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Traditionalism Is a Power, Not a Panacea

Over the weekend the news broke that a prominent member of the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter was arrested for apparent heinous crimes against the moral law. Since the investigation is still under way, I see no need to dwell on the particulars of this case here. Similar accusations have been made against clergy of the Society of St. Pius X. Sometimes such accusations have been proven false, but at other times they are true and cannot (and must not) be denied or swept under the rug.

I have no doubt that there will always be such guilt among us, as long as men are frail and fallen, and capable of sinning. I say this not to belittle the evil (God forbid!) but to ask “What is its real significance? What should we be learning from these evils?” As I will show, their significance is not that traditionalism is discredited; their significance is rather to show us how much more we need the resources of traditional Catholicism, at the heart of which is the message—not exactly a popular post-Vatican II message: You and I are broken sinners in desperate need of God’s grace, and every possible means and method for obtaining His help will come in handy.

There’s a kind of journalism and social commentary that could be summed up with the word “Gotcha!” It’s ever on the lookout for people in positions of authority—people who should be paragons of virtue and who even seem to have advantages over others in the pursuit of virtue—who have been caught sinning, even notoriously sinning. “Gotcha!” Once the incriminating evidence is obtained, it is turned against the entire movement or group or belief-system to which that criminal belonged. Surely (it is said), if that group can produce such a person, then all that they stand for is empty, and they must be either hypocrites or enablers.

The problem is, all of us are supposed to be paragons of virtue, and all baptized Christians (and certainly all Catholics) do have objective advantages over others in the pursuit of virtue—and yet we fall short again, and again, and again. It is not about whether or not we have advantages. It’s about how humbly and perseveringly we make use of the resources placed at our disposal. It’s about conversion of heart.

Traditionalists rightly claim that the Church, until some dodgy recent decades, has always cherished and handed on her traditions of belief and prayer, and that this inheritance is an inexhaustible treasury of wisdom and of means of sanctification. That is all true, and the fact that someone who is a traditionalist has gotten to be super-familiar with the contents of the treasury does not guarantee he will not fall away, or not lead a double life just as Judas did (remember, Judas—who lived under the same roof with Our Lord practically every day for several years—was stealing from the common purse long before the other apostles knew about it: he’s the patron non-saint of the double life).

It is always useful to remember the teaching of St. Thomas Aquinas that knowing the truth is one thing, and living by it is another. That’s why we’ve had great religious artists whose private lives were a riot of crimes—Caravaggio being perhaps the most outstanding example. That’s why we can have “evil geniuses.”[1] There are (alas) lots of examples of brilliant people—including brilliant theologians and, as we have seen to our shame, prominent figures in the Church—who are wicked. The intellect’s perfection stands on one level, and the will’s perfection by charity on another. They are related, but not conflated; they affect one another, but do not effect one another. And that’s why it’s possible for someone to have written a beautiful book about traditional liturgy while nurturing hidden vices. These things can coexist, even though they are objectively incompatible.

“What good, then, is traditionalism if it can allow such a thing to happen? Isn’t it all a fraud? Trads are no better than any other Catholics, and probably worse, since they claim to be better.”

I am not sure that many trads would actually claim to be morally superior to non-trads. Instead, they might claim (and the more immature among them might boast) that they have been given access to certain aids to living the Christian life that are good, holy, and true. These things would benefit whoever made use of them—and they are intended for everyone. I’ve never met a trad who wants to hoard these aids for himself like a squirrel hoarding acorns, rather than seeing the happy day when the broader Church will take them up again with childlike fervor.

Just knowing about these providential aids won’t, in and of itself, benefit you as a person unless you embrace them seriously and consistently, and are prepared to make whatever sacrifice is necessary to exclude anything contrary to them. All of us are sinners, and that, in fact, is the main argument in favor of tradition: we need this extra help. Perhaps a Catholic who was already perfectly virtuous (let me know when you meet one) could make do without the Church’s patrimony, but the weak and needy among us cannot. Once again, knowing stuff is one thing, and living by it is another. As the saying goes: “You can’t blame a medicine for not curing someone who did not take it.”

