Tradition and Antiquarianism in “Judith’s Marriage”, Fr Bryan Houghton

“The trouble with your ‘return to the sources’ is that you used the phrase to hide your intent.”

Image: Dancing Skeletons – Judith’s image in the extract. Wiki Commons.

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The following extract is taken from Fr Bryan Houghton’s fascinating novel Judith’s Marriage. It depicts a part of a conversation taking place during Vatican II between the protagonist, Judith Rougham, and a priest who has been advocating various revolutionary ideas.

The latter half is of particular interest given our recent (unanswered) engagement with Mr Michael Lofton on the nature of tradition. The priest (and persons such as Mr Lofton) harbours quite faulty understandings of the matter, confusing what is old with what is traditional. This can all be seen in greater depth in the relevant extract below – but for now, we will leave you with a taster of the fascinating and very moving novel – which we encourage everyone to read.

We especially urge those who defend the Vatican II revolution and establishment to a work such as this novel (or perhaps something more properly historical), which depicts throughout the appalling costs of the religious programme that they defend.

Those who today make a living out of condemning traditional Catholics often betray significant ignorance of what happened in the 1960s. Even if they were right on various theoretical points, it would not be possible to talk as they do, if they understood the eternal effects of the revolution which they defend.

Extract from
Judith’s Marriage
Fr Bryan Houghton

Credo House
Reprinted with the permission of Angelico Press

“For once, Father, I am not going to be horrid and I shall not jeer at you. Perhaps it is you who will jeer at me. You see, I think that the distinction between the ‘social’ and the political,’ between moral law and penal law, runs very deep. The cohesion of any group of human beings, be it the family or the state, depends on its recognition of the group’s basic laws.

“In the ideal situation these basic laws are unquestioned. They form the moral framework in which the group operates. This moral framework is the social expression of the group’s religion. The members of the group are free in the measure that his moral law is sufficiently strong and universally recognized to ensure the cohesion of the group. It is only when the moral law is either too weak or not generally recognized that the group is obliged to maintain its cohesion by political or penal law. It is cohesion by coercion.

“Now it seems to me that one of the most striking contributions of Christianity to society – on a par with monogamy – is the clear recognition of this fact. It is based on Our Lord’s lapidary sentence: ‘Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God, God’s.’ Moreover, through the institution of the Papacy, the inviolability of the state’s penal law is balanced by the infallibility of the Church’s moral law. It is thanks to this delicate balance that political freedom has been an offshoot of Christianity.

“Obviously, since the age of Constantine there has been constant trouble between Church and state, the one attempting to use the state to enforce to moral law, the other to use the Church to give moral force to its political law. Anyway, it is not always easy to draw the line between moral and penal, between social and political. Inevitably, a thousands errors have been made by Church and state alike.

“Given this general view, my dear Father, you can guess my reaction to the contemporary scene.

“We live in a society in which there is no internal cohesion: no moral standards are universally recognized and no single group within the society holds unquestioningly to its moral principles – not even Catholics, apparently. Perhaps the last vestige of the moral law is that milk bottles can still be left on the doorstep without being swiped. Very well, since the cohesion of this group called England no longer depends on the internal recognition of a moral law, the state interferes with morality under the guise of sociology. The state has added moral infallibility to its natural penal inviolability.

“Just meditate on that, Father: if to the state’s inviolability you add the Pope’s inviolability, you land up with total tyranny, with the pre-Constantinian concept of the slave-state. This is exactly what has happened behind the Iron Curtain. It is what will happen here if the process continues: we shall build concentration camps for the morally free. Already the state’s interference in morality is simply prodigious. It interferes not only in borderline cases such as the ‘social services,’ pensions and education, employment and wages, clipping the coinage under the guise of inflation with its natural concomitant of usurious rates of interest and so on, but also with purely moral issues: marriage and divorce, contraception and abortion, homosexuality and women’s rights, etc.

“It is quite phenomenal. No Pope ever claimed to be half as infallible as does a modern prime minister. Moreover, the latter has, as the Pope has not, the police and the law courts to enforce his decrees.

“Thus the state has ceased to be purely political in order to become social. And what of the Church, Father? She is ceasing to be social in order to become political. She no longer wants to convert; she wants to liberate. She no longer tries to deal with the infinite moral problems of individuals; she preaches the easier alternative of political revolution. Her ministers have abandoned the fag and fug of the confessional for the excitement of the hustings and the aerials of the media.

