Can Traditionalism Function in the Modern Church?


Latin massMr. Bornhoft,

I thank you for your response to my letter. I think, after reading it, you should revisit some of the claims you originally made. At most, they are colloquial expressions made by a few writers which don’t hold up to theological scrutiny, something which isn’t that shocking when you look at most of what is printed within the Catholic blogosphere. More than anything else, I think some of your clarifications should also be joined with an increased attempt to know and understand traditionalists, so that some of these clarifications won’t be needed in the future.

You are certainly correct that there are those who promote rejecting the liturgical reform with rejecting the Second Vatican Council. My only question is:  how often are you going to find such a person in the parish? Even the calls for a complete rejection of the Council are mostly in just sedevacantist quarters. For better or worse, if you survey those in parishes, they accept Vatican II happened, and that it wasn’t heretical. That doesn’t mean they think it was a good idea, or that all of the changes which were made are good changes. This is a completely normal sentiment and it is standard behavior for Catholics throughout the centuries.

While ecumenical councils are a big deal, they are typically just answering a set of questions that leads to the next ecumenical council. The Christological Councils of the early Church answered one question only to cause another to be asked. The Four Lateran Councils were primarily dealing with clerical discipline, and it took over a century to arrive at a general consensus surrounding the appointment and behavior of clerics. Vatican I was ended prematurely and was picked up by Vatican II. Even singular councils like Trent took two centuries to implement throughout the entire Church.

While some ecumenical councils launch a process which takes centuries, others are regarded as footnotes in history. Some are even understood to be failures. If not for Photius becoming the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople later, few would have paid attention to the Fourth Council of Constantinople which deposed him. For the average Catholic during that time (including many of her most prominent saints), they paid little attention to the inside baseball of the Photian Schism and the Council surrounding it. The Council of Florence is remembered mostly as a sad failure, since its stated goal did not materialize. Given such a backdrop, are the struggles being encountered by Vatican II really that surprising? Is it surprising that there are those who are still attempting, after 50 years, to properly define the Council? One can go ahead and ask throughout the parishes if they think Vatican II was a heretical council, or if they think it was a council that must be read in light with tradition. The latter is the position of the Church, and the position of a majority of traditionalists, whether or not Vatican II was the greatest thing since sliced bread.

I would say this is more important than whatever one believes about certain narratives that surround the Council, but let us speak briefly upon them. You feel it is important to emphasize that the Council was not a product of the cultural changes sweeping the world in the 50’s and 60’s. I can sympathize with this sentiment. That I can sympathize with it does not change the fact it’s wrong and misguided.

The Second Vatican Council did not happen in a vacuum, nor was it interpreted in isolation from broader trends of the time. This is especially true in manners of the liturgical reform. It cannot be denied that many in the Consilium had an agenda, and that agenda was not shared by even the majority of the Council Fathers. They also relied on rather specious historical knowledge (such as the now false belief that the early Church celebrated Mass versus populum in her churches) to justify some of these changes. While not questioning the legality of such reforms, I think we can safely say many of the moves which were motivated by an agenda were a disaster for the Church in the West.

While we should avoid over-interpreting this evidence, we shouldn’t have a problem acknowledging its existence. The solution to such is simply to point out that the agendas of the liturgical reformers were not the final word, and that indeed, the liturgical reform called for by the Second Vatican Council is something that is still ongoing today. A traditionalism that operates within this framework need not fear this debate, it is one we can win, and the Church will be better off for it. Ecumenical councils are bigger than the agendas of those who implement them, but we shouldn’t be afraid of history in attempting to understand these events.

You conclude your piece with a question, and I think it is a very important one. Indeed, I think it is something that traditionalists are still debating amongst themselves. What is our relationship to those Catholics who are not of European descent, especially in regards to liturgical celebrations? A large majority of these are Eastern Catholics who celebrate according to their own liturgical discipline. This is an interesting part of the discussion in and of itself, but unfortunately beyond the scope of this present discussion. Suffice it to say that amongst the younger generation of traditionalists, the relationship with Eastern Catholicism (at least on our side) is far more hopeful than in the past. After watching our traditions get suppressed de facto by popes and prelates, there should be greater sympathy towards Eastern Catholics who had their own traditions and customs suppressed or diluted by popes and prelates. (I think here of the recently lifted imposition of clerical celibacy of Eastern prelates in Roman Catholic lands.)

