As I mentioned in a recent post, I haven’t been writing as much lately because I have less to say that feels important enough to put into words. I’m in this amorphous phase of thought right now where I’m doing a lot of information gathering, some actively, some passively, trying to reset my perspective for the world we’re moving into in 2021 and beyond.
So this serves as another warning that I may be less focused on providing answers and more focused on looking at the right questions. By necessity, then, there’s going to be more stream of consciousness-style writing from me when I decide to post. I’ll try not to keep bringing it up, but those who miss these explanations may find themselves somewhat confused by the change in my approach. Just wanted to get it on the record.
Today, the thing I’m pondering is something that Pope Francis said. One of the essential accounts to follow on all things Catholic on Twitter is @CatholicSat, and today, he tweeted the following:
Pope Francis at Mass this evening: “We cannot remain stuck in nostalgia for the past, or simple keep repeating the same old things, complaining everyday. We need patience and courage to keep progressing and exploring new paths, discovering what the Holy Spirit prompts”
I recognized my own immediate knee-jerk response to this. “What is it with this guy that he’s constantly got to take pot shots at tradition, tear down the bastions of the past, etc.” I’ve existed in a reactionary mode to the man for over 7 years now, and with good reason.
But then I stopped and thought about it, and I realized that whatever he means by what he said, he actually has a point. (I’m going to borrow liberally from commentary I already put up on Twitter about this, because I don’t want to re-write it all, but hopefully I can expand a little on it here where needed.)
The weird thing is that Francis is not exactly wrong, as a matter of principle.
And yes, it feel as odd to say that as you might think. But hear me out:
In one of my conversations with my friend Kale Zelden — it might have been our podcast, I can’t remember — he described traditionalism as a sort of ecclesiastical oxbow lake. If you don’t know what that is, here’s a basic definition National Geographic:
An oxbow lake starts out as a curve, or meander, in a river. A lake forms as the river finds a different, shorter, course. The meander becomes an oxbow lake along the side of the river.
Erosion and deposition eventually cause a new channel to be cut through the small piece of land at the narrow end of the meander. The river makes a shortcut. Oxbow lakes are the remains of the bend in the river.
Now, an oxbow lake can be absolutely beautiful, as the image at the top of this post demonstrates. (It’s of Oxbow Bend in Grand Tetons National Park in Wyoming.) But they also have a serious functional problem:
Oxbow lakes are stillwater lakes. This means that water does not flow into or out of them. There is no stream or spring feeding the lake, and it doesnt have a natural outlet. Oxbow lakes often become swamps or bogs, and they often dry up as their water evaporates.
As soon as I visualized the concept, I could see its illustrative value. The Church was supposed to move forward through time as a whole, but like a river, it bifurcated, and the traditionalist branch eventually got closed off and left on its own. Now tradition is sort of stuck in an isolated parallel to the main river, as it were.
Tradition is not, of course, just about maintaining the things of the past; it’s a living thing that is certainly rooted in the past, but it keeps breathing, keeps growing organically. It moves with and adapts to the world it’s in. It doesn’t kowtow to the world, but it reacts appropriately to what the world throws at it, drawing from timeless principles that nevertheless require new and sometimes creative applications as novel challenges arise. And for that it needs constant lifeblood. It can’t merely be a museum piece, or the domain of an a provisional indulgence. It should be right there, in the heart of the Church. (It also can’t constantly be under threat.)
The result of its isolation is that it can seem frozen in time. The missals and texts most commonly referred to by traditional Catholics are now half a century old at their youngest. Some traditionalists, sensing that the time in which these things were rooted is preferable, even affect certain anachronisms. You’ll see this in speech patterns, mode of dress, etc. Not everyone does this, of course, but a subset do, and it underscores the oxbow effect.
Of course, in tradland, if someone quotes any Church document from later than the 1950s, eyebrows immediately arch in that person’s direction. We’re incredibly suspicious of anything recent, and by recent I would have to include not a few documents that are older than I am. There’s a very good reason for this skepticism, but I think we can agree that as Catholics, to be in a position where we reflexively look at what the Church gives us as inherently suspect is a deeply unhealthy and ultimately unsustainable impulse. The further removed we get from the moment traditionalism was trapped in amber, the worse this phenomenon becomes.
