What the Greatest Catholic Thinker Says about the Latest Catholic Pope

 Secular left, perhaps your motto should be, “Fashionable modernism: bringing you yesterday’s mistakes, today.”

With the election of Pope Francis, there are the usual complaints about how the Catholic Church has got to get with the times. The Huffington Post ran the headline, “Pope Francis Against [sic] Gay Marriage, Gay Adoption,” which is much like thinking it newsworthy to write, “New Pope Believes in the Divinity of Jesus.” Mother Jones laments the “missed opportunity to bring the papacy closer to where the people are.” And Forbes’ John Baldoni dishes the baloney, writing of “a Catholic Church that is resistant to change but one that must certainly adapt (and rather radically) if it is going to continue to attract well-intentioned men and women who adhere to its faith but also are willing to devote themselves to its perpetuation” (hat tip: Drew Belsky). Yet this misses the point that it is creatures who must adapt to their ecosystem, and the Church is the moral ecosystem. Our modernistic culture is simply a pretender to that throne.

But calls for adaptation are nothing new; it’s just that primitives who once demanded it in the name of yesterday’s fashions have adapted: they now demand it in the name of today’s fashions. The brilliant philosopher and noted convert to Catholicism G.K. Chesterton wrote about this phenomenon almost a century ago in his essay “Why I am a Catholic”:

The other day a well-known writer, otherwise quite well-informed, said that the Catholic Church is always the enemy of new ideas. It probably did not occur to him that his own remark was not exactly in the nature of a new idea. It is one of the notions that Catholics have to be continually refuting, because it is such a very old idea. Indeed, those who complain that Catholicism cannot say anything new, seldom think it necessary to say anything new about Catholicism. As a matter of fact, a real study of history will show it to be curiously contrary to the fact. In so far as the ideas really are ideas, and in so far as any such ideas can be new, Catholics have continually suffered through supporting them when they were really new; when they were much too new to find any other support. The Catholic was not only first in the field but alone in the field; and there was as yet nobody to understand what he had found there.

…[For example,] when Mr. Belloc wrote about the Servile State, he advanced an economic theory so original that hardly anybody has yet realized what it is. A few centuries hence, other people will probably repeat it, and repeat it wrong. And then, if Catholics object, their protest will be easily explained by the well-known fact that Catholics never care for new ideas.

Nevertheless, the man who made that remark about Catholics meant something; and it is only fair to him to understand it rather more clearly than he stated it. What he meant was that, in the modern world, the Catholic Church is in fact the enemy of many influential fashions; most of which still claim to be new, though many of them are beginning to be a little stale. In other words, in so far as he meant that the Church often attacks what the world at any given moment supports, he was perfectly right . The Church does often set herself against the fashion of this world that passes away; and she has experience enough to know how very rapidly it does pass away.

…Nine out of ten of what we call new ideas are simply old mistakes. The Catholic Church has for one of her chief duties that of preventing people from making those old mistakes; from making them over and over again forever, as people always do if they are left to themselves.

So what of the mistake, made over and over again, of criticizing the Church for being stuck in the past? It is the gripe of a slave of his age. A relativist sees ideas as either old-fashioned or fashionable, as being of the past or on the cutting edge, but none of these characterizations describe the Church. She is not a creature of the age, but of the ageless. She is not of any one time, but of the one Truth.

This is why I can assert, without being presumptuous, what a man who died the year a certain child was born would say about that child when he grew up, became pope, and took the name Francis. The Truth doesn’t change. And since there also are no new sins, neither do criticisms of the Church change. They just get recycled by children of time and place who never learned history and thus think their “old mistakes” are “new ideas.” They might never imagine that, when Christians refused to participate in ancient Rome’s pagan festivals, Roman pagans uttered a very familiar line and called them “haters of humanity.”

Ecclesiastes 1:9 tells us, “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.” Generally speaking, there are no old and new ideas; there are only enduring ideas and flashes in the pan of the polity. The enduring ideas are incorrectly labeled “old” because they are valid enough to remain in constant use, so we see them embraced by grandpa; the flash-in-the-pan ideas are called “new” because it is the fate of fallacies to be forgotten and then resurrected by the next unsuspecting generation. And the young will think grandpa knows nothing of them because they’re newly-born, not realizing that he only knows nothing of them because they wisely were buried long before he was born.

So, secular left, perhaps your motto should be, “Fashionable modernism: bringing you yesterday’s mistakes, today.” But have at it with your criticism and scorn. Just know that Catholics are used to it, for we’ve been thus targeted for a very, very long time. And we’ll be thus targeted long after you, and your ideas, are dust.  

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