Many true Catholics positively bristle at the very mention of ecumenism. We have all seen what a thoroughly unqualified disaster the Vatican-II ecumenism has been to the spiritual life of all Catholics affected, indeed positively scandalized, by it. But is all "ecumenism" necessarily bad? Not when it is considered as the oecumenism in unifying those who believe in the same thing without compromising. Yet, I believe that there are those who have a similar trouble with ecumenism among traditional Catholics, not for any damage such Trad-oecumenism has ever caused (for it has caused absolutely none), but merely the same hot-button word as that which destroyed the Vatican II-created conciliar counter-church.
There are any number of traditional Catholics who set up some website and thereby hang out their shingle as some sort of expert on the subject, very often practically excommunicating (in everything but name - and some unfortunate few even do that) those who disagree with them on every little thing. These sorts of writers put out their own amateur lay theologian's opinions on web pages and blogs as though they are God's Own truths from on high, and everyone had better get with the program! And everyone who doesn't is obviously not a Catholic, so their opinions to the contrary or anything else they have to say counts for nothing.
Fortunately, such online terrors are only the tiniest minority of traditional Catholics, the vast majority of whom simply attend Mass and receive the sacraments as needed from traditional Catholic clergy and do their best to keep from sin, support their local traditional priest, and see to their families. And of course a few others do maintain sensible and modest Websites. One often needs to keep sight of this salient fact. When one reads all the negativism one finds on the net, it all has extremely little to do with what actual traditional Catholics, by and far, really believe or think. It is primarily the unhappy souls who use the net (either their own sites, or blogging sites) to air their gripes and vent their frustration with the fact that things are not going their way.
Some of these types (I won't name names) can even create websites that superficially seem respectable and which may even attain some limited popularity among those few who share similar opinions. But one pet peeve these negative types almost all seem to have is Trad-oecumenism. They simply cannot tolerate the possibility that other people might be right, or at least have a legitimate opinion about some question the Church has never definitively settled. So of course they condemn those who organize conferences and invite any as desire to attend, regardless of whether they are SSPX, remnant-resistance, Indultarian, sedevacantist, other independent, or whatever. They even accuse those who organize and attend such conferences as being uninterested in the Truth, as if they all just decided to ignore their differences in some great traditionalist group hug. But if they really weren't interested in the Truth they would not bother to become traditional Catholics.
They complain because there were Catholics of all stripes seen at some conference or spiritual retreat. I think these types would also like to run the Church the same way they apparently think conferences should be run - by posting a guard at the door and not let anyone pass who does not already agree to some "position" set they personally subscribe to. "Oh, you are a (fill in the blank). You are not invited. Come back when you decide to become a Catholic by subscribing to all my opinions about everything."
Believe it or not (where are you, Ripley, when we need you?) many of these sorts seem to actually believe that such an attempt to enforce their opinions thus actually provides the Church with a source of unity. Hey, if everybody believed all the same exact things, we would be united. So, if everybody just lines up behind my banner (whatever it may be) then there won't have to be all the different camps within the Church as they exist today and all the divisions could cease and we would at last be unified.
These types quite mistakenly see Trad-oecumenism as being like Vatican II ecumenism - all about joining all the different groups and organizations of differing beliefs into some sort of loose and decentralized confederation of churches, just like the World Council of Churches (or even joining that World Council). Nothing could be further from the truth. There is a world of difference between varying groups of those with inherently differing beliefs, one to the next trying to form some sort of compromise "faith" on the one hand (or decide that anything they don't all have in common can't be all that important - which amounts to the same thing in the end), from those of all the same exact doctrinal beliefs (but different disciplinary understandings as to how to apply them in today's situation, or even what today's situation actually is) trying to find a way to cooperate with each other to actually perform a much needed reunification of the Church.
And I have my doubts that the mistake is often even an honest one. I have never seen any Trad-oecumenist claim that his goal is to create some sort of vast confederation of traditional Catholic groups, differing, and remaining content to differ, and to retain their own independent hierarchies or chains of command indefinitely. Yet those who oppose Trad-oecumenism universally accuse us Trad-oecumenists of exactly such absurdity, and then oppose that will o' the wisp straw man with all their might. They do this deliberate misrepresentation because it is impossible for them to credibly defend any position against the real Trad-oecumenism.
Think of Protestants trying to repel others from Catholicism. The real Catholicism is irrefutable, but it is easy to refute a straw-man "catholicism," which teaches the worship of Mary or of idols or inquisitions by torture. Obviously, such a refutation is of no value at all in helping anyone understand the true state of affairs, and what real Catholicism really is, but it can be very useful in deterring anyone ignorant of Catholicism from ever taking a good close and honest look at it. Those who dishonestly do this merely do what they do in order to attack the one real rival to their untenable position. But those who reject Trad-oecumenism must invariably resort to the same exact strategy. See it for what it is.
