Here’s the text of my talk at the 2021 Roman Forum Summer Symposium-in-Exile, delivered in Huntington, Long Island, on July 5, 2021:
Trads and Normies
Today I will talk about what the traditionalist movement looks like to other Catholics. What would make people interested in it? What would horrify them?
It’s a messy topic, because people are different, and the traditionalist movement includes a lot of different things.
It includes the Traditional Mass, which can be austere or lavish. It also includes skepticism about Vatican II, and attachment to traditional Catholic practices, attitudes, and expressions of doctrine. And it usually involves a critical attitude toward the modern world.
There are diocesan priests, members of canonically recognized priestly associations like the FSSP, and the SSPX. There are also other more radical groups that don’t include a lot of people but they exist and get noticed.
With the laity, there are even more kinds of people. One effect of the Francis papacy and especially the past fifteen months has been that more people, and more kinds of people, have been getting involved.
At a personal level, there are the people you meet in real life, and people who make comments on the Internet, some of which are interesting and some of which are less-than-edifying.
At a more organized level, there are long-established parts of the movement, like the Roman Forum, and there are newer and more populist parts, like various online personalities. And there are also various amateur websites that can be very good, but can also get very quirky.
So what people think the traditionalist movement is can vary a lot depending on who they are and what they’ve run into. With all that in mind, I’ll be presenting various perspectives and observations rather than a tightly-focused argument. I will leave some time at the end so people can add their own observations.
2 My experiences
I’ll start with my own experience. I came to the Church about twenty years ago with the help of the Traditional Mass.
I would have converted anyway. But the Traditional Mass made the situation clearer, because it made it more obvious what the Church is. The same could be said for the traditionalist movement in general. If people emphasize what is traditional and distinctive in Catholicism it becomes more obvious what Catholicism is and how it is different from everything else.
When I started attending the Traditional Mass the most striking thing was that it wasn’t like anything else. It didn’t blend into everyday life. The people acted as if they thought there was something important going on that wasn’t going on elsewhere. They were there to witness, worship, and receive, not to sing songs or do things.
That’s important. The Second Vatican Council said that the Mass is “the source and summit of the Christian life.” But if you go to an average mass at an American suburban parish it doesn’t look that way. Everyone is casual and chatty, and they mostly seem to view the mass as a symbolic memorial meal.
Most Americans don’t think religion has to do with definite realities. They think it has to do with spirituality or morality. They see spirituality as vague and personal, and morality as a matter of being a nice person. Or it’s about “community,” which means getting together with nice people and doing nice things.
Even if they accept in theory that their religion is something more definite, it goes against the grain to take the definite parts seriously.
If you look at religion that way then it doesn’t tell you anything you don’t already know. It’s not functional, it’s an add-on. That makes a worship service something like a lecture, social gathering, self-help meeting, or pep rally. How can that be “the source and summit of the Christian life”?
The Traditional Mass did away with that problem. It obviously had to do with something distinct, definite, and out of the ordinary.
There is an aspect of the Traditional Mass’s distinctiveness that helped me and probably others as well. The Novus Ordo was very similar to the Episcopalian eucharistic service I was used to before becoming Catholic. The two had obviously been designed to be as similar as possible. That was a problem for me.
The similarity made the new mass look like a product not of the saints and the sense of the Faith but an interdenominational committee of experts. It was an artificial construct that had obviously been produced in cooperation with people I didn’t trust. So how could I trust it?
The Traditional Mass did away with the problem. It was not put together to make a point. Instead, it came out of a tradition to which believers had given their lives for centuries. So I could forget about current issues and just see the Mass as the Mass.
Another aspect of the distinctiveness of the Latin Mass was that the people there seemed to take Catholic doctrine seriously. That helped me a lot. Why bother with religion if it’s not about something real and important? And why think it matters if the people involved don’t seem to take it seriously?
The traditional Mass isn’t sentimental. It’s not about building community, promoting good causes, or making people feel good. It has its own specific purpose. That makes the transcendent aspects of the Faith, the aspects that aren’t available elsewhere, seem objective and serious. They’re part of the basic structure of things, and not just a story people tell because it makes them feel good.
2.4 Attractiveness to men
That’s an important point.
One consequence that was especially noticeable coming from mainstream American Christianity is that the Traditional Mass appealed to men. People have been aware of that for a long time. When Cardinal Heenan saw an early version of the New Mass he said it meant he “would soon be left with a congregation mostly of women and children.” He was, of course, comparing it to the Traditional Mass.
There’s a gap between men and women in church attendance, and the gap is especially big with Catholics. But if you go to a Traditional Mass there will usually be a lot of men, including blue collar men.
That’s important, and not only for the men involved. Masculine involvement has a big effect on whether the Faith gets passed down in the family. There was a Swiss study about 20 years ago that found that it’s the father’s religious practice that more than anything determines the future church attendance of the children. The mother’s major influence, it turns out, isn’t on regular attendance but on keeping children from lapsing altogether.1
Apparently, children believe that if mom goes to church it’s a nice social thing to do, but if dad does it it’s serious. The numbers are extraordinary:
“If the father is non-practicing and mother regular, only 2 percent of children will become regular worshippers, and 37 percent will attend irregularly….”
