Leisure and the Catholic Family

held at the Carmelite Convent in
Glumslöv, Sweden, 2009, February 28


by Clemens Cavallin (1)

Part II

Tradition and the Family

The Decline of Catholic Nations

There is no way of denying it, during the 20th century the Catholic Church has lost much of its vitality. At the same time, one cannot deny that there have been promising signs of a rebirth, for example, in the flowering of lay movements. Nevertheless, irrespective of these small sprouts of life, the deconstruction of Catholic national cultures in Europe seems to proceed unabated, as in Spain, Italy, and Ireland. What is lost is foremost a religious folk culture connected to the sacramental life of the church. Large numbers are still nominal members, but feel alienated towards devotions, the use of the confessional, and the moral laws: especially those connected with the inner life of the family. The reigning global cultural climate is moving at an accelerating speed away from Christian foundations.

The Catholic Tradition

Considering the present state of Catholic nations in the western world, it should not come as a surprise that attempts to nourish oneself at the wellspring of the Catholic tradition do not come easy. It is almost unavoidable that this longing for continuity is also, more or less unknowingly, modern; that is, it has been formed by modernity and its offspring postmodernity, in ways which are not always readily apparent.

Even the concept of a sacred tradition is difficult for a modern person to see in a positive light.

Even the concept of a sacred tradition is difficult for a modern person to see in a positive light. Traditionalism in a Catholic context has been reserved, mostly with negative connotations, as a designation for those groups which are either decisively critical or outright reject the Second Vatican council. The council is considered by traditionalists as a significant breach with tradition (though the degree is a matter of debate) and the main cause of the present deplorable state of Catholic religiosity. The focus is often on changes to the liturgy: the introduction of a novus ordo, but is not limited to that sphere including also issues of a dogmatic nature. (2)Such groups see themselves as carrying forth the Catholic tradition in the midst of a general apostasy: upholding continuity in a raging sea of radical transformation.

From the outside this clinging to tradition is often characterized as the result of anxiety in times of great change, as voices staunchly declaring: we will not change. Traditionalism is then considered – in the same vein as conservatism was a reaction to the French revolution – as a coping mechanism in the face of liquid modernity.(3) It is a safe harbor for fringe groups and individuals with low levels of acceptance of heterogeneity, who tragically occupy themselves with resisting the inevitable. The obvious example is the Old Order Amish, which almost literally has tried to freeze social and technological development. They seem though to be doing quite fine and have received increased appreciation because of the growing awareness of the massive environmental footprint of modernity. 

The modern person, the antithesis of the traditionalist, is instead characterized by an open mind, delighting in new discoveries, ever ready to reevaluate his or her assumptions: though not all, of course. To drop rules and regulations when they cease to have any practical value is of no great concern to such a personality type; of all things the modern person is pragmatic and efficient.

The main problem with such a dark view of tradition, as a mere holding fast to things old and imbued with patina, is that respect for the living tradition is built into the very foundation of the Catholic Church.

The main problem with such a dark view of tradition, as a mere holding fast to things old and imbued with patina, is that respect for the living tradition is built into the very foundation of the Catholic Church. Once again we can benefit from a booklet by Josef Pieper, this time Tradition: Concept and Claim, in which he characterizes tradition in the following ways:

Clearly we are not dealing with something new, evolution and metamorphosis. It is a question of preserving through all change the identity of something presupposed and preexisting, against the passage of time and in spite of it. All at once the slogans are fundamentally different. Instead of a “new way of looking at things” and “progress,” we hear, “The Word they still shall let remain.” One passionately resists “another Gospel” (II Corinthians 11:4).(4)

In every sacred tradition the real agens is the concern to prevent the loss or corruption of what was entrusted to mankind once upon a time “in the days of old” through divine revelation. In addition, it must be handed down to the coming generations identically, as itself. One needs only to consider this fact for a moment to see how silly it is to measure the church by the demands of “progressivism.”(5)

