Wednesday, September 19, 2007

I Am the Traditional Traditionalist

Whaddya mean The Traditional Traditionalist? Who do you think you are, Palm?

Okay, settle down. I'm kidding. At least, I'm mostly kidding.

For starters, this moniker is about skewering the "I'm more traditional than you" game that's played too often in traditionalist circles. For a bunch of lay people who have absolutely no authority in the Catholic Church whatsoever (that includes me) traditionalists sure can spend a lot of time denouncing each other.

Also, I have explained in my essay "What is Traditional Catholicism?" what I think is at the heart of being a Catholic traditionalist, why I think that not even all orthodox Catholics are really traditionally minded, and why I think a traditionalist attitude is a good thing for a Catholic to have. But the bottom line is that, in my opinion, not all self-proclaimed traditionalists are really traditionally minded either. So I've upped the ante: I am the Traditional Traditionalist. The rest are mere wanna-bes.

One of the main problems that I see within the traditionalist movement is a lack of self-criticism. In fact, publicly criticizing other traditionalists is the quick road to being persona non grata in these circles. The great irony, of course, is that too often those who have no fear of openly criticizing even the Pope will not tolerate more than a modicum of internal criticism, for fear that the already fissiparous movement will fracture even further.

For my part, I see a number of aspects within the traditionalist "movement" that I consider very untraditional. For example, I wrote two lengthy pieces to The Remnant concerning the phenomenon of so-called "independent" priests, that is, Catholic priests who have separated from their bishops but continue to exercise their priestly ministry (see them here.) Frankly, I can think of few things less traditional than a Roman Catholic priest unilaterally separating from his duly appointed bishop, unless said bishop has openly renounced the Faith in which case the priest would not be "independent" per se but would have the Bishop of Rome as his ordinary until the situation was normalized. My critique was, in my opinion, pretty much unanswerable on traditional grounds. But these priests continued to be praised to high heaven in those pages.

I also think it's a big problem for the credibility of traditionalist movement when commentators savage men like Scott Hahn for expressing opinions on biblical interpretation (in this case, the whole Garden of Eden motif that Hahn lays out in A Father Who Keeps His Promises) while another "traditionalist" Gerry Matatics has publicly espoused exactly the same view. Leaving aside whether the view deserves the critique (I happen to think so), have you ever heard any traditionalist writer take Matatics to task on this issue? No? Why not? Because Matatics is One Of Us (or at least he was, until he went sedevacantist) and only a traitor to the Cause would dare publicly call for some consistency in the main traditionalist rags. But come on, folks, Catholic traditionalism is supposed to be all about principled stands, not this sort of tribal protectionism.

I confess I also started to get a little cynical when I saw certain traditionally-minded Catholics loudly denounce the Pope for his lack of effective discipline in the Church, while at the same time they are cowed by their own out-of-control teenage children. My oldest is 12 and perhaps I'll be just as ineffective in keeping him under control. But the bottom line is that I do see certain traditionalists raising polite, well-mannered, devout, upright, and traditionally minded teens. Those are the ones who I think have at least the start of enough moral capital to speak about broader issues of Church discipline. For the others, well, those who can't corral a couple of rowdy teenagers ought to spare the rocks at the Holy Father if he fails to corral several thousand bishops.

Bottom line is that on this blog, I'm not going to stop at offering reflections on what might be amiss in neo-conservative Catholic circles. If I see something that's amiss in traditionalist circles, I'm going to write about that too.

And who am I to declare myself worthy to critique such things? I'm nobody....just a guy with a blog and an opinion. Isn't that the beauty of the Internet? I don't claim anything with respect to being an authoritative commentator on these matters.

So am I the Traditional Traditionalist? You decide. If you find my opinions and observations on this blog helpful, great. If you think I'm a dope, fine. Let me know either way. I can't promise that I will respond to everybody's feedback, but I certainly promise to read it all and—if it's backed up with sound argumentation and solid evidence—take it seriously.

"Independent" Priests?

I am reproducing below my side of a lengthy correspondence sent to The Remnant on 7 February 2005 after several articles appeared there praising several priests who broke away from their bishops to set up shop as "independent" priests:

Dear Editor, The Remnant,

In his recent article, "Another Diocesan Priest Rejects Novus Ordo,” Tom Drolesky conveys his unequivocal support for and admiration of certain priests who openly rebel against their bishops, quitting their dioceses and unilaterally establishing themselves as “independent”. To date, I am not aware of any Traditionalist criticism of the idea that what these priests have done is anything less than perfectly proper and heroic. Drolesky, these priests themselves, and others seem to be completely confident that such responses are entirely sound and justified, even openly encouraging more of the same. I hope to slow this train down and make sure we are at least on the right track. No doubt my thoughts here will raise a good many hackles, but I hope that any such annoyance will at least be balanced by due reflection.

The Vietnam war may offer a useful, if imperfect, comparison. I respect those men who served in the Vietnam war, despite the unpopularity and moral questions surrounding that conflict. And I also respect those who, out of conscience, opposed the war, refused to serve in it, and faced the legal consequences. But the one group of men for whom I have no respect are those who fled to Canada; who neither served their country nor showed forth a stalwart witness of conscience by facing the natural consequences of civil disobedience.

I sympathize entirely with the priest who can no longer celebrate the Novus Ordo in good conscience or participate in the myriad legalized abuses that occur regularly in virtually every diocesan parish in this country. But does the traditionalist community really want to encourage such priests to "run to Canada"? Most of us find such behavior repugnant in the secular sphere; do we want to lionize it in the ecclesiastical?

Such a priest's situation is rendered even more dubious by the fact that, unlike his secular counterpart, the priest has sworn an oath of obedience to his bishop. I readily grant that this obedience extends only to all things lawful and that it is unlawful for a bishop to forbid his priests to say the traditional Roman Rite. But such an unlawful prohibition does not give a priest a moral right—let alone a duty, as Dr. Drolesky would seem to have it— to unilaterally remove himself from his bishop's authority.

