Prodigal Trads and the Holy Father
Do liturgical dissenters deserve whatever sanctions the Vatican is preparing? Do they need them?
Back when I was an Episcopalian, my greatest comfort was knowing that, if I ever got fed up with all the left-wing lady-vicars, I could pull up my stakes and start my own church. This is what’s known as “Protestant privilege.”
Now I’m a Catholic, and it turns out that folks in Rome do things rather differently. Catholics are not followers of a theologian named Cathol, the way Calvinists are followers of a theologian named Calvin. We don’t have a founding father. (Well, there’s Jesus. But Protestants get angry when we say things like that.) To call someone a Catholic, then, doesn’t necessarily mean anything except “a member of the Catholic Church.”
Of course, there are good Catholics and bad Catholics. Some of us are orthodox and some are heretics; most don’t know the difference between the two, and probably never have, God bless them.
Some heretics are excommunicated, of course, though it’s rare. One rather noisy dissident named Hans Küng passed away just a few months ago. Though forbidden from teaching at Catholic institutions for the last 40 years of his life, Fr. Küng was never excommunicated. He died a Catholic. That is to say, he died a member of the Catholic Church—if not always a believer in the Catholic Faith.
The point is, when starting a new church is out of the question, you need to develop subtler methods. We think of Martin Luther nailing his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of All Saints Church as the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, but that’s not true. Back in 1517, Fr. Luther was just Augustinian monk. He was virtually unknown outside of eastern Germany. He was only trying to stop the sale of indulgences. He certainly wasn’t trying to start a new religion.
And, for a while, he was surprisingly tactful. As he wrote among his theses, “Bishops and curates are bound to admit the commissaries of papal indulgences with all reverence. But they are much more bound to strain their eyes and ears, lest these men preach their own dreams instead of what the pope has commissioned.”
Of course, Luther didn’t get his way. That’s when he started saying things like “papist and ass are one and the same thing,” calling us “shameless nincompoops,” etc.
Go back another thousand years or so and you have orthodox Catholics feuding with the Arians: a sect of Christians who denied the divinity of Christ. For a while, it looked as if the Arians would win control of the Church.
In A.D. 325, the Council of Nicaea was converged to settle the matter once and for all. At the Council, St. Nicholas of Myra (Santa Claus) confronted Arius, the heretics’ leader. The exchange became so heated that Nicholas struck Arius. The Council then declared Arianism a heresy, and nearly all of Arius’s supporters relented.
Church history tends to look less like the young Fr. Luther and more like old St. Nick. Still, you get the idea. To be a Catholic means to share a pew with people you don’t like and can’t agree with. You might respond by nailing a well-argued missive to their door, or you may just pop them in the mouth.
I and many of my fellow “traditionalist” Catholics see a little Nicholas of Myra in ourselves—though I suspect we’re more like Martin Luther. What we think of as righteous fury comes across to everyone else as self-righteous anger.
For instance, Catholic media is abuzz with reports that Pope Francis will either abolish or (what’s far more likely) restrict access to the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite, commonly known as the Latin Mass. Traditionalist bloggers and vloggers are naturally up in arms. Having attended the Extraordinary Form almost exclusively since I was received into the Church, I can’t say I’m exactly thrilled, either.
Yet few of us will ask how exactly we came to this juncture. Many of us would like to forget that, when Francis took office, he was an eager friend to us Latin-Massers. Michael Matt, the editor of the Remnant—and now one of Francis’s most strident critics—defended his record in 2013:
Cardinal Bergoglio did not block the old Latin Mass and in fact set up at least a church in his diocese for its celebration. Has this been verified? Not definitively, however, we’ve already unearthed one Spanish-language news report which has it that within 48 hours after Summorum Pontificum Cardinal Bergoglio had already approved St. Michael’s parish in downtown Buenos Aires for the purpose of offering the old Mass.
That same year, Jeffrey Tucker, editor of New Liturgical Movement, heaped praise on the new pope for his nuanced understanding of the Latin Mass. Tucker was impressed that Francis referred to the Extraordinary Form as the Vetus Ordo, the “Old Order,” as the Ordinary Form is widely referred to as the Novus Ordo. He said he was thoroughly convinced of the Holy Father’s “sincerity, humility, and intelligence.”
From his first days in the Chair of St. Peter, Francis began working to regularize the Society of St. Pius X: an order of traditionalist priests who broke with Rome following the Second Vatican Council. In my 2018 interview with the Society’s leader, Bishop Bernard Fellay, he had nothing but good things to say about the pope.
In fact, Bishop Fellay recalled a startling conversation with the Holy Father, in which Francis told him: “Some people in the Church aren’t happy when I do good to you. I tell them, ‘Listen, I do good to Protestants. I do good to Anglicans. Why shouldn’t I do good to these Catholics?’” Bishop Fellay said that Francis read a biography of the Society’s founder, Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre—read it twice, as a matter of fact—and then said, “You know, they have treated them badly.”
No traditionalist will deny that Pope Francis took a great deal of heat from progressives for making these friendly overtures towards the Society. It wasn’t a trick; it wasn’t a ploy. Reconciling the SSPX to Rome is something he believed in strongly.