“If the father is irregular and mother regular … 3 percent of the children will … become regulars themselves, while … 59 percent will become irregulars.”
“If both father and mother attend regularly, 33 percent of their children will end up as regular churchgoers, and 41 percent will end up attending irregularly.”
Surprisingly, “if the father is regular but the mother irregular or non-practicing … the percentage of children becoming regular goes up from 33 percent to 38 percent with the irregular mother and to 44 percent with the non-practicing one.”
So if dad has any interest at all, that has a huge effect on the children. It has an even bigger effect if his interest is strong enough to take him to church even when mom doesn’t care.
These numbers are from Switzerland twenty years ago, but they’re so lopsided that it’s hard to believe it’s not a general tendency. And you have to believe that the greater seriousness of the Traditional Mass has other effects, for example on how people live.
Another appealing feature of the Traditional Mass was its universality. The kind of universality I have in mind goes with objectivity. If something is objectively real and true it applies everywhere.
And that was true of the Traditional Mass. It is what it is. It’s not tailored to a particular time or situation. So it works for young and old, saints and sinners, beggars and billionaires.
If you’re happy it adds depth and if you’re sad it comforts you. The transcendent emphasis is humanly very important. It connects you and your situation to something permanent and sustaining. People need that. Why isn’t that obvious?
The Traditional Mass also doesn’t depend on the particular priest. Whether you like him or not, it is the same. That was important for me, because I had some amazingly bad priests in my old denomination.
Also, the Traditional Mass helped me see the local church—what was going on right in front of me—as part of the Universal Church, the same always and everywhere. By becoming Catholic I was joining something solid and enduring that included the saints throughout the ages. I was participating in the same mass they knew and loved. That was important to me.
Any qualms or objections I might have had about the Latin Mass and traditionalist movement are put much more forcefully by others, so I won’t go into them in any detail.
I will say though that the traditionalist world seemed a little self-contained. Signing on to it when and where I did meant joining a group of people who often went way back with each other. Also, I was used to church people being a bit more outgoing. There seemed to be fewer coffee hours after mass and fewer attempts in the announcements and so on to make people aware of other things that were going on.
I suppose that’s changing somewhat as numbers increase, and it’s undoubtedly very different in different places. I think a lot of it has to do with the common situation in which there’s no real connection to any particular parish. Where I attend mass the group comes in once a week, has its mass, and that’s it. There’s no other connection to the parish, so you don’t hear about anything else that’s going on. I don’t think that’s uncommon.
3 Views of others
My positive experiences can’t be unusual. I wrote a column on what attracted me to the Traditional Mass and a lot of people agreed with what I said.
One thing many people have noticed recently that I didn’t at the time is that the Latin Mass attracts a lot of young people and families. So it seems to stand for a sort of Catholicism that offers hope and something to live for.
And just recently many people have been attracted to the Traditional Mass by the contrast between the conduct of traditional and Novus Ordo priests during the COVID pandemic. In many places the former found ways to keep the sacraments available to the people, while the latter did not.
But I’m just one person, times change, and I’ve only experienced a small part of the traditionalist world. So I need to say more about other people’s reactions. That can be hard to do. People are different, reactions are often very personal, and you can’t talk with everybody. So there’s a lot of guesswork.
3.1 Noise and static
A basic problem is that most of the public discussion of the traditionalist movement comes from people who are in the business of commentary. And a lot of what they say depends on their attitude on other issues rather than their unvarnished response to traditionalism itself.
But what they say matters because it affects how people view the movement. Also, if you look at comments from readers, a lot of ordinary Catholics agree with them.
What people say of course is a mixture. They go off in all sorts of directions. On the whole, I get the impression that complaints about the traditionalist movement usually have something to them, but it’s hard to tell how big a part of the picture it is or how much traditionalists differ from anyone else.
So what I’ll do is cover some of the criticisms, the point of view behind them, and what the critics are seeing, how real it is, whether some response might be helpful, and what that response might be.
One general comment:
It’s pretty common today to refer to statements about groups of people—saying gypsies pick a lot of pockets or whatever—as “tropes,” meaning that they’re something people say for reasons that have nothing to do with truth.
The expression is grossly overused, but people do say things for reasons other than truth. So there’s no reason complaints about traditionalist Catholics shouldn’t be tropes in that sense.
For example, liberal Catholics often say that traditionalists are intolerant, fearful, and obsessed with rules.
It seems odd to complain about fear and intolerance among traditionalists in the age of left-wing cancel culture, “safe spaces,” and so on, but people do.
Joseph Shaw points out that this kind of complaint was pioneered seventy years ago by Theodore Adorno and the Frankfurt School in an attempt to pathologize conservatism by connecting it to something they called the Authoritarian Personality, which they blamed for Nazism and other bad things.2
I’ve been told that actual psychological studies don’t back the theory up, that conservative political and social views have no special connection to intolerance, fearfulness, and so on, but people like the theory. So it’s largely a prejudice in the bad sense: an unthinking belief adopted for reasons that have nothing to do with truth. It’s a “trope.”
