Misunderstanding the Rosary

During the last presidential election cycle, I heard of a parish regularly praying the rosary for our country after morning Mass. One ought to pray for one’s country. Surely love of country is not passé? Yet does it go too far to announce the name of one state for each of the fifty Hail Mary’s? Does it not go too far to “Americanize” the rosary—a sacramental throne-and-then-altar affair? Is all such kitsch or corruption?

What are the limits of the proper use of religious symbolism and practice? A recent article in The Atlantic, published just in time for a major Marian feast, sought to probe those limits, as well as the limits of rational discourse on the interwebs (the latter is markedly easier). It has a clear thesis, that “rad-trad” Catholics are “armed radical traditionalists [who] have taken up a spiritual notion that the rosary can be a weapon in the fight against evil and turned it into something dangerously literal.”

If skimmed at a surface level, the article reads like an extended exercise in guilt by association broken up by slippery slopes. (Wait, the Swiss Guard are involved? Does the author think the Knights of Columbus are like the Knights Templar at the behest of Bishop Olmstead’s saintly exhortation to true Catholic masculinity—which everyone should read, take to heart, and live out, by the way!)

Read more closely, at a second level, its author does insert breaks and adversatives to separate, on the one hand, the true understanding of the rosary and its metaphors of spiritual warfare—which surely go back further than the 1930’s, contrary to the article—from, on the other hand, the extremist sub-cultures misusing the rosary as a sacramental.

Yet, read even more closely, a third level—yes, you’ll have to click through all the links, and use Wayback to work around paywalls—the article undermines its performative alarmism. The connection between the rosary as such and the aforementioned, rightly to be condemned, extremist sub-cultures becomes more tenuous. That is, the qualifiers in the clickable bibliography clarify that the article is really about the dangers of nationalism while revealing that the sacramental overlay is held on by nutpicked nails. An analogy: One does not confuse Catholic piety and sacramentals with their use in The Boondock Saints.

The more-heat-than-light approach of social media was not helped by the fact that the original essay featured no less than three different main titles, two different taglines, two different illustrations, and three different browser tab short titles. (You can see for yourself on Wayback: version #1, version #2, version #3—I did not check to see if there were any SEO text changes.)

Which version did many see but not read?

  • #1: “How the Rosary Became an Extremist Symbol | The AR-15 is a sacred object among Christian nationalists. Now “radical-traditional” Catholics are bringing a sacrament of their own to the movement.” (Note also tab title: “How Rad-Trad Catholics Weaponized the Rosary”)
  • #2: “How Extremist Gun Culture Co-Opted the Rosary | The AR-15 is a sacred object among Christian nationalists. Now “radical-traditional” Catholics are bringing a sacrament of their own to the movement.” 
  • #3: “How Extremist Gun Culture Is Trying to Co-opt the Rosary | Why are sacramental beads suddenly showing up next to AR-15s online?

Whatever the actual reason for the editorial changes, the overall effect is a motte-and-bailey approach.

It seems to me that the headline changes induced no little confusion—albeit that explanation does not provide much excuse—, all on full display in a debate occasioned by an analogy proposed on aforementioned Catholic Twitter:

I’ll discuss towards the end how the analogy is to be understood. For now, let’s consider how many denizens of Catholic Twitter focused on where the analogy limps if half understood. Yet even that limp is less pronounced if read in light the “motte-and-bailey” evolution of the headline.

Let’s review how the titles mutate alongside how part of the proposed analogy would work.

  • #1: “How the Rosary Became an Extremist Symbol” — becomes: “How the Cross Became a Racist Symbol”

This is the bailey—it’s too strong. Just as some white-supremacists did not succeed in turning the cross as such into a racist symbol but were clearly abusing its symbolism, so too some have not made the rosary as such an extremist symbol but are abusing its symbolism.

The logical infelicities in this version hinge upon ambiguous quantification. It could be read universally (all X became Y: all rosaries are now extremist symbols) or only particularly (some X became Y: some rosaries are now extremist symbols). The first is the bailey, the second is headed towards the motte. The first is clearly wrong, while the second claims that extremists use extremists’s symbols.

This overplayed attention-grabber led many a Catholic reader to expect the guilt-by-association interpretation of the article (so it seems to me). This first-level interpretation primed by version #1 of the headline was asking for the reactions and retorts it received.

As far as they go, such replies are correct to point out the truths about today’s political extremism on the left or anti-Catholicism and spite of Christianity more generally. Yet, like the original essay, they collect a constellation of woes from “our side”. They encourage us to think of our fellow Americans—our neighbors—by the measure of the contingent set of categories we have cobbled together for our side. We encounter people in a social-media-constructed reality, and that reality is too often a counterfeit. We brand ourselves in advance for “the hot take”, and thus pre-brand others whom our takes must “take”.

For example: The essay’s opening thesis statement apparently suffers from an ignorance of the real extent of “rad-trad,” a common-enough term on the Catholic interwebs which, given the author’s internet savvy, should have come up. Because this broader extension is never clarified, the essay never escapes the problem of painting with far too broad a brush. (The original tab title is still “there” in that thesis statement: “How Rad-Trad Catholics Weaponized the Rosary”.)

