Are all Catholics equally traditional?

Recently I have come across blog posts and comments from Catholics who are displeased that certain Catholics have taken to calling themselves “traditional Catholics”, and the traditional Latin mass — now known as the “Extraordinary Form” of the mass — the “traditional mass”.  (See the posts linked to in this previous post.)

Some of these people have argued that the entire Catholic faith is essentially traditional, in that it has been handed down from generation to generation for twenty centuries (the Latin root word for “tradition” meaning literally “to hand over”), and therefore so are all Catholics.

For the same reason they argue that the mass is essentially traditional, the Ordinary Form as well as the Extraordinary.

Further, they argue that Summorum pontificum has made it juridically inappropriate to consider one mass more traditional then the other (see here).  I’m not clear on the ground for this argument, but apparently it’s something to do with the two forms of the mass now enjoying equal status under Church law.

To me such arguments seem essentially defensive in tone.  Those making them sound as if they are reacting to having been accused of not being traditional enough, and hence not Catholic enough.  And they may well have been accused of that.  Some Catholics who consider themselves “traditional” may well have implied that those who are less tradition-minded are that way because of being less wise or devoted to Catholic truth.

Thus certain Catholics, who consider themselves loyal and faithful, and by no means “Cafeteria Catholics”, are offended at the implication that they are less Catholic than others.  They feel that they are being branded that way merely by virtue of not sharing as strong an affinity for older forms of worship, architecture, music, and art, as some others.  Since these things are not of the essence of the Faith, they feel it an unfair ground of criticism.

Some have gone so far as to argue that such labels as “traditional”, “liberal” and “conservative” are bad in and of themselves, since they divide the Body of Christ into factions.  We should all simply consider ourselves “Catholics”, and should apply no other label to our fellow Catholics than that.

Traditional mass

I myself do refer to the Extraordinary Form of the Latin Rite mass (the “EF”) as the “traditional Latin mass”, or sometimes the “traditional mass” for short.  What I believe to have been the thought process leading to my use of that label is the following:  For a long time people have referred to the Ordinary Form (“OF”) as the “new mass”.  This is perfectly natural since the mass was one way for many, many centuries and then was dramatically changed after Vatican II.  One may argue that the OF is essentially the same as the EF.  Nevertheless to look at the two side-by-side, as they have been commonly celebrated, many external differences immediately jump out at you.  No one argued at the time the OF was introduced that the changes were minimal.  Most everyone perceived them as dramatic (some going so far as to call the differences “essential”).

Since the OF was called the “new mass”, it was natural to refer to the EF as the “old mass”.  However in our modern society the word “old” connotes something that is worn out, outdated and no longer useful.  Think of an old pair of shoes:  “Those are my old shoes.  You can have them if you want.  I don’t need them any more, I have new ones.  If you don’t take them I’ll just throw them out.”  We who prefer the EF don’t like those connotations.

But think of the connotations of “traditional”, as in “the traditional Thanksgiving china”.  When I was a kid my grandma had a set of china and silverware that belonged to her mother, my great-grandma, about 100 years ago.  We would use them every Thanksgiving.  Not that they were better than our newer dishes, but they provided a sense of nostalgia for the past, of continuity with previous generations, and of reverence for those who were no longer with us.

So rather than refer to the EF as the “old mass”, I chose instead to call it the “traditional mass”, connoting time-tested and time-honored, the faith of our fathers, handed down reverently from generation to generation.  This is a perfectly fair contrast to the “new mass”:   which, insofar as it differs from the old, is precisely not time-tested and time-honored, nor was it known to our fathers in the faith, nor handed down continuously from generation to generation for centuries.  That doesn’t make it bad necessarily, just less traditional.

Thus to me, it seemed the perfect adjective for distinguishing the older form of mass from the newer.  There is no necessary implication that the new mass is totally non-traditional, nor that those who like the new mass have rejected all tradition.  What it does intentionally imply is that insofar as the old mass was changed, certain things that were handed down from generation to generation — traditional things — were removed; and things that were not handed down from generation to generation — non-traditional things — were inserted.  Thus insofar as the changes between the old and the new are considered, it’s perfectly fair to consider the old mass more “traditional” than the new.  And since the term only came into use as an alternative to “old”, as a way of distinguishing the two forms of the mass, it’s perfectly fair to refer to the two forms in terms of those changes.

Traditional people

Now I would agree that it’s bad for “traditionalist” Catholics to consider themselves superior to other Catholics.  But is that necessarily what they are doing?  The holding of any opinion implies that contrary opinions are believed to be inferior.  If I didn’t think this opinion was truer than that, I would not hold it.  But is asserting the superiority of a certain set of opinions necessarily equivalent to asserting one’s own superiority?  If it were, then all opinions whatever would be forbidden by Christian charity.

But no, opinions are not forbidden by charity.  I consider the Gospel of Christ to be truer than any other religion.  But it doesn’t follow that I consider myself, as an adherent of the Gospel, to be superior to all non-Christians.

It seems to me that what is uncharitable is to interpret the expression of an opinion as a judgment against those who don’t share that opinion.  It’s uncharitable to assume that those who favor the old mass have judged themselves superior to those who prefer the new.

Who’s judging whom?

But some people object not just to people judging other people, but even to judging one form of the mass to be better than the other.  However let us not forget that for most of the past 40 years, it’s adherents of the new mass who have judged that form of the mass to be superior to the other — even to the extent of using their power to virtually suppress the older form of the mass, such that the majority of American Catholics born after Vatican II have not experienced it even once in their lives.  Even after the issuance of Summorum pontificum, many OF adherents have continued to object to the celebration of the EF, and many bishops and priests who favor the OF have refused to make provision for the celebration of EF masses even when requested to do so; or if they have made provision, have done so only minimally, at odd times and places. 

Thus if the essential problem is people judging one form of the mass to be better than the other, I think that’s a much larger problem, in terms of numbers as well as actual hindrances imposed, on the OF side than on the EF. 

 Be traditional if you want to 

If I may now be frank and controversial:  I can’t help wondering whether underlying the rather defensive tone of people who don’t like the EF being called the “traditional mass”, or EF adherents calling themselves “traditional Catholics”, is a suspicion that the OF really is less traditional, and in a sense, less Catholic, then the EF.  Perhaps it’s hard enough persuading themselves that the OF is every bit as traditional as the EF, and the last thing they need are people stating flat-out that it’s not.

But that’s wild speculation and I admit it.

But be that as it may, there’s nothing unfair or inaccurate about calling the EF the “traditional mass” and EF adherents “traditional Catholics”.  After all, OFers are welcome to apply the same label to themselves and to the OF if they want to.  If the shoe doesn’t seem to fit, that’s not our fault.

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