Writings by Dr. John C. Rao

A View From Rocco's: Gardone, 2008

Are Beauty, Camaraderie, and Talk Really Expendable?

(The Remnant, April 15, 2008)

"Even if the wounds of this shattered world enmesh you, and the sea in turmoil bears you along in but one surviving ship, it would still befit you to maintain your enthusiasm for studies unimpaired. Why should lasting values tremble if transient things fall?" (Prosper of Aquitaine)

We are eleven days into Spring on this drizzly last Monday of March as I sit down to write my regular article from Rocco's. Predictable war and Wall Street woes dominate the Press, and all the many groups enlivening the city on extended Easter breaks have inevitably gone to their various homes. Life, in short, seems stuck in a turn-of-season rut.

An unknown graduate student intrigued by my scribbled notes stopped by to lecture me on what he does under these humdrum circumstances. "When Spring arrives, the weather is still bad, the news awful, and there is nothing interesting to do", he confidently taught, "a young man's heart must turn to 'apps'". I also once needed scholarship money, and remember having spent the 1970's following this kind of application advice seriously, filling my days with the completion of form after boring form until the sun finally shone definitively through and I gave up the losing effort.

Long past "app" age now, I have another means for diverting my attention from the early springtime blues: preparation for the Roman Forum's Summer Symposium in northern Italy. These Symposia have been held at Gardone Riviera on Lake Garda since 1993, generating over three hundred lectures on Catholic History and Culture, most of them available for easy download from Keep the Faith, Inc. (http://www.keepthefaith.org/).

The main theme of the 2008 Symposium is quite a different one from those of the past decade and a half. Speakers this year will primarily be addressing contemporary Catholic problems and discussing possible strategies for successfully overcoming them. Through the assistance of a special one-time grant to the Roman Forum, those speakers will include representatives from a variety of European countries as well a number of Remnant friends and regulars---Fr. Brian Harrison, Michael Matt, Chris Ferrara, and Brian McCall among them.

If I were to identify the "spirit" behind this year's issue-oriented conferences, I would say that it is one of cautious but nevertheless profound hope. On the one hand, cautious hope is justified by a sober recognition of the continued gravity of the worldwide Catholic collapse, combined together with a solid appreciation of the encouraging way that many aspects of the ongoing crisis are beginning to be tackled by Pope Benedict XVI. On the other hand, a spirit of cautious hope is also dictated by the secondary focus of the 2008 program.

That secondary focus is actually simply the next stage in our regular cycle of historical lectures (somewhat reduced in number to accommodate this year's special theme), centered in 2008 on the difficulties faced by Christendom in the 900's A.D. The Roman Forum is, of course, convinced that study of the lessons of all periods in Church History is crucial to believers in a religion both supernatural and historical in character. If we, as Catholics, refuse to cherish and learn from the entirety of our past we really can have no clear conception of the Mystical Body of Christ and how Our Savior operates to guide His Church and people in time. But study of Tenth Century Christendom is particularly important to the 2008 Symposium because its experience was in many respects so comparable to our own: one of outwardly devastating scenes of collapse and dissolution, accompanied by hopeful manifestations of a recovery which, in its case, would eventually lead to the glories of the High Middle Ages.

Every year, whether ordinary or extraordinary, the Roman Forum confronts two serious criticisms regarding its Summer Symposium: the first, that it is really "just an excuse for a vacation" in a beautiful Italian setting; the second, that it merely encourages "cheap talk" when "vibrant action" is required to save the Church in her present misery. Given that so many of the writers for The Remnant are part of this year's session, I think that these two complaints ought to be addressed in its pages.

Allow me to begin grappling with criticism number one by saying that even if the Summer Symposium were "just an excuse for a vacation"---which it definitely is not---it would be an eminently worthwhile Catholic venture. It can be justified as such by slightly paraphrasing the statement of Prosper of Aquitaine, cited above, which the Roman Forum uses as its motto---"Even if the wounds of this shattered world enmesh you, and the sea in turmoil bears you along in but one surviving ship, it would still befit you to maintain your enthusiasm for Catholic culture unimpaired. Why should the full fruits of Catholic civilization be disdained if transient things fall?"

We live in a world of committed and indeed often unremitting ugliness and vulgarity. "Retreats" emphasizing the reality of the underlying beauty of a fallen nature which is nonetheless capable of redemption ought to be seen as a restorative measure reinforcing commitment to the Catholic message. What kind of teaching do we offer to hideous modernity if we treat an opportunity both to escape its perpetual assault on the senses as well as to live in an eleven day atmosphere of Catholic joy reminding us how man can use the things of nature for the greater glory of God as though it were a shameful and perhaps even cowardly temptation? To give such an impression is tantamount to saying that we are embarrassed by the full fruits of a culture we claim we are fighting to revive; tantamount to treating the Protestant understanding of the total depravity of nature as the "realistic" one; tantamount to arguing that the spiritual and mental health of activists engaged in the battle for the Faith can only be maintained by life long imprisonment in a Hobbesian zoo constructed by our enemies.

Still, as founder and organizer of the Symposium, I can assure Remnant readers that "finding an excuse for a vacation" has never been the justification for a program that nevertheless undeniably does bring an enormous amount of enjoyment in its train. The true purpose of the annual Gardone venture is to introduce men and women who are forced by their Protestant-Enlightenment environment to live an atomistic way of life which is harmful to Catholic culture to a different kind of existence; to life in a microcosm of what we once called Catholic Christendom; life in a world which took for granted the central role of both supernatural and natural community for the development and perfection of the individual.