As a consequence, it seems to me, many mistook the proposed KKK analogy to be effectively and only this: Just as the South made the cross an extremist symbol, so also the “rad-trads” are making the rosary an extremist symbol. — I know: that is not the original analogy. I’m restating it to capture the misunderstanding, stated in the same broad-brush terms as the essay’s misuse of the broader category “rad-trad”. (Of course, it is true that “the lady doth protest too much” in some cases. Yet such is the mélange of Twitter.)

Again, click through to the third level. Is it really the case that the group surrounding a few extremists named in the sources, even on a generous interpretation, is coextensive with how the term “rad-trad” is used even derogatorily, much less accurately or charitably? Surely not. Nor do the sources come close to that mark.

Here are the last two comparisons:

  • #2: “How Extremist Gun Culture Co-Opted the Rosary” — becomes: “How the KKK Co-Opted the Cross”


  • #3: “How Extremist Gun Culture Is Trying to Co-opt the Rosary” — becomes: “How the KKK is Trying to Co-Opt the Cross”

Going from the second to the third version of the headline/analogy ascends the ramp of retreat into the safety of the motte. These versions prepare the reader for the second level of understanding the essay, which is more reasonable, as some have pointed out.

Indeed, a frequent Catholic Twitter “response by counter-meme” reacts to the first version of the headline by correcting it in line with versions #2 or #3: “They’re trying to do that, but that’s not what the rosary is, and it’s not what the rosary can become without ceasing to be itself.” True indeed!

None of this touches the third level of reading the article. If you go into the sources, the contention that the symbolism of the rosary is essential to the extremism the author is highlighting becomes its own tenuous extreme. And yet that was overtly the point of the essay, even as the titles and tag-lines walk back into the motte. The sources depict, in various degrees of success, instances of describing sacraments and sacramentals with poorly chosen to blasphemous spiritual metaphors, the abuse of art to sundry political ends, recent or past, among other things.

However, its sources more substantively show how the internet and social media serve as catalysts for intensification of a group mentality, the latest iteration being the indeed troubling rise of Christian nationalism. It is a warning about online tribalism breaking offline, refreshed every day on our browsers, now analyzed by MAGA-versus-Leftist algorithms downloaded from left-of-center servers.

Yet one you realize this, the rosary has faded away, now revealed as just a hook all along, a poorly-conceived framing device, as The Lamp editor notes. Head-scratching ensues: how was it a necessary player in the story or the argument? Even the motte-and-bailey retreat of the tag-lines reveals this. Perhaps the Compact editor is correct, that this sort of essay will be misinterpreted and misused—but that will only be due to more shallow judgment, both intellectually and morally. (Sadly, shallow thinking online need not be nutpicked, either; e.g.: “The Venn diagram of anti-abortion activists and white supremacists is a flat circle.” Source here.)

Finally, all of this misses the original point of the proposed analogy, which was to highlight how Catholics were not reacting by condemning the abuse of the rosary by some nationalists, some of whom are Catholic. That is the necessary first step. Yet many skipped to the next necessary step—defending the truth about the rosary—and misread the analogy through the lenses of the mutating headlines, as I’ve tried to argue.

In “L’amour de la patrie est-il dépassé?” (“Is love of country outdated?”) an essay published near the end of his life, the philosopher Charles De Koninck writes:

In the latest issue of the New York Times Magazine (3 Oct [1963]), Mr. Arnold Toynbee described nationalism in the following terms: “It is a state of mind in which we give our paramount political loyalty to one fraction of the human race—to the particular tribe of which we happen to be tribesman. In so far as we are captured by this ideology, we hold that the highest political good for us is our own nation’s sovereign independence, that our nation has a moral right to exercise its sovereignty according to what it believes to be its own national interests, whatever consequences this may entail for the foreign majority of the human race: and that our duty, as citizens of our country, is to support our country, right or wrong.” I see in this text the description of a certain nationalism that we would characterize as deformed patriotism, against nature and against reason. In contrast, if one were to understand that all love of nation and city is henceforth outdated, I would make my dissent known. On the contrary, it is the love of country, conformed to nature but rectified by reason, which holds the promise of peace among nations.

Charles De Koninck, “L’amour de la patrie est-il dépassé? (II),” (Le Devoir, 18 Nov 1963, p. 4; my translation)

This is the sober middle ground between one extreme (nationalism) and another (not stated above): perhaps it would be a post-national cosmopolitanism. This is the middle ground that my fellow countrymen and fellow Christians and Catholics need to occupy, both online and off. Yet even that truth I did not have to learn from The Atlantic.

“Why then, give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” Would it surprise you to learn that Caesars of both right-nationalist and left-socialist ilk are owed very little?

Would it surprise others to learn that true love of country and Catholic Christianity are compatible?

Such is the virtuous yet arduous mean for which we should pray. Even pray the rosary, perhaps especially so. For it is inspired by a Love which has no mean, its power an extreme beyond extremism.

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