Tradition and the Spiritual Danger of Traditionalism


In “The New Goth is the Original Goth,” I suggested (half fun and full earnest) that we ought to resurrect the “fence” of traditional practices and devotions, including regular meditation on death. The point, I said, was “not to become snooty ‘uber-Catholics’ but rather simply to reinforce our identity and better teach what Catholicism is and is not.” It’s one thing to hold the Latin Mass superior to the Mass of St. Paul VI. It’s another thing to consider yourself a superior Catholic for regularly attending a Latin Mass rather than a Novus Ordo Mass.

That’s the spiritual danger of traditionalism.

What Happened to Vatican II?

Rightly or wrongly, many traditionalists blame our current fragmented state on Vatican II. The Council couldn’t have picked a worse time to convene. Europe was undergoing a new, virulent wave of socialist radicalism, one that influenced many of the social-justice movements that were springing up in America. At the same time, American Catholics, having ridden the post-World War II economic boom into the middle and upper-middle classes, were growing restive under disciplinary differences that kept them from being assimilated into America’s Protestant culture. The Western world expected more changes than the local bishops and Council Fathers were prepared to make.

The Council Fathers were prepared to make some changes to the Mass. For many people, including priests, the Tridentine rite had grown stale, alienating, and to some degree irrelevant. Ven. Pius XII, in Mediator Dei (On the Sacred Liturgy, 1947), had given some hope to the ressourcement movement that the liturgy could be profitably and properly revised. The aim of the Council, however, wasn’t to adopt modernism or do away with tradition wholesale but rather to give tradition “the proper room to grow and develop.” It was to prune dead branches, not replace the whole tree with a new one.

However, the would-be reformers took the Council’s willingness to change some things as proof that they could change everything, that the Church would not only “meet the challenges of the age” but adopt its spirit as well. Many of the changes they made weren’t mandated by the Council. Some changes even blatantly contravened the letter and intent of Sacrosanctum Concilium (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, 1963). However, the bishops, having “opened the windows of the Church” to hurricane-force winds, had lost control over the speed and direction of “reform.” Those who resisted change got pushed to the Church’s margins.

Self-Pity and Elitist Bigotry

So it’s not surprising that many older traditionalists, having fought a rear-guard action for over 50 years, should feel somewhat embittered and antipathetic towards the Ordinary Form. It’s also not surprising that they should associate the loss of tradition and the OF with such absurdities as liturgical dancing, liturgical puppets, clown Masses, and the uglification of church architecture. And it’s also not surprising that, given the polarization of our society, traditionalists would veer to the political right almost as far as progressive Catholics have veered to the left.

The point, however, is not whether I agree with their assessment of Vatican II or any of these associations. The point is that, in some cases, that aggrievement becomes an ugly combination of self-pity and elitist bigotry. Doctor Taylor Marshall once wrote of “the [radical traditionalist] belief that Latin Mass Catholics are ‘A-Team’ and Novus Ordo Catholics are ‘B Team.’” But that’s putting it mildly. To some, anyone who attends the OF Mass by choice, expresses a liking for The Gather Hymnal, or dares to defend Pope Francis is a “neo-Catholic” — i.e., essentially a crypto-Protestant leftist.

Keep in mind, I don’t level this charge against all traditionalists. Social media tends to favor extreme views over moderate, so I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that outlets such as Rorate Caeli, Eponymous Flower, and The Wanderer represent only a minority of the traditionalist community. (Also, I’m connected on Facebook with a couple of their favorite targets, Mark Shea and former CS writer Scott Eric Alt.) The point, however, is not that they exist in vast legions but that they exist, period.

Bringing Back Traditions

Pride, as I’ve said before, is “the sin of taking yourself too seriously.” Fraternal correction proceeds not only from charity but from humility, the awareness that the one correcting is just as liable to sin and error as the one being corrected. To begin from a presumption of intellectual, moral, or spiritual superiority is arrogant, which is not only off-putting but too often counterproductive. Traditionalists who treat non-traditionalists as quasi-Catholics do more harm than good to the traditionalist cause.

I say it does more harm than good because I do actually want as many of the old traditions to come back as is practical. I don’t agree that imposing the Extraordinary Form on everyone would be some kind of panacea, but I would like to see it promoted, as well as more Latin hymns incorporated into the Ordinary Form. High Masses with the celebrant chanting the liturgy? Bring them on! Bring back the St. Michael prayer before the dismissal. Bring back the Communion rails, with reception on the tongue. Bring back cassocks and fiddleback chasubles!

But I don’t just want to see tradition restored to the Mass. For example, I’d like to see the daily Angelus return to common worship. I’d like to see meatless Fridays extended to throughout the year, as they were when I was a child. I’d like to see St. Valentine brought back to the General Calendar, or at least the national calendar, not only to reclaim the day for us but as an opportunity to preach the goodness of romantic love and traditional marriage. I’d like to see more parish classes on novenas and contemplative prayer. Bring back ember days!

