January 29, 2002
volume 13, no. 17

A Brief Defense of Traditionalism

Responding to 'conservative' attacks and misconceptions

Part One

By Peter Miller
    In this issue we begin 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 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 first part of his excellent essay A Brief Defense of Traditionalism.

    As is the case in the political field, there have always been differing views on appropriate Church discipline and governance. These views range from the extremely liberal to very traditional. Most of the opinions which today fall under the category of "liberalism" are actually heterodox or heretical and of little value in most Catholic discussions. Because of this element "within" the Church and the overall shift that occurred around the time of the Second Vatican Council, the classic battle between liberals and conservatives has undergone a deceptive change in terminology.    

As the heretics of yesterday have become the liberals of today, the liberals of yesterday now lay claim to the title "conservative". Consequentially the conservatives came to be known as "traditionalists". Unfortunately, these terms are no longer completely accurate descriptions. So for the purposes of this essay, I will use the following general definitions to delineate the differences between traditionalists and "conservatives":

    TRADITIONALIST: One who challenges the novel practices and teachings of Catholics (including bishops and priests) which appear to contradict the prior teaching of the Church. A traditionalist questions the prudence of new pastoral approaches and holds the belief that those things generally deemed objectively good or evil several decades ago remain so today.

    "CONSERVATIVE": One who upholds and defends the current policies and positions of the Church hierarchy regardless of their novelty. A "conservative" extends the definitions of "infallibility" and "Magisterium" to include most every action and speech of the Pope and those Cardinals around him, but may exclude those Cardinals and bishops outside of Rome. A "conservative's" opinion is also subject to change depending on the current actions of the Holy Father. "Conservative" will be used it in quotation marks to avoid the misleading connotation of being diametrically opposed to liberalism or on the far right of the spectrum. Also since there only exists a desire to "conserve" only those traditions and practices of the past deemed appropriate at any given time by the present Pope. The quotation marks will also ensure a proper dissociation between the actual conservatives active prior to and during Vatican II (Ottaviani, Lefebvre, Fenton, etc.).

Both traditionalists and "conservatives" acknowledge the existence of problems in the Church but disagree as to their nature, extent, causes and remedies.    

"Conservatives" see it as an "illness" — an incidental problem like a gangrene limb. In the English-speaking world, this problem may be limited to the actions of certain American bishops. "Conservatives" see the novelties of Vatican II and the New Mass as natural and acceptable developments in the course of the Church, but take issue with those seeking to expand upon those novelties, or take them to their next logical progression. They see the crisis in the Church as a societal issue that would have happened regardless of what actions the Church leadership had taken. Their solution is to return to Vatican II and embark on another attempt to "renew" the Church.

    Traditionalists see the illness as a widespread cancer affecting the whole body put most particularly and critically the heart. They question the prudence of making significant changes in the Mass and the Church's pastoral orientation. They attribute the destruction to liberal and Modernist ideals given a certain degree of acceptability once the Church decided to stop fighting them with extreme vigilance. They see the Church leadership as sharing in the responsibility for the crisis due to its governance (or lack thereof). Their solution is not another attempt at a reform that may be "more in line with the 'spirit' of Vatican II" (shudder), but a return to the practices and beliefs of the Church that sustained it for hundreds of years prior.

"Conservative" objections to traditionalism

   While not in agreement on many issues, traditionalists and "conservatives" have typically enjoyed some degree of coexistence. "Conservatives" attacked heretics posing as Catholics in American churches and traditionalists focused on dangerous trends in the upper Church hierarchy. Unfortunately, it is becoming increasingly popular for "conservatives" to condemn traditionalists as "Schismatics" and guilty of "excommunication". Be it on the Internet, in periodicals, during speeches or on radio programs, traditionalism is being vilified as never before. This essay concerns itself with the attacks of those "conservatives" who have taken it upon themselves to condemn those who fall to the right of their views.

