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A Letter From a Seminarian

Hello, Dr. Kwasniewski,

I am a seminarian entering into first-year theology. Throughout my formation, I have felt a growing draw towards the extraordinary form of the Mass and traditional approaches to liturgy and theology. In the seminary I am at, however, I am met with resistance—something many of my brothers struggle with. We are not allowed to wear the cassock, receive Holy Communion kneeling on the tongue, experience the extraordinary form on the campus grounds, or have the Mass ad orientem. Any kind of traditional liturgical practice is met with hostility. To even mention the extraordinary form or an admiration for it would be to paint a large red target on one’s back.

In the desire to be more honest and transparent in the formation process, I have expressed in spiritual direction a desire to celebrate the extraordinary form, and to engage in the Reform of the Reform with the ordinary form as a priest one day, God willing. In spiritual direction I am met with what appears to be contempt: I am challenged as being prideful in thinking “I know better than the modern theologians and bishops” and told that I am not “in line” with what the Church teaches in the postconciliar era. Lately, I have been reading Christus Vincit by Bishop Schneider, but also, in my attempt to round out my knowledge of both sides, I am reading Reforming the Liturgy by Fr. John Baldovin.

I really love God and I find much beauty in and solid reasoning behind the traditional expressions of our Faith, which seem to have been jettisoned without good cause. I see what Bp. Schneider is talking about—how modernism has secured a white-knuckle grip on the Church and the liturgy, and by direct extension, on our theology. I just want to do what is right by being obedient to the Church, but at this point I am finding it difficult to know what I am being obedient to. Is it the Second Vatican Council? All the documents afterwards? The USCCB? The liturgical mindset of my own diocese, which is different from the one in the next diocese over? Tradition—yes, of course, it is the best answer. We should all want to be traditional. Yet still we must ask: Which pope(s), or what year(s), are we calibrating ourselves by?

In my personal studies, I see that there are men like Bishop Schneider who criticize some of the documents of the Second Vatican Council. The criticisms seemed reasonable, but I don’t know if they’re true or not. Can an ecumenical council contain error? Can we be faithful to the Church and recognize that error exists in the documents of a major council, if they do indeed exist?

I want to be faithful, obedient, and humble. Nevertheless, it is clear to me that obedience and humility find their foundations in truth; it cannot be otherwise. And what is truth, if theology and liturgy are just a battleground of conservative and liberal theologians, where one subjectively picks and chooses the opinions he likes?

Sincerely in Jesus Christ,

A Seminarian


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Dear Seminarian,

Thank you for your heartfelt letter to me. I understand very well what you are talking about, as I’ve been in the same situation as you are at different points in my career, and I wrestle with these questions all the time. There is a lot of controversy and confusion in the Church today, and it certainly can’t be cleared up by an airy appeal to “do what the Church teaches,” because not even that is clear anymore on a lot of issues—not so much the major dogmatic issues like the Trinity or the Divinity of Christ, but issues in the area of practical and pastoral life, e.g., how the liturgy should be celebrated, or whether to admit “remarried” Catholics to Communion, or what we should hold about the death penalty. To take an example closer to home, Pope Benedict XVI’s canonical framework in Summorum Pontificum couldn’t be any clearer, yet your seminary policies are openly in contempt of the law. You are being denied your rights according to canon law; more than that, you are being denied your access to your own heritage as a Roman Catholic, which is against natural law and divine law.

The reason your heart and mind are drawn to Catholic tradition is that, in fact, our baptism into Christ is also an incorporation into His Mystical Body, which is the Catholic Church of all ages, and carries within itself the treasury of every age, as well as the holy souls in Purgatory and the saints reigning in heaven—saints who themselves are imbued with the principles and fruits of tradition, which is immortalized, so to speak, in their minds and hearts. To be Catholic is to be the offspring of this tradition and its heir: it is in our race and blood, part of our family identity. That is why lovers of the Faith respond so enthusiastically when they see and hear its fuller expression. Why else would you and your fellow seminarians be drawn to things you never encountered growing up, e.g., cassocks, Gregorian chant, and ad orientem? The explanation is found in the sensus fidei: an intuitive sense of rightness, fittingness.

In stark contrast to the sensus fidei, the past sixty or so years have been characterized by an absolutely unprecedented—I would go so far as to say suicidal—abandonment of that heritage, a kind of voluntary amnesia, as we rush headlong into a future untethered from our past. This ought to be disturbing to any Catholic who understands that the Church cannot be simply “of today,” but, like her Lord, must be “the same yesterday, today, forever”—obviously not without appropriate change, but certainly not with repudiations and contradictions.