Furthermore, how does the traditionalist community justify the existence of such "independent" priests, based on the Catholic Tradition? The notion flounders theologically, historically, canonically, and practically. Theologically, the Tradition is clear that a priest's authority flows from his bishop and that the legitimacy and even validity of his sacramental ministry is critically compromised if exercised apart from that authority.

Historically, I can find no record of holy priests who have completely and unilaterally removed themselves from the practical authority of their bishops, without at least immediately being placed under the authority of another successor to the Apostles. St. Thomas indicates that this course is not available, even to the priest who finds himself under an unjust censure. The Angelic Doctor treats the question of whether an unjust excommunication binds and it would seem that his answer would cover lesser ecclesiastical penalties as well:

"An excommunication may be unjust for two reasons. First, on the part of its author, as when anyone excommunicates through hatred or anger, and then, nevertheless, the excommunication takes effect, though its author sins, because the one who is excommunicated suffers justly, even if the author act wrongly in excommunicating him. Secondly, on the part of the excommunication, through there being no proper cause, or through the sentence being passed without the forms of law being observed. In this case, if the error, on the part of the sentence, be such as to render the sentence void, this has no effect, for there is no excommunication; but if the error does not annul the sentence, this takes effect, and the person excommunicated should humbly submit (which will be credited to him as a merit), and either seek absolution from the person who has excommunicated him, or appeal to a higher judge. If, however, he were to contemn the sentence, he would "ipso facto" sin mortally. But sometimes it happens that there is sufficient cause on the part of the excommunicator, but not on the part of the excommunicated, as when a man is excommunicated for a crime which he has not committed, but which has been proved against him: in this case, if he submit humbly, the merit of his humility will compensate him for the harm of excommunication." (ST Supp. Q.21.4; emphasis mine)

If it be said that a bishop's suspension for saying the traditional Roman Rite would fall short of "proper cause" and therefore the sentence would "have no effect", I reply that, while it may be true, this determination still needs to come in the form of an official ruling from a competent authority. Neither Dr. Drolesky nor the priests in question have the authority to make such a ruling for themselves and then act in the external forum as if their bishop's sentence has no effect. And this still falls far short of giving them license to unilaterally separate from their bishop and to refuse to submit to him in any practical way. It would seem, then, that traditionally-minded priests have no right simply to publicly act as if the ecclesiastical censures imposed by their bishops are null and void. Indeed, it is a sin to so publicly ignore them.

The Code of Canon Law unambiguously states that, "Every cleric must be incardinated in a particular church, or in a personal Prelature, or in an institute of consecrated life or a society which has this faculty: accordingly, acephalous or 'wandering' clergy are in no way to be allowed" (CIC §265). The absolute prohibition against "independent" priests is simply an echo of the 1917 Code: "Every cleric whatsoever must be ascribed to a given diocese or religious institute, so that 'wandering' clerics are in no way admitted" (Canon 111.1).

And practically speaking, we already have plenty of priests whose bishops will do nothing to rein them in. Disobedience has run amok. As such, do we really want to exacerbate the situation? Do we want to encourage the manifest and ongoing rebellion of the laity as well?

The unrestrained applause for this theological, historical, canonical, and practical novelty seems inconsistent coming from Dr. Drolesky, who recently wrote with great passion that in the sphere of secular politics it is time to absolutely reject the choice of the lesser of evils and embrace only the untainted good. If this principle applies in the secular sphere, ought it not apply even more in the religious sphere? The priest who tells his bishop that he can no longer say the Novus Ordo in good conscience and is suspended does indeed have a morally pure course before him. He can submit to his bishop's authority, appeal his case all the way up to the Holy Father if necessary, and leave the outcome in God's hands. But refusing to submit and removing himself from his bishop's authority is certainly an evil (whether greater or lesser must be left to God to decide.)

The reply to such a proposal is typically to the effect that the priest simply must perform the ministry to which he was ordained. The reasoning is specious. Married men and women are all "ordained" to the ministry of begetting and raising children. But in a fallen world, it happens that some are unable. For instance, in some countries, women or their husbands may be involuntarily sterilized. Such mutilation is a grave injustice and a tragedy. But this does not give them license to employ immoral means to achieve this end to which their marriage was ordered. And, to be candid, it smacks of pride to insist that one simply must be able to exercise one's chosen ministry, when and how one wishes, the law and consequences be damned.

How exactly has it been determined that God just can't accomplish His will without the ministry of these priests? How is it concluded that He will bring about much more good in the Church from their open rebellion, rather than from their humble submission and suffering, patiently borne and offered to Him as an oblation? How do they know, hard as this is to bear, that they are not actively thwarting God's will ? Is it not conceivable that He has purposely withdrawn His graces from certain parts of the world?

The priest who finds himself unable to celebrate the Novus Ordo in good conscience or participate in the various novelties that attend it is indeed faced with a heart-wrenching choice. For my part, I am alarmed and dismayed to see spokesmen in the traditionalist community unabashedly applauding an ecclesiastical "run for the border" when there is another sound, traditional path available to such priests. It involves suffering, yes, but no moral compromise.

What if there arose a wave of priests who informed their bishops that they could no longer say the Novus Ordo in good conscience and, instead of "running to Canada", received their suspensions humbly? What if appeal upon appeal arrived in Rome, calling on the Holy Father to remember what his own cardinals told him, that the traditional Roman Rite has never been suppressed and that no bishop can forbid his priests to say it? What if laity by the thousands, with due respect but firmness, petitioned Rome on behalf of these priests and made sure that their cases received proper attention within the Church, so that the injustice of the situation was clearly perceived? If we say that this course is doomed to failure, that things have become too bad for such "naive" submission and sacrifice, then I fear that we have in some sense already lost our Catholic Faith, for our very redemption was wrought through just such "doomed" and "naive" submission to the machinations of evil men.

