Mourning the Loss

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Pope Francis recently had a few sharp words for people who have dogs and cats rather than children, sensibly suggesting that it bespeaks a selfish culture that has lost its hope. That was a welcome change from when he criticized those few Christians who, he said, breed like rabbits.

There may come a time, perhaps, when the earth’s resources have been so depleted, and her population has become so numerous, that the large family will be a thing of the past. If so, it will be a loss to be deeply mourned. I have never met a child from a large family who wished he had fewer brothers and sisters. It is like wishing you had less of a human life; like wanting to trade a little brother for a television set. 

One thing you can never be, in the middle of a big and boisterous family—such as I had with my 39 first cousins, more than half of whom lived within two miles of my house, or such as my wife had with her 43 first cousins—is lonely. If you are on the outs with one brother, there is still the other—as my father knew, when he and his kid brother were tied to the railroad tracks by their two older brothers for the crime of tagging along after them.

I am not saying that their life was ideal. I say that it was life, ideal or not, and that there was more of it because there was a thicker, more intricate, and more intimate web of daily human relations. You not only knew your neighbors. You knew their cousins too.

Always be on guard against people who cannot or will not see the good in a thing we have lost or discarded in the ever-changing muddle of human affairs. The point applies to strife within the Church. I have heard that Pope Paul VI wept when the first Pentecost of his new calendar came round because the feast no longer had an octave. The tears need not have been those of the fabulous crocodile, weeping before he ate his prey. They remind me of what Pope Benedict XVI once said when he was attending a concert, and he asked how we could have traded Bach for what passes for sacred music now. The pope was too gracious to enumerate and evaluate the specific defects of the un-folk and un-classical music in current use. He was mourning a loss.

It was no surprise that Pope Benedict was generous in permitting celebrations of Mass in the Tridentine Rite. He saw its beauty and goodness. Imagine how strange it would be if all at once the Powers of the State should forbid you to read Dostoevsky, or if the Powers of the School should eliminate playing outdoors at recess, or if the Powers of the Choir should shred all sheet music for Victoria, Palestrina, Tallis, and Byrd. Cromwell and his armies defecated upon high altars and smashed most of the stained-glass windows in England. I shudder to think of the Cromwells we will always have with us; iconoclasts, smashers of beautiful things they cannot themselves create and do not understand.

I will be accused of missing the beauty of what is in our midst now. That may be. I am only human. But then those who defend what is current must do so without drawing invidious comparisons with their version of the past. I do not want to hear that Gregorian chant was dull or that no one could sing it, no more than I want to hear that in the home with a large family you often had to fight to get to the bathroom—or, up until my father was in his twenties, the outhouse. 

Defend the poetic beauty, if you can, of “Here I Am, Lord.” Do so, without bringing up one of the more sentimental poems by Fr. Faber. I do not want to hear that housewives of old went mad because living in a neighborhood bursting with noise and activity was too much for their nerves. Defend, rather, the empty and eerily silent neighborhood. I do not want to hear that old-fashioned priests were often high-handed with their charges. Defend, rather, the state of affairs in which priests, still all too human, are hardly to be found at all.

I might go a little further. Modernism, as an ideological stance, or as an artistic project, or as a strategic plan for evangelizing the world, is essentially iconoclastic. It is not just one style or one set of ideas or one means of evangelism among others. It exists principally by standing in judgment against what has existed, even when what has existed is profoundly and naturally human. Woodrow Wilson was the grain alcohol modernist when he said that the job of the university was to make young men as unlike their fathers as possible. 

Kant anticipated the modernist when he said that an enlightened man no longer needed a pastor to tell him what to believe. Huxley the modernist was at least half in love with his Brave New World, defined by the obliteration of ordinary human love and devotion. If children naturally want to spend most of the hours in the day with their parents, their siblings, and people who know them and sometimes love them, that is too bad; off they must go to the artificial asylum. It was a bad and rare day for Picasso when he offended no one.

The question the Catholic Church has faced these last sixty years has been whether our new instauration has been urged by modernists in the sense above. Telltales are easy to enumerate: disdain for the past and its heritage of thought, artistic creation, evangelical work, and prayer; disdain for human nature, especially as regards men and women, marriage, and the raising and education of children; an aggressive insistence upon what evidently does not work, similar to what modernist artists and poets have done when people do not appreciate nudes in cubes or verses that are portentous prose with bad punctuation; a bitter envy directed against those few souls that still live a genuinely human life—think of the feminist who envies the woman with a large and cheerful family and sneers at the waste of the mother’s talent; a denial of the claims of tradition, claims that are essential to all human cultures; and a willingness to turn to brute force when the Great Leap Forward has not transpired.

We might ask whether our churchmen really believe what the Catechism teaches, and if so, whether they really want to evangelize the world. If the answers are yes, then we may turn to questions of strategy. But if they insist upon what has not conveyed those teachings and not evangelized the world, we may ask whether they are more in love with their habits than with victory, or whether they want victory at all. 

I know what I want. I want the Church to bring Christ to the world and the world to its senses. I want every little town to bristle with church spires. I want to hear the pealing of the bells on Sunday, and at noon on every day. I want a world in which even the infidel and the pagan know who Jesus is, and why it matters. I want a world in which human nature is not slaughtered on the altar of progress. I want a real world, not an expensive and grim imitation, or a mockery. If you want these things, we can talk. If not, I wish you well, but we must part company.

[Photo Credit: Shutterstock]

By

Anthony Esolen is the author or translator of 28 books, most recently In the Beginning Was the Word: An Annotated Reading of the Prologue of John (Angelico Press), No Apologies: How Civilization Depends upon the Strength of Men (Regnery), and The Hundredfold: Songs for the Lord, a book-length poem made up of 100 poems centered on the life of Christ. He has also begun a web magazine called Word and Song, on classic hymns, poetry, language, and film. He is a professor and writer-in-residence at Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts.

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