Humility & Followers: Comments & Further Thoughts

Got some good feedback On Followers & Humility. Commenter Billy Jack raised some good points, and I of course have some further thoughts. So here we go:

Billy Jack:

One of the interesting wrinkles here is that the idea that it is inherently oppressive for a marriage to be chosen by fathers (or anyone else) rather than the spouses themselves comes not from “Modernity” or “Modern People” but from the Church. Trent, for example, was pretty clear on this. And I think Luther disagreed.

While it is true that the Church, in the face of Frankish and Germanic tribes that tended to treat women as disposable and in any event not fully human (1), taught that, for a marriage to be sacramental, both parties had to freely submit to it, that just gives the woman, in theory, veto power. It does not mean she was expected to go find a husband on her own. It’s a huge difference, it seems to me, to say that one cannot be forced to marry against one’s will and saying that every daughter was now a free agent who needed to find her own mate. What the Church’s teachings put a stop to, or at least slowed down a bit, was the bartering off of women. So, as I described in the last post, a Christian father, who loved his children and wife and so would not want to run roughshod over their desires, was assumed to have a heavy hand in the selection of mates for his children, for their own good. The shadow of this practice persists in the fading tradition of a suitor asking his beloved’s father for her hand.

Nothing here is meant to suggest that all arranged marriages were smooth and the process was never abused, just that the idea that a good father would arrange for the marriages of his children is not an outrageous idea. I know a couple of Indians here whose marriages were arranged, and I asked them, and they weren’t bitter about it. They felt more like Tevye and Golda in Fiddler on the Roof who grew to love each other even though they hadn’t even met before they were married.

Women gained immensely from the Church’s many-century-long efforts to protect them from being viewed as less than human and bargaining chips to be sold for political gain or to the highest bidder. It’s not for noting that all those 12th & 13th century cathedrals were named after Our Lady. Nothing in this effort contradicted or disputed the practice of fathers, in conjunction with their family and other fathers and families, from arranging the marriages of their children.

So it’s funny for progressives who are dislike the Church to pride themselves on this view as an accomplishment of secular progressives, but it’s also funny for Catholic bloggers to be down on the idea.

Up until current times, it would have been scandalous for a woman in a Catholic country to arrange her own marriage in defiance of her father. Romeo & Juliet is a cautionary tale against just such presumption. The nurse and the friar are the villains of the story, overstepping their rightful duties. Until modern times, readers of the play all understood this.

Image result for romeo and juliet nurse
Look! A Sail! And a villain!

That Progressives and American Catholics (in so far as those two categories are different) don’t understand this is not surprising.

The case with religion vis-a-vis tribe or family is not identical, but it’s similar. Sure, we can point to villages and nations converting together. But while conquered pagan cities typically adopted the conquerors’ gods, conquered Christians generally didn’t, or at least knew they shouldn’t. And sometimes the leaders converted first but in other cases individuals converted first, and faced persecution and ostracism. The same goes on the family level. On the Christian view, religion is not something that a father or king has complete authority to choose on behalf of children and subjects. As Jesus said: within a family, it will be three against two, father against son, etc.

Certainly, I over-generalized quite a bit. You are correct that conquered or proselytized people responded in a variety of ways, and that Christians seem to have generally put up a better fight than most against forced conversions. My point was that, for much of mankind over much of history, it would not seem at all outlandish or unusual for a family or tribal leader to make a decision of what religion he and his would follow, and that the members of the household, village, tribe or even nation, would see that as appropriate and go along with it. That it didn’t always happen that way is not the point, really, it’s rather to highlight how we moderns tend to automatically recoil at the very thought, when, in fact, our ancestors at least for a good part didn’t.

The more general point I was trying to make: we all very much tend to overinvest in our own autonomy. We aren’t really nearly as ‘free’ as we thing we are, in the ways we think we are. And further, that this dependence on the wisdom and decisions of others is not necessarily a bad thing, especially in a family or tribe or village in which we have well understood mutual duties, rights and privileges.

More generally, sure, some of things that Catholics inveigh against about our time–and often rightfully so!–are just a return to things that were common before Christianity. Killing unwanted children, for example. But most of the unique characteristics of modernity, good or bad, would be unimaginable without the influence of Christianity, and I tend to think that much of the radical individualism that we see today falls into the category. A huge number of saints flat-out disobeyed their parents to follow their call. Did the ancient Chinese venerate that sort of thing? The Iroquois? Do any of the Bantu peoples have pantheons of people who told their parents to get lost? Well, I do think that Siddhartha Gautama did something like that, now that I think of it.

Both/and is the key Catholic teaching that is being lost. The radical part of radical individualism is placing the individual and his naked will first. The Church’s view is rather that we are each individually precious children of God AND members of the Body of Christ, and that these roles are not in conflict but rather arise one from the other. To paraphrase Paul from 1 Corinthians 12, we don’t get to choose if we are a hand or an eye or a foot. We are given those roles, and find our happiness and fulfillment in them, and should not envy any other roles. The whole point of that passage is that we do not get to be whatever we chose to be, but find ourselves when we surrender to the role we have been given.

So, I would disagree with the notion that radical individualism is a byproduct of Christianity, except in the sense in which it is a perversion of Christianity.

Right, I think the Buddha rejected his parents, I don’t know of any other such traditions.

