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


Darwin said...


Having just read down all your posts to date, I wanted to thank you for your clear thinking.

A thought that struck me in reading this post in particular: I might describe myself as being "traditionally-minded" as a Catholic, though perhaps you would assess me as more of a "neo-Catholic".

As such, I think that Bugnini and his committee went vastly too far in their reforms of the mass and the Divine Office. I of course consider them valid but I think that the changes made in many cases engaged in "change for change's sake" far beyond what was suggested by Vatican II itself.

However, as someone active in a "novus ordo" parish (indeed, I'm on the parish council) in which the current missal is celebrated reverently and exactly according to the rubrics, I am in some ways torn over the "going back" issue -- and for conservative reasons. I do very strongly want to see more Latin in the liturgy and want to see the missal moved back much more in keeping with the old one. And yet, having see the incredible damage caused by the sudden changes in 1965-1972, I have certain fears as to what some sort of sudden switch would do.

My hope is that Benedict XVI, as hinted at in his recent motu proprio, is beginning a process of bringing our liturgy slowly back into line with tradition, and that this will be done with sufficient catechesis and wisdom (and perhaps some welcome use of strength against the more resistant bishops and priests) that we can go about returning to tradition in a truly conservative manner.

As you note in your piece about "independant priests", one of the things that worries me at times when reading more stridently Traditionalist stuff is that in an attachment to traditional forms, people have lost a conservative and traditional attitude.

Laurie Myers said...

Dear Mr Miller,

You have posed three questions, namely:

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.]

You have answered "Yes" to each question.

I think a more accurate series of answers is:

1. Yes. Provided the celebrating priest uses the right Form, Matter and has the Right Intention.

2. No. It is easily demonstrated that VII was not a dogmatic Council and made no binding decrees.

3. Yes. But I think a better question is "Was Pope John Paul II a validly elected Pope". Many of his actions as Pope have been decidedly uncatholic.

Incidentally, I prefer the title Traditional Catholic rather than the wimpish traditional Catholic.

Yours in the Names of Jesus and Mary
Lawrence (aka Laurie) Myers
26 January 2010
Sydney, Australia

Christine said...

Excellent post. Your wrote:

"We live in a time of crisis (and rebuilding) in the Catholic Church. I think every orthodox Catholic can agree on that."

You'd be amazed how many orthodox Catholics deny there is any real crisis in the Church. Nevermind the fact that 90% of European Catholics don't attend Mass, and 75% of American Catholics do not--and of those who do, 2/3 of them don't even believe in the Real Presence. If that isn't a crisis, I don't know what is.

Ben Anderson said...

"Why do we need the labels anyway? Isn't just 'Catholic' enough?"

you'd think. and you nailed it that it's not. In our diocese (as I'm sure others) to be "Catholic" means just about nothing - even if you happen to be a daily mass goer. I would say that a significant portion of our parishes and priests are actually protestant. By that I mean that they do not accept the orthodox Catholic faith. It's sad. I wish it were not this way, but it's true.

Christine said...

Darwin wrote:

"I have certain fears as to what some sort of sudden switch would do."

I laugh. No fear of that, as long as the powers that be remain. There are still so many bishops opposed to the Traditional Latin Mass that many continue to disobey and ignore the Motu proprio. Then you've got mainstream Catholics who have had little experience with the TLM and many misconceptions about it, and frankly are largely ignorant of their patrimony, who will oppose any "sudden switch". That'll never happen.