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The Other Side of Traditionalism

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Mar 05, 2009

I have made no secret of my disagreement with the Traditionalist rejection of the Second Vatican Council or the movement’s refusal to be obedient to papal authority. Since Pope Benedict XVI lifted the excommunication of the four bishops who preside over the Society of St. Pius X, I have reiterated these views, and have tried to identify the remaining obstacles to the restoration of the SSPX to full communion with the Church. The result has been a steady stream of correspondence from both Traditionalists and those sympathetic to them, a correspondence characterized by not only defensiveness but pain.

In using the word “Traditionalist”, I mean someone who insists on his own understanding of certain aspects of Catholic tradition to the point of disobeying the disciplinary directives of the Holy See or of denying the recent Magisterium of the Church—or someone who generally supports and allies himself with those guilty of these excesses. This essay is going to focus on the other side of the Traditionalist question, on the factors that led to the Traditionalist form of rebellion. But before I document the sins and failures which tended to drive traditional Catholics out of the Church, it is necessary to recognize that the fault does not lie entirely on one side.

To be sure, there are many serious spiritual faults typical of the minimalist, secularized and Modernist Catholics who have dominated local ecclesiastical life in the West for too much the past forty or fifty years. But it must also be kept in mind that Traditionalists have typical spiritual faults and weaknesses of their own. These tend to be the Pharisaical faults: An inability to distinguish human religious traditions from that Tradition which constitutes one of the twin sources of Revelation; a refusal to temper personalities prone to make dogmas of things about which good people may legitimately disagree; a self-righteous insistence on the spiritual superiority of their own preferences and motives; and an unwillingness to embrace emotional suffering when spiritual matters are not arranged to their liking.

A Cultural Collapse

This last paragraph alone will bring another round of accusations that I am a Modernist, and another round of complaints that I am not more sympathetic to the plight of serious traditional Catholics in the contemporary Church. I want to emphasize here that I am very sympathetic to their plight up to, but not beyond, the point where they become disobedient to the authority of the Pope or reject the Magisterium. There is no question that since the 1960s serious Catholics who are deeply attached to the traditions of their faith have been more sinned against than sinning. A highly secularized Western culture has been set implacably against them, and this culture made huge inroads into the Church in the twentieth century, inroads that became highly visible to everybody beginning around the time of the Second Vatican Council. As everyone over the age of fifty-five can attest, throughout the West a deep underlying cultural infection exploded to the surface in the 1960s, bringing about a rapid cultural nosedive that took large sectors of the Church with it.

Very little of this, if any, can be laid at the feet of the Second Vatican Council—a point on which the Church herself emphatically parts company with Traditionalists. The rise of sexual license, easy divorce, the widespread use of contraception, approval of abortion, and the acceptance of homosexuality—key ingredients in the larger Western cultural collapse which penetrated deeply among Catholics—can hardly be traced to Vatican II. Even the seeds of destruction in the intellectual life of the Church were planted long before the Council, with Modernism running strong among university faculties, kept under the surface largely through cultural expectations in the preceding two generations, but waiting for a favorable moment to express itself openly. Before the prohibition of artifical contraception in 1968, dissenting moral theologians already knew exactly who they were, and how strong were their numbers, making possible immediate widespread and public academic rejection of Humanae Vitae as soon as it was released.

Unfortunately, even before it had started work, the Council began to be used in the West by a deeply secularized intelligentsia (theologians and journalists; and many bishops, priests and nuns) as a cover for a far-reaching secularization of Catholic life and worship, a sort of Catholic justification for the age-old human temptation to be of the world rather than merely in it. In the years following the Council, as the cultural malaise deepened, this desire (along with the apparent power to fulfill it) reached fever pitch: To be respected in all the Right Places; to be welcomed and commended by all the Right People; to justify increasingly popular vices; in a word, to be fashionable.

