Neuhaus on Change

While holding court on the First Things Square, Father Neuhaus offered a one-paragraph diversion on “Change.” I don’t know why I was drawn to this diversion over and above his essay on sociologists. (Though I was surprised to see him discount the urban legend of modern Catholics losing a sense of the Real Presence.)

Here’s the diversion:

Which does not prevent certain presidential aspirants from chanting the weary old promise of CHANGE! Change from what to what? Never mind. Change is the mantra of the neophiliac who has nothing new to say, and it casts a spell over those who are too young to know how old it is. My colleague Jim Nuechterlein sums up his conservative philosophy in the simple statement that “Change is bad.” That goes too far, of course, but it’s a sentiment that is nice to hear for a change.

In one context, Neuhaus is right. Americans are dissatisfied with politics-as-they-are, and politicians can exploit that feeling by advocating in general for ‘change” without getting specific enough so they lose their target voters. Neuhaus is smart enough to realize that, surely.

Reagan touted change in 1980, and we got it when he was elected. Clinton a little bit in ’92, then Gingrich big time in ’94 with the Contract on America.

However soaked in politics he may be, I am surprised to hear a Catholic priest as a skeptic on change. Change is the essence of conversion to Christ. Change is the essence of metanoia, a turning around of one’s life. Change is more than an empty mantra. For the Christian, it should be a way of life.

A spiritual director of mine advocated for my sense of dissatisfaction. Dissatisfaction is a gift, he said. It is a grace and an impulse for a person to change, to advocate for change, and not to settle for wallowing in any number of things that reflect sin or a broader injustice.

Is it possible for a believer to turn change on and off like a spigot? What I ask is this: if conservatives are closed to change in their ideological life, do they have hope for the spiritual? Can a conservative be closed to change in the political sphere, but be willing to embrace his or her own metanoia? Does this imply that conservatives feel they are finished products, that they have no further need of the grace of conversion?

This is one reason why you can count me as a skeptic of putting the liturgical principle of organic development on too high a pedestal. Naturally, the case of changing one’s life or liturgy every other week would be too extreme. Even a substantial metanoia needs time for the believer to settle in, regain bearings, and try out the new life.

My sense is that the bishops, once they got to council, saw the liturgy was in need not of a gentle organic transition, and not a slow reform, but a conversion event. Sure, that’s scary for some people. But embarking on personal change like quitting smoking, or getting married, or converting to Christ: those are all scary, too. And usually they are not organic.

Sometimes, and for some people, organic change won’t work. What alcoholic has been successful with gradually reducing from ten beers a day to nine, then eight, and so on? In the spiritual realm, conversion likewise implies someone is going to change, and change big-time.

I wouldn’t worry about political change if I were Neuhaus. Ron Paul is the only one talking real change on Neuhaus’s side. And John Edwards is getting Our Corporate Masters a little jittery by taking them on and talking change. Politics won’t change, and don’t believe any candidate who says otherwise.

But change as a principle and an approach to life is essential. Biologically and spiritually, you can’t live without it.

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About catholicsensibility

Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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6 Responses to Neuhaus on Change

  1. L.T. says:

    Portraying Neuhaus as being somehow anti-change isn’t quite fair. Change and conversion are not synonymous. There’s a good reason why the term metanoia has been an *unchanging* principle in our tradition and “change” has not. That’s the problem with the term “change; it’s so vague and all-inclusive that it can mean everything and nothing at the same time; it’s thus infinitely spinnable. So the politics of the “change” deserves skepticism. Those who wish to see a return to a distinctively Catholic substance are arguably more pro-change (and pro-conversion) than those who wish to freeze in time the triumphant status quo of banal secularism in the liturgy. There’s a self-stroking therapeutic impulse in painting oneself as courageous and bold for advocating change in the liturgy when change by itself means nothing. You can present yourself as being heroically pro-change when you’re just posing as anti-“anti-change.” The anti-change people (your opponents regardless of their positions) are then just small-minded scaredy cats. How convenient. But the fact that a few seconds have passed in my typing of this sentence is “change” too. I can also wax poetic and mystical about change: “Change presumes the unchangeable,” etc. What matters is the act and object of change, not the mere existence of change vel non. Advocating change apart from what you are changing into is just a lot of silliness.

  2. Todd says:

    Thanks for commenting, LT.

    “That’s the problem with the term ‘change;’ it’s so vague and all-inclusive that it can mean everything and nothing at the same time; it’s thus infinitely spinnable.”

    I see it as less a problem and more as an opportunity. When I see something rather vague like Neuhaus’ editoral piece, I see an invitation to delve deeper, to explore, and ferret out what he really means.

    In criticizing politicians, for example, we should take their vague platitudes and try to pin them down on a plan.

    You yourself delve into a bit of vagueness in speaking of the “triumphant status quo of banal secularism in the liturgy.” What the heck does that mean? Is it really an accurate diagnosis of clergy who don’t believe liturgy is a priority, so all sorts of stuff come to fill in the gap? (I can level that criticism at both pre- and post-conciliar liturgy.)

    “The anti-change people (your opponents regardless of their positions) are then just small-minded scaredy cats.”

    We can say something similar about politicians. We might be right some of the time. But nobody has ever been called a scaredy-cat for engaging on thie web site. The bold are always welcome here.

  3. John Heavrin says:

    Neuhaus makes his point not at all vaguely” “Change from what to what?”

    Until a officeseeker, or anybody else for that matter, can answer this question specifically, he’s talking about change for its own sake, change for the hell of it, which is always a bad idea. Or else he’s just lying, and has no intention of changing anything, except the name on the office door.

    “Contract on America.”

    Hey, that’s cute. Brings back memories.

  4. Michael says:

    Until a officeseeker, or anybody else for that matter, can answer this question specifically, he’s talking about change for its own sake, change for the hell of it, which is always a bad idea. Or else he’s just lying, and has no intention of changing anything, except the name on the office door.

    Clinton, Obama, Edwards, and Huckabee have been specific about the changes they’re seeking to implement. Fr. Neuhaus is either not paying attention, or is saying that change in ways he disagrees with is change for its own sake. The former is lazy, and the latter is dishonest. Fr. Neuhaus is not normally lazy.

  5. Liam says:

    Questions for physics scholars: is light necessarily a sign of decay? Or of change?

    Fiat lux.

  6. Rob F. says:

    “Questions for physics scholars: is light necessarily a sign of decay? Or of change?”

    Practically all the light we see here on earth with our eyes is the result of an atom decaying from an excited state to a lower (usually ground) state.

    As for photons generally, including non-visible and extraterrestrial, there are plenty of other ways to make them.

    Note that making anything, including a photon, which did not exist before by definition involves change.

    Note also that seeing anything with your eye always involves the destruction, via absorbtion, of a photon.

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