The fact that you have been met with contempt simply for saying “I love my Catholic heritage and I wish to follow Benedict XVI’s example and teaching” should be a sign to you of the magnitude of the problem. The formators are arrogating to themselves a quasi-absolute jurisdiction over what it means to be Catholic. They do not have and cannot have that authority or mandate. Seminarians should be wearing the cassock. The universal norm is to receive communion on the tongue and kneeling (that’s why Benedict XVI brought it back at the Vatican). Ad orientem, which is mentioned in passing by St. Basil the Great as an apostolic custom, is, after all, not only a custom for the TLM, but a position embedded in the rubrics of the Novus Ordo. And so on and so forth. These are not questions on which there are “two sides” worthy of being treated as equals. There’s a right answer and a wrong answer. And the virtue of prudence—at least, as understood from Aristotle down to the Catechism—concerns how to apply principles to particular circumstances, not how to ignore or overturn them. E.g., prudence asks: “Should we wear the cassock while playing soccer or fixing the boiler?,” not: “Should we ever wear the cassock?”

Bishop Schneider is a true witness of (and to) the Catholic Faith. When you read Christus Vincit, you come face to face with a man whose family suffered and who himself suffered in Communist Russia for the Faith, and who numbers martyrs among his relatives. You see someone thoroughly steeped in the Church Fathers and Doctors; someone who knows Sacred Scripture, who knows the traditional liturgy intimately from the daily practice of its richest forms. The only thing liberals or progressives can do to such a man is to ignore him or mock him, for they have no real response to the cogency of his arguments, the breadth of his resources, the accuracy of his diagnosis, and the compelling force of his life experience.

There are several virtues that are especially central in Christian life: humility, obedience, charity, faith. Each one can be called the fundamental virtue in a different respect. They work together, not separately. Obedience is always “the obedience of faith,” that is, to Christ, to His teaching as defined by the Church and lived by the saints, and to His representatives when they are acting within their remit. It is not an unlimited absolute. Similarly, humility is admirable, but only when it is based on the truth, not when it sours into self-hatred or hatred of tradition. Charity is the queen of the virtues—when allied with the truth: “doing the truth in charity,” as St. Paul says. Learning and transmitting the truth is a preeminent work of charity, says St. Thomas. It has been far too common that clergy, even bishops, act in a way like “free agents” who control what Catholicism is or is meant to be. They do not enjoy that prerogative.

Of its very nature, Modernism is an expression of pride and disobedience. While individual traditionalists may be proud or disobedient in particular respects, traditionalism as such can never be, since the term refers simply to the full acceptance of the Catholic Faith, the submission of one’s mind to the truth and the effort to live according to it with the help of God’s grace.

Does all this amount to an inescapable labyrinth of private opinions? I don’t think so. There are publicly available and readily discernible limits or boundaries to what is and what is not Catholic. We do have a well-defined body of teaching behind us, supporting us. We have a liturgical tradition that stretches back 2,000 years to the apostles, like a mighty mature oak tree back to its acorn. We have the crystal clear example of so many great saints who show us the way.

This much you will discover, and have already begun to discover: what passes for Catholicism in many parts of the modern Western world is a sad caricature, a messy sketch, of the real thing, like a comic book version of a great work of literature. When you encounter the real thing—whether it be in a Doctor like St. Thomas Aquinas, or in a bishop like Athanasius Schneider, or in a liturgy like a Solemn High Tridentine Mass—you know you are up against the real thing. It tends to make the modern substitute look disappointingly lightweight at best, and scandalously degraded at worst.

You’ve already been asked to bear a number of crosses and there will be more, because a bad bishop or even a lukewarm bishop, a tin-pot dictator of a rector, a nervous control-freak formator, a smoothly manipulative spiritual director—all of these sorts of bad apples are permitted by God for the testing of the just. As time goes on, you will find your greatest allies among the laity: that is “where the Spirit is moving” (as people like to say nowadays). We can recognize the Spirit of God when we see adoration, reverence, love for tradition, love for human life, love of the beautiful, and devotion to the saints.

I would like to recommend two books: my latest, Reclaiming Our Roman Catholic Birthright, which goes further into the topics you mentioned, and Roberto de Mattei’s Love for the Papacy and Filial Resistance to the Pope in the History of the Church. The following articles may also be helpful to you in working through these questions:

I will include you in my intentions each morning in the office of Prime. Be well, be smart, and be a Catholic man to the full. Esto plene vir catholicus.

Yours in Christ,

Dr. Kwasniewski

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