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Are Traditionalists Guilty of “Private Judgment” Over the Popes?

Author’s Note: Readers who follow Rod Dreher at The American Conservative may have noticed an article published on December 18th in which he cites my article from OnePeterFive on the Responsa ad Dubia document, followed by a quotation from a recent Substack post of Steve Skojec arguing against the traditionalists. Mr. Dreher then mentions that a friend of his compared me to Luther. This was a bit of a provocation and deserved a response, which I sent to Mr. Dreher, and which he kindly added as Update #6 in the same post. Since the content here is potentially of interest to a much broader audience, I am republishing my response at OnePeterFive.

Dear Rod,

I appreciated that you quoted my article in your December 18th post. There is of course much in your writing (in general) that I can agree with, or at the very least sympathize with. Nevertheless, I was surprised when a correspondent of yours compared me with Luther (presumably in the sense that Protestants set themselves up as little popes who determine what’s true and false by some kind of private judgment or idiosyncratic reading of the Christian tradition), and I hope you will allow me the opportunity to make a brief response. I cannot claim to be speaking for all Catholic traditionalists but I suspect most would agree with what follows.

I find it frankly astonishing that anyone would confuse the traditionalist position with Luther’s. Luther quickly moved from opposing papal vices to opposing the papacy as such, then a bunch of ecumenical councils, then many Fathers and Doctors of the Church. He called reason a whore, and heaped contempt on the scholastics, especially St. Thomas Aquinas (rather different from a trained Thomist who follows the master’s principles, makes frequent use of his reasoning, and looks to his life as exemplary).

Traditional Catholics can point to literally hundreds of catechisms published with papal or episcopal approval over the centuries that all teach exactly the same faith. They can point to extant liturgical books from every century and see the same Roman rite in various stages of its career, but always recognizably the same family—a family from which the Novus Ordo is excluded by every criterion. They can point to consistent teaching on all major matters of faith and morals from the popes of every century.

To base one’s faith on such a mighty witness of objective Catholicism, treasuring the unity of faith and reason, is the very opposite of the nominalism, voluntarism, and subjectivism of Luther and the religious pluralism to which it necessarily leads. Remember, the ones who are praising Luther and toying with his ideas are the progressives led by Francis. The campaign against the historic worship of the Latin-rite Church is nominalist and voluntarist to the core. For Bugnini and Montini, and now for Bergoglio and Roche, the Roman Rite is whatever we say it is, regardless of reality (e.g., as Matthew Hazell proves, only 13% of the euchology of the traditional rite survived unchanged in the new one). If we want the liturgical reform to have been necessary and successful, then it was and is necessary and successful, with no statistics or experiences counting for anything. All this is a parody of the rational faith to which Catholics adhere in their traditional doctrine and practice, inherited and passed on with utmost respect.

The unified witness of Roman Catholicism does not run into serious difficulties until the popes of and after the Second Vatican Council. And even these popes vary a great deal in the kind of problems they present to us: each is a mixed bag, at times a very large bag of very mixed content. Paul VI gave us Humanae Vitae and a ruptured, ersatz liturgy; John Paul II gave us Veritatis Splendor and the Assisi interreligious gatherings; Benedict XVI gave us Summorum Pontificum and a miserable abdication. Francis, nevertheless, is the outsized modernist who is slashing and burning much of what his predecessors revered, actions which are not and cannot be called Catholic by any stretch of the imagination.

Take two examples: the death penalty (about which I have written here) and communion for those living in an objective state of adultery (concerning which I was involved in a number of public statements). If Pope Francis is right, then all of his predecessors are wrong—and so, for that matter, are the Old and New Testaments, as interpreted by the Fathers and Doctors. But if all that is right, then Pope Francis is, quite simply, wrong. Now, which is easier to believe possible? Which of the alternatives is less destructive to the Catholic Faith? In fact, the former position destroys it altogether, while the latter only shatters an exaggerated ultramontanism extrapolated from but not necessitated by Vatican I.

Yes, some of the modern popes have let the “spirit of Vatican I” go to their heads and speak as if they are the Delphic oracles of the Church, but this is a far cry from what Catholics are obliged to believe by what is definitively taught in the extraordinary Magisterium or the universal ordinary Magisterium. It is commonplace to point out, for instance, that not everything in an encyclical is taught with equal authority and that errors are indeed possible. No less possible would be an erroneous manner of speaking or a faulty trend of thinking that does not compromise the faith and morals of the Church as such. Theologians have long distinguished between primary and secondary elements in papal documents, and between the essential content asserted and the accidents with which it is surrounded. If this leaves us sometimes in a muddle or a quandary, what’s the big deal? The history of theology, whether in the East or in the West, has been rather messy—I say this just in case it might have escaped someone’s attention. For a Catholic, the fundamental points of the Faith are luminously clear and nothing a pope can say or do will shake them. At least, that is what a traditional Catholic thinks. The progressives and modernists call such a one a “fundamentalist.”

Those who would be tempted to say in response to the last paragraph: “Then what good is the papacy?” have evidently not spent much time studying history to see the countless, often crucial ways in which one or another of the 266 successors of Peter have intervened when no one else could or would, in order to clarify or reaffirm Catholic truth when it was under attack, or to resolve an intractable administrative dilemma. The glories that can be attributed to a pivotal office that has endured for twenty centuries are not canceled out because of moments of shame and chaos.

Returning to our point of departure: for a Catholic to question and reject what Francis is doing is therefore nothing at all like Luther or Lutheranism. On the contrary, it has been Francis and his progressive allies who keep praising Luther, going so far as to put out a statue of him at the Vatican, and placing him, with Melanchton, on one of their official stamps. It was the Catholic liturgical reformers who most imitated Luther by creating a new liturgy from the bits and pieces they still agreed with from the old one plus lots of novelties, holding that they must overcome a thousand years of corruption. The parallels with Cranmer in England are even more striking (charts useful for a comparative exercise may be found here and here).

In any case, I have written a body of work that delves into all these questions. For a start, I’d recommend:

My Journey from Ultramontanism to Catholicism

Beyond ‘Smells and Bells’: Why We Need the Objective Content of the Usus Antiquior

The Byzantine Liturgy, the Traditional Latin Mass, and the Novus Ordo—Two Brothers and a Stranger

The Pope’s Boundedness to Tradition as a Legislative Limit: Replying to Ultramontanist Apologetics

Reclaiming Our Roman Catholic Birthright: The Genius and Timeliness of the Traditional Latin Mass

True Obedience in the Church: A Guide to Discernment in Challenging Times


I wish you and all your readers many graces this Christmas.


Peter Kwasniewski



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