A Letter to Trads from a Byzantine Thomist

Above: an Eastern Catholic iconostasis. 

I would like to thank Timothy Flanders for inviting me to write a kind of exhortation letter here at OnePeterFive. I’ve been considering writing something like this for some time, but have hesitated concerning the content and voice to take for such an article. I ask the reader to receive this in the spirit in which it is written: as fraternal encouragement, even if it is coming from a somewhat crotchety brother in Appalachia!

During my days as a Roman Catholic (I am canonically a Ruthenian Catholic now), I spent a number of years attending the Traditional Latin Mass. Even though I do not find my own spiritual home in your form of the liturgy, nonetheless, it remains to my eyes, a most noble fruit of Roman Catholicism, and something that was sadly dismantled in the 1960s. I feel that very often all of you Roman Catholic traditionalists are “gaslit” about the discontinuity that exists between the reformed Mass and the traditional Roman form. Sometimes appealing to authority, people will tell you: Don’t you know that Benedict XVI himself said that they are two forms of the one Roman Rite? Or, perhaps, more superficially, your experience of the liturgical disaster that still plagues so much of the Church will be dismissed off the cuff: come on, I remember what it was like back in the 70s; it’s not that bad now!

I find all of this very unfair, and ultimately far too superficial, and again, a bit like “gaslighting”—I have no better word for it, even if such “gaslighting” is unintentional on the part of those who respond to you. Klaus Gamber himself had noted decades ago that the alterations to the Roman Rite represented a kind of new sub-rite in the Roman lineage (my specific terminology). And this fact is incontestable as soon as one thinks about everything that was changed: new anaphoras / canons introduced (with an entire book for special situations); deeply altered sacramental rites; calendar alterations in both the sanctoral and temporal cycles; a new lectionary (which is not the minor affair that many make it out to be, for the lectionary, Mass propers, and divine office all interrelate); a new liturgy of the hours marked by profound changes; significant alteration of collects, secrets, etc., often displacing prayers from their original locations; a loss of a chant tradition (which is not mere auditory window dressing); etc. If a “rite” is a complex of public acts woven together as the expression of how a given portion of the Mystical Body of Christ is historically taken up into Christ’s priestly activity, then the new Roman-ritual liturgical forms represent a novel sub-tradition descended from the Roman Rite, as it broadly constituted itself over the course of the centuries and found itself in a generally stable form for many centuries thereafter. Only pure nominalism could say: “those are the same rites.” When I read certain theologians dismiss your concerns, I can only think, in horror: if the Byzantine rites were changed this profoundly, on so many points, such priests and theologians would seemingly also tell us to “suck it up” and “get over it.” My only hope, however, is that those who dismiss your concerns truly don’t think through the implications of the liturgical reform, for want of having been exposed to it in detail. (I speak from experience: it is not until one spends months in the traditional Roman form that one begins to see the important discontinuities between the two forms.) On all of these matters, I heartily agree that all of you have not been given a fair and honest hearing.

What is more, you are also very correct in your insistence upon the fact that we now live in a new post-diluvian period of the Church’s life. Profound discontinuity in Catholic spiritual and intellectual life, over the course of the past half century, remains with us in its effects. Yes, we live in a period of time when many things are being recovered and when many old questions that were covered over with taboos are now permitted to be discussed. (Who would have thought that even main-stream American conservatives would feel the need to use the expression “Post-Liberal Catholic Integralism”?) There are many re-publications and new publications that are driving out so much of the pablum that my generation grew up with in our own Catholic formation. But nonetheless, we also find ourselves living with multiple generations who aren’t even aware of how poorly catechized they are, and I’m sure that all of you readers have had this feeling of being treated by your relatives as though you are “more Catholic than the bishops and the pope.” And, moreover, there are still many priests—even faithful ones—with many years of service left, all of whom went through seminary during a period when formation was a disaster. Alas, too, although things have improved a great deal, the generations that suffered such deprivation in formation then themselves went on to form the next generations. In the best of cases, the learners were being taught by those who themselves had to learn anew what had been lost. Much heroic good can be done in such an atmosphere, but you traditionalists are very right to say: it didn’t need to be this way.