3.3 Tu quoque
In fact, a lot of traditionalists have found that a lot of the complaints about traditionalists are more true of Catholics who don’t like traditionalism. As we see today with cancel culture, the conviction that you’re on the side of progress, and someone is threatening it, can lead to real abusiveness. A lot of people here will have their own stories.
Also, it’s debatable whether some of the complaints are really complaints. I am firm, which is good, you are rigid, which is bad. If traditionalist Catholics have negative things to say about the contemporary Church, is that bad or good? Are they scoffers or are they prophets? We have one answer, progressives have another.
4 Pope Francis
So it’s a messy situation. To focus the discussion, I’ll start by discussing what various prominent people have said about traditional Catholicism and how others have responded.
I might as well start with Pope Francis. As you know, he is no fan.
4.1 The Traditional Mass
He sometimes comments on the traditional liturgy itself. In a 2016 interview with Fr. Antonio Spadaro, the editor of La Civiltà Cattolica,3 he said
I always try to understand what’s behind the people who are too young to have lived the pre-conciliar liturgy but who want it. Sometimes I’ve found myself in front of people who are too strict, who have a rigid attitude. And I wonder: How come such a rigidity? Dig, dig, this rigidity always hides something: insecurity, sometimes even more…. Rigidity is defensive. True love is not rigid.
So traditionalists are rigid and fearful. They suffer from Theodore Adorno’s Authoritarian Personality.
In fact, “rigid” usually means “you don’t want to go along with what I want.” From that perspective the complaint has something to it. If most Catholics go along with something, the people who favor it are likely to think those who oppose it are “rigid” and “defensive.”
The argument can of course be turned around. I’m sure there were Catholics in Buenos Aires who liked Summorum Pontificum and thought Cardinal Bergoglio was acting in a rigid and defensive manner when he obstructed its application.
So the question is substantive rather than psychological: is it important to carry forward the traditional liturgy? If it is, it’s silly to say its supporters are “fearful and rigid.”
The Pope also speaks about traditionalism in general. As he often does, he raises important issues in an obscure way. For example, in an airplane press conference a couple of years ago he said4
Tradition is the guarantee of the future and not the container of the ashes….
The tradition of the church is always in movement. The tradition does not safeguardthe ashes.
All of which is pretty obscure. The idea seems to be that tradition is where things come from but not where they are now or where they’re going. So we should learn from it, and then go and do whatever makes sense to us today. That seems very much in line with the Pope’s general outlook.
It’s a very common view. It’s usually not clear how far people want to take it, whether it applies for example to creeds, councils, and scripture. It’s not clear why it wouldn’t, but it’s never put that bluntly.
Instead, people talk about how it’s bad to be a fundamentalist, and important to take a nuanced view that takes into account context, pastoral needs, and contemporary insights. The overall effect though is that nothing from the past is binding if you don’t want it to be. But if that’s right, then “magisterium” ends up meaning “whatever the Pope wants right now.” There’s nothing else it could mean.
And that view does seem to affect attitudes toward the traditionalist movement.
5 Other hierarchs
There are of course other prelates in the picture.
5.1 Archbishop Roche
The Pope recently appointed Archbishop Arthur Roche to head the Congregation for Divine Worship, replacing Cardinal Robert Sarah, a friend of the Traditional Mass.
Pope Benedict, you will remember, wanted to accept the Traditional Mass in order to make the Church one with herself, yesterday, today, and forever. Archbishop Roche seems to agree that accepting the Traditional Mass has that effect, and that’s why he doesn’t like it.
He has said that the implementation of the Novus Ordo is an “ecclesiastical duty” because it reflects “ecclesiological differences” and the “magnitude of the changes that have taken place” since the Second Vatican Council. So the Church has changed, and the Mass should reflect that by representing the supposedly less hierarchical and more communitarian emphasis of the post-conciliar Church.5
In other words, the Church isn’t one with herself over time, and the mass shouldn’t make it look like she is. That is also a common view.
5.2 Bishop Barron
Other bishops have concerns as well. Most often these have more to do with what they consider rebelliousness, factionalism, and lack of civility among traditionalists than the Traditional Mass or other specific practices as such. A bishop who mostly just wants to keep everyone together is likely to see traditionalists as troublemakers.
As an example, Bishop Robert Barron recently had an online meeting with representatives of various mainstream Catholic news organizations—America Media, Catholic News Agency, Catholic News Service, Crux and Our Sunday Visitor. The meeting was about the problem of traditionalists who “ruthlessly criticize the pope and bishops, and question the authority of the Second Vatican Council, often to the point of repudiation.”6
5.3 French bishops
As most of you probably know, Francis recently ordered a survey of the world’s bishops regarding their experience with the traditional mass. The response of the French bishops has become available and gives a broader picture of episcopal attitudes.7 Basically, they think that the Traditional Mass has some benefits, but causes division within the Church.