Sincerely in Christ,

David Palm

This follow-up was sent 28 February 2005:

I appreciate Michael Matt opening up the topic of so-called independent priests for a debate in the pages of The Remnant. I, too, think that it is critical for the traditionalist movement specifically and for the Church at large. This response is not written as a condemnation of individuals, much less as a condemnation of the traditionalist movement as a whole. With all traditionalists, I continue to grieve the destruction that continues apace in the Church and to be angered by the gross oversights and injustices that regularly occur. And yet there is a constant temptation for traditionalists, myself included, to allow our legitimate grief and anger to overtake our reason and to induce us to substitute purely human solutions for supernatural ones. It is my position in this debate that a priest may not, on Catholic principles, unilaterally separate himself from his bishop and refuse him obedience in that which is lawful. Simply put, even in emergency situations Catholic ends may be sought only by Catholic means.

Let it be clear, then, that I neither deny the existence of a state of emergency in the Catholic Church, nor do I believe that it has abated simply because I personally am able to assist at the traditional Latin Mass every Sunday and Holy Day. But a perceived state of emergency, even a genuine one, does not justify any and all actions. In an emergency situation, prudence and ethics dictate that we take all lesser steps first, before progressing to more radical measures. And there are limits to what we can do to address even an emergency. Suppose, for example, that I come upon an unconscious man who has stopped breathing. Is it prudent or ethical for me to pull out my pocket knife and perform a tracheotomy? No. First I hyper-extend his neck, once, then twice, sweep the mouth for any obstructions, hyper-extend the neck once more, attempt to blow air into the mouth. If I have a mechanical airway I insert it. Only after all these lesser attempts fail—and even then only if I have proper training—would I attempt the radical step of a tracheotomy. And of course there are certain measures that I may never take. For there is one certain way to open a man's airway and that is to cut off his head. But obviously even an emergency situation does not authorize any and every attempt to address it.

I have stated that I agree with the Roman cardinals who found that it is not lawful for a bishop to forbid his priest to say the traditional Latin Mass. But the priest who finds himself unable in conscience to say Mass according to the Novus Ordo or to participate in the novelties that attend it is bound by the virtue of prudence and Catholic principles to follow a set path. He must speak to his bishop, respectfully and humbly, as a son to his father, not just once but many times in order for there to be no unnecessary misunderstandings. Please let this not be dismissed as hopelessly naïve and certainly doomed to fail. It worked in the case of an Italian priest, Fr. Louis Demornex, who remained true to his conscience while humbly placing himself at the mercy of his bishop. His bishop relented and Fr. Demornex continues to say the traditional Mass (see "Interview with Fr. Louis Demornex, Thus, no one can say that this path can never succeed because it has already succeeded, at least once. If the bishop remains recalcitrant, the priest may appeal his case to higher competent authorities, all the way to the Pope, if necessary, and wait to receive a ruling. He may ask also for a release from his incardination in that diocese and seek incardination elsewhere. And then, even if all this fails—and I have no illusions that it will succeed in most cases—the priest is not then free to cut himself off from his ecclesiastical head, any more than I am free to cut the head off my patient to clear his airway. For the priest has promised before God to obey his bishop in all that is lawful; as the Catholic Encyclopedia states, "The religious is bound morally to obey on all occasions when he is bound canonically" (s.v. "Obedience, Religious"). No one may do evil—and breaking a solemn promise made to God and the whole Church is indeed evil—so that good may result, even if that good is to say the traditional Mass for people who might not otherwise have it.

And this discussion prepares us to look at the particulars of this slowly growing phenomenon of acephalous priests. We find that, without fail, they have refused to take some or all of these lesser steps in seeking to resolve their situation. In the case of one, "pummelled" as he was by a lay couple (may God have mercy on them both), he did not even take the most fundamental step of speaking to his bishop before severing the relationship. Another priest tells us of but one conversation with his bishop before quitting the diocese. Still another had the courtesy of speaking several times to his bishop, but then left without any attempt to appeal to higher competent authorities. And still another, having been canonically removed from an institute of religious life for refusing obedience (not quite the story he tells), says nothing of any attempts he made (or makes) to normalize his situation. And do any of these men, having taken a principled stand with regard to the licitness of celebrating the traditional Roman Rite, continue to obey their bishops in what is lawful? To a man, they do not.

Now, as to the specific responses that my letter elicited, I want first to establish who bears the burden of proof. In this discussion the bearer of that burden is the Catholic priest who unilaterally places himself outside of and operates independent of any and all episcopal authority. It is his responsibility to show how his actions can be thoroughly harmonized with Catholic sacramental theology, the Church's canon law (as authoritatively interpreted), and the historical example of her saints.

And I contend that these priests cannot discharge this burden. In fact, Fr. Smith seems to have given the whole game away when, in the very first sentence of his response to me, he characterized the entire situation as a matter of his opinion against mine. On the contrary, my position has nothing to do with opinion. It has to do with the authority of the Catholic Church. Fundamentally, a priest may not separate himself from his bishop because, by virtue of the divinely established order within the Church, he does not have the authority to do so. And this lack of authority is writ large in the responses from acephalous priests, since whenever Catholic authority is deployed against them, their defense ultimately rests upon personal opinion alone.