Hell, in 2014, Francis even appointed Robert Cardinal Sarah Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship. What kind of modernist chooses the world’s most prominent traditionalist for his liturgy czar?
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Obviously, something changed. Something turned Francis against the Latin Mass community.
As it happens, Francis gave us the answer in an interview with America magazine, which he granted shortly after being elected pope. When the conversation moved towards Vatican II, Francis said: “I think the decision of Pope Benedict [to promulgate Summorum Pontificum] was prudent…. What is worrying, though, is the risk of the ideologization of the Vetus Ordo, its exploitation.”
Well, that’s exactly what happened.
As the Francis papacy wore on, and as the controversies piled up—“Who am I to judge?”, Amoris Laetitia, the McCarrick scandal, the Abu Dhabi declaration, the Affair of the Pachamama, etc.—traditionalists began to grow wary of the Holy Father. And I believe that our suspicions are often warranted.
I also believe that most of Francis’s actions can be reconciled with Catholic orthodoxy. It depends on whether you choose to interpret his papacy in the best or the worst possible light. I think, as Catholics, we should err on the side of the former. As St. Ignatius of Loyola said, “Every good Christian ought to be more ready to give a favorable interpretation to another’s statement than to condemn it.”
Which we may agree with in theory. But we don’t always act like it, do we?
As anyone familiar with the trad scene will know, “traditionalism” these days is defined as much by its hostility towards Pope Francis as it is by love of the Latin Mass. A whole cottage industry of anti-papal media appeared on the Catholic Right. Books were published with titles like The Political Pope (George Neumayr) and The Dictator Pope (Henry Sire). We called him a Marxist and a modernist. We held invite-only protests and circulated open letters calling him a heretic. Traddy “influencers” sell t-shirts and coffee mugs celebrating the “Dubia Brothers” or declaring “V is for Vigano” or urging our comrades to “#ResistFrancis.” Not very subtle.
Speaking of Archbishop Vigano, not only is it distinctly possible that he himself is complicit in the McCarrick cover-up, but during the 2016 election he issued a string of bizarre, apocalyptic prophecies about how President Trump would lead the “children of light” in a great struggle against the “deep church” and save Rome from her enemies—including, presumably, Pope Francis.
If that’s not “ideologization,” I don’t know what is.
As traditionalists assumed this defiant posture towards Francis, the pope did the same towards us. In 2018, he published an exhortation warning about the dangers posed by certain “neo-Pelagians” who “feel superior to others because they observe certain rules or remain intransigently faithful to a particular Catholic style”—an obvious swipe at traditionalists.
In 2016—about eight months after the publication of Amoris Laetitia—Francis was again asked about young people who prefer the Latin Mass. This time, he gave a very different answer: “I ask myself: Why so much rigidity? Dig, dig. This rigidity always hides something, insecurity or even something else. Rigidity is defensive. True love is not rigid.”
I’ve attended the Latin Mass on two continents and interacted with thousands of trads around the world. I can say without hesitation that most are not rigid, defensive neo-Pelagians. But if your only exposure to the Latin Mass community came via the internet—and bear in mind that Westerners’ experience of everything is mediated by the Almighty Screen—I can see why you might take a rather low view of the traditionalist movement.
The fact is that no other “clique” within the Church shares our reputation for disobedience and uncharity. Whether it’s the Eastern Catholics, or the Anglican Ordinariate, or the JPII fanatics, or the mommy bloggers who are really into Tolkien and essential oils…trads are in a league of our own here.
And this “trad fatigue” is affecting traditionalists as well. I’ve talked to so many trads over the last few months who are walking away from the Latin Mass, maybe forever. They can’t muster enough hatred for the bishops to fit in with the scene. They can’t stomach any more twaddle about “Antipope Bergoglio,” the “Lavender Mafia,” and the “African Queen.” They can’t sit through another rant about Cardinal Cupich or Fr. Martin. That’s not what they signed up for.
This, I think, is why Cardinal Sarah has asked us to drop the trad label altogether:
Some, if not many, people call you “traditionalists.” Sometimes you even call yourselves “traditional Catholics” or hyphenate yourselves in a similar way. Please do this no longer. You do not belong in a box on the shelf or in a museum of curiosities. You are not traditionalists: you are Catholics of the Roman Rite—as am I, and as is the Holy Father.
You are not second-class or somehow peculiar members of the Catholic Church because of your life of worship and your spiritual practices, which were those of innumerable saints. You are called by God, as is every baptized person, to take your full place in the life and mission of the Church in the world of today, not to be shut up in—or worse, to retreat into a ghetto, in which defensiveness and introspection reign and stifle the Christian witness and mission to the world you too are called to give.
Not for nothing did both Francis and Cardinal Sarah detect a whiff of the “defensive” in traddy circles. If the Vatican thinks they can only tear down the traditionalist “ghetto” by restricting access to the Latin Mass, they’re wrong. But, as Cardinal Sarah warned, it’s up to us to prove it.
G.K. Chesterton said, “There is many a convert who has reached a stage at which no word from any Protestant or pagan could any longer hold him back. Only the word of a Catholic can keep him from Catholicism.” Likewise, at some point, nothing could stop the momentum behind the traditionalist movement—nothing, of course, except us trads.