He who learns must suffer, and, even in our sleep, pain that we cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God. - Aeschylus

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

The Other Side: The War of the Traditionalists

I was born about 20 years after the Second Vatican Council closed in 1965, so I wasn't around when the controversies began to whirl during that era of the Catholic Church.  And I didn't enter into full communion with the Catholic Church until the late 1990s, so my exposure to the Catholic Church in the United States came quite a while after the purportedly wilder times of the 60s and 70s.  I was hit by quite a different problem in the Church: the revelation of the extent of the sexual abuse crisis in the decades following Vatican II (and my anger over that is a story for another day).

This is probably part of why the reactions to Vatican II among many of those who were around during the 60s and 70s is so baffling to me.  I just wasn't there and didn't choose a side in the heat of the moment as the counterculture's wave was cresting.  I have the benefit of hindsight and critical distance, which the people who were in the Catholic Church at that time did not have.

They were forced to decide as the battle was joined, a notoriously difficult time to see clearly and make the best decisions.  I've made many bad decisions in those types of situations, so I can empathize with those who later changed their minds and admitted their behavior at the time was not very good.  Bishop Gracida is a good example of this humility of spirit which allows us to own our past mistakes and resolve to correct them going forward.

And Bishop Gracida is certainly not the only one to have misgivings about the liturgical innovations that spread rapidly after the Second Vatican Council.  There were many, most notably Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, who had serious concerns about the direction of the Council when it was beginning, not just after it had happened and their mistakes were apparent.  Some of them rejected Vatican II as heretical, and others were just worried about Council fathers laying the foundation for future heresy.

Some were concerned that, while Vatican II documents contained no heresy and didn't lead to heresy, there were plenty of politically progressive Catholics who would be happy to use it as cover for their heresies that were a result of imposing their political views on the Church so that it would "get with the times."  In an interesting twist, those who wanted the Church to get with the times are in many cases now clinging rigidly to the times with which they wanted the Church to get, holding it back from getting with the new times.

They don't want to give up their manufactured "liturgical dance" performances for the stillness of contemplative prayer recommended by the Saints and Doctors of the Church, nor do they want to abandon their folksy guitar Masses for the chant prescribed by Vatican II.  And when young people who want to use American trance or house electronic music, or European melodic metal, want their preferred music in the Mass, then how urgent do they think it is to get with the times?  Not very, in my experience.

And despite the fact that Gregorian chant is extremely popular, surprisingly so among young people, are these "get with the times" leaders of the Church in a hurry to make sure it is sung at Mass?  No.  Just as the pre-Vatican II Traditionalists want to keep things as they are even if it means disobedience to the Church and not keeping up with current trends, the post-Vatican II Traditionalists want to keep things as they are even if it means disobedience to the Church and not keeping up with current trends.

The pathology that is often (though not always) present in traditional Catholic circles is the tendency to cling to the liturgy of a particular time and place rather than allowing the Church in her wisdom to participate in the constant renewal of the Christian life through the liturgy.  Which is not to say that the hierarchy of the Church has been perfectly clear and coherent, because it has frequently been neither in the last few decades especially.

To err is human, so this should not be surprising, and we should pick ourselves back up, ask God's forgiveness, and keep seeking Him.  And the situation is generally more complicated than it appears, as this excellent article in First Things explains as it tells the story of the post-Vatican II era.  The pre-Vatican II Traditionalists and the post-Vatican II Traditionalists would like to point fingers at one another and insist that the other side is in the wrong on a number of important matters.

For myself, I agree with both of them; they have definitely been wrong about some very important matters.  And I've been wrong on many important matters myself (a situation that's likely to continue indefinitely), so I know that the best thing to do is admit it when the weight of the evidence suggests that you're wrong.  After admitting it, then it's time to correct our behaviors, but that admission of guilt comes first.

When we can stop looking at our brother's guilt long enough to examine our own, this becomes much more possible.  At that point, the war over liturgical praxis and theology between the pre-Vatican II Traditionalists and the post-Vatican II Traditionalists might reach a cease-fire.  Maybe, if we're very fortunate, a peace accord.

