Can We Explain the Anti-Tridentine Phobia or Rage?

Dear Dr. Kwasniewski,

I recently listened to your 1 Peter 5 podcast, which was really helpful to me. The part where you take us through the history of the philosophical ideas that were motivating the liturgical reformers at and after Vatican II was interesting and informative.

Thanks to the podcast, I understand better the sort of ideas that led some liturgists to the conclusion that the Roman Mass was antiquated and in need of reform. But at some point soon after the publication of the Missal of Paul VI, it seems as if the attitudes of clergy shifted from “the Tridentine Rite is outdated” to “the Tridentine Rite is dangerous, something the faithful should either never be exposed to or granted access to rarely, with extreme caution and onerous regulations.”

I was around in the ’80s and ’90s, and the general attitude of most high-ranking bishops of both “conservative” and “liberal” leanings, as well as most parish priests — even after John Paul II’s Ecclesia Dei — seemed to be an almost irrational fear of the Tridentine Latin Mass or anyone associated with it. Even talking about it made them uncomfortable, as if one had just mentioned one was carrying a loaded gun. They didn’t seem to display such concerns about altar girls and rock bands. It was something specific and yet unarticulable about the Tridentine Latin Mass that evoked among churchmen a reaction of phobia or rage. How can we explain this phenomenon?

Sincerely yours,

N.


Dear N.,

Thanks for your note and for the kind words. Your question is an excellent one. The phenomenon of a deep-seated fear or hatred of the traditional Latin Mass (and all the other traditional sacramental rites and services, such as the Divine Office) on the part of clergy has been frequently noticed by those of us who care about these things and who have worked on their behalf. How to explain it? I think it’s fairly simple.

On the theological plane, Modernism teaches that each age or generation has to find, or perhaps “evolve,” its own set of practices and concepts that “work” for it. People who are in the grip of this evolutionary fallacy are bound to view the unexpected return of what they consider a burnt out liturgy as a threat to the necessary aggiornamento or contemporary updating of the Church. Even conservatives seem to have been convinced that the Church had to “come of age,” “update itself,” in order to survive and thrive. Of course, the reality has been the opposite: the Church’s influence and numbers fell when she started courting modernity in this manner, because it is a sign of weakness, not of strength, to play catch-up or to chase around a fantasy, like an old woman putting on lipstick and a short skirt in an attempt to look youthful and stylish.

On the practical plane, clergy from the mid-1950s to the mid-1970s were psychologically abused by constant and often radical and arbitrary changes to Catholic life and to the liturgy in particular, which were forced upon them (and upon the long-suffering laity) as “the teaching of the Council” or “the will of the Holy Father” or “the judgment of the Church.” So deep was the hyperpapalism, so luxuriant the invention of conciliar mandates, so heavy-handed the lowering of the boom, that many clergy, if not all, must have had to do violence to their thoughts and feelings in order to swallow these changes. In other words, they had to convince themselves, in spite of so many instincts, appearances, and warnings to the contrary, that it was “for the best,” and that the old ways were not only out of date, but now spiritually harmful in the new Spirit-led phase of the Church.

This is why the sharpest opposition to the return of traditional worship is from today’s older generations who lived through the conciliar period and/or its immediate aftermath. Sure, there were Catholics who greeted the changes like Woodstock attendees hailing the next performer on stage, but there were also plenty who had seen nothing particularly wrong with what the Church had been doing in the first half of the twentieth century and who went along with the new regime in a withering exercise of blind obedience.

When members of this category of people have lived long enough to have seen the beginnings of a turnaround under John Paul II, and then an increasing movement of restoration under Benedict XVI, they feel (or felt, if no longer with us) exceedingly bitter that they were forced to give up all the old things, while today’s young priests and laity get to have them again more and more freely. It’s a second wave of psychological abuse, and a more subtle one, for them to watch traditions, devotions, and markers of Catholic identity that were once ripped from their souls now reasserting themselves. [1] It could also very easily prompt feelings of guilt, in that they did not resist changes that rubbed them the wrong way, or failed to take more steps to control the anarchy that threatened the faithful. They may feel judged and rejected in proportion to the reappearance of more demanding forms of Catholic life and liturgy.

