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Life Arts    H4'ed 7/23/14

Ong + Jung = New Insights about Tradition in the Roman Catholic Church

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Duluth, Minnesota (OpEdNews) July 22, 2014: The Roman Catholic bishops in the United States are notorious for their religious zealotry in opposing legalized abortion in the first trimester, opposing the legalization of same-sex marriage, and opposing the contraception mandate as part of health insurance for many other Catholic institutions that they claim are part of their church (e.g., hospitals, colleges, and universities). (Of course the bishops are also notorious for the roles that bishops played in the priest sex-abuse scandal by transferring abusive priests from one parish to another and by covering up their abuses.)

Why do the Roman Catholic bishops resist making changes and adaptations in the official teachings of the Roman Catholic Church as strongly as they do? Once something has been deemed fit to be part of the church's official Tradition of thought, the bishops subsequently resist making any significant changes in it.

Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York says that Tradition is capitalized for Roman Catholics. Thus the decidedly pre-modern bent of Roman Catholicism today is captured in the Catholic sense of Tradition that many college-educated Roman Catholics today have -- most notably the Roman Catholic bishops.

Now, in the Second Vatican Council of the Roman Catholic Church (1962-1965), the bishops finally at long last voted to declare that so-called Christian revelation did not somehow supercede for Jews the so-called revelations in the Hebrew Bible. Evidently, the bishops were prompted at long last to finally make this official concession to the Jews as a result of the Holocaust. As this tragic example shows, official change in the position of the Roman Catholic Church proceeds at a glacially slow pace. So don't get your hopes up that any significant changes will occur during Pope Francis's watch.

In the following lengthy essay, I propose to elucidate certain key aspects of the Tradition that Cardinal Dolan values so highly. I will undertake to do this by drawing on the thought of the American cultural historian and theorist Walter J. Ong, S.J. (1912-2003), and of the Swiss psychiatrist and psychological theorist C. G. Jung, M.D. (1875-1961).

As has notes, people in what he describes as primary oral cultures (i.e., pre-literate) tend to change and adapt very slowly also. That is why people in those cultures can aptly be described as traditional, even though they may at times argue with one another about their tradition.

However, naturally the particularities of one culture may vary from the next. As a result, the particularities of being traditional in a given culture vary from one culture to the next.

But irrespective of the particularities involved in specific cultures, primary oral people typically have a strong sense of tradition within their given cultures. So the strong sense of Tradition that Cardinal Dolan and certain other Roman Catholics value so highly can be understood as a manifestation of a residual form of primary oral culture. In my estimate, the time has come for Cardinal Dolan and the other Roman Catholic bishops to undertake a serious revision of their disordered values based on their misguided Tradition of natural-law moral theory.


For close to 50 years now, I have been studying Ong's thought. Arguably Ong's most important contribution to post-colonial studies in cultural studies is his account of primary oral cultures -- and of residual forms of primary oral culture.

But let's start our overview of Ong's thought where he himself started -- with the history of formal logic in Western culture with special reference to the once popular work of the French logician and educational reformer and Protestant martyr Peter Ramus (1515-1572). In his landmark book Ramus, Method, and the Decay of Dialogue: From the Art of Discourse to the Art of Reason (Harvard University Press, 1958), Ong advances the claim that all Western philosophic thought is based on sensory synthesis dominated by sight, not by sound.

DIGRESSION. Two later studies have significantly strengthened Ong's claim about Western philosophic thought being connected with sight dominance: Eric A. Havelock's book Preface to Plato (Harvard University Press, 1963) and Andrea Wilson Nightingale's book Spectacles of Truth in Classical Greek Philosophy: Theoria in Its Cultural Context (Cambridge University Press, 2004). Concerning the visualist tendency of modern philosophy in print culture after Peter Ramus (1515-1572) and his followers, see David Michael Levin's books The Philosopher's Gaze: Modernity in the Shadows of Enlightenment (University of California Press, 1999) and Modernity and the Hegemony of Vision University of California Press, 1993) and Gary Shapiro's book Archaeologies of Vision: Foucault and Nietzsche on Seeing and Hearing (University of Chicago Press, 2003). END OF DIGRESSION.

In Ong's book The Presence of the Word: Some Prolegomena for Cultural and Religious History (Yale University Press, 1967), the expanded version of his 1964 Terry Lectures at Yale University, he once again aligns our faculty of seeing (sight, for short) with sensory synthesis dominated by sight, but he then also greatly expands his account of sensory synthesis dominated by sound.

Subsequently, Ong further elaborates his accounts of both sensory tendencies in his books Rhetoric, Romance, and Technology: Studies in the Interaction of expression and Culture (Cornell University Press, 1971), Interfaces of the Word: Studies in the Evolution of Consciousness and Culture (Cornell University Press), and Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word (Methuen, 1982) -- and elsewhere.

But I prefer to work with the handy contrast of the world-as-event sense of life and the world-as-view sense of life that Ong works with in his article "World as View and World as Event" in the journal American Anthropologist, volume 71, number 4 (August 1969): pages 634-647.

In Ramus, Method, and the Decay of Dialogue (1958) and elsewhere, Ong follows the lead of Louis Lavelle in working with the aural-visual contrast that includes ancient Greek philosophy as exemplified in Plato and Aristotle and the entire sweep of Western philosophic thought and medieval and later Catholic theology, Ong attributes the historically unprecedented expansion of the world-as-view sense of life to the influence of the Gutenberg printing press that emerged in the 1450s. Because of the cultural conditioning under the influence of the Gutenberg printing press, Ong refers to the historical emergence of print culture in the early modern period. So print culture includes Ulrich Zwingli (14404-1531), Martin Luther (1483-1546), St. Ignatius Loyola (1491-1556), and John Calvin (1509-1564) -- and the translation of the King James Version of the Bible (1613). Historically, both the KJV and Calvinism have had an enormous impact on American culture. Concerning the enormous scope of Calvinist influence in American culture, see Sacvan Bercovitch's book The Puritan Origins of the American Self, 2nd ed. (Yale University Press, 2011).

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Thomas James Farrell is professor emeritus of writing studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). He started teaching at UMD in Fall 1987, and he retired from UMD at the end of May 2009. He was born in 1944. He holds three degrees from Saint Louis University (SLU): B.A. in English, 1966; M.A.(T) in English 1968; higher education, 1974. On May 16, 1969, the editors of the SLU student newspaper named him Man of the Year, an honor customarily conferred on an administrator or a faculty member, not on a graduate student -- nor on a woman up to that time. He is the proud author of the book (more...)

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