Writings by Dr. John C. Rao

Saved by Sophism; Doomed by the Familiar

(Una Voce Newsletter, Spring, 2003)

In 1991, I finished a satirical novel attacking everything that I thought to be corrupted by modern civilization, starting from my own profession and concluding with the absurdities perpetrated by contemporary Church and State. My interest lagged after its completion, at least until last month, when I finally encountered an agent who offered to try to locate a publisher for it. Since I did not have a computer over a decade ago, I sat down to the task of pumping the rather lengthy text into my laptop. My one great fear was of the root and branch editing that might be required in order to update the characters and the context of what I presumed would appear to be a story all too bound to an already vanishing era.

But editing has proven to be far from the existential difficulty that I at first had contemplated. The substance of what I said twelve years ago demanded almost no alteration. The tainted meat of the modern world was exactly the same. And tainted meat is just as vile, whatever the name it goes by, on whatever table it is served, and whatever the time set for dinner. My fears of extensive labor on the guts of the book had been put to rest. I realized, as I typed along, that I, ironically, had been “saved by sophism”.

What is sophism? The word itself means “wisdom”, but its use and abuse in Classical Greece gave it a more negative connotation. To make a long story short, sophism is the substitution of an obsession with what the world calls “success” for a dedication to the discovery of substantive eternal Truth. This obsession with success is then itself defined by the sophist as the only wisdom worth having, any other knowledge involving a painful waste of time and a futile journey to cloud cuckoo land. And here, indeed, lies the great psychological advantage possessed by the sophist in his battle with the lover of real truth; his appeal to the individual’s dislike of the delays that the study, meditation and self-questioning towards which the honest theologian, philosopher and preacher directing him may entail, along with his terror of missing the opportunities for power and wealth that immediate, unconsidered action offer.

We traditionalist Catholics have, to a large degree, been fighting against sophism for the last forty years. The “pastoral” considerations that were said to have guided the Council were, while theoretically valid ones, very much dictated, in practice, by a sophist mentality; by a concern for success in a contemporary pluralist society which first disdained all dogmatic questions, and then declared its “pragmatism” to be the only unquestionable truth worth taking seriously. The result has been the corruption that is the constant accompaniment of a purely sophistic approach to truth: a short-sighted selling out of all that is meaningful and makes life worth living for immediate, superficial and all too perishable glitter; the abandonment of our Catholic birthright for a biblical mess of pottage, and not even a tasty one at that. I have tried to describe the influences lying behind these developments, and the reason for their strength, both in my pamphlet on Americanism and in articles in the Latin Mass Magazine on the theological-philosophical minefield labeled Personalism.

Depressing as the situation may be, it at least means that we at Una Voce who are fighting against contemporary corruption have had our intellectual burden lightened. Like me, with my task of editing, we have all been “saved by sophism” from a great deal of painful labor. Practically everything that has been offered us, in the name of the spirit of Second Vatican Council, indicates enslavement to the sophistic dogma of pragmatism, and reveals itself to be a superficial blip on a consistently unchanging phenomenon; yet another marketing ploy for a civilization in love with tinsel. While we are bombarded with what, on the surface, may seem to be endless new ideas and programs, each of which has to be studied and critiqued on its own merits, these, in reality, reduce to nothing more than boring, repetitive appeals to a worship of the god of immediate impact and worldly success, whose character never changes, and whose prizes are actually nothing but perishable carnival trinkets. It is as though we were expected to be unceasingly overawed by access to an infinite number of channels on a television which we already had learned, by experience, would forever transmit the same pointless schlock.

Whatever intellectual labor might be required in this thankless battle generally lies in recognizing sophism for what it is, and not taking its call to time consuming investigation of its never changing novelties at face value; after that, the rest is easy. The guts of our task never change. Anyone who is nervous about being able to judge whether the latest supposedly earth shattering change is worth considering or not should read Plato’s dialogues dealing directly or indirectly with sophism; especially the Protagoras, the Gorgias, and the Republic. There is no need to be afraid to do so. This is not modern philosophy. It actually can be understood! In fact, the characters and events described therein will make you think, while you are studying it, that you are reading a copy of today’s newspaper. And what you will take away from it is a deeper understanding of how a right reasoning man can know whether he is or is not dealing with someone or something valuable, even without being an expert on the specific subject in question; whether, for example, he is confronting a true physician or a quack doctor, despite the fact that he has not got the faintest idea what a tumor is, or how to remove it.

Resistance to the dominance and temptations of the sophistic environment in which we wage our difficult war will also make the real problems and substantive novel situations which face the Church stand out with all the greater clarity. For such dilemmas do, indeed, exist, just as they did in the less than perfect days before the Council as well. It is precisely because Una Voce has always understood this truth that it has never suffered from tunnel vision, or the condition of nostalgia which is falsely attributed by our opponents to all traditionalists indiscriminately. We know that we have never been working in a perfect ecclesiastical climate, and that we never will be. Difficulties with new names in new places do indeed emerge at every turn of the corner.