Generally speaking, the old Mass and much that goes with it embody and practically cry out a vision of an intellectually and aesthetically unified and coherent Catholicism, one that comfortably encompasses the fiery polemics of the Church Fathers, the towering dogmatic theology of the Doctors, the intricate and intimate poetry of the mystics, the uncompromising fortitude of the ascetics. It represents the Catholic Faith in all its otherworldly, countercultural grandeur.

This is definitely not something that the “men without chests” of our age — those who have been tamed into political correctness, religious privatism and pluralism, and the horizontal social or environmental Gospel, not to mention tab-collared pansies — are capable of handling. It is too hot to handle: it is pretty much the repudiation of the modern experiment, including the experiment of Vatican II. So it’s understandable that those who are committed to this experiment at all costs, either from strong personal conviction or because it was browbeaten into them at a vulnerable age, will tend to react so strongly against the very things that epitomize the Catholicism they were taught to hate, which, moreover, was supposed to have been superseded, purged, expelled.

You are quite right that there was — and, regrettably, in some places, still is — a massive lack of support for good initiatives, for good clergy and laity who are rolling back the arduous ambiguities, dated updatings, and soul-suffocating Sesame Street banality of the postconciliar status quo, and reaching for something that looks, sounds, smells, and feels Catholic and actually is Catholic when you subject it to close scrutiny. There was also, for the longest time, no official acknowledgment that anything had ever gone amiss after Vatican II, or any passing nod that something might be adrift in the reformed liturgy.

We had to learn to use our own eyes and ears to figure out the truth; we had to dig for answers ourselves. And as we found the answers, we realized more and more clearly why the hierarchy had been so silent. For them to admit to what really happened and how wrong it had been, and to propose a substantive spiritual remedy rather than a bureaucratic Band-Aid, they would have to admit a catastrophic lack of prudence, wisdom, and charity on the part of the Church’s hierarchy, past and present.

Pride gets in the way of that, to be sure, and a misplaced fear that admitting such errors on the part of churchmen will destroy the confidence of Catholics in their shepherds. Well, guess what, Sheps: it’s already happened. The confidence is pretty nearly destroyed at this point. It would have been far better for y’all to tell the truth to begin with, and to have gained both the merit of humility and the advantage of looking honest to the faithful. Now you have neither.

The time will come, of this we can be certain, when those of the younger generations who still have the Faith will rise to become the next pastors, professors, musicians, administrators, superiors, and eventually bishops of the Church. They will not be perfect, and some will be tangled up in this or that way, but the majority will have learned invaluable lessons in fidelity; identity; commitment; sacrifice; patience; and, most of all, the beauty, consolation, and power of tradition. A counterrevolution is stirring. Hints of it can already be seen in dioceses around the world where good bishops and sometimes mediocre ones with a modicum of self-respect have invited traditional religious communities to work in various capacities for the restoration of order and sanity.

A revolution fails inasmuch as it crosses certain lines of divine and natural law, and it will fail faster the further it has crossed them. The revolution in the Church crossed every line to the maximum degree. Great will be the fall of its protagonists and votaries: “And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and they beat upon that house, and it fell, and great was the fall thereof” (Mt. 7:27).

Equally great — nay, greater — will be the triumph of the little ones who remain faithful to Christ, His Blessed Mother, Holy Mother Church, and the Sacred Tradition that makes the Church Catholic. These are the wise men who never stopped building their house on the rock that is Christ, the Truth, the Faith, the papacy, all at once and inseparably. “And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and they beat upon that house, and it fell not, for it was founded on a rock” (Mt 7:25).

 

NOTE [1] A friend shared the following anecdote with me, which perfectly illustrates the psychological phenomenon:

When I was in the army as a Military Academy teacher in France, the Principal told us at the outset to use the formal “vous” second person pronoun with the pupils. Now, in my platoon of 50 conscript-teachers (all university men), there were some liberals who had already been teachers in government schools, where the custom was to use the informal “tu” with students. They obeyed, albeit reluctantly. After the end-of-year ceremonies, one of the more forward students approached a group of us teachers (still in uniform) and said “Well, now that all that is over, we can call you ‘tu’.” The most liberal amongst us, for whom switching to ‘vous’ had been hardest, lost his temper and said: “I did myself the violence of switching to ‘vous’ at the beginning of the year, and you can’t make me switch back to ‘tu’ now.” We were all surprised at the vehemence with which this otherwise even-tempered man reacted. But it makes sense. And illustrates how priests who were compelled to adopt the New Catholicism lose their cool when “going back” is presented as an option.

 

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