Tuesday, 20 August 2013

The winter of our discontent: is there no room for rapprochement between traddies and neo-cons?

There have been a number of posts of late from 'neo-conservatives' attacking traditionalists, for their alleged negativity, belligerence and attitude of disobedience.

And they raise for me a key issue that I think faces the traditionalist movement, namely whether we can't find a way of defusing some of this tension, and building alliances with those closest to us within the Church.

Making traditionalism a real force for reform

Here is the challenge as I see it.

For much of the history of the movement, traditionalists have, for good reasons, been more intent on preserving themselves and their families in the face of the forces of modernism and modernity than on trying to reform the whole of the Church from within.

However, with Pope Benedict's pontificate the ground changed fundamentally: Pope Benedict outright rejected the 'everything new is better' paradigm that has dominated recent decades, and pointed to the importance of the patrimony of the Church; he entrenched the right to the TLM; and he openly acknowledged, for the first time, the problems that the Church has experienced in the wake of Vatican II.

In doing so, he laid some necessary foundations for a genuine reform of the Church, a reform that offers at least the possibility of rebuilding the devastated Church of the First World West.

Are things getting better?

Yet for all that, the reform movement has yet to take off in any serious way.

There have been a few blog posts lately claiming things are on the improve.

And yes, there are some things one can point to as small but very positive changes for the better.

Traditional Benedictine monasteries seem to be thriving.

Two separate groups of US nuns have albums vying for places at the top of the charts.

Here in Australia, Cath News seems at last to have been reigned in from at least its worst excesses, not least through the apparent suppression of its ever dissenting 'Cath Blog'.

There was a nice vocation story featuring one of the Missionaries of God's Love sisters in the Canberra Times last week.

A new traditionalist personal parish was established in Sydney last week (although the news hasn't yet been featured in the archdiocesan news feed!).


The trouble is, when I go to a novus ordo Mass, it is not only "Gather us in", guitar twanging, and its like that I will likely have to grin and bear (and probably for some years yet, as Fr Adrian Sharp recently tweeted), but also really dreadful, bordering on blasphemous, abuses.

Indeed, just last week at a weekday Mass in my local parish the priest issued an invitation to 'help yourself to the chalice which I'll leave on the altar' - and several people did.

Nor was this an aberration: the last time I went there I left on discovering that what was on offer was not Mass but that other version of the smorgasbord approach to the Eucharist in the form of a 'communion service' (which I'm pretty sure our previous bishop had banned for weekday masses in a city where there are plenty of alternative mass locations) conducted by a layman.

So yes, a lot of very bad bishops have been removed from office; but unfortunately many still remain.

Yes, some tentative steps have been made in reassessing - and rejecting - the  theological legacy of the twentieth century.  But the emerging critiques of the work of von Balthasar, Rahner, Congar and friends, as well as of  the historico-critical approach to Scriptural interpretation, for example, are very far from being accepted into the mainstream as yet.

And when it comes to practical morality, most priests seem (unsurprisingly) confused or reluctant when it comes to confronting sin.

Traditionalism (and potential allies) as a force

I'm not by any means suggesting that the traditionalist movement is the perfect alternative to all this.

Too many traditionalists are, in my opinion, poorly educated theologically, and do engage in a reflexive rejection of every development past a certain date.  Too many have been badly bruised by the battles of recent years and lost a sense of perspective.  And too many individuals and communities have been infected by manifestations of the very ills the movement purports to reject.

Yet despite all of that, I do think it, rather than any other stream in the Church currently, offers the best way forward.

The problem is that, for all of the positive steps that have been made and all of their visibility on the internet, traditionalism remains a tiny minority within the Church, representing, according to most estimates, no more than 1 or 2% of Mass-goers worldwide.

History, together with experience in other areas, suggests that until a mass movement reaches something like the 10% mark, it will not be a significant force for change.

At the moment, though, the prospect of achieving that level of growth seems remote, not least due to the failure of the SSPX to reconcile, continuing attacks on 'rad trads' and 'Pelagians' from various quarters including the Pope, and the restrictions on the use of the TLM imposed on the Franciscans of the Immaculate.

To me that suggests the need to build alliances, to find what common ground we can with those who at least share some of our agenda.  And we do, in my view, share at least some common ground with both 'conservatives' and (please don't have a heart attack) charismatics.