We need to go one step further. The logic of the argument against traditionalism turns out to be a more effective argument against the post-Vatican II “updated” form of Catholicism, which has a vastly more abysmal track record in terms of retaining believers who are making the attempt to live according to the divine commandments. The updated version of Catholicism has been shedding off believers, religious, clergy, and parishes almost continually since it was first imposed, and those who remain make no secret of the fact that they dispute or deny the “difficult teachings” officially taught by the Church. Put it this way: traditional Catholics show small numbers who are really striving to live the full teaching of the Church, while postconciliar Catholics show large numbers who are either fallen away or picking and choosing what Catholicism “means to them.” When it comes to prominent figures, modern Catholicism has not fared well: one need only think of Marcial Maciel, Marie-Dominique Philippe, and Jean Vanier.[2]

Let’s go one step further. The argument against traditionalism really is, at root, the argument made by nihilists against Christianity itself. “If this religion were true, why are so many of its followers evil?” It sounds plausible until you consider that people who accept the basic teachings of the Bible are, on the whole, morally better than those who don’t—indeed, the notions of human nature, dignity, rights, and freedom come from there, and when the biblical foundations are taken away, these notions quickly perish as “all hell breaks loose.” Within this group that acknowledges the Ten Commandments, the people who strive to make God first and to fulfill well the duties of their state in life will be better still, and on the road to becoming saints; and that the people within this group who have persevered courageously have become saints. The saints are the evidence that Catholicism “works” for those who give it not notional but real assent.[3]

Here’s a snapshot, then, of the arguments. The negative version runs like this:

  • If there’s evil in the world (moral and physical), Christianity cannot be true.
  • If there’s evil in the world, Catholicism cannot be effective.
  • If there’s evil in the world, God cannot exist.

Welcome to nihilistic atheism! You now get to design your own personal plan for saving yourself and the world—or you may commit suicide.

The positive version would run something like this:

  • If there is evil in the world, moral and physical, we and the world are fallen, and need salvation.
  • Because God is love, He sent us our salvation in the Person of Jesus Christ.
  • Because Jesus Christ alone is our salvation, He gave us the means to be united with Him: the true faith (Creed), access to His grace (liturgy and sacraments), and the friendship of charity with Him and with one another.

Welcome to the one and only way out of self-absorption, misery, and despair! The way to follow it is already shown to you in the life of Christ and His saints. Now’s the time to get working. As Our Lord said, “I must work the works of him that sent me, while it is day: the night cometh, when no man can work” (Jn 9:4).

Imagine someone saying: “You know, we failed to put out that big fire last week with our firetruck and water hoses. So let’s forget about this vain enterprise of firefighting, retire the trucks, and throw out the hoses.” Or imagine someone saying: “We lost the battle last week even though we had heavy artillery and an ideal position. So for the next battle, forget about the artillery and position, and just send in the troops randomly with rifles.”

We smile at such irrational statements because we see that a particular failure does not mean the system is broken; a particular defeat does not mean the weapons are useless. Of course, these metaphors limp, too. If not every physical fire can be put out, every moral or spiritual evil can be conquered by grace, but the grace has to be petitioned, and its preservation will often come at the cost of great suffering. If not every military battle can be won, every moral or spiritual battle can be won—on the same conditions.

The devil knows, better than anyone, how good and powerful traditional Catholicism is. That’s why his master plan was getting rid of as much of it as possible. For the same reason, he targets especially those who are still holding on to it, who are its representatives, its ambassadors, its transmitters, and whose fall from grace will definitely play into his hands, especially in a world dominated by the self-righteous and often hypocritical “Gotcha!” mentality.

I recall a story from the desert fathers about a vision of hordes of demons going off to the remote places of the hermits while the city had only one lazy demon sitting on its ramparts. The explanation was simple. In the city most of the people were enslaved to vices, so demons had little work to do there. The hermits, on the other hand, presented a genuine obstacle to the powers of hell, and they were accordingly targeted and assaulted. The traditionalists are like the hermits because what they hold fast to and keep alive is a much more formidable obstacle to Satan’s plans than the compromised, diluted, and dying Catholicism of the mainstream Church in the West. As a result, infernal attacks will be far more concentrated on traditional clergy, religious, and laity.

