Last month’s letter on the undesirability, from a Catholic point of view, of the suburban way of life brought in a few thoughtful replies. I was glad. I love independent minds as long as they agree with me.
Actually, I do believe that the December letter contained in advance, however briefly, the answer to many of the objections against it. Notably, it did not say that modern suburbs are the real disease, but that they are a major symptom of the real disease. To attack the suburban symptom is to challenge Catholics to stop taking it for granted as a natural and normal way of life, and to start thinking whether it may not even be one serious threat to their eternal salvation. “Watch and pray”, said Our Lord. Let us “watch” by answering readers’? objections:
CONTEXT OF SIN
Q. Surely you are not attacking cities, which have always been centers of Catholic civilization and culture? St. Paul’s Letters are all addressed to early churches in cities (Rome, Corinth, etc.). Medieval Cathedrals were all built in cities.
A. Correct. But industrialization, in particular the motor-car, changed radically the structure of cities, and the mentality of city-dwellers. For instance the people who had socialized and the children who had played in the city streets were chased off them by the motor-car. Similarly, as long as the country out-weighed the cities, city-dwellers shared more or less of the country-men’?s common sense (e.g. you cannot fool with day or night, winter or summer), but as soon as industrialism enabled the cities to out-weigh the country then that common sense began to be worn away (e.g. with electricity and central heating we can change night and winter). The modern city and suburbs easily erode this natural sense of there being a nature of things. Now without nature, where is grace?
Q. But the suburbs, like television, are merely neutral, and can be used for good or bad. The problem is sin. Attack sin, not suburbs!
A. It is precisely to attack sin that one attacks modern suburbs, because their way of life favors sin. Their softness and comfort favor sensuality (Second Sorrowful Mystery). The anti-socialness and independence of their way of life favor pride (Third Sorrowful Mystery). True, television is in theory neutral, but not in practice. As installed in the (suburban or modern city) home, it strongly tends to be misused, discombobulating mind, will, the sense of reality, activeness, humanness, and family. Similarly the suburbs in practice strongly tend to discombobulate human beings. Listen to the Rock musicians, voice of now two alienated generations (1960’s to 1990’s). This alienation cannot go on.
Q. But priests (and dinosaur bishops) should be attacking sin, which is the heart of the problem, and not suburbs, which are obviously not the heart of the problem.
A. Granted, of course, sin is the real problem. But if a child complains of its shoes hurting, is it foolish to point out that it has put the right shoe on the left foot, and vice versa? If Catholics complain of finding it very difficult to lead Catholic lives, is it foolish for priests to point out where they are not realizing that the whole context of their lives is carrying them towards pride and sensuality?
Q. What do you mean by “a context carrying towards sin”?? Sins are committed by free choice, not by context!
A. Yes, but contexts can exert more or less pressure on free choice, which is why many of them are branded as “occasions of sin”, which a Catholic must avoid.
Q. Then you are saying that modern suburbs are an occasion of sin? Ridiculous!
A. Let us take a different example. A car radio is, as such, not the best context for listening to classical music, because I am distracted by driving, I am purely passive to the music being played, I am by my “Seek” or “Scan” buttons master of the Great Masters, to replace them at will with umpteen Rock stations. Now I can listen to classical music on a car radio. But the context of attending a live concert is much better, where I am neither distracted, nor purely passive, nor master of the Masters by the push of a button. Similarly I can lead a Catholic life in the motor-car-suburbs, but the whole context is man-made, man-centered, man-controlled. It is a context that shuts out God, making Him not impossible, but rather more difficult, to reach. Contexts count!
Q. For Catholics on a small tropical island, this whole question of suburbs or city against country is unreal!
A. How many Catholics are living today on small tropical islands? Get real!
Q. You are like so many Society of St. Pius X priests, you just want to go back to the Middle Ages, which were not as great as all that.
A. SSPX priests at least appreciate that the Middle Ages were the height of Catholic Christendom, by which to measure its present depths. However, few SSPX priests (none that I know of) want to go back to those Middle Ages, which is obviously impossible. They do however, wish to go forwards upwards instead of forwards downwards into the future, and going forwards upwards means aiming at those Catholic heights achieved in the Middle Ages despite all their faults. Hence our regard for the Middle Ages.
Q. You just want to go back to the peace and quiet of mid-19th century hypocrisy!
A. Peace and quiet, where suitable, yes. Hypocrisy, God forbid!
Q. You just do not like anything new.
A. Much wiser (Prov. XXII, 28) to like nothing new than to like nothing old, which is the condition and conditioning of modern man! But anything new that will help me to save my soul, like a new set of officials in Rome, truly Catholic, I will grab with both hands! A truly renewed Catholic Church, a new truly Christian World Order, yes please!
Q. But time passes, and things change. It is no use lamenting the “good old days”.
A. There is no question of lamenting the good old yesterdays, only of judging correctly our present todays, in order to save as many souls as possible tomorrow. Of course time passes and things change. That is exactly why we must think about what time has brought us to now so that we can make things now change for the better. Otherwise they will go on changing for the worse. Change is inevitable, but God requires of us to direct that change in the direction of His will.
