The problem with traditionalism

I have often called myself a traditionalist. What I meant by that was that I love tradition. I highly value the ancient things of the Church, things which have been handed down to us through the centuries. I would far rather have a neo-Gothic church — or, ideally, true Gothic — than a modern one. I love incense and Latin. I honestly don’t think these are mere aesthetic preferences. I think these things are inherently better able to inspire feelings of reverence and awe towards God, and for this reason I think their widespread abandonment has been a huge mistake for the Church.

What I also mean is that I hold tightly to the traditional understandings and expressions of the Church’s teachings, both doctrinal and moral. I’m suspicious of the supposed need to “re-express” them in terms that modern people can understand. I’m a modern person and I understand them just fine. You have to educate yourself, learn some vocabulary, in order to understand some things. But that’s the case in any field of knowledge. Anything about which people have developed a broad and deep understanding will require some work to absorb in their full breadth and depth. This is not a bad thing.

I think the Extraordinary Form of the Mass (often referred to as the Traditional Latin Mass) is a better way to celebrate Mass than the Ordinary Form. I think the Ordinary Form was not an organic development of what had gone before. It certainly was not gradual. I think of it, frankly, as a bit of a rupture in the development of the Mass.

I’m not saying it was wrong to revise the Mass at all. In fact, some popes did revise the Mass in the decades before Vatican II. But they did it in a very gradual manner, not a complete overhaul but a change here and there. In any case, I have experienced both forms of the Mass many, many times, and I just think the older form is better. I think it’s more reverent and dignified, and less susceptible to unauthorized innovation.

I see no reason to think Vatican II was not a legitimate council, and have never read anything in its documents which I considered incompatible with what had gone before. When I criticize Vatican II, it’s on the ground that the implementation of the decisions of the Council went beyond what the Council envisioned and authorized, and was often done too abruptly. I think this led people to believe that everything old was being swept away and therefore was being devalued and could, maybe even should, be disregarded; not only practices, but doctrine and morals as well; and this caused much anguish and confusion among the faithful.

I have also expressed the opinion that it may have been imprudent to hold the Council at all, at the time it was held, with no apparent, specific purpose other than to “throw open the windows”, which again, I suspect, gave people the impression that everything was up for grabs.

Anyway, this more or less encompasses what I mean when I call myself a traditionlist. I don’t think this is a bad thing to be. I don’t think it violates the Church’s teachings at all. I think the Church needs traditionalists of this sort in order to balance out the influence of liberals and modernists in the Church, and to keep alive things of value which might otherwise be lost.

The bad kind of traditionalism, the kind referred to in the title of this post, is something different. It has been defined by Fr. Angelo M. Geiger of the Franciscan Friars of the Immaculate, as follows:

“[T]hat ideology by which Catholics, in the name of conserving Tradition, take it upon themselves to determine what magisterial act does and does not belong to Catholic Tradition. … this ideology pretends to solve contingent problems by submitting the living magisterium to a scientific analysis and then insists that the magisterium, including the Holy Father, either prove the analysis wrong or conform to it.”

I appreciate this definition because it helps me to draw a line between the good kind of traditionalism and the bad kind.

I always knew that there was something wrong with, for example, the SSPX, but had never managed to put my finger on it precisely. I had a general idea that the SSPX was a little too rebellious. It was certainly disobedient when it ordained four bishops in 1988, without authorization from the Pope. Still, I could feel sympathy towards it. I felt that I understood its frustrations and its attachment to the older forms of worship and teaching.

But I also had personal experiences with SSPX members which left a bad taste in my mouth. Some kids from SSPX families have attended the school that my kids went to. They refused Communion at school Masses, presumably on the ground that they were invalid or illicit.

I once attended an SSPX Mass, both to see what it was like, and also because no other Latin Mass was available in the area. It was very nice, reverent and dignified, which for me was like water on parched earth. The exception, however, was the homily, in which the priest said some surprisingly bitter things against the mainstream Church.

In retrospect I suppose this should not have surprised me. But somehow I had the idea that the SSPX, although it disagrees with Rome on a number of things, would not dwell on disagreement constantly, but would simply go about the business of trying to live good Christian lives. This homily, however, left me with the impression that the SSPX virtually defines itself and its way of living the faith, as “opposition to Rome”. It is in this way (assuming my conclusion is correct) reminiscient of some Protestants, who seemingly have more negative things to say about Catholicism, than positive things about their own faith.

In the end, I was left in a state of suspending judgment as to the SSPX. I thought it was wrong to directly defy Rome, but still felt that in many areas I could understand where it was coming from.

I see now that the specific problem with the SSPX is that it “pretends to solve contingent problems by submitting the living magisterium to a scientific analysis”. I understand “submitting to a scientific analysis” to mean setting up some supposedly objective standard of, in this case, what is traditional, and seeing how magisterial teaching stacks up against this inanimate standard; like measuring a foot using one of those devices in a shoe store that measures shoe size.

In other words, whereas according to Catholic teaching the standard of orthodoxy is the living Magisterium, some people instead subject the living Magisterium to a dead standard of their own devising, and find the Magisterium wanting. Or as Fr. Geiger restates it in another place, “[Traditionalism is] the choice of a rule of faith by which one submits the living magisterium to a test that effectively renders it free from the jurisdiction of Peter.”

Additional problems raised by Fr. Geiger, with traditionalism so defined, are that it “has become an overt fifth column within the Church that sanctions direct opposition to the sacred magisterium and to the Supreme Pontiff himself. … It is programmatic hostility that saturates all aspects of Catholic life: theology, catechesis, apologetics, preaching, liturgy, seminary formation, religious formation, devotional life, Church discipline, the Catholic press, etc.”

Ironically, although it identifies itself with ancient tradition, “‘Traditionalism … is not by any means grounded in the wisdom of the Apostles. Tradition is, but not traditionalism, because the latter uses Tradition as a pretext to employ a polemic against any anomaly in the modern magisterium. This is why I insist that traditionalism as it exists is a modern, and by no means ancient, movement.”

Finally, the answer to the crisis of modernity is not to oppose the Pope: “The Church’s interaction with modernity is fraught with problems and a crisis of one form or another, regardless of how the Church might have reacted, is not surprising. A fifty year long crisis is not surprising either, nor unprecedented. But the answers remain within the providence Christ provided, and so there is no justification for organized and public opposition to the Holy Father.”

(All above quotes, except the definition quoted above, are from Fr. Geiger’s comments to his post titled “I Believe in Ghosts, or Even More on Crypto-Lefebvrism“.)

Fr. Z often says, “You can go into the ditch on either side of the road, left or right. Either way, you are still in a ditch.” Fr. Geiger masterfully maps out the way to avoiding the ditch on either side.


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