Saturday, January 21, 2017

American Righteousness: Reinventing History

"He won't vote for my bill, so I'm thinking of blackmailing him," said my friend. "I have concrete evidence he's an active gay."
"He's a family values Republican, isn't he?" I guessed.
"Yes, of course."

So went a discussion with a friend and career lobbyist who travels the country to get bills for his causes through various state and federal channels. This exchange would have been archived in my mind if not for a related exchange at the office yesterday while my coworkers and I watched Donald Trump's presidential inauguration on YouTube during lunch.

You see, readers abroad, Evangelical Christians (hereafter 'Vangies) became a force in American politics in the 1980s when a chap named Falwell endorsed Ronald Reagan and drove Southern religionists to the polls en masse on the basis of their Bible faith. They wanted America to be Reagan and Winthrop's "city on a hill", a moral example for the rest of the world. After their influence in culture brought about a new age of prudishness in the '90s to counteract the Wall Street excesses and cocaine vibe of the '80s, they got their own president in George W. Bush in 2000. After the 2004 re-election of the personable and likable, but indecisive and occasionally inept, Bush, their power waned as the Republican party put forth two dullish candidates. But last year they became relevant again, as billionaire playboy Donald Trump staged a hostile takeover of the Republican party with the support of celebrity pastors and preachers throughout the Bible Belt. The 'Vangies voted for the thrice married playboy over the ostentatiously religious Ben Carson and Lyin' Ted Cruz for a host of reasons that can be covered by other writers. The 'Vangies voted in numbers like it was 1984 again. And yet a significant number of the 'Vangies refused to vote for Trump, who claims to want to repeal the Johnson Amendment, which disempowered religious groups from making political endorsements while keeping their tax exempt status. The reason why some 'Vangies, at least the ones I call coworkers, refused to vote for the man "with synthetic hair" (cf. Jeremy Clarkson) has to do with the recent re-invention of American history by the Religious Right and its projection of its own values into other people's past.

Frederick Jackson Turner called the "frontier" the essence of the American story, the constant search for the new by rugged individuals shunning accepted society and means. As far as geography and ingenuity go, Turner was right. The essence of early American politics is different, though. America's first president was a Deist who frequented Anglican services; the second was a Unitarian, hence not a Christian by any post-Reformation standard; the third was something between a Deist and an atheist who detested the Catholic Church; the sixth was agnostic and swore his oath of office on a stack of legal papers, hardly the makings of a righteous governor. Early American leaders were children of the Enlightenment without the brutal rearing of the French Revolution. They took Christianity for granted as the religion of the masses and occasionally partook of it themselves in moments of need, but it was something of a foible to them, a security blanket for Turner's frontiersmen. Two centuries later came the idea that America was founded as a fundamentally Christian country, when in fact the Puritans who settled Massachusetts were expelled by Anglicans because they were stark raving mad spiritual terrorists. 

How does this figure into the copious number of 'Vangies who went #NeverTrump and who derided the bombastic billionaire as he took power? Our favorite sociologist, Robert Nisbet, made two startling observations about the role of protestant theology in religious culture. First, that "Three principle elements of Christianity were left in Protestant theology: the lone individual, an omnipotent, distant God, and divine grace." Second, that "In Protestantism there has been a persistent belief that to externalize religion is to degrade it. Only in the privacy of the individual soul can religion remain pure. There has been little sympathy for the communal, sacramental, and disciplinary aspects of religion." Attending services and living a Christian life is not enough to be a good Christian by this scheme of things. If one is really saved, a la Calvin, one should behave like one who is saved. While this sounds like it should elicit behavior in the protestant akin to a Catholic who attends Mass and Confession, it is not. While the admonition not to judge another's soul still holds, external displays of belief (the Sacraments, pilgrimage, penance, liturgy) are unavailable in a privatized religion, so what is private must be displayed in public for all to see.

For four decades now the Religious Right has sought leaders who will both advance their agenda and display their own virtues as a form of cultural evangelism. As a businessman, many 'Vangies were able to embrace Trump for the first reason, yet many refused him because he fails miserably on the latter. 

