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How Traditionalists and Modernists Are Alike

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles ) | Mar 23, 2007

An old saw reminds us that no matter which side of the barque of Peter we fall off of, we’ll drown. Port or starboard, left or right: the result is the same. That’s why both traditionalists and modernists are drowning in the same sea. Paradoxically, despite being mortal enemies, they are drowning because they are so much alike. The mindsets of modernism and traditionalism share at least five essential characteristics.

1. Lack of Detachment

The mindsets of traditionalism and modernism are characterized by a lack of spiritual detachment. Strong, undisciplined attachments prevent spiritual growth and generally lead straight out of the Church. For the traditionalist, the attachment is to “the way things were”, all the external aspects of Catholic piety and discipline which he finds attractive and from which he derives spiritual consolation. For the modernist, the attachment is to the fashionable ideas of the age, all those perceptions and conceptions which, because they are dominant, appear to be the keys to every kind of success.

Both traditionalists and modernists have a point when they argue that when we discard healthy traditions or ignore the key themes of modern thought, we do so at our peril. It is neither their respect for tradition nor their willingness to engage modernity which gets them into trouble. Rather, it is their profound attachment to these things, an attachment so strong that both groups feel their world is shattered if the objects of their attachment are removed.

2. Emphasis on Personal Experience

Although traditionalists would be the first to deny it, they generally share with modernists the elevation of personal experience over both abstract reflection and ultimate authority. Modernist theories are formed in accordance with how modernists “feel” about things here and now, and modernists constantly refer to the personal experience of themselves (and others like them) in formulating their positions, especially their moral positions. Similarly, traditionalists consistently shape their theories of Church governance to justify the spiritual pleasures they take in their own experiences, particularly their own liturgical experiences, and they always tend to regard these experiences as normative, insisting that others must be somehow broken if they do not respond to them in exactly the same way.

This elevation of experience over reflection and authority is a spiritual death-trap, for our own experiences (and our perceptions of these experiences) are notoriously deficient guides to the formulation of principles. It is as if both traditionalists and modernists are stuck in eternal adolescence, where every opinion and argument, however extensively rationalized, is so obviously driven by what they themselves want to be the case.

3. Misuse of Evidence

Perhaps because of the lack of reflection that lies at the core of these extremes, both modernists and traditionalists consistently misuse evidence. They are marvelously able to adduce long lists of facts and authorities in favor of their positions, such that even the elect, if it were possible, might be deceived (Mt 24:24). But when you dig more deeply, you find that the vast majority of their evidence doesn’t apply. Thus traditionalists consistently introduce old ecclesiastical documents which do not have magisterial authority or which do not say, on careful reading, what they think they say. They also constantly cite the opinions of favorite saints, which are completely irrelevant as authorities against the Magisterium. Similarly, modernists will always trot out sociological studies and citations from contemporary theologians, philosophers and scientists, which serve to prove nothing but the direction of the wind. Both groups also consistently fail to grasp the differences among magisterial teaching, Church discipline, ecclesiastical policy, and clerical behavior.

The ultimate authority for a traditionalist is some past Catholic utterance which seems to match his own preferences, set against the living Magisterium of the Church. The ultimate authority for a modernist is the documentation of contemporary values and opinions, set against the living Magisterium of the Church. One wonders what both would say to Christ. For, as Cardinal Newman wisely observed, there cannot be such a great difference in dispensation between the first generation of Christians and ourselves, that they had a living infallible guide and we have not. In fact, we have, and it is useless to attempt to explain it away.

4. Naïveté

The naïveté of both modernists and traditionalists is so extensive that it fails utterly to charm. Both are convinced that, if only their preferences were adopted by the Church, all the problems of the Church in the world will be solved. Traditionalists really believe, for example, both that the changes in the liturgy are the source of most other problems afflicting the Church, and that the imposition of the Tridentine Mass will quickly make these problems disappear again. Modernists really believe that the reason the Church appears to be in decline is because it doesn’t understand what is going on in the world, and that if only it will adopt the insights of the age, the Church will suddenly be relevant again.

Neither group has the slightest understanding of the incredible power of large cultural trends. Traditionalists define themselves in opposition to these trends but naïvely think, first, that their anti-culture has no problems of its own and, second, that the Church can completely rise above the prevailing culture and control it. Modernists define themselves in accordance with these cultural trends, naïvely believing they have achieved independent thought, that new is always better, and that their new ideas are panaceas. Meanwhile, the Church does contribute to the formation of culture, for her ideas and witness are always somewhat independent of the culture and superior to it, but she does so only with the greatest difficulty, because she cannot prevent her members from absorbing many of the prevailing culture’s characteristics. The sins of her members, in the main, will be the sins most characteristic of the times. This has been so in every age, and it is inevitable.

5. Hubris

Both traditionalists and modernists tend to behave strikingly like protagonists in a Greek drama. They are locked within their own hubris, which for the Greeks was a combination of pride and presumption against the gods. Please note that I am not referring here to those who, battered by the disobedience and faithlessness of bad parish situations, may be willy nilly seeking refuge elsewhere. Nor am I referring to those so badly formed or so wounded by unfortunate experiences that they have scarcely had an opportunity to respond differently than they do. I refer here to the leaders and advocates of these positions, who judge everything so exclusively from within the citadel of their own personal certainties that they continuously miss the mark (the hamartia of Greek drama), with inexorably tragic results.

We all struggle constantly with how our likes and dislikes impact our judgment. The problem lies not in the struggle but in the fatal assumption that we know best. It is to those who always know best that Jesus himself said: “For judgment I came into this world, that those who do not see may see, and that those who see may become blind.” Hearing this, those who claimed to know asked him, “Are we also blind?” And Jesus replied: “If you were blind, you would have no guilt; but now you say, ‘We see’, and your sin remains.” (Jn 9:39-41)

I don’t say that people need to give up their right to think in order to be Catholics. Quite the contrary. But if you want to avoid drowning, it is best to think first about your own limits. From this somber reflection, every competent mariner concludes that it is far more intelligent to remain aboard the boat, under the orders of the captain.

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