So, I say all of this, as a kind of concession. I understand the frustration that many of you feel. I myself experience it as I try to live as a Catholic who is faithful to the revealed message of Christ, taught by the Church, and lived in the liturgy and the life of grace…

But I find myself frustrated.

As I was recently working on a volume with Dr. Jon Kirwan, The Thomistic Response to the Nouvelle Théologie, I had a regular thought that could not be silenced in my mind: why in the world have the English-speaking traditionalists never translated any of these other articles, even just the other Garrigou-Lagrange ones? Why did they only ever translate and comment on “La nouvelle theologie où-va-t-elle?” Why do they never speak of the other details concerning the equally rigorous responses coming out of Toulouse? Why do we not hear about all of this from them? Why do they always weaponize that one Garrigouvian essay as a kind of prophecy of post-Conciliar doom, instead of primarily focusing on the clear historical context of Garrigou-Lagrange’s main foes in the articles he quickly penned during this period of time: Henri Bouillard and Maurice Blondel? Why haven’t they inspired work on the big substantive issues involved? (And yes, I know, Garrigou-Lagrange has been mistreated by mainstream orthodox theologians for decades, and you can read my lengthy defense of him here: “Who Wasn’t the Sacred Monster of Thomism?: Overcoming Certain Narratives about Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, OP, in the Hope of Mutual Honesty Among Faithful Catholics.”)

I had a similar feeling somewhat recently when I saw the republication of the single volume Handbook of Moral Theology by Fr. Prümmer. Although I have preferences for the moral manuals written by Fr. Benoît-Henri Merkelbach and for the lecture notes of Fr. Marie-Michel Labourdette, Fr. Prümmer’s three volume work is a fine enough example of an improved moral manual that avoids a number of the structural issues caused by the debates over probabilism and excesses of casuistry in moral-theological methodology. (Remember: Even Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange strenuously critiqued the moral manuals of his era.) However, I’ll be honest, I was infinitely frustrated at this text coming to print. I have asked myself many times over: why are they making such a big deal over what, in the end, is nothing more than a republication of the less good (and, in my opinion, problematic, if not corrected by a wider Thomist context) vademecum of Prümmer? Why, in the world cannot these traditionalists, who most certainly would have the Latin ability, muster the force to translate the full Prümmer? Why must they only bring to print something that can be found on archive.org? I’ll admit, it feels theologically stagnant.

And this brings me to a last example, which filled me with a bit of frustration anew. A friend sent me a link to Rorate Caeli, where there was an article about a (I choke at using the word:) “new” edition of the Ottaviani Intervention, with a Foreword by Cardinal Burke. I don’t see any reason whatsoever to think that this is some kind of exciting event. I’ll be honest, for most of us who live outside of Roman Catholic traditionalism, including actually, my friend, who sent me the link, we look at such events and think: this is the same narrative, and even the same texts repeated over and over and over again. Fatima is important; the social kingship of Christ is important (and lamentably scorned); modernism takes on many real forms even today (causing immense damage); the liturgical abuses of the past half century are real and problematic (and still among us in various forms, especially in the West). But, sometimes, to us on the outside, we feel that much of the Roman Catholic traditionalist world is a repeated cycle of ecclesial-cultural criticism, sprinkled with triumphalism declaring, “We are the future. Look at our family sizes. Your liturgies stink; ours don’t. Thank God we’re not like other Catholics.” I know that most “traditionalists” are not like this. But it is a real phenomenon for the moderately and very online, and it is not something that helps your cause. Moreover, it creates a kind of atmosphere which is quite real, even if not as total as your critics make it out to be. If I—someone who has done so much work on Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange that I’m sure that I’m held in suspicion by those who are part of the “smart set” in academia and the broader Church—if I find myself turned off by such things, I’ll assure you that they don’t help with relations to the rest of the Church.