"I was reading a blog about what happens when you don't elect righteous leaders."
"He never said he was sorry for all the things he did, how mean he is."
"He has no repentance."
"He isn't really Christian."
"No way, no how."

As I rolled my eyes I was asked why the Catholic Church does not have special services for the Fourth of July and other American holidays. I attempted to explain that there will often be Masses said for the welfare of the country on that day, but that services geared specifically towards gratitude for the nation, as if it were of Divine Right, would be inappropriate. "You know," one lectured, "most patriotic songs are about what? They are about God!" There was no point in telling her that the Church does not worship countries, much less countries that never officially held the faith in the first place.

"No one is a better Christian than I am,
folks, no one."
This issue may well become a moot point in the rapidly secularizing American society. President Trump himself seems to lack any religious scruples, which is fitting since the first president lacked them, too. The real thing to be grasped is a lesson rather than a problem. A large, possibly deteriorating force in American politics is still grasping for the outwardly pious family values Republicans of the '90s and in doing so ensure their own irrelevance.

A devout Catholic with any knowledge of history can still be patriotic, serve in the armed forces in good conscience, and be an upstanding member of the community. What he cannot do is pretend that America was created to be God's paradise on earth or Winthrop's City on a Hill. I would be more sympathetic if people simply expressed a desire for a leader worthy of admiration, which is unlikely, but more possible in our age than a "righteous" one.

In the words of Geoffrey Hull, "In the American philosophy man's highest purpose is to assert his 'inalienable right' to 'Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness' on earth. Eternal life is an optional extra for those who choose to believe in it" (238). 

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Here at the End of All Things

With the centennial of the appearance of the Virgin Mary at Fatima rapidly approaching, a fresh round of eschatological predictions have begun in the traddosphere and beyond. While I’m a bit of a wet blanket on the Fatima Parade, I can’t ignore the historical significance of the Mother of God initiating a major celestial sign seen even by blasphemers and unbelievers. The hundredth anniversary of her appearances would not be an unreasonable time for her to reappear and remind us of our duties towards God.

I grew up in an atmosphere of calm, Protestant assurance that the End Times, they were a-comin’. My family’s bookshelves were filled with prophetic insights into the events of the 1970s and 80s, with authors like Hal Lindsey, Salem Kirban, and Jack Chick forming the apocalyptic imagination of my childhood. The creation of the modern state of Israel in 1948 was considered a special sign that God was preparing to wrap things up in a big way, and all that was left was to get a few other political powers in place. Dispensationalist Zionism survives into the new millennium in large part because of the shockingly successful Left Behind series of novels, but also because world events continue to provide raw material for terrifying speculations.

We Catholics have our own forms of eschatological speculation, although there are so many schools of thought that a newcomer can scarcely make heads or tails of them. Aside from a few clear doctrines like the Resurrection of the Dead and the Final Judgment, most of the details are up for grabs. There will be a great apostasy towards the end, and the Antichrist is likely to be a final individual opponent of Christ and his Church. Some of the other beliefs—the three days of darkness, the coming chastisement, the great monarch—are all fascinating but far less certain.

When I came into the Church, I intentionally ignored the internal eschatological speculations as much as possible, having decided that I had had my fill of those in my younger years. But an intense interest in the Second Coming is not necessarily intellectual restlessness; it is a yearning for the hope of our deliverance from this world of death and defeat. The world is a burden to us, even though it is often joyful and enlightening. Too much does this world drag us down, too much are we disillusioned by Church politics and world politics, too much are we exhausted from fighting our own concupiscence. We hear so many stories of our brethren in other parts of the world suffering and dying for the Faith, and we greatly desire the hope of Christ’s return to put an end to the futility of this life. It is a virtuous desire to see ultimate Justice have its Day.
And when he broke the fifth seal, I saw there, beneath the altar, the souls of all who had been slain for love of God’s word and of the truth they held, crying out with a loud voice, “Sovereign Lord, the holy, the true, how long now before thou wilt sit in judgement, and exact vengeance for our blood from all those who dwell on earth?” (Apoc. 6)
I do not know if the formulations of eschatological timelines is wisdom or mere idleness, but the fulfillment of Our Lady’s warnings of war should be enough for us to take her seriously. The fact that the centennial of her appearance coincides with the 500-year anniversary of Fr. Luther’s reformation should also give us pause, as should the Holy Father’s celebration of this event. We do not know what events are already in motion, whether in preparation for the end of all things, or for a temporal judgment against “those who have mastery of the world in these dark days” (Eph. 6).

