|LMS Pilgrims at the site of the Holy House in Walsingham on Sunday.
We all know how anti-trad moral panics work. Some one claims to have experienced ‘bossy’, ‘bitter’, or ‘extreme’ views, not from an established writer, but by some Twitter or Facebook account with 12 followers, if we are allowed to know who it is. Other people then chime in to say, Wow, I’ve had the same experience: not pausing to consider the fact that, unless they live under a stone, they’ll also have had one or two bad experiences with every other category of human being on the planet with more than a handful of members.
It doesn’t seem to occur to those making this criticism that they are doing precisely what they are usually accusing Traditional Catholics of doing: of being rather quick to condemn others. Those of them who are not obscure Twitter accounts with 12 followers ought to know better. But let that pass. The other question is whether we should be having these discussions which the trads are having, and if so, what they should be like.
It is sometimes said that in former ages of theological dispute, ordinary Catholics became involved in a way which demonstrated the liveliness of their faith. Many do not seem very pleased when they see this happening in our own day. When ordinary Catholics, Catholics without technical theological knowledge or intellectual formation, get involved, then the debate tends to be conducted at a less sophisticated level, than it would be in a theology seminar. What do you expect?
I won’t deny that on some topics I find the online debate frustrating. The topic of women’s clothing is an example which could stand for a number of others. A bit of historical and theological context would—in my view—be useful. A few distinctions would help. I don’t want to criticise the people raising the issue, however, because it is a debate we have to have. And if it only being discussed in fairly crude terms, that reflects the failure of intellectual leadership on this issue, as on so many others. Intellectual leadership which those complaining about the situation would do well to display themselves.
On this topic, as on so many others, the only view which is not going to be labelled ‘extreme’ is the view of not having a view at all: of not having anything to say on the subject. When young Catholics ask what resources the Catholic Tradition might have which would help them in living with the accelerating melt-down of ordinary social norms, because they want to live in decency and raise children formed in purity, the Catholic ‘mainstream’ has nothing to say. Actually, it is worse than that: too often it is implied that it is improper even to ask such a question.
I remember this attitude from my own school days. Towards the end of a lesson in ‘religious studies’ I once asked my teacher, a Benedictine priest, ‘Well, what does the Church teach about this?’ From his look of horror, you’d think I’d asked for instruction in necromancy.
So what happens is that these young Catholics search the internet and discover, say, that St Pio of Pietrelcina didn’t like women to wear trousers. Yes, it’s a pretty limited data-set from which to reconstruct a robust and nuanced Catholic culture of clothing. If you don’t like it, then you’ve got to stop abusing people for wanting answers, and take the risk of offending some people by providing better answers. (I’ve made a bit of a start on this here.)
The same goes for long-standing issues about Vatican II and its consequences, and newer issues raised by Pope Francis. Like the ‘Dubia Cardinals’, young Catholics want answers to some pretty important questions, not because they want to condemn others for getting it wrong, but because in an era of moral and spiritual crisis they want to conform themselves to the truth. They are told that they should not be asking the questions, let alone trying to articulate possible answers among their friends on social media.
I can hear the scoffs as I write these words. Those young, traddy Catholics: don’t they just think they are better than others?
Actually, these young people are often people who have changed, who have struggled with temptation, who have resolved to live a life at odds with the expectations of the modern world out of respect for the teaching of the Church. Yes, they are imperfect, and they suffer from the lack of formation common in our parishes and schools. But they are the ones who are trying to think things through and do better. If you see young Catholic women wearing mantillas, or young Catholic men even going to church on a Sunday, you are looking at people who are almost certainly scorned by their work colleagues, their college contemporaries, and quite possibly their parents, for taking the Catholic Faith seriously. It is depressing to see self-described Catholic moderates joining the pile-on.
If you think they’ve got in wrong, point them towards resources which will help them. If you think they shouldn’t be allowed to discuss issues which make you feel uncomfortable, then you are part of the problem.
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