I have been wanting to write this post for a while. Since Vatican II there has appeared among the Catholic faithful a division between “liberal” Catholics on the “left,” “traditionalist” Catholics on the “right,” and just plain Catholic Catholics who think both sides are absurd. I consider myself in the third group. In other words, I am Catholic.
Catholics of three varieties. Left: “liberal.” Middle: “conservative.” Right: Catholic.
Now the “liberal” Catholics hardly need an answer (although I suppose at some later date I’ll post a modernized version of G. K. Chesterton’s response to them, which is that “liberal” theology is anything but liberal or liberating or broad-minded). The traditionalist Catholics on the other hand make their voices heard loud and clear, often trolling any forum where the word “Catholic” appears. The reason they need to be answered is that they claim to be the last and sole defenders of true Catholicism. Confront a “liberal” Catholic about his faith, and he’ll shrug. Confront a “Traditionalist” Catholic about his faith, and he’ll tell you that yours is heretical.
So that there’s no confusion, allow me to define the terms. “Liberal” and “Traditionalist” are very loaded words that describe a wide array of people, both orthodox and unorthodox. In the context of this particular blog post, the terms mean the following:
Liberal Catholic – A cultural Catholic who thinks that he doesn’t necessarily have to believe what the Church teaches in order to be considered Catholic. “Catholic” is a self-given category. Affectionate nickname: “cafeteria Catholics” (Hmm, environmental concern looks good today, but I’m not feeling the whole Mass-on-Sundays entree).
Traditionalist Catholic – does NOT mean someone who likes the Tradition of the Church, although they’re big on that. By that broad definition, I would be a Traditionalist myself by dint of loving chant and incense. No, Traditionalism is a definite -ism – that is, it is a sectarian tendency where certain conservative-minded Catholics think that Vatican II was a big mistake and that the only way to be Catholic is to be preconciliar. Traditionalism is not merely an aesthetic choice, but a rejection in some form of the teachings of Vatican II, whether theologically or practically.
Preconciliar, by the way, simply means pre-Vatican II.
Now, the main thing I want to address is the facile saying that is bandied about by both liberals and Traditionalists regarding the latest Church council: that Vatican II represents the “modernization” of the Church. Now for the liberals, this supposed modernization is a cause for joy. For Traditionalists, it is proof that Vatican II is not a true council of the Church, or perhaps a “lesser” Council, or, worst of all: that the texts of the Council are in fact strongly Traditionalist and wouldn’t have changed anything if the filthy liberals hadn’t hijacked the whole operation and used the Counsel as an excuse to turn the Church on its head. While I agree that the common interpretation of the texts has been largely misguided and incorrect, it would be a mistake to think that the Church didn’t seek serious reform. The universal Church only calls a Council when it really really wants to shake things up.
Now, I have many objections to the Traditionalist agenda (yes, agenda). Beyond the fact that there is always a “more-Traditional-than-the-Council-or-the-Pope” group that splinters off after any Ecumenical Council (Nestorians after Ephesus, Oriental Orthodox after Chalcedon, the Old Catholic Church after Vatican I); and beyond the fact that Traditionalists often confuse Tradition with a capital T (the Apostolic Creed) with tradition with a lower-case t (the Tridentine Rite, vestments with too much French lace, etc); the main objection to Traditionalism is that it is fighting modernism with modernism, fire with fire.
Little does Traditionalism know that Vatican II was not the “modernization” of the Church, but the de-modernization. Vatican II attempted to remove the rashes of modernism that had appeared on the Church by way of contamination. The symptoms of Traditionalist Catholicism are the symptoms of a Church worn out and disillusioned by modernism. The Traditionalist Catholicism is the preconciliar Catholicism – it is the Catholicism that was so sick it needed a huge Council to heal its wounds.
In other words, my main objection to Traditionalism is that it is modern.
If you don’t believe me, stay a while.
It is the great irony of Traditionalism that it considers itself the sole bulwark against the blight of secular Enlightenment while itself existing as a product of the Enlightenment. Many of the forms and figures of the preconciliar Church are beautifully medieval, and admittedly most Traditionalists hearken with fondness upon the days of yore when there was no separation of Church and State. However, as much as Traditionalists would like to think of themselves as medieval men bringing medieval insight into the modern world, they are thoroughly modern and don’t know it. It is impossible to be a man born in the wrong time. If you are born and raised in the modern world, then you are a modern man, usually of either the run-with-the-herd type or bunker-down-and-be-reactionary type. The Church is neither (the Church is bunker-down-and-love-the-herd), whereas Traditionalists are strongly of the second kind.