The end times will not be lovely, and they will not be pleasant to live through, but our desire must always be set towards them. The final prayer of Holy Writ—“Come, Lord Jesus”—should be our constant prayer, as well. Come now in our souls, and come again to end this world.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

A Reading from the Book of Numbers (against the Variable Lectionary) UPDATED

I read them the Numbers....
source: Cornell Catholic Community's Facebook page
"Oh, Rad Trad! How are you today, Rad Trad?"

A doey, dopey eyed student asked me as I walked into the chapel for a weekday Mass during my student days. This shorts-wearing man was the perfect JP2 Catholic: young, pro-life, liturgically liberal, Ultramontane in all matters, and he read the new Catechism every night before going to sleep. A kind, simple soul of exceptional devotion whose capacity for creative thought had been circumscribed by too many sports related concussions.

"Would you like to prepare a reading today, Rad Trad?"
"If it will make you feel better, alright," I acquiesced.

I reviewed the material in the lectionary for any Hebraic words or turns of phrase that might rattle my dyslexic eyes and found none. After the Collect Opening Prayer I assumed my place at the ambo and began with the immemorial words, "A reading from the book of Numbers."

A rare thought, gentle and fleeting, like a dandelion petal, that comes to a man only a few times in his life if he is careful enough to nurture it, came to me: "What the hell am I doing?"

The year was 2011, the apogee of Benedict XVI's pontificate, which in retrospect shared much with Pius XII's in looking much better on the outside than on the inside. We were reviving the "never abrogated" 1962 Missal and calling it the "extraordinary form," sticking the Big Six on the altar of Pauline Masses, and telling ourselves that the average parish Mass is not how Paul VI really wanted it. Liturgical conferences with Scott Alcuin Reid abounded and "mutual enrichment" was the defining phrase of obedient clergy. The new Mass could learn much from the old form's prolix reverence, mystery, orientation, and sense of the sacred. But, so the other side of the enrichment went, the old Mass could be inferior to the new in any number of ways, not least of which was the expanded lectionary. As I read figures for building dimensions and storage capacity to the JP2 generation and some paid staff, I concluded the benefits of the expanded lectionary were doubtful.

Peter Kwasniewski rightly points out that the expanded lectionary has allowed grave passages of Holy Writ to be omitted or relegated to obscure times of the year so that they do not appear whenever the church is full; most infamously, St. Paul's admonition against unworthy participation in the Lord's Supper never made it into the lectionary of Paul VI. Dr. K likens the new lectionary to a Cliff Notes version of Shakespeare that includes a large quantity of material, but which censors any passages unsavory to modern ears and modern morals. Quantity over quality.

Another, less often considered problem of the new lectionary is that it drowns any sense of rhythm and thematic continuity with its "Scripture for Scripture's sake" methodology. Keeping with the motif of the Bard, Shakespeare's sonnets are best understood when read aloud so that the pattern of speech and repeated images may mature line to line. The old lectionary used a few sonnets in whole; the new lectionary reads them all in sequence, but never more than five or six of the fourteen lines at a time.

Criticism of the older lectionary and support for the pedantic three year cycle of Paul VI rest on the ahistorical assumption that the Eucharistic sacrifice is the appropriate place for ad libitum readings of Scripture. The original setting for Scriptural lessons, East and West, was the Mattins of the all-night vigil, from which only the Roman rite retained consistent readings; the Byzantine rite does maintain extensive pericopes during Vespers of Great Lent and major feasts. As with the Mass, Romans initially observed the vigil only for Sundays and great feasts, which is reflected in the coherence of the passages for the most ancient feasts (Pascha, Pentecost, Theophany, Christmas, Peter & Paul, Andrew, John the Baptist, and the like). Rome eventually followed the Constantinopolitan custom of observing the vigil every night and began to read Scriptures sequentially through different books each month. Mass, with its instructive lessons geared toward the solemnization of a particular mystery celebrated on a given day, remained unique to feasts, Sundays, and days of penance; there was no daily Mass in St. Peter's Basilica, but there was a daily Office. Local churches had particular Masses for saints more often than the Roman Church, which contented itself with Common Mass formularies for martyrs, bishops, and virgins; by the time of St. Pius V's Missal, half the days of the year were still of either Simplex of Ferial rank, so the repetition of the numerous Commons was hardly as dull and numbing as it was by the time of Papa Sarto's reforms and the rite of Iste Confessor. The considerable number of Ferial and Simplex days also permitted votive Masses of Saints and of Requiem when appropriate, providing a variety of Mass options with unified Scriptural lessons concerning the saint or mystery observed. All of this would gradually change, and perspective with it, in the years after Trent.