They concede that the EF has brought liturgical peace, and that it creates a “sense of the sacred,” promotes silence, interiority, solemnity, and faith in the Real Presence, preserves the heritage of sacred music, and makes the “sacrificial dimension of the Mass more explicit.”
In addition, they agree that it could play a role in dialogue with the oriental Churches, and that “celebrating ad orientem can be an antidote to the risk of clericalism.”
So they recognize real benefits. Nevertheless, they argue that Latin Mass engenders a “mentality of resistance” creating communities critical of the “conciliar Church.” So Latin Mass adherents remain “on the fringes of the diocese,” thus creating an “experience of separation at the heart of diocesan unity.”
The French bishops also complain that “fragile, identifiable youth are easily fascinated by the EF” and “reinforced in their obsessional fever by mediocre preaching and social networks.” Like Francis, they ask: “Why is there such a craze, especially among young people, for the EF—the scrupulous form?”
And they complain that “little is mentioned of the Holy Spirit.” Here it seems to me there may be an issue. Talking about the Holy Spirit can be a way of saying “I have a new revelation,” but some aspects of the Faith aren’t formalized or nailed down by tradition. The lives of the saints display any number of examples. It’s believable that if you emphasize tradition you may slight things that aren’t tradition. The issue’s worth some thought now and then.
But what about the laity?
6.1 NCR discussions
As an example of how unpredictable things can be, some of the most interesting recent public discussions of reactions to the Traditional Mass and everything associated with it have been in the National Catholic Reporter and on their website.
In general they don’t like it, and they started the discussions with a very quirky piece entitled “The Latin Mass becomes a cult of toxic tradition.” The woman who wrote it complained a lot about clericalism, sexism, and general oppressiveness. People had to kneel before the male priest to receive communion, they didn’t want to give it to her in the hand, and when she complained and told them the clergy are supposed to act as servants they didn’t want to hear about it. Also, she somehow got the impression she wasn’t allowed to wear red at the Traditional Mass, which was apparently a big problem for her.
To make matters worse, she said, a lot of young Catholics are falling victim to what she called “ultra-traditional Latin Mass ideology.”8
Her piece was followed by a heartfelt piece by a woman some people here know, Jane Stannus, entitled “Traditional Latin Mass best expresses the reality of Christ’s sacrifice.” The title says why she favored it: “The traditional liturgy best expresses the sense of Christ the spotless Victim, offering himself on behalf of sinful humanity as an infinitely pleasing sacrifice to God the Father.” Over time, she found, that sunk into people and transformed them.9
And finally there was a piece entitled “Confessions of a ’Weird Catholic”’ by a young convert who’s politically a progressive and says he “acknowledge[s] that much of pre-modern Catholicism is tangled up with ugly systems of oppression.” Even so, he liked the Latin Mass and traditional observances, basically because they aren’t bland, suburban, self-satisfied, or generally bourgeois. He found they got him out of himself and connected him to reality at a variety of levels.10
Apparently there are enough people who share his general point of view to make “weird Catholic” a recognized category. If you do an Internet search you can find examples.
The three pieces bring out how hard it can be to summarize people’s reactions to the Latin Mass and traditionalism generally. They’re just so very different.
6.2 Common complaints
What made it all the more interesting is that NCR published two large collections of letters on their website commenting on the pieces. These give you more of a cross-section of opinion. In any event they’re an occasion to summarize some common reactions.1112
The objections, not all of which are from the NCR discussion, include the following:
6.2.1 Traditionalism as ideology
One basic objection to traditionalism is that it can’t be authentic because it’s an “ism” and tradition isn’t an ism.
There’s a legitimate point behind the objection. Tradition isn’t an ideology, it’s a system of practices and understandings that’s developed over time. People attach themselves to it because they find that it works for them. In the Church it’s usually been driven by what saints and ordinary believers find helpful, not by what popes, scholars, or even ecumenical councils think would be a good idea.
Tradition is indispensable because it can carry things forward during times in which they’re not in line with how people think about things. The reason is that it’s not contemporary, not completely manageable, and doesn’t claim to be altogether clear. So it can be a guide and corrective when formal expertise just repeats the conventional wisdom. That’s also why it’s a necessary vehicle for things like religion that no one completely understands.
There’s a modern attitude that tells you that the way to do something intelligent is to put a committee of experts together and tell them to figure it out. That’s how the reformed liturgy and the post-Vatican II approaches to Catholic education were put together.
It didn’t work. People stopped going to Mass and they stopped believing or even understanding the Faith. People think the answer is more of the same. The point of the traditionalist movement is that it’s not. It makes a lot more sense to go back to the practices and understandings that have been found to work, and take it from there.
From the standpoint of someone who believes certified experts should run everything, that outlook looks ideological. After all, a layman who rejects something experts agree on must be pushing a weird theory of some sort.
From the standpoint of a traditionalist, the positions are reversed. He’s just trying to be Catholic and get closer to God the way Catholics always have. It’s the other guy who’s pushing a weird theory about the correct way to do everything.
As we’ve seen, another objection is clericalism and more generally the vertical and hierarchical emphasis.
