The lonely struggle of the conformist

So now we hear that

Pope Francis’ courage is causing disquiet among those with “a very conformist and closed Catholicism” the Archbishop of Dublin has warned.

In a speech given in Melbourne, Archbishop Diarmuid Martin referred to a young curate who recently told his parish priest he was not at all happy with some things the Pope had said.

The young priest felt they “were not in line with what he had learned in the seminary” and he suggested that they were “making the faithful insecure and even encouraging those who do not hold the orthodox Catholic beliefs to challenge traditional teaching.”

The archbishop warned conservative and progressive Catholics against becoming “closed in” within our own ideas. He also acknowledged that Irish Catholicism had a strong tradition of strict teaching.

Responding to the comments, Fr Seamus Ahearne of the Association of Catholic Priests said the Archbishop’s words were “apt” and that the Church in Ireland needs to hear more comments like this.

He said the archbishop’s concern about the “young curate” was a familiar one as many were concerned that the few young priests there are in the Irish Church appear to embrace a very traditionalist view of Church.

They are “so locked into a past model of priesthood” he commented and said this manifested itself in “the way that they dress up, the way they celebrate Mass, and in their views.”

I’m reminded of Conquest’s Third Law:

The simplest way to explain the behavior of any bureaucratic organization is to assume that it is controlled by a cabal of its enemies.

One would be forgiven for thinking that the sole function of the post-VII Catholic hierarchy is to monitor the Church for signs of a resurgence of Catholicism and to stomp them out.

I’m also reminded of the old Twilight Zone episode Eye of the Beholder–the 60s Twilight Zone is my favorite TV show of all time– about a society of ugly humanoids ruled by a dictator they call “The Leader”.  At one point, The Leader gives a speech in praise of conformity, celebrating “not only that we have norms, but that we conform to those norms!”  The audience, of course, is suppose to instantly recognize this as horrible and perverse, but let’s ask what’s actually bad about it.  Does Rod Serling object to communities having norms–but a community could hardly even be said to exist without that–or is it the conforming, the lack of hypocrisy, that bothers him?  We should all feel lucky, I suppose, to be living in a different world where nonconformism is the established creed, and conformism is the preserve of only a few isolated dissidents.  Actually, that sounds more like a Twilight Zone episode than the actual Twilight Zone episode, and yet it is the world in which we live.  And now these little pockets of recalcitrant conformists have dared to criticize The Leader!

I would like to say a few words in favor of the conformist, or at least in sympathy with him.  You will have guessed that I am arguing on my own behalf, and it is true that I am a conformist, but only a timid little closet one, not one of those brave Irish priests who endure the rebuke of the nonconformist multitude and the nonconformist hierarchy.  We believe that individuals and collectives should conform to norms imposed on them “from above”.  Most especially does this apply to the Church that Christ founded and on which He imprinted His form.  We value truth rather than self-expression, piety rather than novelty, unity rather than diversity, obedience rather than freedom.  You will say that this is all because I have a childish need for certainty, that I am unable or unwilling to think for myself.  Surely if I were willing to think for myself, I would come to think the way everyone else does; I would start questioning Catholicism and stop questioning liberalism.  Perhaps I would, but that hardly recommends the practice to me.

That’s just the “having norms” part of conformism, which is struggle enough in these days.  These priests have also taken on “conforming to those norms”, which is the greatest challenge.  Each of us must adhere to the truth as he sees it, but let us at least appreciate the burdens of those priests who follow the conformist path.  They put up with the insults of their superiors and the press; they shut themselves off from the warm sense of agreement with the mass of their fellows and from the felt certainty of common opinion.  For validation, they must turn to the dead and their traditions, to the first nineteen-and-a-half centuries of Catholicism.

It is so much easier to pander to one’s parishioners, to flatter one’s superiors (say, for their “courage” in pandering to the multitude), and to climb the career ladder.  That’s how one gets to be an archbishop.

17 thoughts on “The lonely struggle of the conformist

  1. Pingback: Cross-post: the lonely struggle of the conformist | Throne and Altar

  2. Oh, there’s anti-religious conformity alright. They just lack the self-awareness to recognize it. I think the modern non-conformist needs a collective noun. How about a Smug of Non-Conformists?

    • A stench of hippies.
      A conceit of hipsters.
      A snail of Priuses.
      A pomposity of Prius drivers.