The Tridentine Council required the Breviary of every ordained cleric in the Latin Church. Pius V's breviary lessons are similar to those in medieval books, but subsequent popes shortened many readings to lessen priests' burden; contrary to the curt Roman Office, Cluny covered such extensive passages of Holy Writ that a monk with a bat would roam the choir during Mattins to tap anyone who had fallen asleep during the daily reading of many chapters. Mass replaced the Office as the daily observance of parishes and cathedrals, especially Mass in the spoken form, wherein words are less audible to the faithful, faithful who were often speakers of Romance tongues descended from Latin. Similarly, the number of saints multiplied and their feasts were almost always assigned a Duplex rank with a Common Mass, compelling priests to recite the same Masses week after week. By the time of Vatican I one could hardly go a week without a Mass or two that began Os iusti. Vatican I considered a two year lectionary, yet nothing came of it. The 19th and early 20th century Liturgical Movement and Ressourcement revived chatter about the limited use of Scripture in the Roman liturgy, especially when contrasted with the supposedly more Biblical protestant churches. A more tempered perspective might have led these reform-minded gentlemen to realize the Roman liturgy utilized Scripture very effectively in its structures, just not in its contemporary incarnation.

There are a few possible solutions for the limited use of Scripture in the old liturgy, at least in its various forms since the 20th century began. First and foremost would be to reduce the rank of feasts so as to allow the Ferial Mass to be repeated or a votive Mass to be said; the occurring Scripture, at least in the genuine old rite, could also be said in the Office under this scheme. Second, if Ferial Masses can be repeated provide alternative, cogent readings on the same mystery or event from other parts of Scripture, as was the Norman praxis in the middle ages; were the Roman rite to revive the octaves Pacelli removed, different readings pertaining to the feast could also be read during the eight days. Third and finally, Mattins needs to return to cathedrals, collegiate churches, and parishes, even in a reduced form for non-obligatory settings that would permit just one nocturne with the assigned readings; the rhythm of the liturgy is not in the Mass, it is in the Office, which Byzantine churches have managed to keep while Roman counterparts have to bribe the faithful with Communion to get anyone interested in a service.

One must also consider that a practicing Roman Catholic need only attend Mass on Sundays and Holy Days. Not even the most devout are able to attend Mass on a daily basis. The average Roman Christian who does what is required of him will likely hear different lessons at each Mass. Just before Pius X's changes about half of "green Sundays" would have been exceeded by feasts, often from Commons, but not the same Commons. From 1911-1955 feasts of Our Lady, St. Lawrence, the parish patron, and the Apostles could still be celebrated on Sundays, but in practice this only happened a few times a year. Since 1962 only half a dozen feasts can replace the Sunday Mass and none of them probably use Commons. The issue of a limited lectionary was belonged to a narrow segment of the Mass going population from the beginning.

If a Catholic wants to hear a variety of Scripture in a Church, would he not have been better off attending the Office all along?

Update: I seem to have neglected one other possibility for expanded, reasonable use of Scripture at Mass. What of the unique Masses for dioceses and congregations for Counter-Reformation saints that did not make it into the Roman Missal after the saints' canonization? And what of the unique Masses for pope saints suppressed by Papa Pacelli in 1942? Both could be revived without disturbing ancient texts (in the former case) and would even revive some (in the latter case).