For example, in response to the fact that both the 1983 and 1917 codes of canon law unambiguously forbid priests to be independent, we have Fr. Perez's opinion that Canon 1752—"the salvation of souls . . . is always the supreme law of the Church"—dispenses him from episcopal oversight if, in his opinion, he will be unable to exercise his ministry as it should, in his opinion, be exercised. For starters, Fr. Perez assumes, without proof, that more souls will be saved through his ongoing ministry than are damaged by the scandal of his very public disobedience and invalid sacraments (see below). And, of course, a bare citation of Canon 1752 is insufficient since such an open-ended view of canon law could be used to legitimate any action at all. What Fr. Perez needs to provide is a canonical authority that supports his private opinion that in certain circumstances Canon 1752 justifies a priest in breaking his vows, separating unilaterally from his still-reigning bishop, and refusing him all obedience, even in that which is lawful. If he is unable to provide such an authority, his citation of Canon 1752 is gratuitous.

In response to the authority of St. Thomas Aquinas, who formulated the principle that a priest may not simply ignore an ecclesiastical censure without sinning, we have Fr. Perez's opinion that the principles laid down by St. Thomas are historically conditioned and so don’t apply to the present situation. This seems a bit too convenient and uncomfortably close to neo-modernist rationalization.

In response to my challenge to provide historical examples of acephalous priests, Fr. Perez and Michael Matt offer the case of priests serving their flocks in "reformation" England and also that of the priests in Vendée of France. Mr. Matt argues that "at some point, reason must enter into this." But I contend that calm reason leads to the inescapable conclusion that today’s acephalous priests are not truly comparable to the priests of Henry VIII’s England and post-revolutionary France. For in both cases, the priests of that day had what today's acephalous priests do not, namely, a public and unambiguous apostasy of the bishops in the form of oaths renouncing the primacy of the Roman Pontiff, coupled with a formal juridical ruling from the Holy See that declared them to be outside the Church. Such priests were not at all acephalous but rather, they fell under the direct authority and headship of another bishop: the bishop of Rome. Short of such public apostasy, no priest may, on his own unauthoritative opinion, declare himself free to carry on his sacramental ministry entirely outside the authority of his bishop.

In all candor, I am deeply troubled by the unrestrained praise for this particular course of action—and in particular, by the comparison to the heroism of great martyr-saints. St. Edmund Campion suffered being hunted, tortured on the rack, and disembowelment because of his complete and unquestionable faithfulness and courage. While I certainly can not judge the motives of today’s acephalous priests, neither can I condone or accept Dr. Drolesky’s elevation of them to veritable sainthood, simply because they are our contemporaries and we empathize with their plight. Frankly, if I were one of these priests, I would be embarrassed by the comparison.

All the more problematic are the double standards employed when supporters of acephalous priests are confronted with the authoritative teaching and law of the Church. On the one hand, Fr. Perez dispenses himself and all acephalous priests from laying their cases before the competent authorities, since these authorities are all "wolves". And yet Fr. Zigrang leaps to the defense of Fr. Perez by insisting (rightly) "that loss of the clerical state can be decided only by an administrative or judicial decision by the competent authority in Rome" and (wrongly) that latae sententiae excommunication "can happen only if you were tried and found to be a heretic, apostate or schismatic" ("Intimidation by Misinformation", The Remnant, 30 Sept 2004, p. 4.) So, it appears that while acephalous priests refuse to place their cases before the competent ecclesiastical authority because it is deemed corrupt, they simultaneously seek refuge in the fact that no official ecclesiastical ruling has been made.

Tom Drolesky rightly says of priests who receive ordination at the hands of Old Catholic bishops that, "A man who is ordained to the priesthood and/or episcopate by one who lacks jurisdiction . . . has placed himself outside of the Church" ("Do Not Lay Hands on a Man Rashly", The Remnant, 31 August 2004, p. 15). But it should also be noted that the Council of Trent stated that, except in case of imminent death, the sacrament of penance is not merely illicit but invalid when administered by a priest who lacks the jurisdiction to hear confessions (see Session XIV, Chapter VII; this principle is enshrined in the Church's canon law, 1917 and 1983 codes. The Church says that marriages and confirmations at the hands of such priests are also invalid.) This applies to the confessions of all acephalous priests. Once a Catholic knows of this teaching of the Church, he is no longer able to claim ignorance and thus has no claim to absolution of his sins from an acephalous priest. Should the faithful risk their immortal souls on the force of private opinions to the contrary?

It was not by accident that I labeled this whole phenomenon a novelty in my first piece. A novelty, according to the definition I laid out in my article "A Question of Novelty" in this publication, is any change in ecclesiastical doctrine, custom, or practice, that suggests that the Catholic Tradition is wrong. I believe it is manifest that the acceptance and encouragement of priests to unilaterally sever themselves from the headship of their bishops gravely wounds the Church’s entire system of authority and stands in stark contrast to Catholic Tradition; it recalls the rebuke of Pope St. Leo the Great to a prelate whose breach of discipline was far less severe than that which we are debating, "[Y]ou have done things which by their blame-worthy novelty infringe the whole system of Church discipline" (Epistle 19:1). It is ironic and tragic that Catholic traditionalists would resort to an undeniable novelty in order, allegedly, to place themselves on the very "front lines" of the fight against modernism.

Conversely, the traditional counter-path of sacrifice, prayer, pursuit of legitimate canonical avenues and humble submission in all that is lawful does not entail any moral compromise, although it does indeed entail significant suffering. But does a Catholic priest submitting humbly to the censure of his bishop, offering the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass (exclusively privately, if necessary), pursuing legitimate canonical avenues, and offering his suffering to God on behalf of a suffering Church really represent the heresy of quietism, as Fr. Perez maintains? Suffice it to say that this approach—one commended and lived by numerous saints—is in no way characterized by "a sort of psychical self-annihilation", a "mind wholly inactive", or a soul which can "no longer think on its own account" and "remain[s] passive while God acts within it." On the contrary, as the Catholic Encyclopedia states, "Religious obedience never reduces a man to a state of passive inertness" (ibid.).

