason of the thing is easily turned upside-down, as Robert Bolt imagines Thomas Howard thinking aloud "We are at war with Rome; well, the Pope's a prince!" meaning that, as he holds an earthly princedom, he is susceptible to earthly warfare. The other Thomas in the scene counters quickly, but... well, anyways.

Happy Feast of St. John Chrysostom to you and family!

Sheila said...

Yes, the Papal States (as another friend pointed out to me this evening; I must have dismissed them too readily) served their purpose at the time. But their forcible wrenching out of the hands of the papacy ended up being a good thing. Like so many earthly things, we got too attached to them, and they were bogging us down ... making it harder to be seen as a spiritual entity rather than a political one.

Yes, the Vatican is political entity too ... but I don't think anyone would ever argue it was a world power in the conventional sense.

Meredith said...

I very much agree. One thing that makes me particularly queasy is the barely-qualified affection for Franco I noticed at CC. Sure, the commies and anarchists were committing atrocities and needed to be opposed. That doesn't mean that a dictator who ordered the summary executions of thousands becomes endearing.

Sheila said...

Precisely. I think we tend to get defensive and swing too far in the other direction sometimes, when we oppose something bad.

owenswain said...

What a wonderfully unpopular view. Refreshing. I like it. I define myself as a conservative Catholic in the same way. The last thing this former Protestant minister was ready for upon conversion was the serious discord present in the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church. Bit of a mind bender it was.

It's weird, many of my former Protestant friends think my soul is now lost while many a (quote unquote) rad-trad might be found to agree. *sigh*.

Nice to find your blog via the comboz at my friend Spike is Best.

P.S. Thar cod liver oil vlog was, well, yeah,

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