MGR RONALD KNOX, somewhere, illustrates a salient difference between Protestantism and Catholicism by means of an “umbrella test”: if a man leaves an umbrella behind in a Catholic or a Methodist chapel, in which of these can he be confident of finding it, just where he left it, on the following week? We know the answer – or at least we used to: if you leave an item of property behind in a Methodist chapel, it will remain untouched until you retrieve it, except insofar as some kind soul may have set it aside for safekeeping until your return. Anything left in a Catholic Church will be nicked - full stop.
Knox’s point is also mine, and that of Arturo Vasquez; far from wringing his hands over “what this says” about the degenerate condition - as compared with their respectable counterparts in the Protestant sects - of those nurtured with the rational milk of Holy Mother Church, Knox rejoices in this certain indication of the presence of sinners within her bosom as yet further proof of the authenticity of her claims.
In Great Britain we were used to this dichotomy. Here, the Established Churches (Anglican in England, Presbyterian in Scotland), except for their more remote rural parishes, have always in modern times been identified with the middle-classes at prayer. The “Non-conformist” Protestant sects (Baptists, Methodists, Wee Frees etc) were a button down on the cuff perhaps, but still solidly bourgeois for all that. Catholics were the rabble – inbred recusant backwoodsmen, dubious bohemians and wayward aristocrats, together with the lowest of the immigrant urban poor, ten-to-a-bed in the tenements of Glasgow and Liverpool. This was one of our chief glories and, as Knox suggests, an apologetic all on its own.
Not any longer: a pincer movement of what passes for “prosperity” and the surrounding post-Protestant culture, avidly assimilated as part of the aggiornamentist project and apotheosised in smug, inverted, bourgeois liturgy, has sliced deep into the Catholic soul. Leave your umbrella in a suburban Catholic Church today (an ugly-on-purpose cinder-block affair, self-consciously tricked out in that tell-tale conjunction of low kitsch and middle-brow minimalism) and somebody in nice knitwear, wearing a strange facial expression known in Protestant circles as a SWEG (Sickly Weak Evangelical Grin) will make a point of handing it back to you. It makes me sick to my stomach.
Are “Traditionalists” immune? Not a bit of it. The dominant influence in English-speaking Traditionalism, as in English-speaking-everything-else, is American. In an astonishingly prescient piece posted at the Lion and the Cardinal, HL Menken anatomises the baneful influence of American Protestantism (a stupider, louder, more saccharine-puritanical mutation of the Anglo-German original) on US Catholic clergy two generations before Roncalli’s Folly made assimilation of it obligatory. To this, modern US Traditionalists have added their own dreary distillation of Maynooth Jansenism, so that wherever two or three are gathered together in the name of the ancient faith, the conversation is less likely to tend to the recovery of liturgical spirituality than whether or not we ought to read Dante (who condemned several Popes) or Chaucer (who wrote about toilet matters and immoral liaisons); whether or not every picture since Fra Angelico (with the exception of low charismatic kitsch) is cunningly concealed filth, the work of some unspeakable heathen degenerate; whether or not an honest wife and mother doing a bit of gardening in her jeans runs the risk of falling into trans-sexual lesbian breadwinning...
Puritanism is not Catholic. It is not even human. Prudery is not purity. Respectability is not holiness, but if anything, an actual impediment to holiness. The Church of Christ is home to saints and sinners; the merely respectable are quite welcome to shift for themselves.