Michael Matt states that, "Using well-formed consciences and prayer as our guide, we must try to determine what allowances the Church makes—either in the letter of the law or in its spirit—for priests and laymen alike as the ship goes down." The letter of the law is clear—no acephalous priests. And the spirit of this law is informed by the Church's sacramental theology—jurisdiction is required for the legitimacy and, in some cases, even validity of the sacraments—and by the historical examples of the saints (it is extremely significant that not one example of an acephalous priest being raised to the altar can be cited in all of Church history.)

Fr. Smith chides me for being so naïve as to "delude" myself that the present slate of bishops will correct things. Yet, I have no illusions that these bishops or the present Holy Father will fix things, humanly speaking. However, I also know that, according to the constitution of the Catholic Church and therefore by Divine Providence, they are the only ones who can. They are the only ones to whom the authority has been given. We can pray for them and use every lawful means to convince them. But we have no example in all of salvation history wherein God blessed those who attempted to usurp legitimate ecclesiastical authority, even if it may reasonably have been concluded that authority had been delegated to unworthy men and that it remained dormant in the face of great necessity. Quite to the contrary, from David’s reprimand of Abishai (1 Sam 26:7-11) to the slaying of Uzza (1 Ch. 13:7-11) onward, we witness God’s great displeasure at those who presume or usurp authority, quite regardless of the perceived necessity to do so.

Can we truly believe the Lord positively wills the epic spiritual battle of our times to be won by the very means that caused the downfall of angels and men in the first place? Or is it more likely that we are being tempted to replay the error of St. Peter wherein the Lord rebuked him for preferring Satan’s idea of victory to God’s (Matt 16:21-27)? If so, should we not instead exhort our suffering priests to embrace their crosses by helping them to recognize the jeering, taunts, and humiliations of neo-modernists for what they are: the demonic echoes of the scribes and ancients at the crucifixion (Matt 27:41-44)?

In the end, the succor of the flock can only come about through the conversion of the current shepherds and the raising up of solid, orthodox men to replace them over time. God alone has the power and authority to accomplish this profound ecclesial transformation. For our part, we must humbly cooperate with our Lord within the bounds of the legitimate authority he has given us. There is no reason to think that God will bring about the authentic repentance and conversion of our spiritual fathers through the angry rebellion and disobedience of their sons. Neither can we expect to positively influence the formation of the next generation of spiritual fathers by such evil witness. Rather, as our own repentance and conversion came about through the voluntary suffering and humble obedience of the Son, so too the repentance and conversion of our spiritual fathers must come about through the submission and suffering of their sons.

Sincerely in Christ,

David Palm

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

What Is Traditional Catholicism?

Only one offense is now vigorously punished, an accurate observance of our fathers' traditions. (St. Basil the Great, Epistle 243).
[I]t is not the part of prudence to neglect that which antiquity in its long experience has approved and which is also taught by apostolic authority. (Leo XIII, Testem Benevolentiae Nostrae)

The phrase "traditional Catholic" and the shorter description "traditionalist" may endear a few, but they set off warning bells for many. Given the byline of this site, it's pretty important to define what I mean when I continue to self-identify as a traditionalist Catholic. Before getting down to the brass tacks of a definition, however, perhaps a little justification of the need of any such designation is in order. I can easily imagine someone saying, "Why do we need the labels anyway? Isn't just 'Catholic' enough?" Well, it ought to be. But we live in a time when Charles Curran, Hans Küng, Ted Kennedy, and John Kerry all call themselves "Catholic" and no bishop in the Church says otherwise. So we take to calling ourselves "orthodox Catholics" or "faithful Catholics" or some other such modified phrase, to distinguish ourselves from self-styled Catholics who have yet to be informed that they are no Catholics at all.

But even within the relative minority of orthodox, faithful Catholics there is another distinction to be made, primarily concerning the nature of the "reforms" that have taken place since the Second Vatican Council. There exists a small, but definitely growing, movement that in its broad outlines can be identified and is commonly described as the "traditionalist Catholic movement"; its adherents are naturally called "traditional Catholics". Now as a formal movement, as embodied in certain publications and groups, there are a lot of serious problems. I hope to comment on these difficulties more in the months to come and I will most certainly step on some toes by doing so.

But as a more general turning of peoples' hearts to the foundations of our Faith, especially as embodied in such venerable outward expressions as the traditional Latin Mass, I believe that the importance of this movement should not be underestimated. Its impact is being felt even in the Vatican and there is more than ample evidence that prelates there, including the present Pope, take serious notice of the phenomenon. But the movement generates plenty of concern, too, and there are loud and bitter denunciations from certain parties. Cries of "schismatics", "dissenters on the Right", and "Rad Trads" abound in neo-conservative Catholic Internet sites and publications.

One Catholic apologist has a three-fold test to try to separate what he would consider the good Catholic wheat from the "Rad-Trad" chaff. He asks:

1. Is the Novus Ordo Mass valid?
2. Is Vatican II a valid and binding Ecumenical Council?
3. Is Pope John Paul II a valid pope? [Now, I presume, he would update this to Benedict XVI.]

These are perfectly good and necessary questions. And I should be free from all suspicion of being a Rad Trad, since I answer yes to all three. Yes, the Novus Ordo Mass (or, as I will often abreviate it on this site, the NOM) was licitly promulgated and it is valid, when said according to the official rubrics and the text of the typical edition (no one can vouch carte blanche for the validity of Masses not said according to official rubrics and typical texts.) Yes, the Second Vatican Council was a valid and binding ecumenical council of the Roman Catholic Church. And yes, Benedict XVI is the validly reigning Pope, the Vicar of Christ.