It's what I have to hope for, not for my own sake, but for the sake of a Church that needs the gifts of both groups without their pathologies and pride tagging along with them.  At this point, it doesn't matter who started the war.  We need to end it with Christian love for the sake of future generations and for our own.

Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4765715


  1. As an outsider looking at the Church, it's difficult to take a side on these issues. I can't help but wonder if many of the liturgical faux pas are able to slip through the cracks because of more fundamental issues that are being given pastoral priority, such as: the broken state of the family (divorces and remarriages/irregular unions becoming the norm, such that a great number of persons cannot licitly receive Communion because of their living situation); the great exodus of Catholics away from the sacrament of reconciliation; the refusal of many to submit to Church social teaching of the most basic sort (especially regarding the fifth and sixth commandments of the Decalogue) and so on. At least those who are debating about the issues you mentioned are grounded in the same sacraments and are the ones who are there, week by week and day by day, trying to lift up Jesus Christ the crucified. Does all this justify rebellion in small things? Undoubtedly not, but there are millions of Catholics who are out there doing a lot worse than playing the wrong instruments--some are operating out of a worldview that is more influenced by secular western thought than by the Gospel, and deny one Church teaching after another--not minor points of doctrine, mind you, but even things that are considered grave matter. I doubt that many of them are well catechized or even attend Mass regularly, but they do represent a considerable constituent of souls that weigh heavily on the pastoral heart of the Church.

  2. Jack, that's a very charitable view of the pastors and their flock, and I have to commend you for that. It's certainly true that many priests tend to take the view that the broken state of the family, the exodus away from the sacraments, and the refusal to submit to Church teaching are the bigger pastoral priorities, which causes them to leave the liturgical issues mostly alone while they focus on the bigger problems. And that's perfectly understandable. There are also priests who manage to do both, and these are not necessarily the priests with more resources, more time, or more social capital. My current pastor manages to make both of those areas a priority very effectively while having two parishes by himself, for example. By and large, both these groups of priests are just doing the best they can, and I sympathize with them. There are others with whom I sympathize less, such as the post-Vatican II Traditionalists who insist that we need to make very sure that guitar Masses and liturgical dance can happen, but in the confessional won't deal with the situations you mentioned even they are brought up, either because they think everyone's going to heaven anyway or those things are not actually sinful. These priests often share a portion of the blame for the fact that so many Catholics are so poorly catechized and don't see any point in attending Mass. On the other side of it, there are some pre-Vatican II Traditionalists who will fight tooth and nail to make sure that Masses are said in Latin and cassocks are worn in the liturgy, but are perfectly happy to publicly support the death penalty for lots of crimes and put heavy penances on those who need mercy so that they can be catechized, putting ideology above Church teaching and helping people to return to Her. Part of the difficulty is that these issues of ideology over Church teaching and liturgical preference over obedience and baptized Catholics leaving the sacraments and the Mass and getting divorces at prodigious rates are connected. Not that the post-Vatican II Traditionalists or the pre-Vatican II Traditionalists are entirely to blame, but their behaviors (like my own sometimes) have helped people abandon the Church for the lures of the many comforts of secularism. I'm happy to work on my errors so that I can bring people into the Church rather than pushing them out the door into the arms of consumer culture. That's just part of living the Christian life more effectively so that we lift others up to Heaven. And I sincerely hope that we can all work on our errors and bring people into the Church, but that means admitting one's errors, and that's something Traditionalists in the sense I was using the term for the purposes of this post are not often willing to do precisely because of their ideological attachments. So as someone who stands outside of their binary opposition to one another, I'm hoping my voice can be a credible one to help them start that process.

  3. I appreciate your introspection in the issue, Sam, there are many who are so outwardly focused on what others are doing wrong that they never look at themselves to see how their own attitudes and actions might be contributing to a situation. We will never bring the healing of Christ to the world until we wage war against our own faults before trying to correct those of others.