What is a Reactionary?

One hears this term quite often – reactionary. What does it mean?

Wikipedia offers this definition: “A reactionary is a person who holds political viewpoints that favor a return to a previous state (the status quo ante) in a society”. The entry goes on to indicate the origin of the English word in the French. From the time of the French Revolution, this word made its way into English and has been at play since. Related terms are “conservative” and “right”.

We must reflect whether the above definition is good, or perhaps rather whether the term is good to begin with, or perhaps whether it should be used as it is currently being used (as a bludgeon that condemns a position on account of a perceived or alleged emotional or character flaw).

What does it mean to wish a “return” to a previous state? The definition is relative to what “previous” means; it is relative to what the current state of affairs is. Thus, the term is simply relative and temporally bound. It should indicate nothing but what is relative. In practice, of course, we know this is far from the case. The term is a pejorative label used to dismiss the labeled.

If the current state of affairs is such that those in power operate out of Marxist principles, reactionary means a return to what preceded this. In such case, some kind of free market system? But in the time of such a free market system, especially one utterly untouched by (or much less touched by) regulation, a reactionary would be what? An agrarian or a guild theorist who desired a return to what preceded? Those who hold for, say, a Distributist economic arrangement and any attendant political arrangements would be “reactionary” in an age of unfettered free markets. But what would they be in an age of Marxism? Twice reactionary? Let us say that a wave of freedom for markets is breathed back into the system again. Let us take, for example, the common understanding of what happened under Reagan. (Whatever actually happened is irrelevant to the point about the term “reactionary” I am driving home.) What would be a “reactionary” in this case? According to the first entry of the definition, it would be the socialist who wanted a return to the tax rates of the 70’s. The same would be true if a wave of market freedom followed Obama’s presidency. Those who would bemoan such fate would be “reactionaries”. Now isn’t that awkward.

So, the value judgment that has had tenacity with this term will not always happily coincide with the temporal and relative targeting ingredient in the name. That is, those who want to damn a position with which they do not agree and who use a term that indicates an emotional or character deficit in order to accomplish this damning, cannot do so consistently. I submit, then, that the term as defined is unfortunate.

But this reflection is not a legal political one. It is a religious one. I wish to apply it to the field of Catholic faith. Nowadays in the Church one hears the label “reactionary” being thrown around. I wish to ask again, just what is meant here? Let us go back to the birth of the word, at least in English and certainly to the minting of its current use in French. The time was the French revolution. Existing citizens who enjoyed one form of government and alliance of Church and state wished its preservation. Hence, “conservative”. The term “conservative” is also relative and temporal. The term “conservative” lacks some of the pejorative ring of “reactionary,” however. I shall return to that. Now, “conservative” works for a person in this situation, who existed under one regime and wishes its preservation or a return thereto in another regime.

But what about someone who grows up under the well established machinery of the new regime? What is the “establishment” for him?

Politically, what is that establishment? Marxism? Socialism? Anti-Catholicism?

Turning to the current situation in the Church, what is the situation for someone growing up entirely after the Second Vatican Council? Even after the Novus Ordo is set in place? What is the “establishment” for this person? Anti-Traditional Catholicism? Catholicism which rejects its Tradition? Discontinuous Catholicism? Catholicism which thinks that everyone is going to heaven, regardless? Catholicism that fears offending and thus fails to preach, to convert, to pray for the conversion of wicked sinners, and the return to the one true faith? Obviously, not in all cases. In many cases, there is simply the good and true Catholicism that is ever the same, though expressed anew. So, we are not speaking of these many cases of true Catholicism, which does not read “rupture” into the Second Vatican Council, but takes the documents as Magisterial documents teaching the true faith anew.

However, in some cases there is a reading of the Council that is antithetical to the Tradition. In some cases, the reading is “rupture”. I recall my education at Notre Dame (BA 1992). Not all profs, but some profs scoffed at the possibility that any of us in class could commit mortal sin. “You’re not smart enough to do so,” said one. I recall being puzzled that IQ is the condition for mortal sin. But I didn’t mind being told that – hey, you can’t sin that bad kid! In another class, a female student was coughing and sneezing during a presentation on Pascendi (by Pope St. Pius X) and the professor, wearing clerics (or was he? … At any rate, he was a priest) said, “Congratulations, you have an allergy to Vatican documents.” I recall being struck by this. I said to myself, “I agree with the teacher [back then, I did], but why don’t we read Pascendi, instead of slamming it? After all, we are ‘liberals’. Open minded ‘liberals’. We want to assess things objectively, not emotively. Haven’t we read MacIntyre on our own. We know a false argument. We know ’emotivism’. We know it is not a high way, not a human way, to reject a position.” I think I was flung towards orthodoxy by that statement. (That, and many a rosary with a good friend.)

