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Law, culture, and Catholicism...up in smoke!

Sunday, December 31, 2006

Carnival, Culture and Catholicism

"Yet there can be seasonal misrule only within a prevailing architecture of order, just as the debates and disputations of the late medieval period are possible only within the context of an assured and absolute truth which governs humankind." - Peter Ackroyd's The Life of Thomas More

As Advocatus Militaris is fond of pointing out, there are certain strains of Catholicism that seem inclined towards what he describes as a Jansenist or rationalist conception of the Faith. It appears to me that these unhealthy tendencies among American Catholics started with too great an influence of Protestant attitudes, but have been exasperated by the current culture wars (see, for example, a recent condemnation of a school's opposite sex dress-up day).

Frederick Wilhelmsen, one of the great Thomists of the 20th century, noted that there seems to be little space in Michael Novak's Catholicism for the festivals and carnivals that have always characterized Catholic cultures. It is, for instance, hard to imagine a renewal of the tradition of the boy-bishop or of other "irreverent" common-places.

As Ackroyd explains, "On the feast of the Innocents a 'boy-bishop' was ritually enthroned in the principal churches of London .... The child bishop, fully apparelled in ecclesiastical robes with mitre and crozier, delivered a sermon (which often touched upon the misdemeanors of the adult clergy) before walking through the streets of the district, blessing the people and collecting money for his churchwardens." Not only was this tradition sanctioned by the Church, the statutes of the Sarum rite provided that "no man whatsoever, under the pain of Anathema, should interrupt or press upon these Children at the Procession." Similarly, one of the maxims that boys such as Thomas More would have spent time translating into Latin was "Thou shalt do as the preste says, but not as the preste dothe."

There is much talk here and elsewhere about the importance of engaging the culture. No one is denying that "engaging the culture" can be an important thing, but I think it is also important to note that it will be impossible to have an authentic Catholic culture so long as there are no places where Catholics can engage in the ribaldry and disputation that rest upon "a prevailing architecture of order [and] the context of an assured and absolute truth." If we truly want the renewal of our culture, don't we need to begin with small communities in which such traditions can develop? If there is no oasis from the culture wars, aren't we condemned to a shallow faith that can never satisfy a full and healthy life? If we have no place for carnival, can we really call what we have a Catholic culture?