Sun, Moon, and Stars: Tradition for the Saints

A reader sent me this letter; my reply is given after it.

Greetings in Christ!

I thought I would share my reflections on your article “Do New Saints Vindicate the New Mass?” First, I agree with the majority of your points, including: Bl. Carlo does seem to have been sanctified; it is God alone who produces saints from the womb of Holy Mother Church; we should not “canonize” something incidental about a saint’s life, e.g., that Carlo watched Pokémon; new Saints do not, in fact, vindicate the New Mass; it seems wise to wait 50+ years before opening the cause for a potential saint; high Christology and high Hagiography go together; many traditional Catholics are becoming saints, but we shouldn’t expect an overnight miracle in that regard; we should be wary of hidden and not-so-hidden agendas (this blog entry put it best: “Things are much different after Vatican II. Since the Council, the pontiff through his encyclicals acts not as a ruler or a teacher, but an academic trying to support one thesis: The Second Vatican Council”); the age of liturgical reform has been characterized by a startling apostasy from the Faith, at least in the Western world.

But there is a major point with which I do not agree. You say: “It is right and just, it always will be right and just, for Catholics to pray and work for the restoration of our tradition, as we ourselves strive to be the saints God is calling us to be.” Can you really mean to say that it is always right and just to work for the restoration of the tradition? Is it right and just for an employee to use some of his work time to read online articles or start a blog for the restoration of tradition? Is it right and just for priests and laymen to teach—by their example and by their words—that they should disrespect their local priests and bishops? Is it right and just for parents to lose hope in their own salvation or that of their children—in other words, to commit the sin of despair or to approach the near occasion of committing it—because they are convinced that it is impossible without access to a more traditional form of worship? I know of people who have fallen for these traps.

Can we become attached to traditional liturgies in a disordered way? Citing St. Augustine, St. Thomas gives us a light as he discusses the contemplative life in the Summa:

“Mary hath chosen the best part, which shall not be taken away from her”… Not: thou hast chosen badly, but she has chosen better. Why better? Listen—because it shall not be taken away from her. But the burden of necessity shall at length be taken from thee: whereas the sweetness of truth is eternal.

The traditional liturgies, as wonderful as they are, have been taken away from us, at least to some degree, and will be taken away from us in heaven, when we move on to something better. Therefore having them, as good as they truly are, cannot be “the better part” that we should strive for. As St. Ignatius of Loyola said:

We must make ourselves indifferent to all created things, as far as we are allowed free choice and are not under any prohibition. Consequently, as far as we are concerned, we should not prefer health to sickness, riches to poverty, honor to dishonor, a long life to a short life. The same holds for all other things.

Instead of seeing the traditional liturgies as “normative” for sanctity, it seems to me that the path to sanctity is rather to see the things of the world, whether ugly or beautiful, humdrum or glorious, as means given to us for reaching heaven; means that ought to be used in so far as they are useful towards the end, and discarded insofar as they are a hindrance. To cling to any means is a short road to bitterness, accusations, despair, and, finally, damnation. To seek God in all things and to embrace every cross as a gift from the suffering Jesus, on the other hand, is the way of perfection.

If that is so, the fertile ground for sanctity does not hinge on the availability of traditional liturgies or; it hinges on the number of people who accept this difficult Gospel/Thomistic/Ignatian truth, incorporate it into their lives, and teach it to others, by word and deed. These people can become saints independently of whether traditional liturgies are available to them or not; in fact, they could become saints precisely because they are not available—so long as they embrace this privation as the cross God has given them for their own sanctification.

Maybe that’s going too far. But if there is some truth here, maybe we could rewrite your closing paragraph to say: “It is right and just, it will always be right and just, to work out our salvation in the exact situation in which we find ourselves; it is sometimes right and just—contingent upon the particular circumstances of one’s state in life—to work for the restoration of the tradition.” I look forward to your thoughts.

Ad Jesum per Mariam,
Desert Dweller

*          *          *

Dear Desert Dweller,

Thank you for your well-stated objection to what I wrote. The difficulty in responding to your argument lies in a prior “meta-question” that cannot be sidestepped.

The meta-question has to do with whether one thinks the Church on earth—i.e., churchmen, their reforms, and those who have embraced them or accept them unconditionally—has gone off the rails, has deviated from Catholicism in some unprecedented way that makes our entire situation different from anything that has come before. A prima facie indication that this is at least possible is Pius X’s claim that modernism is “the synthesis of all heresies.” If the periti who drafted the Council texts, the bishops and theologians who implemented them, the liturgical reform, etc., embody modernism to one degree or another, we will be looking at a dysfunctional Church—one in which the virtuous exercise of authority and obedience will be severely compromised, and one in which apparent disobedience, as with, e.g., Archbishop Lefebvre, may turn out to be a truer fidelity to Catholicism. I am not a member of the SSPX and feel no desire to become one, yet when I read many of Lefebvre’s writings, I hear distinctly the voice of a true shepherd, the voice of good judgment about spiritual and temporal affairs, far more than when I read a lot of what has come out of the Vatican for decades. (Suffice it to say that I agree with Archbishop Viganò on most points: see, e.g., the talk he gave at the Catholic Identity Conference).

