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Brick by Brick in the New Dark Ages: Dr. Kwasniewski Responds to Dr. Minerd

Dear Dr. Minerd,

I write this letter as a friend who has long admired your work and who has benefited from our extensive personal correspondence. My purpose here is not to reject your well-intentioned letter, since I agree with a lot of it, but to offer some qualifications or counterpoints. There is not so much a theological difference between us, as a difference in the perception and interpretation of the current situation.

Your appeal to traditionalists to stop being “defensive” and to engage a wider and deeper range of subjects, authors, and neighbors is one that I sympathize with. As you know, though I have predominantly written on the traditional liturgy and liturgical reform, I’ve also published on a range of other topics: Aquinas’s doctrine of love, Catholic Social Teaching, marriage and family, the virtue of obedience, canonization, the papacy, Vatican II, and sacred music. Over the past decade I have freely acknowledged weaknesses in the traditionalist movement. I also agree that we can and should make common cause with all Catholics who are anti-progressivist and anti-liberal. This is certainly happening “on the ground” in many places, as you acknowledge. Lastly, the danger of pharisaism is especially present whenever any individual or group treasures a good of great value that is simultaneously despised or unknown by many others, including those who ought to treasure it.[1]

On the other hand, I thought your letter was unfair in certain respects. Your frustration about the new French edition of the Short Critical Study (nicknamed the “Ottaviani Intervention”)—I was the one who announced it on Rorate Caeli, when making available a translation of Cardinal Burke’s preface—seems excessive. There is good reason to celebrate a new edition of this seminal work. The Short Critical Study is a historical document of immense significance: possibly the first time cardinals have addressed a pope with such a solemn warning (at least in print), and over such fundamental matters. Although it has flaws—no traditionalist would claim, I think, that this little document can stand by itself as a sufficient statement of our critique—its principal claims have never been satisfactorily answered by the proponents of the liturgical reform.[2] For its historic value alone, it should remain in print in every major language (ideally, with a good introduction or notes to set it in context and qualify or complete its content).[3]

The dismissive comment about the Short Critical Study suggests perhaps a lack of familiarity with what it contains. Were you aware that its authors say the following about the Byzantine rite:

Consider the following elements found in the Byzantine rite: lengthy and repeated penitential prayers; solemn vesting rites for the celebrant and deacon; the preparation of the offerings at the proscomidia, a complete rite in itself; repeated invocations, even in the prayers of offering, to the Blessed Virgin and the Saints; invocations of the choirs of Angels at the Gospel as “invisible concelebrants,” while the choir identifies itself with the angelic choirs in the Cherubicon; the sanctuary screen (iconostasis) separating the sanctuary from the rest of the church and the clergy from the people; the hidden Consecration, symbolizing the divine mystery to which the entire liturgy alludes; the position of the priest who celebrates facing God, and never facing the people; Communion given always and only by the celebrant; the continual marks of adoration toward the Sacred Species; the essentially contemplative attitude of the people. The fact that these liturgies, even in their less solemn forms, last for over an hour and are constantly defined as “awe-inspiring, unutterable . . . heavenly, life-giving mysteries” speaks for itself. Finally, we note how in both the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom and the Liturgy of St. Basil, the concept of “supper” or “banquet” appears clearly subordinate to the concept of sacrifice—just as it was in the Roman Mass.[4]

This single paragraph is a fine sketch of some of the many parallels between traditional Eastern and Western rites. Perhaps there is more in the Short Critical Study than meets the eye! Even if Roman liturgical traditionalism need not be a major concern of the East, Eastern Catholics ought to be deeply concerned with orthodoxy (= right worship and right doctrine) in all areas of the Church, and make common cause with their Western brethren who cherish tradition, as they do. As you yourself point out, the minimizing, modernizing, feminizing liturgists’ long knives are drawn and ready to dice up the Eastern rites if they can ever find a way to do it and get away with it.

In the final analysis, the crisis in the liturgy is so severe and so massive that until it is seriously addressed, there is never going to be health and coherence in the Latin-rite church. Never. It’s like having a statue with the head chopped off, or a church with no roof: it’s hard to pray one’s devotions before a headless statue, or to meditate on heavenly things with the rain pouring through. The major problem attracts the attention and must be fixed.

