Traditionalism and Liturgy

In recent posts here on MaryVictrix, I have voiced my concerns regarding certain ideas associated with Catholic Traditionalism.  I have also promised to follow upon on my “Traditionalist Sleight of Hand” post. While this present essay is not exactly the next installment of that series it does serve the purpose of making my basic concerns clearer, and perhaps the motivation behind my taking issue with traditionalism.  In this post I define what I mean by “traditionalism” and its relation (or lack thereof) to the Extraordinary Form of the Mass.  In the next post, appearing in a day or two, I will try to articulate the motivations behind Benedict XVI’s formalization of the biformity (two forms) of the Roman Rite and the reason why this is no way a capitulation to traditionalism.

Traditionalism Defined

I have given my definition of traditionalism before, but since it is so important, I am devoting a separate post to the matter. “Traditionalism” can mean many things depending on the circumstances.  I am not referring to the heresy condemned by Vatican I.  Nor am I talking about the philosophical trend of thought also known as Perennialism.  Both of these forms of “traditionalism” are anti-modern, not just critical of modernity, but fundamentally opposed to it.  One might argue that the traditionalism that specifically concerns me is also anti-modern and not just anti-Modernist, but I would not suggest that what I am talking about is essentially defined in relation to modernity.

I should also say that “traditional” Catholics are divided as to the use of the term.  Different people define it differently, and, depending on the definition, some willingly apply the term to themselves and others repudiate it.  As has been pointed out here by another before, some think the name “traditionalist” should be dropped altogether insofar as might be applied to Catholics.  I will not dispute that the use of the term risks misunderstanding.  I will not even claim of having any definitive response as to whether its use ought to be continued in the long run.  But I do believe the present status quaestionis makes the distinction necessary.

By traditionalism, then, I mean that ideology by which Catholics, in the name of conserving Tradition, take it upon themselves to determine what magisterial act does and does not belong to Catholic Tradition.  By calling traditionalism an “ideology” I mean to indicate that it consists of integrated assertions—in the line of contingent opinions—that come together to form an airtight and complete theory for the reconstruction of Catholic life according to the Tradition of the Church.  I argue that this ideology pretends to solve contingent problems by submitting the living magisterium to a scientific analysis and then insists that the magisterium, including the Holy Father, either prove the analysis wrong or conform to it.

It is very important to make clear that my position in no way implies a denial of the real distinction between fallible and infallible magisterial teaching, nor should it be thought to render pointless honest academic inquiry into the formulation of magisterial teachings and their historical context, thus helping to determine more accurately their relative value as part of the received Tradition.  My point in respect to what I consider traditionalism is that at this moment, in the context of current controversies, it represents an obstinate prejudice against an ecumenical council and fifty years of papal teaching.  According to this rupturist interpretation, the Council was not misrepresented and abused by those who have no regard for Tradition; Tradition was misrepresented and abused by the Council itself.  My insistence on the use of the term “traditionalism”—at least for now—is due to the fact that the current of thought here described is real and distinct, and not clearly acknowledged by a great many “traditional” Catholics.  This problem is not a matter reserved to the SSPX and more radical traditionalists and sedevacantists, but includes many who would not consider themselves traditionalists and who believe that they are perfectly faithful to the teaching of Benedict XVI.

I should also point out that my definition implies nothing directly about liturgical preferences.  A preference for the Extraordinary Form of the Mass does not by my definition make one a traditionalist, nor would a preference for the Ordinary Form in itself absolve one from the charge, since my definition formally has only to do with the relationship of the magisterium to Tradition.  It just so happens that the liturgical tradition is at the center of most disputes regarding the living magisterium’s fidelity to Tradition, and, therefore, the Extraordinary Form has become a kind of banner for a certain kind for crusade for the restoration of Tradition.  I have, in fact, met Catholics who, although they prefer the English Mass, have many questions as to whether the Church has been faithful to Tradition, and sometimes even subscribe to the same conspiracy theories promulgated by those sympathetic with the Society of St. Pius X.

A Bit of Background

In the past and due to my own failure to provide a context, my remarks concerning traditionalism have been misinterpreted as some kind of prejudice against the Extraordinary Form of the Mass.  I wish to dispel this idea.

