Monday, June 28, 2010

On the fear of excellence

Somebody please direct me to the appropriate question in the Summa for this one.* I'm sure the Angelic Doctor might have something to say on this problem. I'm afraid I'm enough of a child of the 1960s to always be looking behind the superficial to something more sytematically wrong. I guess in that decade we lost the ability to accept something at face value giving rise to the popularity of conspiracy theories about anything and everything. In practice it means that whenever I see something that could be much better I smell a rat. I immediately suspect that there is something going on which is seeking to undermine the good that has been achieved and to sully it with the sub standard.

'Ah', but I've heard so often, 'It's an imperfect world'. Sure it is, but surely we shouldn't be happy for things to stay like that. It seems that the cult of the mediocre gets in at every nook and cranny. You can apply it to all aspects of life but when it comes to our life as Catholic Christians it really is a worry if the mediocre offered to God has become the bench mark for what is acceptable. There really seems to be a fear of doing anything that- gasp- might be considered excellent.  Chesterton is credited with the saying 'If a thing is worth doing it's worth doing badly'. At face value I beg to differ. Anyhow Chesterton was referring to hobbies not theological truth or ecclesiastical polity.

Today, in this part of the world, we celebrate the Dedication of our Cathedral and a fine building it is. What's more, what goes on in that building largely aspires to the best possible. Yet it seems all too often that we run up against the attitude that that sort of standard of excellence is too good for the average parish. Patronising bunkum. Yet I'm still dealing with superficial- dealing with the symptoms rather than the cause. I'm afraid there is an attitude amongst some 'movers and shakers' that even real adult theology is too much for the poor people in the pew. The truth of the matter is that you are more likely to find the theologically literate Catholic sitting in the pews, day by day, rather than east of the chancel step.

Two factors that  might be perpetuating the problem. (1) In many parts of the world there is an alternative and self appointed magisterium with a personal mandate of self preservation which it achieves through only appointing to it's committees those who will 'tow the line' and not ask too many awkward questions. Statements from these groups tend to aim at the lowest common denominator in language that is not going to 'scare the horses'. It means rather shallow documents of great ambiguity. (2) The false notion that the Catholic Church, at the moment, is a 'real player' in national affairs.  If the political controversies of the last few years have taught us anything it is this; that people of faith are to be 'managed' rather than actually listened to. This management strategy targets the 'B grades' within the alternative magisteria and, flattering their own misconceptions of self importance, easily neutralises what, in more able hands, could have been a real challenge to the status quo.

* Please see the comments. There's an excellent response from GOR.


  1. ”Somebody please direct me to the appropriate question in the Summa for this one.”

    OK, I’ll take a stab at it. The closest I can come to the Angelic Doctor dealing with excellence in the Summa is the section: “On the State of Perfection in General” (II-II, Q184 ss.).

    Granted, he is here addressing the pursuit of perfection in persons and states of life (with particular attention to religious, bishops, parish priests and archdeacons…!). But one can infer that if one is personally committed to that pursuit, it will have outward manifestations as well – the internal state informing the outward acta, as it were.

    You will be relieved to find that in the quest for excellence St. Thomas doesn’t feel that you as a parish priest have to lay down your life for the sheep (that’s the bishop’s job!): “Parish priests and archdeacons have not the chief cure [of the sheep] but a certain ministry as committed to them by the bishop, so the pastoral office does not belong to them in chief, nor are they bound to lay down their life for the sheep, except in so far as they have a share in their cure.”

    From which I conclude that while you may be expected to take a bullet for the flock, it doesn’t have to be a mortal wound – a slight grazing or flesh wound will suffice…!

  2. Our blog's first (and returning every so often) tagline: "Scotland and the cult of mediocrity".

    I think Chesterton was referring to things like prayer and love letters ...

  3. Actually, berenike's suggestion is excellent but what he was really referring to is the universality of the work of a housewife: he says something like 'Queen Victoria in her domain, legislating to the children, the grocer in her domain, dispensing goods to the household...' The quotation can be found in the anthology "Brave New Family," I believe the essay is called 'The Universal Stick.'


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