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Josephology Appendix 3: Artistic Portrayals of the Nativity

While the figure of St. Joseph is not ubiquitous in artistic portrayals of the Nativity, he has never been entirely alien to the subject. There are various forms of Nativity-related iconography, including the Adoration of the Shepherds, the Adoration of the Magi, the Cave and the Stable, the Eucharistic Child (where the ox and the ass nibble on the Christ Child), and scenes of the Midwives. Often these forms are collapsed together in various combinations, depending on how much of the Gospel and apocryphal narratives the artist or patron wished to include.

Even though Joseph is often absent in earlier depictions, he does seem to make an appearance on this early 4th-century Roman sarcophagus at the bottom-left (most of the early Nativities on sarcophagi depict the Virgin alone):

He is present in some panels of this 6th-century cover of the Armenian Echmiadzin Gospel, though noticeably absent from the Cave and Stable panel:

This Palestinian painted box from the 6th century shows Joseph, Mary, and Christ in iconographic positions that would remain standard in the West for many centuries, and in the East until the present day. All three figures are positioned physically apart, with Joseph contemplating the scene as one not directly involved with the mystery. The Virgin appears to be pointing the Christ Child out to Joseph or to the Christian viewing the icon.

Giotto’s fresco of the Nativity in the early 14th century still has a discernible connection to the earlier iconographic tradition. Although Mary is now holding the Christ Child, St. Joseph still sits apart, with a look either contemplative or sullen.

The medieval books of hours often included an illustration of the Nativity. This book of the Use of Rome from Paris, France (late 14th or early 15th century) shows St. Joseph huddled up against the cold next to the Virgin’s bed, without even a glimpse of his face:

The late 14th-century mystical visions of St. Brigit of Sweden instigated a major change in the depiction of the Adoration of the Christ Child. This passage especially marks a change in how Joseph is imagined in the Nativity scene:
When these things therefore were accomplished, the old man entered; and prostrating on the earth, he adored him on bended knee and wept for joy. Not even at the birth was that Virgin changed in color or by infirmity. Nor was there in her any such failure of bodily strength as usually happens in other women giving birth, except that her swollen womb retracted to the prior state in which it had been before she conceived the boy. Then, however, she arose, holding the boy in her arms; and together both of them, namely, she and Joseph, put him in the manger, and on bended knee they continued to adore him with gladness and immense joy. (source)
This painting by Niccolò di Tommaso (ca. 1372) is the first known representation of St. Brigit’s vision, in this regard. For the first time Joseph and Mary are mirrored in their placement and action.

Another example from a late 15th-century book of hours from France:

There are exceptions. The 16th-century Hours of Joanna the Mad, commissioned from the Flemish Gerard Horenbout, unusually depicts a stable-based Adoration without Joseph anywhere present:

The new iconography became standardized in the West, but with eventual modifications. For instance, St. Joseph is sometimes shown standing behind the kneeling or seated Virgin, perhaps to stand on guard or to better facilitate the sudden influx of visitors to the stable. St. Brigit’s vision of the Mother and Step-Father of Christ adoring in unison was becoming less ubiquitous, but Joseph in return became a more imposing figure.

Charles Le Brun’s 17th-century painting shows the Nativity scene as it had eventually become more frequently commissioned:

Today’s more popular crèche scenes of miniature statuary are usually patterned either after the Brigitean double-adoration…

…or the later “Joseph at the Ready” version:

The subject of the Nativity has lost some of its fashion in favor of images of the Holy Family, but it remains at least a seasonally prominent subject.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Francis the White

"So you have come, Gandalf," he said to me gravely; but in his eyes there seemed to be a white light, as if a cold laughter was in his heart.

"Yes, I have come," I said. "I have come for your aid, Saruman the White." And that title seemed to anger him.

"Have you indeed, Gandalf the Grey!" he scoffed.... "For I am Saruman the Wise, Saruman Ring-maker, Saruman of Many Colours!"

I looked then and saw that his robes, which had seemed white, were not so, but were woven of all colours, and if he moved they shimmered and changed hue so that the eye was bewildered.

"I liked white better," I said.

"White!" he sneered. "It serves as a beginning. White cloth may be dyed. The white page can be overwritten; and the white light can be broken."

"In which case it is no longer white," said I. "And he that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom."...