There are 11 specific ways I can think of in which Traditionalist Catholics exhibit the effects of modernism, and they are:
1. Individualism – The most obvious way in which preconciliar Catholics are modern is the radical individualism that crept into the Church, especially in the realm of personal spirituality. Medieval popular devotion was always the devotion of great public miracles and great public garlands on great public statues in great public parades through public places. Somehow, partially because of the influence of Irish Catholicism which was practically subterranean under the heel of British Protestantism, the Church of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries became one of every-mystic-for-himself. Faith was not something one preached (despite the best example of Francis of Assisi). Miracles and locutions were not something one shared (despite the examples of Paul and Joan of Arc). Private devotions were the norm, ostensibly because of modesty, but one can only guess that all this over-seclusion in the name of humility was just a little related to Nietzsche’s supremely proud Superman. Sometimes humility means exposing yourself to the taunts of the world (and of fellow Catholics) by announcing what Christ has done for you. Sometimes humility requires that you sacrifice the outer appearance of humility and have people think you too loud.
2. Rationalism – Now, rationalism can have a good meaning, as when Chesterton or
Socrates ask others to look at the facts and be rational. The rationalism of modernism (and Traditionalism), however, is not so much an attitude as a narrow anti-dogma. The cry of the Enlightenment was to do away with “superstitions” in favor of an increasingly deterministic and rule-abiding universe. In some corners (German philosophy, ugh) this meant the suppression of values like emotion and mysticism. The rationalism of the Enlightenment had all the devil-fearing scrupulosity of the Spanish Inquisition and all the dry bookishness of late Scholasticism, but without the steering faith of popular devotions or the levity of mysticism. Traditionalism often succumbs to this modern version of rationalism by turning faith into a regimented, formal, non-emotional decision of the intellect. There is no room for the heartfelt confession of Paul or the humbled paradox of Kierkegaard in Traditionalism. Even the dark night of faith in Pseudo-Dionysus and John of the Cross is distorted, becoming less and less a personal relationship with the Divine and more and more a stubborn adherence to certain rational creeds. Even miracles are constricted – rather than being the sorts of spontaneous acts of Divine Will that can only be considered pure, undeserved grace, there was a notion that miracles occurred under certain conditions in certain ways. Eucharistic Miracles and Incorruptible bodies might happen among the faithful, but not healings or prophecies among pagans. God might give an exalted priest the ability to read hearts, but God forbid that a simple farmer multiply loaves. There had to be, so to speak, laboratory conditions for miracles, and the miracles had to be of a decidedly Roman variety.
3. Determinism – With the advent of Newtonian physics, the world had its first coherent view of the universe since Aristotle. The fact that Newton could describe all movement with the basic ideas of gravity and inertia created a rushing enthusiasm for the idea of a cause-effect universe. The trend became, in the philosophy of science especially, to consider everything in nature as a chain of material cause-effect going back forever in time; and, if one could only discover the initial conditions of the universe, one could figure out exactly where the universe was determined to end up. These ideas lead to a “clock-maker” view of God – that God started the whole chain of events that we now live in, but hasn’t done much since. Now, obviously Christianity is directly and fundamentally opposed to the idea of the clock-maker God since its whole thesis is that God acts in history through ordinary matter. Despite the constant preaching of the Church to the contrary, Catholicism fell at least partially into this “clock-maker” view. The Age of Miracles was over, and man had to move forward without the same consolation that many Saints were privileged to receive; he only had a vague notion in his mind that an utterly Transcendent God had started the universe and sent his Son and done a few miracles once upon a time, but was pretty hands-off ever since and was pretty much content to leave us to the Pope and enjoy the prayers that came His way.
4. Gnosticism – Gnosticism is the age-old temptation to believe that the universe is split between a good spiritual world and evil physical world. A perfidious indefatigable thorn in Christianity’s side, Gnosticism lived strong in paganism and stronger in the Renaissance, and grew into new and terrible forms during the Industrial Age. The most obvious Gnostic trends were toward a sort of quasi-orientalism called Theosophy and cults with various degrees of relatedness to it like Freemasonry. Traditionalism is radically opposed to Freemasonry to a refreshingly extreme degree, so how is it Gnostic? In exactly four ways. There are four “heresies” of Gnosticism that Vatican II sought to destroy: orientalism, puritanism, elitism, and Pelagianism. I will address each below as its own aspect of modernism.
