Who You Calling ‘Reactionary”? Changing the Narrative on Tradition

church, reform

Curious about how the word “reactionary” was being used in a few articles I read, I looked up the definition, and Google gave me this:

Re·ac·tion·ar·yadjective – (of a person or a set of views) opposing political or social liberalization or reform, such as in “reactionary attitudes toward women’s rights” or “government policy became increasingly reactionary.” Synonyms may include: right-wing, conservative, rightist, ultra-conservative, ultra-right, alt-right; traditionalist, conventional, traditional, old-fashioned, unprogressive. 

Strange. I was expecting something different. 

Google isn’t the only dictionary that defines the word this way, either. Virtually all other dictionaries on the internet have similar definitions. I have to admit, I never knew that if a person holds to tradition he is simply being reactionary, as in reacting in curmudgeon fashion to much-needed, inevitable social reforms. I can see where this definition is coming from, but I think holding to tradition in today’s climate is actually a very proactive stance. Therefore, being a traditional Catholic, I feel obliged to refute the internet.

We Can Turn the Tide

Traditional Catholics see how tarnished the beauty of the Church has become. Traditional Catholics know what saints and religious orders have accomplished in past centuries, and what Christ has prepared for all of us if we do his father’s will. We may see the headlines and despair due to the way they point out how far we are from past and future glory. “If only people knew what the Church used to be, what it could be, things would be different,” we may say. 

Those who never cared for the former glory of the Church, on the other hand, don’t understand the Church’s potential for greatness like we do. We live in a world where many people think corruption is just part and parcel to the Church. According to the way it is depicted in various forms of media, what else could they think? As much as I hate saying “we” and “they”, the distinction is necessary because if we love the Church, we simply don’t see things the way they do.

But are we loving the Church when we merely react to headlines that point to how dire things are in society and in the Church today? Simply reacting, offering no positive vision to counteract our reaction, makes us just seem despondent and maybe even fearful that the Church will never be what it once was. We are not taking a proactive enough approach, and this is what has caused others to see us as reactionary. We as Catholics have a proposal for humanity that is greater than any worldly philosophy, but we’re so busy pointing out what’s wrong with the world and the Church we hardly ever share it. We are focusing on how pathetically short the Church and society have fallen from even welcoming our proposal before we even make any proposal to them. Is it possible to propose a positive vision of what the Church could be instead of reacting to all of the depressing headlines regarding what it has become? I believe we can. 

Winning Back the Culture

It’s tough to propose a positive vision for humanity when every dictionary is saying such a vision is nothing but a reaction to modern values. We do know at least one thing for certain about such a vision, though. Any vision for humanity a Catholic does propose has to be traditional because Tradition is one of the three pillars of authority in the Church, along with Scripture and the Magisterium. So if we are proposing something entirely new that is not in line with Tradition, people are right to question that vision. 

But just because tradition is one of our pillars doesn’t mean we shouldn’t also look ahead and inspire change. As sprinters will tell you, you have to have a firm foundation before you start running the race. If we are going to be considered a worthy contender in this race though, we need to change the narrative everyone is being fed regarding the Church. I hope to one day look back at these times and say, “That sure was a tough stretch of road we had to go through, but I’m glad we’re the ones telling our own story now and we’re back on track.”

What would the destination of that track actually look like? Where is the Church headed? Until we offer an exciting and concrete destination, we really are just reactionary. Until we offer a united and inspiring directive, unless we give people a reason to be involved in the Church, they might as well just get excited about the next sports game. The potential the Church has to inspire people is much greater than any sport or celebrity concert, but the roars from stadium crowds must make us feel like the Catholic Faith is no match for that kind of excitement. Clearly, as a culture, our hearts are somewhere else. Is it a fool’s hope to believe we could win back the culture?

Not Past or Future, Past and Future

There’s nothing wrong with modern man’s desire for exciting things, and there’s nothing wrong with a desire for change. We should harness these desires toward the fruition of God’s kingdom on earth. If we do this, “invigorating” and “revolutionary” will take on a new meaning. No highlight real or action-packed movie trailer would compare to the palpable spirit coming alive within the person encouraged to fulfill God’s calling in their lives. No social reformer, no matter how eloquent and inspiring their speech, could compare to the holy mission of spreading the gospel through our actions. Nothing can compare to the kerygma waiting to be awakened within all of us. St. Irenaeus said, “The glory of God is man fully alive.” Why not make that more apparent through our lives? Christ said, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly (John 10:10). Why not tell fellow Catholics it’s time to wake up and realize our potential as a Church?