I get it. Trust me. You are a scorned minority who, like I said from the beginning, has numerous important points to make and just causes to support. You have scant institutional resources and limited financial support. You are the one ecclesial group that nearly everyone agrees to punch at and dismiss. I’m an Eastern Catholic. Our churches have dealt with this sort of treatment for centuries from our own Latin brethren, while also being scorned by the Orthodox under the insulting title of “Uniate”! In fact, what is more, as a Thomist in Catholic Byzantium, I personally know well that I have been disliked (sometimes quite strongly) by my own Byzantine brethren. I am never a priori comfortable intellectually as a Byzantine Catholic. Yes, liturgically, I feel at home in my Church. As regards my philosophical and theological positions (which, I hasten to add, to the non-traditionalist reader who might be here, are not some kind of simplistic reviviscence of “neo-Thomism”), I feel utterly on edge around my own Byzantine brethren.

But please understand: Roman Catholic Traditionalism is only one aspect of the Church today. First and foremost, there are all of us in the East, who will never share an attitude of triumphalism concerning the traditional Latin Mass, nor concerning all aspects of Western theology and spirituality. Some Eastern Catholics sadly have a triumphalism concerning our liturgical and theological forms. Such an attitude is ridiculous and wrongheaded as well. It comes from a kind of inferiority complex as a subgroup who is often ignored or trampled on by the broader Church. But, nonetheless, we rightly don’t make Roman Catholicism the center of our lives as Catholics.

But what is more (and Timothy Flanders himself pointed this out in a recent excellent conversation with Larry Chapp, for whom I have deep personal affection): we can’t get out of the current situation by turning around on a dime once again. Setting aside the tragic problem of those who have been poorly catechized, and who are moving toward the grave—a group of people for whom I feel immense sorrow, and for whom I still hold out the hope that some of them will experience and live the full truth of the faith even as wayfarers—again, setting aside this group (which is, nonetheless, very important and should draw our prayer and evangelizing efforts), 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. A movement that does not desire to find common cause with those people is a movement that, in the end, is on the high road to schism. Obviously, I know far too many people who love the traditional Latin Mass to know that that this word, “schism” is nigh upon slander if it is not appropriately qualified. But I also understand why the authorities think it to be the case (while they, quite sadly, choose to remain much more cool-headed about the growing possibility of a new Teutonic schism in the West).

I understand how being very detached from the mainstream Church is possible. I certainly don’t like attending liturgies that, at the very best, are pale forms of what traditional Catholic (and Orthodox) worship should be. I certainly am frustrated at the lackluster philosophical and theological formation of priests and bishops, let alone their formation in the great spiritual traditions of the Church. It makes me want to live on my Appalachian island and sit looking out across my yard as I am right now, writing this article. I can understand what it is like to desire to be purely reactionary. I’m sure some would say that I am, in fact, reactionary.  I’m sure myself that, ultimately, I am!

But I implore all of you: drop the defensive posture. Strive to work with your fellow Catholics, even if they are not traditionalists. (I know that many of you do in your personal lives.) Fight with all your might against the temptation to be a troll in response to the latest foolishness that sadly is going on in the Church. Take a “long view,” and work to build up something more than just a kind of continual reiteration of a theme that sounds forth so regularly in traditionalist circles: we’re so right on the liturgy; we’re so right on the evils of liberalism; we’re so right on Fatima and the evils of Russia in the 20th century; we’re so anti-modernist; thank God we’re not like other Catholics.

Help to rebuild from the ruins. Just to name one example (though, I know others could and should be cited), I think that Arouca Press is trying to bring about renewal in the offerings within the traditionalist world. Even where I happen to disagree with their choices, or even their works’ content, I think that they are really trying to do something constructive and new. A culture cannot be built solely on the repetition of the same thing over and over. A Catholic culture lives and produces an entire life: liturgically, yes, but also aesthetically, literarily, philosophically, and theologically. The likes of Arouca (or one could add the old Traditionalist stalwart, TAN, but other presses as well, I know) should be able to complement the wondrous work done by Cluny Media and, yes, the work of presses like Ignatius Press, who is an ally, not an enemy.

