There is a presence of the past, a presence of the present, and a presence of the future.St. Augustine
He who controls the present controls the past. He who controls the past controls the future.George Orwell, 1984
We possess nothing certainly except the past.Evelyn Waugh Brideshead Revisited
Perhaps one might begin by pointing out the apparent etymological connection between truth and memory in the Greek language, where the word that means truth is compounded from a prefix which means not or un and the root that may mean ‘to forget.’ Truth is always to be maintained by remembering, and the complex texture of things remembered is tradition.
Now the enemy of memory organized as authoritative tradition is innovation, and in the history of the Church it was Vincent of Lerins, a fifth-century Benedictine, who emerged as the defender of memory and the enemy of innovation, which he viewed with something like horror. If the remembered tradition is truth, then innovation is the forcing house of error. Vincent wrote that the more religious a man is, the more he will resist new inventions. One virulent case was the African heresy that insisted upon second baptisms for the fallen. When, says Vincent of Lerins, the case came to the attention of Pope St. Stephen, he resisted the error, more than the other bishops, “thinking it fit, I suppose, that he should as much surpass others in devotion to the faith as he excelled them in authority of place.” Pope Stephen wrote, “Nothing should be innovated, nothing done but what was handed down,” and it has always been the case that bishops, at their consecration, promise to teach what has been delivered to them, neither adding anything new nor neglecting what has been received. Vincent knew that this is a hard position to hold because innovation had “in its favor so great a force of genius, such a flood of eloquence, so large a number of maintainers, such an appearance of truth, so many oracles of divine law (but undoubtedly understood in a new and evil way) that it seems to me that all that combination could never have been destroyed, had not the cause itself been undertaken by so great an array…, the defense, the praise of novelty been its own ruin.”
The defense of the tradition was a matter not simply intellectual. “Who is so demented as to doubt whether that light of all saints and bishops and martyrs, the most blessed Cyprian, shall reign forever with Christ? Or who is so sacrilegious as to deny that the Donatists and other pests who boast that they rebaptize on the authority of the council shall burn to all eternity with the Devil?” Prescinding from the fact that every past age in which the people had a religion has thought heresy deliberately entered into a sin against God and a crime against the culture, it can still be said that the defense of antiquity was a matter touching salvation.
We live in an age in which the adjectives ‘innovative’ and ‘new’ bless any enterprise and in which ‘old-fashioned’ and ‘outdated’ are curses. To say that something is medieval is to state a conclusion to which facts are irrelevant. The model is of course technology, which will indeed produce a new mobile phone and perhaps even a new cure next week. The model is wholly inapplicable to human nature and to revelation, to matters human and divine.
Under this canon of novelty, the world has been betrayed, not unwillingly, into a great forgetting. Civilization and the Church are, in an important way, texts and words. We have been in the business of destroying language, hence imagination, hence thought, hence sensibilities for about five hundred years. It was the mission of the Renaissance to forget everything that belonged to the Christian past, to the world of Augustine and Thomas, Dante and Chartres. For the wisdom of this world the religious revolutionaries had contempt, for its philosophy disdain. Moats were assiduously dug across memory to protect this new world in which man is god and history is revelation, a project that has continued into the twenty-first century. This has been done by consciously suppressing the language and literature of the West, by altering the text of the holy book, and by suppressing the sacred rites that had meant salvation. In the English-speaking world this meant the suppression of the Douay-Reims and the Authorized Version, the destruction of the Book of Common Prayer, which for all its tinge of gnosticism and iconoclasm spoke the language of devotion and high culture, and the practical suppression of the Latin Rite, that thin thread that united every Catholic with the ages of Leo and Gregory.
Our age is the result of the great suppression of memory. More than one hundred years ago the Church, prompted by Leo xiii, proposed a great recovery of memory called the Catholic Revival. Modernism, the idea that the divinely revealed wisdom of the Church should conform to the world, rose up against this great recovery, which it saw as a threat to the hard-won forgetfulness of the Renaissance, and, in ways too complicated to catalog here, interrupted it. The task for Catholics, indeed for anyone who possesses fragments of the remembered past, is to pick up those threads of a living tradition that bring the past into our present, making a genuinely human estate possible.
Unless we are to be barbarians wandering among the ruins of a once-great civilization, it will mean reviving the real languages of the West. This will also involve ceasing to translate and retranslate the Biblical texts, each attempt making the words more banal and less intelligible to the heart. It will involve making the Mass of Pius v accessible and presenting it with some degree of approval.
The Church certainly has the right, given the apologetic context it sees, to translate as it will; and validity is not the question. The role of memory in making man is.