As with a lot of things in life, though, the matters raised by seemingly simple questions turn out to be not quite so simple. Yes, the NOM is valid, but there are concerns about its creation, its relationship to the larger liturgical tradition, and its effect on the life of the Church. Yes, Vatican II is a valid and binding ecumenical Council, but there are a lot of legitimate questions about the precise level of magisterial authority with which the various documents are invested and exactly how certain portions can be reconciled with the Church's pre-conciliar teaching, to say nothing of the prudence of the inclusions, omissions, and pastoral approach embodied in the documents. And yes, Benedict XVI and John Paul II and Paul VI and John XXIII are/were validly reigning Popes, but this bare fact does not place their every word and action beyond all analysis and evaluation. Still less does it guarantee that the course set by their words and actions has had the desired effect of renewing and invigorating the Church.

There is a pithy saying that is oft repeated in traditionalist circles that captures well the dynamic between those who define their Catholic identity to a great extent by what has transpired since 1964 and those who seek to maintain more continuity with the perennial doctrinal, liturgical, and disciplinary tradition of the Roman Catholic Church.

We are what you once were.
We believe what you once believed.
We worship like you once worshipped.
If you believe you were wrong then, what makes you believe you are right now.
If you were right then, we are right now.

It's over-simplistic, but it captures the heart of the matter admirably. We live in a time of crisis (and rebuilding) in the Catholic Church. I think every orthodox Catholic can agree on that. But the precise nature of that crisis—its root causes, the dynamics behind its present manifestation and unfolding, and the appropriate solutions—are all matters of intense debate. And here, although there is plenty of infighting within the movement, traditionalists firm up into a more unified front. What I think all traditionalists can agree upon is that behind the crisis stands in large part a de facto—and sometimes de jure—abandonment of numerous liturgical and disciplinary traditions of the Roman Catholic Church, traditions that had held her in good stead for centuries, if not millennia.

As I have pondered the difference between self-styled traditionalist Catholics and other orthodox Catholics I have concluded that the primary difference is in their respective attitude toward change. If one does any significant reading in the Church Fathers, Doctors, and Popes one consistently finds a truly conservative attitude. That is, one sees that the attitude of orthodox Catholics through the centuries has been to cling tenaciously to that which has been handed on, both in belief and observance. Change itself is looked upon with suspicion and change for the sake of change or even to "get with the times" is unthinkable. Now here I can sense anti-traditionalist apologists ready to pounce, so let me say up front that I don't in the least deny that there has been lots of legitimate development in the Catholic Church over the centuries, both doctrinal and practical. The Catholic Church is a living organism, animated by the Holy Spirit, and she has certainly developed and changed over the centuries while retaining in its fullness the deposit of revelation handed on to her by our Lord Jesus. This I readily grant.

What I am talking about instead is one's prevailing attitude toward change. The Fathers, Doctors, and Popes did not see themselves primarily as innovators, but as conservators. They saw the Faith and those practices by which it was expressed, passed on, and guarded as an inheritance to be passed on to the next generation intact and, indeed, inviolate. They were not anxious to update the Faith, or to change perennial and venerable practices. For the most part, they viewed change—whether doctrinal or practical—with grave suspicion. They knew both instinctively and often by hard experience that changes in religious matters—even if seemingly minor—frequently bring about considerable upheaval in the life of the Church.

This fundamentally conservative attitude can be illustrated from literally dozens of passages, but I have selected just a few here spanning many centuries. St. Vincent of Lerins, writing in the fifth century, notes that the totality of the Catholic Faith—both beliefs and observances—is something that we humbly receive from those before us and faithfully pass on intact to those who come after:

For it has always been the case in the Church, that the more a man is under the influence of religion, so much the more prompt is he to oppose innovations. . . . In fine, in an epistle sent at the time to Africa, he [Pope St. Stephen] laid down this rule: "Let there be no innovation—nothing but what has been handed down." For that holy and prudent man well knew that true piety admits no other rule than that whatsoever things have been faithfully received from our fathers the same are to be faithfully consigned to our children; and that it is our duty, not to lead religion whither we would, but rather to follow religion whither it leads; and that it is the part of Christian modesty and gravity not to hand down our own beliefs or observances to those who come after us, but to preserve and keep what we have received from those who went before us. (Commonitory 6).

St. John Chrysostom, around the same time, states that it is precisely in matters of divine worship that change is most likely to cause great distress and upheaval:

For nothing so much disturbs the mind, though it be done for some beneficial purpose, as to innovate and introduce strange things, and most of all when this is done in matters relating to divine worship and the glory of God. (Homilies on the First Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians, hom.7, v.14)

St. Thomas Aquinas lays out what is really simple common sense, namely, that changes even in purely human matters have a tendency to disrupt the common good and that changes in laws have a tendency to diminish "the binding power of the law." And therefore, any changes that affect the body politic had better be enacted based on the redress of some injustice or for some other good that will more than compensate for the harm done by virture of change itself. How much more care must be taken in changing matters ecclesiastical, since religion lies more closely to the heart of man than politics:

[H]uman law is rightly changed, in so far as such change is conducive to the common weal. But, to a certain extent, the mere change of law is of itself prejudicial to the common good: because custom avails much for the observance of laws, seeing that what is done contrary to general custom, even in slight matters, is looked upon as grave. Consequently, when a law is changed, the binding power of the law is siminished, in so far as custom is abolished. Wherefore human law should never be changed, unless, in some way or other, the common weal be compensated according to the extent of the harm done in this respect. Such compensation may arise either from some very great and very evident benefit conferred by the new enactment; or from the extreme urgency of the case, due to the fact that either the existing law is clearly unjust, or its observance extremely harmful. Wherefore the jurist says . . . that "in establishing new laws, there should be evidence of the benefit to be derived, before departing from a law which has long been considered just" (Summa Theologiae Ia Iiae q.97 a.2).