To be Catholic in the sense laid out by Pieper thus means also to be traditional. I interpret pope emeritus Benedict XVI’s attempt to address the concerns of traditionalists through the restoration of the common use of the ‘tridentine mass’ (vetus ordo), (6)as being part of a strategy intended to show that traditionalism, in the general Pieperian sense, is the only Catholic way. Consequently, Benedict emphasized the unbroken tradition from the early church, though not excluding organic growth, clarifications and innovative strategies used in order to handle changes in the social and cultural milieu. I would like to join my discourse to Benedict’s intention and let the notion ‘traditionalism’ refer to the position that considers Vatican II as part of the living Catholic tradition and which therefore argues that the council has to be interpreted in that light. Nevertheless, I am aware that to attempt such a definition, contrary to common usage, seldom succeeds; still, I think this point needs to be stressed.

For me, and I think for most people of my generation, who have not lived in the pre-Vatican II church, the contemporary situation requires new strategies of being traditional. We only know the church suffering from a crisis of identity; the decisive question is not for us modern ‘traditionalists’ how one should interpret the council – an event that was a significant part of the youth of our parents. For us it is a significant part of church history, as the first Vatican council; an event that has to be reconstructed in order to be understood, but which cannot in any serious way be doubted; it is a fact, the framework, within which we have lived out the crisis of our own lives and that of the church. For us the pressing question is: how are we now to know what is the tradition to which we should attach ourselves? We cannot just go out and see it; because is it really alive, and whom should we trust is living it authentically? Is what we meet in our local parish, the real stuff, or is it merely a result of modernism making itself comfortable within the church and perniciously eroding away contact with the living tradition. Although the council is seen as part of the Catholic tradition, formulating itself against the background of the 20th century, the consequent turbulent developments after it has made it very difficult to discern the contours of an authentic Catholic tradition. There are quite a number of different offers to choose from.

The somewhat elusive nature of tradition is the basic problem facing the Catholic who does not simply want to capitulate in front of the present cultural condition. In order to discuss the question of how to live the tradition in more detail, and to sketch some ways out of the dilemma, I have chosen as my focus the struggle inherent in the project of trying to live as a Catholic family in accordance with the teachings of the church. But the mechanisms governing such a venture can without much effort be transferred to other Catholic social institutions such as a convent. The following discussion will also, quite naturally, be done with particular references to the Swedish context, which is somewhat different when compared with, for example, the Italian situation. Nevertheless, I think the situation in (what was at least previously) Catholic nations is in many respects approximating that of Sweden; and that the questions that I bring up can be even more difficult to perceive clearly in such a post-catholic cultural context – something which can make the Swedish case interesting in its peculiarity: perhaps even prophetic.

A System Theory Approach

My approach is, furthermore, colored by a system theory approach, which considers reality as built up by layers of structures. These constitute emergent entities (with specific emergent properties) as in the step from subatomic to the atomic, through the molecular level, to that of the cell and even higher up to the organism. One important concept here is that of systemic integrity. The system, for example, the cell, has to maintain its dynamic structure by creating and upholding a distinction between the interior of the system and the outside, and needs to have mechanisms for handling all flows and interaction between these two realms. Without monitoring processes and feedback mechanisms, the system dissolves into the background, as when a human body dies and decomposes. When the system is of a social nature, as a family or a convent, an important part of the maintenance of systemic integrity is that of reflection upon the nature of the social entity: “what is a Catholic family or a Carmelite convent? What are its essential properties, functions, and purposes?” Thereby one tries also to understand the surrounding environment (modern society, its culture and forms of ideology) and how the interaction with it should be conducted. With other words, the environment is analyzed into parts, and judgments are made about which parts that can be of use for the maintenance of the social entity (the family), and which are destructive to its integrity. The greater the difference between the Catholic family project and its social context, the more intense these reflective processes have to be.