Q. But people have always praised times past as though they were better. Which strongly suggests that they were not really better at all.
A. The arguments for the Reign of Christ the King having—broadly—deteriorated for the last 700 years, are clear and convincing. A car without brakes can free-wheel down a hill without crashing for a certain length of time, but finally it must crash. To the remains of Christendom in the 20th century, God sent three major warnings—World Wars I and II, and Vatican II. But still mankind is free-wheeling down-hill, and faster than ever.
Q. But country people are now as full of drugs and vices as city or suburban people.
A. Probably not quite, but that is much more true today than yesterday, precisely because the motor-car with all its pomps and all its works has overtaken the country. When Our Lady (allegedly) appeared in the mountain village of Garabandal in Northern Spain in the early 1960s, it was still an isolated mountain village. Now it is just an out-rider of the nearest town.
Q. But even before industrialism, the supposedly lovely English countryside was full of Protestants.
A. Protestant England was supernaturally mad. Protestant industrialized England is supernaturally and naturally mad.
Q. As for the American countryside, or heartland, it is full of Protestants, the farms are laid out in an anti-social way, and life is led there in a manner downright selfish.
A. As December’s letter said, Protestantism is the heart of the problem of “suburbanism”, so that to attack the symptom of suburbanism amounts to a way of alerting Catholics to how the disease of Protestantism is most likely infecting them without their realizing it. To be Catholic is, in itself, far more important than to live in the country, but, circumstantially, not living in the country can incline many Catholics to cease being Catholic at all. Accordingly, let any Catholic think twice before he moves away from the Mass to be in the country, and let him think thrice before moving into the country to recreate suburbs there, or to rejoin an industrialized, mechanized, anti-socialized way of life.
Q. Yes, we Catholics are not Amish!
A. By the Truth of our supernatural religion, no. But does that mean that there is nothing in their natural way of life that we could profit by imitating? Not necessarily. There is “method in their madness”. To live on the land is not the same as to live off the land.
Q. But check in your seminary to see if most of your vocations do not come from the suburban way of life.
A. It is true that Catholic Tradition is, broadly, a middle-class movement. The “upper” classes are, broadly, enjoying their corruption too much to seek the Truth, the working” classes are, broadly, too unthinking to defy Church Authorities. And middle-class often means suburban in today’s world. If then Tradition arises from suburbs, it must be that “where sin did abound, grace did the more abound” (Rom. V, 20). If suburbanites reached Tradition “the firstest with the mostest”, it may be because they were the mostest exposed to the falsity of modern life. In any case, Tradition is “a remnant saved according to the election of grace” (Rom. XI, 5), so there is a mystery of God involved.
Q. Traditionalist country elitism is odious!
A. Is it widespread? Is it anything like as widespread, or as dangerous to the Faith, as the blindness of suburban-technological complacency? We poor men will always be sinners, but country Traditionalists sound as though they have got at least some of their principles in place.
Q. But why should white collar work be less valid than blue collar work? Are only men who do physical work masculine?
A. Read the cartoons of Dilbert!! Every society by nature needs a certain number of “white collar” workers to be able to run, so by no means all “?white collar” work is unreal. The fact remains that Dilbert is for real, in other words masses of suburbanites are doing work that is modally and/or substantially unreal! Similarly any society requires some unphysical work to be performed by real men, but woe to that society if widespread unphysicality unmans a mass of its men.
Q. Didn’t the Conciliar Popes come from small towns and villages? So the country was to blame for Vatican II?
A. Paul VI came from middle-class Milan, a big city. and he was hugely responsible for the Vatican II disaster. John XXIII and John-Paul II were from the country, but both followed the essentially (sub)urban movement of modernism.
Q. This despairing of modern society is for Rock musicians, not for Catholics.
A. Like, in fact, many intellectuals (so called), rock musicians have a point, at least when they state the problem, but they have no solution. On the contrary Catholics have the solution, only many of them lose their grip on the problem, and so they lose their grip on the solution (“Going My Way”, “Bells of St. Mary’s”, etc., etc.). No Catholic can despair. but he had better be able to see why he could despair.
Q. Oh, do let us stop being negative! Let us Catholics be positive and full of luv - I’m sorry--- full of l-o-v-e! Let us be an example in the world, and not just hurl abuse from the safety of our bunkers!
A. One cannot love Truth without hating error. He who so hates being “negative” that he agrees with everything that everybody says, must agree with many errors. and so he does not love truth. He who is so “positive” that he luvs everybody and everything they do is going to luv a good deal of sin, and so he is not positive in any true sense at all. All Catholic Saints hated error and sin as much as they loved God. Great Saints of the past would have had much compassion on our world had they lived today, but from the bunkers of God-given truth they would not have ceased—prudently—to “hurl abuse” at today’s tidal wave of heresy and sin.
Q. OK, OK! Supposing I do move into the country, close enough to get to Mass each day, with time enough to recite the Rosary each day, and on too few acres to get sucked into industrial farming. What then?
