Tradition and Sanity: Conversations & Dialogues of a Postconciliar Exile
Peter A. Kwasniewski
viii + 232 pages
$17.95 paperback, $26.00 cloth
I am pleased to provide a brief review of Dr. Peter Kwasniewski’s newest book, Tradition and Sanity, published this fall by Angelico Press. The book, subtitled Conversations and Dialogues of a Postconciliar Exile, offers Kwasniewski’s trademark intellectual excellence in a refreshingly relaxed format.
The book contains a collection of real-life interviews and fictional dialogues. In the preface, Kwasniewski states, “The book is meant as a point of departure, not a point of arrival – or better, as a way station, like those little shrines with a crucifix or an image of Our Lady that charm the countryside of Europe.” Tradition and Sanity gives the reader a reprieve from the oft-employed essay genre and places him in conversations that, though educational, do not feel like heavy intellectual work. Don’t be fooled, though! The book is challenging. Kwasniewski dives into difficult questions, and he takes his reader with him.
In eighteen chapters of reasonable length, the book covers a variety of interesting topics. Major themes woven throughout the text include liturgical development, liturgical corruption, the pontificate of Pope Francis, the papacy as understood by tradition and Vatican I, and sacred music. Each chapter has its own general theme, but Kwasniewski uses the conversational format to weave together discussions of a wide array of questions. This allows him to guide the reader through analysis from many different angles. He leads the reader up a spiral staircase rather than a ladder. With Kwasniewski, one need never fear relativistic ramblings. He backs up every claim with thorough research and reasons his way to sound conclusions.
Tradition and Sanity contains nine interviews that all boast superb questions. Some of my favorites (I paraphrase here): “Is the New Liturgical Movement a fad?,” “What grounds do you have to believe a return to the Mass of the Ages is even a possibility?,” “What do you make of sometimes sparse TLM attendance?,” “What do you make of the current situation in U.S. seminaries?,” and “What is the relationship between liturgy and poverty?” This is just a sampling of the many relevant questions discussed at length in these chapters.
The conversation between Kwasniewski and Roseanne T. Sullivan in chapter three impressed me with its candor on topics that cause controversy even among those deeply committed to the new liturgical movement. Without mincing words, Kwasniewski makes a clear case for the total restoration of the traditional Latin Mass. Regarding the so-called liturgical reforms following the Second Vatican Council, he speaks his mind:
It could only have been in the twentieth century, at the pinnacle of evolutionary conceit, that a group of eggheads would have dared lay hands on the rich and subtle worship of the Church to force it into their imaginary categories of relevance or efficiency. Their work was justly punished with desolation and apostasy.
With the artistic eloquence that often illuminates Kwasniewski’s writing, he describes his discovery of traditional Catholicism and concludes by saying, “Frankly, it was a conversion experience.” He is no less blunt when he speaks of mainstream Catholicism:
I hate to say it, but the dominant ersatz version of Catholicism really is like a different religion, compared to the historic, authentic, dogmatic, ascetical-mystical Catholicism embodied in the traditional liturgy and the devotions that flourish in its ambit.
Kwasniewski grapples with enormous concepts replete with nuances, and his approach is direct. It seems that Kwasniewski shares the view of many: that the Church is wounded, bleeding profusely, and in need of some cure. Kwasniewski doesn’t spend time shielding these wounds from sight in a naïve hope that they might cure themselves, but instead exposes them so that they might receive the attention they desperately require.
The book’s dialogue chapters feature conversations between fictional characters. Like all good teachers, Kwasniewski anticipates the questions his reader might ask and builds up conversations around them. In this way, he cleverly draws the reader into the dialogue. Then he deftly incorporates the answers to difficult questions by arming his characters with knowledge of Church councils, Vatican documents, Church Fathers, and other excellent sources. Some of these dialogues take place between imaginary monks who reference historical events and Latin phrases that had me scrambling to Google so I could better follow the thread of the conversation. Although I wish for a few more explanatory footnotes in those chapters, I still found them fascinating and enjoyable.
While Dr. Kwasniewski does not fail to deliver good arguments through these dialogues, he does indulge in some artistic license. For instance, throughout the book, he discusses the papacy in general and points out problems with Pope Francis’s pontificate with his usual orderly research. I appreciated this but found it jarring when, in a dialogue toward the end of the book, two monks living “some years in the future” discuss Pope Francis’s sudden abdication of the papacy and disappearance with “a neo-Marxist tango-dancing juggling troupe called ‘¡Hagan lío!’” They then lament how Pope Francis seemingly rigged the election of “Pope Francis II,” under whom they now struggle. Obviously, Kwasniewski means to treat the perplexing Pope Francis papacy with humor, but this satire is beneath the high standards of professionalism and charity to which Kwasniewski usually holds himself. I commend Kwasniewski for boldly putting forward the facts of the current pontificate, but I would have preferred that he leave out the fiction.
Overall, Tradition and Sanity is another solid compilation of Kwasniewski’s writing. It contains some fairly advanced theological and historical topics that will provide the reader ample food for thought. In these conversations and dialogues, Kwasniewski tackles difficult concepts other writers in his field choose to ignore or sugarcoat. This is refreshing and true to the book’s resounding title. As a character in one of Kwasniewski’s dialogues states, “When we can see a disaster, we are to call it a disaster, and react accordingly.” In some cases, I would have preferred more delicacy in the references made to the Novus Ordo, Pope Francis, and progressives in the church, but I found the vast majority of the book edifying.