The reluctant traditionalist

(hat tip to Argent for sparking the forthcoming ideas in a conversation earlier today…)

Hi, my name is (well, it isn’t, but just pretend it is) Edmund, and I’m a traditionalist.

I’ve spent much of the past year or year and a half trying to convince myself otherwise. I forced myself to stop looking for liturgical abuses, which works most of the time. I try to find things to like about contemporary hymns; sometimes they’re not that bad. I can make it through most Masses at my parish without getting riled up, which is a major accomplishment. Maybe I’m just settling in; new convert zeal is fading fast.

Not only am I more at peace with the way things happen around here, I’ve done a pretty good job of convincing myself that I’m not a radical traditionalist. I wouldn’t dream of heading off to the Society of St. Pius X, and the semantic debate about whether they’re in schism or not just seems like special pleading to me. And there’s something that smells of defeat to me in running off to a “traditional parish,” provided your spiritual health isn’t endangered by where you are. I don’t mind Mass in English; I love the Tridentine Rite, but I’d be even happier in an Anglican Use parish. It’s the reverence and mystery that matters, not the language.

So, why have I concluded that I’m a traditionalist? I realize that I have a deep suspicion and discomfort with newer devotions, even if they’re not “liberal.” Today was a prime example, being Divine Mercy Sunday. We had a special Mass this afternoon, since our liturgist and pastor are not particularly big fans of the new feast. It sounded like a great idea to me, so I attended. But, my overwhelming reaction was one of vague unease. The message of divine mercy is one we need to hear, but why this feast? Why these images? I have a similar aversion, which I hate to admit, to the Luminous Mysteries of the Rosary. In my mind, they just don’t fit.

I wish I could put a finger on exact what it is that makes me react as I do. I don’t think it’s purely “newness.” I have no problem whatsoever with “developments” in doctrine or practice (see Cardinal Newman’s classic Essay for what I mean by this). Like Mass in English, for example: I’m all for it if they’d just fix the bad translation, which should be happening soon. But, I run into serious difficulties when I can’t fit new things in with the way I understand Tradition. Divine Mercy Sunday, in my simplistic way of thinking, interrupts the Easter season unnecessarily. Christ the King, another newer feast, does not strike me the same way because fits perfectly at the end of Ordinary Time, with the eschatological dimension right before Advent rolls back around. No, it’s definitely not newness. I don’t even have a problem per se with newer ideas in theology. St. Josemaria Escriva’s ideas about holiness in everyday life are, in my mind, highly innovative. They engage the laity in a way almost unprecedented. But, they fit like a glove with a traditional understanding of the Faith. It’s the fit that matters, not the novelty.

So, there you have it. Despite all my best efforts, I’ve found myself to be a traditionalist in a very general sense. I view Catholicism through the lens of tradition; I weigh everything against what came before. Novelty doesn’t have to be rejected, but it does have to be in continuity with the past.

And, no post from me would be complete without some overly reductionist categorizing. My thoughts about my own tendencies have led me to conclude that there are three broad groups of folks who would label themselves as serious Catholics:

1. Traditionalists. I don’t need to define us any further.

2. Progressives. I don’t think I need to define this group in much detail, either. Suffice it to say that I mean Catholics who value novelty and engagement with the surrounding culture above tradition. For various reasons, I’ve found that they are every bit as nonplussed by Divine Mercy Sunday as I am. For all its lack of continuity with Tradition, the values that are expounded by the new feast are not culturally progressive.

3. Ultramontanes. I wish I had a better term, because this has historical connotations. I almost called them “neo-Catholics,” but that doesn’t really describe any sort of ideas or position. These folks follow essentially whatever the Church institutes, without much question. They’re usually big, big fans of Pope John Paul II (as, to some extent, am I), and Divine Mercy Sunday, the Luminous Mysteries, Theology of the Body, and World Youth Day. If these new things were disallowed by Pope Benedict tomorrow, though, I propose that the vast majority of this group would follow right along. And that is not a bad thing at all.

These groupings, of course, are not rigid. #1 and #3 are almost a continuum, with the key distinction being the reaction to new teaching. At the other end, #3 and #2 come close together, with the key divider being response to culture.

And finally, to get myself in even more trouble: I wish I were in group #3. I wish I could just get in the Barque and float along, but I’m just too darned contrarian. I think too much; I have way too much pride; I’m incapable of simply accepting things. I pray that as I, hopefully, grow in holiness, that maybe I’ll get there.

7 Responses to “The reluctant traditionalist”

  1. 1 MamasBoy April 16, 2007 at 9:57 am

    “They’re usually big, big fans of 1) Pope John Paul II (as, to some extent, am I), and 2) Divine Mercy Sunday, 3) the Luminous Mysteries, 4) Theology of the Body, and 5) World Youth Day. If these new things were disallowed by Pope Benedict tomorrow, though, I propose that the vast majority of this group would follow right along.”

    I can’t imagine the pope disallowing many of the above things. For one, if the Pope disallowed #3, that would be disallowing a private devotion.

    However, BXVI could easily disallow #5 and folks would go along (though many would be offended). WYD is like a conference for catholic youth and conferences often have a limited lifetime. WYD has outlasted any that I know in sustaining its popularity, but I would doubt it will last forever.

