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Losing the Labels: Let’s Be Catholic Again.

In a recent online exchange, someone accused me of not being a “real traditionalist.” I suppose that the jibe was supposed to chafe, but it landed pretty far afield. Not only is this not the first time such an accusation (if one could even call it that) has been leveled against me, but it’s an appropriate enough assessment. In point of fact, I’m not a traditionalist.

I am a Catholic

I can’t tell you how often I have lamented with friends the way this phrase has been denuded of any real meaning. I’m not old enough to know what Catholic life was like before the Second Vatican Council, but from what I understand, there are people still alive today who can remember a time when saying, “I’m Catholic” conveyed a great deal about one’s life. It meant, at the very least, that a person attended the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass (and called it that!) on Sundays and holy days of obligation. It meant that he observed the Church’s fasts and feasts and did penance throughout the season of Lent (and Advent, too, if you can believe it). It meant that he prayed for the pope, the conversion of Russia, the liberation of the Church, and the protection of St. Michael. It meant that he knew what he was made for, when he should and shouldn’t receive communion, who belonged in the sanctuary, and how to pray the rosary. Even those who had never darkened the doorstep of a church knew better than to offer a steak to a Catholic on Friday – not just during Lent, but year-round.

The Masses that Catholics attended espoused the universal character of the Church, in that they were all essentially the same. Picking a parish at random in a city far from home wasn’t a game of liturgical roulette, where one might get something reverent or something sacrilegious, depending on the luck of the draw. A priest in those days might have been more or less reverent; he might have been better or worse with the Latin; his homilies might have been inspiring or dull; the music might have been heavenly or hellish; but whether a man heard Mass in Atlanta or Antwerp, he knew, within reasonable boundaries, what he was going to get – and he could follow along.

It was a time when Bishop Fulton Sheen’s Life Is Worth Living could be one of the top-rated prime-time television shows on ABC; when biblical epics like The Ten Commandments and Ben-Hur were blockbuster films; when The Bells of St. Mary’s and Come to the Stable and The Quiet Man all depicted Catholicism as something real, noble, and worthy of respect.

Vocations were on the rise, Mass attendance was high, and decorum was still a notable aspect of Catholic life and thought. But even in the years leading up to the council, the apparent golden age of the Church was anything but. Science tells us that a star shines brightest right before it burns out. The collapse of faith that happened beginning in the late 1960s certainly had architects who helped it along. But only a structure already compromised could fall so far so fast.

So what happened?

If Catholicism infused the culture of the early 20th century, it was an inheritance from an investment many centuries in the past. It was the default position in Catholic Europe. It was a force to be contended with in Protestant America. The fact was, if you lived in the Western world, Catholicism had built the culture and had shaped its path. From the preservation of knowledge and the written word during the so-called “Dark Ages” to the many technological and scientific contributions of the Church over the centuries to the astonishing works of art, music, architecture, and literature that were inspired by – or at least indebted to – the Catholic ethos, even many of the people who saw the Church as an enemy didn’t bother trying to diminish her role or steal the credit for what she had done. They knew that the Faith was a force of nature (even if they didn’t recognize that it was also a force of supernature) and couldn’t simply be ignored. It had to be contended with.

As the Late Middle Ages ended, the world began a spiral into chaos. Everyone wanted to take a swing at Catholicism. From the Protestant revolt to the Enlightenment’s subversion to the outright attack on Catholic monarchy in the French Revolution, the Church suffered blow after blow. King Henry VIII divided European Christianity and furthered the cause of Luther’s Reformation when the Church wouldn’t break the rules on marriage for him – though he still tried to keep England Catholic without the pope. Voltaire saw the Church’s influence as such an impediment to his ideas concerning natural religion and the supposedly false dichotomy of good and evil that he wanted to “crush the infamous thing.” Italian communist Antonio Gramsci knew that his fellow Marxists would never have success in a world “thoroughly saturated with Christianity for 2,000 years,” and so he set about a program of uprooting the faith so that the errors Russia had to force on its unwilling populace could flourish and grow naturally amid the ruins of Christendom.

