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Monday, December 30, 2013

The Trad Bash: From Neo-Atheism to Neo-Catholicism

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Are traditionalists really just a bunch of snooty, confused, rebellious, prideful dimwits?

We’re Waiting

We had to recently endure a burst of man-bites-dog rhetorical rambling from sundry atheist intelligentsia. For a while there, it seemed that an innocent window shopper couldn’t even walk past his local bookstore without being shown the most recent manifestation of atheist testimonial, or the latest naturalist ‘refutation’ of God. Alas, like any faddish movement, New Atheism has lately lost some steam. People seem to have grown tired of the screeds, or perhaps the open-minded and unaffiliated came to realize that the en vogue ‘naturalist’-based critique of religion was just so much clever, provocative sophism, helped along by a good publicist or two.  Of course, one of the main reasons that this movement slowed down, was that it quickly became clear (to those paying attention) that the atheist evangelists were broken records. Richard Dawkins in particular seemed unable to deal with counter arguments. He had to find fresh meat to get any traction, forced as he was to rely on his original script. Eventually, audiences unfamiliar with theist rebuttals became thin on the ground.

For in addition to thoroughly misunderstanding the cosmological argument, Dawkins also seemed content to rhetorically demolish a hackneyed version of the ‘intelligent design’ argument. Then again, it wasn’t so much that he was ‘content’ with this argument as that he was unable to deal with the real arguments of the classical theist. Quite frankly, I don’t blame him for avoiding the good stuff. His own silly version of the theist could be fantastically and impressively bludgeoned with the Dawkinsian brand, to great effect; it was simply poor strategy to change course.

 Unfortunately for the success of his show, annoyed Thomists and other philosophers of religion soon pointed out that Aquinas’ ‘Unmoved Mover’ was far different than He was presented as being in the New Atheist script. In addition, these theists pointed out that whatever the merit of the arguments for Intelligent Design, that classical theism simply held no truck with such an approach. Thomas Aquinas’ own ‘argument from design’ isn’t about the clever construction of things in creation, but about the goal-striving and immanently purposeful behavior of substances. The necessity of a Divine Mind is evidenced not just in the complexity of the constructed biological thing (well, ‘complex’ from our limited perspective), but every place there are irreducible substances with final causes—so, everywhere.

One does not have to google very long to find many versions of these classical theist arguments (and others besides) gracing our series of tubes called the Internets. Prominent philosophers of religion, many with blogs, have offered versions of Thomas’ actual arguments, and many books were eventually written showing why the Dawkinsian critique of (his own, convenient versions of the) ‘traditional’ arguments for God’s existence fell spectacularly, embarrassingly short.

It is a shame that the New Atheist brigade seems content to ignore these theistic rebuttals, and that they continue, in a more streamlined form, to prattle on about the failure of Paley’s God, or things of that sort. Then again, that’s all they have.

Whatever. The point of this article is not to rehash this sad affair. The point instead is to simply remind people that Dawkins can’t seem to dealwith the actual arguments of the classical theist. Desperate, Dawkins is forced to peddle his used wares, and replay a series of tired points that, as it turns out, have absolutely nothing to do with anything. It is as if Dawkins was not so much interested in philosophy, science, and truth, as he was on putting on a performance. Like a tent revivalist, he moves from town to town, putting on the same show. It might be persuasive to someone who has closed off his mind to the truth, wanting merely to be affiliated with the atheist tribe. But given the saturation of counter arguments that now grace the internet, unaffiliated passersby can quickly see that the Dawkinsian brand simply isn’t keeping up with the times. In the meantime, Thomists sit waiting, patiently, for a rebuttal. They’d love a debate.

And Now the Neo-Catholics

Something similar, as far as I can tell, is going on in the world of neo-conservative Catholicism. No, there is nothing ‘atheistic’ about their approach. Not in the least. There is, however, something about their strategy that looks awfully familiar. That is, they also sound like broken records. Their arguments are equally as tired and desperate, and equally as reliant on a general populace that avoids all contact with the modern world, and especially with Al Gore’s famous invention. Those who see nothing wrong with the New Mass or the Second Vatican Council that promulgated it, seem content, or rather forced, to paint those that do—namely, traditionalists—by way of a certain tired, increasingly desperate sounding, scripted show.

Rather than deal with the actual arguments of the traditionalist, and rather than respond to the traditionalist rebuttals, the neo-conservative has stubbornly stuck to his script, without revising. He seems oddly satisfied with his own original (and highly rhetorical) handling of the traditionalist critique, and refuses to deal with the actual points of contention on offer. That is, he seems fine with the show he has up and running. The show—er, the argument—as far as I can tell, goes like this:

Firstly, traditionalists are the unfortunate victims of some psychological maladies. They worry about the New Mass because they are afraid of change. It’s a primal, non-propositional fear, one that is neither truth-functional nor rational. It is a psychological disturbance, and that is all. The New Mass was a change! And change, per se, is bad, and something to fear, say the poor, stilted traditionalists. We (the neo-conservatives, a.k.a. neo-Catholics) must give therapy to our traditionalist brothers, for they are suffering from their own mind-internal conflicts!