The Traditional Mass makes the priest pretty much the sole actor. He wears fancy vestments and is surrounded by things that set him off and glorify his position—the altar rail, the right to touch the consecrated Host, and so on.
A response is that Catholicism needs hierarchy because God and truth are at the top and the Church should be governed and guided and the mass presented in a way that somehow reflects that.
Another is that none of this has to do with the priest personally. The Traditional Mass makes him the servant and not the master of the liturgy. His personal views and qualities become irrelevant. How is that clericalism? And how is the assumption that the hierarchy can tailor the liturgy to their current preferences not clericalism?
6.2.3 Obsession with forms
Another objection is obsession with forms.
People complain that traditionalists are more interested in liturgy and other forms—traditional devotions, various sacramentals, always getting doctrinal statements exactly right—than in Christ, the Church, or loving their neighbor.
Why, they ask, have Mass in a dead language with half of it silent and the priest with his back to you so you can’t see what’s going on? Why not concentrate on the spiritual aspects of the liturgy, which are the same no matter what the form, or put your efforts into food pantries or whatever?
So a big issue is the importance of form. People today aren’t interested in it. They think it’s just personal taste. They also think informality is better, because it’s less snobbish.
They say the Last Supper didn’t look like a Pontifical High Mass, Christ didn’t like priests and pharisees, the sort of people who insist on pointless formalities, and Christianity is based on the Incarnation, which sanctifies the everyday.
It’s true that Christ, the apostles, the Church Fathers, and the saints didn’t spend a lot of time talking about liturgical form. On the other hand, they thought ritual was important. Otherwise, Jesus wouldn’t have purified the Temple and insisted on fulfilling his obligations there.
And there must be some reason iconoclasm was declared a heresy. At that time the battle was images, now it’s liturgy. The traditionalist movement is fighting an iconoclastic tendency in liturgy. Catholicism isn’t purely spiritual or moralistic. It says physical things matter, and likes to give some of them a vertical reference. That’s what icons are about, and it’s what the liturgy is about.
It’s true there are dangers. It’s common to get stuck on particular things and lose track of the basics. I have heard people who are very attached to the Traditional Mass complaining about liturgy nerds. You can wonder whether that sort of thing is more common with people devoted to the Traditional Mass than other causes—making the Church more democratic or whatever.
But saying other people have weaknesses doesn’t excuse our own to the extent they are present. It does seem possible that if someone is vividly aware of the importance of form and liturgy and getting things right he might be less vividly aware of something else that might be more substantive. So it’s something to think about occasionally.
Another complaint is that traditionalists don’t mix much. They’re down on the things other people do. They want to live in their own little bubble.
It’s true that a lot of people who might be interested in the Traditional Mass hold off because their parish doesn’t offer it and they want to take part in parish life. Conceivably that could mean that the people who don’t value that as highly and travel an hour each way for the Traditional Mass are less sociable.
But as usual it’s hard to know what to do. It seems we should connect to other people, but favor connections where there’s a benefit and avoid them where there’s harm. But it can be hard to know what that means practically.
Saint Paul said that evil communications corrupt good manners. The Romans thought the Christians were obstinate and antisocial, because they didn’t go to the theater, races, games, or festivals, which of course were dedicated to the pagan gods.
But how far do you go? Narrowness and cultishness can be a problem. Plans for ideal Catholic communities have mostly not worked out. Saint Benedict went off and lived in a cave in the mountains to get away from distractions and corruptions. That worked for him, but most of us aren’t Benedict.
Within living memory such things were less of a concern because life was more local, Catholics lived more with other Catholics, and our pastors were more pastoral. They concerned themselves with popular culture, exerted pressure on Hollywood, and promoted parish life, schools, and universities that were more reliably Catholic. I’m sure what they did was far from perfect, but that’s always true, and Catholic life was in much better shape then.
The difficulty of the situation shows that it’s hard for the people to improve things in the Church without the help of the hierarchy. But we’re stuck dealing with the situation we actually face, and can only do our best.
A lot of conservative minded people don’t like the distrust of accepted authorities they find among traditionalists. In particular, they are put off by criticism of recent popes and Vatican II. Shouldn’t Catholics be more loyal? Less suspicious? More charitable? Why reject reforms when an ecumenical council called for them? Why complain about even Benedict?
They may agree that the authorities are sometimes wrong, but worry that we’re likely to end up worse off if we make a practice of ignoring them. Basically, they think anarchy is worse than almost any system of authority. They hear people tell others to ignore commands they personally consider wrong, like restrictions on the Traditional Mass, and get alarmed.
Some accuse traditionalists of dissent from Church teaching, schismatic tendencies, and so on. They say Francis is pope, so if you disagree with what he says you’re a bad Catholic. Sometimes that kind of accusation gets silly. If you say you don’t like COVID vaccinations you’re dissenting from Catholic teaching.
It’s not clear how complaints about resistance to authority go with complaints about clericalism. But we can only do our best. The abuse crisis and general collapse of Catholicism in the West show what happens when people who see serious problems remain quiet.