   It is questionable whether the proper functions of Catholics is to hunt down, "expose" and condemn Catholics they suspect of undue rigidity, disobedience or "material schism"; especially while giving support to a Vatican ecumenical campaign which addresses heretics and actual Schismatics as "separated brethren", Jews as "people of the covenant" and Muslims as "people of God". This is part of the overall contradiction (or inconsistency) that permeates the "conservative" mentality. Cloaked in a pledged loyalty to all things "whatsoever" emanating from the Holy See, many "conservatives" will go beyond the measures taken by the Church leaders, or even disagree with their actual positions. The Hawaii "excommunications" were an obvious example but others can be seen. "Conservatives" denounce as "Schismatic" all those who set foot in SSPX chapels while the Vatican embraces the Schismatics in China. "Conservatives" deny any significant change at the Second Vatican Council while the Pope celebrates the enormity and impact of the changes. "Conservatives" seek the conversion of the Eastern "Orthodox" while the Vatican promises not to "proselytize" them. "Conservatives" deride American bishops while the Pope appoints and promotes the same ones.

   Much ink has been spilled (or whatever the electronic equivalent is) in these increasing attempts to condemn traditionalists, with some polemics requiring hundreds of pages to make their point (if traditionalism is so clearly evil and harmful to the Church, why are such lengths necessary?). What follows is a brief essay addressing the most common objections of traditionalism. As a disclaimer (which will certainly be ignored), I am neither attacking nor defending any particular individual. I will discuss a number of objections which vary in substance and degree, but I am not asserting that all "conservatives" hold each of these positions; just as I don't presume to express the views of every traditionalist in my defense.

1) "Traditionalists criticize the Church leaders, particularly the Pope. These criticisms show disloyalty and are only to be done by qualified theologians in rare circumstances."

    This objection comes from an assumption as to the root motivation of the criticisms. A criticism in itself is not a bad thing but it can be, depending on its nature and intent. For instance, a criticism made out of malice or done in a disrespectful manner becomes an attack or insult. Unfortunately, "conservatives" seem to be taking issue with any criticism or disagreement on non-doctrinal matters, regardless of the nature or presumed intent. To them, the very act of criticism itself seems to indicate a lack of loyalty or obedience. This was not the opinion of St. Thomas Aquinas.

    "When there is an imminent danger for the Faith, Prelates must be questioned, even publicly, by their subjects." 1
    Why would traditionalists waste so much time discussing Papal actions out of simple malice towards the Supreme Pontiff? Traditionalists are Catholics who are very concerned about the state of the Church and are forced, out of charity, to make those concerns known. There should be no doubt that those who offer proper criticism show an even deeper love than those who remain in unquestioning silence.

   If someone were to write a letter to President Bush, criticizing his decision to allow experimentation on stem cells from human embryos, would the author be seen as disloyal to his country? It should be clear that he cares so much for his country, that he does not want to see it suffer from such a horrible lack of judgment. Granted the Church is not a democracy, but the same principle applies. Dominican theologian Melchior Cano states the obvious:

    "Peter has no need of our lies or flattery. Those who blindly and indiscriminately defend every decision of the supreme Pontiff are the very ones who do most to undermine the authority of the Holy See — they destroy instead of strengthening its foundations."
    Ever since the pronouncement of Papal Infallibility at the First Vatican Council, there has existed to some degree a false impression that the Pope enjoys a high level of perfection and is protected from most errors — not just in matters faith and morals but all words and actions. Such a view is not Catholic and is dangerously close to the worship of a man (papolatry), a violation of the First Commandment. Infallibility is defined within very precise limits. Not every Pope enjoys an aura of infallibility or is generally protected from imprudence — just ask one of the sons of Pope Alexander VI.

   A criticism of the Pope is not a criticism of the Catholic Church or a denial of its indefectibility, but of the decisions of the man who occupies the Chair of Peter. According to John Henry Newman:

    "It is in no sense doctrinally false that a Pope, as a private doctor, and much more bishops, when not teaching formally, may err, as we find they did err in the fourth century."
    The Supreme Pontiff is indeed deserving of the benefit of the doubt and his teaching deserving of "internal assent" (except in cases where there is nothing towards which to assent or an apparent contradiction with previous teaching). Although, this assent has been lacking in the Church since the 1960's (especially in America), to respond with an insistence of papal perfection is an extreme and dangerous overreaction.

   Although he was "Prince of the Apostles" and the head of the Church, Peter was not Christ. More scriptural verses are devoted to Peter's mistakes and imprudence than those of any other apostle. From his denials of Christ to his treatment of Gentiles, the first Pope was shown as a man with human weaknesses who was by no means perfect or deserving of "blind obedience".