So having shown what Trad-oecumenism is not by demolishing the straw man version so easily mocked by its own inventors, let us start by taking a look at what real Trad-oecumenism is.
Over the thousands of years that the Church has existed, much has been taught by the Church, and is held to be what every believer must believe in order not to be a heretic, nor in error about anything regarding Faith or Morals. This overall compendium of all that the Church teaches is called the Magisterium. Because of the presence of various spurious "magisteriums" there are out there, I prefer to call it by a longer but more precise and descriptive phrase, the "Universal and Historic Magisterium of the Church." This is to say, THE Magisterium, as established by God and expressly arbitrated for and enforced by the Visible Church throughout Her history.
This true Magisterium has a great deal to teach us, much there is to know and much there is to adhere to. However, the present situation confronts us with a clear conflict between what people believe and what they see. You want to believe that the Church is infallible and indefectible and can never be changed, and yet (if you mistakenly look at the Vatican II-created conciliar church) you find a "church" vastly changed and altogether unrecognizable, so radically different that no one would seriously attempt to identify it as the same Church, as it cannot be so identified. This cognitive dissonance presents us with questions that differing people reach different answers to, most of which make no sense. The varying opinions about the present situation have no more force than that of "Well, maybe something like this happened…" They don't know. They really don't know. And yet some, with some extraordinary inborn arrogance, latch on to whatever absurd nonsense they have come across or even come up with themselves, and anyone else who doesn't subscribe to their opinion is plainly a reprobate and out of the Church.
The Church, in her shattered and far more than decimated state (in a true decimation, only 1 in 10 is struck down, but here it is more like 99 out of every 100), has not issued any formal and definitive statement as to what has happened or how this present situation is to be accounted for. Indeed, the Church has never been so utterly without real Petrine and Catholic leadership in any previous era. Surely, this present situation represents the furthest extreme of how much the Church can be hierarchically damaged. Any further damage whatsoever and God really would have to either restart the Church or end the world.
So what is one to do when confronted with all sorts of errors and heresies and divisions over all sorts of things no one can decide upon and no one has the ecclesiastical competence to declare upon? The Fathers are universal in their response: Stick with the established traditions from of old. No one can do wrong holding on to what the Church has historically always done and taught. And that consists of a great deal of clarity about so very much indeed, even though it provides little insight into the present situation.
All traditional Catholics adhere to the entirety of the Universal and Historic Magisterium of the Church. This is so, by definition. To reject any part of that is to be a heretic and to be not a Catholic. "Oh, but you don't understand. Those dirty rotten (fill in the blank)s have already rejected this or that part of the Magisterium!" Oh yeah? Who says? Can you really claim that you have such a grip on the entirety of that Magisterium as to be able to interpret its application to the present situation? Those who hold a certain position have investigated much and shown those who disagree with them to be without a case. That may or may not mean they are right, but it most certainly does show that those who adhere to the position (whatever it is) at least are Catholics because they have not rejected any single part of that Universal and Historic Magisterium.
So, true Trad-oecumenism starts with those who can legitimately (that is to say without any misrepresentation or scholastic dishonesty) reconcile all that they do and teach with that true Magisterium. But that is only the beginning. What is needed next is the capacity to speak to each other reasonably, to investigate claims honestly, to be willing to concede when the other fellow has a point. What is needed here is true charity. And what is needed is the capacity to recognize that another person, with a different lifetime of different experiences, can approach the situation from an altogether different perspective, working from a different philosophical frame of reference, a different set of assumptions, and thereby come to some different conclusion.
We get the various interpretations being circulated today as a result of these sorts of personal differences. Of course, misinformation can also factor in on account of the fact that many persons are ill-equipped to detect when they are being lied to. And some lies can sound very persuasive to those who don't know better. A few lies are so clever that even those who know they are wrong find themselves at a loss to explain why it's wrong. Another thing that often factors in is the pressure of actual availability. For some who might realistically have access on a regular basis to priests of only one certain society or category, and especially if his priest is a true man of God, doing his job and being a credit to his particular society or category, there is a very real tendency for members of his congregation to adopt the same outlook, for it seems to be working so well for their priest.
