Wednesday 18 March 2015

Mais où sont les neiges d'antan?

                                      So old, it was actually written by Anglo-Saxons..

I have rather a lot of Teach Yourself books lying around my bookshelves, mostly languages. The differences between the older and newer versions are quite striking. Quite apart from the aesthetics of the covers (the old tending to be rather stark, the modern using attractive and colourful images) the contents move from the (old) rigidly grammatical to the (modern) chatty and real life dialogues.

The same transition can be seen in most textbooks: the old tend to be simply texts, often overladen with detail; the modern tend to be busy with 'Did you know?' boxes and illustrations breaking up the text. I suppose both have their disadvantages and their advantages. But they are different.

I raise this point simply as an example of the obvious truth that things have changed quite radically in Western culture. And this is a point that really needs to be understood in relation to changes in the Church. It is not that just the Church has changed dramatically since Vatican II (though it has) but society (at least in the UK) has also changed dramatically. Perhaps this is too obvious to need saying, but I suspect it isn't. For example, no discussion of the place of Latin in the Mass should by-pass a discussion of Latin in society: in 1915, everyone who was considered to be well-educated would have learnt (some or even quite a lot of) Latin. In 2015, that is no longer the case. In 1915, that Latin would have been learned from a traditional grammar such as Kennedy's; in 2015, whatever smattering of a foreign language that is taught would be much more experiential, much more conversational. In 1915, the pupil would have been taught to reverence the past; in 2015, he or she will be taught to argue and critique it.

I've mentioned before that I'm not particularly concerned about the EF versus OF debate (for non-Catholics, roughly the debate between the Latin Mass pre-Vatican II and the modern Mass in the vernacular). That's not because I think it unimportant, but I'm happy to leave the issue mostly to others while I focus (to the extent I focus on anything) to the changes in philosophy and theology over a similar period.  But both these issues within the Church sit within the background issue of the past within Western society. The issue of the abandonment of tradition with Western culture is something that can exercise the non-Catholic just as much as the Catholic. And whatever view the Catholic takes of debates on (say) the Latin Mass or neo-Thomist manuals will have to be located within a view of the wider changes in society.

There are in principle a number of possible permutations here. You might be a conservative tout court, lamenting the loss of tradition within both the Church and society. Or you might regard the issues as entirely separate, lamenting the loss of the transcendent in the modern Mass, but also welcoming the decline of imperialist, Protestant Britain. And so on. But what I think you can't do is to ignore the social changes: an ancient Teach Yourself book handed to a pupil reared on the whizz-bang of modern textbooks won't engage. Analogously, a neo-Thomist manual handed to a modern Catholic will (in general) not engage.

Now, the retort will doubtless come back that this simply isn't true: that modern youth is craving the rigour of a properly thought through text or a properly structured Mass. It's undoubtedly true that some are: personally, I love the old Teach Yourself books and would (aesthetically) much prefer a Latin Mass. But the reality is, I suspect, that I am too old to be typical and too atypical even when I was young (I judge from my children). Back to tradition would doubtless work as a stratagem for some, but we have no reason to believe that it would work for many. (A child formed in the barrage of modern music and ignorant of Latin is at least not coming to these things with the same sensibility as one reared in 1915.)

And so we have (at least) three possibilities. First, there is simply full steam ahead: we just keep on battering at modern culture until it sees the sense of what has been lost and returns to it. (That's been pretty much my position.) Secondly, there is the St Benedict option: we rescue those we can and create islands of holiness. Thirdly, there is the option of acculturation: we adapt in order to meet modernity 'where it is'. None of these strikes me as particularly hopeful. The first seems unlikely to succeed. The second will succeed but only for a few. The latter seems to abandon what is counter-cultural in Christianity.

So where does this leave us? Frankly, I have little idea. It does make me more sympathetic and even enthusiastic about Vatican II which might be regarded as both being realistic about the changes in modernity and trying to find a way to be true to Tradition while engaging with the changes. (That it was succeeded by all sorts of nuttiness is unfortunate but probably inevitable given the nature of the changes in the West since the 1960s.) I watch Pope Francis and I also see a man wrestling with how to encounter modernity. Is he doing it well? I'm genuinely not sure. My children tell me that there has been a radical change in the attitude of non (and even anti) Catholics to the Papacy since Francis replaced Benedict. That strikes me as a very good thing: I have little sympathy with the withdrawal to the monastery for the few. On the other hand, if it is at the expense of diluting the Catholic vision of the world, it needs to be rejected out of hand.

And so the Synod on the Family. How does one engage with a society which seems to think that it's a matter of indifference whether a child is brought up by its biological parents? Which thinks that to suggest there is anything wrong with homosexual activity is narrow minded and bigoted. Which regards an all male priesthood as part of patriarchal misogyny. Which regards science as the only measure of rationality whilst at the same time believing there is something else (even if it is only some hot vampire who wants you to be his girlfriend). Frankly, I don't know. Until I do know, I'm going to keep on throwing lumps of the past at people in the hope that I can chuck enough illud tempus to take down a few zombies before I'm finally consumed. But it would be quite nice to have a back up strategy which isn't analogous to giving modern teenagers a 1940s Teach Yourself book and expecting them to return in six months fluent in Swahili. (Or just giving them a big hug instead and telling them that they'll pick it up somehow and that anyway it doesn't really matter.)


  1. I think that this is a really good post, Lazarus; I'm not sure what I can add to it.

    In my own case, as the years have passed I've developed a greater appreciation of the genuine good of much of the contemporary age here in the West, in devolved, Unionist Scotland, in our democratic societies which are so, so easy to criticise.

    The question is vitally important: how do we constructively engage with the unchurched, post-Christian or non-Christian people of our time? These folk are all our brothers and sisters and they surely thirst for the living water that only Christ can give.

  2. It's difficult, isn't it? As I've admitted, I do have a tendency to act as a culture warrior, and there's much abut the modern age I think is pernicious. That said, I can't think of a single age where I wouldn't have felt the same! And to be honest, many of the faults of the age are my faults too (and perhaps not enough of its strengths). My only certainty is that the Church needs to show its variety: there is no one answer that will solve everything, but there is great life still within us which, as you say, is the living water all crave.