Conservatives too are finding themselves on the outer at the moment, and this may indeed account for some of the anti-trad rhetoric we've seen of late.  But I do think we need to try and find a way to get past these flailing attempts at product differentiation, and join forces where possible.

Best guess is that neo-conservatives too are only a small minority in most places.  Certainly in my own diocese a handful of sympathetic and even committed priests notwithstanding, there are few if any parishes that could make any claim to be genuinely 'reform of the reform', actively pro-life and so forth.  I know some priests are trying: but there is a limit to how far they can go in the face of congregational resistance and an unsupportive hierarchy (please pray for a good new bishop for us, the seat has been vacant for well over a year now).

Even if you add in charismatics (and I'm inclined too: for all the problems with that movement, in many cases they are at least committed and at least open to tradition even if confused by how to approach it), I doubt whether we actually make up 10% between us in most dioceses.

The priest shortage: the real picture

The problem is that there are very real differences in starting points and perspectives that are hard to get past.

The latest post taking traditionalists to task is a relatively mild affair, from a blogger I greatly respect, Msgr Pope, who was stunned by the reaction to a post highlighting some research that suggested that in the US the number of priests per parish currently is actually more or less the same as it was in 1950.

Msgr Pope seems surprised that many interpreted this as an attempt to present the current state of devastation of the vineyard in a more positive light, and talks about his increasingly strained relations with traditionalists, despite his support for the TLM and the need for reform in the Church.

Alas, statistics are never neutral!

In fact Msgr Pope's post no doubt struck many readers as trying on a line taken not long back in the UK context by Catholic Voices, and subsequently retracted after being demonstrated to be just wrong.

Indeed, a quick look at the story for his own Archdiocese of Washington for example, quickly puts the research by CARA he was citing into a rather different perspective than that presented in his blog piece.

In 1950, Washington had, according to the ever useful Catholic Hierarchy website, some 83 parishes.  By 2010, the total population of the diocese had more than trebled.  Moreover, the proportion of Catholics increased from 14.3% to 22%.

Yet the number of parishes increased only to 140.  And the Catholics per priest ratio had risen from 253 in 1950 to (admittedly still very good by contemporary standards) 782.

Consider too that while I don't know what proportion of Catholics actually attend Mass in Washington today, I think its a safe bet that it was a lot higher in 1950 (approximately 75%?) than it is now (the US average is around 20% I believe).

Moreover, many modern parishes contain several churches, something that was rare in 1950.

The story is worse still if you look at the longer term trend: in most places around the world, Australia included, priestly vocation numbers rose steadily and steeply in both absolute and proportion of the population terms through the first half of the twentieth century, reaching a peak around the mid-60s.  They then crashed dramatically all the way back, and have continued to fall until very recently indeed, such that the current rise in Australia at least still looks like not much more than a blip against the long term trend.

Vatican II, bishop-bashing and the 'Church of the Wonderful'

Msgr Pope's latest post has a go at the outright rudeness of some who commented on his previous post.  There is no excuse for that: for some reason the internet brings out the worst in some people.  I'd observe, however, that while there is certainly a traditionalist fringe who regularly sin in this regard, combox nastiness is by no means peculiar to traddies, at least if my own experience is anything to go by.

The bigger problem he raises though, is one of perspectives on the Church, namely just how broke is (or isn't) it, and how do we approach the repair task.

Msgr Pope's post itself, I have to say, strikes me as typical of the denialism that seems to abound in the neo-con world.  For all of his commitment to the need for reform, I'm afraid that as a traditionalist I find it very hard indeed to see the Church in this country at least as anything but having gone very badly down the tubes given a Mass attendance rate of around 12%, plummeting rates of Church marriages, and low levels of commitment to Catholic teachings on pretty well any subject you can think of.

And I personally find it pretty hard to envisage the kind of 'help yourself to the chalice' abuse occurring in anything but a novus ordo context!

Would the collapse of the Church in the West have happened even if Vatican II had not taken place?  It is true that we can't know for sure one way or another.  But in the face of the devastation that we do see, the neo-con claim that Vatican II represents a 'great grace' for the Church seems pretty hard to sustain.