5. Orientalism/Dualism – Orientalism, for our purposes, is the trend in human thinking (which seems to get more prevalent the more eastward one goes historically or geographically) toward mind and away from matter, i.e. the trend toward immaterialism. While half the modern world was sinking into the determinism of scientific materialism, the other half of the world – the poets and artists – where running from it into the equally bleak hole of immateriality. Just as many Catholics pre-Vatican II had drifted into impersonal materialism, in other parts there was an equal and opposite tendency toward living a little too much in the clouds. As the section on rationalism demonstrated above, the preconciliar Church had a strong lean toward the mind to the neglect of the body. Not that the Church’s teaching was ever really obscured – in popular piety and social reform there was always the distinctly Catholic concern for the world – but in some dark corners Catholics began to forget the implications of the Incarnation. It was not just that Christ had brought man up to God, but that God had come down to Earth to be embodied. Our flesh and blood, once an obstacle to God, was now something that shared in God’s nature through the person of Christ. Traditionalist Catholicism often forgets this fact and puts all its emphasis on the Divinity of Christ (as if His staggering humanity was not important). This is an old heresy, broadly called Gnosticism, but more specifically called Docetism.
6. Puritanism/Prudism – Since Gnosticism’s main drift is that the physical world is the product of evil, it is only natural that one of the lowest and most unholy things in the Gnostic worldview is human sexuality. Human sexuality, according to a Gnostic outlook, ties man down to his illusory animal nature and prevents him from ascending to the fulfillment of his personal divinity. Rather than being something so sacred that it can only be talked about with reverence – as in Christianity – sex becomes something that, if spoken, earns a bar of soap in the mouth and a hard spanking. Before John Paul II reminded us of the dignity of sexuality – how it confirms Incarnation and Trinity and Creation and every other basic belief of the Church – Catholics had begun to fall into a Gnostic fear of God’s gift of human intimacy. Medieval modesty became prudishness, medieval chastity became mere abstinence, and the channeling torrent of sexual energy that allowed for Crusades to be fought and Cathedrals to be built turned into a swampy repression.
7. Elitism – Another major trend in Gnosticism is the idea of an elect few being destined by their superiority to possess special secrets that are too “high” and esoteric for the common man. The word “Gnostic” comes from the Greek word gnosis, which means knowledge. It is this fact that more than anything else makes Gnosticism the ultimate heresy, because it is the sin of the Fall. ‘Eat of the Tree of Knowledge and you will be gods.’
Now, it is a fact of Revelation that those who have been Baptized are part of Christ’s “elect,” but all this is to say that God freely and undeservingly chooses people to be his followers. It is to God’s glory, not our own, that we are Catholic. Being Catholic says nothing about us except that God had mercy on us and loved us while we were yet sinners. However, deep in the soul of the Catholic body there arose a modern monster that threatened to swallow the entire Church. There arose an increasingly club-like mentality about Catholicism that treated legal Catholic membership like a special pass into Heaven. It caused major strife between Protestants and Catholics, because Catholics were – after all – the special, good, holy, saved people, and Protestants were nothing but filthy schismatics. This pride, this root of all sin, this vanity of vanities, was at its peak before Vatican II, and often survives in the shape of Traditionalism. It is the antithesis of the Gospel message: that Christ came to us rotten sinners, that he even saved the Gentiles, and that His law is now not written merely on the stone tablets of the walls of St. Peters, but in the hearts of men whom He loves to save. Yes, God even (especially) loves to save Protestants.
8. Pelagianism – When I talk about Pelagianism, I am talking about a specific view of salvation which happens to be the Gnostic one. According to Christianity, man is saved primarily by grace. Despite the narrow faith-centric view of grace in Protestantism, or the more encompassing view of grace in Catholicism, all Christians can more or less agree that we are saved by the free gift of God. The central message of the Gospel is that we do not deserve our salvation, but it is nevertheless given to us in love and mercy. The Church says our works are a component of the ongoing relationship between us and God that proceeds from Christ’s saving act. We can do good works only through grace, and our works are a practical demonstration of our cooperation with God. This is the opposite of Pelagianism, which says that man earns grace through works.Sadly, the majority of Catholics even to this day are still tainted by this false doctrine. Traditionalists, since they ignore the teachings of Vatican II, often reject the cure for this disease and thus remain ill. The very modern heresy remains among them: that man cannot rely on God, for that would be too Lutheran, but has to strike out on his own and be good enough by effort to approach the throne of God. With this attitude, the throne of God will never be reached.
