February 5, 2002
volume 13, no. 22

A Brief Defense of Traditionalism

Responding to 'conservative' attacks and misconceptions

Part Two

By Peter Miller
    In this issue we continue a special series on what Traditionalism truly is - Roman Catholicism. Peter Miller, editor of the Seattle Catholic at www.Seattle Catholic.com, first published this on his excellent web site and shares with our readers a simple, concise response to 'conservatives' who see their beloved Church collapsing everywhere but continue to keep their heads in the sand, refusing to see the obvious. Peter shows the distinctions between 'traditionalist' and 'conservative' and clears up misconceptions that hopefully will better alert neo-Catholics to the true path they need to follow and to dispell the many myths about Traditionalism as we present the second part of his excellent essay A Brief Defense of Traditionalism.

3) "Traditionalists defy the Magisterium of the Church"

    Not so. The Magisterium is not everything a Pope or Cardinal may decide to do (like hold an ecumenical seance) but the official teaching authority of the Church, whether Ordinary or Extraordinary. As with infallibility, "conservatives" extend the meaning of Magisterium to encompass the actions of anyone in the upper hierarchy of the Church or with current residence in the Vatican.

    Despite his shortcomings, Girolamo Savonarola was one of the few to speak out against the worldliness, excesses and humanism growing among the clergy and especially the Pope at that time Pope Alexander VI: "In these days, prelates and preachers are chained to the earth by the love of earthly things. The care of souls is no longer their concern. They are content with the receipt of revenue. The preachers preach to please princes and to be praised by them. They have done worse. They have not only destroyed the Church of God. They have built up a new Church after their own patter. Go to Rome and see! ... Dost thou not know what I would tell thee! What doest thou, O Lord! Arise, and come to deliver thy Church from the hands of devils, from the hands of tyrants, from the hands of iniquitous prelates."
    Traditionalists have called into question (not defied or rejected) some recent teachings of the Ordinary Magisterium because of their apparent contradiction with previous teaching. This is not a preference or an overly-arrogant use of "private judgment". They maintain the attitude that what was true for their parents and grandparents is just as true for them. They refuse to share in the optimism of new ideas and techniques promising to "renew" the Church. Such naive optimism may have been excusable forty years ago it's not any more.

    Suspicion towards non-infallible teachings of the Ordinary Magisterium will be addressed more below, but it is founded in a belief of absolutes in the objective order. Just because matters of Church discipline are not on the same level as solemn moral pronouncements, doesn't mean the arguments which support them cease to apply. In fact, when communion in the hand and "altar girls" were forbidden by Rome, "conservatives" led the crusade against the dissenters and were the first to proclaim their evils. When Rome caved into the pressure and deemed each aberration acceptable, what was once so clearly imprudent to "conservatives" was suddenly "OK".

    Granted this is "only" a disciplinary matter, but a Catholic attitude is one that holds novelty and change suspect no matter what the justification. If this strange sort of "trust" leads to a blind complacency which renders one incapable of recognizing error once it has bored its way into the heart of the Church, it should be seen as an accursed vice. If "integrism" is used to describe those people who protect the Church from dangerous novelties with the zeal encouraged by St. Pius X, how can it become anything other than a badge of honor?

4) "Traditionalists view the documents and encyclicals of recent years as questionable or different than those of previous Church leaders."

    It doesn't take a theology degree to recognize that the language of documents since Vatican II is decidedly different than those of previous years. What once was clear and precise, giving little room for alternative interpretations is now vague and questionable. In previous times, a statement that apparently contradicted previous teaching would, out of obligation, contain a clarification of how it is to be reconciled with what was previously taught. This is no longer the case and any inconsistencies are either ignored or the previous teaching is said to "no longer apply". Traditionalists ask the question "why?" Why are Catholics owed no explanation of why a teaching is being completely reversed before their eyes?

