There is no doubt that humanity has benefitted from many advances that modernity has brought to the world. However, along with these benefits, modernity has also caused suffering, destruction, and loss of lives. These negative factors are now reaching crisis proportions and polarizing the nation as we search for solutions.
As a result of this crisis, there is a war raging. It is a war of values, and it can be characterized as a war between traditionalists and modernists.
Traditionalists are people who have a deep respect for long-held cultural and religious values. For them, these values are anchors that provide order and stability to society. Modernists, on the other hand, are those who embrace new ideas, styles, and trends. For them, traditional values are chains that restrict individual freedom, autonomy, and the pursuit of happiness.
Every culture consists of codes of conduct, dress, language, rituals, norms of behavior. These involve laws, morality, and religious belief.
Into these fields, modernity and tradition each exercise their influence, often combating inside souls and altering how people think, feel, and act.
Tradition and religion are inseparable in this fight since God is involved in history. Thus, we can say that anti-tradition is also anti-religion. As Christians, we defend tradition because it is one of the pillars of Christian civilization, the most perfect civilization.
Facing the world problems, we need to ask if the modernist approach will always work in solving the problems we face. We need to see the role of tradition as refuge when modernity takes us away from our values.
Indeed, the lessons of history show that abandoning tradition has disastrous consequences. Tradition plays a large and critical part in the betterment of people’s lives, because the past has a powerful influence over the present and acts as a guide for the future.
In this article, we will look at how modernity and tradition affect people’s lives. We will see how they work in practice and the outcomes they can achieve when society is influenced by either one or the other. And we will see what true progress means as opposed to a revolutionary and unbalanced progress.
Wellspring of Modernity
Modernity (beginning in the late fifteenth/early sixteenth century) introduced the idea that the goal of society is a utopian vision of life. It rejects religious and moral principles as its guiding light and relies on science and technology for everything. Modernity introduced the notion of the autonomous individual oriented toward self-realization that is more important than the family and replaces the family as the basic unit of society.
As a result, the modern man is autonomous in his beliefs and is detached from the lessons of history, precedent, and community. He creates his own identity rather than being defined by his family or tradition. Educated by modern theorists, he considers the world “as only made up of physical objects in time and space, interacting mechanically as causes and effects according to laws which can be mathematically formulated.”1
In other words, he believes in a godless world, made up of things without final causes, moral order or meaning. The influence of individualism can be seen today in our culture, politics, religion, science, art, and technology.
Historian Jacques Barzun traced the beginning of the modern era from Martin Luther’s Protestant revolt in 1517. Barzun noted that the modern era is punctuated by the four great revolutions—“the religious, monarchical, liberal, and social, roughly a hundred years apart—whose aims and passions still govern our minds and behavior.”2
The Brazilian Catholic leader and founder of the Tradition, Family and Property (TFP) movement, Professor Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira, goes even deeper in his analysis of the modern world. He wrote that “the many crises shaking the world today—those of the state, family, economy, culture and so on—are but multiple aspects of a single fundamental crisis whose field of action is man himself. In other words, these crises have their root in the most profound problems of the soul, from whence they spread to the whole personality of present-day man and all his activities.”3
The Failings of Modernity
In spirit and in practice, modernity ’s shortcomings are numerous. Although many of its achievements improved people’s lives, its negative impact upon society has increased over the years. This can especially be seen in the decay of traditional morality, the social impact of globalization, the implosion of populations, and the excesses of the sexual revolution.
According to federal crime data, the number of violent crimes has increased by almost fifty percent over the last ten years.4 Suicide in the United States is a major national public health issue. We have the highest suicide rate among wealthy nations. In 2018, 14.2 people per 100,000 died by suicide, the highest rate recorded in more than thirty years and still rising.5 According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), 2020 marked a record low fertility rate of 1.6 births per woman, the sixth straight year with a decline. A fertility rate of 2.1 is needed to maintain a stable population.6
At the same time, the Federal Reserve reports that consumer debt in the United States is approaching a record-breaking $16 trillion,7 while the U.S. Treasury Department reported that the gross national debt surpassed $30 trillion.8
Tragically, the traditional family is in rapid decline. According to the Pew Research Center, the American family is changing in many ways: cohabitation is on the rise, more adults are delaying or forgoing marriage, a growing share of children are living with an unmarried parent, and same-sex “marriage” is legal in all fifty states.9
These statistics paint a dire picture of our modern world. No wonder people are having a hard time adjusting to evolving technology, social norms and behaviors, and modernistic values. There are no anchors to provide stability.
