There are a lot of people who, when confronted with the modern world, insist on returning to some sort of eternal unchanging tradition, as a way out of the modern predicament. I’m not one of them and I’d like to explain today why that is. As the example to look at I’d like to take traditionalist Catholicism. It’s the most popular variety of this phenomenon and it’s also the one I’m most familiar with, because I happen to read about European history. These types are also responsible for filling the Internet with their mediocre memes, so I’m guessing you’ve probably seen it show up in your timeline yourself at some point.
The traditionalist Catholics tend to be adherents of some form of Catholic tradition that existed before the second Vatican council that began in 1962. Back then mass was changed, a modern form emerged that is more simplified and is spoken in the language of the people who attend the mass. The trad caths don’t like this, they wish to return to Latin. They seem to look at Latin the way Muslims look at Arabic: As a language favored by God. I look at it as the language spoken by the people who killed Jesus and threw his followers before the lions, the appeal is not clear to me personally.
Of course people are free to do what they want, if you wish to attend a mass in a language you don’t comprehend you’re free to do so, but I don’t see the point myself and it’s also not part of some sort of eternal unchanging tradition. In that sense the term “Traditional Latin Mass” looks deceptive to me. This mass was standardized in the late 16th century and fell out of favor in the 1960’s, when people were yearning for religious modernization. That’s a total of around 400 years, during which this phenomenon was the dominant tradition.
I say dominant, because it wasn’t ever the only form practiced either within Catholicism during this period. In Spain and Portugal there was the Mozarabic Rite, which was allowed to persist after 1570, because it was at least 200 years old. It gradually declined until by the early 20th century, it was almost extinct, at which point people made a conscious effort to revive it.
Three religious orders also continued to practice their own rite, but then in the early 20th century switched to the Tridentine Mass. There was also the Ambrosian rite, which survived in Northern Italy and Switzerland. It too was faced with constant attempts at suppression, but it continues to have five million practitioners today.
So the idea of there having been some sort of universal unchanging Catholic tradition until the 1960’s is a misconception. If anything, there was a degree of liturgical diversity between different areas that gradually declined under continual pressure from Rome, until the 20th century when it became clear that reform would be necessary to avoid alienating the public. Even the strong emphasis on use of Latin and only tolerating traditions that were more than 200 years old seems to me like a response to the reformation.
But although these rites and the manner in which they are practiced are very important to some people, people who like ritual and symbolism, for me it is of comparatively little interest. Rather, the tradcats generally also make an appeal to there being some sort of universal unchanging moral law, of which the rites are a mere expression. Here too, I have to disagree. Christianity has gone through a 2000 year long process of evolution and even among moral restrictions that now seem to face universal consensus among Catholics there has been a long period of disagreement.
Consider for example, the greatest taboo of all: Abortion. Catholic nuns have faced excommunication, because they helped women have an abortion who would die without an abortion. Doctors were even excommunicated, after performing abortions of girls who were raped by their stepfathers. I think being excommunicated for helping a nine year old girl receive an abortion is the greatest example of following in Christ’s footsteps. Throughout his life Jesus violated the letter of the law, to uphold the spirit of the law, but that is my opinion.
Christian thought on abortion has gone through a long process of evolution as well. You might now imagine that the idea that “life begins at conception” is some sort of universal timeless truth, but ask yourself this: How much did medieval people really know about pregnancy? “Life begins at conception” is a response to our modern knowledge of the process of pregnancy, we now know that we all originate from a single sperm that impregnated a single egg.
Augustine and Aquinas did not believe that ensoulment began until “quickening”, that is, the moment a woman begins to feel the fetus kick her belly. Although they condemned abortion, they did not consider it to be an inherently murderous act. There has always been a diversity of Christian thought on this subject. It wasn’t until 1869, when the limitation of automatic excommunication on a formed fetus was withdrawn. After 1869, the whole concept of ensoulment was moved towards conception.
Of course I am strongly opposed to this nonsense, as it causes vast amounts of misery for women, so I would like to explain why I find this so ignorant. To start with, let’s look at the idea that a child receives its soul the moment an egg is fertilized. We’re faced with the immediate question: What about twins? Human eggs that are fertilized begin to multiply, eventually they can split and then you can end up with twins, triplets or even the rare identical quadruplets.
So you might say “well, the egg was endowed with four different souls during the moment of conception”, but this is again a bizarre assumption, because human beings themselves are also capable of splitting an embryo. This is a relatively simple technique that can be used for fertility treatment. The first few days the cells are totipotent, they can develop into any sort of tissue. So you have to assume that humans are apparently able to influence the number of souls produced from a single fertilized egg, which makes the whole concept of “ensoulment” rather mucky.