So too, the arguments of the extremist wing of the neo-conservative establishment such as those at Catholic Answers, who argue that any criticism of those in authority at all is counter to the cause of the salvation of souls.

A way forward?

I'm not sure it is really possible to implement a reform program or build support for it unless we confront where we really are honestly, and acknowledge just how big a problem we have.

Accordingly, I for one don't see much point in knocking on doors or otherwise engaging in the New Evangelism very actively until there is actually a Church near me I can safely take any potential converts or reverts to.

Of course one can pray and encourage people to see past the awful liturgies and lack of any communal spirit.  But in my view, what happens - or doesn't happen - in our parishes and communities is the reason why we need a new evangelization, not the cure for the mass defection from the Church of recent decades.

For that reason, I for one won't be backing away from criticising bishops and drawing attention to abuses and other problems when it seems appropriate to do so.

Still, I do acknowledge that some conservative bishops do seem to be actually genuinely confronting the issues: Bishop Fisher's diocesan planning process for Parramatta being a good example of that.

And while we may disagree on how we got here, traditionalists do, I think, share a lot of common ground on what needs to be done to fix things, on how to cure the disease.

Of course there will continue to be real differences.

But I suspect there is little to be gained by continued attempts to refight the battles of Vatican II when in many areas the real issues that confront us have moved on.  Traditionalists, I think, need to do some refocusing.  Where we agree on treatments for the symptoms we see in front of us, we need to make common cause to implement them.  And where we disagree, traditionalists need to engage directly and show why neo-con prescriptions are flawed or inadequate.

On the other side, though, it would really help if conservatives could drop the rose-tinted glasses: yes, the Church is the bride of Christ; yet that Church can be disfigured or altogether destroyed in particular places and times.

And too, those reflexive assertions that traditionalism is nothing more than nostalgia for a past that never really existed reflects a failure to understand what traditionalism is really trying to say, which is that we are an Apostolic Church rooted in tradition.

The world around us may change, the terms we use and the way we engage that world may need to adapt to fit the circumstances.  But what we believe, the way we worship, and the way we live: these are the things that define Catholic Christians and are at base unchanging.  Traditionalism will, in the end, always be at odds with a mentality that sees tradition as something that can be selectively taken up and modified at will.   Yet to the extent that there are some elements of that tradition that we can agree on, we should surely start from there and see what we can build.


Gervase Crouchback said...

A great piece Kate. It is a pity that we fight when we should be concentrating upon the Christian life and those issues that are destroying our culture. However it is a fine line when the culture invades and seems to be part of the Church .
I have seen the same infighting when I was in Evangelism when people disagreed over the Rapture, Prophecy in general and the Millenium. Actually they would make the trad-neocon dispute quite tame

jeff said...

I, too, have found the neo-con attitude of defending the hierarchy come-what-may to border upon delusional. They sound like cult members with their flat denials of the woeful state of things and the incompetent shepherds still acting like it's 1971 who continue to destroy the faith of countless little ones.

Howard said...

If you want to do something productive, you can start by dropping the term neocon. I'm not really sure what you mean by that, since it is a political term. Some Catholics subscribe to that political bent, others do not, and it does not have any apparent relationship to whether or not they think the Novus Ordo Mass was a mistake. I am a convert, and between the liturgical abuses and heresy on the one side and the ridiculous pride and schism on the other, more and more I wish I had just converted into an Eastern Rite of the Catholic Church. Don't kid yourself: acting like arrogant jerks is NOT the way to attract people to what you hold dear.

Michael Dorner said...

Well said, well written, Kate. Lately I have come to see the devotion to the Tridentine Mass as not the purview of a fringe element but as enormously thoughtful and warranted. There is an inherent majesty to the TLM that sadly is lacking in the Novus Ordo. Things MAY have gotten better in regard to the celebration of the Novus Ordo, but there is still a long way to go before it is celebrated with the dignity the Liturgy warrants. That being said, I totally agree with you that some of the discussion on the part of some aficionados of the Tridentine Mass is so uncharitable, so enraged, so vicious as to make me conclude they do the Tridentine Mass and the return to sane orthodoxy no favor.

Michael Dorner

Gary Adrian said...