Social Structures

The most basic challenge, which often makes Catholic family life (and I would say any family life) difficult, is that which is provided by social structures. The government policy in Sweden, for example, is set on not seeing the family as a unit, but as a collection of individuals. This is reflected in how the taxation system is designed, bringing economic disadvantages to families with more children than the modest average. This basic nominalism, when it comes to what a family is, constitutes a direct threat against the unity of the family, since it flatly denies its systemic nature. A mere heap of cells do not make up a body, but these smaller units have to be integrated into a coherent system of causal relations. In the same vein, divorce is a systemic collapse and the denial of the complementariness of the sexes puts into question the basic program of the system.

To live a Catholic family life is then not possible in the same way as it was in a pre-modern Christian society

Furthermore, there is pressure built into the structure of work that demands that you steal time from family life. A strange stress is exerted, on the one hand, to be useful and effective, and, on the other hand, to thoroughly amuse yourself: to follow your heart’s desire in the pursuit of self-realization. In this way, as analyzed by Pieper, life is divided up between work and free time, though even the latter has an activist dimension. These processes have been augmented by the increasing depth and speed of the changes made possible by globalization.

To live a Catholic family life is then not possible in the same way as it was in a pre-modern Christian society; one has to strategically reflect to a much higher degree on the social structures that exert their pressure on one’s religious family project, and thus try to creatively find loopholes and possibilities. If one does not engage in such a reflexive evaluation and just drift with the flow, taking the ways that the organization of society makes easy, one’s Catholic family project will (probably already from its inception) have a structure making it an almost impossible venture. That is, if one is intent on preserving its connection with the Catholic tradition. The easy alternative is, of course, to give up all the characteristics that are in conflict with the surrounding society, or which merely seem somewhat strange.

The point I try to make is, if one wants to maintain a mini-society functioning according to Catholic values and moral principles, one has to create a little cosmos which constantly negotiate the structural pressure it faces. The strategies are thus contingent and volatile; one must be prepared at all times to change the modus vivendi one has established, when the milieu changes. This is very different from Christian life in a pre-modern village where the social structure works with you in your family project; there it is, on the other hand, harder to be an atheist, if one would like to follow that path.


In order to live a ‘traditional’ Catholic family life, one has to establish a fire wall (to use a computer metaphor) for its cultural interaction, so that intellectual and emotional viruses cannot enter; preventing persons in your little network from being remote controlled (hijacked), or your unique information stolen. This is so because the market place of cultural goods is overflowing with thought patterns, values, moods, and experiences which will disrupt the culture of your social system: the family. As with social structure, this requires a constant reflexive monitoring of what books, films etc. that should be allowed to enter and be recognized as integral parts of your family project, and those that shouldn’t. In no way, one can therefore just imbibe what is on offer through the TV-set, Internet, the music industry, or through personal communication. This is once again diametrically different when compared with pre-modern life. It requires that a lot of energy is devoted to reflect on whether cultural items are to be made part of your life or not. A constant ongoing conversation and active decisions are necessary in order to uphold the integrity of the family: the level and intensity of that reflection needs to increase with the level of difference between the values of Catholic life and the surrounding society. If one were to live in a thoroughly Catholic society such processes can be located on a higher level than the family, for example, the village, city, or nation. However, as our starting point is a Catholic family in Sweden, the level for such deliberations is mostly the family. If that is tenable in the long run is another question, that is, if a single family really has the resources to carry out the required work to uphold its systemic integrity. As an example, perhaps a slightly whimsical one but nonetheless true,  I would like to mention that on October fourth, the day of St Francis of Assisi, in Sweden, the day of the Cinnamon roll is celebrated. I suppose St Francis wouldn’t mind a bun or two, but the cultural distance between a stigmatized saint preaching the value of poverty and the cozy immanentism of the Swedish ‘tradition’ of fika (‘coffee break’) is hard to reconcile, at least without some sustained cultural effort. The juxtaposition of the two adds a sense of absurdity both to the saint and the lionized pastry.

