Sunday, February 21, 2010

Zmirak on Converts

Last Fall I did a post over on Athanasius Contra Mundum entitled "Converts and Traditionalism," in which I posited the theory that Catholic converts from Protestantism bring to the Church a certain mentality that can make it difficult for them to accept Traditionalist arguments in favor of restoring a lot of the discarded "externals" of our faith's tradition. In the post I used myself as a reference point (being a revert to the faith from charismatic Protestantism) and explained how it took some time for me after my return to the Church to start seeing the beauty of Traditional Catholicism, and perceive that much had been lost by rejecting this beauty.

The article was very controversial, as many accused me of labeling Protestant converts as second-class Catholics or saying that they were crypto-Protestants. Dave Armstrong even jumped on the bandwagon and did a rebuttal of the post over at his blog. It was never my intent to make these accusations against Protestant converts, and I do not believe I ever made these assertions. At any rate, I deny that a convert from Protestantism is not as "good' as a cradle Catholic; I did say (and I maintain) that a convert-from-Protestantism-mentality does color the way we see things once we return to the Church.

It is interesting, however, that John Zmirak has recently said essentially the same thing in an article on Inside Catholic, which you can find in its entirety here. This is a pretty good article; Zmirak talks about the non-Trad confusion over apparent Trad fixation on "mere externals." This is, I think, one of the central ideas of Traditionalism - that alleged inessentials were not as inessential as once thought. He also draws an interesting parallel between Summorum Pontificum and the Emancipation Proclamation, saying that for the past few decades Trads lived under a liturgical "Jim Crow" situation.

Interestingly enough, Zmirak calls out converts Mark Shea (whom he describes as his "delightfully contentious colleague") and Dale Ahlquist as exemplifying the non-Trad position on these mere externals. He specifically says that:

Like the good Mr. Shea, [Dale Ahlquist] is a convert, and he shared with Mark a puzzlement at the apparent fixation traditionalists have on restoring former elements of the liturgy and other Catholic practices that are not essential, and resisting innovations that are not inherently evil. Having come from churches that didn't have the Eucharist, and remaining through God's grace flush with gratitude for the sacraments, many converts really don't understand what the rest of us are nattering on about.

Notice that he specifically states that this non-Trad "puzzlement" on Traditionalist gripes is a direct result of converting from Protestantism - from "having come from churches that didn't have the Eucharist."

I can't say I wholeheartedly agree with Zmirak in everything he says here; in my article, I merely posited that there was perhaps a connection. Zmirak takes this possibility and states it as a certainty. But I do use this example to point out that it is not that off the wall or judgmental to suggest that converts may have a difficult time initially getting to the crux of what Trads are all "upset" about. Zmirak is a relatively mainstream author, a loyal Catholic and one who adheres firmly to Vatican II; he is by no means a dissenter or one with a "quasi-schismatic mentality." Yet even he recognizes that converting from Protestantism can have an effect on the way one perceives the Traditionalist position. I will not cite anyone as examples of this except myself, remembering that it took years after my return to the Church (and years of study) to start to even understand the Traditionalist point of view, and to see that "mere externals" are not that "mere" and that sometimes an inessential is more essential than we think.

I would certainly disavow any position that would assert that Protestant converts need to be suspect - and I think Zmirak would take this position as well. The writings of Mark Shea were influential in my own journey to the Church, and Dale Ahlquist has done some excellent work in keeping Chesterton in the place of prominence that he deserves. We are not at all talking about who is "better" Catholics, but about states of mind, and whether one's point of origin has an effect on one's state of mind, which I think is obviously so. And of course states of mind, opinions and beliefs about these things change over time. Trads ought never view themselves as "better" than any other Catholics, especially since the Scriptures warn us that the just man is barely saved (1 Pet. 4:18). Though there are different levels of merit, ultimately all of us get into heaven "by the skin of our teeth" in some sense. There is no room for arrogance.

Then why bother even pointing out the differences? Because the Catholic Church as a whole - Trad, non-Trad, liberal, mainstream, whatever - is in an identity crisis. Who are we, and what does it mean to be Catholic? What does a Catholic life look like? These questions of identity;,far from being useless and divisive, are I think some of the most important issues Catholics can examine. I tend to take the position that Traditionalism exemplifies a more perfect continuity with the fullness of Tradition than other non-Trad manifestations of the faith, and part of what I do here is defend that proposition against those who take a more negative approach to Traditionalism. We may disagree on what Catholic identity should look like, but let's not say that these questions are not important; if only our fathers in the 1960's and 1970's had more of a concern for Catholic identity, we might not be in a liberal crisis.

As long as we are still in the crisis, these sorts of questions will maintain their validity.


Anonymous said...

