On 7 August 1964, in the midst of the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic Herald published a letter from Evelyn Waugh that raised issues as fresh as this summer’s headlines. As such, the letter serves as an appropriate point of departure for this, my initial monthly column for the print edition of the Herald. Waugh’s letter is a timely proxy for the broad range of theological, philosophical and moral matters that are especially – but not solely – of concern to the peculiar way that American Catholics think about faith and public life.
My reference to Waugh is not arbitrary. In the first instance, it signals my gratitude for the opportunity to write for an organ to which he made important periodic contributions. While of course I cannot match the wit and wisdom of Waugh (who can?), he is a giant upon whose shoulders I am honoured to stand. Waugh understood that all problems are theological problems and, thus, all answers are theological answers. That will be the modus vivendi of this column.
Beginning with a citation to Waugh is an acknowledgment of his continuing importance as a public man for whom all things were relativised by, and subordinated to, his Catholic faith. With our moral lives so heavily formed by liberal political theory, this is a practice that we Americans – wittingly or otherwise – have a difficult time emulating.
And the substance of Waugh’s 1964 letter is as timely in 2021 as it was 57 years ago. Addressing the relationship of Catholicism to popular culture, the importance of liturgical integrity, and the problem of dogmatic commitment to “diversity”, Waugh’s letter spoke to matters that are still at the forefront of Catholic argument and concern.
In it, he complained about the condescension of some Council enthusiasts towards those who, like Waugh, did not object to the Council but anticipated that it might be an opportunity to subordinate the faith delivered once and for all to the spirit of the times. That is, he complained about those who celebrated the Council as a victory of “progressives” over “conservatives”. Waugh saw this as a capitulation of theological principle to cultural exigency.
“[T]he function of the Church in every age has been conservative,” he explained, “to transmit undiminished and uncontaminated the creed inherited from its predecessors.” Thus, the question before the Church must always be, “is this dogma… the Faith as we received it?”, rather than, “is this fashionable notion one that we should accept?” In an era in which prominent voices in the Church confidently assert the priority of fashionable notions, Waugh’s wise guidance is timely indeed.
Of course, in the United States, a “conservative” is usually a person who seeks to conserve the liberal political theory at the heart of the American founding. While the word is the same, the theory is, at best, in tension with Waugh’s counsel. We Americans are so inebriated by the language of liberalism, we have difficulty even articulating a grammar of Catholic orthodoxy, much more living public lives consistent with it.
Waugh’s 1964 letter then turned to “a word about liturgy” in general, and “participation” in particular. “‘Participation’ in the Mass does not mean hearing our own voices,” he asserted. “It means God hearing our voices. Only He knows who is ‘participating’ at Mass.” Can there be a more appropriate way to summarise the kerfuffle over Pope Francis’s motu proprio, Traditionis custodes? Most proponents of the “extraordinary form” over the novus ordo feel that the latter is less about worship and more about performance. I do not believe that that is necessarily the case. But, practically speaking, it often is. Who among us has not been assaulted by the noise of electric guitars and drum sets, in which, whatever is happening, it is not worship? “Anyone who has taken part in a play,” Waugh observed, “knows that he can rant on the stage with his mind elsewhere.”
Of course, such is not essential to the novus ordo; but it is unthinkable in the extraordinary form. (I also do not believe that everyone who pines for the extraordinary form is unaffected by the individualism of political liberalism. But that is for another day.)
Finally, Waugh made a short jab at advocates of “diversity”, which, with “equity” and “inclusion”, is part of the holy trinity of the secular Baal that demands absolute obeisance within and without the Church. Of course, the Church catholic is the Church diverse. But our task is to incorporate diversity, equity, and inclusion into the Church Catholic, while maintaining the integrity of its doctrine, prayer, morality and liturgy. This cannot be done if we allow the doctrine of antiquity to be subordinated to the shibboleths of contemporary culture.
As St Paul cautioned the Christians in Thessalonica, we must “stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that [we] were taught”. This column will be my poor attempt to articulate what that might mean in these fractious times.
Kenneth Craycraft holds the James J Gardner Family Chair of Moral Theology at Mount St Mary’s Seminary & School of Theology, the seminary for the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, Ohio
This article first appeared in the September 2021 issue of the Catholic Herald. Subscribe today
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