A. First, let no suburbanite pretend that the move back into the country is easy. Farming is a hard way of life, which is precisely why many people in the 20th century left the land for the cities. Cows take no holidays, they must be milked every day, which includes at dawn in the dead of winter! But “no sweat, no sweet”. In the hardness of the life lies its salutary discipline, for youngsters and oldsters. If people had stayed on the land, Communism could never have arisen. Who would dream of going on strike against land, animals or weather?
Conclusion: in order to achieve what you would have moved to the country to achieve, do not expect. and do not re-construct, the easy life for yourselves. “In suffering is learning.”
Secondly, proximity to the Mass would be a crucial part of your move into the country, not only because of our Sunday duty and absolute need of the sacraments to save our souls, but also because of the Catholic’s need of community. If Catholics fled the modern city or suburbs because of that whole context damaging to the Faith, it would not be worth fleeing into a Protestant context of isolated and individualistic country life, where there would be no Catholic families for miles around. In the early Middle Ages (500--1000 AD), the villages, towns. cities of Christendom formed around a monastery or church.
Q. But in the Middle Ages the altars of the Catholic Church were rather more stable than they are in today’s crisis of the Church!
A. As we look back in time, it may seem so, but at that time amidst the ruins of the Roman empire and the threat of barbarian invasions, the altars may in fact have Seemed hardly more stable than they do today. At some point God requires of us to take reasonable risks and to trust in Him for the rest.
NEED OF ADAPTATION
Q. So I flee the suburbs and I re-locate in the country within striking distance of a group of Catholics where there is the Mass. What will I have achieved positively?
A. In the country, much more of the environment is God-made, or natural, instead of man-made, or artificial. Every creature of God speaks directly of God, if one has ears to listen. So if one moved into the country, one should not make the move too humanly abrupt, with too many sudden changes, because the temptation might then be to come racing back to the good old suburbs one is used to. On the other hand one should envisage leaving behind, little by little, more and more of those artificialities which are the pride and consolation of suburbanites, and which fill the glossy colour catalogues stuffing our mail-boxes. Life in the country should simplify, and as it did so, so the important things in life would come back into view, presently blocked out by multiple artificial distractions.
Q. But no museums, no concerts, no culture —just the beauties of Nature? How boring!
A. Moving into the country would require a period of adaptation, to survive which I would need to have well thought out why I had moved into the country in the first place. But if I had thought it through, I would stand a good chance of adapting successfully.
For instance, in the cities, museums have to constantly make up new exhibitions from the same old artists, or else patronize the modern anti-artists. In the country, no two sunsets or sunrises are exactly the same, and each one is a fresh masterpiece painted in moving technicolour, but of course one must have eyes to see. Similarly concert-halls have to go round and around the same favourite pieces of the classical composers, or else descend into the bear-pit of “modern music”, whereas in the country each dawn-chorus of bird-song is a new symphony conducted by our Maker, but concert-hall ears have to be adjusted to hear it. (In one sense, the museums and concerts died some time ago.)
Q. But life in the country would be boring!
A. The adults would have to adjust, for sure, and the older children, but the younger children should take to country life like ducks to water. Most parents can see how much more healthy it would be for their children to grow up in the country, only circumstances of all kinds prevent them from thinking that they could make the move.
Q. What is the advantage for children?
A. Fresh air. Freedom to play outside. Manual labour, apt to teach discipline and responsibility. The handling of live animals for which children have a God-given affinity, and which by their God-given nature can teach many lessons of life that no machines can teach. For instance, what child born and bred in between stallions and mares, bulls and cows, cocks and hens, is ever going to buy into the absurdity that there is no difference between males and females? Dare I say that the animals without reason will have taught the child a significant part of the difference between males and females that have reason?
Q. But all of these advantages of country life are situated on the merely natural level. It is grace, or supernature, that counts for salvation!
A. Of course, but grace builds on nature. Grace does heal nature, but it does not violate it. Grace works against sin, but it works with nature. That is why a wise education works with grace and nature in tandem. The problem with the ever increasing artificiality of suburban life is that nature is being so shattered that grace has nothing left to work with. The total suburban context makes stony ground on which the seed of grace has little chance. That is a major reason why so many pious suburban parents see their teenagers become disinterested in the Catholic religion. Grace and nature, as presented to the teenagers, just do not integrate or fit one another. That is also a major reason why we have few vocations at present, and it is a deep reason why at the Seminary we have needed to introduce a preliminary year of Humanities.
Q. Tell me some good news of the Seminary!
A. Gladly! It looks as though we may have seven new priests ordained at Winona on Saturday, June 23. That is a larger number in any one year than we have had for a few years.
Dear readers, do not lose heart. The Lord God pays each of us the compliment of demanding a great deal of us, but He does not demand the impossible. Thank you always for your spiritual and material support of the Seminary. We begin a new calendar year quietly and steadily, with the help of God and of His Blessed Mother, and with 42 seminarians.
yours in Christ,
+ Richard Williamson