   Some "conservatives" are fine with the existence of the criticisms but not with the perceived tone. Examples of previous saints (e.g. St. Catherine of Siena) are given to demonstrate the "proper" and "respectful" way to question authorities. First of all, a simple disagreement over communication techniques hardly accounts for the vast difference between loyalty and disobedience, or Catholic and Schismatic. Secondly, when situations turn dire, language must follow. Traditionalists are not taking issue with a single isolated incident in an otherwise strong and impressive Church. This is not the time for a simple reminder or request for clarification on a minor issue. It has long since escalated to full-scale alarm. The Church has gone through such overwhelming devastation over the past thirty-five years, it's a wonder anyone can react otherwise. Strong affirmations of Catholic truths and unambiguous criticisms of dissent are necessary in a time of confusion and ruin.

2) "Traditionalists do not 'trust' their leaders and assume the worst."

    "Conservatives" compare traditionalists to the apostles who were disturbed by Christ's sleeping in the boat while the waters raged around them. I don't think the analogy applies. Again, Peter is not Christ and while "conservatives" may find it morally acceptable to remain silent, "trusting" that it is all part of God's Divine Plan, most Catholics are unable to calmly witness the Bride of Christ subject to such abuse.

    History is full of "defenders of the Faith" who were unwilling to see the Church afflicted in the smallest of ways ("small" at least by today's standards). Just because the gates of hell cannot prevail doesn't mean the attack on souls being carried out in the meantime should be passively ignored in a misguided act of faith. For what is a Catholic to do when heretics like Hans Kung are allowed to publish lies with impunity? When globalists and mass abortionists like Gorbachev are treated as guests of honor at the Vatican? When Schismatic groups, heretical sects and false religions are treated as on a similar level as the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church? When bishops who deny the necessity of conversion for salvation (Walter Kasper) and advocate the Church's assistance of women procuring abortions (Karl Lehmann) are rewarded with Cardinal birettas? When traditional bishops and priests are subjected to extreme and disproportional persecution while heretics exercise great power and influence? When Our Holy Father flatters the undeniably evil Chinese government as an institution whose objectives are "not in opposition" to the Catholic Church? Of what sort of "trust" are these activities deserving? What is the proper Catholic response? What would St. Paul have done?

    "But though we, or an angel from Heaven, preach a gospel to you besides that which we have preached to you, let him be anathema." (Galatians 1:8)
    Indefectibility is not a promise of wonderful times in the course of Christendom. The Arian heresy was certainly no Golden Age for the Church. As St. Jerome wrote, the whole world "awoke with a groan to find itself Arian," yet the Church did not defect. The Faith was maintained primarily by the laity and led by a few courageous individuals when it appeared the majority of priests and bishops had fallen into heresy. Throughout history, there have been numerous corrupt Popes, Cardinals, bishops and priests but the Church has marched on, emerging from each trial stronger than before. While "conservatives" may be content to passively wait around for the next triumph of the Church, some Catholics set their sights a little higher and are concerned about the loss of souls that could be avoided in the meantime.

    Also, such a criticism of the "trust" of traditionalists is more than a little disingenuous. It represents the most traditional of "conservative" mentalities an implicit admission that all these problems may exist but we should silently sit back and watch those chosen to run the Church do so as they see fit. To be consistent, "conservatives" would have to withdraw their attacks on American Cardinals who, by virtue of their office, should be deserving of similar "trust". This objection also shows a lack of "trust" for the previous Popes and their efforts as recently as the early part of the 20th century. Again, some "conservatives" claim all current Papal actions to be completely consistent with his predecessors and Vatican II completely in line with the history of the Church, while the Pope and Cardinals claim and celebrate the opposite. Why would Pope St. Pius X devote so much time and energy to combating and rooting out Modernism if he did not clearly see its power and ability to infiltrate the highest levels of the Church? Many people laughed at his "crusade" and thought he was overreacting, but history has long since vindicated the prophetic nature of his words. Why were many priests and theologians, who would later rise to influential positions in the Church, under serious investigation for Modernism in the 1950's? Is perfect wisdom and orthodoxy guaranteed by position? Again, of what sort of "trust" is deserving here?

Next Tuesday: Part Two 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, January 29, 2002
volume 13, no. 17
Traditional Thoughts