Although it makes sense to call “conservative” someone who grows up with the old regime and bemoans its departure, it does not make sense to continue wielding this term when the old regime is practically unknown, is almost completely disappeared. Nor, I submit, does the term “reactionary” have a place here. For “reactionary” and avant-garde seem poor bedfellows. Yet, the young man who is raised in an environment of pseudo Catholicism that rejects Vatican I and Trent – however subtly – but who wishes to participate a real Catholicism and not a makeshift, rebellious Catholicism, and who seeks the full truth of the faith and therefore discovers the wider Tradition and discerns the faulty notions and conclusions of Karl Rahner and Hans Urs von Balthasar… this young man is avant-garde. Yes, the cutting edge of Catholicism is that which embraces the whole Tradition and rejects the rejection, negates the negation. This is the cutting edge of Catholicism. This is what is Rising in the Church. And may it do so with humility and piety. May it do so with obedience and service. Without judgment and accusation.

But is this movement reactionary? Well, let us say that this cutting edge indeed gains ground. Let us say that vocations were to abound in groups of men such as I have narrated above. Let us say that bishops were ordained out of these men. That the vocations of dioceses that reject such men were to shrivel up, that seminaries that reject such men with such views were to whither. Let us say that at some point the beauty of the whole Tradition were to shine again, undimmed and not persecuted. And then some group wished to negate this. Let us say some group then wished to return to the 1970’s. What would this group that wishes a return to the 1970’s be? Would it be Reactionary? Isn’t that awkward.

Because the term “reactionary” is relative and temporal, its use is rather fluid, or ought to be fluid. However, in the religious sphere, we find that the term with its same old evaluative connotation is continually flung at whoever wishes for to embrace the whole Tradition. But this is to denounce a position on account of an alleged emotional or character deficit of its proponents. However, anyone may have an emotional or character deficit. So, the current use of the term is an abuse.

There can be a use for the term. What is the emotional deficit or, worse, that character deficit that the term also targets? It is the “tending to respond in an unprincipled and / or unreasonable manner.” Now, so defined, reactionary can be a useful term. Note that it would then no longer have any temporal or relative implication. It would no longer target any particular position. It would target a character flaw. And a flaw that character is – that is true.

We have seen the rub. It can happen that one who wants a “return” to a past he argues is wiser – which vis-à-vis today’s Forgetfulness of Tradition could be called an avant-garde approach and forward thinking – tends to get emotional and unduly passionate about, say, what he argues is the expressive superiority of the Extraordinary Form. When questioned about his preferences, he cannot answer with decorum and sound reasons. Is he a reactionary? Yes. Is this a flaw? Yes.

But what if there is some young man making a new career in ministry who wishes to return to the 1970’s. He may have been born in 1980. Or in the 1970’s. When asked why he promotes Eucharistic ministers in his parish even when there are only so many who attend Mass and the priest and deacon could themselves easily distribute to everyone within five minutes or so, he gets all upset and claims that the laity must be empowered. A gentle voice, not judging, indicates that there are various callings and roles within the one Church. He contends that this voice is out for power for the clergy and a “clericalist.” The voice maintains that the laity have their unique dignity and do not need to pretend to be priests or usurp properly priestly acts, nor those properly a deacon’s, in order to achieve or claim that dignity. He cannot give any answers but claims that the voice is just a “Tridentine” Catholic. The voice responds that Vatican II teaches the real and qualitative diversity of priesthoods, the universal and the hierarchical. He is dumbfounded. Is he a reactionary? Yes. Is this a flaw? Yes.

What about their respective positions? THAT is what needs discussing. But we have dismissed them both out of hand because they are “reactionaries”. (Well, actually, anyone calling the second person a reactionary would be laughed off stage in our day.)

I suggest, then, that the usual usage of this term is unhelpful. However, if we use the term simply to indicate the way in which a person responds, unreasonably instead of reasonably, it can be useful.

Let us conclude on one key final note. For the Truth is what needs discussing. The Positions are what need discussing. This is where the real “reasonable” will take place.