      Bonus: a dweeb of techies.

    • A couple more:

      A shriek of Dworkinist feminists.
      A pomposity of Randians.
      A delusion of moderns.
      Maybe a cliche of hipsters?

      Bonus: a transcendence of traditionalists.

      • A sneer of Randians.
        A wish of moderns.

        A soar of traditionalists; or,
        A sword of traditionalists.


        A murder of Mohammedans.
        A grovel of Muslims.

        A rule of reactionaries.
        A court of reactionaries.
        A galley of reactionaries.

        A throb of Leftists.
        A stoop of Liberals.

        A bore of nihilists.
        A churn of anarchists.

        An intention of monks.
        A quiet of acolytes.
        An earnest of deacons.
        A quibble of professors.
        A chuckle of confessors.
        A confusion of laymen.
        A canticle of nuns.
        A solemnity of doctors.
        A patient of bishops.
        A precession of popes.
        A rank of organists.
        A query of catechumens.
        A girdle of priests.

        Love this game.

  3. Pingback: The lonely struggle of the conformist | Reaction Times

  4. These young men are heroes. The young Western priests have become my Great White Hope.

    They were interviewing the youngish cellerar of a local monestary on the public radio last week. He started making mildly conservative comments and the host rushed in to change the subject, so as not to horrify the Catholic listeners with heresies like the Real Presence. Imagine the scandal!

    It’s become a bit like the Dark Ages that way, with a small group carrying on the traditions and knowledge.

  5. What an upside down post this was to read!

    Witnessing the spectacle of Bonald, the nonconformist (with respect to the modern time) traditionalist Catholic denounce thoroughly conformist modernist laypeople and clerics for their conformity to whatever liberal shibboleths ensure career advancement — and then say he is thoroughly on the side of conformism. And to further add to the paradox, he denounces the practice of thinking for oneself, while exhibiting far more signs of being in the habit of doing it than the overwhelming majority of people — most tellingly, I remember at least two major instances on Throne & Altar where he actually reserved his judgment on some issue (the morality of lying, say, or the death penalty) because he had not thought through the various arguments. A person who does not think for oneself would _always_ find some authority to deliver some pat answer on the subject.

    @Bonald: clearly you are onto something here, but from where I stand speaking in terms of conformity vs. nonconformity, obedience vs. thinking for oneself, seems to confuse the issue massively. Particularly since, as I just pointed out, putting the advice in those terms makes it appear that you arrived at your position doing almost the exact opposite of what you say people should be doing. The people you call conformists are indeed trying to conform to the older and traditional Catholicism, but it takes a heck of a lot of nonconformism to arrive at the decision that you should conform to _that_ rather than modernity.

    • I enjoy doing this sort of thing. As I see it, our enemies control the language, and they can redefine words as they see fit, but we can insist that they hold consistently to the new definition and not carry over associations from the old.

  6. I’ve recently started attending the traditional Latin Mass and will receive instruction in the Faith with a few others starting the week after next. This is something I’ve been reading about for a long time and (finally started) praying about for a few months. I’ve seen a lot of sniping on this issues from both sides–people thinking the old Mass should be abolished or people thinking the new Mass is invalid. It’s a bit frustrating.

    What I’m really interested in is seeing parish sizes and ages of those Irish “hard-liners” compared to the rest of the country’s parishes. The place I attend skews toward young white, Hispanic, and Asian families and is filled to the brim. It pains me that the “anti-traditionalists” for lack of a better word (non-conformist?) can’t see this liveliness and growth–there are more Catholics in the world!

    I somewhat understand the young priest’s concerns about the Holy Father. But I’m also reading a history of the Church and we have it pretty darn good, I’d say! I try not to hang on his every word and remember to pray for him and his ability to lead.

  7. Conformity is good or bad depending on what one is being conformed to (See Rom. 12:2).

    It is clear that many readers of the Orthosphere are critical of developments in the Catholic Church since Vatican II, and presumably of Vatican II itself, and have their concerns about some of the sayings of Pope Francis. See, for example, and

    Traditionalist Anglicans and Episcopalians are in an even deeper quandary. What is a conservative to do if and when the hierarchy turns liberal?

    Consider also the limitation of the following two rules:
    1. Popes and Councils are always right
    2. If the Popes and Councils are wrong, see rule 1.


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