Supernatural and natural community life is promoted by the Summer Symposium in every conceivable manner. It is encouraged through common participation in the Traditional Liturgy; through common dining, singing, story telling, and camaraderie at table each evening; through common physical proximity in the "neighborhood" created by the piazza and the hotels that we make our own each summer.

The general value of this communal experience is taught by all of Greco-Roman-Catholic civilization. Our forbears, both secular and religious, understood that life in community makes us aware of insights, merits, and, perhaps most importantly, flaws in our thinking and behavior that lie unexposed when we are trapped in the atomistic life created by Protestant-Enlightenment teaching. One does not need years to grasp the benefits of this communal experience. The contrast, after the fact, of the impoverished existence guaranteed by modernity with the "time out of time" of the two, short, different, but complementary Catholic communal experiences that I myself have enjoyed---the Chartres Pilgrimage and the Gardone Symposium--- creates an impact on the mind and soul that lasts forever.

This brings me to the second criticism of the Summer Symposium: that it replaces dedication to vibrant action with indulgence in cheap talk. It seems to me that such an argument can be based upon four presuppositions, all of which I would reject: that we are clear as to the exact nature of the vibrant Catholic action to which we must dedicate ourselves; that the environment in which we live is a suitable one for level-headed resolution of any disputes concerning the action required; that the specific conclusions of any communal dialogue to be undertaken in Gardone can already be predicted; and, finally, that a broad discussion of guidelines for action answers my questions regarding what I as an individual am supposed to do to fight the good fight.

First of all, I do not believe that we have really come to a solid Traditionalist agreement concerning what, exactly, current Catholic Action ought to involve. I cannot deny that there are many people who are absolutely convinced that the Catholic battle strategy is indeed crystal clear, and that those of us who are still groping for the correct approach to take are guilty of, at best, invincible ignorance. Despite a massive amount of blogging lamenting the failure of The Remnant Gang to focus on the obvious, I do not see that many fundamental questions are being appropriately addressed by our critics. Given Traditionalists are often focused on "the issue" that awakened them to the Catholic problem to begin with, and "the solution" that first attracted them as the answer to "the nightmare". No matter how valid that issue and how sincere that solution may be, they are both frequently rendered problematic because of a failure to harmonize them with all the other aspects of the crisis of Christendom; a refusal to study them in the context of the message of the whole of Scripture, Tradition, Church History, and the flux of current events. Attention is all too readily devoted to scoring points rather than answering questions. Eyes and ears that ought to remain open to the fullness of the Catholic voice are shut hermetically tight.

This closure is due to the flaw of the second presupposition---that a complete, level-headed discussion of battle strategy can take place under the conditions that we normally experience. I would respectfully insist that it cannot. Regular exposure to modernity's disordered and ultimately unnatural message, especially in the most highly effective envelope that this has been delivered---that of Americanist Pluralism---makes an impact upon us that we often fail to detect. It distorts our vision of what is really essential and peripheral; what is truly realistic and utopian. It disrupts our appreciation of the correct hierarchy and values, guiding us to "defend" Catholic Christendom by focusing on weapons and concerns that actually contribute to its ultimate destruction. Hence the continued, painful assertion by many Traditionalists of the God-given mission of naturalist Founding Fathers who would not have had the faintest idea of what they were talking about. A complete level-headed discussion of strategy demands precisely what the Symposium offers---a time out of time in an outwardly ordered environment given inner direction by a consistent Catholic vision. Open disdain of such a blessing is short-sighted in the extreme.

Thirdly, although the general value of the communal experience can be explained at any moment, the specific insights and corrections in thought coming from individual communal experiences cannot. Plato taught that the actual experience of discussing things with Socrates in each unique dialogue was itself essential to the complete opening of mind and soul. Moreover, the future contributions of distinct persons meeting under distinct new circumstances cannot be predicted according to some reductionist, mechanistic formula. Simply put, in order for Gardone, 2008 to yield whatever fruits it might have to offer, it must first of all take place. I cannot dismiss it as pointless beforehand.

That brings me to the final false presupposition. Both my Faith and my Reason tell me that a terrible confrontation is upon us, out of which a revival of Christendom may arise. I believe that we must prepare a general Traditionalist strategy for dealing with that confrontation. But even if agreement on that general strategy had been reached, it does not follow that each individual has come to understand the mission that he, personally, should shoulder in a new battle with Protestant-Enlightenment culture.

Quite frankly, as a man who has always hovered between academics and practical life, without being precisely either a scholar or a committed activist, I do not yet see my own personal mission in the coming battle all that clearly. I want to clarify that mission as quickly as possible, because I do indeed want to do my part, and at 57 years of age, I know that my personal "apocalypse" might arrive before the "big battle" actually occurs. It seems to me, once again, that the "cheap talk" of the specific communal experience that I can enjoy during the "time out of time" in Gardone this particular year may well create the environment in which I can finally reach a solid conclusion regarding the work of my own final years. Beauty, camaraderie, and talk, at least as far as I am concerned, are in no way expendable to the Catholic enterprise.

The grant to support our extraordinary 2008 Symposium was not limitless. It was sufficient to put together an international team of high caliber whose conferences will be taped and made available to Catholics across the globe. Nevertheless, it was not enough to be able to offer the number of scholarships to students, professors, seminarians, priests, and religious whom we wanted to attend but who did not have the means to do so. I would urge those of you who are in a position either personally to take part in the proceedings or to aid others to do so to contact the Roman Forum immediately. Given the world political and economic situation, I think that the opportunity to organize another such international Catholic traditionalist "parliament" in the near future is a highly unlikely one. It looks like now or never.

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