The Catholic Gentleman
A Fading Image

Michael J. Matt
Editor, The Remnnat


Perplexing Modern Masculine Image

He never yet a boorish thing had said

In all his life to any, come what might;

He was a true, a perfect gentle-knight

…Chaucer: Canterbury Tales


Buried deep within the archive of old photographs accumulated over the years by my family, there is an interesting picture of my great-grandfather that, like so many of its vintage, provides a sort of keyhole view through the great prison door of modernity that bars us from the old world, the memory of which is sadly growing dimmer every day. 

Despite the photograph’s cracks and fading sepia, one can still make out a small rowboat in the middle of a pond, in which sits a gentleman with his grand-children.  The miniature crew mans the oars, and the old gent oversees them like a storybook sea captain might…with silent stateliness.

He is propped up on some sort of chair, no doubt specially rigged in the little skiff for its aged occupant on that special day. His topcoat is buttoned to the neck, a tall top hat shades his face from the sun, and an umbrella rests over his shoulder just so.  He isn’t slouching nor is he grimacing like a lunatic at the camera.  His noble bearing is typical of the men of that bygone era.

Through the distorted lens of the modern eye, I suppose the fading image could be a spoof of some kind. Can the old fellow possibly be serious?  Where are his shorts and flip-flops?  Why isn’t he naked from the waist up? Is he crazy?

It seems curious that we’re sometimes tempted to react in this way when we encounter little reminders of the past. In fact, I wonder if our bemused reaction is akin to modernist mockery of nuns in old habits, priests in cassocks, or masses in Latin?  What if it suggests that we’ve inadvertently taken on the cloak of modernism ourselves, having lost much more of our Catholic sense than we perhaps realize?

I’m certainly not advocating top hats and tails for the next fishing trip, but I do wonder what the old gentleman in the photograph would think if he were to get a load of his modern counterparts, dressing and behaving in a manner that would surely have been deemed barbaric by the civilized mores of his day and age.

What if modern men—including we traditional Catholics—have become so inured to the ways of the modern world, having inhaled its poisonous vapors with our mothers’ milk, that the quiet life and Godly ways of the old world are something we would reject just as readily as modernists reject the old Faith? 

After all, we’ve made compromises, too! When I was a child, women who dressed in pants, for example, were  considered by most decent folks to be cross-dressing revolutionaries.  That was the way it was just 35 years ago. Today, most people think nothing of it, and when a traditionalist bishop or priest expresses concern over this particular triumph of militant feminism, he’s dismissed as a sexist fascist. But who’s right in God’s eyes, do you suppose: our fathers who rejected these aberrations, or we blinded moderns who’ve grown so accustomed to them that we see nothing amiss? 

Makes you wonder what else we’ve lost—perhaps the faculty to really delight in truth, goodness and beauty. Is this why the old photograph appears so foreign to us?  So blinded by the light of “progress” are we laughing at the gentleman in the boat when we really should weeping over how unlike him we’ve become? 

Drowning as we are in a sea of secularism—with downright comical (because of their sheer absurdity) “floatation devices” such as televisions and cell phones and IPods and PDAs and Blackberries to weigh us down while we breathe into our souls the toxic e-oxygen of the Internet all day long—I wonder if we’ve really managed to stay afloat as well as we think we have, or have we plummeted to the depths without even knowing it.  Have we kept the Faith?  Or are we just barely hanging on to our intellectual convictions?

We have trouble recognizing our grandfathers as men of our time, but I wonder if they wouldn’t have trouble recognizing us as Catholics of any time. We don’t dress, speak, write, think or pray as Catholics once did—we don’t even take our meals in the same way. Our grandfathers used to “dress for dinner”, remember?  A shirt, a coat, even a tie was appropriate attire for the head of a household during the Catholic ritual that the evening meal used to be, especially on Sundays.

We don’t even dress for Sunday Mass anymore, much less Sunday supper! Ties and coats at hour-long Tridentine Masses…even in the summertime?  Are you nuts?  Comfort and casual is the name of our game, and ties and coats are neither.  We’re quick to find fault (and rightly so!) with modern priests who have cast aside most of their liturgical vestments and clerical garb, and yet are we not doing essentially the same thing in church and out?

