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Bishop Barron and the ‘Unhappy’ Renewal of the ‘Trad’ Movement

In recent comments, His Excellency Bishop Robert Barron discussed the post-conciliar period and addressed the various historical movements before and after the Second Vatican Council. He makes reference to the “unhappy” renewal of the “trad” movement and heavily criticizes what he calls “pre-conciliar conservatism.” I do not wish to criticize the bishop here, but rather to discuss some of the ways his comments help illustrate the difficulties inherent in the hermeneutic of continuity.

True reform hinges on the virtue of piety

In his famous address that coined the term, Pope Benedict identifies the hermeneutic of continuity with the hermeneutic of reform. But what is the nature of true reform? The prophet Malachias declares concerning St. John the Baptist: he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers (Mal. 4:6). This points to a crucial truth regarding Catholic renewal: true reform comes when the vigor of youth coalesces with the wisdom of the aged. When the younger generation takes up the mantle of their fathers with renewed strength, there is true reform. This hinges on the virtue of piety.

The virtue of piety means to honor our parents and superiors (ST II-II q101 a1). Among the great reformer-saints, there is a deep sense of humility before fathers and superiors, even while young reformers seek to renew the Church. In this way, there is no question of continuity with the past, since the virtue of piety reverences both existing Church authority and the ancient Fathers.

A close look at the reformers of Vatican II yields a different picture regarding piety. This scene from Vatican II illustrates this difficulty:

An aging Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani, now blind, about age 80, limping, the head of the Holy Office and so the chief doctrinal officer of the Church … takes the microphone to speak to the 2,000 assembled bishops. And, as he speaks, pleading for the bishops to consider the texts the curia has spent three years preparing, suddenly his microphone was shut off. He kept speaking, but no one could hear a word. Then, puzzled and flustered, he stopped speaking, in confusion. And the assembled fathers began to laugh, and then to cheer.

This event happened on the third day of the Council. This excitement for new things and disdain for the immediate past seems to characterize also Bishop Barron’s comments:

The idea of real doctrinal development does indeed run counter to Catholic antiquarianism that would see dogmas as changeless objets d’art, and the assertion of the primacy of conscience does indeed run counter to a fussy and hyper-judgmental legalism.

Pope Benedict would later write concerning his formative years before the Council about his “anti-Roman resentment … imparted to us by our studies” [1] and that “we all had a certain contempt for the nineteenth century; it was fashionable then, somewhat kitsch piety and over-sentimentality — we wanted to overcome all that. We wanted a new era of piety” [2].

He recalls that when he saw the original document on revelation at Vatican II (on behalf of which Ottaviani had pleaded), he wished to circumvent the Magisterium in order to impose his own interpretation of Tradition upon it [3]. He “wanted out of classical Thomism[.] … Thomas’s writings were textbooks, by and large, and impersonal somehow[.] … I didn’t want to operate only in a stagnant and closed philosophy, but in a philosophy understood as a question — what is man, really? — and particularly to enter into the new, contemporary philosophy” [4].

Such castigation of the fathers of the immediate past and the imposition instead of their own interpretation of Tradition seems to be the defining characteristic of the Nouvelle Théologie party. This was the party that, in Barron’s words, “won the day at Vatican II.” This attitude on display by these men appears to run contrary to piety, opening up questions about the continuity that is claimed.

Even the conservatives wanted a rupture

Bishop Barron continually censures the “pre-conciliar conservatism” manifested in Garrigou-Lagrange and, he admits, promoted by the Magisterium at that time. He states the men of Communio — Ratzinger, de Lubac, Wojtyła — were “not friends of pre-conciliar Catholic conservatism,” which held their ideas suspect. Bishop Barron admits that the pre-conciliar Magisterium “persecuted” some of the heroes of the council, like de Lubac. Barron states that de Lubac “broke from pre-conciliar conservatism[.] … [H]e was opposed to it.”

Yet it was Ven. Pius XII who censured de Lubac and condemned his ideas in the encyclical Humani Generis. This encyclical has a subheading: “Concerning some false opinions threatening to undermine the foundations of Catholic doctrine.” This seems to be the type of conservative Barron disparages.

Barron dismisses the characterization of John Paul II as an “arch-conservative,” stating that he had “zero interest in reviving pre-conciliar conservatism.” He comments how the younger Wojtyła got his doctorate under Garrigou-Lagrange but then got his second doctorate in Poland studying the new philosophy.

Through all of this, Bishop Barron indicates that even the “conservative” Nouvelle Théologie sought consciously to break from the pontificates of Bl. Pius IX, St. Pius X, and even Ven. Pius XII, into whose pontificate crept some quantity of liberalism. As he observes about the New Catechism, it is not “pre-conciliar conservatism.” Indeed, the teachings of the last sainted pontiff, Pius X, are entirely removed.

Thus did Ratzinger write in 1982 that Gaudium et Spes was a “counter-syllabus to the measure in that it represents an attempt to reconcile the Church with the world as it had become after 1789.”[5] We are left with the Magisterium of today stating that it is continuous but tacitly seeking to overcome its immediate predecessors. This is truly a great difficulty for a hermeneutic of continuity. It would seem reasonable to either formally condemn the prior pontificates and their errors or clearly demonstrate how these matters are not contradictory, but continuous. A group of fifty theologians submitted such an appeal to Benedict, but no response was given.

