Tradition and Tolerance

Our old friends at America: The Jesuit Review have issued quite an awful article responding to the Pope’s new muto proprio. Its author, Zac Davis, is associate editor of the magazine. He attended the Latin Mass once or twice in college, which qualifies him as America‘s token trad.

Mr. Davis (no relation) says that the Latin Mass “made me bitter and arrogant.” You’ve heard the joke, haven’t you? Q: Do these pants make my ass look fat? A: No, your fat makes your ass look fat. The Latin Mass can’t make a person bitter and arrogant anymore than a banana split can make him gluttonous. And the Latin Mass, like a banana split, is an intrinsically good thing. If it becomes to you a near occasion of sin, that’s really more of a You problem.

In fairness, Mr. Davis has some kind words for the Latin Mass, too. Well… sort of. He says the Latin Mass

gave me a hunger for ‘the beautiful,’ despite my eurocentric understanding of beauty.  There were no felt banners or tacky papier-mâché art in sight.  To that point, when the Met Gala chose ‘Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination’ as its theme, do you think they were looking to 1970s Catholic aesthetics for inspiration?

I chuckled at the “eurocentric” line. It reminds me of one of the great contradictions on the modern Left.

Remember how progressives used to get all worked up about cultural appropriation? Remember that girl who made international headlines for wearing a Chinese-style dress to prom, and so was (predictably, tediously) accused of being racist? I think that was one of the first real instances of American leftists targeting people at random and making their lives miserable.

Anyway, I agreed with the mobs in theory—though not, of course, in practice. I think it’s disrespectful to use any people’s traditional costume as a fashion statement. And, yes, that also goes for the “Heavenly Bodies” exhibit Mr. Davis mentioned, which featured Rihanna dressed like a slutty pope.

Now, I don’t think it’s anything to get bent out of shape about. It’s just ignorant, in the most literal sense of the word, meaning you should feel worse for the “appropriator”—the shallow, tasteless individual using a quipao or a bishop’s miter as a costume—than the Chinese or the Catholics they’re appropriating from.

And I mean that. Because the only person who would want to use a quipao or a miter as a costume—who think they’re “just a dress” or “just a hat”—have no real depth. Those aren’t words you’d hear spoken by folks with their own deeply-felt cultural and religious traditions. Only the most decadent, deracinated moderns are really capable of cultural appropriation.

And here we come back to Zac Davis’s point, about how the Latin Mass “gave me a hunger for ‘the beautiful,’ despite my eurocentric understanding of beauty.”

Friends, have you ever been to an Eastern Catholic liturgy? The Melkite or the Syro-Malabar? It’s beautiful, yes—as beautiful as any Mass in the Roman church. But it’s weird. It’s disorienting. It’s not something most Westerners would experience and say, “Yes, this is it. This is how I want to worship God for the rest of my life.

And that’s okay! Do you know why? Because most Arabs and Indians would feel the same way about the Western Catholic liturgy. I’m sure they could recognize the objective beauty of a Latin Mass, but they’re not going to automatically decide they want to switch rites. Nor should they.

But let’s go one further. There’s actually something a bit odd about Catholics who are drawn to “the East” because it’s foreign. It’s like the old, romantic Orientalists. There’s a certain charm about it, but one senses their priorities are a bit off. They have a touch of the old Lawrence of Arabia complex.

That’s not to say a Westerner can’t fall in love with the Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom. But one hopes they fall in love with it because they feel it brings them closer to God—not because it makes them edgy or obscure. “Oh, you’re a Roman Catholic? I’m actually an Italo-Albanian Catholic. It’s not very mainstream. You probably haven’t heard of it.”

Really, how can a Westerner appreciate non-Western traditions unless they appreciate Western traditions? What exactly are you meant to be appreciating? If you don’t reverence your own ancestral customs, why would you bother reverencing someone else’s?

As a matter of fact, I talk about this in my book The Reactionary Mind. The West has a serious problem with what I call “cultural tourism”. Because we’ve abandoned all of our own traditions, we don’t actually know how to engage with foreign traditions or other expressions of culture.