Catholic Implosion

The results (again, throughout the West) were not only traumatic but prolonged. Most major Catholic magazines and journals changed to a Modernist editorial stance, setting up what has been often called a counter-Magisterium; translations of Scripture and the liturgy were truncated theologically and rendered banal; seminaries churned out badly formed priests who frequently dissented from Church teaching, or were just plain ignorant; Catholic universities revealed themselves as the hotbeds of dissent they had already secretly become; religious orders very frequently led the flight from orthodoxy (female religious were particularly a prey to values clarification, feminism and the New Age); catechetics was evacuated of its content, or worse; key Catholic leaders became pro-abortion; preachers seemed to specialize in vapidity when they weren’t actually guilty of heresy; liturgy and liturgical music became a shallow celebration of human community; and bishops were generally either very weak or secretly in favor of it all.

This happened almost overnight, meaning that the weaknesses from which it sprang were already deeply entrenched within the Church well before the Council. Even among those who appeared in 1959 to be perfectly orthodox, the numbers swept into heterodoxy by the first blast of the new cultural winds were staggering—proof, perhaps, of something the Council Fathers apparently realized under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit: Namely, that the Catholic system currently in place was in some respects a shell, and that the Catholic soul was in serious need of renewal. In any case, to the dismay of those who cared, this widespread failure of Catholic leadership and Catholic life was more than a passing hurricane.

It went on, in fact, for more than a generation. Particularly emblematic of this era in the United States was the remarkable fact that the vast majority of positions for diocesan middle management were announced in a single dissenting “Catholic” newspaper that dripped with venom against Rome, the National Catholic Reporter. In other words, lay and religious dissenters were regularly recruited into diocesan administration. Throughout this period a very great deal of what Catholics held dear was either dismissed or openly mocked by both priests and sisters. Private devotions were similarly denigrated and abandoned. Defections from rectories and convents soared. Even neutral observers seriously wondered whether Catholic leaders ever prayed (apart from political purposes). Throughout the West, vocations plummeted.

The fact that, apart from the West, vocations, ordinations and other indicators of ecclesiastical health have been on the rise, based largely on the kind of renewal called for by Vatican II, is further evidence that it was the continuing collapse of Western culture, and not the teachings of the Council, which lay at the root of the problem. In any case, Pope Paul VI felt himself helpless to reverse these cataclysmic trends. He openly lamented on the ninth anniversary of his pontificate that all he had been able to do for the Church was to suffer. And so it was not until the election of John Paul II that Rome began to find a way to address these problems, and even John Paul II apparently concluded that things were too far gone for effective discipline, and that he must wage a long, uphill battle of teaching, exhortation, inspiration and better episcopal appointments.

Gradually things began to settle down: A few good dioceses became models for other dioceses willing to learn; the worst of the Catholic intellectual elite began to age or even to die, and their vision was not such as to inspire disciples; the laity and even, at times, the media began to grasp the iconic power of the papacy; a new and wiser generation of orthodox and militant priests began to rise through the ranks; moreover, much of the West became mission territory, served by priests who were not infected by Western secularism. Meanwhile, the authentic renewal called for by the Second Vatican Council had long since begun among the laity, but for an unforeseen and paradoxical reason: Lay men and women had to throw themselves into faithful apostolic work simply because priests and religious were rarely any longer up to the task. New movements blossomed. Finally, under John Paul II, episcopal appointments did begin to improve (though with such a weakened infrastructure, they were far from flawless). By 1990 it was clear to most observers that things were slowly on the rise; this was even clearer ten years later at the turn of the millennium. Then came the sex abuse crisis, which exposed so much of the long-standing rot for what it was, festering since the nadir of the 1970s, and providing an even stronger motive for reform.

Experiencing the Church

In some dioceses (my own Arlington is an example), faithful Catholics were spared much of this. One encountered it frequently when traveling, but only occasionally at home. Nonetheless, in most places around the United States and in the West generally—Canada, Britain, Europe, Australia and New Zealand—what the Church officially taught was not what Catholics experienced in the teaching of their own churches. What the Church recommended in terms of spiritual growth was not what Catholics experienced in the recommendations of their own churches. And what the Church required even in her reformed liturgy was not what Catholics experienced at Sunday Mass. The times were defined by a vast difference between official theory and local practice which caused constant pain for those who loved the Church, and particularly for those who were attached to traditional forms of worship.