And as we know, hyperpapalism is not orthodoxy. Catholics are not literal slaves to Rome. The New Mass and other changes don’t seem to be anything Vatican II imposed as obligatory or even specially called for. The question of obedience can be a difficult one, but it can’t be disposed of by saying “always do what a legitimate authority tells you to do.” And if you accept authority you ought to accept the authority of the past 2000 years. That’s what the traditionalist movement is trying to do.
6.2.6 Strange theories
Some views found in traditional circles seem nutty to a lot of people. Books like Taylor Marshall’s Infiltration go into speculations people want to avoid. Geocentrism may be OK according to Einstein, but it’s not a mainstream view. And there are political views among traditional Catholics a lot of people think are odd or just don’t like: monarchism, neo-confederacy, and anti-Americanism on the one hand and flag-waving nationalism on the other. Also, traditionalist Catholics skew toward Trump, and the attitude of progressive Catholics toward Catholic Trump voters is the same as the attitude of other progressives toward Trump voters.
Some people complain that if you start attending the Traditional Mass you’re expected to sign on to all these views.
I think we’ve all heard theories in traditionalist circles that seem loopy. But “conspiracy theory” mostly means you have doubts about the official story, whatever that happens to be. It’s a way of shutting people up. It’s true that once you start doubting official stories it can be hard to know where to stop. But you have to deal with what you’re actually presented with. It’s hard to know what would improve the basic situation other than more trustworthy officials who present more reliable stories.
The traditionalist movement does include eccentrics. If you’re an absolutely routine person you’ll probably go to an absolutely routine mass if you go at all. But some eccentric people are extraordinary in positive ways. And the proportion of eccentrics is probably declining as the movement grows. Also, it’s hard to tell whether it’s worse for us than for anyone else. There are lots of quirky people everywhere, and the problem seems to be getting worse.
Finally, my observation is that in the traditionalist world people really aren’t expected to sign onto some political and social orthodoxy. Traditionalists are more likely than most Catholics to be vaccine skeptics and Trump fans. But they’re also much more likely to tolerate disagreement than progressives are. Unlike progressives, their political views are not their religion.
Since it’s the current year, there are also complaints about bigotry. The most common is sexism. Why no altar girls? Why the skirts and chapel veils? Why is everyone so dead set against female priests?
Also, the people who attend Latin Mass are mostly white, and that bothers some people. And there are complaints about anti-semitism.
As to the sexes, men and women really are different. If that difference isn’t meaningful, how can the created order itself be meaningful? And if the created order isn’t meaningful, how can natural law or the doctrine of the Incarnation make sense?
Some of the other complaints are guilt by free association—the SPLC notices that traditionalist Catholics criticize Vatican II, and Vatican II said positive things about Jews, so traditional Catholics must hate Jews.
But there are traditionalist Catholics who really do say unjustifiable things about the Jews and other topics. Here the question becomes what the others are supposed to do about it. Cancel them? When? Suppose someone comments on Jewish influence in the entertainment industry. Should people refuse to talk to him?
My impression is that these issues involve too many taboos to be discussed honestly and openly, so people are reluctant to deal with them and everybody draws his own lines. Also, the Left has gotten a lot of mileage out of the principle of “no enemies to the Left,” and traditionalists sometimes want to take a similar approach.
A final issue is that some people don’t like the sacrificial aspects of the mass. They think they present God the Father, who is demanding the sacrifice, as a bloodthirsty tyrant.
The complaint seems the root of a lot of opposition to the Traditional Mass, but it’s a non-starter. Sacrifice is central to Christianity. If you don’t like it you don’t like Christianity. And if the mass and the Church are going to deal with the world as it is, they can’t sanitize the problem of suffering. The sacrificial aspects of the Mass mean that people who are suffering are doing what Christ did. Why deprive them of that?
7 Friendly fire
I should also mention the issue of friendly fire from people sympathetic to tradition.
That doesn’t prove anything about how the movement looks to people first encountering it, but a lot of it deals with that topic, and it provokes comments from people at ground level.
7.1 Status anxiety
Some of it has a status-signaling quality—someone who likes the Traditional Mass wants everyone to know he’s not one of those weirdos. A few years ago, for example, Tracey Rowland gave a talk about how great the Traditional Mass was,13 and then complained in an interview about the people who go there. After mass they talk about it as if it were an opera performance. Or they show up wearing clothes that make them look like they’re Amish. But the biggest problem, she thought, was that the Traditional Mass is tied up with opposition to Vatican II. If you don’t like what’s been done in the name of the Council you shouldn’t complain about the Council, you should write scholarly books explaining why all the bad things are misinterpretations.14
She’s not alone in the specifics of what she says. I’ve mentioned complaints about liturgy nerds. And women’s clothes seem to be a fraught topic. Sometimes the issue can be as simple as the number of women wearing dresses. That strikes some people as cult-like. And chapel veils make some people anxious. I don’t know what to do about any of that.
We’ve talked about the Traditional Mass as a rallying point for resistance, and asked whether that’s good or bad. I suppose manner does matter. But it’s hard to get everyone to be clear and firm without sounding too harsh to some people. And it’s hard to get ordinary people to make all the distinctions a high-end scholar concerned about her professional standing would make. It seems to me if we had better pastors all this would be less of a problem.
