What does it mean to be a “traditional Catholic?” If you listen to some of our critics, it means we must slavishly fit their stereotype of a 1950s white suburban middle class American Catholic. And if we are honest with ourselves, perhaps sometimes we also have that expectation.
To be a traditional Catholic in this view means that we must be blindly obedient to the pope, we must desire complete Vatican centralization of the Church, and we must reject every jot and tittle of Vatican II. We must believe that the Mass must be celebrated exactly as it was in the 1950’s for the rest of eternity. When a self-identified traditional Catholic strays even slightly from that script, the critics will yell, “Gotcha! You’re a hypocrite!”
On the surface, our critics may seem to have a point. After all, traditional Catholics do view the practice of pre-Vatican II Catholicism as superior to how Catholicism is mostly practiced today. And one would be hard-pressed to find a faithful Catholic in, for example, 1950, who would say things about Pope Pius XII like some of the things many traditional Catholics today say about Pope Francis. Calls to diminish the reach of the papacy appear as completely contrary to the apparent hyperpapalism of Catholics of that previous era. Doesn’t that indicate that today’s traditional Catholics are just LARPers, picking and choosing those elements of Catholic tradition that suit them?
There are two problems with this characterization, however. First, there’s no way to know what a 1950s faithful Catholic would have done if his pope were Francis and if Modernism had so overwhelmed his Church. I think it likely that he would first rightly give the Supreme Pontiff the benefit of the doubt, but eventually he would resist such a pope when the Holy Father minimized, obscured, and even contradicted Catholic teaching. Likewise he would have fought against Modernism, even within the Church. But again, there’s no way to know, for leading up to the 1950s the Church had enjoyed centuries of faithful popes; an unfaithful one was simply unthinkable, as was the idea that most of the Church would be dominated by heretics.
Second, and more importantly, the problem with this argument against traditional Catholicism is that it confuses the means with the end. Catholic tradition is not the end, but the means to the end: Christian discipleship.
People choose traditional Catholicism not because they want to live in the 1950s, but because they believe traditional Catholicism is the best way to follow Jesus Christ. They believe that, if nothing else, it’s superior to what is being offered by the heresy-loving, gay-culture-embracing, liturgy-destroying modern Church.
So if one aspect of our practice of the traditional faith doesn’t line up exactly with how we might perceive a 1950s Catholic might live, that’s not a problem, as long as our divergence helps us stay close to Christ. Pre-Vatican II Catholicism is superior in most ways to today’s Catholicism, but like all eras it was influenced by Original Sin and therefore not perfect.
That’s not to say we simply pick and choose our traditional Catholicism like many modern Catholics pick and choose which dogmas he’ll follow. We should give respect to the practices of our fathers and mothers in the faith, and our default should be to follow our predecessors if at all possible. We follow the Chesteronian advice that, when entering a house, we don’t start tearing out walls in case some of those walls keep the structure in place. We first determine carefully which walls are necessary and which need to be moved or removed.
Thus, when we face a different situation than our predecessors faced—and Pope Francis and today’s Church is definitely a different situation—we should realize that our practice of the faith might differ in one or more ways. We may have to speak out against the errors coming from the Vatican, errors that weren’t being promoted by Rome in 1950. We also might be open to certain reforms in how the Church is run, or even the liturgy celebrated, but only if those reforms are faithful expressions of our tradition, not rejections of it.
True traditional Catholicism does not look at one era as a perfect snapshot of the faith, but instead looks to the entire 2,000 year history of the Church to evaluate how to best follow Christ. So, for example, in an era of a problematic pope, we should consider other eras of problematic popes and see how faithful Catholics responded. Likewise, in an era of widespread apostasy and heresy—which was not the case in the 1950s—we should look to other similar eras in the past for solutions.
All labels fall short, including the label “traditional Catholic.” It’s a useful moniker to make clear to others in a quick way a broad characterization of what one believes. It need not be a straightjacket forcing those who use it to live exactly as one did before the 1960s revolution rocked the Church. Self-identifying as a traditional Catholic helps a person elucidate what he or she considers is the best way, generally speaking, to be a disciple of Christ. Attending the Latin Mass, rejecting Modernism, and embracing strict traditional morality: none of these important things are the end of the Christian life, but the means by which one draws closer to Christ.
The purpose of the Christian life is to live in conformity to Christ, not in conformity to one specific era of Church history. When it comes to pre-Vatican II Catholicism, these two things are more often than not aligned (and when it comes to post-Vatican II Catholicism, they are more often than not divergent).
While the argument of hypocrisy against traditional Catholics is faulty, we should recognize the danger of placing group identification above all else. We rightly glory in being considered a traditionalist. We urge others to join us in the traditional movement. This is good as far as it goes. But when group identification is placed above all else, purity tests are created by labelling those who don’t perfectly conform to the stereotype as “semi-Trads” or other such nonsense. By doing this, we too fall into the trap of replacing the end for the means.
Chesterton noted, “Tradition means giving a vote to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead.” This does not mean giving all the “votes” to 1950s Catholics anymore than it means giving all votes to today’s Catholics. It means surveying our full tradition—all 2,000 years of it—to discover the best way to be faithful to Christ in our present moment.
Eric Sammons is the Executive Director of Crisis Publications. He is the author of eight books, including Deadly Indifference: How the Church Lost Her Mission and How We Can Reclaim It.