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Change. The word is on everyone’s lips these days, with it being the byline of the Democratic presidential campaign. But, I want to think about what it might mean for Catholics. How should we as individuals, and how should we as a Church look at change? When is it a good thing, when not? When should we embrace change; when should we hold fast to tradition? There is no easy answer; I’m not even sure that there is an answer; but what I am sure of is that two groups within the Church have it wrong: radical traditionalists and liberals.

I define a radical traditionalist as someone who is unwilling to accept any change within the Church that does not entail returning to past practice. We have gone astray today; everything was copacetic in the past. I agree that we have gone astray today, but I don’t agree that there was ever a golden age. The furore over the usus antiquior (or TLM, or Tridentine Mass, or whatever term you wish to use) is a case in point. Is it a superior Mass to the Novus Ordo? In some ways, yes. In my experience, it fosters an atmosphere of contemplation and sacredness that is usually absent in Pauline Masses. It does a better job of emphasizing the Sacrifice of the Mass. It focuses the congregation more totally on God rather than on the priest. I gladly attend such a Mass once a month at our local cathedral, and happily volunteer to chant or provide other music for it. It serves, for me, as a necessary antidote for the insanity that I occasionally suffer through at my territorial parish.

But to say that the usus antiquior is the Mass of the Ages, the perfect expression of Catholicism, is a bit daft. I suspect that I will be tarred as a modernist heretic, or an incompletely converted Protestant, but the new rite has a number of clear improvements on the old. There is more Scripture, which is an unqualifiedly good thing. It is in the vernacular.* It eliminates some repetition of uncertain usefulness. But it simply offers for the enterprising priest way too many opportunities to turn it into the “Father Bob and Cantor Joan Show.” The baby is usually thrown out with the proverbial bathwater, but that doesn’t mean that the baby didn’t need a bath. I contend, with Blessed Cardinal Newman, that the Church has always changed–“developed“–and that we can usually identify which changes are consistent with Tradition and which ones are not. There is no precedent for holding onto traditions (with a little “t”) for their own sake. We do learn, as time goes by, how to more fully express the Faith handed down from the Apostles. That is not easy, and parts of the Church do go astray, all the time.

But folks who consider themselves good Catholics have been going astray since day one. You’d have to look at Church history through some fairly rose-colored glasses to think otherwise. It has reached the highest levels in the past: some 80% of bishops at one time were Arian; a goodly percentage of people took the side of the Donatists and Montanists; the East and West did split once upon a time. Even Luther had the best of intentions. On the other hand, even if not explicitly heretical, practices of the hierarchy of the Church have left something to be desired. You could even say that we’ve been rather blessed with the holiness of our past several popes when you look back and see how others have behaved. Yes, things, on the whole, aren’t good today. But they never have been.

What this doesn’t mean is that we should just sit back and say that there’s nothing that can–or should–be done against abuses within the Church today. All that I’m trying to say is that we are still members of fallen mankind, and that is not going to change. Who knows how much worse things would be if there had been no St. Athanasius to counter the Arians, no St. Francis to counter the abuses of the Medieval Church, no St. Francis de Sales and St. Ignatius of Loyola to spearhead the Counter-Reformation? Things continue to fall apart; the center still doesn’t hold; but we have to keep trying to prop it up for the future’s sake.

Stay tuned for part two: how liberals also misunderstand change. You may be surprised at my conclusions.

* The ability of some Anglicans, Anglican Use Catholics, most Eastern Catholics and Orthodox, and a fair number of Novus Ordo parishes to create an atmosphere of reverence and holiness without resorting to Latin, Slavonic, etc., utterly and completely defeats the argument that Latin is necessary to maintain reverence in a Catholic Mass. I would, instead, suggest that Latin is useful not because it is holy but because it is impossible for all but a few priests to mess with it to suit their own purposes. Ad libbing in Latin just doesn’t happen. The usus antiquior would have almost no devotees if Novus Ordo were only celebrated with the same reverence as the old rite. Prove me wrong.


My Nephew

…at 20 weeks.

When humanity and homo sapiens clash

I should be studying (as always) before heading off to Latin Mass this afternoon, but I had an odd series of ideas yesterday that need hashing out in words. This is what tends to happen when I have a couple of days off from the ridiculously hectic schedule of medicine….

