Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Comic Books, Aquinas, Law, And Liturgy

Bear with me on this. Despite the weird title of this post, I will work everything in.

A lot of you have probably heard by now that DC Comics has re-launched pretty much every book they have. They are kicking off 52 new titles and doing so in the name of "innovation" and "surprise" and a whole bunch of other stuff.

This isn't nearly as innovative, creative, or whatever as they claim it is. Both DC and Marvel have had major "re-boots" like this in the past. Many times. If things get stale, they just restart everything. People, being suckers, run out and buy the new crap without wondering if it will be good or not. It's just new, ergo, good. Things will rock along for a while. Then the newness wears off, and readers start drifting away with the realization that what they've been reading is crap.

Time for another re-boot! And so forth.

For the purposes of our discussion today, by the way, let's leave aside that these re-boots (or re-launches or whatever you want to call them) are, on their substantive merits, typically events of the most awful caliber. There are exceedingly rare exceptions, but for today, let's just think about the point of a re-boot itself.

I'm saying that re-booting things this way lends itself to a complete lack of respect for the stories and characters. It's sort of like killing off a character then bringing them back to life. It cheapens the character. Nobody can take any threat to them seriously anymore, whether it's a super-villain or some sort of internal conflict/angst. They just have to wait for the writer to retcon or re-boot the badness into oblivion.

Indulging in such practices is one of the many reasons why Dan DiDio and Joe Quesada are scourges upon the literary world and should be banished from civilized society until they have done sufficient penance for the crimes against the comic book world and good taste in general. But I digress...

Novelty is a dangerous drug. People crave it without even knowing they do so. Stuff is old. Stuff is therefore seen as dull or tiresome. Rather than looking inward and realizing that the problem might not be with what is old but instead with ourselves, we look for something new to stimulate our senses back into enjoyment. Especially in an age driven so much by entertainment and titillation, we are constantly looking for something to feed our appetite for innovation.

Chesterton put it this way:

All the towering materialism which dominates the modern mind rests ultimately upon one assumption; a false assumption. It is supposed that if a thing goes on repeating itself it is probably dead; a piece of clockwork. People feel that if the universe was personal it would vary; if the sun were alive it would dance. This is a fallacy even in relation to known fact. For the variation in human affairs is generally brought into them, not by life, but by death; by the dying down or breaking off of their strength or desire. A man varies his movements because of some slight element of failure or fatigue. He gets into an omnibus because he is tired of walking; or he walks because he is tired of sitting still. But if his life and joy were so gigantic that he never tired of going to Islington, he might go to Islington as regularly as the Thames goes to Sheerness. The very speed and ecstacy of his life would have the stillness of death. The sun rises every morning. I do not rise every morning; but the variation is due not to my activity, but to my inaction. Now, to put the matter in a popular phrase, it might be true that the sun rises regularly because he never gets tired of rising. His routine might be due, not to a lifelessness, but to a rush of life. The thing I mean can be seen, for instance, in children, when they find some game or joke that they specially enjoy. A child kicks his legs rhythmically through excess, not absence, of life. Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, "Do it again"; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, "Do it again" to the sun; and every evening, "Do it again" to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.

I wonder if the idea has ever occurred to any of these empirical thrill-seekers that perfection is changeless and therefore rejects novelty.

Back to the main issue. It's the same thing with the law. St. Thomas states the following:

Objection 1. It would seem that human law should be changed, whenever something better occurs. Because human laws are devised by human reason, like other arts. But in the other arts, the tenets of former times give place to others, if something better occurs. Therefore the same should apply to human laws.

Objection 2. Further, by taking note of the past we can provide for the future. Now unless human laws had been changed when it was found possible to improve them, considerable inconvenience would have ensued; because the laws of old were crude in many points. Therefore it seems that laws should be changed, whenever anything better occurs to be enacted.

Objection 3. Further, human laws are enacted about single acts of man. But we cannot acquire perfect knowledge in singular matters, except by experience, which "requires time," as stated in Ethic. ii. Therefore it seems that as time goes on it is possible for something better to occur for legislation.

On the contrary, It is stated in the Decretals (Dist. xii, 5): "It is absurd, and a detestable shame, that we should suffer those traditions to be changed which we have received from the fathers of old."

I answer that, As stated above (Article 1), human law is rightly changed, in so far as such change is conducive to the common weal. But, to a certain extent, the mere change of law is of itself prejudicial to the common good: because custom avails much for the observance of laws, seeing that what is done contrary to general custom, even in slight matters, is looked upon as grave. Consequently, when a law is changed, the binding power of the law is diminished, in so far as custom is abolished. Wherefore human law should never be changed, unless, in some way or other, the common weal be compensated according to the extent of the harm done in this respect. Such compensation may arise either from some very great and every evident benefit conferred by the new enactment; or from the extreme urgency of the case, due to the fact that either the existing law is clearly unjust, or its observance extremely harmful. Wherefore the jurist says [Pandect. Justin. lib. i, ff., tit. 4, De Constit. Princip.] that "in establishing new laws, there should be evidence of the benefit to be derived, before departing from a law which has long been considered just."