Finally, here is one quote among many that could be cited from the Popes to the effect that the authentic attitude of a Catholic is one which clings tenaciously to that which is tried and true, venerable and established. This is from Pope Benedict XV, addressing the modernist threat of his day that has exploded into the modernist crisis of our own. Note well that the Holy Father sees a fundamentally conservative attitude as applying every bit as much to the Church's perennial practices as to her doctrine:

Those who are infected by that [modernist] spirit develop a keen dislike for all that savours of antiquity and become eager searchers after novelties in everything: in the way in which they carry out religious functions, in the ruling of Catholic institutions, and even in private exercises of piety. Therefore it is our will that the law of our forefathers should still be held sacred: "Let there be no innovation; keep to what has been handed down" (Ad Beatissimi Apostolorum, §25).

So I see Catholic traditionalism fundamentally as a conscious adoption of this attitude of our fathers with regard to change. If someone wishes to challenge me on this, then he will have to bring forth more than a bare list of things that have indeed changed in the Catholic Church, for I have already readily granted the existence of such legitimate change. Rather, he will have to prove that I am wrong about this fundamentally conservative attitude toward change on the part of the Fathers, Doctors, and Popes. Let him bring forth counter-examples, if he can, of our fathers in the Faith revelling in change and advancing it as a thing good and helpful in itself. I am fairly confident that case cannot be made, but I am open to being corrected.

Put simply, a Catholic traditionalist wishes to believe as his fathers believed, to worship as his fathers worshipped, and to pass on this belief and worship intact to his children. He does not oppose legitimate and organic developments. But he sees what is perennial, venerable, and established as a treasury of godly and holy wisdom and he views attempts to change or "update" this treasury of belief and practice with guarded reserve, if not suspicion.

And this is precisely where there is an immediate application to our present day. In the last forty years the Catholic Church has experienced unprecedented change in nearly every aspect of her life. Certainly those who made the changes and those who now defend them seek to argue that they were for the Church's benefit. But as we saw from the Angelic Doctor, it is not sufficient that changes to fundamental aspects of the Church's life be merely beneficial. Significant changes should only be enacted either in response to some harm or injustice or if the changes will certainly provide "very great and very evident benefit" to the common good. And this observation gives rise to two central questions—did so much really have to change and have all these changes really brought about the promised good? Traditionalists are united in answering no to both questions. It is dawning on more and more Catholics that too much change, never-ending change, has harmed the equilibrium of the Roman Catholic Church. And they are beginning to see that in too many cases there are no real positive results at all, let alone "very great and very evident benefit". Or, to put it positively, they are realizing that in the tried and true ways of believing and behaving lie a holy wisdom that may just point the way out of the present crisis.

So now we have at least a broad idea of what characterizes a Catholic traditionalist. This leads us to another matter of terminology. What do we call those orthodox Catholics who more closely align themselves with the whole panoply of changes that have been enacted by the Vatican since the 1960s and often set themselves quite in opposition to the traditionalist movement? Some have dubbed them "conservative" Catholics. But this label is inaccurate, as a comparison to the secular order will illustrate.

Some years ago I started (and won, if I do say) a debate with my extended family in which I asserted that, by any reasonable historical standard, George W. Bush is not a conservative but a liberal. Although this notion might be strange to some, it is easily demonstrated. For it has always been held, in political matters, that the truly conservative attitude toward the duties of a governor toward the governed is that "he who legislates least, legislates best." Political conservatives have always held for greater personal freedom, smaller government, and less government intervention both domestically and abroad. But by those standards the proof is all around us that those who ostensibly hold the place of "conservatives" in the American political realm are no conservatives at all. Under their governance personal freedoms erode, government grows by leaps and bounds, and it intervenes more and more into foreign and domestic affairs. By any historical standard, then, todays so-called conservatives are really quite liberal. What has happened is that the whole political spectrum has shifted. Today's liberals are so radically liberal by historical standards that yesterday's liberals look conservative by comparison. It is more appropriate, then, to describe yesterday's liberals, who are today's so-called conservatives, as "neo-conservatives", with the caveat that they are really only moderately and selectively conservative at best.

Similarly, in the Church those Catholics who are ostensibly conservative but who embrace every single change that comes down the pike (as long as it comes backed by ecclesiastical authority and ofttimes even if it does not) have no legitimate claim to the label "conservative", for they do not conserve the Faith and the observances that have embodied and protected it over the centuries. Rather, they are by historical standards quite liberal and so, in my own writings if a distinction is necessary I will refer to them as "neo-conservative Catholics" or just "neo-conservatives", with the caveat that they are really only moderately and selective conservative at best (but with the emphasis that they are, of course, certainly Catholics!)

Hopefully such definitions answer certain questions, but I have been very broad in sketching the outlines of the traditionalist position. And obviously I leaves lots of questions unanswered, questions concerning the Mass, Vatican II, ecumenism, the Society of Pius X and "independent" priests, and so on. All of those issues will receive more detailed attention on this site but one issue in particular requires a bit more treatment here, namely, traditionalist attitude toward the papacy.

The papacy was established by our Lord Jesus Christ for the right governance of His Church. Traditionalism is not—or at least had better not be!—an attitude of fundamental opposition to the Pope. The traditionalist Catholic should be the last person on earth who would jeopardize his right relationship to the Pope through a cavalier dismissal of his authority or rejection of his lawful commands. After all, the entire Catholic Tradition witnesses that communion with the Pope of Rome is necessary for right standing in the Catholic Church. And the traditionalist, of all people, knows that outside of the Catholic Church there is no salvation. Rather, as I have said, traditionalism is characterized by an historically Catholic attitude toward change. Unfortunately, in our present day this attitude brings us into tension with many prelates in the Catholic Church, including at times even the Popes. There may be times in which we sincerely disagree with the courses adopted by the Roman Pontiff, but I believe such conclusions should only come after serious reflection mingled with holy fear. Still, as Dietrich von Hildebrand wrote, the traditionalist who vigorously upholds the theoretical authority of the Pope may, at times, find himself in serious disagreement with a particular exercise of that authority:

[O]bedience to the practical disciplinary decisions of the pope does not always imply approval of them. When such a decision has the character of compromise or is the result of pressure or the weakness of the individual person of the pope, we cannot and should not say: Roma locuta: causa finita. That is, we cannot see in it the will of God; we must recognize that God only permits it, just as He has permitted the unworthiness or weakness of several popes in the history of the Church. . . .
Our unconditional submission to the theoretical authority of the Church, because Our Lord has entrusted to it His divine revelation, manifests itself primarily in our faithfulness to the deposit of Catholic faith. Let us, as we answer the call to defend orthodoxy, reflect on the glorious history of the Church. Let us take faith from the fact that no pope has ever proclaimed anything heretical, anything contrary to the deposit of Catholic faith; and let us also recall the innumerable graces flowing from the Church into the souls of the faithful throughout the centuries. Let us remember the innumerable saints to whom the Church has given birth. Let our hearts be filled with ardent love for the Church, the Bride of Christ. But when this love inevitably fills our hearts with deep sorrow over a practical decision imposed on us—which we cannot but think unfortunate and dangerous in its consequences—let us not fall into despairing confusion. Let us realize that it would be disastrous to identify the God-willed response of faith to the infallible theoretical authority of the Church with the completely different response of obedience to the practical authority of the Church. Though we must obey such a practical decision, we must not approve it; nay, we must even pray for its revocation, and, in full respect, strive with all legitimate measures to persuade the Holy Father of its danger, all the while proclaiming wholeheartedly: Credo in unam sanctam catholicam et apostolicam ecclesiam! (Devastated Vineyard).

The raison d'être of this site is to seek understanding in the midst of crisis and rebuilding. So there will be articles here that seek to explain what's wrong in the Catholic Church and how they got that way. And such articles have their place, for there are many good and faithful Catholics who are greatly troubled by what they see around than and are seeking understanding in the midst of this terrible confusion.

But there must be a positive side to Catholic traditionalism as well, or else our whole existence will become defined by the negative, by what we are not rather than by what we are. These are difficult days, yes, but the Catholic Faith is the pearl of great price, a precious gift beyond all reckoning. I am an adult convert to that Faith and I thank God every day from the bottom of my heart for giving me the grace to be a Catholic. And so I hope that you will see on this site that the Catholic traditionalist is one who can glory in what he has, for he stands firm on the doctrinal certitude, the liturgical precision and beauty, and the wise discipline that has sustained the Roman Catholic Church for all these centuries since our Lord's Advent. May it please God to utilize this site in some small measure to bring greater renewal to His Holy Church.

Other summaries of Traditionalism: A Brief Defense of Traditionalism by Peter A. Miller

My Writings on the Web

To kick off this blog, I thought I'd collect my various writings that are scattered about the Internet and provide links to most, if not all, of them in one place.

Breathing Catholic Air: My conversion story as originally printed in This Rock, April 1994.

Oral Tradition in the New Testament: Originally printed in This Rock, May 1995.

The Reformation: A Break With Christian Consensus

James White vs. "Jesus, Peter, and the Keys"

James White and Robert Sungenis on Matthew 16:18 (Broken link: I'll fix it)

A review of Steve Ray's Upon This Rock

The Real Presence: This article first appeared in Immaculata Magazine, April, 1996 and was republished in The Coming Home Journal, June 1997.

Papal Infallibility: Originally published in The Coming Home Journal.

Papal Infallibility (MP3): From Catholic Answers Live. For the most part I think this is pretty good, but I do have to retract my recommendation of the book The Pope, the Council, and the Mass by Likoudis and Whitehead.

"The Mouse That Roars": Point-and-Click Evangelism: Originally published in Envoy Magazine, Jan/Feb 1997.

The Red Herring of Usury: Originally printed in This Rock, September 1997.

Catholic Dissent vs. Protestant Divisions

What Will You Do When the Chips Are Down?: Proof positive, as if you needed it, that I am not infallible. Originally published in Envoy Magazine, Nov/Dec 1998.

Journeys Home: On Orthodox Christian Teaching (MP3): Originally on EWTN, Journeys Home with Marcus Grodi. I would probably modify my soaring praise of Vatican II a bit, but little else. The folks at EWTN have said that this interview has been helpful to many.

CWR letters on Inerrancy: An exchange of letters in Catholic World Report, October 2001 revealing, sadly, that even ostensibly orthodox churchmen take unorthodox positions on the doctrine of the inerrancy of sacred Scripture.

When Dialogue Trumps Evangelism: My concerns on the stance of various churchmen with regard to Islam, as expressed to Catholic World Report, March 2002.

These next three essays were my contribution to the destruction of the "Heos Hou" canard advanced by Eric Svendsen and James White. I do hope that, at least privately, Svendsen in particular is keenly embarrassed by the utter demolition of his putative doctoral thesis at the hands of John Pacheco and others:
Foreword to Heõs Hou and the Protestant Polemic: October 2003
Eric Svendsen's Compounding Errors: December 2003
The Non-Rule of Mr. Svendsen: Feb 2004

Catholic Confusion at the Very Top: Originally published in the New Oxford Review, March 2004. Interestingly, feedback on this essay has run about 90% positive (and not just from "rad trads".) Many good Catholics know instinctively that things haven't been quite right—sometimes it's a relief for somebody to just say so.

Separation of Church and State: Manifest Destiny or Manifest Heresy?: Originally posted at The Seattle Catholic, June 2005. Reaction to this essay has been strange, from orthodox Catholics who insist that Vatican II changed the Church's position on this separation despite the text of Vatican II saying explicitly that it does no such thing, to seculars who would not flinch from publicly blaspheming God but are aghast that anyone would have the audacity to challenge the secular dogma of the separation of Church and State. Heretic! Burn him!