“By Their Fruits You Shall Know Them”
Statistics alone prove that it can be dangerous to live in a densely populated modern city. When morality breaks down in society, the cities become platforms from which the greater number of people are exposed to greater opportunities to commit crimes. There are more stores to rob and more places to attack an unsuspecting victim. In addition, this moral decay leads to worse living conditions and declining health, both physical and emotional.
The traditional city favors proportion, harmony, and morals. There is a relationship between the inhabitants and the countryside. The people are never completely removed from their access to the fields, valleys, rivers, and mountains where tranquility and the normal, balanced way of country living still permeate the life of the small city. This condition results in a more pleasant, calm, and stable way of life.
With population control, sexual immorality and same-sex “marriages” widely practiced today, many countries are experiencing negative growth rates. Morally and even economically, this trend spells disaster for any country. A shrinking population can result in labor shortages, lower tax revenue, higher per-capita debt, and weakened GDP growth;10 as well as, logically, eventual extinction.
Furthermore, family structure and economic well-being are also closely related. A traditional, intact, married family outperforms all other sexual partnering structures. Consequently, the economy prospers with unbroken families and flounders with broken families.
Intact traditional families enjoy, on average, larger incomes, greater net worth, and greater year-to-year net worth growth. A survey also found that ninety-seven percent of millennials who follow the “success sequence”—receive at least a high school degree, work, marry, and bear children—never experience poverty in their young adult years (ages 28-34). Married couples also create the best economic environment for children. Their children experience more economic mobility and less poverty in childhood and are more likely to earn a higher income and work more hours as an adult than those raised in alternative family structures.
Marriage is also essential on the macroeconomic level. Married Americans spend more money than their cohabiting, divorced, single, and never-married counterparts.11 According to Pew analysis of IRS data, married couples pay roughly three-fourths of the nation’s income taxes, despite the decline in marriage.12
Indeed, the institution of the traditional family is crucial to the survival and success of society and state, which lives from its vitality. The traditional family, comprised of husband, wife, and children, is the basic unit of society from which good traditional Christian values are inculcated, practiced, and passed on from generation to generation.
Villages, towns, regions, and states are born from large, patriarchal and hierarchical families. Their stability, progress and their very survival depends upon a robust family life, guided by and infused with sound religious principles that can successfully confront life’s problems. In the words of Pope Pius XII, “From the exuberant life of a true people, a rich and abundant life is diffused in the state and all its organs, infusing them with ever-renewed vigor, the consciousness of its own responsibility and a true sense of the common good.”13
The idea of tradition is often misunderstood. When progressives and modernists characterize it as old, outdated, or stuck in the past, they do not understand that true progress needs tradition. Prof. Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira writes that “Tradition and progress complement each other so harmoniously that, just as tradition without progress would be a contradiction in terms, progress without tradition would be a foolhardy proposition, a leap into darkness.”14 It is not by going forward to the unknown, but by going back to tradition that solutions to humanity’s problems will be found, and equilibrium of society can be restored.
Furthermore, the TFP founder claims that “tradition is something very different from a simple attachment to a vanished past; it is the very opposite of a reaction mistrustful of all healthy progress. The word itself is etymologically synonymous with advancement and forward movement—synonymous, but not identical. Whereas in fact, progress means only a forward march, step by step, in search of an uncertain future, tradition also signifies a forward march, but a continuous march as well, a movement equally brisk and tranquil, in accordance with life’s laws.”15
The Silencing of Tradition
Thus, tradition is critical to our survival. However, tradition is presently not only ignored, but attacked. For the modernist, traditional values and ideas do not count as valid principles. Hatred of tradition is reflected in the liberal media, and consequently in the population at large, that blindly follows the media. Sociologist Emile Durkheim theorizes that society follows whatever the dominant majority does.
Mass media’s power to influence people’s beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors has a two-fold effect. A Harvard University research study found that the media influences the individual directly (privately) or indirectly (socially). In the private effect, media information about new norms may persuade individuals to accept them. In the social effect, the information creates common knowledge of a norm and enhances social coordination as individuals more readily accept the information if they believe others have also accepted it.