As a convert from Episcopalianism, I believe I have started to recognize what you and others seem to be getting at. What we converts have a great deal of trouble understanding, and most cradle Catholics as well, what if the liturgy itself, its very practice, conveys to the communicant a grace in and of itself. Conversely, suppose a liturgy is deformed or defiled, it could do just the opposite, take away from the grace normally conveyed. What if a beautiful, traditional liturgy, not overreaching, not in competition with the centrality of the Eucharist in the Mass, does act, in and of itself, as a small conveyance of grace? As a small human procession of, and in keeping with, the terrible, unfathomable mystery of grace in the Eucharist - not unlike a costly, beautiful chalice
used by the priest for the Precious Blood. The chalice does not have to be jeweled, or wrought with exquisite artistry, but if it is a styrofoam cup, even a pastel colored, religious picture or symbol styrene, not only does the Church prohibit this usage, we instinctively know this is wrong. So if I am making any sense here, do it not appear that our post VCII liturgies have all too much styrofoam in their make-up?

Anselm said...

Yes, I think that you have recognized what we are getting at.

The whole liturgy is supposed to glorify God. The infinite glory rendered to God in the representation of Christ's sacrifice on Calvary is clearly the most important aspect of the Mass, but this does not allow us to regard as inconsequential the small, finite glory that we can give to God by giving him only the best of everything: our best selves, dressed in our "Sunday best", our best music, art, architecture, etc.

Only the "accidentals" changed after Vatican II, indeed, the essence of the Mass is unchangable, but "accidental" does not mean "unimportant".

Anonymous said...

Just found this site and this old thread. As a convert from non-practicing Protestantism of birth/childhood to government school instilled state worshipping agnostic leftist back to an amorphous cafeteria Protestantism after I had children I am strongly Trad. In RCIA the tone was apologetic of the "ritual" of the Church, the Mass downplayed, the emphasis on all Christian demoniations being brethren and ecumenism. I had never attended a Mass but after reading Chesterton, Belloc, (ironically) C.S. Lewis, and a few instances of personal divine revelation I came to understand the Church and that that was where I belonged. Unfortunately, the Church of Chestertons day, and even Lewis' day no longer existed. The "trappings", "smells and bells" that I was eager for were gone, replaced by a Protestantized and sheepish Faith, American flags everywhere, and infantile collectivist "hymns". "Confession" is now "Reconciliation" and is nearly nonexistent due to inaccessibility (one hr a week before Mass in a glass walled office behind the pews). I have come to believe that a lot of the clergy have lost their faith by the way they treat the sacraments and the Mass...or perhaps they no longer think these things are a big deal since we have armies of lay people who are doing what was reserved for clergy not that long ago. I have no desire to lector or serve communion. My vocation of marriage and parenthood is difficult enough to handle. I would love to attend an FSSP church instead of being made to feel like a troublemaker or "divisive" (as Mark Shea complains about the attacks on "unity" by "Trads" dare they attack the "unity"?)for longing for the beauty and riches of the Faith.

Anonymous said...

My experience has been largely the opposite. At least converts, like myself, from a Calvinist background tend to be very traditional. Taylor Marshall for example

Anonymous said...

I realize it's been a while single this post was published, but I thought I might share a few thoughts. I'm an an Anglican in the process of becoming (Roman) Catholic, and I'm actually finding myself on the trad-ish side of things. I went to a Catholic high school, and for masses and prayer services held in the auditorium, the music was always right out of Spirit & Song (1 or 2!) and generally were retrospectively kind of cheesy.

However, the Anglican parish at which I'll no longer be worshiping primarily actually maintains a very high liturgy, particularly in regards to the music. It's all hymns, organ interludes, and classical choral arrangements, and the music (along with some other factors) keeps the atmosphere appropriately reverent. In trying to introduce evangelical friends to the more orthodox Christian traditions, I'd actually rather take them to this Anglican parish than to one of the Catholic parishes in the area, in part because the liturgy is higher and more reverent.

I understand that some parishes don't have the resources for a marvelous sanctuary choir, but putting together reverent music shouldn't be that difficult. It only takes one person who has a decent voice and can read music to cantor a chant setting. 4-part hymns also aren't generally that hard, though I understand many parishes have trouble finding good organists. I'd actually find it interesting to see music from the Taize tradition utilized in the mass- it's reverent and generally pretty simple.

Unknown said...

I am a former Protestant who entered the Church on Easter 2011. I have been more than interested in traditional forms of Catholicism for well over a year now, since I found out about it. I was a liberal Protestant beforehand too, so it's certainly not a cultural preference for me, but there is so much beauty and continuity, etc, in the TLM. I have found that many Protestant converts to the Church have been strongly attracted to the TLM, not the other way around...