Now what about those lands, such as Africa, which have mostly received the European tradition, but have developed a voice of their own within Catholicism? On that question, I would simply encourage them to find their voice, but to do so within the universal Catholic understanding. When one looks at what we traditionalists advocate in the liturgy, it is false to say we are merely advocating European custom. Saying Mass Ad Orientem is not a Roman custom, for our Eastern brethren do it likewise.  It is a universal custom, based on solid liturgical theology. The same with male altar service and a host of other traditions we advocate. I don’t think these are contrary to the voice African Catholicism presents. Indeed, they defend a lot of the same customs, and seldom does a visiting priest from Africa not sympathize with our understanding of the liturgy.

I would also appeal to our African brethren to continue celebrating the Extraordinary For, as an increasing number do. Priests who celebrated the Latin Mass gave them the gospel, so it is not contrary to their identity as Christians. If they want to celebrate the Ordinary Form, that is of course their right and their choice. That they make this choice in no way implies that any of us cannot advocate that the celebration of the Ordinary Form be brought into better harmony and continuity with the Extraordinary Form and the other liturgical uses of the 20 Catholic Churches in communion with the Bishop of Rome. That unity in diversity is important is not disputed today.  What the unity in diversity consists of is however still very much open to debate.




[editor’s note: this letter is part of a series on the role of traditionalists within the Church today. Read the entire discussion here.]


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  • Terri K

    I have found this exchange to be very enriching. Thanks!

    Please define “versus populum.”

    I know what “Ad Orientum” means, but likely many other readers do not.

    This discourse, liturgical reform, is of great interest to me. I’m kind of a newbie at it, however. I’d like to continue to encourage those with more developed theological minds than mine (speaking to the authors in this exchange as well as those who leave comments) to be mindful of the terms used. All too often these discussions come across as esoteric and therefore inaccessible to people who might be otherwise interested. This subject matter deserves the widest consideration it can get. Giving a brief explanation of Latin terms would be welcome as well as other background info where appropriate.

    • Versus Populum is Mass said facing the people where the priest goes behind a free standing altar to face us as he says the Mass. This is different from Ad Orientem where the priest “faces east”, and where this isn’t possible (most modern Churches) it means saying Mass facing the tabernacle/crucifix, facing the same direction as the congregation. This was the liturgical position from AT LEAST the 5th/6th century in both East and West, with both Western Traditionalists as well as Eastern Catholics claiming it is far more ancient.

      It’s never been mandated as the way priests must say Mass (the OF church I go to doesn’t, and more famously Karl Keating frequently reminds people the parish he attends has Mass said Ad Orientem exclusively) but it became the overwhelming preference during the 60’s and 70’s, and a big reason for this was the liturgical scholars of the day believed that the earliest Christians celebrated Mass versus populum.

      That understanding has been effectively demolished by more modern liturgical scholarship, and as Cardinal Ratzinger, he stated in Spirit of the Liturgy that one of, if not the, worst idea in the liturgical reform was versus populum, as it changed a ton of the symbolism about the nature of the Mass, of the priest, the people, etc.

      • Terri K

        Thanks for clarifying the terms.

        As a generally objective observer with little background in the theology of the matter, I agree 100% that much of the symbolism was damaged or lost by the priest’s facing the people. It ranks right up there with not kneeling while silently receiving Eucharist on the tongue as the priest intercedes for the faithful. It’s a tragic loss in both cases. Those who have never attended the Traditional Latin Mass literally don’t know what they’re missing.

        • Guy McClung

          a Eucharistic happy-clappy let’s-worship-ourselves get together on a Sunday morn has nothing to hold people in a mysterious group called the Mystical Body Of Christ. There is better music and even more clapping just down the street. As you pray so you believe-no wonder so many no longer believe the truths of the one true Church, or even hang around.

          • Philip Sieve

            rThete are those who take ttditionalism too far, but those who. complain about them should take the board from their own eyes. Since Vatican 2, I bet more have left in their hearts, if not to other churches, religions or their egos and what has been done, besides writing and talking gas been done to bring about reverence in mist dioceses? Ecumenism seems all they wanted to accomplish. We need to be approved of by the other faiths as much as doctrine allows.