Tradition and the Signs of the Times

James Kalb is a lawyer, independent scholar, and Catholic convert who lives in Brooklyn, New York. He is the author of The Tyranny of Liberalism(ISI Books, 2008) and, most recently, Against Inclusiveness: How the Diversity Regime is Flattening America and the West and What to Do About It (Angelico Press, 2013).

God doesn’t get reported in the news, and the experts in the media question or deny him and everything about him. So how do we get people—how do we get ourselves—to feel that He is more real than anything else?

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How can Catholics most help the world?

The obvious answer is that they would help most if they became saints. If you as a Catholic want to “make a difference,” cultivate sanctity and wholehearted love of God and neighbor.

A better world needs better people, and we all know where that has to start. That is why G.K. Chesterton said the right answer to the question “What is wrong” is “I am wrong.” As he noted, “Until a man can give that answer his idealism is only a hobby.”

That should give all of us enough to keep busy. But the advice raises the question of what, specifically, we should keep busy doing. In other words, what leads to sanctity?

That can vary a great deal. Saint Paul, Saint Louis, and Saint Benedict all lived very differently. So, the first answer that comes to mind is “whatever works for you.”

That seems pretty much the same as “whatever you are called to.” But few of us have a Road to Damascus moment that lays out the course we should follow. What do the rest of us do, as sanctity can seem far off and hard to reach?

There are pitfalls. Human inertia and other weaknesses are problems, but trying too hard can also be a problem. That was the point of Simone Weil’s (characteristically extreme) comment: “We should do only those righteous actions which we cannot stop ourselves from doing.” The Chinese philosopher Laozi put it more moderately: “He who strains his strides does not walk well.”

Most of us muddle along. We look at what has helped others and pursue the practices that seem rewarding. Some ask for spiritual guidance, but for many of us, even that seems beyond our energy level. The best we can think of is to keep on trying and get up again when we fall down.

We must all make our own way. Even so, a larger perspective can be helpful. We are dependent on each other, and the love of our fellow man is part of saintliness. So we should pay attention to how people affect each other.

As St. Paul noted, “Evil communications corrupt good manners” (1 Cor 15:33). If we live among unholy people most of us will be dragged down, and if we act badly we will drag others down. So we should ask about what leads to sanctity not only for ourselves but for the rest of the world, and become part of whatever that might be.

Love of God seems most immediately connected to worship, love of neighbor to active charity. What to do about these things has been a point of contention in recent decades. The arguments often become mixed up with arguments over the Second Vatican Council: what its documents say, what it intended, and how we should understand it as times change and experience accumulates.

Some issues are outward-turning. When we deal with non-Catholics, should we concentrate on what we have in common or what we add that they don’t already have? Which should we emphasize: the authority of doctrine, individual subjectivity (“lived experience”), or common action with others to build a better society? And on the last point, what promotes a better society?

All this is too complex to discuss in a single column, so I’ll just make a few remarks on something people think is more inward-turning: worship.

Disputes about worship have become surprisingly bitter. Is the New Mass better? Or the Old Mass? Some people complain about the former, and others think the latter should be crushed, especially if it looks like more and more people are becoming attached to it. Are traditional devotions helpful, or are they distractions—manifestations of a “self-absorbed Promethean neopelagianism” that substitutes form and ritual for love of God and neighbor?

Current disputes over such things remind me of nothing so much as the struggle over icons and iconoclasm in the eighth and ninth centuries. I don’t think anyone was canonized for defending icons. Even so, those who did so defended the Church on an important point.

Then, as now, a basic question was whether we should strip the Faith down to its essentials. Does attachment to particular images, rituals, and observances lead us to forget God in favor of substitutes? Or do they work together to remind us constantly of God and neighbor by giving the Faith a concrete enduring presence in our lives?

Today’s experts mostly like abstractions and simple systems, so they usually prefer a stripped-down faith. People should concentrate on the basic points—immediate love of God and neighbor. So, why make a fuss over things that might be distractions?

The argument would be a good one if we knew that people’s attention could somehow be guaranteed. But it cannot. That is one reason secondary things matter a great deal for people who are not already saints. We need reminders.

To some extent, it’s a matter of personal gifts. There are people who don’t need to be reminded about the love of God and neighbor and want only the freedom to express them. Some were born to become hermits in the desert, far from bells and incense, or to become medieval Cistercians, praying in plain unornamented churches in remote valleys. Others, with no special flourishes, become everyday saints who redeem life in the world.

But that’s not everyone. Emerson noted: “It takes a great deal of elevation of thought to produce a very little elevation of life.” With that in mind, it seems that constant reminders of the highest things are something most of us need very much. Rites and observances matter.

Most of us live in the world immersed in its sights, sounds, incidents, and temptations. All those things are part of the world God made, and to a saint would likely appear in that light, but to most of us, they do not.

For such people, the Faith isn’t likely to remain present spiritually unless it maintains a solid and established physical presence, with its own sights, sounds, and observances. That’s especially true in our commercialized, bureaucratized, and media-drenched age.

People have come to believe that if something isn’t reported in the news and affirmed by experts it’s not real. God doesn’t get reported in the news, and the experts in the media question or deny him and everything about him. So how do we get people—how do we get ourselves—to feel that He is more real than anything else?

That is a question that traditional liturgies and devotions help answer. In a world that is too much with us, they point stubbornly to things that are neither of this time nor of this world, and they insist that those are the things that matter most of all.

Many points out that assiduous devotions can conceal hypocrisy and hard-heartedness. That’s true, of course, but so can denouncing neopelagianism. There are many forms of virtue-signaling hypocrisy. And failure to make any gesture at all in the direction of God and the Good, Beautiful, and True also has drawbacks.

Today, when people forget the Faith altogether, and visible Catholic piety is hardly a route to social advancement, the dangers of devotion to rosaries, scapulars, eucharistic devotions, and ancient forms of the liturgy seem minimal. They speak to an obvious need—and attraction to them is far more likely to be good than a bad sign.

With that in mind, it’s shocking that there are pastors of the Church who want to suppress such things. If some of the faithful want to put their faith in the Real Presence on display to the world through public eucharistic adoration, or they find they best connect to God and the Church throughout eternity through the traditional form of the Mass, why wouldn’t it be pastoral to encourage them?