Leisure and the Catholic Family
held at the Carmelite Convent in
by Clemens Cavallin (1)
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. 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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
(6) The apostolic letter Summorum Pontificum issued motu proprio in 2007, http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/benedict_xvi/motu_proprio/documents/hf_ben-xvi_motu-proprio_20070707_summorum-pontificum_en.html
(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.
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