by Matthew Walther
Like the great L. Brent Bozell on a not dissimilar occasion, I would like to say a few things to some of my fellow Catholic men attached to the traditional Mass “without sounding reproachful or smug.” This is true not least because I have occasionally been guilty of many of the errors concerning which I am about to admonish you—indeed, probably of all of them save one.
What I would like to mention first of all is something that after a year I still find astonishing: the way so many of you responded to the post-synodal apostolic exhortation of the Holy Father (yes, we should call him that, even though some of you have decided to say openly that Rome no longer has a pope!) with an unmistakable sense of dejection. Pope Francis—thanks be to God—did not decide to suspend the ancient discipline of clerical celibacy for certain priests of the Roman Rite. One would think, having apparently believed that such an event was on the horizon, and that its consequences would be as disastrous as you imagine, that you would all have been dancing in the streets.
But the actual mood among you was—do not deny it—one of disappointment. It was as if you had been preserved from some accident in which you might have been expected to sustain severe bodily injury and, upon finding yourself unharmed, safe at home, surrounded by your family, you longed for a hospital bed. Why was this? Why did you expect Pope Francis to take this action in the first place? Was it really because on the basis of clear, carefully considered evidence this seemed likely? Or was it because you yourselves wished to believe the absolute worst and, in some bizarre and indescribably perverse sense, longed for it?
Allow me to say why I believe this is the case. I believe that you have become addicts. The drug to which you have become addicted is (like so many of the vices of our degenerate age) one of which your fathers and grandfathers could not have had any conception. I am speaking of the drug of online outrage, the soma of self-aggrandizement that you have become, I say not only accustomed to, but dependent upon, and which, not so incidentally, lines the pockets of those who have become experts in manufacturing it. For years now you have relished the numbness—for there is nothing of the intellect in it—that accompanies reading the latest headlines that promise to tell you that the Holy Father is misguided, a fool, or worse.
Many of you were dejected, for example, when you first heard of the changes that would be made to the catechism on the subject of the death penalty (though I also wondered why you should care, given how supremely unlikely it was that you would educate your children with this document). Suppose you continue to believe, in keeping with Thomas Aquinas and so many other worthy saints and theologians, that capital punishment is not only licit but salutary and even necessary: if you are being honest with yourselves, what has changed? Are the words really meaningfully different in what they would convey to the average reader from what appeared there before? The same goes for the hang-up over Amoris laetitia. I believe, as I imagine some of you do, that it was a mistake—a prudential failing, one for which he cannot reasonably be faulted—for Saint John Paul II to have changed the discipline in the first place with Familiaris consortio and that it would be better if, instead of making unrealistic assumptions about the ability of our fellow Catholics to resist concupiscence, we simply did not allow those living in irregular unions to present themselves for Holy Communion. If anything, the fact that Pope Francis explicitly insists that such persons discuss their intentions with priests and make good confessions is an improvement upon the state of affairs which I and many other young Catholics remember well. (In my home parish the lay reader at Mass was invariably a divorced and remarried Freemason who seemed unaware that anything about his station in life was at odds with Divine Law, to say nothing of the Church’s particular disciplines.)
Even if you are not inclined to agree with me about the particulars of all the above, I ask you: What ambiguity has Pope Francis introduced that was not already widespread during the previous four pontificates? And has Francis not, meanwhile, spoken with as much forthrightness as his predecessors on so many of the pressing issues of our time? It was not Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, after all, who compared the transgender mania to the threat posed by nuclear arms and abortion to the crimes of the Nazis. Nor has any pope in recent memory talked so frequently of the Evil One. Unlike the last two pontiffs, Francis does not fancy himself an intellectual—he is, rather proudly, an exponent of a Latin American peasant spirituality that loathes the Devil and the Church’s enemies, fusses very little about theology, and above all reveres Our Blessed Mother.
How often have these points been acknowledged by the purveyors of anti-papal hysteria, all but Lutheran in their intensity, in recent years? On how many occasions have they chosen, in an ambiguous cases, to present you with the worst possible interpretation of a given papal utterance (one that, more often than not, is the mirror image of that offered by delusional modernists in the liberal Catholic media, to say nothing of the ignorant and antinomian secular press)? How often have they, equally willfully, chosen simply to ignore those things that would endear you to the occupant of Saint Peter’s Chair? Merchants of despair! Their errors would be more easily forgivable were they motivated by solicitude for your spiritual well-being and their own. But, as you must now realize, there are other considerations at play.
Do not continue to enrich them. Throw the money changers out of the temple! Do not donate or subscribe to websites or groups that promise only the fetishization of despair and calumnies against the Holy Father. Save it for our poor women religious (those impoverished handmaidens of Our Blessed Lady), for chapels dedicated to the traditional Mass, for holy missionaries, for the support of your own parishes and holy priests known to you, for any number of worthier causes, up to and including taking your families on nice vacations during which you do not check any of your favorite Catholic websites (including this one!) and instead apply yourselves manfully to the duties of family life.