There are of course other examples of friendly fire. Some of it comes from various clerical bloggers, some of whom identify as traditionalists.
A lot of it is about crabby people in the traditionalist movement. Some priests complain that Latin Mass people are always finding fault. They want their mass and they want it how they want it and that’s all they care about. They never volunteer, never come to other parish events, and never express gratitude.
Some ordinary lay people say they tried the Traditional Mass and were put off by that kind of thing. Other people say they haven’t seen it, or it’s rare. Or that it’s normal for people to complain when there’s a lot to complain about. Or that people who aren’t traditionalists complain too.
But these seem to be sincere complaints and I don’t doubt there’s something to them in many cases. Maybe some of the priests here could comment on ways the laity could make their lives easier. And it’s not only priests who see a problem. People fall into purity spirals, and if you don’t say exactly what someone wants he denounces you as a heretic. A couple of tradition-friendly websites,
Crisis and OnePeterFive, shut down comments recently because of that kind of thing.
So what’s the conclusion?
8.1 Intrinsic difficulties
The traditionalist movement faces some intrinsic difficulties. It breaks ranks with fellow Catholics. It is at odds with the authorities in a Church that values authority. It emphasizes forms when forms aren’t the point of Christianity. And as a minority movement of opposition it is going to attract a certain number of contentious and eccentric people.
These problems are built in. We believe they are dwarfed by the prospect of staying in touch with the Church throughout the ages. But they create dangers we have to be aware of and think about from time to time.
We can try to mitigate them in various ways, but there is no real solution apart from the return of the Church as a whole to tradition. In the mean time, we can only do our best.
8.2 Progressive alarm
In spite of all the propaganda and the inevitable flaws of the movement the Latin Mass and traditionalism are spreading, especially among active and committed Catholics.
That’s caused concern, especially regarding its growth among young people. Older clerics complain about younger priests and seminarians. I’ve mentioned other instances.
It seems likely the trend will continue. Why go with the Church unless you get the whole Church? That may mean countermeasures. We’ve heard about some that involve the Pope, and others are joining in. Fr. Thomas Reese, for example, wants to imitate the Chinese, and keep young people from attending.15
8.3 Attraction and repulsion
The traditionalist movement separates you from today’s mainstream. That makes narrowness and cultishness a danger. But it connects you to the whole tradition of the Church throughout the ages, which should have exactly the opposite effect.
As a movement, the traditionalist movement has some of the qualities of a special interest group. That makes for partisanship and other problems. But today everything is politicized. If you send your children to public school they’ll sign them up for the cause of wokeness and transgenderism. So you have to make choices and take a stand.
Since there are dangers, we always have to remember the basics. The point of the traditionalist movement is providing a setting in which people can get closer to God. It emphasizes stability, universality, and objectivity. It favors contemplation more than activism. It wants to shield people from liturgical and doctrinal “creativity,” which usually mean turning the Mass and Church into vehicles for some extraneous cause. So in its basic nature it is the negation of all ideological movements.
And with its growth and the appeal to young people and families, it’s becoming less embattled, less of a niche phenomenon, and more part of a way of living. Most people just want to get on with life as best they can, and they’re finding that traditional Catholicism helps them. That has to be a good thing.
8.4 What to do?
It’s important to present counter-arguments to the other side’s concerns and talking points. That might do some good by clearing up misunderstandings and raising issues, and the effect can be cumulative. Also, it strengthens our side to know our own case.
When we argue, it’s important to avoid rancor and unfairness. Those things don’t make converts. Intelligence is helpful too. A lot of bishops who are worried by traditionalism mostly just want to keep everyone together. It’s possible that more participation by traditionalists in parochial and diocesan life would be helpful on that score. Why not do a little infiltration of our own, and spread traditionalist perspectives around a little?
I don’t know what people are already doing. And I don’t know all the practicalities. It’s possible that more contact would sometimes make things worse.
The real question though is always going to be whether traditionalism benefits people. Does the Traditional Mass give them the sense of transcendence and eternity they miss elsewhere? Does it bring them closer to God? And does that show up in their lives and how they treat other people?
The more attachment to tradition lines up with love of God and neighbor the more people will be drawn to it. If traditionalism really does embody more of Christianity it’ll grow the way Christianity did in ancient Rome. People will see it and want it. These days there aren’t a lot of good competitors, so if our cause is as just as we believe the future ought to be bright.
1Robbie Low. “The Truth About Men & Church”. en. In: Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity (June 2003).
2Joseph Shaw. Why Do Bishops Fear Young Traditionalists? en-us. Oct. 2018.
3Inés San Martín. Francis Warns of ’rigid’ Liturgy, Confesses Soft Spot for Old Ladies. en-CA. https://cruxnow.com/vatican/2016/11/francis-warns-rigid-liturgy-confesses-soft-spot-old-ladies/. Nov. 2016.
4Joshua J. McElwee. “Francis Criticizes Traditionalist Catholics Who ’safeguard the Ashes’ of the Past”. en. In: National Catholic Reporter June 14-27, 2019 (June 2019).