You rightly maintain that addressing the modern(ist) drift of the Western Church will require more foundational studies, capable of going to the root problems (such as those brought to light in the vibrant preconciliar debates between the Thomists and the proponents of nouvelle théologie and ressourcement); consequently, Trads ought to have a greater breadth of interest and cooperation. I agree, and to that extent, your article is a helpful reminder that we need not forever fight rearguard battles but should claim high ground and new territory. Nevertheless, I find that very few people have done the heavy lifting required to be able to size up the pivotal role of liturgical tradition and the magnitude of the twentieth-century rupture, with the ripple effects it has had in all areas of Catholicism, and to that extent, the lack of breadth and depth lies rather with the “conservative” camp, as the whole world got to see dramatically in the embarrassing spectacle of the article series by Cavadini, Healy, and Weinandy, whose disco-era claims are refuted in the just-published book Illusions of Reform.

At one point you write:

There are many faithful Roman Catholics who are not Roman Catholic traditionalists. And they never will attend the traditional Latin Mass with any regularity. I can just guarantee that.

But surely, there are very few conservative Catholics left who do not personally know traditionalists, or at least know about them (thank you, Pope Francis, for the free advertising!); and there is much more interest and curiosity than the “market supply” can accommodate. Widespread anecdotal evidence suggests that the majority of young clergy want to say the TLM but are now being forcibly prevented from doing so. This is something I have heard in many dioceses and countries. In France, polls say that close to 40% of young Catholics are interested in the TLM, to such a point that it has become somewhat fashionable there to manifest, or to affect, traditionalist sympathy. If the pope and bishops simply allowed a “free market” approach, within two generations the TLM would be the rite of the majority of Catholics. It is no pharisaical triumphalism to note that, in point of fact, statistically anomalous large families and vocations arise within the Trad movement. To my mind, the reason we point out these things is not to add “thank God we’re not like those other Catholics,” but “Hey, other Catholics: come on over here and experience something greater than you ever imagined! Join us and be a part of the long-term solution.” While dioceses are shutting down parishes, traditionalists are eager to open new ones.

You urge us to “help rebuild from the ruins.” This is what practically all traditionalists I know are striving to do—beginning with the most basic task of preserving those ruins and rebuilding from them in the same style, rather than leveling the church to the soil and replacing it with modern claptrap.

You give a long list of theologians we ought to be studying and discussing. Doesn’t that reflect a rather academic and rarefied notion of what ordinary Catholics should be doing with their time? The Trad movement is mostly made up of moms and dads with lots of kids, young people trying to figure out their careers, discern a vocation, or get married and have a family. These people will not particularly “benefit infinitely more from a recovery of the moral theological works of Merkelbach, the full Prümmer, or the works of Michel Labourdette, from a recovery of the spiritual theology of the great Carmelite scholastics (though also, e.g, the Benedictines, Dominicans, and, yes, even a number of Jesuits of the modern era), from a recovery of the works on theological methodology,” etc. etc. They need good traditional liturgy, good sound preaching, good solid catechisms, and good strong families.

Those who are leaders in the movement (e.g., the traditionalist clergy) admittedly could achieve higher levels of education; they seem only rarely to produce the kind of priest-scholars or professors that were commonplace in preconciliar days. Let’s not forget, however, that they are trying to rebuild an entire world that has been lost, or rather, bombed into smithereens. No wonder they’re starting first with bricks and mortar—basic stuff like learning competent Latin again, or reading questions from the Summa theologiae. It is difficult to convey the sheer magnitude of the rupture, but let’s start here: on the eve of the Second Vatican Council, nearly all clergy were able to read in Latin: their daily Mass and breviary were done in that language, and often their entire course of seminary study. Only two decades later (at most), over 1,700 years of Latin literature—most of it untranslated—was now a closed book. The cultural collapse was nearly total. In comparison with the postconciliar Catholic world, Spanish Baroque scholasticism looks like the civilization of Tolkien’s immortal elves compared with that of the boisterous hobbits at best, the skull-smashing orcs at worst. As far as I can tell, serious Latinity is only just beginning to be gained again by some of the clergy.

In fact, let me make this claim: if everyone in seminaries and houses of formation were simply to study St. Thomas Aquinas in a serious way, things would already be dramatically better than they are. You say we need a “Summa with commentary”; but it was only recently that the Summa was published for the first time simply in a parallel Latin-English edition—both a helpful tool for today and a tragic reminder of how far the Church has fallen, since once upon a time every cleric worth his salt could read Aquinas’s Latin as we read the newspaper. What I’m saying is that you seem to be speaking as if there’s still a high culture to be formed, and I’m saying, the barbarians have taken over and smashed everything, and we are painstakingly cleaning up the mess and rebuilding one brick at a time. No wonder first-aid kits are more plentiful than Fabergé eggs.

