The Horror Of All Things Victorian

Whenever I open the New York Times Book Review I only have to read a few pages before coming across a statement which illustrates George Orwell's remark that there are some ideas that are so stupid that only intellectuals can entertain them. Take, for example, Richard Posner's recent review of Gertrude Himmelfarb's new book, One Nation, Two Cultures. The book, among other things, is a thoughtful critique of moral relativism. Posner is chief judge of the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and a card-carrying member of the academic elite.

Posner, of course, cannot stand Himmelfarb's book. You get the impression that he picked it up with a pair of tongs while holding his nose. Himmelfarb, one of our foremost cultural historians, has devastating things to say about the social consequences of the sexual revolution. Posner, an aggressively secular liberal, does not want to admit that there is anything wrong with sexual promiscuity. As a judge, Posner is often criticized by other jurists for ignoring inconvenient facts. In this case, the “facts” overwhelmingly demonstrate that our society's spree of recreational sex has caused emotional and physical damage on an enormous scale. But Posner brushes aside the statistics, because to draw a logical conclusion from them is to give aid and comfort to the “other side” in the culture wars.

Posner's evasion is a good example of what really drives many modern thinkers: the horror of appearing to be Victorian. This is the great hobgoblin of the modern secular mind. It even affects Supreme Court justices. In the 51 pages of tangled legal reasoning known as Roe v. Wade, the late Justice Harry Blackmun wrote that one reason laws are enacted against abortion is “a Victorian social concern to discourage illicit sexual conduct.” The use of the pejorative “Victorian,” of course, does not belong in a serious legal opinion; but its presence is a tip-off that a fear of appearing culturally retrograde can haunt the chambers of the Supreme Court.

This horror of all things Victorian has its counterpart in the modern Catholic Church. Among many clergy and laity there is a dread of anything smacking of “pre-conciliar Catholicism.” Latin, Gregorian chant, Renaissance polyphony, incense, gothic or baroque church architecture — all evoke a reaction well-described by the philosopher David Stove, a sound diagnostician of horror victorianorum: “Asensation of darkness, stillness, enclosure, and, above all, of weight or pressure.” And the impulse of these “progressive” Catholics is to do what their counterparts have done in the secular culture: to turn upside-down everything they find left standing from the old days.

To the modern secular mind, no horror is greater than appearing ‘Victorian.’

This topsy-turvy mentality, needless to say, has nothing to do with the actual teachings of Vatican II. But the results are all around us: new churches which look as though they were designed to be auto-parts wholesale distribution warehouses; music ranging from pietistic treacle to pop jingles; liturgies whose man-centeredness effectively erases all beauty and grandeur and reverence for God.

In a way, one can sympathize with the modernizers. In this country, anyway, they are partly reacting against the Irish brand of Jansenism which dominated the Church for so many years — the hellfire sermons, the deeply suspicious attitude toward many areas of human endeavor, the legalisms, the fortress mentality against even what is good and creative in modern thought. But, as so often happens in human affairs, there was a boomerang effect, a headlong flight to the other extreme. The result was, as Dietrich von Hildebrand put it, an “eruption of mediocrity” in the Catholic Church in the '60s and '70s. It was too bad that the “opening” to the modern world decreed by Pope John XXIII occurred at just the moment when modern art and architecture were going through a very bad patch.

I know one Catholic parish in a Northeast suburb where the parishioners are so annoyed by the church building put up in the early '70s that they plan to raise money to tear it down and build another. Who, after all, wants to worship in a building that looks like a waiting lounge at Kennedy airport? The driving force in this restoration campaign are the younger parishioners who feel no need to rebel against “pre-conciliar Catholicism” because they never experienced it.

Although they tend to be underinstructed about the truths of the faith (another result of the “ground zero” mentality among Church elites in the past decades), these younger Catholics realize that something is often missing from Catholic worship today. Although their progressive catechisms may have told them in so many words that their goal on earth is not God but “self-realization” (as if the two were contradictory), for reasons which they can't always explain, this demotion of God, and the liturgy and architecture it inspires, are not at all satisfying.

So this is my prediction for the new millennium: A “new springtime” of the faith will bring with it a restoration of beauty and sublimity in Catholic worship. In the meantime, let's not be too cranky about the fallen state of Catholic aesthetics and get on with the program.

George Sim Johnston is the author of Did Darwin Get It Right?