Given this fact, we are all then obliged to do the kind of editing that I did find myself obliged to work at in completing the novel: namely, abandoning specific names and surrounding events which were no longer of significance, and, most importantly, not resting content with familiar passages which further examination revealed to be mediocre, contradictory, and harmful to the basic argument. We, also, have to make certain that we are never lulled by familiar names, slogans and positions into contentment with a bad strategy for defending what we love; that we are careful that no such satisfaction ever leads us to contradict the task that we have set ourselves, causing us actually to destroy the principles that we wish to protect. All of us, like novelists correcting their work, must be constantly aware that that which we are used to is not necessarily the same thing as that which is correct and efficacious; that the customary, as Pope St. Gregory VII noted in his battle with the Holy Roman Empire in the 1000’s, is not always synonymous with Catholic Truth. It would be tragic to be saved by sophism, only to be doomed by the familiar.

I say this, as I believe that I have reiterated a number of times before, because, psychologically, it is all too common a phenomenon to equate the familiar with the true. There are many things that can seem to be part of Sacred Tradition because people are used to them for a relatively long period of time, or due to the fact that they are commonplaces which are imbibed along with the air we breathe and the food we eat. If we stubbornly refuse to test these apparent “givens” against the standard of Catholic truth, because to do so would be tantamount to questioning our immediate “tradition”, then we have ventured into an ideological acceptance of what is familiar as the grounds for determining the norm. Before we would know it, we would find that the real Truth and true Tradition, which could be known, but were being avoided, were step by step being replaced by an uncritical acceptance of all that which was merely familiar and customary around us. The effects for the essence of the Catholic Faith would, in consequence, be devastating.

Contentment with the merely familiar can cripple us in all aspects of our lives as Catholics, but what we are concerned about at Una Voce is the specific problem of a familiar environment hindering our work for the restoration of the liturgical tradition of the Western Church. Here, the danger lies in the sacralization of two things which appeal to us either because of the particular historical circumstances of our battle, or simply because of the fact that we are fallen, willful, human beings: the pre-conciliar world, and our own individual preferences. Even if we are fully aware of the difficulties this divinization may present on a theoretical plane (and, as I indicated above, I think that we are conscious of its dangers), on the practical, pastoral level we must nevertheless always remind ourselves to stand on guard against it as a subtle, all too familiar siren song.

American Catholicism in the 1950’s and early 1960’s was not a model for the world, whether on theological and pastoral grounds or, generally even more, on liturgical ones. In this regard, I remember both the late Dr. William Marra telling me that he had heard every error popularized at Vatican Council taught openly by teachers and colleagues of his in the 1940’s and 1950’s, while Dr. Dietrich von Hildebrand lamented the painful banality of what he frequently heard from the pulpits. Sloppiness at low masses and inattention to ceremonies and proper music at sung and high ones was very common. It was a shock to me, born in 1951 and a regular attendee at my parish Church, when I learned, in the late 1960’s, that it was not only Protestants who had a musical tradition. I had not even been informed of the existence of Gregorian Chant, much les that of polyphonic music. In fact, I don’t believe that I ever heard the name of St. Thomas Aquinas mentioned. St. Augustine I knew of from my public school history classes. As one Una Voce leader summarized his experience to me, the 1950’s, in many respects, was actually a period of decline, covered over by a great deal of success on the statistical level. Still, there remains a temptation to look upon this period as a norm for restoration purposes. One can see this readily in a number of Catholic circles, where everything, from clothing to the look of the photographs printed in bulletins, seems as though it emerged straight from 1958.

This leads us directly into the question of individual preferences. Just as one passing moment in time can be divinized—in this regard, chiefly because it is associated with the era before the official assault on the Traditional Mass—familiar, but narrow, personal likes and dislikes can dominate our vision of how the liturgy and its supporting pillars must be restored. And yet no particular hymn, devotion, responsorial approach, scriptural/catechetical/historical text, political position, article of clothing, choice of home or attitude towards alcohol, smoking, or child rearing practice, however familiar and dear to the heart of an individual who may very well be sincerely devoted to the Traditional Mass, can be praised and used as normative for restoration purposes if further examination reveals it to be sloppy, inadequate, intrusive, or downright sectarian and abusive. To do so would be to sacrifice the Truth for the mere semblance of a “tradition”; to miss certain developments in contemporary research which are solid and good; to avoid battle strategies which might actually succeed in winning over our fellow Catholics. It could even lead to a stubbornness of the sort that caused old British Catholics to disdain the efforts of St. Augustine of Canterbury and the Irish monks to convert the Anglo-Saxons. They were too familiar with them as “the Enemy” ever to wish to see them transformed into friendly, fellow believers.

The Catholic Church, the Mass, and Una Voce are bigger than the 1950’s, the United States, and the personal preferences of people who prefer to live in the country or the city. They require no one to dress as an Amish or a gentleman from the Eisenhower era or in a tasteful style from 2003. In all things that we do, we must have only one, infallible guide: Catholic Tradition in all of its fullness. Let us pray that we will always be able to edit our thoughts and our behavior along with its dictates, both as individuals and as a nation. It cannot fail us, either in our path towards liturgical sanity or in our attempt to live a broadly human life, free from enslavement to a loathsome civilization based on sophism.

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