Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Contentions via the Holy Family

Joseph and his brethren, the iconic unhappy family.
A recent sermon at Tradistan was cause for some unfortunate Joseph-related debate. Speaking on the occasion of the feast of the Holy Family (instituted in 1893), the priest talked about Catholic family life from the perspective of the Household of Nazareth. The sermon was decent enough, and the lessons drawn for Catholic family life were not unreasonable, but the priest’s opinion of St. Joseph’s virginity and confirmation in grace after his marriage to the Virgin sparked some previously calm disagreement between friends into dissension.

My own opinions on St. Joseph are well known among my close friends, not only by His Traddiness and my bride. Recently it has become a point of contention in a larger group of friends, drawing a line between those with a devotion to Young St. Joseph and those who prefer Old St. Joseph. The Tradistani sermon further sparked a flurry of text messages, arguments in the parish hall, and emails to the priest, most of which I successfully avoided until later in the day. By the time I was able to catch up on this activity, the various parties had more or less sullenly retreated to their own corners, still certain of their own opinions and no longer willing to engage in debate.

Thankfully, my wife is on my side on this matter, as she is with so many things. I have no doubt we will be putting up an image of Young St. Joseph somewhere in the home, if only because it was a gift from a friend or family member. Such are the small compromises that one makes for the sake of a happy family and social life. She has suggested I compile and edit all of my original Josephology series into a book format and think about publishing it, although I cannot think of any Catholic publisher—traddy or neo-conservative—who would be interested in printing such a volume. Even the now-defunct Thomas A. Nelson publishing house would never print something so traditional. Nonetheless, while agreement on things like St. Joseph’s age and marital history might be objectively minor, such an harmony of thought can be a major step towards long-term familial happiness.

Among friends, disagreements on minor matters can be a cause for good-humored ribbing, intensely engaging debate, or miserable complaints. It’s a pity when the latter ends up being the case. Damage control is always tedious work, especially when most of the damage is self-inflicted. Those who are unwilling to put in the work to research a topic are too often the loudest at expressing their opinion, and do not know how to react to an intellectual argument except for a quick retreat paired with an unimpressive Parthian shot.

When the priest in question finally responded to my friend’s email, he admitted that he was unsure if Joseph had been married before the Annunciation, but doubted it. The casual misuse of words, like “virginity” when “chastity” is meant, can cause great problems, it would seem. Ideas have consequences, and so do intellectual mistakes. St. Jerome’s fabulation of a vowed-to-virginity St. Joseph certainly has had consequences some 1600 years later, including the occasional haze of stubbornness and hurt feelings. I remember a similar argument with a good friend that ended in him spitefully shutting it down when he thought it absurd that the perpetual virginity of Mary had anything whatsoever to do with physical integrity, in spite of the theology of the Church Fathers. The cause of his reaction was a simple-minded emotionalism about certain aspects of womanhood (especially not wishing women to feel bad about certain… incidents) and an assumption that the Patristic position was due to their sexual naïveté. That friendship survived, but in a noticeably altered form after I refused to back down.

Emotion sometimes gets the better of the intellectual life, and devotionalism often has an emotional spillage that goes to great lengths to protect the object of devotion. Such was Jerome’s zeal to protect the belief in Mary’s perpetual virginity that he created for her a celibate warrior-bodyguard from whom she need never fear any lusty rudeness. But truth can not allow its terms to be dictated by emotion, no matter how well-placed they may be. The heart must learn what is lovable from the head, or else the soul ends up like the old image of Phyllis riding on Aristotle’s back: reason subjected to desire, in a kind of inversion of the story of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife.

Be like Joseph, instead.


  1. Sell it online as a pdf. And on the phones. It will sell because there aren't that many serious religious books, Christian that is, on Android's Playstore at least.
    I even found some applications tagged "Catholic" that were definitely neo-protestant something-something.

  2. A lot of your series of posts could be small pdf books. Your St. Joseph and Liturgical series are very well done. There would be a market for them, albeit a small one.

    You have a contrarian perspective rare amongst trad leaning Roman Catholics. Once you learn deeply of various things like liturgy and church history it's impossible to swallow tradastani nonsense regarding either. Your perspective can open hearts and minds. I've certainly enjoyed the RadTrad blog greatly, even when I do not exactly share your confidence in Roman Catholicism.