We’ve spent the past 148 years trying to work out the ramifications of Charles Darwin’s dangerous ideas. If all the living creatures around us are the products of natural selection, then, likely, so are we. The mechanism behind the variation which enables nature to select for the fittest is simple enough: changes in DNA produce changes in proteins that result in changes in function. These changes are almost always deleterious, but at least theoretically, a change in protein structure could enhance efficiency or produce new functions. Over time, as creatures encounter changing environments and compete with each other, various changes in their genetic material are selected for and maintained down the generations. It’s an elegant theory, one that can explain how the vast array of biological life came to be. Yes, it has problems, particularly with explaining large-scale changes and speciation, but I’m not interested–at least not in this essay–in exploring the whole evolution-vs.-creation controversy.

But what about the timescale of evolution? How fast can things biologically change? Organisms with short generation times or error-prone genetic replication systems can evolve remarkably rapidly. Take, for example, the production of antibiotic resistance in bacteria. Or, if we consider viruses to be alive, the champion evolver is the constantly changing HIV virus that stays one step ahead of our immune systems. A bacterial species that doubles in number every couple of hours can adapt genetically to almost any environmental change. But what about us? Our 70+ year life expectancy and long generation times mean that it would take thousands of years to produce the same changes that bacterial populations undergo in a matter of days. Are those changes possible? Sure. They’re even likely.

However, mankind throws a wrench into the mechanism by being creative. We think, ponder, discover, invent at a rate that far surpasses generational genetic changes. While Cro-Magnon Man and I are, on a genetic and biological level, essentially identical, our worlds are radically different, not because of biological evolution, but because of our abilities as sub-creators. Our bodies cannot keep pace with our minds–especially not with the rapidly accelerating rate of technological change over the past hundred years. What ramifications might that have? There are countless possibilities: I’ll focus on a few.

The human body, for all the vast array of diseases to which it is subject, is a finely tuned machine. Left to its own devices, it is fairly good at healing itself and fighting off any number of microscopic and macroscopic invaders. We creators think we can enhance things, though. Sometimes we can, but not without unforeseen consequences. Why is it that there is an epidemic of allergies and autoimmune diseases in the developed world? I pin the blame on two advances: hygiene and immunization. Would I take either of those back? Of course not, but our immune systems, from a biological angle, are intended to combat bacteria, viruses, fungi, parasites, etc. If we have a lower burden of those, I suspect that immune cells have a higher chance of attacking things that they shouldn’t–like things in our own bodies–or are hypersensitive to external things that shouldn’t be a bother–like cat dander. I wouldn’t trade millions of bothersome allergies for millions of deaths from infection, but the principle holds: we’ve short-circuited a slow evolutionary process and have to face the reality that our bodies react to our creations in less than ideal ways.

Allergies and autoimmunity are physical examples of what happens when we meddle with our biological selves, but what about the costs of modern technological society on a more abstract level? I have, as usual, more questions than answers. Is our modern plague of depression, anxiety, and mental illness the result of, quite simply, not having to deal daily with what our ancestors bravely faced: death or survival? Are we consumed with ourselves because we’re insulated from stark reality? Do we fear death more, and as a result quixotically seek physical immortality, because we can push the reality of our mortality out of our minds for extended periods of time? Are we losing belief in God because we surround ourselves with our own creations? Has our incredible store of knowledge about things led to a paradoxical loss of understanding of ourselves?

The problem is the same whether you believe that we are the special creations of God or the result of millions of years of evolution–or both. It is undeniable: we biologically cannot adapt at the same pace at which modern human society is changing. Genetics won’t allow it. We’re cavemen in modern garb (with apologies to Geico). Does that mean I want to turn back the clock and return to the Stone Age? Far from it. Modern medicine and science have changed our lives for the better. But we ought to step back and think about why we react as we do to modernity. Look beyond the technology that surrounds us to the fact of death. Look past the anxiety that can consume us and accept that, despite appearances to the contrary, we really can’t control everything. We have just postponed and disguised the inevitable by our creations. Know thyself, not just the world around.

Making a difference

Thanks to all of you who prayed for me during the past few weeks as I’ve transitioned from research to something much more concrete. I was petrified at first, but I’m now at peace.

