Review: "The Autodidact of the Credence Table"

The Autodidact of the Credence Table

Unpretending mediocrity is good, and genius is glorious; but a weak flavor of genius in an essentially common person is detestable.  It spoils the grand neutrality of a commonplace character, as the rinsings of an unwashed wineglass spoil a draught of fair water.
     Oliver Wendell Holmes (1809-1894)

In a brave new world of junk financial securities and junk science, we now have a tiring new effort from an undisciplined specialist in junk theology. Father Anthony Cekada, the notoriously troubled and trouble-making traditional Catholic priest, has annoyed the thinking classes with a troubling and woefully amateurish volume titled Work of Human Hands—A Traditionalist Critique of the Mass of Paul VI. What is troubling is not the subject but the bogus scholarship matched by the self-taught author’s almost preternatural inability to produce unified, coherent, and structured discourse in edited English prose suitable for an adult audience. Analytically shallow, shamefully derivative, and numbingly careless, this third-rate book is original only in its infelicities and puerile authorial voice.

Perhaps the most telling sign of the author’s anemic formal training is the absence of any principle of order or sense of purposeful direction in paragraphs containing more than two sentences. In those blocks of print that on the page appear to be the kind of paragraphs we are used to reading in professional academic writing, we seldom find subordination of ideas, common logical ordering devices, and skillful transitions to the next paragraph. In violation of the elementary rules of composition, Father Cekada unevenly strings together half-formed fancies or bare factual statements that he considers related. There is nothing architectonic, nothing that unites facts and judgments so that the reader comes away enlightened. His random insights appear as flotsam and jetsam in the choppy seas of his murky style. Assuredly, with a little effort, we can discern his meaning, but even a small exertion hardly seems worthwhile, for the intellectual reward is so little.

The feeble tissue of Father Cekada’s prose betrays that he did not take advantage of what little formal education he received in high school. Certainly, there is much evidence that he has used the years since his ordination to fill in a few of the gaps in his academic preparation, yet too many other yawning deficiencies remain. These grimly insurmountable shortcomings are surely to be expected when a learner has had only himself as tutor and guide, and they account for the survival in the text of ambiguous references, lame diction, childish asides, smarmy tonality, shopworn phraseology, and adolescent taunts.

 The democratization of publishing now gives many faux scholars license to abuse the reader’s patience with unprofessionally edited and ill-conceived works. A commercial editor would have insisted on excising the obsessive misuse of the pronoun this; the manic overuse of the illatives thus and so; Pee Wee Hermanesque sarcastic asides like “Whenever someone appeals to pastoral, I reach for my pistol…”; and such gnomic “paragraphs” as “If you can tamper with the Canon, nothing in the Mass is untouchable.” These immature stylistic habits may be fine for Father’s scandalously breezy, slangy, and disjointed Sunday sermons or his internet causeries, but they have no place in serious writing.

Perhaps graver than these easily remedied faults of diction and taste is Father Cekada’s tendency not to support his assertions, a well known failing both with whining schoolboys and the self-taught. As every tenth-grade writing teacher knows, the failure to substantiate propositions is the surest sign of a wayward and challenged intellect. The following instance well illustrates this fatal argumentative flaw: Without any supporting reasons, documentation, or signal of conjecture, he baldly asserts—at least I think he does, for his style is grossly unclear—that the genuflection in the Last Gospel of John i: 1-14 “did not fit into the modernist theories for the ‘correct’ development of the Mass, and was an act of devotion by the priest (therefore, anti-assembly).” An uncorroborated statement like that may pass for genuine analysis in the social hall over coffee after Mass, but it does not belong in anything that purports to be rigorous, scholarly discussion.

Father Cekada’s patent distaste for probing thought and robust argumentation is also evident in his use of irksome devices borrowed from pretentious but decidedly low-brow journalism. The most annoying is his habit of asking and answering his own questions, such as “Why? Because—you guessed it—…” and “Is dropping the prohibition another ‘return to anitquity’? Not exactly.” Only an innately lazy mind further disfigured by inadequate education would think that a hack writer’s colloquial parlor trick could pass for reasoned analysis.

In short, Work of Human Hands, an overlong and tedious sophomoric screed masquerading as scholarship, is a failure on every level. Traditional Roman Catholics, the converted to whom the author is preaching, will find nothing valuable here to advance their cause, and Novus-Ordo Catholics will find the ammunition they need to attack traditionalists as untutored frauds.  This sloppy, juvenile work is no learned critique of the Mass of Paul VI. At best, it is an ill-aimed shotgun blast in the dark against a straw man. One day, traditional Catholics may be able to enjoy a surgically precise and mortal dissection of the obscenity that is the New Mass. However, until God raises up a traditionalist priest blessed with industry, a solid formal education, and a gifted mind, they should not waste their money or bookshelf space on this shabby monument to mediocrity.