So, when that high school senior defended herself for wearing a quipao by saying, “It’s just a dress!”—well, I’m sure she was being sincere. She comes from a culture (or lack thereof) where no deep meaning is attached to anything, least of all an article of clothing.

Exhibit A: Some of our very best friends are Eastern Catholics who attend the local Melkite parish. I love the Melkite liturgy but, again, I find it very strange. I’m not used to kissing icons; I like to kneel during the Consecration; something wigs me out about babies receiving the Eucharist.

But, then, my Eastern friends find Eucharistic Adoration strange. They think the Body of Christ is for eating, not worshipping.

These differences can be shocking, even a little scandalizing. And that’s okay. Actually, it’s a good thing. It means we’re still capable of being scandalized. It means we reverence our traditions enough to find other people’s traditions strange. But only when we acknowledge the differences in our traditions—when we recognize that our tradition is not their tradition, and vice versa—can we respect each other.

So, back to our friend Zac Davis. He has now shed his “eurocentric understanding of beauty” in favor of a generic, deracinated Novus Ordo. Say he pops in to see a Coptic or a Ruthenian liturgy. He might be more at ease than I am. But is that because his new “understanding” of beauty is incredibly broad, or because it’s incredibly shallow? Would it mean anything to him beyond some vaguely ancient and mystical gestures? Might he just as well be at a mosque or a sangha?

I don’t know. I don’t know Mr. Davis. But suspect that would be the case for a huge majority of individuals that attend the Novus Ordo… and a tiny fraction of those who attend the Latin Mass.

That’s the point of any culture. It’s always “centric.” It’s always particular to you and your people.

This is why “multicultural” is a contradiction in terms. There can’t be such a thing as a multi-culture. If every Ethiopian decided to become multicultural tomorrow—to watch American television, eat Indian food, drink French wine, read Persian poetry, watch Brazilian football, etc.—there would be no “Ethiopian culture” left.

And what happens if the Americans, the Indians, the French, the Persians, and the Brazilians all follow suit? Well, there’s going to be no culture anywhere.

As a matter of fact, this is the phenomenon unfolding all over the world. Internationalist multiculturalism is rapidly congealing into globalist nonculturism.

Like we said, a people rooted in their own culture has no desire to “appropriate” the culture of another people. The only folks who desire to be “multicultural” in the first place are those who don’t understand (much less respect) tradition.

Because we’re all increasingly deracinated, we borrow more and more from other cultures. And yet, because our own lack of tradition has made us shallow and tasteless, we “appropriate” only the most superficial aspects of other cultures. We may like Chinese quipao, but we have no interest in (say) Confucian philosophy or the Tao Te Ching. Our interest in Chinese language and calligraphy begins and ends with tramp stamps.

In the pursuit of multiculturalism, we become alienated from our own culture, and therefore incapable of understanding (much less admiring) other cultures. Our ignorance, our carefully cultivated philistinism, proves to be the greatest barrier to sympathizing and cooperating with other peoples.

That’s why not only “local patriots” but true lovers of world culture should embrace a broad and generous traditionalism. We should immerse ourselves in own cultures mostly for their own sake, but also because it allows us to understand and respect those who aren’t like us.

In the Age of P.C., I do feel a certain need to qualify this statement by saying, I’m not trying to justify traditionalism in terms that are acceptable to the Left. Although, I do hope this argument may be compelling to well-meaning liberals.

Look, multiculturalism simply isn’t an option. Either we embrace this broad, liberal-minded traditionalism or we’re stuck between three competing camps: chauvinistic nationalists, self-loathing xenophiles, and (for the vast majority) that generic, deracinated, lowest-common-denominator, consumer-capitalist globalism.

As for the Catholic Church, traditionalists are the future of the Church. That includes Latin-Massers, Eastern Catholics, and denizens of the Anglican Ordinariate. I believe it also includes “reform of the reform” Novus Ordo types, especially in historically Protestant nations.

We may not always be able to understand one another, but I do believe that we’ll always be able to respect one another. And that’s more than enough to be getting on with.

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