9. Institutionalism – I do not think it is a coincidence that as the gilded Industrial Age produced mercantile giants like Rockefeller with conspicuously pyramid-shaped business models and giant golden capstones, the members of the Church became likewise obsessed with whatever pyramid tier lay above them. That is to say: the Church has always had a strong hierarchical structure from the time of the Apostles, but the way the preconciliar Catholics saw their own hierarchy was a little too modern. In medieval times there was a sense of equality even between Princes and Serfs, where a Prince was called to be a Prince and had dignity as a Prince, while a Serf was called to be a Serf and had dignity as a Serf. In Apostolic times, the privilege of being a leader was less an honor and more a cross. In the Darwinian modern age, however, dignity was determined like survival: by the fittest. While the social role was perhaps more defined between Saint Louis IX and his serfs, the difference of dignity was drastically more important between Thomas Edison and his goons. Now, it has always been the policy of the Church to respect the authority of its Bishops and the dignity of its priests, but there arose among the faithful an almost masochistic delight in priestly authority and an almost (not even almost) vain privilege for being a priest. The temptations of lording-it-over were less the material temptations (simony, lust) of the medieval Church, but the more dangerous temptations of spiritual pride. Religious people were “special” in a way that left lay people decidedly un-special. This is called clericalism.
The other side of institutionalism lies in:
10. Materialism – HOW ON EARTH can the preconciliar Church be materialistic? Haven’t I just said that its sins were often Gnostic, oriental, immaterial, and spiritual? The sickness of materialism still managed to leave its mark in an extension of institutionalism called formalism. The preconciliar Church was obsessed with the visible Church in the most literal and material way. Only those who were Mass-attending Roman Catholics who subscribed to a very particular and culturally-relative liturgical aesthetic were saved. In this sense many Catholics were too concerned with the outer form. The healthy obsession of Catholicism with sacramentality – that God works in stuff like bread and oil – became an unhealthy obsession with form to the point where sacramental theology seemed a little too much like chemistry. Bread + these words + these intentions + etc = a perfect and valid Eucharist. I am not suggesting that this kind of attention to detail is even remotely bad when dealing with something as important as the Eucharist, but the spiritual emphasis was on the wrong thing, on ingredients instead of grace. Beautiful Churches are invaluable, but beautiful souls are God’s first priority, and he finds these among the meek, the poor, the pagan, the prostitute, and even the non-Catholic.
11. Capitalism – The last and most curious way in which Traditionalist Catholicism seems to be modern is the bizarre love of capitalism that I have found in many (not all) of its adherents. I don’t think there’s any good reason for this aberration except that American Traditionalists tend to also be American Conservatives. I think it must be an accident of personality; the kind of people who are attracted to Traditionalism are the same that are generally attracted to conservative politics, and thus a lot of them happen to be Capitalists. I would like to point out that the Church, before and after Vatican II, has always been moderately against capitalism, almost as much as it is against socialism. Pope Leo XIII famously advocated what is sometimes called Distributism as an alternative to capitalism and socialism. It is entirely possible that modern American capitalism could be made to coincide with Catholic and Distruibutist ideals with a little tweaking (for example, by not outsourcing work to sweat-shops in Asia). However, it would be a hilarious mistake to think that conservative economics = Catholic economics.
These are only the parallels I could think of, but suffice to say that Traditionalism, in being the enemy of modernism, is its own worst enemy (although not a very effective one). The Church is and always will be Traditional, but it never has nor ever will be Traditionalist. Tradition is the current of the Holy Spirit through the Church; Tradition never has anything to do with the past, because Christ is the Lord of the present. The Church has never grieved for the passing of the ages or desired to return to “the way things used to be”; it has always lived squarely in the Present. If something is left in the past, then it is not Tradition with a capital T, for Tradition is a living thing, and living things tend to reside in the Now.