Reply to Objection 1. Rules of art derive their force from reason alone: and therefore whenever something better occurs, the rule followed hitherto should be changed. But "laws derive very great force from custom," as the Philosopher states (Polit. ii, 5): consequently they should not be quickly changed.

Reply to Objection 2. This argument proves that laws ought to be changed: not in view of any improvement, but for the sake of a great benefit or in a case of great urgency, as stated above. This answer applies also to the Third Objection.

New for the sake of being new isn't a good reason to change the law. In fact, even if the new law would be better, that isn't enough. It has to be so good that the goodness in the change will exceed the damage done to the overall respect for the law as a whole. After all, who would appreciate a law that changed all the time? I've often wondered what a session of Congress or our state legislatures would look like if they decided not to pass any new laws. Was their previous year/years of work so shoddy that all these new laws and changes were required? Why are they always trying to pass new laws or change old ones?

My opinion is that they do so just for the newness. They can go home and tell everyone about all the laws they passed. They can't really state a case for these new precepts having any utility. They won't have been in effect long enough. Many will probably get repealed before they have an effect at all. People hear all the shiny newness, though, and are led to think that something was actually accomplished with all this statutory diarrhea. To the contrary, the Angelic Doctor says, the only thing accomplished is a deterioration of the legal system and the public perception of their lawmakers.

Where else do we see this addiction to the new played out most palpably? You've probably guessed from my post title. It's the liturgy of course. The fact that the Gregorian Mass went pretty much unchanged for 1500 years wasn't a sign of life or vitality as Chesterton might point out. It was a sign of stagnation and death. What was needed, in direct contradiction to Vatican II's Constitution on the Liturgy, was a completely new Mass, with all sorts of new stuff. This was called reform.

You see it even today. Liturgical committees get together to decide what kind of Mass they want to have. Clown Mass, Halloween Mass, Gay Mass, LifeTeen Mass, Contemporary Mass, etc. If attendance is down, what's the solution? Bring in secular music. Liturgical dance. The list goes on. How odd that Mass attendance was at 80% back when we had the stodgy and dull "Old Mass." I still recall how the "expert" in my wife's RCIA group spoke about how the "Old Mass" just wasn't fun enough to enjoy.

Don't think that lust for novelty was at the root of the alleged reform? Consider the words of Fr. Joseph Gelineau, SJ, one of Archbishop Bugnini's foremost liturgical consultants in his work The Liturgy Today and Tomorrow:

It would be false to identify this liturgical renewal with the reform of rites decided on by Vatican II. This reform goes back much further and goes forward far beyond the conciliar prescriptions. The liturgy is a permanent workshop.

At the root of all this is the same gluttony for sensations that drives all the other stuff I mentioned. Whether it's Justice League Dark, or the latest change in trapping regulations, or Disco Liturgy, it's all about people being addicted to the new. We look to feed our senses instead of our souls. More tragically, many think these are the same thing.

In the words of Archie Bunker, we need to stifle ourselves. Whether in terms of our literary, legal, or liturgical preferences, some acknowledgement of stability, tradition, and custom is needed. This is why the Extraordinary Form is so vital to the future of the Church. It subdues our appetite for this sort of stuff. We are decreased so that He may increase. And not just us, but the priests as well. You can't have Disco Liturgy in the Extraordinary Form. Priests making themselves the center of attention is impossible. Everything is degraded in favor of God's Presence.

Humans have a bad habit of screwing things up. We're fallen, so it's understandable. Let's not give ourselves so many opportunities, though.

1 comment:

Mark of the Vineyard said...

Here in Portugal, new laws are calways coming out. There is a law which says that you can't claim ignorance of any law as defence for breaking a law; you are mandated by law to read the "Diary of the Republic", in which all new laws are published. This, of course, is highly impractical (if not impossible), because: (a) you'd spend the whole day just reading laws; (b) you'd need to have a degree in Law to sift through the legal jargon.

The buzzword that one most hears now, espcially in political-economic discourses is "innovation". Every one throws it around so much that it sounds like a mantra. "Innovation will give us a better economy!"
While we're on the subject of "innovation", I recently asked permission to get married at a certain chapel according to the Extraordinary Form. The priest wasn't too keen about the idea. Said it was an unwarrented "innovation", and wouldn't be "fair" to subject others to attend such a Mass. The Latin Mass: an innovation... right. Like those hoot-nanny Masses they allow willy-nilly aren't.