    And why are "conservatives" the only ones defending these documents? Why don't the actual authors in the hierarchy provide clarifications? While many "conservatives" are quick to defend some of the novel language Ut Unum Sint or Dominus Iesus as perfectly orthodox, such defenses have not been regular or forthcoming from the Vatican. And (as with the Novus Ordo) since when does something "perfectly orthodox" even need a defense?

    The objection comes that Catholics should trust the language as orthodox and assume any apparent contradiction is just a deficiency in their own untrained understanding rather than in the document. But if that's the case, what is the point of the document in the first place, if not to clearly instruct? These documents are not written for "elite" theologians but for all Catholics. These documents used to be in clear, unambiguous language which took no chances when it came to possible misunderstandings. Theological degrees and "conservative" defenders were not needed to discover their "proper" meaning, and they should not be today. The very fact that modern encyclicals leave any room for intelligent, faithful individuals to debate the meaning is, in itself, a serious criticism.

5) "Traditionalists view Vatican II as a significant change in the orientation of the Church."

    "We have the impression that through some cracks in the wall the smoke of Satan has entered the temple of God: . . . doubt, uncertainty, questioning, dissatisfaction, confrontation . . . We thought that after the Council a day of sunshine would have dawned for the history of the Church. What dawned, instead, was a day of clouds and storms, of darkness, of searching and uncertainties." -Pope Paul VI (June 29, 1972)

    The claim that Vatican II represented a very slight or insignificant change is the first of the two very mysterious objections addressed in this essay (the other being the New Rite of the Mass wasn't much different than its predecessor). Mysterious because these were the same claims made by everyone (liberal or conservative) when the changes were going on. There was little disagreement as to the extent of such changes, just the prudence of making them.

    The fact that things were changing was an obvious fact admitted on all sides. Liberal Dominican "theologian" Yves Congar celebrated the changes he helped implement, then chided traditional Catholics that "no one ever promised you a Church you'd be comfortable with". Upon his election, Pope John Paul II praised the council for its revolutionary nature and cites it almost exclusively (apart from Scripture) in his encyclicals and letters. In fact, over ninety percent of the references in the new Catechism are from the documents of Vatican II. In Ecclesia Dei, Pope John Paul II even admitted:

    "Indeed, the extent and depth of the teaching of the Second Vatican Council call for a renewed commitment to deeper study in order to reveal clearly the Council's continuity with Tradition, especially in points of doctrine which, perhaps because they are new, have not yet been well understood by some sections of the Church." 2 2. Pope John Paul II, "Ecclesia Dei", (7/2/1988) (emphasis mine here and throughout)
    Whether or not the changes have been beneficial is debatable, but whether or not a change in orientation has taken place within the Catholic Church is a clear, established fact admitted by all.

6) "Traditionalists reject the infallibility of the Vatican II documents which are automatically infallible, being pronounced by an ecumenical council."

    The canonical status of Vatican II documents can be an unnecessarily long discussion to get into. Put simply, just because an ecumenical council can exercise infallibility does not mean it will. Although it is an "organ of infallibility", an ecumenical council does not enjoy that privilege simply by virtue of its commencement. Even liberal theologians like Karl Rahner were forced to admit as much. Countless quotes from bishops, priests and theologians can testify to the fact that infallibility wasn't even an issue during the council, but the testimony of Pope Paul VI should be enough to suffice:

    "In view of the pastoral nature of the Council, it avoided any extraordinary statements of dogmas endowed with the note of infallibility..." 3 3. Pope Paul VI, General Audience, (1/12/1966)
    Liberal theologians censured under Pius XII but welcomed by John XXIII as Vatican II advisors: Karl Rahner, John Courtney Murray, Henri de Lubac and Yves Congar "Beware of false prophets who come to you in the clothing of sheep, but inwardly they are ravening wolves. By their fruits you shall know them." -Matthew 7:15-16

    Ecumenical councils have typically been called to address doctrinal issues and make solemn definitions. Vatican II was, from the start, billed as a "pastoral" (as opposed to "doctrinal" or "dogmatic") council. This was repeated to the bishops on several occasions when concern was raised over the orthodoxy and authority of some of the documents.