The Church would 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 that were richly debated during the first half of the twentieth century, from a recovery of the full scholastic notion of dogmatic development, from a true appreciation of the Fathers and the great themes of Sacred Scripture both of which were receiving ample study prior to the mid-20th century (despite what one would gather from certain historical narratives), from an English edition of the Summa theologiae that rivals the Spanish Suma teolólogica with its lengthy article-by-article commentaries, from a recovery of the great themes of liturgy that were not mere modernism but were dear to the heart of someone like the saintly Columba Marmion (in this category, traditionalists do devote labors, I admit, though such works often remain defensive / apologetic in tone), from new institutes for retreats (accessible even to those who might not attend the traditional Latin Mass), from a new attempt to bring forth a 21th century Cursus philosophicus and Cursus theologicus that engages broadly with fellow Catholics in view of the continued developments and discussions of Catholic thought—I say, yes, the Church would benefit more infinitely from these sorts of tasks, than from the republication of Cardinal Ottaviani’s intervention, important though it was at the time.

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, and it is one that will challenge some of the narratives that have held together traditionalism as a kind of “movement.” I’m not saying that it will utterly overthrow them; but it would broaden and correct them, introducing many new figures and themes which would enable traditionalists to serve and enrich the whole Church, not merely to address the concerns one subsection of the Church that is embittered by the truly terrible treatment they have received.

We now find ourselves in an era of the Church when it is possible to weave together, continuity among groups, that once upon a time would have been at odds. I recently under took a bit of dialogue with Larry Chapp on Catholic World Report (see “A Thomist’s Response to Dr. Larry Chapp”, as well as his own response, “Catholic Alliances Today and Tomorrow”). Larry and I disagree pretty substantively on some topics in theology and philosophy. But we also basically agree on a rather important subset of truth: nearly everything else, especially the essentials of Faith. I consider him an ally in the fight against the forces of spiritual and cultural decay—both those “barbarians” who are “inside the walls” and those who are “outside” of them. And I would hope that traditionalists would be able to live with people like him, and other faithful Catholics, who do not share the exact “party line” of your general sociological-ecclesiological group. 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.

For whatever might have been his limitations (and I am aware of them quite well, given the many, many hours I have spent translating him), Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange was not merely a reactionary theologian, as so many portray him to be. Throughout his many decades of teaching, he bears witness to an active theological mind, often pressing Thomism forward, all the while remaining deferential to the tradition of the schola Thomae that fed his spiritual and intellectual life. On the basis of many distortions and half-truths (at best), he has been unfairly spoken of by many. (Again, see my homage to him: “Who Wasn’t the Sacred Monster of Thomism?: Overcoming Certain Narratives about Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, OP, in the Hope of Mutual Honesty Among Faithful Catholics.”) As was noted by a young Dominican (Fr. Jean-Hervé Nicolas) at the time of Fr. Garriou-Lagrange’s death, the latter was, yes, more inclined to a kind of intransigence in theological writing than to irenic dialogue. But, 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. Yet, in any event, as Fr. Nicolas (and many others) noted: in the presence of others, the maligned “sacred monster of Thomism” radiated his profound goodness of heart. And let us also remember that Maritain, who had many reasons to be bitter toward him, believed Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange to be a saint. In short, and if I am getting anywhere on my high horse it is here: if you all wish to be the disciples of someone like Garrigou-Lagrange, I implore you to do him the honor of bearing witness to his truly saintly soul, even amid the struggles of today. Struggle in that spirit—with a firm adherence to the truths of reason and of faith—and be a force for unity in the Church, along with others who truly wish to restore sanity to her. If you do that, then you will do well by Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange, a man whom for all of his limitations, I harbor the greatest of love and filial affection.

I’m sure that, by the end of this letter, I’ve enraged a good two thirds of the readers of OnePeterFive. I apologize for anything that was hurtful, but not for anything that was challenging. Most people have counseled me over the years not to interact with trads, given the “ramifications” it might have. But, if once in a while the Garrigou-Lagrange scholar cannot speak to trads, who will?  And I ask the non-traditionalist reader to try to see that I’m acting in good faith here, trying to do some good for the Church, after many months of prayer and discernment regarding the writing of this letter. I desire a more unified Church for my children, not one that is shattered by mutual suspicion.

Many blessings to all of you during these months of summer and during the months of June, when Roman Catholics give special recognition to the Sacred Heart.


NB: I am solely responsible for this letter, written under my own initiative. Its views are my own and not those of any other person or institution associated with my work.

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