At the dawn of the 20th century, Pope St. Pius X warned Catholics that a dangerous change was coming. A change from within. A change that would come at the hands of “Modernists” with their toxic cocktail of all the most devastating heresies combined. These Modernists, the sainted pope foretold, would “lay the ax not to the branches and shoots, but to the very root, that is, to the faith and its deepest fibers. And once having struck at this root of immortality, they proceed to diffuse poison through the whole tree, so that there is no part of Catholic truth which they leave untouched, none that they do not strive to corrupt.”

The advent of communism in early 1917 gave rise to warnings about the dangers it presented to the Church and the world by Our Lady of Fatima in July of the same year:

I shall come to ask for the consecration of Russia to My Immaculate Heart, and the Communion of Reparation on the First Saturdays. If My requests are heeded, Russia will be converted and there will be peace; if not, she will spread her errors throughout the world, causing wars and persecutions against the Church. The good will be martyred, the Holy Father will have much to suffer, various nations will be annihilated.

In 1929, Hilaire Belloc wrote that we couldn’t make sense of the decline of European civilization (and I would argue, by extension, that of the Americas) without looking through the Catholic lens:

We have reached at last, as the final result of that catastrophe three hundred years ago, a state of society which cannot endure, and a dissolution of standards, a melting of the spiritual framework such that the body politic fails. Men everywhere feel that an attempt to continue down this endless and ever-darkening road is like the piling up of debt. We go further and further from a settlement. Our various forms of knowledge diverge more and more. Authority, the very principle of life, loses its meaning, and this awful edifice of civilization which we have inherited, and which is still our trust, trembles and threatens to crash down. It is clearly insecure. It may fall in any moment. We who still live may see the ruin. But ruin when it comes is not only a sudden, it is also a final, thing.

In such a crux there remains the historical truth: that this our European structure, built upon the noble foundations of classical antiquity, was formed through, exists by, is consonant to, and will stand only in the mold of, the Catholic Church.

Europe will return to the Faith, or she will perish.

The Faith is Europe. And Europe is the Faith.

Within fifty years, the world had weathered its second Great War. Communism was contained, but as dangerous as a caged lion – with a nuclear arsenal. The Russian campaign of persecution of Christians was well underway, and communists began infiltrating Catholic seminaries in the hopes of bringing down the Church – its greatest single obstacle – from within. The dangerous theology Pope Pius warned about was becoming increasingly popular, and designs were already being forged for a liturgical and ecumenical revolution that would fundamentally alter the anthropology of worship and the ecclesiology of the Catholic faith.

The gates of Hell were besieging – but not prevailing against – the Church. They had already nearly laid waste to Europe – the continent and cultures to which the Church had given birth.

Despite the foul winds blowing outside, Pope John XXIII famously said, in answer to why he wanted an ecumenical council, “I want to throw open the windows of the Church so that we can see out and the people can see in.”

Interestingly, a number of non-Catholics grew nervous as the Church began its ill fated embrace of “aggiornamento.” The late American radio commentator and lifelong Protestant Paul Harvey wrote an essay at the close of Vatican II describing his unease at how the permanency and predictability of the Catholic Church appeared to be slipping away:

This is none of my business, yet I am unexplainably compelled to address myself to a most sensitive subject however many or few read it, heed it, or resent it.

The Roman Catholic Church, from the outside, has symbolized authority since my earliest recollections.

Great institutions might erode away, towering individuals reveal feet of clay, nations be reduced to ashes or decay – yet the steeple with the cross on top remained, timeless and unchanging.

Why I did not abandon the faith of my fathers and ask adoption into the Catholic family which I so much admired, I cannot explain. Momentum, perhaps. Most often we keep going in the direction we are pushed.

The strict discipline implied by Catholicism certainly was not a deterrent, for I had been much disturbed and distracted by the almost constant intramural harangue among undisciplined Christians. Indeed, the rigidity of Catholic doctrine and tradition were comforting, reassuring evidences of a hierarchy which affirmed, ‘This is right…’ in an hour where so few seem to know what is.

Then came the recent sessions of the Ecumenical Council and the perhaps over-emphasized differences between ‘progressives’ and ‘conservatives’ within the Church. And when these differences reached such a crescendo that the third session ended with His Holiness, Pope Paul, in tears, my unscholarly and largely emotional reliance on the invulnerability of the Church retreated.