"I have not brought you hither to be instructed by you, but to give you a choice.... We must have power, power to order all things as we will, for that good which only the Wise can see.... We can bide our time, we can keep our thoughts in our hearts, deploring maybe evils done by the way, but approving the high and ultimate purpose: Knowledge, Rule, Order.... There need not be, there would not be, any real change in our designs, only in our means."

"Saruman," I said, "I have heard speeches of this kind before, but only in the mouths of emissaries sent from Mordor to deceive the ignorant. I cannot think that you brought me so far only to weary my ears."

[From The Fellowship of the Ring, by J.R.R. Tolkien]

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Abrogation & Obedience

Upon Rorate's predictably sensationalistic report from Sandro Magister that Papa Peron will consider the "correction" of Summorum Pontificum and the 1962 liturgy, I thought immediately of a passing reference Fr. John Hunwicke made today to "Duffy's Parson Trichay" who "clung on" to older ways during the Edwardian and Elizabethian ages.

A suppression or limitation of the 1962 liturgy would cast a dubious shadow over much of the Church, at least in America, outside of parishes exclusively dedicated to the Rite of Econe. Supposedly there are 500 Pian-Johannine Masses, or Mass locations, in the United States every Sunday, the vast majority of them not under the Fraternity of St. Peter or the Institute of Christ the King; the text quotes figures for diocesan presence, so one may doubt the Fraternity of St. Pius X's considerable number of priories are included.

What would happen if Bishop Fellay signed the dotted line, Rome gave the Fraternity a personal prelature with immunity in their current locations, and Francis reconfigured Summorum back to Ecclesia Dei levels, when occasional Masses were permitted only with the expressed consent of the bishop? Surely the FSSP, FSSPX, Institute of Christ the King, and monasteries dedicated to the '62 rite would be left alone, but the majority of Masses would forcibly vanish. If a devout Catholic learned anything during the 1950s and 1960s he learned that the average cleric sees obedience to immediate, visible authority as the equivalent of right and wrong, even if the authority deems wrong what had once been right. Obedience is a means of preserving faith, not the actual faith.

Enter "Duffy's Parson Trichay," whose name was Sir Christopher Trychay (rhymes with "Dickey"). Sir Christopher—named when priests were called Sir or Mister—was ordained in 1515 and served the parish of St. George in Morebath, Devon from that year until his death in 1574. Early in priesthood, Trichay added statues and shrines to saints of popular devotion; Sir Christopher prayed frequently to St. Sidwell, a 6th century virgin martyred in the same county. The medievals sought the intercession of the saints for their common problems; their faith was casual, but that does not mean it was shallow or superficial. Townsfolk donated money at the shrines and bought candles from the St. George's to burn perpetually before the statues and icons of their favorite saints. Sir Christopher used the money from the "stores" to fund the parish's charitable functions, including the laudable participation of five men in the 1549 Prayer Book Rebellion. In 1538, amid Henry's dissolution and thievery among the English monasteries, Trychay gave his Missal, the relics of saints, holy images, and candles to various faithful so that when the authorities came to confiscate his Papist paraphernalia he could hold his hands up in innocence, all the while hoping he might one day call upon his parishioners to use the sacred objects and say the Mass again. In the mean time he used the Prayer Book and a wooden table and did not promote the veneration of saints. His patience was rewarded two years later when Mary assumed the throne and churches resumed the old ways. It was to be short lived. Mary died before the end of the decade with a considerable number of vacant episcopal sees for "Henry Tudor's bastard daughter" to fill. Sir Christopher again hid his Missal, relics, and images with the faithful and resumed the Prayer Book in hopes of another return to Catholicism. Alas, his patience protestantism would not be rewarded this time and the Mass never returned. Sir Christopher Trychay was buried under where the Catholic altar once stood.

He died obedient.

500 Mass locations is a drop in the water compared to the 18,000 (and shrinking) parishes in the United States, yet the opportunity to celebrate the odd 1962 Mass is a treat to most priests condemned to mundane parish life. Will they push back or be obedient as Sir Christopher if that day comes?

