Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Retrieving a lost Catholic vocabulary

Readers of this blog may remember my protests about what political correctness has done to English grammar. I've started keeping a list of examples, and here's a stellar example of what I have in mind from an essay by an otherwise intelligent individual:
"If a human being is not an end in themselves, they can more easily be seen as a 'burden to society' if they cannot make a 'contribution.'"
It's sheer butchery, of course. Imagine trying to teach English as a foreign language with grammar like that. I can just imagine the quizzical looks on the faces of the corporate executives in Japan whom I used to tutor in English conversation!

But there is another way in which the language of Catholic faith and life is being eroded and lost today by pressures from a culture in many ways at odds with it. There are many examples that come to mind: one now "takes" (rather than "receives") Holy Communion; "attends" (rather than "assists at") Mass; "has sex" (rather than "conjugal relations"), etc. These and a host of other examples might serve could each serve as the subject of a separate essay on its implications, whether theological, spiritual, social, or psychological.

"Tradition" and its cognates ("traditional," "traditionalist") are among the most surprising examples in recent memory, however, which have now come to be used increasingly as pejorative terms for a subset of Catholics who hold fast to older traditions of the Church supposedly displaced since the Second Vatican Council.

On my journey to the Catholic Faith, which began in 1987 before being received in the Church in 1993, those who sought to dissuade me constantly pitted the "living Word of God" (the Bible) over against the "vain traditions of man" (Col. 2:8) allegedly represented by Catholicism. So entrenched was this animus against Catholic tradition, that one of my Protestant theology professors, James Payton, Jr. to his credit pointed out that the evangelical New International Version (NIV) of the Bible explicitly attempts to "de-Catholicize" those passages where Paul commends the Church's traditions (1 Cor 11:2, 1 Thes 2:15; 3:6) by translating the Greek word for "traditions" as "teachings," while translating the remaining ten references which are all negative as "traditions" (as in vain and empty "traditions of man").

Cardinal Newman famously wrote that "to be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant." To be Catholic, as he showed me, was to be rooted in and hold fast to the apostolic traditions passed down to us, to be enriched by the immense wealth of resources offered by that apostolic legacy as it grew from the original acorn into a flourishing oak tree under the indefectible guidance of the Holy Ghost -- He Who was promised "to lead us into all truth" (Jn 16:13). As the New Testament emerged from the Old, as the Mass emerged from the Passover of our Lord, as Gregorian chant emerged from Hebrew Psalmody, so I viewed Catholicism as emerging from the particular covenant with Israel as the new universal covenant, the branch from the wild (Gentile) olive tree grafted into the natural (Jewish) tree and nourished by its singular root (Rm 11:13-25). To be Catholic meant, as being Jewish did for Tevye, to be rooted in tradition.

Imagine my surprise upon entering the cathedral of Catholicism, then, only to encounter throngs of Catholics running for the door to escape anything remotely traditional, Catholics intent on losing everything but the experience of the present moment, with "hymns" (I use the term loosely), worship, and spirituality that looked more like everything I thought I was leaving behind in the backwaters of provincial populist hayseed fundamentalism than anything I had read about in books. In fact it was closer to a synthesis of Lawrence Welk and Peter, Paul, and Mary, but aggiornamento gone to seed, all the same.

Apparently today it's not enough to be self-identified as a "Catholic." If one expresses a certain sort of discomfort with the drift of things over the last fifty years since the council, if he prefers the liturgy that was displaced by the post-Vatican II Mass of 1970, he must be referred to somewhat suspiciously as a "traditionalist." I have heard some of the otherwise nicest people refer to such Catholics in the most sneeringly dismissive tones as "traditionalists." "He goes to the Tridentine Mass," they say. "He's gone traditionalist," they say, in the tone of voice that suggests the moral equivalent of "apostate."

On the one hand, I suppose just as the pejorative epithet "Yankee" was embraced with pride by the colonial patriots, Catholics who eschew the NewChurch kool aid could also embrace the term "traditionalist" and simply "own it." On the other hand, I'm quite taken with the recent suggestion of Elliot Bougis, which suggests an alternative closer to what Confucius meant by the "rectification of names" -- in this instance, eschewing revisionist qualifiers and simply retrieving the integrity of simple Catholic language as it was used before the revolution:
Instead of saying, I “assist at the [Traditional] Latin Mass”, let us say, with the pride that can [come] only from a consistent embrace of our patrimony, I “assist at the Mass, but I sometimes assist at the New Mass when the need arises.”
Yet again:
If [the modern Church] wants to be known as a New Order, let the Novus Ordo be known as the New Mass. We Consistent Christian Catholics must drop all revisionist qualifiers about THE MASS and treat the Novus Ordo as it wants to be treated: as the New Mass. This in no way suggests that the New Mass is illicit or invalid, nor does it seek to insinuate any inferiority of the New Mass. It is simply an attempt, heeding Orwell’s advice cited above, to reverse the revisionist corruption of language in the modern Church, whereby a liturgy that’s younger than most of the priests offering it is spoken of as the default expression of Catholic worship, while the oldest form of Christian liturgy is looked down upon as some kind of deviant, decadent innovation.