Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The semantics of reform

It is interesting how the same word can mean two different things to different people. In linguistics this is called semantics, which means the relation between the word itself and the thing or idea that the word refers to. All words are symbols which refer to other realities. It is by a common understanding of what these symbols refer to that we can have meaningful communication. If we are using the same semantics, I can say "tree" and we both will have the same idea in our heads. But if we are operating on different semantic principles, communication becomes muddled and can even be cut off completely. For example, if I say "tree" and I think of a tree but you think of a bicycle, we are going to have a harder time communicating. Different semantics is why we cannot understand an unlearned foreign language. When somebody from Germany comes up to me and says Bleistift, I have no corresponding idea to associate with the word-symbol, and thus the word has no meaning for me (by the way, click here to see a picture of a Bleistift).

You can see how semantics are tremendously important. The Scholastics understood how important semantics were, and thus always began any discussion by defining the terms that were to be used, so that both parties were on common ground in the disputation. It was simply taken for granted that unless both parties meant the same thing by the words they were using, all fruitful discussion became not only pointless but impossible. Semantics are tremendously important.

But look at how the concept of a clearly defined semantics has been downplayed in modern culture. What do people say when you start debating over them with the meaning of the words they are using? "That's just a semantics!" they reply scornfully, as if to say that semantics were a non-essential element to conversation. For example, a Protestant might accuse Catholics of the "unbiblical" belief of Mary ascending into heaven. At this point, you stop the conversation to point out that Mary did not ascend into heaven but was assumed, two entirely different concepts. The Protestant interrupts and says, "Don't get bogged down in semantics! You know what I mean!" That's precisely the problem: unless we get bogged down in semantics, we have no way of knowing what anybody means. Ascension and Assumption are two different ideas, and the terms need to be defined and agreed upon before there can be any dialogue. Otherwise, it is just chasing shadows. Modern man downplays the importance of semantics, because it allows him and his ideas to thrive in the ambiguous land of the grayscale, of uncertainty and fluidity of meaning, the place where lies and deceit can most easily take hold because they are so easily mistaken for truth in the logical fog that is created.

Semantics is a big problem when talking about the reform of the Church. It is an axiom of Church discipline that the Church is always in need of reform, as it says in Lumen Gentium 8. But the ideas of what "reform" means to different people are so widely varied that at this point it is almost useless to speak of reform unless you are speaking with somebody who already agrees with you. There is a big difference between the reform imagined by Luther and Melancthon and the reform envisioned by St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross. This ought to lead us to ask ourselves: what does it really mean to reform the Catholic religion?

Authentic Catholic reform is always viewed in terms of a going back to our roots. Not in the false and superficial way proposed by the heresy of archaeologism, wherein we simply shed whatever legitimate and organic developments came after the patristic period, but the kind of going back to our roots where we are consistently measuring our lives and spirituality against the level set by Christ and seeing if it measures up. We look to Christ's message, and also to how it was lived out by the great saints who came before us. This is why these people are saints: by their lives and holiness they witness to the truth and power of Christ's message and serve as worthy examples for all of us to emulate. True Catholic reform means we reevaluate our modern course of action in light of the heroes of ages past and bring ourselves back to that perennial standard, just as Teresa of Avila wanted to emulate the early hermits and St. Francis wanted to live in poverty as the Apostles. True Catholic reform takes the fullness of all that was good about the past and reconstitutes it in the present for the glory of God and the life of the Church. This was the mentality of the Counter-Reformation and the work of St. Ignatius Loyola.

But what about the other definition of reform, the one used by progressive Catholics? To them, reform usually means a break from the past. This "reform" often is a code-word for a radical break with what came before, which is viewed as time-bound, too ritualistic and superstitious for modern man. This view of reform means that we reevaluate the past in light of the present, and we jettison from our Tradition whatever does not meet the perceived tastes and needs of modern man. For example, take this blog Progressive Catholic Reflections, which calls for "Twenty Church Reforms." Now, I am all for reform, but what reform does he have in mind? Well, listed among his twenty reforms are the ordination of women priests, the imposition of democratic elections of bishops, and the giving of more authority to local episcopal conferneces and synods (God forbid!). So, these ideas of reform are clearly not the same thing as the ideal of reform posed by the great saints and doctors of our glorious history. For some, reform means throwing out things, deciding what to pitch and what to keep, as if we were cleaning out an old garage full of junk. What a tragic ecclesiological view that sees God's Church not as a temple filled with treasures but as a garage in need of spring cleaning!

I do not believe I am saying anything new hear, but merely explicating what we have all noticed and been irritated with for years. All of the atrocities carried out in the name of reform, all of the altars removed, the tables set up, the heresy preached, the discipline relaxed, all in the name of a false and vain reform! Let's return to a true Catholic vision of reform, one in which we do not seek to throw away the past because it does not conform to our depraved and deviant generation, but one which weeps over the sins of our generation and humbly begs God for the grace to live up to the stature and example set by the heroes of old.

Our reform is more of a renovation, or a restoration, like a man who buys an old Victorian house and restores all of the original woodwork and trim and paints it anew so that all can enjoy the beauty that it had when it was young. On the other hand, the progressive "reform" is like a man who buys an old Victorian house, demolishes it, and builds a crappy little Pulte house in place of it that looks like every other house in the world, all the while insisting that it is "basically the same house." Our reform of the Church is nothing other than the restoration of her great heritage.

St. Teresa de Avila, ora pro nobis!

1 comment:

Alexander said...


“It remains for Us now to say a few words about the Modernist as reformer. From all that has preceded, it is abundantly clear how great and how eager is the passion of such men for innovation. In all Catholicism there is absolutely nothing on which it does not fasten. They wish philosophy to be reformed, especially in the ecclesiastical seminaries. They wish the scholastic philosophy to be relegated to the history of philosophy and to be classed among absolute systems, and the young men to be taught modern philosophy which alone is true and suited to the times in which we live. They desire the reform of theology: rational theology is to have modern philosophy for its foundation, and positive theology is to be founded on the history of dogma. As for history, it must be written and taught only according to their methods and modern principles. Dogmas and their evolution, they affirm, are to be harmonized with science and history. In the Catechism no dogmas are to be inserted except those that have been reformed and are within the capacity of the people. Regarding worship, they say, the number of external devotions is to he reduced, and steps must be taken to prevent their further increase, though, indeed, some of the admirers of symbolism are disposed to be more indulgent on this head. They cry out that ecclesiastical government requires to be reformed in all its branches, but especially in its disciplinary and dogmatic departments They insist that both outwardly and inwardly it must be brought into harmony with the modern conscience which now wholly tends towards democracy; a share in ecclesiastical government should therefore be given to the lower ranks of the clergy and even to the laity and authority which is too much concentrated should be decentralized The Roman Congregations and especially the index and the Holy Office, must be likewise modified The ecclesiastical authority must alter its line of conduct in the social and political world; while keeping outside political organizations it must adapt itself to them in order to penetrate them with its spirit. With regard to morals, they adopt the principle of the Americanists, that the active virtues are more important than the passive, and are to be more encouraged in practice. They ask that the clergy should return to their primitive humility and poverty, and that in their ideas and action they should admit the principles of Modernism; and there are some who, gladly listening to the teaching of their Protestant masters, would desire the suppression of the celibacy of the clergy. What is there left in the Church which is not to be reformed by them and according to their principles?”

It sounds horribly familiar.