The Local Parish

But, one can ask: what about the local parish, though local is perhaps not a fitting word for Swedish Catholicism; does it not provide resources that make the Catholic family project feasible? I would have liked to pronounce an unconditional yes, but the answer must in many cases be no; the parish is probably no safe source of inspiration for the social project one has undertaken. Most of its members do not have any serious reflexive understanding of the social structures, the content of the surrounding culture, but try to forge a career within precisely those parameters, without making a serious effort at evaluation. When it comes to the priest, more often than seldom, he does not want to upset this conformism with the surrounding society, and parish life is therefore, in a way which is sad but often true, fraught with dangers for the family. Because, it is here that the guiding principles for the family project should be given; the parish ought to be a font of values and a structural counterweight that helps Catholic family projects to evolve along the line of what I would like to call a highly reflexive tradition.

The Recovery of Tradition

But if the problems are so grave, how can a Catholic family in a country like Sweden even get the principles according to which it should govern, monitor and evaluate its social project? My tentative answer is that this has to be done through a vast reconstructive work using the many channels through which the tradition of the Church has been transmitted.

If one looks at the 1980s and 1990s, which I am doing presently in a biographical research project centered on North America, it is obvious that a whole new lay ‘orthodox’ subculture was formed, during the pontificate of John Paul II, by individuals seeking out each other and beginning to build new institutions. The former Catholic subculture that collapsed in the 1960s and 70s was to a large extent built upon religious orders, which ran schools, hospitals and, universities, but now lay persons started colleges, publishing houses, and magazines. There is, unfortunately, not the same critical mass in Sweden which contains a mere 100 000 to 200 000 Catholics, coming from many different cultures, hence the level of lay institutionalization is not that high here: religious orders are still mostly in charge.

--- it is important for the Catholic family to engage in a thorough engagement and reflection upon the nature of modernity and postmodernity

What changed toward the end of the 1990s, and increased as we entered the second millennium, was the emergence of forms of globalization made possible by new information technology, as the Internet. This meant that the search for sources, or vestiges of tradition, and their revitalization could now be performed on an international scene: English being the lingua franca. The pope could reach out directly to each Catholic in a new way, but so could lay Catholic bloggers. (7)

I have emphasized that it is important for the Catholic family to engage in a thorough engagement and reflection upon the nature of modernity and postmodernity – either by itself, which is though hard, or together with other families and institutions. This, I would like to add, is not only an academic affair, since it needs to be firmly grounded in practice. Such a probing takes place in many domains: the political, philosophical, moral, and cultural. To a significant degree the analyses of the relation between modernity and the Catholic tradition take place within the realm of culture, as in the fictional work of J. R. R. Tolkien or his Anglican friend C. S. Lewis. Fiction provides an eminently suitable place for this reflection as it does not only analyze thought patterns in a logical way, but takes into consideration the whole person, both body and soul, with its feelings and moods. Through fantasy moral exemplars are provided, igniting a desire for the transcendent, which becomes visible through cracks opened up by the literary imagination in the both grey and garish world of the materialist culture (mirroring the work and free time dichotomy). This is important as traditionally the three transcendentals, truth, goodness and beauty, are seen as aspects of being, finding its highest point in God the truth himself, the highest good, and the supremely beautiful. In such a cultural project, the relation of humans to trees can, for example, be of great significance, as it was for Tolkien.  Gardening, human animal relations, architecture, painting, fictional narrative and music function as ways of finding inspiration for the attempt to make clear exactly where the Catholic tradition parts with thought patterns and practices of modernity; for example, in the tension between the view of trees as merely raw material for economic profit, or trees as living beings, beautiful and good in themselves.  


To conclude this short reflection on the project of trying to live a ‘traditional’ Catholic family life, we must return to the question, whether a single family really can handle the processes that are required. I think that both a yes and a no answer are correct. Yes: since merely with the intention of wanting to be different and acting toward that purpose a basic structure will be in place, that is, once the fear of not being as everybody else is overcome, the systemic integrity of the project has been acknowledged.