For example, Indult priest Fr. X is a real gentleman and a scholar, so to speak, a true shepherd to his congregation. He would do the Catholic Mass even if he had no Indult, if he had to. He does not buy into the Vatican II shibboleths, holds utterly to Catholic Faith and Morals, and rails against modernism. Members of his congregation will doubtless find their appreciation for the Indultarian position growing over time. However, Indult priest Fr. Y is a card-carrying Vatican II company man. He personally prefers the Novus Ordo, but to try to suck in some of those "backward" traditionalists he says the Catholic Mass, but deliberately introduces various little "defects" such as the Novus Ordo readings, or using Novus Ordo "hosts," or celebrating it only on Saturday nights, or using the homily to try to sell off Vatican II as something good for the Church. Needless to say, the members of his unfortunate congregation can only become progressively more and more disgusted with the whole Indultarian position. The same of course equally applies to SSPX (and SSPX-like) priests, as well as sedevacantist priests. There are some who are a credit to their "position" and others who are not.
This is one part of what accounts for something I have observed over the years with many Catholics. I see some of them changing and adjusting their personal "position" over time. The So-and-so of several years ago is not the same as the So-and-so of today, because So-and-so's "position" has gradually changed over the intervening years. Usually, as one studies theology and becomes more learned, the progression is from Conservative Novus Ordo Catholic-at-heart to Indultarian to SSPX to remnant/"independent" and finally to sedevacantist. On much more rare occasions one also finds some traffic in the opposite direction. In this case it is almost invariably the result of running into obnoxious persons or clergy of whatever category they had last attained, so as to be so repelled as to decide to go back and find something easier to get along with.
For still others, the whole trip was a mere dalliance or dabbling, supported with no real theological research but mere curiosity or even a perverse attraction to the negative attitudes of what few obnoxious persons any category might claim. Some may even retreat back from tradition due to the lack of any people with a bad attitude. To hear some anti-Catholic propagandists speak, one would think that traditional Catholics are always (or at least very often) very negative and unpleasant sorts. So some perverse persons, attracted by that stereotype, look into becoming Catholics. But soon they are disappointed. What they find are just normal Catholics living devoutly and simply getting on with life. How boring! There is nothing like looking for something to discover just how rare or unusual it really is. Oh, where are the kooks, the crazies, the Nazis, the flat-earthers, and the wild-eyed suicidal fanatics when you really want them? They're just not here. Sorry, look elsewhere. And eventually they do, and thus ends their fleeting interest in traditional Catholics.
The first upshot of all this is that there is really no good reason to suppose that those who hold some different interpretation of the current events are somehow not Catholics. So let's begin by viewing each other with due respect. The second upshot of all this is far more interesting, however. Each of the particular viewpoints is the product of a particular frame of mind. What kind of viewpoint would be held by someone who was not limited by any particular frame of mind? There are valid reasons for each position, and those reasons cannot be simply brushed aside merely because one has chosen to subscribe to some different position. The reason still exists. The valid point still remains to be made.
And such a discussion is best and most wisely conducted among the most leading and learned Catholics, the bishops (to provide authority), and the best lay traditional minds (to serve as consulting experts or "periti"). There is nothing inappropriate in convening such a Council even without any clear claimant to the papacy since that is exactly what was done in the case of the (imperfect) Council of Constance, which later received papal recognition. Such a Council would provide the formal circumstances for the advantages and weaknesses of each and every position to be discussed in detail, not merely debated one against the other whole cloth, but the true parts of each assembled into one single cohesive understanding that all participants can go forward with.
Thus, true Trad-oecumenism achieves exactly what Vatican II ecumenism cannot attain. And that is a true consensus of all opinions and positions, a synthesis that consists not of some willingness to compromise, but instead an attempt to come to a real and comprehensive understanding of the present situation and what to do about it, and even how and where to get started. Nothing is achieved by sweeping our differences under the rug, any more than is anything achieved by mindlessly hurling bombs over the wall at each other. But careful, enlightened, charitable, and responsible discussion on these issues between the various camps will produce what truly is needed, that one true understanding that will unify the Church again. We already have among us all the knowledge we need. All that remains is to integrate it all together, instead of pitting this truth against that truth. (As if any truth could ever be legitimately "pitted against.")
Trad-oecumenism is therefore the real re-integration of the Church into being One, for that is the one Mark most injured by the current crisis. Once one sees the true situation, it is clear that the other three Marks are every bit as strong and together as they have ever been. It is Unity which has been impaired, to the furthest extent that it can be, by the shepherd being struck and the sheep scattered. Though no earthly shepherd currently rules all, he would after all be merely the vicar of yet another Shepherd, a heavenly one, Who still has a particular will for His Church. What does He want? To see His sheep continue to be scattered, perhaps eventually to the point that no earthly shepherd, once he arrives, would be capable of gathering them again?
