Writings by Dr. John C. Rao

Una Voce and the Habit of Error

(Una Voce Newsletter, Spring, 2002)

“Adding insult to injury” is a saying whose significance and pain all believing Catholics have to confront whenever any issue of intellectual, political or social importance is discussed. In fact, this phrase needs to be altered where Catholics are concerned to indicate the triple insult regularly tossed at them by opponents intent upon doing them injury. To begin with, they find themselves denied credit for noble developments in western civilization for which their religion bears a great and even overwhelming responsibility. Secondly, they face the accusation of having engendered most western evils, and often precisely those which, in truth, Catholicism has actively opposed from the outset. And, finally, Catholics are insulted by being expected to accept as proof of their omissions and commissions arguments which are lacking both in seriousness and logic, usually presented by critics who are living off of past Christian glories and lamenting horrors which themselves have caused. Unfortunately, many—probably the vast majority of Catholics-find confrontation with both their injury and three-fold insult something easy to take in stride.

Listing one’s personal experiences of this phenomenon can be an illuminating, though ultimately lugubrious undertaking. I myself have heard academics laugh incredulously over the mere suggestion of a Christian association with learning, thereby betraying an abysmal ignorance of the Church’s central role in the birth and nurturing of the university in the Middle Ages. The same sort of uninformed critics have expressed to me their revulsion over a Catholicism which they claim to be a fellow-traveler of environmentally-destructive technology, even though our religion has been on record, since the seventeenth century, as a prophetic voice against science and materialism run amok. And behind such erroneous charges, I generally have found a tissue of mere assertions which often amount to a variant of the old “it could have happened, it should have happened, it really did happen” argument. Each man feels these injustices most keenly in his own particular field of activity; the idea that the very educators whose distorted world view is the catalyst behind the destruction of learning dare to sit in judgment over Christian contributions in this realm feeds my special rancor as a teacher.

Two fresh wounds involving the turning of reality topsy-turvy were opened for me recently in my own living room. One was inflicted by an episode of the television series, Law and Order, concerning a pro-life activist who kills an abortion doctor and is brought to justice by a team of police investigators. We are introduced here to Christians whose actions, while perhaps debatable, seem perfectly logical--the central figure, for example, becoming violent due to his anguish over the abortion, against his will, of his own child. The police investigators, in contrast, come across as being cold, cynical and deceptive men who believe that anyone connecting ideas with consequences, and allowing something so petty as his own child’s murder to influence his future attitude towards abortion suffers from psychological disturbance. Bursting in upon a home-schooling, pro-life family during lessons, these Stalinist apparatchiks interrogate the mother regarding the perilous lack of rock star posters in her daughter’s room, obviously equating freedom from the zeitgeist, the spirit of the times, as synonymous with madness. Guess which group represents reason and openness to the complexities of life in contemporary society? No contest! The logical Christians, struggling to protect their liberty, are uncomprehending neanderthals; the storm troopers of mindless conformity are the ones who stand guard over free thought, diversity and the good life in general.

The culprit behind the second wound was a disturbing satire, The Truman Show, dealing with a man whose entire life has been orchestrated by a Super-producer who places endless obstacles in the path of the hero’s efforts to escape from his environment. This environment is a deadeningly one-dimensional, secularized, materialist, vulgar but “peaceful” middle class world, dominated by its overbearing but loving Führer-director, for the delectation of consumers of media bilge. Christianity is not directly mentioned in the film. Still, the miserable society which is satirized seems to be an allegory for the ordered universe protected by the loving Creator God and providential Lord of the Scriptures, which is now shown for what it really is. And yet, orthodox Christianity never inspired or could give birth to the hideous culture laid out, brilliantly, in all its horror before us. Ironically, the hero, who decides to “become his own man” and flee the “Old World” of the director-God on a boat called the “Santa Maria”, is headed for precisely what he wishes to escape. For, whatever The Truman Show had in mind, it is the society that abandoned the old Catholic world for puritanism, secularization and the victory of media over message that creates the monstrous conditions that the film rightly deplores.

Perhaps, by this point, I am nitpicking. There is no wonder that everything is depicted in topsy-turvy fashion in our brave, and by the twenty-first century, not so new world. Already, in 1848, Catholic writers were noting contemporary society’s marriage with the illogical; its inability to pronounce a single intellectual statement that was not in contradiction to itself. How could it have been otherwise? For modern civilization, while inheriting from its Christian and Greco-Roman past a respect for reason, freedom and even progress, has, by rejecting God and the natural laws of the world created by Him, left itself with nothing to protect these goods than irrational wills irrationally at war with one another. Insane contradictory principles can only produce mad arguments and art works to underline them.

Moral theologians and experienced confessors have long noted the distinction between a sin in and of itself and one that has evolved into an habitual flaw. Although the habit is more dangerous, given that it indicates a deeper penetration into the heart of the soul, it nevertheless makes repetition of the specific corrupting action less free, more mechanical, and even unconscious. This is still more true if the habit is ingrained in an entire society, and taught to all its subjects in manifold ways from earliest youth, as Plato indicates in The Republic.

Here, I would contend, lies the gist of the problem. Modern man has now lived for some centuries with all of the contradictions of a basically irrational, willful world view that nevertheless still wants to see itself as the protector of reason and freedom. He has become familiar with the defenses thrown up by his civilization to prevent the unmasking of absurdities for what they are. In other words, he is used to existing in a society that has contracted the habit of error. This habit is incorporated into all the basic rhythms of life, is taught to children as a given and a good, and is taken for granted by many of the Catholics whom we at Una Voce are trying address as much as it is accepted by everyone else.