Yes, I would agree with you on this totally. We do need to act like political parties and join together for a common cause. Just like many small parties never even have an effect on laws that are passed in government, if we traditionalists do not join with those who have common goals, we will never see the real changes that are needed to bring the ship back on course. A good example is in Russia while the communists were attempting to take over the country, the Orthodox church was fighting among themselves over the color of vestments to use in their liturgy.

tstanton said...

One of the problems is many traditionalists in my experience are just as much cafeteria catholics as the neo-cons or even liberals they criticize. Whether its a genuine blind spot or natural hubris, many seem unable to accept this. The will pick and choose from Church practices the ones they like, and disregard or even pour scorn on those they don't like (as if somehow their opinions were the litmus test for the legitimacy of such practices).

When one is entrenched in any "position" on these matters (regardless of where they fall on the catholic landscape), they will inevitably lose some overall perspective and only perceive matters from their own viewpoint, or their own interpretation of Church teachings.

I see hubris and a lack of charity in all camps here, as well as genuine sincerity and openness to new ideas as well. We're all humans - what else would you expect?

Kate Edwards said...

Howard - While I agree the term neo-con is not entirely satisfactory, not least for its political overtones in the US context, it is the most widely accepted descriptor. Fr Z had a crack at this recently, but I'm not sure a useful alternative emerged:http://wdtprs.com/blog/2013/08/hey-you-who-do-you-think-you-are/

Tstanton - While I'm not necessarily disagreeing with you, I'm not sure the cafeteria catholic claim is helpful in the absence of some specifics that can be used to test principles. Perhaps you might give an example of just what practices you are accusing traddies of rejecting and pouring scorn on?

tstanton said...

Two examples - extraordinary ministers, and communion in the hand. Fully within the law of the Church, but the disdain I have heard for either practice from some traditionalists has been worrying. It's one think to prefer one practice over another when there are several legitimate options available, but to emphatically state (as if it were some empirical or objective fact) that certain allowed liturgical options are repugnant or not consistent with Church tradition is nothing more (in my view) than putting oneself above the Magisterium.

Scholarly debate - fine. Private preference - fine. Condemnation - not fine.

When Pope Benedict asked in the letter accompanying SP to open our hearts to all that the Catholic Church "allows", he was speaking to traditionalists too.

Kate Edwards said...

Interesting examples, but not what I for one would call cafeteria catholicism.

I'm not sure I see why these shouldn't be matters of general debate.

On the contrary, since both communion in the hand and use of extraordinary ministers are options that an individual priest can choose to allow or not, it seems pretty important to have the debate right out there in my view, so all those involved in the decision-making process or affected by it (ie all of us) know what the issues are.

When it comes down to it, Canon law makes important distinctions between how we are required to approach defined dogma, the ordinary magisterium, and rules and pastoral practices promulgated by the Church.

These are essentially pastoral matters, not doctrinal matters (though they impact on it).

When it comes to doctrine and morals, in an ideal world, I do think there is a good case for restricting the debate to those who are equipped academically to understand the nuances of the debate. Though in reality I suspect the idea that debates on any subject in any field can be kept in academic circles these days is a lost cause. And when it comes to theology, so many these days have theology degrees in advanced modernism that the issue is pretty much moot.

Regardless, when it comes to pastoral practices I don't see why there shouldn't be open debate on their effects and thus desirability. We are bound to obey the law on such things as appropriate, we are not not to accept them as a good thing.

Moreover, there will be no confusion caused amongst the laity by debate on things like this, for they are both options rather than requirements.

So I really don't see these as good examples of 'cafeteria catholicism' at all, but rather an insistence on unthinking acceptance of them as an example of classic neo-con ultramontanism which views the bishops as autocratic law-makers accountable to no-one, rather than as safeguarders of the tradition handed down to them.

More fundamentally, these kind of practices do go to the very essence of the traddie vs neo-con divide.

Traditionalists take as their starting point the principle lex orandi lex credendi lex vivendi (loosely, the way we pray affects the what we believe and the way we live).

Most traditionalists - and many scholars (including neo-cons!)- would argue that changing basic practices such as allowing the laity to touch the Eucharist and/or chalice has been one of the key causes of two key heresies in particular that are common in our time, viz rejection of the essential nature of the ministerial priesthood, and transubstantiation.

In both cases they are essentially modern invented practices albeit justified when they were first introduced by claims of a return to early Church practice (archeologism?), claims that have since largely been debunked.

