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New Years’ Examen for Every Trad

“I had not forgotten my promise to consider whether we should make the patient an extreme patriot or an extreme pacifist. All extremes except extreme devotion to the Enemy are to be encouraged,” writes C. S. Lewis’s infamous demon Screwtape in The Screwtape Letters. Set in the early 1940s, the book presents the correspondence of an expert devil giving advice to the novice tempter “Wormwood.” Rereading this volume recently, I was struck by how several of the themes discussed by Lewis’s demons are relevant to the current Catholic ecclesial situation regarding “traditionalism” and the Latin Mass.

In letter VII (quoted above), Screwtape extolls the deleterious benefits of any sort of extremism in the context of World War II: the question is whether or not Wormwood’s human “patient” should be encouraged towards pacifism or patriotism. Wormwood explains that “All extremes except extreme devotion to the Enemy are to be encouraged.” He continues, “Some ages are lukewarm and complacent, and then it is our business to soothe them yet faster asleep. Other ages, of which the present is one, are unbalanced and prone to faction, and it is our business to inflame them.” The controversies of the past few years surrounding COVID-19, abortion, LGBT and trans-gender theory, racism, and the war in Ukraine (for example), fully vindicate Lewis’s vision of the modern age as the age of faction’s par excellence. But imagine the above quotes re-worded in regard to the upheaval surrounding Traditionis Custodes: “I had not forgotten my promise to consider whether we should make the patient an extreme Traditionalist or an extreme Liberal. All extremes except extreme devotion to the Enemy are to be encouraged.” “The enemy” here blasphemously referred to by the demon is, of course, Our Lord. But the possibility of an ecclesial enthusiasm serving their demonic goals does not escaped the sagacious Screwtape:

Any small coterie, bound together by some interest which other men dislike or ignore, tends to develop inside itself a hothouse mutual admiration, and towards the outer world, a great deal of pride and hatred which is entertained without shame because the ‘Cause’ is its sponsor and it is thought to be impersonal. Even when the little group exists originally for the Enemy’s own purposes, this remains true.

Saint Peter’s warning to “Be sober and watch: because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, goeth about seeking whom he may devour” must include every aspect of our life, including our devotions and faith, since even in these we are not immune to deception, both by ourselves and by the devil.

Let me preface the following remarks with a caveat: some strongly dislike the use of modifiers like “traditionalist,” “liberal” or “conservative” when applied to “Catholic.” Personally, I have no issue with this because it seems to express true divisions in the Church today. Yet, if Socrates would have us understand that the “unexamined life is not worth living” and Saint Peter would have us “sober and watchful,” it seems that Screwtape’s remarks should lead us to reflect on our traditionalism. Perhaps we could say that “unexamined traditionalism is not worth living” if it plays into the hands of the pride, hatred, or blind admiration so remarkably described by Screwtape. A knowledge of history gives us some examples of Catholic “coteries” gone wrong. The Fraticelli or Spiritual Franciscans whose exaggerated ideas of poverty led to their condemnation as heretics in 1296 come to mind, as does the community of Port-Royal under Mother Marie Angélique Arnauld and its Jansenist degeneration in the 17th century, not to mention the factions mentioned by the Saint Paul in 1 Corinthians. Screwtape himself recalls this passage of the Apostle: “The Church herself is, of course, heavily defended, and we have never yet quite succeeded in giving her all the characteristics of a faction; but subordinate factions within her have often produced admirable results, from the parties of Paul and of Apollos at Corinth down to the High and Low parties in the Church of England.”

What each of us may need to reflect on is how much “doing Church” has (or has not) become for us membership in a clique rather than in Catholicism. The difficult line to discern is, of course, how much Catholicism is what we mean by traditionalism; and whether or not we simply designate by the latter term those aspects of Catholicism obscured or contradicted in the past, say, hundred years. The essential point is identified when Screwtape writes

Whichever [position] he adopts, your main task will be the same. Let him begin by treating the Patriotism or the Pacifism as a part of his religion. Then let him, under the influence of partisan spirit, come to regard it as the most important part. Then quietly and gradually nurse him on to the stage at which the religion becomes merely part of the ‘Cause,’ in which Christianity is valued chiefly because of the excellent arguments it can produce in favor of the British war effort or pacifism.

Is everything we mean by “traditionalism” part of our religion? Or more to the point, is everything we feel and think and speak as traditionalists part of our religion? We could re-imagine a contemporary devil writing of a young man or woman at a Latin Mass parish,

Let him, under the influence of partisan spirit, come to regard the less essential aspects of Traditionalism as the most important part of Catholicism. Then quietly and gradually nurse him on to the stage at which Catholicism becomes merely part of the ‘Cause,’ in which it is valued chiefly because of the excellent arguments it can produce in favor of homeschooling, veil-wearing, or monarchical governments.

Here the danger is of the cart being put before the horse—in this case, the horse is arguably the life of grace in the Christian soul, and the cart is all of the external manifestations of Catholic piety which ought to accompany and aid that life of holiness. Again, I have nothing against homeschooling (I was homeschooled myself), or veil wearing (although I should probably leave this matter to the ladies), or monarchies (they just don’t seem very likely right now).

These are good things.

Everyone extolling these and similar “traditionalist” ideas would never say they were “the main thing” or the “point” of Catholicism. But the issue at stake is an unconscious distraction from the Faith, not any conscious or deliberate distortion.

“Provided that meetings, pamphlets, policies, movements, causes, and crusades, matter more to him than prayers and sacraments and charity,” Screwtape assures Wormwood, “he is ours—and the more ‘religious’ (on those terms), the more securely ours. I could show you a pretty cageful down here.” In the case of traditionalism, as long as orthodoxy and orthopraxy (right belief and practice—the latter term includes both ethics and liturgy) really are what is at stake in traditionalism, all is well. Pamphlets and crusades and all the rest are perfectly legitimate tools for the promotion of orthodoxy and orthopraxy—we just need to care about their content and the life of holiness which our belief calls us to rather than the cozy feeling of being crusader, or thinking ourselves better than “those poor liberals” or gossiping about parish politics. Not that such a feeling or thought or conversation is necessarily bad or wrong to have. But it is not the point. Should our public prayers (and even some private ones, too) be in Latin? Yes! Should our Sacraments be celebrated with the venerable, beautiful, and inspired rites of the ages rather than in neutered, feel-good, modernist-concocted ceremonies? Yes! Do the traditional teachings of the Church on marriage and family, confession and communion, and the knowability of true religion enable us to be more charitable and confident of our salvation because we can live and share the truth? Yes! But they can be self-defeating if our purity of intention is contaminated with self-righteousness, our prayer with anger, or our charity with unnecessary griping.

As the Baltimore Catechism put it so well, “God made us to show forth His goodness and to share with us His everlasting happiness in heaven.” Traditionalism is only a means by which we “know, love, and serve God in this world” so as to be happy with Him forever in the next. With this in mind, then, perhaps we should take a few moments and reflect on our attitudes. After all, this is nothing more than an examination of conscience, a rigorous, unpopular, and traditional spiritual exercise no traditionalist should object to.


Photo by Ameer Basheer on Unsplash

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