Another way that tradition is suppressed is through “propaganda-by-omission.” Normally, propaganda is created through tangible words or images. However, it can also occur via the absence of such stimuli. Modern media outlets typically only present their side of the story.
Nowadays, people sometimes say that “times have changed,” or that “these are different times.” The implication is that people must accept or adjust to change. Historian Jacques Barzun wrote that, “when the people accept futility and the absurd as normal, the culture is decadent.” The false notion of change for the sake of change was influenced by Charles Darwin’s physical evolution theories. Anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan applied evolutionary principles to social phenomena and called it social evolution. Modern sociologists accept this theory as scientifically valid. Thus, social evolutionists believe that the transition from the Middle Ages to the modern age has been one of a continuous improvement and that change was inevitable.
Society changes according to the hearts, minds, and wills of its people. There are historic laws that mandate change. If Martin Luther did not start a revolt in the sixteenth century, there would not have been a Protestant revolution that divided Christendom. If Marx and Engels were never born, there would never have been a communist revolution that killed millions of people around the world. Social evolution theory is therefore absurd.
In his book on tradition, Josef Pieper quoted fellow German philosopher Gerhard Kruger who wrote that, “The only reason we’re still alive is our inconsistency in not having actually silenced all tradition.”16
“The Art of Living Wisely” in a Modern World
Those who suffer from the present crisis are offered many options to flee from the problems. From the so-called “Benedict Option” to off-grid living, they dream of owning land, growing their own food, generating their own electricity, living without any government assistance, and gaining a new sense of ndependence. They crave peace, quiet, solitude, and a total alternative lifestyle, where you can truly live far from the chaos of the modern world.
There is nothing wrong with seeking an alternative to the decadence of today. However, retreating from the battlefields of the cultural war is fleeing from the struggle between good and evil. Our Lord Jesus Christ told us that, “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.”17 As true followers of Christ, embracing our crosses and confidently following the will of God through His Most Blessed Mother is the true alternative.
Christian militancy not only involves fighting against our own, but also opposing the enemies of God and His Church. Two sins today provoke God’s anger more than other sins. They tend to destroy society and God’s order in the world: willful murder (including abortion) and sodomy (homosexuality). Fighting these two evils means engaging today’s culture.
The challenges of living in an insane, chaotic world are overwhelming at times, but knowing and embracing authentic Catholic tradition makes life worth living. In the words of Prof. Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira, “when the triumphant vulgarity of an increasingly egalitarian world, the noisy, frantic, and hurly-burly rhythm of daily life, and the instability threatening all institutions, all rights and all situations cause neurosis, anguish, and stress in millions of our contemporaries, then tradition appears to them as an elevated rest for the soul, good sense, good breeding, good order and, in a word, the art of living wisely.”18
Defending Tradition with Our Lady
The Mother of all mothers, the Blessed Virgin Mary, knows us better than our own mothers. She cares and so she warns. She showed humanity the way to confront the present crisis. We cannot ignore her messages, especially the Fatima message. What she said there in 1917 is as relevant today as it was then, if not even more so.
The tradition we defend comes from her Divine Son Who personally gave us principles that are eternal which serve as the basis for an organic Christian society. He said, “Heaven and earth shall pass, but my words shall not pass.”19 They are principles that should govern the lives of all Christians wherever, and whenever, they may live.
Modernity is bankrupt spiritually, morally, intellectually, and politically. The strength of tradition is the key to averting catastrophe. In its principles and practices, tradition will keep us alive and well in this troubled world.
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- R.T. Allen, The Education of Autonomous Man.
- Jacques Barzun, From Dawn to Decadence, 500 years of Western Cultural Life.
- Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira, Revolution and Counter-Revolution.
- https://www.commonwealthfund.org/press-release/2020/new-international-report-health-care- us-suicide-rate-highest-among-wealthy.
- http://marripedia.org/effects_of_family_structure_on_the_economy – fn__13.
- Pope Pius XII, “Radio message of Christmas of 1944.”
- Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira, Commentaries on Devotion to Our Lady, p. 145.
- Ibid., p.145.
- Josef Pieper, Tradition: Concept and Claim.
- Matt. 16:24.
- Matt. 23:35.