July 2010


Arturo Vasquez has written a piece for Inside Catholic that – while exploring the problems of homogeneity specifically within the Catholic church — excellently analyzes how “official” versus “traditional” religion in our cultural context is somewhat of a false dichotomy; once a tradition dies, it is gone forever, and any resurrection of it is just that, a re-creation based on source material.  It may be a good imitation, mind you, but it’s not the same.

You don’t just see this in Catholicism. Conservative Evangelicalism — which has a much more of a presence in my local area — has done a tremendous job of taking away local distinctions and making everyone, more or less, operate on the same program. So while a Church of God—Cleveland, Tenn., church may still have some mountain religion flavor, it’s not really all that different from the Assembly of God down the road or the non-denominational “House of Praise” in the next town; and if you want to break away from charismatics to those of a more generic mega-church flavor (and even their smaller-church aspirants), things really are the same everywhere you go. Some folks just do it slicker. This is nothing more than survival of the lowest common denominator.

A few excerpts from Vasquez’s piece (read the entire thing here ):

In many ways, the American experience is all about forgetting. Since this is a nation where almost everyone descends from immigrants, homogenization of cultural differences is necessary for creating a harmonious social order. It is only a matter of time before this affects the religious sphere of any given group. It is at least arguable that religion in the United States must inevitably become individualistic, consumerist, and fascinated with innovation. What came from the past, from ancestors in another time and society, must be forgotten since it is irrelevant; or at the very least, it must be subjugated to the needs and prejudices of the present.

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These Catholics — call them “Neo-Caths,” “traditionalists,” or “conservatives” — seek to satisfy their hunger for a “thicker” Faith through books, Web sites, clubs, and even specialized “niche parishes” where they are allowed their own liturgical and devotional particularities. While such aspirations are legitimate, they must be tempered by the realization that these efforts do not necessarily create an organically traditional Catholicism, but rather can be yet another manifestation of American consumerism on the religious level.

In these circles, arguments over what Tradition is can miss the forest for the trees. Having been deprived of a tradition, properly speaking, many try to recreate it using books, Internet forums, and popular media. What often results is a parody of the ancestral faith; a version in which certain practices are preserved while others are conveniently dropped. Variations on the theme of remembering and forgetting are often at the heart of the arguments among members of the Catholic right. Some want one thing done at Mass, others want another. One group says we must follow this page in the book, others say that we must follow that page. These arguments often have nothing to do with what we were taught at the home by our parents, or what was passed down to us by our forbearers. In other words, they have little to do with tradition proper, and more to do with personal taste.

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I have come to learn the hard way that such debates over what constitutes tradition have little foundation in what tradition actually is. I confess here that I first learned to pray the rosary out of a book. I had joined my local Legion of Mary as a teenager and said the rosary the way the Legion did. After a long youthful period of religious exploring, which included a stop in the Eastern Church, I ended up once again where I started from: in the house of my grandparents.

I began to pray the rosary in Spanish with them, and in the process realized that this was not the rosary I had learned as an adolescent. The method of saying the rosary that they had brought with them from Mexico was a rushed catechetical poetry, an echo of generations of prayer that I could never learn from a book. There was nothing wrong, in principal, with what I had learned as a youth, but the way my grandparents said the rosary seemed better precisely because it was old. It belonged to me. It was my birthright. It was almost in my blood.

It is that organic tie with the past that is missing in many of the polemics over liturgy, devotions, and the general shape of Catholic life in this country. When some pundits speak of capital-T Tradition, they are often speaking of a disembodied ideal that they want for everyone that was lived in the past by no one. It is found only in books, beamed to them directly via satellite feeds from the Vatican, packaged in cellophane wrap complete with a user guide. It is often disconnected from real life, and negligent in terms of the little details of the Catholic ethos. How does one pray the rosary, bless the food, decorate a home altar, etc.? Like learning to drive or raise children, there is only so much one can learn from a book (or from a blog, for that matter).

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A little late, but better than never.

I am not, by any stretch of the imagination, a very patriotic person (at least as it is defined in current political discourse by either the left or right); my loyalties lie with my family, the Church and the local community.  But on the Fourth of July I don’t mind watching fireworks displays with my children, and so we headed down to the local riverfront to watch the annual show over the Mississippi River.

Somewhere in the middle of it, I was struck with a thought: these fireworks are supposed to represent “the bombs bursting in air.” This is the reenactment of battle, albeit with a lot of artistic license.

I apparently wasn’t the only one with this thought. Iraq II veteran Ryan Harvey had these thoughts:

I tend to believe … that the fireworks celebration is not about Independence, it’s about explosions. It’s about war. It’s a yearly mass-experience that reminds us that we live in a culture of violence and that we are safe enough from war that we can celebrate it from a detached position. But it’s not a conspiracy by some branch of government or some multinational fireworks company, it’s a cultural practice, an unwritten consensus.

You can read the rest of Harvey’s essay at Iraq Veterans Against the War.