An essential part of this habit of error is the teaching that traditional Catholicism is an enemy of all that is decent. Every argument or historical event, even those that actually confirm the opposite conclusion, is made to prove this “truth”. Evidence, often of the most circumstantial variety, can be pulled from out of nowhere at any time to demonstrate Catholicism’s evil in one manner today, and in an absolutely contrary way tomorrow. Unfounded ridicule is accepted and used as though it were scientific methodology, statements of blind faith in anti-Catholic dicta as if they were rigorous judgments following investigation of first principles. If the Catholic responds ably in his religion’s defense, a society and souls gripped by the habit of error will shut out his words or hear in them only what is required to maintain their addiction. Any dent made by an apologist in the armor of error on Friday will be forgotten by a diet of habit-reinforcing television viewing and a few pain killers on the side during the weekend. By Monday morning, it would be as though the work of battling the habit of error had never been undertaken before.

Two conclusions that can be drawn from the existence of this “habit of error” have been useful to me in maintaining my own equilibrium in what I consider to be an era more intellectually and spiritually troubled than any other in human history. I draw attention to them now in the hope that Una Voce members engaged in the nuts and bolts struggle for the progress of the traditional liturgy may also find therein some help for the shoring up of their commitment and sanity in times of trial.

The first is the recognition that it is highly unlikely that many people caught up in the net of confusion constituting what passes for wisdom in the last few centuries are ever going to grasp the full nature and extent of the absurd life that an habitually erroneous society teaches them to live. Even with the best of intentions, the grind of daily activity can prevent drawing the requisite judgments about the world around us on the grand scale that is needed. I remember, in this regard, the bewilderment of a very fine priest from lower Manhattan who had been awakened to the nightmare of his particular parish’s religious decline. His response to the late Dr. William Marra’s cataloguing of the identical problems at his own university in another part of the same city was an astonished “all the way uptown as well”? Dots on the horizon may be noticed by those with eyes to see, but it is perhaps too much to hope that they will generally be connected to reveal the complete character and dominion of the rot whose rhythms have been imprinted in our souls for all too long.

What this means is that we are engaged in a struggle of little steps, akin to that fought by soldiers in the trenches during the First World War. We must be ready to work with whatever tiny signs of understanding and cooperation come our way, and give heartfelt thanks to God for them when they arise. The fact that a given bishop or priest might come to see even a partial value to our arguments concerning the importance of the traditional liturgy is, given what one faces in a world engulfing us in the habit of error, a marvelous achievement; their failure to understand how concern for the traditional liturgy implies commitment to a proper catechetics, sound theology, a correct idea of Church-State relations and an accurate estimation of the causes of the rise and fall of Christendom as a whole is indeed upsetting, but, alas, a “high class” problem. Let us indeed pray earnestly for a general enlightenment tomorrow, but bless any patron contributing in but a microscopic way to giving us access to the traditional liturgy today. One step forward alone, in the civilization of habitual error, is a mammoth victory, justifying a lifetime of praise for the authority responsible for it.

My second conclusion, tied intimately to the first, is probably best introduced with reference to the parable of the Prodigal Son. For years, this parable left me as troubled as it did the loyal son who wondered why the fatted calf had never been slaughtered for him and his friends. Eventually, a good comrade pointed out a second possible meaning to it. My problem, she said, was that, although I was justifiably frustrated over the successes of those who really indeed were squandering the Catholic inheritance, I took for granted, as a given, that I was its sound defender. Was I really as solid as I seemed to think that I was? For one thing, my bitterness, my despair and my desire for vengeance were not fruits of the Holy Spirit, and were weakening my own right to function in the apostolate that I had chosen. And how could my own imperfect soul stand up against the other temptations of the age? Maybe both the loyal son and I were ourselves actually more prodigal than we realized, and a plate of fatted calf would be on the table for us once we came to our senses and shaped up.

Building upon that line of thought, what I really mean to say is this: just as we are all “ordinary” sinners, even in the best of civilizations, we all, in addition, are rattled by living in a society wedded to a habit of error. This is why anyone who consciously wants to be a good Catholic, must make a still greater effort, both spiritually and intellectually, to enrich his soul with the life and wisdom coming from our Faith. It is our special duty, as people seeking consciously to fight for orthodoxy in a troubled age, to learn ever more clearly what that orthodoxy is really all about, and not simply assume that we are committed to Christ because we say that we are. “If you cannot make progress in a substantive way”, a priest tired of hearing my repetitive confessions once told me; “make progress in humility”. If we cannot make even miniscule progress, at the moment, in a given effort to gain permission somewhere for the traditional mass, well, then, let us try to make progress in breaking any ties that we may still nurture, not only with “ordinary” sin, but with the habit of error. God may want us to work on ourselves first before allowing us an objectively deserved victory. It is to a world afloat in a sea of errors that Una Voce sailors set sail to do battle. Once we make certain that we are not ourselves serving in the navy of the enemy, and that we are ready to welcome with open arms whoever courageously takes but a single step in the direction of the traditional boat, then maybe, Lent behind us, we can sit down at the table of the fatted calf together and hone down the final points.

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