As Catholic education, parish life, and even retreat houses became dominated by the heterodox and the spiritually shallow, a generation of Catholics lost the opportunity for significant formation and, in many cases, that generation was actually formed not by but against the mind of the Church. Many serious Catholics, those who knew better, suffered all this while remaining in their local churches and doing what they could. Indeed, such authentic renewal as we have since witnessed is disproportionately due to their efforts, their suffering and the new vocations their families have fostered. But it is eminently understandable—though not ultimately excusable—that some other serious Catholics instead chose to distance themselves in various ways from the Church in an effort to find spiritual relief. Benedict alluded to precisely this situation, at least with respect to the liturgy, as one of the reasons for mandating, in Summorum Pontificum, wider access to the extraordinary form of the Roman Rite.

I have expressed the judgment that things are slowly improving. Yet the improvements are still only partial, with continuing gaps. Pope John Paul II and Benedict XVI have inspired a rising generation of Catholics. The promulgation of the Catechism of the Catholic Church is gradually leading to sounder and more thorough catechesis at every level. But while seminaries have improved significantly, mainstream Catholic higher education is still largely under dissident control, often operating in direct defiance of Catholic principles. And while the administration of most dioceses has improved, most older religious orders, including the institutes of priestly formation run by male religious, still refuse to reform themselves or to accept unreservedly all that the Church teaches, especially in regard to human sexuality. Sound spiritual direction and excellent retreat opportunities have become more widespread, but the imposition of canonical penalties on the wayward remains rare, and the episcopate is divided over how to handle pro-abortion politicians. But at least now there is a significant division. Let us be very frank about what we are dealing with here. The leaders in the worst dioceses and religious communities, in addition to having permitted themselves to be shamefully co-opted by the larger secular culture, are frequently animated specifically by personal vice (often homosexuality) or by various hybrid spiritualities with pagan roots (sometimes Wicca).

A Deeper Judgment

A nice illustration of how far we have to go in true renewal of the Church is the recent announcement by Cardinal Roger Mahony that Bishop Richard Williamson of the SSPX will be persona non grata in his diocese until he meets Vatican demands respecting his views on the Holocaust. Despite all that is wrong with Bishop Williamson, including his anti-Semitism, this statement by Cardinal Mahony clearly demonstrates that the dark night of the second half of the twentieth century still haunts the Church. It is one thing for Benedict XVI, who has just lifted Bishop Williamson's excommunication, to rebuke Williamson. But in Cardinal Mahony's statement we are treated to the hypocrisy of a major U.S. diocese (Los Angeles) which is known for its “tolerance” of all manner of dissenters against the Divine teachings of the Catholic Faith, and where the one thing that earns condemnation and ostracism is a human judgment about the Holocaust. Why should this be? Could it be because jumping on Bishop Williamson is a sure way to gain respect in all the Right Places by all the Right People?

Meanwhile, in the nearby Diocese of Oakland, Sister Sandra Schneiders, a member of the Sisters Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary who teaches at the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley, has publicly called for non-cooperation with the Vatican’s planned Apostolic Visitation of female religious communities. Thus far Sister Schneiders has not been named persona non grata anywhere or by anyone.

The mind boggles at the sheer inequity of the situation, the sheer continuing inequity after nearly two generations between the treatment key Catholic leaders afford secularists, Modernists and heretics of the left—that is, all those who are in line with the dominant culture of Western fashion—and the treatment they mete out to those who are clinging desperately (albeit sometimes in inappropriate ways) to the Faith of their Fathers. So let it be known that nobody at CatholicCulture.org is unaware of this brutal context, or unwilling to extend the deepest sympathy to those who have been so badly treated.

We have our differences with Traditionalists, and will continue from time to time to point them out. We will also defend the Church against all those who undermine her authority from either side. But Traditionalists find themselves where they are now in part because they have been driven there by a great many unfaithful Catholic leaders. Therefore, an important judgment remains to be made, a judgment which Benedict XVI has himself given some evidence of sharing, and a judgment which (despite the unavoidable failure of the implied analogy) may be paraphrased from Christ’s words to Pilate in the Gospel of John. It is simply this: Those who handed them over are guilty of the greater sin.

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