One remembers that after the introduction of the completely revamped liturgy in 1970 many priests chose retirement over the "Novus Ordo." Should their dichotomy have been "Will I say the new order or retire" or "Should I say the new order or refuse"? Many would-be opponents, like Cardinal Siri or the priests of the archdiocese of Baltimore, obeyed and left the few dissidents in a liturgical and spiritual ghetto where the FSSP and FSSPX now live. One wonders if Lefebvre would have gone as far as he did if a cardinal or archbishop somewhere not nearing retirement age had the fortitude to say "Not just no, but hell no" independently of the Gallican missionary.

In the mean time, Pre-Pius XII never looked so attractive, or at least so mute a point of contention by its opponents! Buy now while you have the chance!

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Contentions via the Holy Family

Joseph and his brethren, the iconic unhappy family.
A recent sermon at Tradistan was cause for some unfortunate Joseph-related debate. Speaking on the occasion of the feast of the Holy Family (instituted in 1893), the priest talked about Catholic family life from the perspective of the Household of Nazareth. The sermon was decent enough, and the lessons drawn for Catholic family life were not unreasonable, but the priest’s opinion of St. Joseph’s virginity and confirmation in grace after his marriage to the Virgin sparked some previously calm disagreement between friends into dissension.

My own opinions on St. Joseph are well known among my close friends, not only by His Traddiness and my bride. Recently it has become a point of contention in a larger group of friends, drawing a line between those with a devotion to Young St. Joseph and those who prefer Old St. Joseph. The Tradistani sermon further sparked a flurry of text messages, arguments in the parish hall, and emails to the priest, most of which I successfully avoided until later in the day. By the time I was able to catch up on this activity, the various parties had more or less sullenly retreated to their own corners, still certain of their own opinions and no longer willing to engage in debate.

Thankfully, my wife is on my side on this matter, as she is with so many things. I have no doubt we will be putting up an image of Young St. Joseph somewhere in the home, if only because it was a gift from a friend or family member. Such are the small compromises that one makes for the sake of a happy family and social life. She has suggested I compile and edit all of my original Josephology series into a book format and think about publishing it, although I cannot think of any Catholic publisher—traddy or neo-conservative—who would be interested in printing such a volume. Even the now-defunct Thomas A. Nelson publishing house would never print something so traditional. Nonetheless, while agreement on things like St. Joseph’s age and marital history might be objectively minor, such an harmony of thought can be a major step towards long-term familial happiness.

Among friends, disagreements on minor matters can be a cause for good-humored ribbing, intensely engaging debate, or miserable complaints. It’s a pity when the latter ends up being the case. Damage control is always tedious work, especially when most of the damage is self-inflicted. Those who are unwilling to put in the work to research a topic are too often the loudest at expressing their opinion, and do not know how to react to an intellectual argument except for a quick retreat paired with an unimpressive Parthian shot.

When the priest in question finally responded to my friend’s email, he admitted that he was unsure if Joseph had been married before the Annunciation, but doubted it. The casual misuse of words, like “virginity” when “chastity” is meant, can cause great problems, it would seem. Ideas have consequences, and so do intellectual mistakes. St. Jerome’s fabulation of a vowed-to-virginity St. Joseph certainly has had consequences some 1600 years later, including the occasional haze of stubbornness and hurt feelings. I remember a similar argument with a good friend that ended in him spitefully shutting it down when he thought it absurd that the perpetual virginity of Mary had anything whatsoever to do with physical integrity, in spite of the theology of the Church Fathers. The cause of his reaction was a simple-minded emotionalism about certain aspects of womanhood (especially not wishing women to feel bad about certain… incidents) and an assumption that the Patristic position was due to their sexual naïveté. That friendship survived, but in a noticeably altered form after I refused to back down.

Emotion sometimes gets the better of the intellectual life, and devotionalism often has an emotional spillage that goes to great lengths to protect the object of devotion. Such was Jerome’s zeal to protect the belief in Mary’s perpetual virginity that he created for her a celibate warrior-bodyguard from whom she need never fear any lusty rudeness. But truth can not allow its terms to be dictated by emotion, no matter how well-placed they may be. The heart must learn what is lovable from the head, or else the soul ends up like the old image of Phyllis riding on Aristotle’s back: reason subjected to desire, in a kind of inversion of the story of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife.

Be like Joseph, instead.