The traditional Catholic stories in which a child defies his or her father tend to fall into 2 classes: the child having heard a call from God to a religious life, or cautionary tales. I can’t remember a single traditional story in which the defiant child is a hero, except those where that child follows a religious calling, obeying his Father over his father.

St. Francis, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Catherine of Siena, St. Teresa of Avila, a bunch of the early virgin martyrs and a scad of others – these folks defied their fathers in order to follow Christ. For a traditionally catechised Catholic, these stories are all familiar. The point of these stories is not that one should not obey one’s father, but rather that the authority of our fathers comes from the Father, of which they are only a vague, tiny shadow. It is the both/and teaching: we are virtuous to obey our fathers on earth AND our Father in Heaven, right up until that obedience conflicts – then, and only humbly and cautiously, we may defy our fathers to obey the Father.

I think part of our individualism comes from economic conditions, too, but that’s another story.

Yes, it is. I’d love to hear it. Once family, village and church are gone, what’s left but the individual? Not a happy situation, however.

  1. See, for example, ‘Merovingian Divorce’ as described in A History of Private Life, v. I, where the Church’s teaching against divorce was taken by the Franks as mandating the murder of any undesired wife.

Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

3 thoughts on “Humility & Followers: Comments & Further Thoughts”

  1. Thank you for indulging me with such a thoughtful response.

    I think we’re largely on the same page in terms of the relationship of Christianity to characteristically modern errors. Yes: we are children of God, children of our parents, citizens of cities and countries. And a lot of people have a view of the relationship between the individual, family, political society, and God that is out of balance. I’d even say that the prevailing view in America is way out of balance–I think we agree on this point. But lots of societies have had views that are out of balance one way or another. My point is that to the extent that our mistakes are unique, they are often the mistakes that would only be made by a society that has been deeply influenced by Christianity. That doesn’t mean they aren’t mistakes, and it doesn’t mean they are meaningfully “Christian”. It does suggest that sprinting in the other direction won’t land you on something genuinely Christian; it may just land you on another error. Some of these opposite errors may be characteristically modern in a sense, as well: the 20th century produced way more than its share of collectivist horror shows.

    And I agree: we moderns tend to recoil at the very thought of converting simply because the city was conquered, and our ancient ancestors did not. I’d add that the reason for this, historically, is the influence of Christianity. We may have taken it too far in some cases, but it was Christianity that drove out the lazy pagan relativism that saw no problem with religion following political power. More generally, I’d argue that compared to what it replaced, Christianity made the identities and claims on loyalty/obedience that come through our relation to our family, tribe, and nation much less absolute. When Christianity is then removed from the equation, things go haywire; but they go wrong in a different way than things tend to go wrong in a society that has never known Christianity. 20th Century Russia or 21st century Britain go wrong in ways that 2nd century China or 8th Century New Zealand never would, and vice versa.

    When it comes to marriage, I’ll say this. The Church does not allow parents or politicians (or anyone else) to stand in the way of a valid marriage; and it does not allow them to coerce anyone into a marriage. Within those bounds, a wide array of customs can develop, and have developed. You’re right that in most times and places in the pre-modern world (Catholic or otherwise in fact, which is a strike against this being “the more *Catholic way to do things”), it would have been scandalous for a daughter to arrange her own marriage in defiance of her father. In most times and places in Medieval Europe, courtship would have been heavily supervised by the woman’s father, whose permission suitors might have needed even to court her, let alone marry her. It would have been seen as courting disaster for a woman to go against his wishes. On the other hand, in Catholic neighborhoods in 20th century America–and pre-Revolution-Tranquille Quebec, if America somehow “doesn’t count” or something–Catholic churches held dances where young men and women could meet each other; if they hit it off, the boy would ask the girl out. In many cases, one of great significance to me personally, this happened without much parental supervision at all, because the girl’s parents were in Ireland, having sent her to America in hopes that she would find a good Catholic husband who could support a family. And if a father in that neighborhood didn’t let his daughter go to the dances because he insisted on approving of all potential suitors in advance, Catholics in the neighborhood would have been scandalized, and they would have subjected him to some really vicious gossip. He’d be an instantiation of that stock character of European folklore, the ogre-father who keeps his daughter locked up and in need of rescue.

    Now, both of these customs existed among Catholic peoples. If there is an argument that one set of customs is “more Catholic” than the other, I’m open to hearing it, and of course I’d love to believe that my country’s (I’m American) way of doing things is right and other cultures are just wrong; but as long as the marriages are not coerced or forcibly forbidden, it’s hard for me to see it as a matter of right and wrong. Different customs develop under different circumstances. This is one that I think economics has a lot to do with–for starters, will the new family be supported with some form of capital inherited from the families of origin, or wages or a salary earned in a market?–but once again, that’s for another time.

    But I’ll also say this: if a woman and a man want to get married, the woman’s father does not, and cannot, have the authority to forbid the marriage, and to say that he does would be an example of trying so hard to avoid the characteristic modern error as to end up in another mistake.

    There was a lot to digest in your post, a lot of insight. I’ve only responded to a little bit of it. Your insight about the naturalness of following is sound and underrated and has wide applicability that I’m still turning over in my mind. There’s a lot there to talk about and this barely scratches the surface. Keep up the good work.

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