    In Cardinal Ratzinger's letter to Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre on July 20, 1983, he states that:

    "It must be noted that, because the conciliar texts are of varying authority, criticism of certain of their expressions, in accordance to the general rules of adhesion to the Magisterium, is not forbidden. You may likewise express a desire for a statement or an explanation on various points. ... You may that personally you cannot see how they are compatible, and so ask the Holy See for an explanation." 4 4. M. Davies, "The Second Vatican Council and Religious Liberty", Neumann (1992)
    It is impossible for infallible texts to "vary in authority". Also, criticizing expressions and asking for clarification on seemingly contradictory teachings is "not forbidden".5 5. Lest I be accused of quoting out of context, Cardinal Ratzinger also says in the letter that "You may not, however, affirm that the conciliar texts, which are magisterial texts, are incompatible with the Magisterium and with Tradition." Which has little bearing on an infallibility discussion, but does come into play when traditionalists make strong affirmations and accusations (even though Ottaviani repeatedly did) rather than pointing out inconsistencies and asking for clarifications.

    Of course, non-infallible declarations of an ecumenical council are deserving of internal assent, but not when those documents make no solemn definitions, or seem on their face to be in contrast to previous teaching (e.g. Dignitatis Humanae). As explained in the Catholic Encyclopedia:

    "But before being bound to give such an assent, the believer has a right to be certain that the teaching in question is definitive (since only definitive teaching is infallible)..." 6 6. Catholic Encyclopedia, "Infallibility" (1910)
    That such contradictions are apparent has been admitted by no less a man than Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith:
    "If it is desirable to offer a diagnosis of the text as a whole, we might say that (in conjunction with the texts on religious liberty and world religions) [Gaudium et spes] is a revision of the Syllabus of Pius IX, a kind of counter-syllabus ... Let us be content to say here that the text serves as a counter syllabus and, as such, represents, on the part of the Church, an attempt at an official reconciliation with the new era inaugurated in 1789..." 7 7. J. Ratzinger, "Principles of Catholic Theology" Ignatius Press (1987)
    The nature of such "apparent contrasts" is debatable, as are the appropriate methods employed for discussion and clarification, but all investigation on the matter should not cease to a halt due to an insistence on infallibility that never existed. To do so would reward those looking to take advantage of this imaginary infallibility "gray area" by giving novel ideas the authority of an ecumenical council.

    In order to prevent any confusion on the matter, very clear restrictions were put on what can be considered infallible. Infallibility only applies to solemn definitions by the Pope or an ecumenical council in a matter of faith or morals, binding on the entire Church. It does not automatically apply to everything coming out of a council or even all parts of a documents making infallible definitions. The Catholic Encyclopedia entry on "Infallibility" goes on to state that:

    "It need only be added here that not everything in a conciliar or papal pronouncement, in which some doctrine is defined, is to be treated as definitive and infallible. For example, in the lengthy Bull of Pius IX defining the Immaculate Conception the strictly definitive and infallible portion is comprised in a sentence or two; and the same is true in many cases in regard to conciliar decisions. The merely argumentative and justificatory statements embodied in definitive judgments, however true and authoritative they may be, are not covered by the guarantee of infallibility which attaches to the strictly definitive sentences unless, indeed, their infallibility has been previously or subsequently established by an independent decision." 8 8. Catholic Encyclopedia, "Infallibility" (1910)

    What could be more clear? What is reserved for certain individual sentences cannot be generally applied to an entire collection of documents. Non-definitive statements cannot inadvertently be sealed with infallibility because they happen during a council. No matter how many times Vatican II is praised by present bishops and even the Pope, infallibility cannot be applied retroactively. If it did not exist at the time, it cannot be claimed now or in the future.

Next Tuesday: Part Three of "A Brief Defense of Traditionalism" in refuting more misconceptions

Peter Miller is the webmaster for the excellent Roman Catholic website Seattle Catholic at www.SeattleCatholic.com. You can contact him at Peter Miller


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Tuesday, February 5, 2002
volume 13, no. 22
Traditional Thoughts