Who wills that? Who wants that? The Devil of course, and all who truly hate God. What God wants is that His sheep remain as much together and as much as the single fold they, in fact, remain even as they are, such that an earthly shepherd can gather them and lead them all when one such comes to exist again. I think God may very likely be withholding the sending of such a shepherd until such time as His sheep are once again willing to be of one flock. So, what will it be? Will we continue the status quo of "this group opposes that group ad infinitum" and "I'm right and all of you are wrong!" like so many gangland bosses fighting to expand their own territory at the expense of another's? Those who favor such a course, and especially who participate in furthering such division by opposing Trad-oecumenism can just take their place among all the others condemned by the Church. Opposers of Trad-oecumenism (as I described here), ought best be regarded as agents provocateurs deliberately sowing division among the ranks, and double shame on those who hold priestly or even episcopal position! If I were a Catholic priest, I should deny the sacraments to any and all such that I would become aware of attending any Mass I say.
Is that to say that all "Trad-oecumenism" is always a good thing? Just about. But there are two exceptions I will make. I do not believe that there seriously exists any Trad-oecumenists who would actually seek to mimic the Vatican II ecumenism by merely agreeing to bury their differences as being unimportant, and/or actually seek to see the future of the Church be some mere confederation of various groups, and to remain so indefinitely. But of course, if ever any such a thing were to arise, it would indeed be worthy of all the scathing denunciations made by the haters of God and His Church against Trad-oecumenism.
The other exception I think I will find little bit harder to explain well. There are some outside groups of various sorts, some even with some political or economic muscle, who approach us Catholics, and do so in a manner that suggests we unite not only with each other (that in itself is good) but also (and more importantly) with their "cause," whatever it might be. Some of these groups organize conferences, others help to fund the distribution of certain otherwise out-of-print Catholic books, and still others might also seem in some sense supportive of the idea of Trad-oecumenism. But let us take a look at the price tag of accepting their help.
When outside groups, say, of some political concern, approach traditional Catholics, it is because they are enlisting or recruiting members and support. What do any of them really care if the Catholic or Catholic-at-heart joining them is Novus Ordo or Indultarian or SSPX or sedevacantist, or even Feeneyite? The whole of Catholicism is hogwash to these groups, so of course the rank and file are expected (and truly encouraged) to behave themselves and get along as true Catholics ought. But then the whole center is false. The Catholics' first duty is to be united around their Church, not any other thing. This is why Catholics can belong to different nations, and even fight in wars against fellow Catholics of a different nation, at the command of their secular national leadership. The Church is not centered on any nation. But nor is the Church centered on any particular political cause or economic theory. The Church is centered on Christ, and on His teachings and Word and Liturgy.
Of these causes I will not comment other than to allow that some might be reasonable as political interests of individual Catholics, others highly suspect, and still others categorically opposed to Catholic teaching (whatever those sucked into them may think for the time). But the issue here is not the validity of the particular cause or lack thereof, but rather of the bare fact of something consuming so much of one's time and financial support and volunteer effort and sheer mental energy and so forth, as much or more than the Faith and Church receive. C. S. Lewis described the attitude well, in the Screwtape Letters, in which he has the senior devil (tempter) guiding the junior tempter into how to lead a soul to Hell:
What we want, if men are to become Christian at all, is to keep them in the state of mind that I call 'Christianity And.' You know - Christianity and the Crisis, Christianity and the New Age Psychology, Christianity and the New Order, Christianity and Faith Healing, Christianity and Physical Research, Christianity and Vegetarianism, Christianity and Spelling Reform.
What Lewis' devil says here of "Christianity" applies equally to "Catholicism." One cannot be truly united as a Church around any other principle or philosophy or political or economic cause. We must avoid any "Catholicism And" state of mind, be it whatever, legitimate or not (and I am careful to list examples of both), as a cause. But see what the list of examples would be today: "Catholicism And John Birching," "Catholicism And Monarchy," "Catholicism And Distributionism," "Catholicism And Americanism," "Catholicism And Fascism," "Catholicism And Anti-Semitism," "Catholicism And White Supremacy," and so forth. Whatever fleeting "unity" Catholics may indeed enjoy within such groups, it is not a unity that comes from anything within the Church, but one imposed from without, and furthermore not in unity with those other Catholics who do not share the cause, or in some cases even oppose it, as for example a Monarchist and an Americanist would necessarily be opposed to each other.
To accept help from any outside group, even in such an important thing as Trad-oecumenism, is to let the Church be beholden to such groups and their agendas. And that is something the Church dare not do. To seek the word of God's prophet is good, but when Saul went to the witch of Endor to call forth Samuel, that was utterly beyond the pale. The true unity of the Church can and must be only around the Universal and Historic Magisterium of the Church, around Peter (when we truly have someone serving in that capacity), and around the desire for Peter (when we do not). Any true Catholic desires unity around Peter, and that begins with unity with each other, and that is what true Trad-oecumenism is all about. Accept no substitutes.