A Form of Medieval Catholicism that Never Existed

A while back, @MilitantThomist announced on the Twitter that he and his wife were going to start attending their local SSPX church (if you don’t know what they are, here’s their site). One of his detractors went on to accuse him of following a form of medieval Catholicism that never existed.

I like that phrasing. As some of you know, a friend of mine once dreamt that I was the priest at a church plant that followed the medieval Roman rite according to the Use of Sarum (you can read about that dream here), which is the liturgy of medieval England. Of course, the Middle Ages are kind of one of my things. So, really, if you were to ask, “What’s your preferred religion?”, the answer would be:

“A form of medieval Catholicism that never existed.”

Why? Well, because there are lots of things I like about the medieval church that we lost with modernity, whether Protestant or Catholic. My post about the Sarum dream mentioned some of these, and how their loss in our wider practice of the faith means that no amount of liturgical reconstruction or study of personal application of medieval spirituality will ever bring us back to the High Middle Ages.

I was going to list the specific things about the Latin Middle Ages and her spiritual world, about my love of Cistercians, of high liturgy, of vernacular preaching rooted in the Fathers, of so on and so forth. And about bringing all of it together into a living, breathing, heaving community of the faithful who love Christ and want to just reach out and touch him and swallow him and live his life.

To whatever extent my description would match any real, single moment of medieval life in Latin Christendom, it would hide the dark underbelly of medieval Catholicism, of criminous clerks, of promoting unfit clerks to high office, of uncatechised lay people, of abuses, of some doctrines being dangerously underdetermined (I am, in the end, still actually a Prot). And that’s part of how it would not be medieval Catholicism as it existed. It would be my favourite bits.

But what do we want when we dig into St Bernard or St Anselm or the Stowe Missal or St Bede or saints’ lives? What are we seeking when we prop up a postcard of a rose window on our bookcase? What is it that drew me into Durham Cathedral day after day after day? What do I think I might meet in Richard Rolle or Julian of Norwich that I won’t meet at St Paul’s Anglican Church on Sunday?

Why do some of us like to get medieval? What drives us to these false medieval catholicisms? The thoughts that follow are not restricted to the Middle Ages, which is part of the point:

I think we are drawn to a bigger, stronger sense of the transcendent.

We are drawn to the idea of a united Latin Christendom, undone in the 1520s and sundered forever.

Some are drawn to the crystalline precision of Scholasticism.

Some are drawn to the vast mystery of Cistercians and Carthusians.

We are drawn to the beauty and drama of now-dead liturgical practices.

We long for a united, believing community not just internationally but locally.

We long for that “inner experience” that the mystics had.

We wish for clear boundaries of “in” and “out” that medieval canon law gave the church.

I tell you the truth: We can meet them today, and the medievals can be our guide. (Even for Prots. Shhh!)

But there is no return to a form of medieval Catholicism that never existed.

Indeed, there there is no return to a form that did exist.

This is basically my life’s goal.

4 thoughts on “A Form of Medieval Catholicism that Never Existed

  1. My desire is to recover a sense of catholic tradition, as eastern churches still often manage to pass on – which as you say can be neither static nor purely innovative. Timothy Ware, The Orthodox Church says many good things about this mindset, for example:

    True Orthodox fidelity to the past must always be a creative fidelity; for true Orthodoxy can never rest satisfied with a barren ‘theology of repetition’, which, parrot-like, repeats accepted formulae without striving to understand what lies behind them. Loyalty to Tradition, properly understood, is not something mechanical, a passive and automatic process of transmitting the accepted wisdom of an era in the distant past. An Orthodox thinker must see Tradition from within, he must enter into its inner spirit, he must re-experience the meaning of Tradition in a manner that is exploratory, courageous, and full of imaginative creativity. In order to live within Tradition, it is not enough simply to give intellectual assent to a system of doctrine; for Tradition is far more than a set of abstract propositions – it is a life, a personal encounter with Christ in the Holy Spirit. Tradition is not only kept by the Church – it lives in the Church, it is the life of the Holy Spirit in the Church. The Orthodox conception of Tradition is not static but dynamic, not a dead acceptance of the past but a living discovery of the Holy Spirit in the present. Tradition, while inwardly changeless (for God does not change), is constantly assuming new forms, which supplement the old without superseding them. Orthodox often speak as if the period of doctrinal formulation were wholly at an end, yet this is not the case. Perhaps in our own day new Ecumenical Councils will meet, and Tradition will be enriched by fresh statements of the faith.

    This idea of Tradition as a living thing has been well expressed by Georges Florovsky:

    Tradition is the witness of the Spirit; the Spirit’s unceasing revelation and preaching of good tidings… To accept and understand Tradition we must live within the Church, we must be conscious of the grace-giving presence of the Lord in it; we must feel the breath of the Holy Ghost in it… Tradition is not only a protective, conservative principle; it is, primarily, the principle of growth and regeneration… Tradition is the constant abiding of the Spirit and not only the memory of words.

    In a sense the Book of Common Prayer passes on elements of this tradition, insofar as it’s essentially an abbreviation of the western secular liturgy as used in England, albeit one made with a particular theological slant. Just as Orthodox churches also make such abbreviations of the Byzantine Rite, and embellish them from the original sources as capacity exists, there is nothing to stop us from doing the same.

    This is fundamentally what William Renwick has set out to achieve with his edition and prayer-book-style English translation of Sarum books. His research is summarizing and collecting material representing the last eight or so centuries of English religious practice, by using translations made from the sixteenth to twentieth centuries. Nobody has attempted a project on this scale before, but it will enable anyone to celebrate the western liturgy within the tradition of the prayer book with an orthodox ethos.

    • This sounds as if you are capitulating to the nineteenth-century parody of Anglo-Catholicism as ‘British Museum religion’. But the Tractarians argued that they were merely drawing on the entirety of a continuous tradition, and that still remains a potential for western Christians in spite of everything that has happened. Hence, I do not think it charitable to say that your preferred mode of religion is something that never existed, because it is all part of the same continuum.

      Most traditionalist Roman Catholics wrongly present the Tridentine Mass as a single entity representing the entirety of liturgy in the west before 1955. That is not medievalism but merely bad scholarship. Broadly, I am unconvinced that there is a meaningful difference between Roman Catholics and Protestants today.

      • More sifting through my own thoughts and desires, and what is it about the medieval church that draws me, and how does one authentically grasp that with real, living faith today. I do hope I’m not parodying myself or being uncharitable to myself.

  2. […] Movement How to Improve the Normative Roman Missal – Fr. Allan J. McDonald at Southern Orders A Form of Medieval Catholicism that Never Existed – M. J. H. at Classically Christian Cardinal Farrell, Company Man – Donald R. McClarey, […]

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