True, there are sometimes shouted disagreements among the children of any family, but we don’t open the windows at such times.

And when long-standing texts of the Bible are called into open question and when the priesthood is expanded to include quasi-lay clergy and when sisters of some orders shorten their skirts up to their knees, the world appears to wobble on its axis.

In secular affairs we are being urged to tolerate, accommodate, and compromise. In personal relations, absolutes are passé, international relationships are governed by expediency.

In this climate of vacillation I shall pray in my protestant way that the Roman Catholic Church will emerge, when the smoke has cleared and the tears are dry, substantially unaltered.

In his address to a General Audience on November 26, 1969, Pope Paul VI set the expectations of the faithful on the new Mass and its many changes in peculiar terms:

We shall become aware, perhaps with some feeling of annoyance, that the ceremonies at the altar are no longer being carried out with the same words and gestures to which we were accustomed – perhaps so much accustomed that we no longer took any notice of them. This change also touches the faithful. It is intended to interest each one of those present, to draw them out of their customary personal devotions or their usual torpor.

We must prepare for this many-sided inconvenience. It is the kind of upset caused by every novelty that breaks in on our habits. We shall notice that pious persons are disturbed most, because they have their own respectable way of hearing Mass, and they will feel shaken out of their usual thoughts and obliged to follow those of others. Even priests may feel some annoyance in this respect.

So what is to be done on this special and historical occasion? First of all, we must prepare ourselves. This novelty is no small thing. We should not let ourselves be surprised by the nature, or even the nuisance, of its exterior forms.

This “feeling of annoyance” became somewhat more concrete, when, in 1971, a group of 57 artists, intellectuals, and culture-makers – many of whom had no love for the Catholic faith – pleaded urgently that Pope Paul VI not go through with the proposed changes to the liturgy. In their joint letter, they wrote:

If some senseless decree were to order the total or partial destruction of basilicas or cathedrals, then obviously it would be the educated – whatever their personal beliefs – who would rise up in horror to oppose such a possibility.

Now the fact is that basilicas and cathedrals were built so as to celebrate a rite which, until a few months ago, constituted a living tradition. We are referring to the Roman Catholic Mass. Yet, according to the latest information in Rome, there is a plan to obliterate that Mass by the end of the current year.

One of the axioms of contemporary publicity, religious as well as secular, is that modern man in general, and intellectuals in particular, have become intolerant of all forms of tradition and are anxious to suppress them and put something else in their place.

But, like many other affirmations of our publicity machines, this axiom is false. Today, as in times gone by, educated people are in the vanguard where recognition of the value of tradition is concerned, and are the first to raise the alarm when it is threatened.

We are not at this moment considering the religious or spiritual experience of millions of individuals. The rite in question, in its magnificent Latin text, has also inspired a host of priceless achievements in the arts – not only mystical works, but works by poets, philosophers, musicians, architects, painters and sculptors in all countries and epochs. Thus, it belongs to universal culture as well as to churchmen and formal Christians.

The changes proceeded anyway. Within 25 years, the devastation in the Church was staggering. Debates continue about causality, but what is known are the numbers. A scanned page from the 1959 version of the Kenedy Directory gives a picture of the state of the Church in the years directly preceding the council:


The official statistics in 2014 paint a rather different picture for the United States:

  • Catholic population: 66.6 million (vs. 36 million in 1958)
  • Total parishes: 17,483 (vs. 16,552 in 1958)
  • Total Priests (Diocesan & Religious orders combined): 38,275 (vs. 50,813 in 1958)
  • Seminarians: 3,631 (vs. 36,980 in 1958)

The trend lines are obvious. Beginning in 1970, there is at first a gradual, then a significant decline in both priests and seminarians. Fewer than a thousand parishes were added to serve a Catholic population that had increased by 30 million people – nearly double the population in 1958.

Fewer priests. Fewer seminarians. Double the number of people in the parishes. How can anyone argue that this is not the picture of a Church in decline?