Nouvelle Théologie united against the traditionalists at the Council

As I have written elsewhere, there is a place for a “moderate” voice of reform throughout the history of the Church, and conservatives and traditionalists normally form an alliance against the liberal heretics. But at Vatican II, the conservatives switched sides and allied themselves with the liberals in order to overcome the prior Magisterium. They successfully convinced enough bishops to throw out all the original documents (save one, written by Bugnini). They suppressed all the warnings from Ottaviani and others, who stated that their dreams of a springtime were naïve. But after the Council was done, Barron notes, the liberals and conservatives immediately broke into two warring parties, represented in the journals Concilium and Communio.

Thus, Barron admits that the liberal wing of Concilium did indeed form at least a substantial part of the victorious party at Vatican II. The division between Concilium and Communio shows the division and ambiguity in the documents themselves. As Cardinal Walter Kasper would write later:

In many places, [the Council Fathers] had to find compromise formulas, in which, often, the positions of the majority are located immediately next to those of the minority, designed to delimit them. Thus, the conciliar texts themselves have a huge potential for conflict, open the door to a selective reception in either direction. [6]

Therefore the hermeneutic of continuity is strained not only by the fact that Ratzinger’s conservative party sought to break from the past, but also, through their alliance with the liberals, they allowed ambiguities to be latent in the texts of the documents. The conservatives then refused to suppress the liberals, who eventually elected Pope Francis, who is now rapidly undoing the conservative legacy.

Conservatives must repent of their alliance with liberal heretics

Toward the end of their lives, some of these great conservatives seemed to voice regret. In his final book, Pope John Paul II stated:

If we wish to speak rationally about good and evil, we have to return to Saint Thomas Aquinas, that is, to the philosophy of being. With the phenomenological method [of the new philosophy], for example, we can study experiences of morality, religion, or simply what it is to be human, and draw from them a significant enrichment of our knowledge. Yet we must not forget that all these analyses implicitly presuppose the reality of the Absolute Being and also the reality of being human, that is, being a creature. If we do not set out from such ‘realist’ presuppositions, we end up in a vacuum. [7]

Returning to St. Thomas was the program being pursued by the pre-conciliar Magisterium against which the left and right wings of Nouvelle Théologie party allied to overcome. Is it so reactionary to wish to renew this program? Indeed, such an effort seems to be advocated by John Paul II here.

Pope Benedict says in Last Testament:

We [at the Council] handled things correctly, even if we certainly did not correctly assess the political consequences and the actual repercussions. One thought too much of theological matters then, and did not reflect on how these things would come across. [8]

Dire warnings of these repercussions were being shouted by Ottaviani (deprived of his microphone) and others at the Council. Nevertheless, the Nouvelle Théologie party pressed on toward their springtime. But here the elder Benedict can admit by implication that the Council fathers incorrectly assessed the consequences.

One of Bishop Barron’s heroes, Henri de Lubac, wrote before his death:

[M]aybe I should have concentrated more on essentials[.] … [F]or the last seven or eight years[, have I] been paralyzed by the fear of confronting head on, in concrete fashion, the essential problems in their scolding reality? Out of wisdom or weakness? Was I right or wrong? [9]

To his credit, Bishop Barron seems to acknowledge that the traditionalist movement simply represents the efforts of the Magisterium before the Council. He does not foolishly call them schismatics. Yet he does not ask the deeper questions about continuity and ambiguity, and he continually shuns the men of the Church who preceded the Council. Through the virtue of piety, whatever excesses were present before the Council could have been truly reformed.


This crisis will be overcome when conservatives renounce forever their alliance with the liberal heretics and unite themselves in charity to the traditionalists they once shunned. They must renew their filial piety toward the pontificates of Bl. Pius IX and St. Pius X. They must have the humility to “read the signs of the times” and admit that their springtime never came. Traditionalists, for their part, must renew their charity toward their brethren, in order to fight together against the liberal heretics. Both parties can confess the Declaration of Truths, and bishops can unite in this confession against the enemies of Christ now destroying the vineyard of the Lord. Who shall rise up for me against the evildoers? or who shall stand with me against the workers of iniquity? (Ps. 93:16).

[1] Pope Benedict XVI, Last Testament: In His Own Words (Bloomsbury: 2017), 96

[2] Ibid., 66

[3] Ibid., 99

[4] Ibid., 65–67

[5] Quoted in Principles of Catholic Theology (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1987) pp. 381–2

[6] Cardinal Walter Kasper, L’Osservatore Romano, April 12, 2013

[7] Memory and Identity, Rizzoli International Publications, Inc., 2005, 12

[8] Last Testament, 105

[9] Quoted by John Vennari, “A Short Catechism of the New Theology

Image: Bishop Robert Barron via YouTube.

2 thoughts on “Bishop Barron and the ‘Unhappy’ Renewal of the ‘Trad’ Movement”

  1. “An aging Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani, now blind, about age 80, limping, the head of the Holy Office and so the chief doctrinal officer of the Church ” According to my information Cardinal Ottaviani was born in 1890, so at the end of the Council he would be 75 years old.

    As such, I think this statement is false as it is and shouldn’t be repeated. I guess it is one of the myths, that are popular, but still not true.


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