Conclusion: Keeping the Faith Alive

But let’s not pretend that merely having these older traditional elements automatically makes us better examples of the faith. Tradition isn’t an end in itself; it exists to instruct us in the faith and so carry it forward over time. If a tradition isn’t effectively teaching us how to worship God and love our neighbors, then the salt has lost its flavor — get rid of it. If a tradition is merely teaching us to be haughty, it has no place in our liturgy or our lives. To be “more Catholic than thou” is to miss the point of Catholicism altogether.

For that same reason, there’s nothing to prevent us from developing new traditions, so long as the new ones pass on the ancient truths of the faith as accurately and completely as the old ones once did. The whole point of the ressourcement was to clear away dead branches so that new, healthy ones could grow from the sources. To that end, the “new theologians” rehabilitated Scripture, the Church Fathers, and even St. Thomas Aquinas. As St. Augustine said of God, the faith is “ancient and ever new.” Traditionalism should keep the faith living, not eternally trap it in amber.

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9 thoughts on “Tradition and the Spiritual Danger of Traditionalism”

  1. While the central points of this article are spot on, I would like to note that not a small part of what might be called “traditionalist” is a reaction to a small but vocal group of modernists, to include some clergy, who want change simply because they tire of the conventional or because they want affirmation of their own religious/political positions. APTAK is more than a little accurate when it seems the heterodox have the loudest megaphone. A bit more “equal time” would seem in order that the important issues receive appropriate attention.

    1. Anthony S Layne

      Perhaps. From where I stand, there are plenty of writers and apologists working to counter liberal/progressive Catholic errors. As well, I believe that liberal Catholicism is doomed to irrelevance, as progressives discover they can take their ideology without a religious chaser (and that Pope Francis, whatever his faults, is not as “progressive” as either the left or the extreme right think he is).

      May I suggest that it only seems there’s excessive negative focus on the traditionalist loudmouths simply because there is a focus to begin with? To the LGBTQI crowd, it seems we’re obsessed with gays and transgenders; to radical feminists, we’re obsessed with abortion; to free-market capitalists, we’re obsessed with the income and wealth gaps. It’s always uncomfortable when your group is under the critical microscope.

  2. While I understand what this article is trying to address, I have to say, I am getting quite tired of these types of articles chastising traditionalists. It seems that having traditionalists being pushed to the margins is not good enough, they must be beaten as well. Articles like this imply that there are a lot of traditionalists with a superiority complex, when in fact, its quite the opposite. Most traditionalists are already in the margins (periphery) and are just trying to keep their faith alive in these bleak times. Why don’t we see similar articles that DEFEND traditionalists from those elements within the Church that seek to harass them? All I hear are crickets…

    1. Anthony S. Layne

      You remind me of a retail store manager who says, “I don’t know why we keep getting complaints about rude sales and customer service clerks. It can’t be more than a handful of our employees. Why don’t our customers focus on our best-in-class products?” How long do you think such a store manager would last in his job? How long do you think the store would remain open?

      If you read what I wrote, you’ll know I said the snooty types may be a small minority. But they’re a very vocal minority. And they’re the ones not only alienating potential traditionalists but also driving traditionalism’s public image. By not addressing the “sales/customer service” problem, you’re becoming part of the problem. When all you do is focus on your marginalization, you’re not looking for opportunities to win converts to the traditionalist cause. Stop feeling so sad and put-upon, and start talking about the traditions in a positive, energetic way that makes people want to bring them back!

  3. William,
    Go to the sspx website, and you will find locations of Latin Masses. No one in my parish even slightly resembles the comments made by this author of this article, which I would bet he wrote to make himself feel better about himself and his fellow Councilor church progressives.

  4. Anthony S. Layne

    William, if you truly feel no sense of superiority to your co-religionists, then you have nothing to feel insulted about because the article wasn’t about you. It was about a segment of traditionalists, perhaps a small percentage, who not only do feel superior but are very vocal about it. If the shoe doesn’t fit you, then please, don’t wear it. But recognize that such people do exist and that they don’t do traditionalism any justice.

  5. Where to start? As a cradle Catholic well into my seventh decade of life, I find this article insulting, and not mildly so. I feel no religious superiority to my co-religionists but only great sorrow. Having to watch and experience the decline and death of all that I’ve ever held holy and dear is seriously painful; it’s tantamount to white martyrdom. To replace our sacred patrimony with hootenanny music, pedestrian liturgies, and driveling homilies is both symptomatic and causal to demise of Catholicism. There are no traditional Latin Masses near me and never are there likely to be any; so for pity sake, don’t ask me or anybody else to endure any more innovations or to accept blithefully the absurd demonstrations of “active participation” that presently afflict us.

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