Secondly, traditionalists are Pharisaical. They (traditionalists) think they are so much better than the rest of the Catholic populace, what with their old-school devotions and rubrics and piety. The scowling traditionalists think they are more moral, more holy, more prayerful, more spiritual, and more in tune with the Truth, than anyone outside of their pious clique. Traditionalists sneer at the simple pieties of the Novus Ordo poor faithful. These ‘mad trads’ think that only they have it right, and that these other, poor unwashed souls, with their vernacular Mass and colloquial spiritualities, not only have it wrong, but are completely apathetic to the truth! These ‘radical traditionalists’ think that Novus Ordo types are nothing but cavalier, brazen, callous blasphemers, who care not for God, reverence, piety, or the Faith. Moreover, these traditionalists are Jansenist, and are concerned that too many people will be let into their own, exclusive club: heaven.

Lastly, traditionalists are rebellious. They have pridefully rejected the New Mass, as promulgated by the Church! They have failed to be properly docile to the magisterium. Traditionalists are just like protestants, rejecting willy-nilly, and as per their own whim, certain pronouncements of the Church Immemorial. They have constructed their own, personal church, in their own image.

I think that about covers it. In short, traditionalists are snooty, confused, rebellious, prideful, and perhaps a bit dim. It’s a good script, to be sure. For while it’s thoroughly wrong, it packs a rhetorical punch. And as any bookseller will tell you, it’s far more important to say something provocative, and to say it with confidence, than to say something true. Neo-conservative Catholics are able to take this script and put on a good show. Of course, we might casually ask: but do these arguments have anything to do with anything? Unfortunately for the neo-conservative, the answer is: absolutely nothing at all.

Alas, modern times have proven inconvenient for the ‘All is Well!’ crowd, for we live in the age of easy-accessible information. The internet has made the Gutenberg Press look like a cave painting. Curious Catholics are a Google search a way from good information, and good arguments, concerning the state of the Church, the problems with the New Mass, and the peculiar folly that was the second Vatican Council. Indeed, this particular online publication has devoted a considerable portion of its columns to dismantling the neo-conservative position. It is ironic, really. The neo-conservative seems intent on appealing to the metaphor of the traditionalist living in a cave, refusing to join the real world. Yet given the age of information we are living in, it is only those who actually live in caves that will continue to find persuasive the neo-conservative show. A little investigation will reveal that the neo-conservative script is mere provocative nonsense, confidently pronounced, and professionally produced.

For as it turns out—like this really needed saying!—traditionalists aren’t a fearful lot. Indeed, they are a particularly level-headed group of folks. Of course, as has been mentioned in other articles in this very newspaper, the ‘fear’ charge turns out to be the silliest part of the script, as it relies on the status of the thoroughly private attitudes of any one individual. It’s a completely unfalsifiable, totally gratuitous charge, and one that can be volleyed back with equal success. (Do neo-conservatives really think that traditionalists do not have their own psychological diagnoses of their Novus Ordo brethren? (Cognitive dissonance anyone?) We just wisely keep these to ourselves.)

And go figure, traditionalists don’t think of themselves as holier-than-thou. Again, it is unfortunate and a bit worrisome that this needs to be said (are we really having to say this?). It’s also shows how shallow and flimsy the neo-conservative script is, given that a rebuttal to the neo-conservative show involves but a simple ‘nope’ and a shrug. What else could possibly be said? Needless to say, traditionalists are, as our confessors (and indeed our spouses and friends) could no doubt attest, as miserably sinful as anyone in this motley lot called humanity. Indeed, we might, as a whole, be much less pious and do-goody than our neo-conservative brethren (though perhaps I’m merely projecting here.)

At any rate, the idea that the traditionalist is sneering at the simple pieties of Novus Ordo faithful, from their lofty Tridentine thrones, is thoroughly eye-rolling. For one thing, many people (like me) who rightly criticize the content of the Novus Ordo Mass and the promulgations of the Second Vatican Council, nevertheless sometimes attend the new mass, given their options on a Sunday morning. And why should this be so surprising? It’s our Mass, and our collective problem. We are concerned about the Novus Ordo precisely because it is part of our Church.

Traditionalists don’t sneer at the happy clappy crowd. They find the Novus Ordo approach to worship rather unfortunate, and they are certainly offended at various liturgical practices that are objectively offensive. But traditionalists aren’t about to go and question the sincerity of the poor parishioner, or even (at this late stage) the parish priest, given that he had what was no doubt an abysmal seminary training. If anything, the traditionalist is concerned that the Novus Ordo establishment is patronizing our poor and ignorant Catholic populace, in its assumption that the Old Mass is ‘above’ them, or that it is only the educated, liturgical hobbyist who bothers about proper worship.