The no answer is based on that the single family simply does not have all the resources that are required, and that it is therefore necessary to connect to other families, movements, networks, orders and the like. However, here some fundamental difficulties confronts the family, as in many such situations they do not enter as a system, that is, as a family, but as individuals, a feature which therefore can undermine it. Second, this reaching out and networking puts demands on the family, requiring that it uses its resources to connect. What the family gain by structural and cultural alternatives to the non-Christian context can, therefore, come at such a high price that the family is emptied of resources for internal coherence. One such resource is, of course, time.

There are, as I see it, two main alternatives of addressing this conundrum: one is that of the network family, that is a mobile discreet entity which enter into certain more or less loose constellations of both structural and cultural nature, in order to procure help for its internal processes. The other is the village family that together with a number of likeminded persons creates a neo-traditional local civilization within modern society. Most of the monitoring and evaluation of cultural goods can then be handled on a higher level within the community, and the same is true for structural pressures. The village will thus face the same problems as the single family project, but will have more resources to handle them. In Sweden, I think the structural pressure, however, is so great that such a solution is not practically possible; something which of course can change. Although I am convinced that this is highly improbable.

The need is instead, especially for families, to regain the centrality of leisure;and with it comes a contemplative attitude that is so necessary for sustained reflection.

My main point is that regardless of into which organizational structure that a single Catholic family enters, this has to be characterized by a highly reflexive approach to both modernity and tradition. A mere continuation of what is at hand will fail, as will a lack of serious discussion of the structural and cultural features of the surrounding society; since both approaches are fatally naïve both toward the brokenness of tradition and the challenges posed by contemporary societies. To be traditional today means to reconstruct tradition in the face of late modernity. This is not due to that the tradition has been altogether lost, but due to that it has survived as a living praxis in the form of isolated islands surrounded by a sea of systemic decay. The surviving cells have to be connected in order to constitute a body. To reconnect to the theme of Pieper’s essay on leisure, this is, however, not a call to a strategy of intense activity, of antlike hurrying to and fro. The need is instead, especially for families, to regain the centrality of leisure; and with it comes a contemplative attitude that is so necessary for sustained reflection. The handing on of the Catholic tradition thus relies on the Shabbat.


Clemens Cavallin is Senior Lecturer and Associate Head of Department for Internationalization at the Department of Literature, History of Ideas, and Religion at the University of Gothenburg, Sweden. He is Visiting Instructor of Religion & STINT Fellow in the Department of Religion at Haverford College, Pennsylvania, during the fall semester 2013.  Dr. Cavallin’s research interests are broad and include Hinduism, Ritual theory and Catholic Studies. His thesis The Efficacy of Sacrifice (2002) was within the first field, more precisely focusing on Vedic sacrifices, while his second book, Ritualization and Human Interiority (2013) is within the second field of ritual theory. He is presently working on a biography of the Canadian Catholic artist and author Michael O’Brien.

(1) I did not give this talk in my capacity as associate professor at the University of Gothenburg, but as a lay member of the Catholic Church, and it was addressed to professed nuns in a convent. The teachings of the Catholic Church are thus here taken for granted; something which cannot be done in my role as teacher and researcher at a secular state university. The talk has been modified compared to the original version.

(2)For example, Amerio, Romano, Iota Unum: A Study of Changes in the Catholic Church in the Twentieth Century, trans. John P. Parsons, (Kansas City, MO: Sarto House, 1996); Mattei, Roberto, The Second Vatican Council: An Unwritten Story, ed. Michael J. Miller (Fitzwilliam, NH: Loreto Publications, 2012)

(3) Bauman, Zygmunt, Liquid Modernity (Cambridge: Polity, 2000).

(4)Pieper, Josef, Tradition: Concept and Claim, trans. E. Christian Kopff (South Bend, Indiana: St. Augustine’s Press, 2010), 2f.

(5)Pieper, Tradition, 50.

(7) One thought that has been on my mind for some time is whether this development in the long run will make the local territorial parish into one of those aspects of the Catholic tradition that will have to transform: perhaps it does not constitute a part of the core of the tradition so to speak.

Tillbaka Förstasidan Från början
© KATOLSK OBSERVATÖR 2005-2010 All rights reserved