Our Unchangeable Faith: Catholicism as a Cultural Force


Yesterday, I read with interest the essay from Paul Harvey written after the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council. Entitled, “What Catholic Tradition Means to a Protestant”, his opening three sentences are particularly captivating:

This is none of my business, yet I am unexplainably compelled to address myself to a most sensitive subject however many or few read it, heed it, or resent it.

The Roman Catholic Church, from the outside, has symbolized authority since my earliest recollections.

Great institutions might erode away, towering individuals reveal feet of clay, nations be reduced to ashes or decay—yet the steeple with the cross on top remained, timeless and unchanging.

Reading this, I sensed a fear in Harvey’s words that something so steadfast, so taken for granted as a constant of the known universe, was suddenly and quite unexpectedly subject to change. And the 20th century brought nothing if not a zeitgeist of sweeping change. From the breathtaking emergence of communism to two World Wars to the sexual revolution and nuclear detente, the 1900s were trying times, where the world as it had been seemed altogether different. I am reminded of Paul Johnson’s description in Modern Times of how the publication and testing of Einstein’s special theory of relativity unintentionally led to the tide of moral relativism which became the ideological scourge of the century:

At the beginning of the 1920s the belief began to circulate, for the first time at a popular level, that there were no longer any absolutes: of time and space, of good and evil, of knowledge, above all of value. Mistakenly but perhaps inevitably, relativity became confused with relativism.

Johnson describes Einstein’s distress at the way his theory was twisted into something that unmade the established order of things:

He lived to see moral relativism, to him a disease, become a social pandemic, just as he lived to see his fatal equation bring into existence nuclear warfare. There were times, he said at the end of his life, when he wished he had been a simple watchmaker. The public response to relativity was one of the principal formative influences on the course of twentieth-century history. It formed a knife, inadvertently wielded by its author, to help cut society adrift from its traditional moorings in the faith and morals of Judeo-Christian culture.

When absolutes are suddenly and radically altered, the consequences can be profound. In his brilliant work on the anthropology of liturgy, The Heresy of Formlessness, German writer Martin Mosebach argues that arbitrary and unconsidered alterations within the context of worship changed the very nature of Catholic belief:

If, however, we think correctly and historically, we should realize that what is an expression of veneration in one period can be an expression of blasphemy in another. If people who have been kneeling for a thousand years suddenly get to their feet, they do not think, “We’re doing this like the early Christians, who stood for the Consecration”; they are not aware of returning to some particularly authentic form of worship. They simply get up, brush the dust from their trouser-legs and say to themselves: “So it wasn’t such a serious business after all.”

There is a true danger in diminishing a sense of what is sacred in the pursuit of the latest trend. Originally published in May of 1966, Harvey’s was not the only voice of concern from a non-Catholic about what was going on in the Church. A similar examination of the changes happening in the Church from same time period was published in 1971, when Pope Paul VI received a letter with signatures from prominent figures in the arts and academia, urgently pleading the case for preserving the centuries-old form of Catholic liturgy. After the creation of the Novus Ordo Missae, this liturgy — now known as the “Extraordinary Form” — was already in the process of being dismantled to make way for the new Mass.

“If some senseless decree were to order the total or partial destruction of basilicas or cathedrals,” the signatories of the letter wrote, “then obviously it would be the educated – whatever their personal beliefs – who would rise up in horror to oppose such a possibility. Now the fact is that basilicas and cathedrals were built so as to celebrate a rite which, until a few months ago, constituted a living tradition. We are referring to the Roman Catholic Mass. Yet, according to the latest information in Rome, there is a plan to obliterate that Mass by the end of the current year.”

Unlike the iconoclasts of the French Revolution who defiled Catholic churches as stables or as shrines to the goddess Reason, these luminaries recognized the central cultural and intellectual role of not just Catholicism, but its liturgy, in the life and history of Western Civilization. The text of the appeal continued:

The rite in question, in its magnificent Latin text, has also inspired a host of priceless achievements in the arts – not only mystical works, but works by poets, philosophers, musicians, architects, painters and sculptors in all countries and epochs. Thus, it belongs to universal culture as well as to churchmen and formal Christians. In the materialistic and technocratic civilisation that is increasingly threatening the life of mind and spirit in its original creative expression – the word – it seems particularly inhuman to deprive man of word-forms in one of their most grandiose manifestations. The signatories of this appeal, which is entirely ecumenical and non-political, have been drawn from every branch of modern culture in Europe and elsewhere. They wish to call to the attention of the Holy See, the appalling responsibility it would incur in the history of the human spirit were it to refuse to allow the Traditional Mass to survive, even though this survival took place side by side with other liturgical reforms.

Yes, there were Catholics on the list of 57 signatures, like Graham Greene and Malcolm Muggeridge, but there were others as well. Some of whom, like Sir Harold Acton, were clearly no followers of Church teaching. And yet they recognized that Catholicism’s influence “belongs to universal culture”, and they were proud to claim it. In fact, they seemed mortified at the idea of losing the influence of the Church’s liturgy in Europe.

There is something essentially reassuring about things that are unchanging. Be they forces of nature, institutions, or truths, whatever persists against the relentless tide of the ages becomes a stalwart force within the world. Even to those who stand in opposition to the teachings of Catholicism, there has often been a certain respect, perhaps even a sort of comforting knowledge that the Church will still be there tomorrow, unflinching as it ever was.

As Catholics, we believe that the Church stands alone in the world as an institution divinely inspired and protected by her Founder. We believe that the gates of hell will not prevail against her. This does not mean that the Church will not experience turmoil, or even danger. During the time of St. Athanasius, much of the Catholic world had submitted to the Arian heresy, and Athanasius himself was excommunicated by Pope Liberius despite leading the charge to defend orthodoxy.

But the Church always prevails.

And given time to flourish, surviving, as it does, the heresies that flare up and the periods of tinkering and updating that come and go, the Church doesn’t merely engage with the culture, it creates and inspires it.

It’s been a while since the Church was viewed by the non-Catholic world as such a central force for good, and so worthy of protecting. But there is nothing to keep it from becoming such again. We need merely to remember our incredible story, and the story of our Savior, and tell it to the world through not just apologetics and essays, but art and music, architecture and film, liturgy and devotion. We have more tools at our disposal to be creators of culture than ever before, and the power of Catholicism lies not merely in the present, but in the past. It lies in the hands not simply of the Church militant, but the Church triumphant. Like any family, we draw strength not only from our works, but from our customs and traditions. We cannot flourish if we do not remain connected to our history.

In Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton offered one of the noblest explanations of tradition that I have ever read. He wrote:

Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death. Democracy tells us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our groom; tradition asks us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our father. I, at any rate, cannot separate the two ideas of democracy and tradition; it seems evident to me that they are the same idea. We will have the dead at our councils. The ancient Greeks voted by stones; these shall vote by tombstones. It is all quite regular and official, for most tombstones, like most ballot papers, are marked with a cross.

Marked with a cross. As Paul Harvey said, “the steeple with the cross on top remained, timeless and unchanging.”

It is the cross which roots us in history, it is the cross which intersects the present and the past. The Tradition of the Church is not just the Incarnation, but the Passion, a redemptive sacrifice which is unchanging and yet made present anew with the dawning of each day. It infuses us, it grounds us, it propels us. And the world still needs its message: that “God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.”

That man, no matter how fallen, can be redeemed.

The views expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of CatholicVote.org


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