Now, the source of our Tradition is not human persons. It is God. The God-man. Jesus Christ. Our Lord. He alone established the Church. He alone is the fountain of her teachings. Therefore, those who are Catholic must cling to what he established, the hierarchy he established and as he established it. None of this is reactionary. It is definitional. Faith is not a product of human reasoning. It is the acceptance of God’s gift, trusting his words. Whereas political society has a certain amplitude of options which theoretical and practical reason must determine — and good men can disagree with regard to many a detail — the divine society is not such. Thus, whereas one can be a good citizen and hold this or that opinion about how society should be constituted (although some positions are indeed condemned), one cannot be Catholic and hold this or that opinion about the divine foundations and teachings of the faith. No new “form” of hierarchy can be established by man to overthrow the constant and universal Tradition he established. Certainly, ad hoc arrangements can be used for a time. These have no permanent place in the Church, although for a time they can have a place and even a (papally endorsed) authority.

Therefore, the young man who wishes to be faithful to Jesus Christ and to hear all of the infallible de fide proclamations of the Church with divine faith is a man who has reasons. His position is objectively reasonable. (Reasonable for a believer.) Perhaps he cannot tell you why Karl Rahner’s notion of sacramental causality strikes him as contrary to the faith. But his love of the Church and his instinctus fidei tells him. He is in a good way, although it were better if he could grasp his faith with greater understanding, with intellectual rigor. And it would behoove him to be patient with the rebels who force feed him the theological garbage of the rebellion. He must be patient and loving. Then he will prove that to cling to faith even in the face of confrontation by those who wield diabolical tactics to pervert young minds into the way of death by an errant theology dressed up and obscured at the same time… that his clinging to faith is by no means reactionary and “stifling” but is the way of truth and life, the breath of the Spirit.

Now, let us say we have two who are not reactionaries. One desires a return to the 1970s Catholic expressive life. The other desires a renewal and reform in the continuity of the great Tradition. Both, however, offer reasons. The one hot on the 70s claims that we need active participation in the liturgy (and he interprets ‘actuosa’ as meaning ‘physically and vocally involved as much as possible’), that we need to progress beyond old mindsets (and he means that the perennial philosophy and theology are false in our context, he means there are no first principles ever true), that we must be aware of the signs of the times (and he means by this that we must accommodate our doctrines to the receptive capacity of today’s man), that changing times require changing formulations even changing dogmas, that everything must be filtered through interpretation (so that we should not read Vatican II but rather theologians who write about Vatican II), etc. The second claims that yes we can progress forward, but only on the solid foundation that is established (the perennial philosophy is ever true and always able to develop); that yes actual participation (a more faithful translation of the Latin) is desired and that this is most deeply accomplished in the interior; that, well, yes that interior action indeed calls for an embodiment, so that perhaps we could speak of ways in which the liturgy of old might offer more space for embodied expression without however denying what is fundamental in action (interior) and the necessity of ORGANIC development; that although the intellectual milieu changes human nature and reason do not and the perennial philosophy (which can make progress, on an established foundation) bears within it certain insights that are not able to be overthrown; and that the Magisterium is the key filter, not human whim. Neither of these men is reactionary. Both have offered reasons. Whose reasons are stronger? Whose reasons will endure the test of time? Whose reasons have the testimony of time already? Whose reasons reach up to the heights of heaven, which has offered, and plumb the lowest regions in a sober fear of hell and judgment? Whose reasons, while not products of panic, nonetheless accept the dire truth of the Apostolic warning that there will come men who cleave not to God but to some false end and who wish to tickle the ears of willing followers? Whose reasons hear these warnings and cast an eye over the signs of the times? Whose reasons see the signs of the times precisely as indicators of humanity’s health or illness? Whose reasons do not pervert this “signs of the times” into an idolatrous acceptance of passing fads and luxury, of American “dream life” (be it the porn life, the NFL watching passive entertainment life, the greed and get ahead life, the punish spanking parents but save cancerous poodles life, the exhaling is sin life, the rights without duties life) but remain steadfast in the vision of the Good indicated by our Lord and God, Jesus Christ, and therefore evaluate these passing goods accordingly? Let the 1970s die its death. We look forward, not backward. We look for a better future. Rather, we look for truth and excellence, whether it is forward or backward. We disregard the forward and the backward. We look upward, as at the heights of a Gothic Cathedral.

Now, “garbage”, “rebel”, “rebellion,” etc.: Strong words, no reasons given. Just like that cleric at Notre Dame! Points are well taken. Reasons for these labels shall be given in other posts. Feel free to replace the theologian’s names above with some descriptive label, such as “bad theologian”, so that we can carry on with the actual argument being given here. That argument presumed that the teachings of the faith are untouchable and that therefore those who touch them – “bad theologians” – are rebels, whether well intentioned or no. But we can establish who these are in a less rhetorical manner elsewhere. For, we must not be unfair to Karl Rahner. We must represent the position accurately. A post on this to follow sometime relatively soon.