My friends, this has been going on for too long. For years you have insisted that you are persecuted, that you are ostracized for your attachment to tradition, that this pope has attempted to undermine you. What has actually happened instead? Our friends in the Society of Saint Pius X have had their faculties for hearing confessions restored. Their marriages are now recorded in many diocesan registers. Friends who do not assist at Masses said in Society chapels now stand as godparents to children of those who do, and vice versa. (Not coincidentally, I think, the Society has responded to this pontificate with considerably more temperance and good sense than most of us have, not least because they understand that the great crisis in the Church existed before Francis and will continue long after he goes on to his eternal reward.) Meanwhile, the pre-1955 rites of Holy Week, one of the great jewels in the crown of the Church’s sacred liturgy, are now observed in countless parishes, not only those attached to indult organizations but in ordinary diocesan churches. These are the same parishes in which it is no longer uncommon for men and women who have not attended the traditional Mass in half a century to stumble in and find themselves moved to tears by the sight of things they thought they would never meet with again and music that greets them like the coming of spring. In ignoring all of this and so many other things—the simple fact that you have regular access to the sacraments at all, unlike the millions of our faithful brethren the world round who are persecuted for confessing Christ—you have behaved like spoiled children.
Which brings me to my final point, the harshest of all the censures that I intend to present here. It is one that I hope will, literally speaking, hit very close to home. I am talking about what you are doing to your families, about the relentless negativity that you are inviting into your homes and the sentiments you are inculcating among those for whose spiritual well-being you have been given an especial care. Do you really suppose that your families care as much as you do about the latest supposed outrage half a world away that you have learned about on your computer? Does it really seem to you likely that your children are spiritually edified by learning that, according to self-proclaimed experts on the internet, truths that they themselves barely understand are being denied by shadowy figures who do not figure meaningfully into their own existences? They are weary to the point of exhaustion with you and your online outrage.
This does not mean that your addiction has made them less attached to the traditional Mass or to the old and neglected devotions that you have attempted to foster in their hearts. But do not think that this will be the case forever, that when your children are grown and no longer under your authority they will of a necessity understand that the umpteenth dinner-table rant about the latest supposed perfidy of some obscure curial figure—or of the Holy Father himself—was anything more than a display of your own ill temper and lack of discipline. This is the most serious danger of all: namely, that one day the very prayers which they have learned at your knees will become ashes in their mouths. (If you doubt that this is possible, I advise you to read this memoir by a woman who grew up in a traditionalist household with a father who did not exhibit one-one hundredth of the follies I have just enumerated.)
I want to make one thing especially clear. For a variety of reasons which they may not discuss with you, your wives are exhausted. In this atomized age in which raising children in the Faith has become a lonely and frequently thankless task, they have enough to deal with looking after children and managing households (all too often without the support of family, friends, and neighbors enjoyed by previous generations) without devoting considerable mental energy to helping you come down from temper tantrums occasioned by things you have read online.
How can you cure yourselves of this addiction? I suggest by recovering something of the authentic joy of the Christian life. For some of you it will mean devotional renewal. (If only you could all have back those long evenings you wasted in reading or arguing on the internet about things of no consequence, evenings that could more profitably have been spent on your knees before the Blessed Sacrament or clutching your beads in your own living rooms!) For others it will require fasting—not simply observing the pre-1960s discipline, which is effortless for many of us sedentary moderns, but really depriving yourselves of nourishment until you have united yourselves with Our Crucified Lord through your suffering. For others still, it will mean immersion in the lives of the saints, frequent reading of the Martyrology and compilations such as Father Alban Butler’s. For many, I suspect, the solution might be something as simple as keeping one’s distance from the internet, that pandemonium so artfully decried by Cardinal Sarah in his beautiful reflections upon the virtues of silence. For most, no doubt, it will mean some combination of all the above, along with frequent meditation upon the example of our great model and patron, Saint Joseph, whose year the pope has declared.
I have said in a previous paragraph that you behaved like children. I realize now that this is unfair—not to you, mind, but to children, my own children and yours and children the world round. Which is why I say that in addition to those things which I have just counseled, which are indeed no more than the immortal wisdom of the Church, for some of you freeing yourselves from the despair of an addiction to monetized outrage will mean a reversal of authority—I mean that you will will save your souls by looking to your children. Ask yourselves: do they inhabit your dour reality in which the wonder of the Incarnation and the majesty of Our Blessed and Crowned Mother in Heaven is lessened by the actions of faithless priests of whom they have never heard? Or do they play and sing and dance and laugh and cry and throw flowers with abandon at Mary’s statues? You must learn, profiting by their innocent example, to experience not only joy, but peace, that peace which, in the words of Holy Scripture, passeth all understanding.
In closing, I invite you to consider these words of Saint John Henry Newman, whose canonization by this pontiff has, I hope, been a cause for celebration among you:
The simplicity of a child’s ways and notions, his ready belief of everything he is told, his artless love, his frank confidence, his confession of helplessness, his ignorance of evil, his inability to conceal his thoughts, his contentment, his prompt forgetfulness of trouble, his admiring without coveting; and, above all, his reverential spirit, looking at all things about him as wonderful, as tokens and types of the One Invisible, are all evidence of his being lately (as it were) a visitant in a higher state of things.
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