Prefatory Note: This is a review I wrote for Amazon some years ago, as a somewhat more liberal, less traditional Catholic. I have resisted temptation to revise it much – but am adding an afterword.
But I will say here, that what I was calling traditionalism five years ago with a small “t” is not the same as the Traditionalist movement which seeks the Latin Mass and the clarification (at very least) of countless absurdities generated in the aftermath of Vatican II.
This is NOT a book about such Traditionalists, though it is a book that has much to say about young (American) Catholics, deeply dissatisfied with the liberal catechesis they have received and searching for tradition …
This book by an insightful young Catholic American is mainly about a new, largely Catholic traditionalism she sees emerging among what her compatriots call Generation X – or those born since 1965 or thereabouts. A real mixture of elements is on offer here.
To begin with the positive, I am moved by Carroll’s accounts of the young discovering the Sacraments. As a Catholic convert myself, it often feels the Sacraments amount to the `Church’s best kept secret’. Certainly there are vast theological tracts pertaining to Christ’s active presence in communion and confession, particularly.
What is more rare however, are accounts of how people actually experience these. This, it seems to me, is a neglected avenue the Church needs to take up: attention not only to tradition, but also to a phenomenology of the sacraments.
Hence, my joy in finding Carroll writing about students finding `the peace, the freedom, the supernatural sense’ of the sacraments allowing them `to be cleansed, healed and strengthened.’
I know exactly what she means. It is the joy of my life …
I also find much of Carroll’s lively, perceptive reportage convincing. Some have argued her approach is too anecdotal – relying on isolated personal accounts of religious conversion that obviously exist during any epoch, but do not necessarily add up to a trend in this one
Though Carroll is not entirely immune to this charge, there is more on offer here. Some fascinating statistics are collected. Moreover, there are numerous accounts, not of youthful individual experience – but rather from the witness of older educators and church leaders, who are observing the young en masse.
Yet regretfully, I find other problems with Carroll’s book. I find a certain muddledness concerning the phenomenon she attempts to describe.
On the one hand, she continually talks about `the New Faithful’ as something novel -that is belonging to Generation X. Thus, if what Carroll describes is new, it must be differentiated from the American Christian Right, which arose in the 70’s.
And because her book is largely focussed on Catholics, it does sound different. She speaks of young adults `craving mystery’, `weighty tradition’ and the Sacraments – all of which has a different flavour, at least, to evangelical Christianity.
On the other hand, much of what Carroll lumps in with her `New Faithful’ sounds exactly like the Religious Right. Some of her sources are clearly identified with it, as she admits.
Moreover, if she really is talking about something different and new here, why does she keep bolstering her argument by appealing to trends that are hardly new at all, but clearly related to the emergence of the Christian Right? For example, that of many American megachurches, which arguably have more to do with manipulative niche marketing, than people aching for the Catholic Mystery.
Again, none of the emergence of this kind of Christianity is new. Such phenomena has been on the rise since the late seventies. To understand this, I would highly recommend a 1991 secular denunciation: Kepel’s The Revenge of God (which I’ve also reviewed here). Although Kepel’s is a secular book I strongly disagree with, it has the same muddledness as Carroll’s, in that it lumps all resurgent religion into the same bag.
This is a dangerous mistake, I think. A difference needs to be established between what I might call religious fundamentalism and a true traditionalism. Fundamentalism focuses on literalism and single-issue ethics – premarital sex, abortion and so forth. A genuine traditionalism is different. John Paul II – a figure Carroll clearly admires -can be seen as a traditionalist. “Fidelity to roots” John Paul said, is not “a mechanical copying of the past. Fidelity to roots is always creative.”
Thus, John Paul II stood for fidelity to the Church’s tradition. But he was neither a literalist, nor of a static persuasion. But John Paul’s teaching does hark back to the Great Fathers of the Church, who understood that doctrine could both be lovingly revered AND developed – at the same time.
Such reports suggest: something is indeed up. Carroll has taken on a difficult task. It’s hard to substantiate anything as nebulous as what she claims is happening. In the end, only time will tell. But I suspect the next decade or two will show Carroll as a prophet of sorts.
The tradition is not static. And although John Paul felt the horrors involved in sexual license, his ethics were overarching and lacked the more limited focus of many fundamentalists.
My point in all this, is that Carroll – like Kepler – has fundamentalism and traditionalism mixed up.
More of this became clear to me, when I learned from her website that she has worked as a speechwriter for George Bush, and obviously admires him.
Yet nearly everything Bush stands for flies against the Catholic tradition of the last 119 years.
A Catholic tradition that has championed labour unions and decried capitalism and consumerism, a tradition that has insisted that the state must do more, not less, to protect the poor and sick, that our modern economics lead to soullessness, that the death penalty and treating the worker as a mean, not an end, is incompatible with Catholicism, and so much more.
For some of the connexions made in Carroll’s otherwise fascinating and insightful book, John Paul, I suspect, would be weeping in his holy grave …
In the years since I wrote this, I have become far more clear about the Traditionalist Catholic movement which I believe needs deep support and which constitutes some of the readership of this site and which this site genuinely aspires to support.
At the same time, I am aware that the above words could seem as a betrayal of such a Traditionalism – with a capital T. Years later I cannot help but wish that St. John Paul II had done more to protect the Tradition. That is, if an ant like myself may dare to wish more of a Giant … Yet still I wish.
St. John Paul II was a giant I believe, to whom the world owes far more than it realises. Yet while Ven. John Paul was engaging the global horror of Communism, for example, his Bishops were destroying the Tradition – in too many cases at least …
On another note, I have been re-looking at Carroll’s book of late. Whatever critical comments I have made, I do feel warmly towards it.
It may not be a classic of the ages, but for what it is – a youthful piece of American journalism focussing on a select but important topic – it has much to offer, at least to those seeking insight within the field it seeks to portray.
Carroll is writing as an American conservative. As the years have passed, I find more to admire in her. I remain however puzzled by the lack of connexion many American conservatives fail to make between their conservative values and what is economic liberalism.
I hope to explore the incompatibility between a cultural conservatism and economic liberalism elsewhere at this site.
But in reference to this book, Carroll is clearly troubled in her heart by the sexualisation of our culture. I read her with sympathy. I am troubled too. I commend her values.
And yet there is no notion at all here that the sexual saturation of our culture might be directly related to the unfettered economic liberalism which understands all-too-well: “Sex sells”.
George W. Bush stood unreservedly for such economic liberalism. If I may finish this meandering on a very personal note, I would observe that I grew up in an America where no-one ever considered that television advertising should be seriously limited. But I moved to an England in 1980 where only a single commercial television was permitted. (The BBC stations had no advertising whatsoever.) I believe Ireland and other European countries were similar.
Europeans on both the right and the left in those days did not subscribe to such economic liberalism that produced the American situation.
The decadence in American culture which Carroll laments genuinely and nobly wishes to address … this decadence it seems to me is directly related to Bush-like politics …
Foreword for Monarchy by Roger Buck
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