Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Traditionalism and "Negativity"

One ofter hears the criticism that Traditionalists frequently come off as arrogant or cranky. The accusation is that Trads, while sometimes pointing out real problems in the Church, seem to take a perverse pleasure in focusing on the negative in a spirit of antagonism and spite. I admit that this can be true at times - I have had my own experiences with cranky, mean-spirited Traditionalists, and at times I have been one myself. I don't think this has much import on whether or not Traditionalist positions are valid, but it does make it that much more difficult to convince skeptics if we look like we are in a constant state of antagonistic pessimism. It is an easy attitude to fall into (for everyone, not just Trads) and I have tried to make certain that I keep the virtue of hope alive in my heart and remember Whose Church this is that we all belong to and love.

But of course, if (as can happen) I or other Traditionalists falter in our duty to be charitable, or perhaps if we improperly single out a specific individual for ridicule, the immediate hue and cry is raised by opponents of Traditionalism that Trads are mean-spirited, arrogant, and that we lack the "authority" to make any sweeping condemnations of persons, especially persons within the established Church who have long credentials and lots of letters after their names. Dave Armstrong has said in his critiques of Traditionalism that one of the great "errors" of our position is to found in the attitude or spirit with which we approach things. I don't see how an attitude or a "spirit" can be an error, but I understand what he is getting at. Unfortunately, this stigma of the cranky, mean-spirited Traditionalist seems to have stuck to a degree. While the label is sometimes deserved, I also think it is too quickly applied, so that any time a Traditionalist takes issue with anything or questions or critiques anybody, it is taken as further evidence of Traditionalist arrogance and antagonism.

It is my contention that, while the stereotype of the accusatory trad is sometimes true, that there is nevertheless a double-standard at work here. Consider the cover of First Things for the January 2010 issue. Take a look (sorry I couldn't find a bigger pic):

Pete Seeger is a communist? Mitch Albom is an idiot? These are the headline articles on the cover of First Things? I can understand that the editors of First Things might disagree with some aspects of Mitch Albom's work, but to just say "Mitch Albom is an idiot" on the cover? What would happen if I or Athanasius or any Trad published an article in a print journal about someone we disagreed with with a title like "John Doe is a Heretic" or "Fr. Bob Johnson is an Ignoramus" (made-up names so as to not offend anybody)? Can you imagine how we would be decried as mean-spirited and overly confrontational?

I believe that sometimes we need to simply say, "So-and-so is an idiot." There is a great story that I recall from the life of St. John Vianney - one time a young theologian came from the big city to speak with St. John; as the two strolled through the lanes of Ars, the theologian told St. John about all the newfangled theories of a then nascent modernism that he was picking up and tried to explain to St. John how his traditional faith was too simplistic for modern man. Vianney listened and nodded until the young man was finished, at which point he smiled, put his hand on the theologian's shoulder and said, "My friend, you are an idiot" (This story is in Fr. Rutler's biography of St. John, though I quote it only from memory here).

No doubt this theologian was an idiot and St. John thought he deserved to be told so. Perhaps the editors of First Things believe Mitch Albom to be an idiot and feel he needs to be told. I concede that sometimes such statements may be necessary - and that theoretically I suppose it is possible to call somebody and "idiot" in a spirit of charity. But my quandry is this - I believe that the readers of First Things, and the orthodox Catholic community at large, will probably give First Things a pass on this cover. They will probably smile and think to themselves, "Ooh... I wonder what First Things has to say about Albom or Seeger?" and eagerly delve into the magazine in curiosity. I don't think they will question whether or not such titles are appropriate or charitable. Some might even make the argument that Albom is indeed an idiot and needs to be called so; perhaps, but one thing is for sure, if some Traditionalist were to take up a similar tone in an article, there would be sound condemnation from mainstream Catholics, who would probably accuse the said Trad of being mean-spirited. This is what I am getting at when I mention a double-standard when it comes to the issue of calling people arrogant or mean-spirited.

"But Boniface," some may say, "that's different. Mitch Albom is a secular Jewish radio host, not a Catholic, nor is Pete Seeger a Catholic. Trads, however, routinely focus their criticism on other Catholics and members of the hierarchy."

Look, as I said, I do think Trads need to be careful about being overly critical and hypersensitive. Point taken. But to the objection that Album and Seeger are not Catholics, are we then saying that it is okay to call non-Catholics idiots in print but that somehow it is wrong if the object of the criticism is Catholic? If this were so, this would mean that moral badness of insulting someone would reside not in what was said but in whether the person the insult was made against was Catholic or not, as if only Catholics and persons in the Catholic hierarchy have a right to a good name and non-Catholics don't. That would be preposterous.

"Okay Boniface, I agree that First Things shouldn't have just put those claims on the title. But perhaps they are substantiated by the article. What evidence do the authors bring forth to prove Mitch Albom's idiocy or Pete Seeger's communism?"

Even if the articles do support these claims, does that really justify calling someone an idiot on the front of your magazine? Even if we did have good evidence to support the conclusion that Napoleon made some serious tactical blunders at Waterloo, would any self-respecting historian entitle his article "Napoleon was a Moron"? Nobody who wanted to be taken seriously would speak in such a way. Incidentally, the Mitch Albom article is just a book review of Albom's new book, which the reviewer takes an obvious dislike to. The Seeger article is about the left-leaning sympathies of most folk musicians of the 1960's. But I think it is inconsequential whether or not the articles justify the claims - the point is that such a blanket statement - on the cover of your magazine - is uncharitable, and if I were to write such headlines as a Trad, I would be roundly condemned and it would be taken as further evidence of the "mean spiritedness" of Traditionalism.

What do I take away from this? The reality that (in my opinion) if you are a mainstream Catholic commentator with some letters after your name and some good connections, you can get away with calling people idiots on the front of your magazine. But when Traditionalists do things like questioning whether or not John Paul II should be canonized, suggesting that there may be ambiguity in Vatican II documents or criticizing certain modern theologians for novel ideas, we are mean spirited, quasi-schismatic Church-bashers who lack the authority to make these judgments. Maybe there is a factor I am missing - perhaps I am drawing parallels where none exist; if you think so, please let me know. But I am just calling it like I see it.

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