5Michael Haynes. Pope Francis Appoints UK Bishop Known for Criticizing Traditional Liturgy as Head of the Congregation for Divine Worship. en-us. https://www.lifesitenews.com/news/pope-francis-appoints-uk-bishop-known-for-criticizing-traditional-liturgy-as-head-of-the-congregation-for-divine-worship. May 2021.
6Christopher White. “Bishop Barron Hosts Invite-Only Meeting to Discuss ’rad Trads,’ Online Vitriol”. en. In: National Catholic Reporter https://www.ncronline.org/news/media/bishop-barron-hosts-invite-only-meeting-discuss-rad-trads-online-vitriol (Aug. 2020).
7Jules Gomes. French Bishops Wage War on Latin Mass. en. https://www.churchmilitant.com/news/article/french-prelates-plot-to-revoke-latin-mass. Feb. 2021.
8Zita Ballinger Fletcher. “The Latin Mass Becomes a Cult of Toxic Tradition”. en. In: National Catholic Reporter Dec 13-26, 2019 (Nov. 2019).
9Jane Stannus. “Traditional Latin Mass Best Expresses the Reality of Christ’s Sacrifice”. en. In: National Catholic Reporter Dec 13-26, 2019 (Nov. 2019).
10Stephen Adubato. “Confessions of a ’Weird Catholic’”. en. In:
National Catholic Reporter June 26-July 9, 2020 (June 2020).
11NCR Staff. Your Thoughts on Traditional Latin Mass. en. https://www.ncronline.org/news/opinion/ncr-today/your-thoughts-traditional-latin-mass. Nov. 2019.
12NCR Staff. Your Thoughts on Traditional Latin Mass, Part Two. en. https://www.ncronline.org/news/opinion/ncr-today/your-thoughts-traditional-latin-mass-part-two. Dec. 2019.
13Fr Ray Blake. The Usus Antiquior and the New Evangelisation: Tracey Rowland. June 2013.
14Pertinacious Papist. Musings of a Pertinacious Papist: Tracey Rowland Flap on "Barriers" to the TLM. July 2013.
15Thomas Reese. The Future of Catholic Liturgical Reform. en-US. Apr. 2021.
Christopher White. “Bishop Barron Hosts Invite-Only Meeting to Discuss ’rad Trads,’ Online Vitriol”. en. In: National Catholic Reporter https://www.ncronline.org/news/media/bishop-barron-hosts-invite-only-meeting-discuss-rad-trads-online-vitriol (Aug. 2020).
Fr Ray Blake. The Usus Antiquior and the New Evangelisation: Tracey Rowland. June 2013.
Gomes, Jules. French Bishops Wage War on Latin Mass. en. https://www.churchmilitant.com/news/article/french-prelates-plot-to-revoke-latin-mass. Feb. 2021.
Haynes, Michael. Pope Francis Appoints UK Bishop Known for Criticizing Traditional Liturgy as Head of the Congregation for Divine Worship. en-us. https://www.lifesitenews.com/news/pope-francis-appoints-uk-bishop-known-for-criticizing-traditional-liturgy-as-head-of-the-congregation-for-divine-worship. May 2021.
Inés San Martín. Francis Warns of ’rigid’ Liturgy, Confesses Soft Spot for Old Ladies. en-CA. https://cruxnow.com/vatican/2016/11/francis-warns-rigid-liturgy-confesses-soft-spot-old-ladies/. Nov. 2016.
Jane Stannus. “Traditional Latin Mass Best Expresses the Reality of Christ’s Sacrifice”. en. In: National Catholic Reporter Dec 13-26, 2019 (Nov. 2019).
Joseph Shaw. Why Do Bishops Fear Young Traditionalists? en-us. Oct. 2018.
Joshua J. McElwee. “Francis Criticizes Traditionalist Catholics Who ’safeguard the Ashes’ of the Past”. en. In: National Catholic Reporter June 14-27, 2019 (June 2019).
NCR Staff. Your Thoughts on Traditional Latin Mass. en. https://www.ncronline.org/news/opinion/ncr-today/your-thoughts-traditional-latin-mass. Nov. 2019.
— Your Thoughts on Traditional Latin Mass, Part Two. en. https://www.ncronline.org/news/opinion/ncr-today/your-thoughts-traditional-latin-mass-part-two. Dec. 2019.
Pertinacious Papist. Musings of a Pertinacious Papist: Tracey Rowland Flap on "Barriers" to the TLM. July 2013.
Robbie Low. “The Truth About Men & Church”. en. In:
Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity (June 2003).
Stephen Adubato. “Confessions of a ’Weird Catholic’”. en. In: National Catholic Reporter June 26-July 9, 2020 (June 2020).
Thomas Reese. The Future of Catholic Liturgical Reform. en-US. Apr. 2021.
Zita Ballinger Fletcher. “The Latin Mass Becomes a Cult of Toxic Tradition”. en. In: National Catholic Reporter Dec 13-26, 2019 (Nov. 2019).