As for the accusations of moralism: will you find, among the traditionalist ilk, the intermittent Kill Joy, ready to pounce on the imperfections of the unschooled seeker? Maybe. But to stereotype the traditionalist through such dowdy characters (where they exist) is to thoroughly dodge the elephant in the room, and entirely circumvent the real, actual arguments for tradition, along with the actual arguments on offer against the troubling pronouncements of the Second Vatican Council. To reduce traditionalism to the mumblings of The Church Lady is certainly effective, and it might be a comic highlight in the neo-conservative show, but that’s all it is: a piece of convenient theatre.

It’s annoying, of course. No matter how many times traditionalists remind their neo-conservative friends that this has nothing to do with personal piety, and everything to do with the objective facts of the matter, the neo-conservatives keep to a script that speaks of the ‘snooty’ nature of the traditionalist.

It’s tiresome, is it not? Alas, the script grows even more grating when we come to the ‘rebellion’ charge. As many’ a article in this publication has made clear, the idea that a Catholic must be an unthinking meat robot to any and all pronouncements of the extraordinary magisterium, and that the only ‘good’ or ‘correct’ Catholic response to any and all dictates is a submissive ‘docility’—one that might well involve entirely turning off your brain—well, what can be said to this besides: it’s deeply unCatholic? Ours is not a faith of blind submission. We are never required to believe anything ‘just because’, for we belong to a Church that is quite happy to give reasons for its pronouncements, of whatever sort.

In the case of the so called ‘hermeneutic of continuity’, traditionalists have simply pointed out that the reasons for it are—for lack of a better word—bad. For in order for us to ‘interpret’ (it’s a less fancy word for ‘hermeneutic’) the Old and New masses as being in ‘continuity’ with each other, we must construe continuity in a way that makes it rather trivial. If the notion of continuity is to have any meat behind it, we must immediately, and rather obviously, reject the idea that the Masses are in ‘continuity’ or that the Second Vatican Council is in continuity with what came before it. To think otherwise is to operate by way of a blind positivism. We aren’t going to believe in the so-called hermeneutic ‘just because’.

We should see that nothing in the neo-conservative script does anything to address the actual arguments of the traditionalist, regarding the problems of the New Mass, or the superiority of the Old Mass. The traditionalist has made pains to point out the problems with its new prayers and its new lectionary, the ad hoc, confusing, and speedy nature of its construction, its doctrine-fuzzing canon, the sanitized words of consecration, its easy-going ecumenical language, its clever avoidance of Catholic-specific dogmas, and so on. He has at length argued for the superiority of the Old Mass due to its rich theological content, its time-tested rubrics, its clear continuity with tradition, its reverent form, its focus on sacrifice, its tight structure and safe immutability, its universalism, and its sheer beauty. The traditionalist has emphasized the ways in which the New Mass so easily and legally allows for liturgical inanity, irreverence, and musical idiocy, and how it fuzzes the line between legally sanctioned ‘liberties’ and real liturgical abuse.

These arguments, in tandem and fully iterated, are no doubt devastating to the neo-conservative. Indeed, in the case of the arguments about the problematic nature of the new prayers, the traditionalist doesn’t even rely on some obvious theological analysis or easy interpretation: he simply has to make use of empirical ostension. The traditionalist simply points to the differing words of the prayers. How can someone possibly argue for continuity when the simple and raw empirical facts show otherwise?

Yes, best to avoid these rather inconvenient truths. Alas, in their avoidance of the actual arguments for the superiority of the Old Mass, the neo-conservative has constructed a script that is entirely about nothing whatever.

Whatever. It’s simply sad that traditionalists have to rebut such childish nonsense. Then again, that’s all they have. It is as if the neo-conservative intelligentsia was not so much interested in Catholic truth, as they were on putting on a performance. Their rhetorical appeals might be persuasive to those who have closed off their minds, wanting merely to be affiliated with the neo-conservative tribe. But given the saturation of counter arguments that now grace the internet, unaffiliated passersby can quickly see that there is simply no truth in the neo-conservative script. Indeed, as has been pointed out in the mainstream media, young people long for tradition and the Old Mass, and have seemingly rejected the neo-conservative performance. And this makes sense, of course. For it is young people who are the most computer savvy, and the most comfortable surfing the web. It stands to reason that they found the truth. Indeed, the internet has not been kind to the aging Novus Ordo establishment.

At any rate, traditionalists sit patiently waiting for a rebuttal. They’d love a debate, but more than anything, they’d love their neo-conservative brethren to keep up with the times, to quit their tired routine, to get online, get caught up to speed, and join the avant garde.

Last modified on Wednesday, January 1, 2014

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