Sunday, September 8, 2013

Things I should have said about traditionalism

Not shown: a real, honest-to-goodness altar rail.
What’s wrong with the word radical? On the surface, nothing; to say someone is a radical X is to say he favors fundamental or thoroughgoing change.

However, the dictionary definition doesn’t always capture the emotive content of a word. In this respect, radical suffers from too long association with the more offensive and disturbing manifestations of political activism. To many people, the radical is a fellow traveler of the extremist, the kind of person who won’t go so far as to throw bombs but who will gladly inconvenience others by taking over school buildings or parks in the name of X. The extremist is a wild-eyed nutjob, while the radical is merely a pain in the ass.

On Thursday, Catholic Stand published “Tradition vs. traditionalism” (don’t read it just yet), in which Your Humble Blogger wrote of a tendency within a segment of the traditionalist community to conflate the traditional Latin Mass with the apostolic tradition. To try to isolate this segment from the rest of the traditionalist community, I used the term “radical traditionalist”. Twice.

It was a risky choice, because some people, especially liberal dissidents, speak of “radical traditionalists” as if all traditionalists were part of a lunatic fringe group. So, as could be reasonably expected, it blew up in my face.

Spirit Daily picked up the piece and drove a lot of traffic to the post, where traditionalists chastised me for painting them with a broad brush; one woman claimed I had “politely defecated” [?] on the traditionalist movement. While one or two couldn’t help but illustrate my point much better than I did, for the most part the combox left me feeling a bit like a bush-league Joseph Bottum: “Waitaminnit, that’s not what I meant!”


Misunderstandings — both accidental and intentional — are part of this mug’s game. You want to be universally loved? Don’t have an opinion; if you do, keep it to yourself. Never, never, never miss a good chance to shut up. But if you believe, as I do, that silence is consent, then you have to accept that you won’t win any Mr. Congeniality contests. In fact, it’s much like basketball — if you don’t commit at least one foul a game, if no one is ever pissed off by what you say, then either you’re writing Hallmark cards or you’re not really trying.

But I can’t let go of this, because while I’m confident that my argument was valid — pace Kate Edwards of Australia Incognita, the Catechism of the Catholic Church §83 does distinguish between the message and the message transmitters — the fact remains that I gave the wrong impression. I have a lot of sympathy for the traditionalist movement. It’s only because the nearest Latin Mass is well over an hour away and I have a semi-invalid mother to care for that I go to the Novus Ordo Mass at the parish around the corner.

I don’t necessarily agree with every argument traditionalists make, especially concerning the right of the Pope and the College of Bishops to change the liturgy. But I do agree in principle that the post-Vatican II “reforms” did much to impoverish Catholic spiritual life and degrade catechesis. I also agree that, while the most recent revision of the English Missal was a step in the right direction, the Mass of Paul VI still suffers in comparison with the usus antiquior.

I failed to make that clear. I failed to say, in so many words, “Hey, you guys, I’m with you at least 75% of the way; you just need to stop talking about Novus Ordo Catholics as if they’re nigh unto being de facto Methodists.”

Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa … or, as we say in the new revision, “Through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault.”

To say that it’s the apostolic tradition, the living transmission of the Gospel of Christ, which unites us, and that the form of the Mass can be changed at need, is not to say that the liturgy is of small concern. Au contraire, the liturgy is of great concern:


“The liturgy is the summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed; it is also the font from which all her power flows” (Sacrosanctum concilium 10). It is therefore the privileged place for catechizing the People of God. “Catechesis is intrinsically linked with the whole of liturgical and sacramental activity, for it is in the sacraments, especially in the Eucharist, that Christ Jesus works in fullness for the transformation of men” (Bl. John Paul II, Catechesi tradendae 23).[1]


Again, to say that our beliefs unite us is not to say that Catholicism is reducible just to the beliefs themselves. Rather, traditionalists like Edwards are quite correct in pointing out that “The Catholic faith is not just a body of doctrines, not just what we believe, but also a way of praying (worship) and a way of living (morality, the golden rule, charity, joy etc).”

The rule is Lex orandi, lex credendi — loosely translated, “What we pray is what we believe.” That, I pointed out some time ago, is why the text of the Novus Ordo Mass needed correction: the 1973 translation “dumbed down” many prayers to the point where it was difficult to distinguish anything particularly Catholic about them — they were “flat, insipid and darn near non-denominational”. That is why we feel so keenly the catechists’ neglect of traditional prayers and devotions, such as the Angelus and the Stations of the Cross, that once played a major role in passing on the Catholic faith.

And do we need to talk about such abominations as liturgical puppets and clown Masses? I don’t hold, as some traditionalists do, that they’re direct consequences of changing the Mass. But I do hold that the same loss of sight, the same craving for fashionable novelty, that led to junking so many traditional devotional practices also led to such demeaning, debilitating nonsense.

And this is why the “Novus Ordo Catholics aren’t real Catholics” mentality that some traditionalists have taken concerns me: it alienates potential supporters. Forget whether this mentality is true of all traditionalists; isn’t it bad enough that it’s true of some traditionalists? And do other traditionalists feel no responsibility for allowing the sentiment a place at the table?

I really do want the traditionalist movement to succeed. If it’s not possible to restore the Latin Mass to the ordinary form, then at least we could have an English-language version of the Tridentine Mass that respects its majesty and returns our focus to proper worship of God. I see so many other traditional elements of Catholic culture being resurrected that I’m positive the traditionalist movement could succeed … as long as traditionalists don’t get in their own way with an off-putting pharisaical elitism.

Because the point of the traditions is to pass on the Gospel message — that we are all sinners, and stand in need of Christ’s reconciling sacrifice. There is no room in this Gospel for superiority: “for every one who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 18:10-14).

And that was what I meant.


[1] Catechism of the Catholic Church 1074.