The devil knows that whenever a traditional Catholic falls badly and publicly, it will bring discredit on the movement, even as any Catholic scandal brings discredit on Catholicism itself, and any Christian scandal on Christianity. Yet rational people do not write off an entire sport because some of its players take drugs; they do not write off a political party because some of its members are womanizers; they do not write off the sincerity and virtue of all the brothers and sisters of a religious community because its founder is exposed as a serial abuser; they do not assume that a good law is responsible for the existence of criminals who violate it, or that a good regimen of diet and exercise is to blame for the sickness and death of a mortal creature. These different kinds of examples point to the need for discerning causes and effects, and for making distinctions instead of slothfully settling for guilt by association.

Nothing but the grace of God is a solution to evil, as Andrew Petersen reminded us.[4] If traditional Catholic practices can lead us better to care about that grace and seek it out over the course of our life—and there are many reasons to think that they can and do—then they are good and should be kept. That would explain the mentality we see in the entire history of the Church, namely that we love and hand on our tradition. Tradidi quod et accepi: “I handed on that which I received,” as St. Paul says (1 Cor 11:23), giving the principle and template for all times. But there is no “magic formula” apart from conversion of heart, and no serious Christian has ever believed otherwise. As Chris Jackson, a columnist for The Remnant, pointed out:

What reputable person on our side has ever made such a stupid argument as to say the Latin Mass takes away free will, concupiscence, and temptation? John XXIII, Paul VI, Abp. Bugnini, Hans Küng, Yves Congar, Karl Rahner, Teilhard de Chardin, Martin Luther, and Thomas Cranmer all said the Latin Mass and all were responsible for tearing down the Church.

The graces of the Latin Mass have always been there and always will be. The graces will be given as much or as little to those who assist as their dispositions will allow. The value of the Latin Mass, Traditional sacraments, and Traditional Catholic morality and theology is that they provide you with everything you need to live a holy life. They are ordinarily the standard minimum one should expect from the Catholic Church in order to save and sanctify one’s soul. If you are given all of these things and you still screw it up, the fault lies with you, not the perfect means you were given to work with.[5]

“There is no crime of which I do not deem myself capable,” said Goethe. Or, in the more Catholic version: “There but for the grace of God go I.” Let us remember this; let us take it to heart, take it to prayer, take it to Confession, take it to our grave. Let us pray for purity of heart, patience in tribulation, and fidelity to the end. Christ never promised us an easy path, even as He never said that the gates of hell would not put up a most formidable opposition. He promised us His presence; He promised us His help; and He promised us heaven, if we follow the straight and narrow path.

Whenever a priest falls, be he a traditionalist or not, we are thrown again to our knees as we realize the frailty and woundedness of our fallen nature and the high stakes of the spiritual battle. This is a battle for your soul, for my soul, for real. We should not want to give the devil any more (partial) victories by succumbing to despair; by doubting the efficacy of the food and drink,[6] medicines and weapons, that Christ has given us in Catholic tradition; or by turning against a frail and wounded Church, as schismatics of every age have done in their vain search for an illusory utopia.


Photo: Fr. Carlo’s first Mass, provided by the author.

[1] For more on this point, see my article “On the Connection between Good Art and Good Morals.”

[2] See my article “L’Arche founder Jean Vanier’s abuse of women shows the ‘mystery of iniquity’ in our fallen world.

[3] See my article “A Reply to the Discouraged Seminarian: There Are 6,000 Reasons to Remain Catholic.”

[4] See “Hopeless and Despairing.” For another take along the same lines, see my article “In the Midst of Crisis, Be Driven by Faith, Not by Fear.”

[5] This is from a short post at The Remnant, which has some additional excellent points: I recommend reading it.

[6] See my article “Healthy and Copious Food for Grown-Ups.”

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