Moreover, in both cases they started as abuses that were subsequently legitimised.

Personally I find the various blog stories, mostly from conservative rather than traddie sources, of problems with Extraordinary Ministers (including clericalisation of the laity, improper giving out of 'blessings', etc) and sacrilege relating to the Eucharist pretty compelling evidence for the case to change these issues.

And since it is up to individual priests and bishops to make decisions on whether or not to allow communion in the hand (it is not a right) or to use extraordinary ministers,surely we all need to understand the pros and cons.

In fact these two practices are ones where I would have thought traditionalists and neo-conservatives could find common ground in campaigning for change in the rules on (not least given the examples of the current and previous Pope on giving communion on the tongue only).

Maureen said...

I'm old enough to remember the Mass when it first began to be offered in the vernacular; couldn't we just go back to that? - ad orientem, and the Epistle and Gospel in English - that was about as far as it went, in the beginning, and it was still reverent. Communion was received kneeling, and on the tongue.
At my local parish there is a pump-pack of hand sanitiser sitting on a corner of the altar......

It was at the point that truths I had held dear, and inherited from my beloved grandmother and father began to be discarded that I became angry - and kept away for many many years. I was truly dislocated.

Anonymous said...


You write about extraordinary ministers and communion in the hand in such a way as to suggest you aren't familiar with their problems. Unfortunately, neither is fully within the law of the Church - in the origin of the one and in the practice of the other.

Let me clarify first, however, that I am not a traditionalist but a traditional Catholic, by which I eschew the came nastiness Kate quite accurately describes. In fact, I find myself probably in full agreement with her without scrutinizing her text more closely.

Communion in the hand began as outright defiance by bishops in France. It spread quickly and Pope Paul VI, after some consultation with poor advisors, decided to grant an indult to the practice but ONLY in the countries where it had become a local custom (i.e. France, by the time he issued the indult).

The result, rather predictably, was that Church progressives seized on the indult intended for France only and applied it to themselves across the world. Paul VI failed to anticipate such an escalated level of disobedience, and did nothing more to stop it. With advisors like his he probably didn't know what could be done.

So, receiving Communion in the hand is borne out of arrogant and deliberate disobedience. This is why those of us with traditional leanings refuse to receive that way, and insist on receiving on the tongue and kneeling whenever possible.

Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion were conceived legitimately as far as I know, but
to SUPPLEMENT ONLY any shortage of ordained ministers which lengthen the time needed to distribute Communion without a hardship.

Please note the last time you saw Father Celebrant tell the EMHCs to stand down because he and the deacon can handle it without them.

Yet this is supposed to be how it occurs. I have attended plenty Masses here in the states with less than 100 communicants attended to by up to six sets of two EHMCs distributing the Sacred Body and the Precious Blood.

It seems the participation by the laity regardless of genuine need or Church law is a far greater value than obedience to ecclesial authority.

Both these continuing abuses cause great pain for those who routinely work at submitting to authority in humility - no easy feat for anyone, even Catholics. I hope I've been able to explain.

Phil Steinacker

Anonymous said...


I might add, therefore, that your claim that disputing the legitimacy of those two practices hardly constitutes cafeteria Catholicism.

Rather, those who persist in knowingly continuing in either, once appraised of their illegitimacy, may be more likely to be guilty of that charge.

Phil Steinacker

Anonymous said...


Thanks for this post. You have clearly stated exactly the same position to which I have arrived separately.

I have strong traditional leanings but am routinely put off by traddie blogs and sites, which is a tragic loss and not just for me.

The overall trad community - both the angry ones and those with a more even keel - like thee and me, perhaps? :-) - has been collecting, preserving, restoring, and guarding the vast treasures of the Church in liturgy, devotions, theology, and history out of true love and reverence for their true value and usefulness in rejuvenating the Church. It is a tragedy that their anger - much of which is understandable and sometimes even justified - has morphed into bitter resentment and terribly uncharitable treatment of those with whom they disagree.

That's why I find your post so refreshing, and in more ways than one. I have been an active member of a Catholic Charismatic Renewal prayer groups which meets weekly for over two years, even though I am still a little uncomfortable with hearing them pray in tongues.

