I was watching The Apostle of Common Sense on EWTN a while back (when they were showing the new season, not the re-runs) and caught G.K. Chesterton (or, more accurately, a reenactor presenting Chesterton and Dale Ahlquist commenting) on Islam. GKC argued, partly, that Islam’s problem is that it is a Christian heresy and, like many heresies, had a kernel of truth… which it then made the only truth.
In short, Islam, Chesterton said, is a monomania: the initial focus may be true (there is only one God and He deserves obedience), but it is not the only truth, and, in absence of other truths, can actually become something false.
An e-mail newsletter (that I don’t know why I don’t unsubscribe from) tonight caused me to revisit Chesterton’s comments on heresy and monomania. Most of the newsletter was devoted to a discussion of why women should not wear pants. Ever. Pants are (and I would argue most of these points) far inferior to skirts/dresses in comfort, utility, style, modesty, propriety, etc., and no Christian man should allow his wife or daughters to wear pants if he can in any way help it. I even ran across a collection of “Plain” Catholics; they dress like the Amish, work on family farms, avoid politics, shun modern conveniences, etc. in an effort to find a closer relationship with God.
Excuse me for being a history major, but I have to point out that the Victorians managed to consider ankles scandalously sexy, in spite of the skirts swishing above them. The Middle Ages and Renaissance, for all their yards and yards of fabrics, had their share of affairs and “loose women”. Free love hippies wore floppy bellbottoms, which could nearly be a split skirt. And plenty of electricity-free, women-in-dresses, family-farm-inhabiting people of the late 1800’s were losing God, too.
The question is the interior attitude; it’s much harder to change and much more difficult to gauge if you’re getting anywhere. Which, I suppose, is why it’s easier to go for the monomania: “If only we could get women back in skirts, we could reverse the massive decline in the culture in general and sexual morality in particular…”
The thought ranks up there with the Latin-only argument. I appreciate the use of Latin in the mass (and I wish my parish would use it more than twice a year) and I certainly think a whole lot more reverence in the average mass is a very necessary thing. While I myself do not attend a Latin-mass parish, I understand that some people prefer the tradition of the mass in Latin. The problem (and part of the reason that I don’t attend the local Latin-only parish) is that some people (not sure if they’re the majority or the vocal minority) loudly proclaim that, “If only we could get the mass back in Latin, then everything would be okay again.”
The problem isn’t the Latin. If it were, the fall from “okay” wouldn’t have been so sudden and steep. Nuns and monks wouldn’t have been abandonning their vows of chastity and service and marrying each other, bishops wouldn’ t have been openly instructing their flocks to ignore the pope’s call to continue to forsake artificial contraceptives, and the CCD programs wouldn’t have devolved into “Kumbaya”-singing, fluffy-headed, can’t-we-all-get-along, theology-lacking disasters so fast.
The problems were already there. The Latin hadn’t changed, which fooled some into thinking nothing had really changed yet, but we don’t call church councils for nothing. Make no mistake: the Latin-praying church had problems, and Rome knew it. And so we got Vatican II… which, given the underlying spiritual rot of large chunks of the Church, was neither well implemented nor well taught. It’s ok; we’re Catholics, we understand history (or should), and we should remember that there were more Arian heretics after the Council of Nicea than there were before and it took a while to convince all of them of the orthodox position.
As soon as the call went out from Vatican II to start acting like adults again and think about your faith with at least the amount of brainpower you apply to your job and other adult activities… well, a lot of people apparently realized they didn’t know how to. Or didn’t want to. “I liked it better when the mass was in Latin, and you couldn’t understand anything,” complained a character in a movie.
It’s not the skirts, it’s not the Latin.
It’s not even stay-at-home moms, although I would argue we’re getting closer to the problem there. In a C-FAM newsletter tonight (yes, another newsletter; I was cleaning out the inbox), the discussion turned to the current UN meetings of the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Descrimination Against Women (CEDAW) committee. The Russian delegation explained that by encouraging women to avoid abortion and instead have children (critical, since Russia is currently on a horrific demographic downturn), they had managed to a) get the number of abortions below the number of live births and b) decrease maternal mortality. The UN conference was unimpressed and promptly began to ask if the Russians have considered the awful consequences of not getting women back into the workplace quickly enough after childbirth, and, BTW, have they implemented better transgender medical care yet? (I’m not sure I even know what that’s supposed to mean…)
Then the committee turned to the *important* task of needling Fiji on decriminalizing prostitution for adult sex workers and making marriage available to homosexual couples. Aren’t you glad the U.S. is fully funding its UN obligations again? That’s your tax dollars at work, right there. I’m sure the Fijians are grateful.
The problem is much bigger than skirts, Latin, and stay-at-home moms.
All are good things, but all can be done for the wrong reasons, and done badly.
They’re also only symptoms showing the decay underneath. Fixing the symptom but not the decay is like whitewashing a tomb (wait, I’ve heard that somewhere…).
I’m currently reading Hillaire Belloc’s Crisis of Civilization. He discusses the rise and flowering of Christendom through the first half of the Middle Ages: the triumphs of unity, Gothic cathedrals, literature, etc. Something happened, though, in the late Middle Ages: unity remained on the surface, but the spirituality was weakening and the unity was breaking up, even as material progress continued. So, people thought things were sort of okay, even as Christendom was rotting from the inside out. Belloc suggests it was a form of old age, where the Church started failing to fight the necessary, ongoing fight for renewal. The result was the Reformation and the destruction of Christendom as a real unity.
We’re still on that downwards slide. The disasters of credit, wage slaves, wealth inequality, lack of moral restraint on business or culture, government taking over everything, etc. that Belloc was discussing are many times worse than they were in his day. I think the only thing that would surprise him about today’s culture is that, somehow, we’re still standing.
The monomanias of “Can’t we just reinstate X?” or “If we could only get people to go back to Y…” aren’t going to fix things. Even forcing women to be stay-at-home moms in life-long marriages again wouldn’t fix things if we didn’t change hearts first to understand why the woman in the home stabilized society.
It’s harder than monomania. It isn’t one thing, it’s everything.
And it starts with the heart. Yours. Mine.
You can’t see it. You can’t check it off the list; it’s an ongoing thing. You can’t verify its progress in society in a year like you could if it was just skirts or Latin mass or even eliminating the UN (although that last one would help a lot).
Monomania is easier, but it isn’t life.
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