There is of course also the simple fact that God is the world’s number one abortion provider. Current estimates are that between 40 and 60% of all fertilized eggs number make it to delivery. They are found to be incompatible with life at some point along the way and aborted spontaneously as a consequence. Most notable however, is that the rate of spontaneous abortion of fertilized eggs increases with age.
Whereas the risk of spontaneous abortion is estimated at 8.7% at the age of 22 years, it increases to 84.1% by the age of 48 years or more. In other words, a woman who has unprotected sex in her forties, is basically guilty of murder! If I rented you a car without breaks, knowing you have an 84.1% chance of not making it out alive, you would call me a murderer. For the same reason, we would have to consider women in their forties who practice unprotected sex guilty of abortion.
Generally speaking medieval Catholic Christians didn’t think of abortion as a big sin, worse than regular fornication or oral sex. There were saints who were held responsible for miraculous abortions. Even Catholic saint Hildegard von Bingen wrote down instructions on how to induce an abortion using natural remedies. It’s only as human biological knowledge increases, that we reach the point where Catholic thought settles on a consensus: If you induce the abortion of a fertilized egg, you murdered an “unborn child”.
You don’t have to be a radical feminist to reject the Catholic church’s position on abortion. Rather, you just need some basic knowledge of human biology, some basic compassion and some basic common sense. I’ve already told you the stories, of Catholic nuns who were excommunicated because they helped teenage girls who were raped to procure an abortion.
But now take a look with me, at one of the most terrible conditions that nature regularly imposes on the unborn: Trisomy 18. One in every 5000 births, is a child who has suffered from an extra copy of the 18th chromosome. After Down syndrome, this is the most common chromosomal abnormality humans suffer. So how come you never see someone with Trisomy 18?
Well that’s pretty easy to answer: They die. Even with our modern biological knowledge, we can’t help more than 10% of these infants survive beyond the first year of life. However, we are quite capable of recognizing this condition before birth. Imagine yourself as a theologian, condemning women to giving birth to children with a 10% chance of surviving the first year of life. Just one percent make it to the age of 10. They never learn to speak, they stand zero chance of ever becoming independent. As far as we can tell, these children are continually in pain. How is that not a cruelty?
Keep in mind, this is not some fringe example: This is the main reason women have late abortions. Women who have abortions in the second or third trimester, are almost always women who are suffering a pregnancy with some sort of horribly deformed child, a child who would have a life of suffering ahead upon birth. So pro-life Christians who think to themselves “well I’m going to support a ban on third trimester abortions, that’s pretty obviously murder” are just guilty of causing a lot of pointless misery.
There is also anencephaly. It is when the brain of a child fails to properly form in the womb, so you end up with a child that has some bloody mess at the top of its head. Here’s what it looks like. It looks terrifying. This happens in one of every 10,000 births. They die within hours, very rarely they survive for a few days. Again, these are not fringe examples for me to make a point, this problem constantly happens. Most people don’t like to hear about deformed babies without brains, so you don’t hear much about it.
How is this not insanity, to force women to bring these kinds of children to birth? Even if you don’t care about the women or the children, think for a moment of how big the cost is that we impose on the medical system: Endless surgeries, for children who will never have the ability to speak and who are still going to die before the age of 10. Those are surgeons who could operate on children who can grow up to become healthy adults.
It’s easy to be against abortion, if you don’t understand why people have abortions. If you think to yourself “well some women are promiscuous sluts who would rather commit murder than take responsibility for their actions” then you end up thinking that abortion should be prohibited. But the reality is that most women have abortions because the alternative they face is enormous pointless suffering.
It’s nice to be a Christian, if you’re guided by Christ’s compassion. I try to follow the two rules that Jesus considered most important: Love God and love your fellow man as you love yourself. Unfortunately, for most people Christianity now seems to mean adhering to some sort of dogmatic set of rules authorized by one group of old men or another, completely out of touch with human reality. I think Jesus had bigger priorities in his brief life than ensuring that women give birth to children with open skulls that die within a few hours of birth.
And so in one sense, I do agree with the Traditionalist Catholics. Christianity should return to tradition. Specifically it should return to the early Christian tradition of a bunch of marginalized nobodies, women and slaves who venerated a homeless Jewish man who was tortured to death by a powerful empire after he insulted a bunch of dogmatic pharisees.
I’ll end with one of my favorite Christian traditions recorded by Tertullian, one that I believe should be reintroduced in church, singing while you’re drunk:
Our dinner shows its purpose by its name: it is called what among the Greeks means affection (dilectio). . . . We do not recline until we have first tasted of prayer to God. So much is eaten as satisfies hunger; as much drunk as is fitting for the pure. Appetite is satisfied to the extent appropriate for those who are mindful that they have to worship God even at night; speech, as for those who know the Master is listening. After washing of hands, and lights, each is invited into the middle to sing to God as able, from knowledge of sacred writings or from their own mind; thus it can be tested how much has been drunk. Prayer again closes the feast.