    Divine Mercy Sunday mixes liturgy and private devotion. If the pope were to eliminate it from the liturgical calendar, people would follow along, but he would surely catch alot of flak from many people he respects. My own pastor teared up during the closing novena, which was conducted immediately following mass. However, to disallow the divine mercy devotion would send the church into rage and potential schism, even among people who would normally not be in the traditionalist camp. St. Faustina has a significant following among the church. To disallow her prophetic messages/teaching when JPII so strongly recommended it would be very contradictory and do much damage to the reputation of the papacy.

    #4 is similar in that it is theology and not just theology, but theology promulgated by an extremely popular pope. It would be 20 times worse than disallowing the teachings of St. Josemaria Escriva. Could JPII have been so off-base in his theology that the very next pope would come along and disallow it? Institutions have been started to help disseminate this teaching. What would become of them? What would become of their faculty? What would become of the millions of people who have had this teaching transform their lives/marriages? (disclaimer: I and many of my friends fit that category) The Church would be full of disallusioned people who were formerly faithful bulwarks at the parish level. Disallusioned people do a very poor job passing on the faith.

    There is a retired gentleman at my parish who heads up adult education at my parish. He encourages people to question everything in the Church. Everything. But he emphasizes that it must be done through the eyes of faith with the goal of understanding. How does one shift midstream after coming to an understanding of something? Was the Church wrong? To change the liturgical calendar or drop a gathering is one thing, but to change people’s theology and private devotion is quite another.

    Maybe I’m just another brand of traditionalist, but I can’t imagine the pope doing many of the suggested things without serious damage and disallusionment to people’s faith, and I mean the Neuhaus, Akin kind of folks.


  2. 2 Edmund C. April 16, 2007 at 10:21 am

    MB, I agree totally. I don’t think Pope Benedict is going to change these things, either. It was just a thought experiment on my part to ponder on what might happen if he did.

    And, thanks for the description of Divine Mercy Sunday as a mix of private devotion and liturgy. Maybe I’m wrong, but I think that’s a bad combination. Private devotion is well and good, but when it’s elevated alongside liturgy, it can be very offputting.

  3. 3 MamasBoy April 16, 2007 at 6:08 pm

    I guess I’d always thought of DM Sunday as kind of like a saints day, since saints days are a mixture of devotion and liturgy, but I can see how someone might feel the way you do. If they announced tomorrow that the 3rd Sunday in Easter was going to be Sacred Heart Sunday, that would probably take some adjusting to for me.


  4. 4 Bekah April 17, 2007 at 3:42 pm

    I guess I’m still not certain why JPII is lauded so highly. Yes, I see the good he’s done, but it also seems like he allowed the Church to become somewhat of a shambles. Many of the bishops he elevated are questionable.

    I’d probably pick the Tridentine parish over mine if it were closer, but if I were closer to it, I’d have several options for faithful, orthodox priests and parishes without resorting to Latin. My husband, no doubt, would prefer English.

    I’m trying seriously to mellow. I can’t quite figure this priest out. In some respects he’s almost traditional, and others wildly heterodox. I can’t help but be agitated at the heterodoxy, but am greatful that it isn’t worse than it is (and it could be a whole lot worse). It rankles that alternating daily Masses/Communion is led by our female “pastoral minister” in a white alb.

    But it is far more important to chase away the annoyances and focus on Christ. He is there! With that in mind, overlooking the rest is a lot easier. Not that I can’t still pray for the reverential experience I would prefer.

  5. 5 cminor April 17, 2007 at 7:35 pm

    Hi, Ed–good to see you’re posting again.
    I’d submit that you would probably find quite a few Catholics who are doctrinally conservative but liturgically moderate or progressive. One could argue that liturgical style (at least, matters of language and music) is a matter of taste rather than that on which the Church stands or falls, whereas adherence to doctrine is critical.

    One of the (very conservative) African priests we’ve had at our parish once remarked that you can’t bring Africans into the faith and then tell them not to dance during the liturgy. The concept of folks dancing up the aisle may be shocking to us (especially if we’re not crazy about liturgical dance to begin with,) but it’s an essential part of worship and rejoicing to many Africans.

  6. 6 Edmund C. April 17, 2007 at 9:38 pm

    Hi, C: long time no see…

    I’m not sure I agree with you: liturgical taste, so to speak, and doctrine, at least among Westerners, tend to go hand in hand in my admittedly limited experience. There’s the old saying lex orandi, lex credendi.

    Africa is another story: there, liturgical dance is enmeshed in culture and is neither an attempt at rebellion from tradition nor associated with progressive theology. For us, dance is not a part of worship; to my knowledge, it never has been.

    I do agree that adherence to doctrine is critical, but singing songs that subtly shift doctrinal focus is bound, in at least some small way, to affect theology.

  7. 7 cminor April 18, 2007 at 8:36 pm

    No argument re doctrinal focus; liturgical music should enhance worship rather than detract from it. But I think it’s possible to do that without sacrificing focus in a variety of musical styles.

    I lived through 70’s Catholicism in a liberal diocese; I probably witnessed firsthand the nadir of liturgical music (no matter how bad it seems, remind yourself: at least it’s not Peter, Paul and Mary. I kid you not.) But I’m married to a guitar player, and I’d like to think there’s a place for guys like him in the choir loft.

    This is not to say that anything goes musically. I’ve objected to VBS songs from the youth choir and would object to lyrics that were not scriptural. But I’ve noticed a tendency among some traditionalists to let their distaste for modern music bleed over into their views on orthodoxy. Singing the Celtic Alleluia with a guitar accompaniment does not a rebel make!

    Keep in mind, too, that an entire generation has grown up hearing modern music. For those, it’s not a rebellion; it’s what they know.

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