But what would this awakening look like? Get excited about what? In ages past, other movements with other creeds claimed the very rebirths we should be claiming today. The ideas of the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and the Great Awakening are not entirely foreign to the Catholic Faith, and yet they gained much of their momentum by shunning many Catholic ideas, thereby garnering a substantial following from very anti-Catholic communities. The Renaissance was a rediscovery of classical philosophy and art, but scholastics like Aquinas were baptizing Greco-Roman works centuries before. The Enlightenment favored scientific discovery over religious belief, but it was the development of the scientific method by the Catholic Church that paved the way for that age of scientific discovery. The Great Awakening of the mid-seventeenth century shunned the laxity that had seeped into Christian communities, and subsequently returned to a kind of religious devotion and piety akin to that of the Catholic Church.

Furthermore, all of these rebirths throughout modern history must have felt awfully familiar to a civilization trying to abandon its Christian roots, because they contain seeds from the most fundamentally and foundationally Catholic source, the Resurrection. Through each reform, society shed a central part of its identity and adopted something new. Similarly, the New Testament is full of verses that indicate how someone, or something, has to die in order to bring forth new life. Therefore, the very same culture that has claimed to leave Christianity in the rubished past is exercising the most central Christian theme of dying and rising again, of leaving behind its old self to make room for a new identity. This does not come about without a Christian sense of self-consciousness and progress. Indeed, all this time, when we thought we were leaving behind Christianity for a better, more complete human existence, we were really pursuing the same image of perfection imprinted on us by God. For what other vision of humanity’s future can we possibly be progressing toward?

The Road to Proactive

And yet, one can still argue that in many ways Catholics have fallen in line and accepted their role as a “reactionary” people in the act of modernity. Christ invited us to a deeper, fuller existence, and–I admit–it often feels like we actually are just holding on to some golden age in the past. Just because we hold onto tradition does not mean we don’t embrace the present and look forward to the future. This is something Catholics constantly need to be reminded of. In fact, I’d argue that it is precisely our willingness to acknowledge the wisdom of the past that makes us traditional Catholics most prepared for the present and the future. We stand on the shoulders of giants, we walk in the footsteps of saints, and we see no need to reinvent the wheel because we know whatever problems we face today, odds are our ancestors dealt with similar problems and learned things we could learn from them.

As philosopher Michael Novak said, “Tradition lives because young people come along who catch its romance and add new glories to it.” Similarly, Austro-Bohemian Romantic composer Gustav Mahler once said, “Tradition is not the worship of ashes. It is the preservation of fire. And G.K. Chesterton said, Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about” (more quotes on tradition). 

So as Catholics, let’s take pride in the fact that we don’t need to be reactionary just because we are traditional, because we have the one true vision for humanity, God’s image–his plan for us. He has eyes on the past, present, and future simultaneously. Let’s not shy away from fleshing out God’s plan for us. In my mind, that vision most concretely means more faithful families, more religious, more vibrant parishes with state-of-the-art faith formation programs, leading the way to disciple-making small groups, the construction of new parish schools, new colleges, new beautiful cathedrals, new orders—lay and religious, across the globe–that’s what it looks like in my mind. Masterpieces in every genre of literature, blockbusters in every movie genre, hits in every music genre, works of art in every artform from paintings to video games, breakthroughs in every field of science from agriculture to astronomy, devout Catholics in high political offices; all these things would show people that we’re not just reactionary and we mean business. If we are going to propose a positive vision for society, we have to become the agents who change it. We have to stop being reactionary and be proactive.

Most importantly, through all of this, truth, goodness and beauty will become more easily recognized in the hearts of more individuals—so they may be equipped to go and set the world on fire in the same way their hearts were set ablaze, the same way the Holy Spirit set the hearts of the first Christians on fire. And then we will inspire a new generation to set the world ablaze in the same ways. This is what the Church has done in ages past, but it is also Christ’s commission to make disciples of nations for a new age that sees us as merely “reactionary”. 

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