“I praised the dead rather than the living, and I judged him happier than both that is not yet born, who has not seen the evils done under the sun.” (Eccl 4:4) In this statement, the Qoheleth offers much wisdom for todays Catholics, especially traditionalists. While at face value his words are a lamentation of the misery of this life on earth, I think we can have another meaning. We can express hope that those not yet born will not be impacted by the grudges and the pettiness we currently have.
I think the younger generation of Catholics, especially traditionalists (of which I am one) have this. Ten to fifteen years ago, traditionalists debated with their contemporaries in opposing camps whether or not there really was much of a crisis in the Church to begin with. The standard line was things weren’t optimal, but a little bit of tinkering at the edges, and implementing “the real Vatican II” would fix everything. Few argue this today, and even fewer in public. Dr. Ralph Martin sounds like the most strident of traditionalists when he speaks of the crisis in the Church. Now that we mostly agree that there is a crisis, and it really is pretty bad out there, we can devote more time towards actually addressing it, rather than arguing over whether or not it exists.
Another debate that dominated the traditionalist discussion was over the Second Vatican Council. The debate was seldom over whether or not the documents taught formal heresy. Most of the action came from alleged ambiguities in the conciliar documents, and the problems associated with said ambiguities. 15 years ago the debate raged between prominent publications over these topics. If you stated you believed the council had ambiguities in it, and as a result you needed to interpret it in line with tradition, you were suspected by many in the American commentariat of being a “radical traditionalist.”
This kind of debate has mostly ceased as well thanks to the Pontificate of Benedict XVI. He forcefully emphasized reading Vatican II in line with tradition, and condemned the “council of the media” for presenting a “hermeneutic of rupture” in the documents, rather than the hermeneutic of continuity. Individuals like Walter Cardinal Kasper (one perceived to be a leading “progressive”) freely admit that the conciliar documents are full of ambiguities, and that some of them were intentionally inserted since they couldn’t come to a clear consensus on matters. To anyone who studies history, you find this sort of thing happens all the time. A global church with varying interests moves slowly, and agrees on things even slower. It does so through numerous compromise statements interpreted within tradition over decades and centuries, if not more. As a result of these plain facts of history, Bishop Athanasius Schneider (one perceived to be a friend of traditionalists) believes it is wise for Rome to issue a formal clarification laying out the hermeneutic of continuity. The consensus here is wide.
Most of the debate in the print and online world surrounding traditionalism the past 15 years has mainly revolved around these issues, in addition to the status of the SSPX: a situation which has also substantially changed but is a subject for another time. Certain publications may want to continue this status quo, but people on both sides should reject it. Instead, Catholics should move forward with what really matters. We shouldn’t debate over whether or not Vatican II was heretical (Mother Church has made it clear you can’t argue that), but instead we should have a real frank discussion over what worked and what didn’t in the Council, and what else we can do. The majority of her reforms were pastoral in nature. Just as the Church had the authority to change from the previous practices, so she possesses the authority to change the current ones. Some pastoral reforms from councils are long-lasting, sometimes they are not. Can anyone name any reforms from the Second Lateran Council that stay with us today which are important?
We should also be having discussions about things that have happened since then which the Council clearly didn’t anticipate. When the decree on religious liberty was written, it was written when Europe was mainly Christian in her people if not their governments. Today’s europe is almost entirely apostate, so faithless that two Popes have promoted a “new evangelization” to once again bring Christianity to its lands. The model of the United States that so impressed a lot of the theologians is not the model of conservatives pushing a hardcore secular capitalism combined with liberals advocating a culture of death and the HHS mandate. Many American thinkers who once proposed a “Catholic moment” where Catholicism dominated the conservative movement are now clearly expressing different ideas.
A lot of this is new territory that appeals to Vatican II cannot directly answer. While we might not need a Third Vatican Council, we can no longer treat the Council as some “Super-Council” from which a new Church is built. Rather, Vatican II must join the 20 other Ecumenical Councils which had orthodox teaching when it specifically dealt with doctrine (read in line with tradition), some good ideas for reform, and others that were best left either untried or jettisoned.
This landscape isn’t perfect, but it is a landscape far more favorable to traditionalists (especially here in America) then what existed before. Within this framework we can put forth our principles as the ones which will best bring about the reform of the Church we all desperately seek. It is also a harder terrain for those who are active foes of traditionalists. Their goal has been to marginalize the movement by impugning heretical thoughts and “quasi-schismatic” motives and intentions to traditionalist concerns. This is not the landscape of the generations immediately before us, and for that we should be eternally grateful. This is not only a terrain we can fight on, this is a terrain we can win real victories on.