Yesterday’s radicals are today’s old farts. This is a loose quotation of something I read somewhere recently. It was to do with la bise, the French tradition of kissing each other on the cheek as a greeting. In the 1960s the student protestors promoted it as an instrument of social equalisation and hierarchical disintegration. Now a French provincial mayor is refusing to give la bise to her colleagues because, given its own conventions, it is sexist and time-wasting (with up to 73 colleagues to kiss each morning one can have some sympathy for her). The question looms: will yesterday’s radicals who championed it rush to its defence or conform to this new, emerging orthodoxy? Will they be conservatives or conformists?
Hang on! Aren’t “conservative” and “conformist” synonyms? Surely a conservative is one who does not like change and conforms to the status quo? The problem lies in the definition of conservative:
Averse to change or innovation and holding traditional values
In the modern context this seems a highly problematic, even obsolete, definition. For the status quo today is anything but traditional. Just look at the Conservative Party in the UK, traditionally referred to as the Tories. Toryism historically was concerned with social order, monarchist and high-church Anglican in its outlook. Today these principles have yielded to an almost exclusive concern, obsession even, with economics and a desire to win elections and, in between these ballots, to win opinion polls. L’affaire Brexit has brought into sharp relief the Conservative identity crisis. To be Conservative today, in a political sense, is not necessarily to hold “traditional values” at all.
Likewise, perhaps even more so, in a religious sense to be “conservative” is indeed to be averse to change of a certain type, but not necessarily to hold to tradition. Today’s Catholic conservatives are not the traditionalists. Today’s Catholic conservatives are those who, having championed the post-conciliar reforms (which they misleadingly equate to championing the Council), doggedly refuse to agree to any change away from them. Since so many of the reforms already enacted, and which they still advocate, have little real basis in the documents of the Council let alone in the tradition of the Church, what they seek to conserve is not the Council but a movement, a movement partly of their own creation.
Sadly for them, the world has changed and their movement has nothing in it to resist the waves of socio-political confusion that are sweeping the world. They have nothing of any weight to employ in arguing against Donald Trump, because his brand of populism and anti-establishment rhetoric is spookily akin to their own. They have nothing to offer by way of a Catholic perspective in the current issues of “gender identity” because their arguments are essentially secular, and transgenderism etc is the new secular orthodoxy. If the documents of Vatican II are, for the hardcore, merely starting points for an ongoing process of change, they can offer no resistance (if they even want to) but must allow themselves to be swept along by the tide of secular social evolution and revolution.
But to this “event theology” understanding of the Council they are wedded, and they will not change it. Anyone who argues against it, or advocates restoration of the many babies thrown out with the bathwater, is accused of “turning the clock back”, the only forbidden change. This accusation is a bit rich coming from those whose own clocks stopped decades ago. No matter, for example, that the liturgical reforms made in the name of the Council (though often explicitly against its letter) and intended to make accessible the liturgy to modern (ie 1960s) man saw an immediate exodus from the pews. This mass alienation (pardon the pun) was excused as a necessary price of establishing the new Vision, or was conveniently and unverifiably blamed on the very forces and Zeitgeist that the reforms were intended to address.
Of course, it is true that it is more than the liturgical reforms that led to the mass exodus from the pews, the seminaries and the convents. The liturgical reforms are arguably only the most immediately visible element of the wider reform agenda that was implemented. Yet without the liturgy that had been the rock of stability and Catholic identity throughout nearly two millennia of incredible social, political, economic and technological change, there was no safe place left for so many people to stand their ground and dispassionately assess the changes in society. With the liturgy having become less distinct from the world, and indeed often incorporating the worst of secular banalities in music, symbols and gestures, what was the point of the liturgy any more? If it is just another socially-contingent construct, then it could be embraced or forsaken according to taste.
Yet the new conservatives, as any reader of The Tablet will know, cling doggedly and defiantly to their post-conciliar vision of the Church, ever more shrill in shouting down those who dare to say that their emperor has no clothes.
Today “traditional values” in Catholicism are held not by the conservatives but by the radicals, most of whom are young and articulate, possessing the native impatience of the young for the cloying sentimentality of the aged. Yet, unlike the modern conservatives in the days of their own youth, today’s radicals are far more indulgent of their elders, far less totalitarian and dogmatic, disposed to “live and let live” in a way today’s conservatives never were.
It really does seem ridiculous now to employ the description conservative in Catholic circles. There are three predominant streams in contemporary Catholicism, in the West at least: the consensus Catholics, who will agree to almost anything if it is done in the name of the Church and keeps the peace; the status quo Catholics who adhere to the agenda of post-conciliar reform come what may; and the radical Catholics who look to the unchanging essence of the Faith in tradition as the key to the Council and the only hope for renewing the vigour of the Church.
Many will disagree with the line put forth above. Since this has not been published in Acta Apostolicae Sedis it does not claim to be part of the Church’s magisterium, and so one is entitled to disagree. Indeed I am haunted by the words of St John Chrysostom in a Christmas homily of his that we heard in Matins earlier this week: when you base your beliefs on your own ideas, perceive your danger. Maybe we should all meditate a little on the saint’s warning.
Happy New Year!