We Americans can hardly help it, I suppose.  We do what we want, and we’re not much for ceremony. I was thirty years old before my own father’s constant example of dressing appropriately for Mass finally began to register with me.  It wasn’t a question of dressing for the folks in the pews; it was part of an established protocol Catholic men sought to observe in the presence of their Creator.  It was their duty.

I wonder how comfortable they were on those hot Sunday mornings in the days before air conditioning. For that matter, how comfortable was that fully dressed old man in the boat beneath the blazing sun?  Staying comfortable didn’t seem to be the concern for them that it has become for us.  Those real men were too busy cultivating virtue and living up to the holy privilege of being Catholic.

Disagree with them if you like, but by what witchcraft can their noble sense of duty be looked down upon with patronizing derision by modern, milquetoast Catholics? Are today’s Catholics so much more enlightened than the stodgy old bozos of the past?  Do we know better than they did? Have we really evolved to that extent?

Sounds like vintage Cardinal Mahony to me! 

Both standards can’t be right, of course. Either our grandfathers were correct to hold the bar so high, or we are for letting it drop so near to the ground. 

My son is 8 years old and he’s all boy.  He loves knights and castles and toy guns and swords and stories of derring-do.  But he’s been wearing a coat and tie to Mass ever since he can remember.  I don’t force him to do it… it’s what he wants to do. 

Children are not imbeciles, nor are they naturally disposed to rebel against standards of behavior observed by their parents. Boys must be schooled in the self-destructive ways of the little Sesame Street products we see shouting at their parents and spinning out of control everywhere today.  They’re not born that way. 

So, too with little girls.  They have to become practiced in the art of feminism… they must be taught how to wear the pants.  Left to the dictates of their nature, they’ll choose femininity and beauty and virtue every time. They adore dressing up as princesses, while their brothers raise plastic swords in their honor.  Chivalry, which resonates to the very core of a child’s being, can still fend off the invading hordes of modernist ideas…if we parents will only allow it to do so!

Children have to be systematically “deCatholicized”…it doesn’t happen naturally. Someone must spend a great deal of time training our young men to become the emasculated buffoon that society holds up as the masculine ideal.  What St. Thomas More said of the nobility of England could certainly be paraphrased for our generation of men:  We’d snore through the Sermon on the Mount but we’ll labor like scholars over a NFL Wild Card race. 

It’s as if we have become permanent teenagers, and we dress the part.  Our faith, too, seems to remain in perpetual adolescence.  Do we have anything on the old man in the boat? 

Thankfully, the tide seems to be turning, at least down here in the catacombs. More traditional Catholics are beginning to recognize how much more we’ve really lost than only the Mass.  We’ve lost our cultural heritage; we’ve stumbled off of our foundation stones and lost our very identity as Catholics. We have no culture to support our Catholic Faith.  The Mass was taken away from us only after the last ramparts of that fortress of Catholic culture had been blasted to the ground in the early days of the twentieth century.

But perhaps there is still time for us to begin picking up the pieces. I attended Mass at a traditionalist chapel recently and noticed that nearly every man in the place was wearing a coat and tie. Granted, they were “schismatic” coats and ties, but coats and ties nonetheless.

Recently, we asked the father of a young man who was ordained a priest of the SSPX in 2006 to sit for an interview to discuss a father’s role in raising would-be priests in the modern world. The gentleman’s hand-written reply stands in such contrast to the boorish blogging and bloviating that is fast becoming the trademark of Catholic polemics, that I’ve decided to share it with our readers in the hope that it might be contagious:

I’m sorry my reply [to your request for an interview] is so late in coming; with all the tasks to be done I just couldn’t get to it any sooner.

I’m very honored that you asked me to write something up for The Remnant, but I must decline, simply because I’m actually no authority at all on the question of what it takes to raise a son for the priesthood.  As you know, God chooses.

If you get a chance to look at the latest Verbum from the seminary, you’ll find there the answers to the questions you put to me.

You’re a good friend, and I’m glad to have you as a leader we can follow in this battle in which we’re all engaged. Never give up, as I know you won’t, and we pray for you and your Catholic family daily.

Yours in Jesus Mary and Joseph…

Who’s leading whom, I wonder….And this from the father of nine children, all of whom have kept the old Faith. Note the refreshingly Catholic lack of conceit as he chooses to give God all the credit rather than claiming any for himself.  I don’t mean to embarrass my friend by making him out as some sort of hero.  His attitude is simply that of the Catholic gentleman from the old school.