We need to reconnect tradition to the river that is the Church, somehow. I don’t claim to have an answer to this seemingly intractable dilemma. But imagine what it would be like if we could actually be excited for new encyclicals because they were treating, competently and in an orthodox fashion, the issues of our day? That’d be amazing. It’d be great not to have to try to apply 19th century analysis to 21st century problems.
The fact is, we need new material. For example, I look at all the arguments that seem to churn on constantly online about things like Catholic Social Teaching. But some of the most foundational encyclicals on that topic were written about century ago. Rerum Novarum is 130 years old. Quadressimo Anno is 90 years old.
Arguments over the authority of the popes on matters of economics aside, think about how much the world has changed since then. Think of the technological advancements that have happened. The automation of manufacturing processes. The dawning of the information age. Mass literacy and global communications. Economies, information gathering and distribution, and the means of production are all vastly different. Demographic realities have changed. There’s so much that’s evolved in the way we do things since then that we could undoubtedly benefit greatly from newly-focused leadership and a fresh perspective from the Church on these issues.
Even encyclicals like John Paul II’s Aetatis Novae, on Social Communications, are showing their age. Published in 1992 — now almost 30 years ago — it was addressing issues that were only just starting to come to bear when it was published.
“At the dawn of a new era,” it opens, “a vast expansion of human communications is profoundly influencing culture everywhere. Revolutionary technological changes are only part of what is happening. Nowhere today are people untouched by the impact of media upon religious and moral attitudes, political and social systems, and education.”
But 1992 was the year I first got the Internet at home. And I was such an early adopter, I actually got a certificate saying I was one of the first 200 internet users in my county! The change the internet alone has wrought in the world is staggering to think about. According to the geeks who keep up to date on this stuff, 90% percent of the data ever created in the history of the world was created in just the past two years.
Back in 2010, then-Google CEO Eric Schmidt stated that every two days, the human race was creating “as much information as we did from the dawn of civilization up until 2003.” And that was a decade ago. We were, at that time, producing five exabytes of data every two days. Current estimates project that we will be producing 463 exabytes of data per day by 2025.
The point is, we’ve introduced enormous complexity to our lives, through both technology and cultural means. And the Church appears to be dealing with precious little of it in a way that helps Catholics navigate these choppy waters.
The longer Holy Mother Church has to live with this weird split personality disorder — traditionalism vs. novusordoism, for lack of better terms — the more challenging this situation gets. What would it look like if the Church of Pius X had never suffered that break? What would a TLM and traditional theology-based Catholicism look like in 2021? What if the process of organic development had never stopped, if Catholic leadership still existed in the episcopacy and the papacy, and instead of the constant in-house battles over orthodoxy and continuity, we enjoyed a kind of natural synthesis? An integral, unified approach to dealing with an ever-changing world?
What if we were actually, you know, “One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic”?
It’s almost impossible to imagine, isn’t it?
The fact that it’s so hard to even conceive of is strongly indicative of just how deep the problem we face truly is.
But in an ideal world, an orthodox pope could make a statement like the one Francis made today, and we’d all nod our heads in agreement. We’d see less value in any excessive attachment to nostalgia — which often disguises a desire for better, simpler, more morally certain times — and we’d (hopefully) spend less time complaining and more time doing.
A Catholic Church that actually acted as though she were working to “discover what the Holy Spirit prompts” would be a Church to behold indeed.
At the very least, it’s fun to imagine.
Steve Skojec is the Founding Publisher and Executive Director of OnePeterFive.com. He received his BA in Communications and Theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville in 2001. His commentary has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today, The Washington Post, The Washington Times, Crisis Magazine, EWTN, Huffington Post Live, The Fox News Channel, Foreign Policy, and the BBC. Steve and his wife Jamie have eight children.