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.
Thus, forgetting has been an important survival mechanism in our society. In the Catholic experience, believers have often been confronted with a hostile environment that considers their beliefs and practices to be backwards, atavistic, and even pagan. As a result, Catholicism has frequently bowed to the prejudices of the American Protestant society. Our Catholicism thus became highly institutionalized, moralistic, and sober. Arguably, it went from being a faith and practice based primarily in the home and hearth to one that obsessed over how Catholics could be better citizens of American democracy. The predominantly Irish hierarchy of the first half of last century thus sought to flatten the heterogeneous Catholicisms of Italians, Poles, Slovaks, Mexicans, Louisiana Creoles, and so on into one homogenous American faith. Forgetting was an important ingredient in this new Catholicism.
The trajectory that this process took is pretty well known by all. As the Catholic ghettoes emptied and the suburbs filled, festivals, devotions, languages, and imagery were lost to the bunker-style mega-parishes of middle class America. Perhaps some of the traditions of the past were preserved by the older folks, but those who were born in the aftermath of this movement were left with little sense of the Faith that had come before. What was passed on was Catholicism at its lowest common denominator: a Catholicism of convenience, a Catholicism with the ethos of a strip-mall Starbucks.
It was inevitable that certain people would revolt against such a faith. While many progressive elements see nothing wrong with the present state of the Church (mainly out of a visceral dislike for “pre-Vatican II” ways), many more Catholics are extremely dissatisfied with the flavor of Catholicism in 21st-century America. The larger portion of these people is often ignored: those who leave the Church altogether. Why these people leave is a topic for another day; but other more “conservative” elements do indeed feel cheated by the state of the Faith as it was passed down to them.
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.
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).
Of course, not everyone has Mexican parents who grew up in a rural village in the 1950s to teach them these things. If the Catholic ghetto of yesteryear is dead and buried, then where can we learn these things if not from books, EWTN, Web sites, and so forth?
While acknowledging the objection, I would at the very least exhort the reader to reach out to other, less conventional sources when arguing about tradition. Perhaps one could go to an elderly relative, an old devotional book, or an ethnic festival where vestiges of the old ways can be seen. Perhaps we have to begin to acknowledge once again that to be Catholic is to venerate old things precisely because they are old. Tradition is not convenient, and it may not even seem tasteful. But like many old things, it can be wise.