As long as I’m breaking protocol by printing personal letters, let me conclude with one more.  It was penned by a Frenchman, also from the old school, and it provides yet another example of the all but lost noble attitude of the Catholic gentleman. It’s just a simple request to transfer a subscription, and yet its elevated style and Christian graciousness is like another one of those keyhole views of how things used to be before the world went mad:

Dear Michael:

How does it go with you?  May God bless you and all your family.  As for me, I have to mention that since 2005 I have had to face a heart attack; thus I feel pretty tired and old now (in fact 81 years old).

Consequently, reading The Remnant—no matter how interesting it is—becomes difficult for me.  So, I must confess my scruple. Would it not be more satisfactory that somebody else could profit by these issues?

Anyway, through our Faith and the Communion of the Saints we are in close union.

Now we have 17 grandchildren; the last, born Jean-Baptiste, is only 5 months old.  May all of them be good Christians.

It is rather difficult for me to express how happy I am to have met you and your friends—especially Michael Davies—in 1998, when we visited Lisieux, Pont Callec, le Mont St. Michel, Pont Château, and its way of the Cross, the Vendee, Saint-Laurent-sur-Sevre, and le Puy-du-Fou in the light of St. Louis-Marie Grignion.

My wife had joined us in Cholet, you’ll recall, and she keeps a great souvenir of all your group.  Please send them my best regards.

This year, some of my children and grandchildren walked the Pilgrimage to Chartres, as you wonderfully do each year…

So, you will allow me to suppose and hope that our next meeting should take place in Heaven?  May Notre-Dame de Chartres protect you and all your family. May God bless you and your family. 

In Christo et Maria Immaculata

C. B.

As the Internet has led to the wide scale abandonment of even proper grammar and punctuation in our written correspondence (to say nothing of the virtual disappearance of physical, paper letters), let alone elevated prose, a letter like this one has become something to cherish and file carefully away. It a rare occurrence.

Chesterton once said that “there is no such thing as being a gentleman at important moments; it is at unimportant moments that a man is a gentleman.”  Until we can manage to restore a genuinely Christ-like way of interacting with friend and foe alike—at important moments and in everyday interaction—I wonder if our cause can gain any more ground.  In many ways, we’ve stalled already because, culturally, we become more like the modernists everyday. 

Traditionalism is “more than the Mass” and it always has been.  How we pray is certainly how we believe; but if how we behave and dress and speak and write and entertain ourselves outside of Mass is also indicative of how we believe, then I fear we’re losing the Faith without even realizing it. 

In his Idea of a University, Cardinal Newman defined a gentleman as one who “never inflicts pain.”  Could it not be said of old school Catholic gentlemen, such as the one whose letter appears above, that in every line they write, every word they speak, and every action they perform, they exude that powerful antidote to pain—love of Christ and love of neighbor?

I am certainly not referring to the liberal (and eminently disturbing) notion of  ‘luv, by the way.  The crusaders of old were gallant gentlemen in every sense of the word, even when on the battlefield.  They observed Catholic protocol in their rules of engagement with their enemies, in how they dressed themselves, in how they treated their women, in how they worshipped God, in how they celebrated life, and in every aspect of the noble code by which they lived the two-fold Commandment of God.

The valiant gentlemen who still walk among us are the faithful descendents of these Catholic knights of old.  But like MacArthur’s ‘old soldiers,’ they are fading away.  Once they are gone,  could it possibly be the case that only buffoons and barbarians will be left?

We cannot—we must not!—allow this to happen.  We cannot—we must not!—allow a vicious, Godless world turn us into the very creatures we set out to convert in the name of holy Tradition.  If we do this, then all is lost, regardless of how many traditional Masses become available to us. 

We must find a way to fill the gentlemen’s shoes. We must begin in earnest to reestablish in our homes the Catholic culture that was the midwife for entire generations of Catholic ladies and gentleman down through the ages of Christendom.  We do this, it seems to us, by rekindling in our children a love for the music and arts of the old world; by teaching manners and the basic rules of comportment that were still in place just a few generations ago; by restoring the ritual of the family meal; by the conscious elevation of our dress and speech and leisure in accord with a genuine sensus catholicus.

Only in this way—along with exclusive attendance at the Tridentine Mass—can we even hope to restore all things in Christ… in our hearts, our homes and the ‘brave new world’.