My community, the Franciscan Friars of the Immaculate, is a “reform of the reform” community and has been long before this idea became popular.  More than twenty-five years ago I was attracted to the FI, in part, because of its reverent celebration of the novus ordo according to the rubrics, and its readiness to incorporate the use of Latin and Gregorian chant into the liturgy.  I know that many of our friars, sisters, tertiaries and members of our liturgical congregations have been attracted for the same reasons.  This attraction has helped to produce many vocations to religious life and continues to be a reason why people come to our friaries and attend our liturgies.

My experience of the novus ordo, in my religious community has always included the use of Latin and Gregorian chant, communion on the tongue with the use of communion plates, the reception of communion kneeling at an altar rail, and for the last four or five years, in most of our American communities, Mass is also celebrated ad orientem regardless of which form is used.  I realize that my experience of the novus ordo for more than two decades has been significantly different from the average Catholic, and that I have been spared a great deal of pain, frustration and scandal within the walls of my community.  But this simply confirms for me that the problems are fundamentally matters of abuse and not of the Ordinary Form itself.  The idea that somehow one is deprived of graces in the use of the Ordinary Form, or that vibrant Catholic communities faithful to Tradition cannot be formed on the basis of the novus ordo I know to be patently false.  The arguments to the contrary, I personally believe to be fundamentally ideological.  I appreciate the historical reasons why to many these arguments seem plausible and convincing, but I am still convinced that they are wrong.  The historical arguments are not free of a priori ideological underpinnings.

In respect to the Extraordinary Form I have a fair amount of experience.  I eagerly learned to celebrate the Mass according the Missal of Pius V, sometime between 1995 and 1998 for several reasons.  One reason is because I was attracted to it and believed it would be helpful to me as a priest, and the other reason—the one that was determinative, since at that time as a community we did not make use of the older form of the liturgy—was that there was a priest in the diocese in which I reside that needed a substitute from time to time to celebrate a weekly Mass for a group of traditional Catholics that had connections with a schismatic group.  The Mass was being made available as an indult alternative to the Masses being offered by the irregular community.  At the time when I learned to celebrate the vetus ordo, I was the only American priest that could do so, aside from the several older priests who had been ordained before the Council.  I was also one of the very few in our Institute worldwide that celebrated the old rite at all.  I simply have never had a problem with the old rite and I can say I fully appreciate Pope Benedict’s remarks about the two forms of the Roman rite having a “mutually enriching” influence on each other.

My experience also includes pastoral ministry to individuals with a traditionalist background and mindset.  I am very familiar with the arguments that are routinely presented, and with the alienation and isolation experienced by those attached to the old form because of complete lack of sympathy for Tradition and the Mass of Pius V on the part of priests and bishops.  I have seen a wide spectrum of beliefs and practices, some quite balanced and some bordering on the neurotic.  For, example I have known for many years families who attend the novus ordo during the week and the vetus ordo on Sunday, and I have known couples who refused to be married in a regularized Church even according to the old form, because they believed the even that would be a compromise.  And I have witnessed even more extreme positions than this.

When the Motu Proprio, Summorum Pontificum was promulgated in 2007, our institute received it with enthusiasm, as I did personally and as did all the friars in the United States.  We generally understood the Motu Proprio to indicate the venerable status of the vetus ordo and the legitimate aspirations of those who were attached to it.  Furthermore, as a means to promote the reform of the reform, Pope Benedict wished to make the celebration of what he now termed the Extraordinary Form more widely available.  This was a matter, he said, of “reconciliation at the heart of the Church.”  I have always supported this reconciliation.  I continue to do so and strive to conform to the mind of the Church, according to the teaching and directions of Pope Benedict.

More on this in the next post.

4 thoughts on “Traditionalism and Liturgy

  1. Pingback: The Spirit of Summorum Pontificum « Mary Victrix

  2. Pingback: A Year of Faith or a Year of Doubt? « Mary Victrix

  3. I’m still digesting this post, but wanted to say that I find your definition helpful in understanding specifically what problem people have with traditionalism (and perhaps what problem I should have with it), particularly the part about “submitting the living magisterium to a scientific analysis”.

  4. Pingback: The problem with traditionalism | Agellius's Blog

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