Thursday, December 07, 2006

Respectable

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.

13 comments:

Pseudo-Iamblichus said...

"...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..."

Exactly, this is exactly what I was talking about too.

And I live in a place where there is lots of trans-sexual lesbian breadwinning going on.

The most important thing about this post is that it made me laugh. That means it was perfect.

John Peterson said...

"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."

Hilarious. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Spectacular composition.

mr bleaney said...

That's a majestic piece of prose, moretben. No quarter!

Daniel Mitsui said...

As I've experienced it myself, the eccentricities of traditionalists are not at all motivated by the same Calvinist sort of Americanism that has been embraced my mainstream Catholicism - rather, they are attempts to maintain some sort of authenticity in the modern consumer culture that this Calvinist sort of Americanism created. They may be misguided at times, but I would never consider them the product of a similar motivation.

And I've never once met or heard of a traditionalist who objected to Dante. Perhaps I'm sensitive to this because, as a constant critic of both modern pop culture and post-medieval religious art, I've received plenty of accusations of Puritanism, despite never having made either argument based on immoral content. I wouldn't even agree with that argument. But many of my opponents in such discussions find it an easier one to parody, and pretend that I made it anyway.

Anonymous said...

A couple of points:

Chapel might have become bourgeois in much of England, but it wasn't in Wales. We inherited knives from my wife's Grandfather, each of which has his initial firmly carved into the handle, so they wouldn't be nicked at Chapel (Calvinistic Methodist) suppers.

Maynooth Jansenism: I thought I was the only person who had identified this as a ubiquitous (if at times dormant) virus in the English-speaking Catholic world. Try the St Paul Sunday Missal for the ultra-modern Novus Ordo version of what you describe in the US Trad community: things like why the rigours of Lent should no longer be relaxed on Gaudete Sunday.

"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."

I could never hope to improve on this!

Moretben said...

Knives with his name on? - there's posh for you!

Yes - I was careful to leave the Welsh, and their highly ambiguous relationship with "respectable", well out of it! Visitors not from these parts may not be aware of the strong distinctions to be maintained with regard to the ancient nations of this United Kingdom. There is no "Established Church" in Wales, following the famous victory of Nonconformity over Lord (Are they clinging to their crosses, FE Smith?)Birkenhead, immortalised by GK Chesterton.

I am a lover of all things Welsh (except Brains Dark, which is pump-house swill).

Getting married, look you, and she's not even Expecting. There's posh for you!

The Ochlophobist said...

As someone with Welsh nonconformist blood, I very much appreciate the last two comments. I can vouch for the heavy drinking, ample cussing, fornicating when one had the opportunity, cigarette smoking, clinched fisted, rough side of blue collar nature of the Welsh Americans in southern Ohio where I grew up. It wasn’t just confined to my circle of friends. The Welsh may be the closest Protestants have ever gotten to a cultural catholicity (of course there are still some RCs in north Wales). Perhaps it has to do with our apparent genetic inability to tolerate an aristocracy that is for sale, capitalist oligarchies, the nouveau riche, and other modern forms of master class, in combination with a general personality that would rather drink and sing and recite poetry with friends and family than go perform some banal activist program.

And I certainly loved the post as well. Do umbrellas fall into the category of private property? I thought the rule was that one grabbed the nearest umbrella available at signs of wet weather. Fuck the bourgeoisie.

Anonymous said...

I can see that the ochlophobist had to prove his words:-
"I can vouch for the heavy drinking, ample cussing..."
His last sentence is so revealing!

JARay

dcs said...

I don't have a lot of experience with American traditionalists -- though I am both American and traditionalist -- but in six years of assisting at the traditional Mass I have never once met a person, much less people, like you have described above. I'm inclined to wonder whether they exist at all outside of the Internet.

Anonymous said...

I shall blog in due course about Ann Griffiths, the only Protestant (Welsh Calvinistic Methodist) whose writings enable her to be ranked with the great mystics of the Church: with St John of the Cross and St Teresa of Avila.

Welsh religion, whether Chapel or Church (ie the Church in Wales), is really like nothing else. Neither is Welsh-just-about-anything-else.

Anonymous said...

I don't mind SWEGs as long as I'm dealing with honest people. Calvinism may suck, but Calvinists' standard of personal holiness and their view of polticial economy are admirable. Since forever, it's been fashionable for the parasitic and underemployed classes to make fun of bourgeois values, but that doesn't change the fact that the bourgeoisie raise the standard of living for the rest of us.

Let's look at it a different way. Roman liturgical music was arguably most beautiful during the period when the Papacy was most corrupt. Should the Reformers who fought against Papal thievery thereby be condemned for aesthetic philistinism?

Anonymous said...

The desire to appear respectable, rather than transform oneself root and branch, is all to common these days.

Neither am I immune to these desires.

This week a fellow-employee was fired, very suddenly, so that she had to leave the premises the same day.

Whilst everyone was wildly speculating, or else giving sickening homilies, I only was wondering how long was appropriate before I could take her cordless mouse without appearing like a battlefield looter.
I hated myself for such hand-wringing.

Anyway, I worked late that day - and also managed to obtain a nice set of ink gel ball-points, a delightful coffee mug, and a small cushion for the small of my back.

kyrie eleison me,
Theo