“You no longer seem interested in the internal cohesion of your group – the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church – in the infallible moral cohesion which alone can withstand the inviolability of the state. No, you want to swamp the Immaculate Bride in the rising flood of human pollution.

“Rightly or wrongly, that is how I see things, Father. The quarrels between Church and state since the age of Constantine seem to me admirable. By and large they have created and preserved the freedom of the subject. Even in Gallican, Orthodox and Protestant countries, the fear of the Papacy has acted as a brake on the state. You wish to take your foot off the brake. Very well: we shall hurtle into the polluted flood of tyranny. However, even in the flood of pollution there will still be an Ark of Salvation full of queer animals, two by two, who cling to freedom and the supremacy of the moral law.”

“Judith,” said Father Cromer at the end of this diatribe, “you are magnificent! But I don’t know what it means. However, this much I will admit: we clergy have preached dogma and devotions until we are fed up with both. But we rarely preach about morality in the wide sense – what I might call the metaphysics of human acts.

“Anyway, I must get to the presbytery before the housekeeper’s cat eats my sardines.”

Thus do realities impinge on the deepest philosophical conversations.

The conversations continued. Judith and Father Cromer enjoyed them. They widened both their outlooks.

Father Cromer had never imagined that there could be such a creature as an intelligent traditionalist. He discovered to his surprise that Judith was perfectly capable of defending herself, no matter how short-sighted he considered her outlook.

On the other hand, Judith, judging by the mass-media, had never imagined that a progressive could be honest. But honest Father Cromer certainly was, no matter how muddled she considered his arguments.

How much bitterness might have been avoided in the ensuing years if only progressives had admitted that traditionalists were not all fools and traditionalists that progressives were not all rogues – as did Father Cromer and Judith. Alas! It was not to be.

On the following Friday Father Cromer waxed eloquent about “a return to the sources, from the mud of almost two millennia of superstition…”

“Isn’t it extraordinary, Father, how differently we view things?” Judith asked afterwards. “You hate the broad river of the Faith, more stupendous than the Amazon, fed by a thousand tributaries which mingle their waters in its unity. No, you want to find some obscure spring in the distant Andes which you claim to be the source. But it isn’t. The real source, like rain, comes from heaven. But you will never see it as you grope about looking for sources under the protection of your umbrella. What I will admit is that your obscure spring is likely to be so cold and pure that nothing could live in it, not even an amoebiform superstition.

“Yes, and concerning superstitions, they are the fioretti of religion. I do not think that it would be difficult to prove the truth of Christianity from the innocence, gaiety and moral purity of its superstitions. Just compare them with those of ancient Greece and Rome, let alone those of the East and darkest Africa. Our superstitions are not mud. They are precisely super, something which floats on the flood of the Faith – gay barges with Our Lady as figurehead at the prow, a posse of saints decorating the poop, gilt cherubs at play in the rigging and the passengers fishing with rosary beads. The mud which chokes the river is something heavy and dark; it sinks to the bottom. It is infrastition, my dear Father: great wedges of rationalism, boulders of pride, the wreckage of doubt.”

“But Judith, that is all pure poetry, metaphor,” Father Cromer objected; “there is not an argument in it.”

“Of course it is. And I thank you for the compliment,” Judith continued. “Until we see Absolute Truth face to face, all our truths are analogies, metaphor. That is why the deepest human thinkers, from Homer to Shakespeare and beyond, have always been poets, not philosophers. Even the blasphemies of Swinburne and Nietzsche become sublime the moment they allow their metaphors to carry them away. A metaphor always illuminates; it is some sort of reflection of the truth. It is rationalism which reduces everything to the turgid mud of our own incomprehension.

“But I wander, as women will. Let us get back to your ‘sources.’ The trouble, as I see it, with your ‘return to the sources’ is that you used the phrase to hide your intent. What you really wish to do is to jettison tradition. Back to the sources, before tradition ever existed! But this is pure archaeology. Now, archaeology is the study of what time has rejected, whereas tradition is precisely what time has preserved.

“You can dig up old bones, attach them with wire and jiggle them about as marionettes but, unlike a tradition, they will not be self-propelling. All you will have made is a puppet-show of skeletons.

“But why your hatred for tradition? I am pretty sure I know the answer, but I think we ought to leave it for another day.”

Further Reading

Houghton – Judith’s Marriage

Houghton – Mitre & Crook

Houghton – An Unwanted Priest

The WM Review – What does Michael Lofton mean by “tradition”?


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