I gradually realized something over my first week in my return to my old career. Advances in medicine require two types of people: those who study molecular biology in the abstract, and those who take care of patients. Both are necessary for new cures to become available, but it is extraordinarily difficult to be both. On the one hand, doing basic research has great potential for finding new discoveries. It’s necessary, and without it, we would still be living in a world where we were beholden to the vagaries of disease. We can treat much more than we could 30, 50, 100 years ago. But, on the other hand, the day-to-day life of a researcher is often sheer drudgery. Experiments may not work; “positive results” may not occur for months a time. Science for its own sake is critical to progress in medicine, but it takes a special person to do it.

I may not be that person. I’m glad that I have the training in basic research to be able to understand new advances as they come, but to help just one sick person in the short term is more rewarding–to me–than the illusive potential to help many people over the long term. So, when on Thursday I met with someone before surgery, assisted (ever so slightly) in a five hour operation to remove a deadly tumor, and monitored that same person before discharge the next day, well on the road to recovery, I discovered the allure of clinical medicine.

My fear, and my new request for prayer, is that I am falling in love with a specific type of medicine that would require long hours and would provide the temptation to make God, Church, and family second, third, and fourth. We shall see.

Sorry for the delay

As indicated in my previous post, things are changing around here. Posts will be few and far between, but I don’t quite feel like shutting the blog down. So, keep your feed readers running!

Could use some prayers

It’s rather unlike me to ask for a personal favor on this blog, but I’m in need of some prayers.

In less than a month, I’ll be making a radical career shift. It’s been planned all along, but it’s just now hitting me how difficult it is going to be. I have to refresh my memory on a huge amount of information that I laid aside several years ago, and it is scaring me to death. Until I started reading over stuff, I didn’t realize how much I had forgotten. It ain’t like riding a bike…

Anyway, please keep me in your prayers. Sorry to be so vague; drop me a line if you want specifics…

Into Great Silence

Last night, I had the pleasure of watching a remarkable film: Into Great Silence. I’m not going to offer a full review of it, because Steven Greydanus’ review captures my opinion perfectly. I have never experienced anything remotely like it, and I want to muse a little bit about a couple of elements that particularly struck me.

First, the silence was not deafening, but accentuated every sound, both in the film and in the theater around me. I noticed the munching of popcorn by the guy beside me, and the opening of the theater door by folks who left in the middle, probably because the lack of auditory stimulation was driving their poor, addled, postmodern minds mad. In the film, the sounds of the chopping of vegetables, rain running off a roof, footsteps in a stone hallway, all were amplified. Having no score and scarcely any words, everything else became more noticeable–and not just sounds, but the whole tableau painted by the director’s camera lens: the spectacular scenery, the little details in the monastery, the turning of the seasons.

The change in perspective led me to wonder just how much we’re missing in our culture dominated by sensory overload. We miss the visual beauty of nature because we’re surrounded by our own creations; our ambient light, even, drowns out the wonders of the heavens. We can’t hear the world around us for the background noise; we retreat into music of our own choosing in our iPods as a way of escaping the cacophony around us, but at the same time we may miss the whisper of God. The old quip, “See no evil, hear no evil,” has a flipside: “See no good, hear no good.” Into Great Silence opens with a quote from 1 Kings 18 that we all ought to take to heart:

And he said, “Go forth, and stand upon the mount before the LORD.” And behold, the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and broke in pieces the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice.

The one interview conducted in the film, of an elderly, blind monk, was the profoundest moment of all. Here was a man utterly at peace, with God, with himself, with his brothers. There was a gentle good humor about him; a total lack of fear. He expressed by his words and bearing the Christian fact that death has lost its sting, and that we should no longer fear it. The world has lost sight of God, he said, and his example shows us one way to recover it.

It occurred to me that the Carthusian life can only make sense to the secular world as a retreat from it–a refuge from its demands and wiles. But, if you consider instead the idea that prayer is efficacious, their vocation becomes something totally different. By immersing themselves in silence and prayer, they contribute countless graces to the world around them. The world cannot understand why someone would choose to spend his life alone, but the Carthusian monk is never alone; he has the company of God all his days.

Go see Into Great Silence. It may not make you want to drop everything and join the Carthusians; I certainly don’t have that vocation. But, it will give you a new appreciation for what we miss in our pointlessly busy existence.