But there’s other troubling news. Take a look at U.S. Mass attendance in 2010:


The data continues to be parsed on how many Catholics believe in the Real Presence, but it appears that roughly 40% of Catholics do not believe. Polling done in 1994 showed that 70% of Catholics in the 18- to 44-year-old demographic believe that the Eucharist is only a symbol. Early results from the survey sent out in advance of the October 2014 Synod on Marriage and Family showed that only a small minority of Catholics follow Church teaching on matters of sexual morality. This data are deeply troubling. There is a passage in Scripture that immediately comes to mind:

When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth? – Lk. 18:8

With all of this in mind, I would like to submit to you a questionwhat does it mean to be Catholic?

This is the question for the Church in the 21st century. The far-reaching Catholic identity crisis facing us is devastating. Some have argued that catechesis has failed, and to an extent, they are correct. But any catechesis is only as good as the life of faith in the home and in the parish. It is only as strong as the message sent during Church “dialogue” with other religions about whether or not it is important to convert to the Catholic Faith to attain eternal salvation. It is efficacious only if it is reinforced by a liturgical life that is noble, worthy, and fitting, which treats the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass as a sacrifice. It makes an impression only if the Church, and those who claim her Faith, are willing to stand with courage and preach Christ crucified to a world that would rather oppress or even kill us than hear this Gospel message. Despite their opposition, it must be said: there is no Christianity without the Cross.

Being Catholic could mean something again. Not just that we were baptized or show up in a parish now and then on Christmas and Easter, or that we more or less go to Mass each Sunday but we’d prefer not to be bothered with these irritating teachings on contraception and the Eucharist – and please don’t mind if we show up in beach attire. After all, we have places to go afterward.

No, being Catholic could mean something real. Substantive. Specific. Something that shapes our identity. Pope Benedict XVI spoke often of the “hermeneutic of continuity,” which he set up in opposition to a “hermeneutic of rupture.” His idea was that the Church did not break with her past during the tumult of the 20th century, but maintained the connection between the present and what came before. It is true that this connection exists, but it is hardly robust. It is, if anything, a gossamer thread, a thin margin preventing collapse, drawing a line between what was and what is – and what could be again.

Catholics have fallen prey to the idea of labels, as if our faith were subject to the petty partisan politics of the secular realm. We speak of “conservative” Catholics and “traditional” Catholics; worse, we speak of Catholics on the “left” or on the “right.” But the perspective of our analysis is wrong. These labels move us from side to side, on a horizontal axis that is focused on the preferences of man, not the objective reality of God and His divinely protected Church.

There is no right or left in the Church. In a similar vein, there is no conservative, liberal, or traditional. There is simply orthodoxy, and there is everything else. There is fidelity, and there is laxity. We move on a constant approach as the practice of our faith waxes and wanes, coming either closer to God or farther from Him.

I am not defined by the characteristics of any sub-group or ideology. Though the shorthand is easy to fall into, I do not introduce myself to people by saying, “I’m a traditionalist.” I say I am a Catholic, and if the opportunity merits, I tell them that I love the traditional Latin Mass and sacraments, the old book of blessings, the exorcisms present in the venerable rite of baptism, and the devotions and practices that made Catholics strong in faith. I love them not because they are old, but because they are profound, and they bring me and those I love closer to God, and they more perfectly praise Him. I don’t care if some choose to measure my actions on an imagined scale of immersion in their ideal, on whether my family perfectly observes the extrinsic aspects deemed suitable for membership in the rarefied ranks of the self-professed. I am not a traditionalist – I am a seeker of truth, and I believe that the Church was more fully invested in understanding and spreading the truth in the past than she has been recently. I also believe that she will rediscover her zeal again in the future.

We don’t need labels, which serve only to justify and entrench our multiplying divisions. We need sanctity. We need to rediscover the things that made the Church strong and practice them again. We need to identify her perennial teachings and be faithful to them. We need to shrug off the impulse to innovate, and instead guard, contemplate, and – when necessary – develop organically and expound. We need to love Christ in the Eucharist, pray the rosary, wear our Sunday best to Mass, study our catechisms, obey the Church and evangelize those outside her embrace, carry our crosses and venerate His, and live the example of apostles. We need to teach our children the same. We need to love and support our priests, and pray that God will send us more of them.

We are Catholics. If we can rediscover how to act like it again, we might just change the world.

Editor’s note: This essay, originally published on September 10, 2014, has been reprinted to help inform our ongoing discussion of Catholic identity. This version has been revised.

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