Even so, might there not be a danger of forgetting the substantial scholarly work that traditionalists have done in recent years? One would never know it from reading your letter, chiding us for our lack of engagement with Garrigou-Lagrange; but let’s mention some other notable publications. Zachary Thomas and Gerhard Eger have edited and translated, in two volumes, Honorius Augustodunensis’s imposing and intriguing Latin medieval text Jewel of the Soul for the prestigious Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library; Aaron Seng has edited magnificent hardcover editions of dozens of premodern catechisms (Bonner, Vaux, Ledesma, Bellarmine, Turberville, Sadler, Challoner, Butler, Maynooth, Donlevy, Burke, Aquinas, Pecham, Pagula, Trent, Frassinetti, Pius X, Canisius) for the Tradivox series, a library that bears witness to the universal ordinary Magisterium; Fr Thomas Crean, OP, has written new commentaries on St Mark’s Gospel and St Luke’s Gospel; David M. Foley has prepared a fresh translation, with commentary, of William of Tocco’s early biography of St. Thomas Aquinas; the collected works of master historian John C. Rao are now being published; John P. Joy has contributed two major studies on the Magisterium of the Church (here and here); the Saint Edmund Campion Missal is a feast for the eyes and the mind, with its copious annotations and historical illustrations, light years ahead of anything that has been produced by the liturgical mainstream for the past six decades; traditionalists are leading the way in the recovery of the unexpurgated John Henry Newman; Joseph Shaw has given the world thirty-four well-researched studies on every aspect of the usus antiquior; Matthew Hazell produced the first-ever detailed comparison of the contents of the first-millennium and 1970 lectionaries; Abbé Claude Barthe has masterfully synthesized a thousand years of allegorical commentary on the Mass in a single volume; and the list could go on and on. Yes, much of it concerns the realm of liturgy, but after decades of twaddle and propaganda, who can blame us for concentrating our efforts here, on what (after all) the Second Vatican Council called “the font and apex of the Christian life”?

Moreover, the reams of scholarly work done by “closet traditionalists”— those who adhere to the traditional Faith and liturgy but who do not (or feel they cannot) publicly admit it—would add page after page to this article. No; in the name of truth, one must refuse to grant the assertion that the Latin traditionalist movement has not been producing superlative scholarly work. That being said, I willingly grant that many Catholics, of all different “persuasions,” are making important contributions at this time—Larry Chapp is one good example, you yourself another. There is no question we should strive to make common cause whenever and wherever we can.

You laud the “great themes of liturgy” from the Liturgical Movement, as if we have forgotten them. As Dom Alcuin Reid often likes to say, these themes are to be far more often encountered, in a real form, in the Trad movement than they ever are in the mainstream. Anyone with a decent hand missal, if he reads the commentaries and marginal notes, is already receiving piecemeal a better Liturgical Movement formation than the vast majority of diocesan seminarians are. Who has republished Cardinal Schuster? Arouca Press and Angelico Press. Who has republished Pius Parsch? Biretta Books and Os Justi Press. Virgil Michel? Arouca again. You rightly praised Arouca Press. It’s really no surprise, after all, that it’s a traditionalist publisher, as the mainstream has very little interest in the works of the great writers of the Liturgical Movement, who were, to a man, immersed in and devoted to the old Roman liturgy.

I understand and wholly agree: without right worship of God, nothing else matters. Not merely because justice must be rendered to God but above all because it is in and through the liturgy and the sacraments that Christ preeminently acts through His Mystical Body to confer to His members the grace of divinization. But a broader culture is needed…

The phrase “nothing else matters” is likely a rhetorical exaggeration here, a way of saying “I get what you’re saying, dear trads.” But it’s not a falsehood. If divinization is on the line, and the very bond of lex orandi—lex credendi—lex vivendi, then some of the other projects mentioned in the article pale into near oblivion. Not that they are not important on an intellectual and academic level, for they are, and they will shape the future: scholarly work will influence the high-end conversation and does trickle down eventually to the everyday level. My point, rather, is that these projects of translation, commentary, and high-end publishing are not very pertinent to what most Catholics are doing most of the time. That may sound terribly anti-intellectual, but if we are talking about lay movements in a broad sense, the academic level should not be made the standard for assessing the general public level.

If, instead, you are arguing that it would be disastrous to try to recover the liturgy without also trying to retain or rebuild the intellectual culture that supports it,[5] you will not have the slightest disagreement from me. Without such a culture, catechesis, preaching, sacred art, and popular writing will remain subpar among traditionalists. Even St. Thomas recognized very strongly the importance of theologians and bishops as “aristocrats,” in a sense, who illuminate others. My contention is that we will never get such aristocrats again until we put our liturgical house in order and abandon, once and for all, the foolish dream of a reconciliation with Western secular modernity, which has turned into a bloody nightmare.