However, praying and worshipping in tongues constitutes less than 1% of our group activities each night. A heavy emphasis and discussion on Scripture, followed by petitions and praise reports (of which there are plenty of the latter), private prayers for healing afterwards, and a quarterly healing Mass unite us.

Moreover, my closer friends there are slowly coming around to my repeated references to reverence and a sense of the Sacred, and lately there's been major headway regarding interest among these charismatics in the TLM.

One of them, a very good friend, joined me at a Solemn High Mass with polyphony at an Anglican Ordinariate church for the Feast of the Assumption, and was so blown away she intends to invite 4-5 others from this charismatic group to join us next time (All Saints or Immaculate Conception). She is also interested in the TLM.

Overall, I find the CCR folks much more open to the concepts of reverence, sacredness, mystery, awe, majesty and transcendence than neo-conservative, conservative, or progressive Catholics. I'll venture a guess that the reason is rooted somewhere in their constant reading of Scripture and the language found in Praise and Worship music, which would not be appropriate in the TLM but replacing the failed profane music common to the Novus Ordo would be a step in the direction of increased holiness.

I hope you continue to explore practical ways traditional Catholics of all stripes can find common ground with other Catholics and build alliances with them. Ongoing discussion about the methods tried and dispassionate analysis of any failure is an essential component of any such effort. I look forward to your leadership on these fronts :-).

Phil Steinacker
Baltimore, Maryland

Maureen said...

Anonymous: I am no longer angry! - and to understand my position I think you have to understand that not ALL of my family was Catholic. I was raised Catholic by my father and grandmother, but my mother - and by extension, half of my extended family - was Jewish.So I am steeped in both traditions, unapologetically so.
My point was that Jewish observances never changed, radically or otherwise, there was no discarding of centuries - millennia - of ties and Tradition.
When the Catholic Church began to uproot altar rails and discard so much of what I had been taught as a child was absolute truth - that's when I became angry.
The pendulum has begun to swing now.

John L said...

There is a common although unspoken line of thinking that I believe underlies most criticism of traditionalists as bitter, uncharitable, etc. It runs like this:

"Traditionalists attack practice X as wrong, irreverent, or offensive to God.

But I engage in practice X.

Therefore, traditionalists are claiming that my behaviour is wrong, irreverent, offensive to God, etc.

But such a claim is hurtful and uncharitable to me.

Therefore, traditionalists are hurtful and uncharitable."

The trouble with this line of thinking is that it rules out any criticism of any activity engaged in by anyone at all.

However, it does point to a difficulty in the proposed alliance between traditionalists and neocons. The essential content of traditionalism itself involves criticism of some activities that neocons find acceptable and engage in. These include communion in the hand Eucharistic ministers, and the Novus Ordo itself. The traditional liturgy has never been proposed by traditionalists simply as an acceptable option; the Novus Ordo itself has been attacked as bad, by the main traditionalist thinkers: Cardinal Ottaviani, Michael Davies, (and one should add Joseph Ratzinger, although the latter is not a traditionalist). The neocons are right in attacking traditionalists to this extent; they see that the traditionalist position is a condemnation of themselves and their behaviour. There is no point in dreaming of some tactical alliance between trads and neocons, given this fact.

Kate Edwards said...

John - While I agree that neo-cons squirm (or worse) when we discuss why the NO is inferior or why certain practices undermine the faith, I really don't think that is what most are objecting to when they talk about uncharitable comments, bitterness etc.

The problem is the ad hominems - the attacks ascribing all sorts of nefarious motives to people, and going for the throat on (irrelevant) personal characteristics of people.

None of this is particular to traddies of course - personally I've received some doozies from extremists at both ends of the spectrum.

But one only has to read the combox of the main traddie blog on certain topics to understand the nature of the problem in my view.

As to the scope for alliance, it depends on whether either side is prepared to compromise at all. Personally I believe the EF is far superior and will eventually supplant the NO.

But that doesn't mean I think the NO can or should be suppressed overnight (we've had one round of that style of liturgical change and I don't think payback is the way to go!). A sensible trajectory seems to me to support 'reform of the reform' even while acknowledging that it will only take us part of the way.

And the reality is that in many places there are already sensible neocon traddie alliances operating, in dual rite parishes, in some shared churches, in traddie support for sympathetic religious orders such as the Missionaries of Charity and the Franciscans of the Immaculate and much more.