So, when I approach quotations from St. John of the Cross, or St. Ignatius of Loyola, or whoever it may be, I ask myself not just “what is he/she saying,” but “what is the context within which this formulation makes sense” and “could there be a context in which it would break down”? To put my cards on the table, I’m convinced that if these great saints we like to quote were to return to earth right now and look around at what’s happened and what’s happening in the Church, they would blanch with horror and seethe with indignation, if they didn’t first have a massive heart attack and go back to the other world. They would not recognize the liturgy they had loved and prayed in our mainstream liturgy; the religious life they had embraced and treasured in nearly any instances of our religious life; the doctrine they had held and taught in what is almost everywhere put forward as Catholic doctrine today; and so forth.

In short, facing an almost complete meltdown in the lex orandi, lex credendi, lex vivendi, we cannot—at least, not without further argument—assume that the framework of spirituality as perceived and voiced by such saints is exactly the same today as it always was, or, put differently, that the framework they correctly perceived can be superimposed onto our world without distortion. The fundamental principles of the saints do remain perennially valid, but their validity is symbiotically related to traditional Catholic life. That is the life within which those principles were discovered; that is where they apply without qualification; that is where they can blossom uninhibitedly and bear fruit.

Consider the core concept of obedience. This pivotal virtue began to suffer a dangerous distortion centuries ago when Jesuits vied with one another to see who could express, internalize, and operate by a more extreme form of blind submission. Simultaneously there arose an understandable but still harmful ultramontanism as well as a one-sided episcopocentrism that paved the way for the Age of McCarrick and Bergoglio. In Canon Law, priests and laity have been almost stripped of their rights. Prior to 1917, the structures of authority and subjection were richly diversified; after the 1917 Code they were simplified without losing their polyvalent character altogether; with the 1984 Code, the Napoleonization of canon law was complete.

What are the theoretical and practical upshots of all this?

On the theoretical side, I see an inseparable link between fidelity to accumulated, approved, and cherished tradition and the spiritual health and fruitfulness of the Church, such that it cannot ever be right to pursue a fracturing of this bond or to uphold the fractured condition as a positive good. It can only be an evil, more or less tolerable for a time. When I say it is always and everywhere right to pursue the restoration of Catholic tradition, this statement should be understood with the usual qualifications: one must not neglect the duties of one’s state in life, or fail to pursue works of mercy when and as they are opportune. Such things, after all, are no less obviously a part of traditional Catholicism. St. Vincent de Paul and St. John Bosco were obviously lovers of tradition (every Catholic was by definition), but they were also lovers of the poor, the suffering, the uneducated.

On the practical side, the problems we are suffering under have to be frankly acknowledged as problems to be overcome, to be solved, to be eventually healed, rather than institutionalized, stabilized, and celebrated as part of a “great reset” of our faith. Catholicism is inherently a religion of what has been handed down—and this, not in vague and generic ways, but in specific ways that would have been understood by everyone in every century prior to the madness of the postwar period that prompted the aggiornamento of the Second Vatican Council and the many-sided catastrophe that followed it. Inevitably, there will be extremely painful situations that we will have to face in the midst of this crisis. There will come a time when laity or priests will have to disobey bishops or the pope in order to obey a higher law.

In the foregoing I’ve tried to spell out why you and I see things differently. For convenience, we could speak of the “continuity view” versus the “rupture view.” You are trying to understand and live in a so-called hermeneutic of continuity, and I am convinced that no such thing exists or avails. The Ratzingerian effort to square the circle has done service as a stopgap measure, a buying of time, a treading of water until we can jettison our erroneous priorities, structures, and mentalities, and humbly learn again what the saints teach us not only by their words but even more by their profoundly traditional way of life, which was so deep a part of their identity and so unchangeable a part of their religion that they usually did not even talk about it.

The reason we do not find St. John of the Cross or St. Thérèse of Lisieux or St. Ignatius of Loyola talking about the centrality of traditional liturgy is because Catholicism was inconceivable without it. Neither did they discuss breathing, or drinking water, or why religious should wear habits or pray the Divine Office. They may have talked about the right spirit in which to wear the habit or pray the Office, but the things themselves were like the sun, moon, and stars: fixed, luminous, comforting, older than our ancestors and destined to guide our descendants.

Of this much I am certain: there is no Catholicism, indeed no Christianity, without stable, consistent, manifest continuity with its historic tradition—apostolic, patristic, monastic, scholastic; ancient, medieval, and modern. How we go about living this and realizing it, how we rescue or repair if it has been lost or damaged, is the challenge that faces us with unique intensity. There is no walking away from this challenge.

It is no easy task to rebuild a fallen building in which one is supposed to be living at the same time, and in which most of the inhabitants are blind and deaf, and content with their rags and ruins. Let us beg the Holy Spirit for illumination and strength, for the “good zeal” of which St. Benedict speaks (Holy Rule, ch. 72), and with a great love for God and for neighbor.

Warm regards, in Christ Jesus,
Dr. Kwasniewski

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