Either the traditionalists are right to claim that their concerns are not those of merely “one subsection of the Church that is embittered by the truly terrible treatment they have received” but are, of necessity, the concerns of the entire Church (for all the reasons you yourself give!), or they are wrong from the get-go and should pack up and go home.[6]

I prefer that the trads be openly part of the “fight” for the truth and not merely a group that, through a purely reactionary posture, stagnates and is dismissed by the broader Church.

This characterization strikes me as unjust. Who has been leading the fight against modernism and progressivism for decades? Not the liberals, obviously; nor the conservatives, for that matter, who have backed themselves into a ridiculous corner because of their ultramontanism and their tendency to slide, bit by bit, down the slippery slope, just as political conservatives do. The reason Trads are dismissed is not that they have a stagnant, reactionary posture; it is that they identify uncomfortable inconsistencies and scandalous impieties that no one else wants to acknowledge or deal with, because “Vatican II” or “obedience” or whatever slogan suits the shutter-uppers. It’s much easier to brush them off as cranks than to engage the substantive issues they are raising.[7]

As Fr. Nicolas also noted, if we were to forbid intransigence, we would need to cast aside writings by many great saints, both East and West.

Amen to that! Nor is such intransigence incompatible with goodness of heart and greatness of soul, as you immediately say regarding Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange. If I’m not mistaken, by the way, Garrigou-Lagrange’s works—at least those that were already available, such as the translations done in the “bad old days”—were kept in circulation primarily by traditionalists for decades, before being rediscovered by a broader audience and welcomed (to some degree, at least) back into the conversation, by new generations of Dominicans who long to have access to their traditional Dominican Rite again.

Larry Chapp makes this valuable point:

While the progressives were speaking in the language of contemporary culture with a manner that was easily understood by average Catholics, the Thomist and Communio thinkers were often splitting hairs, and often each other’s heads, over the proper interpretation of some important (actually, very important) points of theology that were above the heads of the average Catholic—a category that includes many priests as well and not a few bishops.

Today it is the traditionalists who are making the points that resonate with the common man. We should value our past, our history, our traditions, the beauty and solidity they give us in a postmodern world of liquid values. We should imitate our saints, the vast majority of whom worshiped in a manner infinitely more akin to the TLM than to anything done in St. Typical’s (see Fr. Robert McTeigue painfully accurate description). We should treasure our inheritance of worship and art and devotion. Nearly anyone who still believes in the Catholic Faith can endorse major planks of the Trad platform by this point. Heady theological questions that continue to bedazzle the more academically inclined are not going to win back our churches, altars, sanctuaries, vocations, nuptials, and nurseries.

The strength of the traditionalist movement lies in its bread-and-butter, meat-and-potato basics: its stalwart defense of and adherence to the great Roman liturgy, which is still and newly under attack by those who should be “custodes traditionis”; its insistence on the divine truth of Scripture and the perennial validity of Tradition, including its ecclesiastical monuments; its demand for reliable catechesis and homilies; its jealous preservation of whatever flotsam and jetsam can be salvaged from the postconciliar wreckage. Let us not complain too much if our Catholic world still bears a greater likeness to the late Roman Empire and the Dark Ages than it does to the High Middle Ages or the Baroque.

We might as well be honest about it: among the chief obstacles to the birth of renewal on all levels are the mediocrity, mendacity, worldliness, and progressivism of too many members of the world episcopacy and of the current Vatican regime. That’s no excuse for a lack of good traditionalist poetry, novels, movies, tractates, and treatises, but we would be doing a lot better at clearing a space for this creative and contemplative work if we could have a complete and total cease-fire over whether we’re even allowed to worship God in one of Christendom’s most venerable rites.

Yours in Christ,

Dr. Kwasniewski

Photo by Gabriel Kiener on Unsplash

[1] I wrote about this problem some years ago under the title: “Is Traditionalism a Spiritual Malady?” and would refer the interested reader to it.

[2] Yves Chiron in his biography of Bugnini reports that certain responses to the Short Critical Study were deemed adequate by some; but the traditionalist movement as a whole is not satisfied by the neoscholastic reductionism that narrowly focuses on sacramental validity, as neither was Joseph Ratzinger.

[3] I do not know if the new French edition has any such introduction or notes. The Foreword by Cardinal Burke was the new text that caught my notice and seemed worthy of sharing with a wide audience.

[4] Ottaviani and Bacci, n53.

[5] Intellectual culture here does not have to mean “academic” in the narrow sense, though it includes it.

[6] See my lecture “The Primacy of Tradition and Obedience to the Truth,” also available on YouTube here.

[7] Such as, to give one fine example, the new catechism’s politically correct omission of the repeated biblical teaching on the headship of the husband in the family: something that simply disappears, as if it was never part of the revealed word of God.

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