The Case for Traditionalism


tridentineVanity of vanities; all is vanity.”  These words begin the sayings of the Qoheleth, or as the English audience know it, the book of Ecclesiastes.  While many might view this book as a rather obscure book of the Old Testament, the great novelist Thomas Wolfe viewed Ecclesiastes as “the greatest single piece of writing I have ever known”.

What makes the work so interesting is the way in which our world is quite similar to his.  The book struggles with the same questions we ask ourselves:  what is the point of our existence?  Why do things happen as they do?  While lamenting the state of the world, the preacher gives the following diagnosis for our troubles:

What is it that hath been? The same thing that shall be. What is it that hath been done? The same that shall be done. Nothing under the sun is new, neither is any man able to say: Behold this is new: for it hath already gone before in the ages that were before us.  There is no remembrance of former things: nor indeed of those things which hereafter are to come, shall there be any remembrance with them that shall be in the latter end.  (Eccl 1:9-11)

For the preacher, ignorance of the past is at the root of all folly.  Since we don’t remember the past, we think we have come upon this great idea that will solve everything.  We moderns think we can find a grand unified theory of everything that allows us to transcend all those little petty problems previous generations struggled with.  If we had paid attention to what came before us, we would have a little more modesty, since thousands of years of incredibly intelligent minds were vexed by many of the same problems we are vexed by today.

Important as this wisdom is, I believe there is another deeper understanding that is especially relevant for us Catholics today.  The “former things” we do not remember is what we were made for:  we were made for heaven.   Heaven is our true destination, and God is our first love.  Like the Church at Ephesus, we have forgotten this.  (Rev 1:4)  When we remember the former thing that is our true destination, the affairs of the world are indeed vain and pointless distractions which keep us from the true path we follow to heaven, to love God and obey the commandments.  (Eccl 12:13)

This message is one urgently needed for the Church today, especially in America.  Dr. Ralph Martin of Sacred Heart Seminary and Renewal Ministries speaks of an “institutional collapse” in the American Church.  In many ways, America is finally catching up to her European brethren.  From forming “Intentional Disciples” to promoting “Evangelical Catholicism”, some of the greatest minds in the American Church have offered proposals for how to make this message relevant.  Everyone agrees that while the gates of hell will not prevail against the Church, that doesn’t mean the Church will always be as strong as it should be.  Right now the Church is under withering assault from a worldliness which seeks to transform the Church into something she is not:  just another do-gooder institution, or as Pope Francis put it, a “church as NGO.”

Over the past few years, we have seen a reversal of this trend in certain areas of the Church.  In these quarters parishes are flourishing and seminaries are bursting at the seams with vocations.  It is one of the great success stories of the Church today, and it is something that the Catholic commentariat in America has almost completely ignored.  This story is being written by a group of Catholics loosely affiliated with each other calling themselves Traditionalists.  While you will get several definitions of what makes a traditionalist, I believe that at its best, a robust traditionalism attempts to provide an answer for how to follow God and the commandments in a world (and sadly even within the Church) which largely ignores God.

When this issue has been discussed in the past (especially online), it has been done with a very acidic fashion.  Everyone proclaims themselves more Catholic than the other, insults like “radical traditionalist” and “Neo-Catholic” is spewed, making it nearly impossible to discuss these issues intelligently.  I’d like to try something different.  This column will not propose that in order to be the best Catholic, you have to act like we traditionalists.  If you accept the faith undefiled, frequent the sacraments, appreciate an ordered and reverent liturgy, call yourself what you want, I will call you my ally.  Just because the Dominicans are the order of preachers doesn’t mean you can’t find a greater preacher outside their ranks.  Likewise, there are those who aren’t traditionalists who are faithful to the traditions of our fathers.  What makes us traditionalists is how we carry out that goal.  While many times our success stories will overlap with those of other Catholics, there is no denying that there are certain things which are particular to everyone who calls themselves a traditionalist.   This column will examine what those things are that comprise traditionalism at its best.  I hope the readers of Catholic Lane will join us on this journey.  There is a great story to tell in the traditionalist movement:  let us tell it in humility yet with zeal.


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  • Cfish

    I’m not sure how much of an overlap there is between the term ‘traditionalist’ and ‘orthodox’ but I would say that while there are two traditions ‘tradition’ and ‘TRADITION’. We are all obligated to the later in order to be right ordered and consider ourselves ‘orthodox’. Anyone not wanting to follow the faith of our fathers is lying when they say ‘I believe in one holy catholic and APOSTOLIC church’.

    • I hope to go into that overlap a bit more later.
      For now….

      Apostolic Tradition: that which doesn’t change, all Catholics agree on.

      Ecclesial Tradition: things which can (and sometimes must) change, yhet you better have a darn good reason. Had we followed that principle a bit more during the liturgical reforms following the Council, we probably would’ve avoided several decades of rather pointless turmoil.

      The same with the current debate about celibacy. Sure, you could change it tomorrow. Yet if you think this will suddenly lead to a surge in vocations, or the quality of seminarians/priests will increase, I would argue such a person is going to be disappointed. I’d even say don’t be surprised if the quality DECREASES.

      • Kevin Symonds

        cf. CCC 83

  • Deb. Thurston OCDS

    Does “traditionalist” mean Latin Mass is a sine qua non? I will defend to the death the right to worship with “smells and bells, Latin and lace”, but readily admit that is not my preference. I belong to an African-American parish with a Nigerian pastor, and we have drums and dancing, which is traditional in West African culture. I’ve followed this blog from time to time, but this is the first time I’ve had the gumption to comment. I think that your idea is tremendous.

  • KTPC

    My experience with traditionalists is entirely limited to the internet, but what I have seen has left me extremely disgusted. The author of this, however, is certainly an exception, as I have seen from his blog…but as far as I can tell, on the internet at least, when I picture a traditionalist I get from there, I picture someone who calls all those who attend the Novus Ordo Mass Neo-Catholics, who insults every Pope after Vatican I on a regular basis and twists their words and actions into the worst possible sense, who accuses priests who don’t regularly preach about how everyone who uses contraception is going to hell modernists (i.e. accuses them of heresy, which modernism is), who is obsessed with judging others for not wearing the right clothes to Mass…and most of all, anti-semitism of the worst kind. Anyone who thinks I am exaggerating should check out Fish Eaters or Rorate Caeli. Their may be moderate traditionalists out there somewhere, but I can only go by my experience, and that has been irrevocably tainted by the things I have seen to the point that I can sympathize with Bishops who don’t want the Latin Mass in their diocese if it is going to embolden these sorts of people

    • You see, that’s your mistake. You base your assesment off what you see on the internet. 🙂 Seriously, the internet brings the worst out of people, even those who are ordinarily nice individuals. Some of those people on the comboxes I actually know ona personal level, and they never act like that outside the comboxes.

      Almost no Catholic in the flesh is an arrogant jerk like Mark Shea the blogger, and that includes Mark Shea the person. Listen to Tim Staples speak about traditionalists on Catholic Answers Live and he absolutely seethes with rage, barely able to contain himself. Talk to him about it in person (which I did years ago in a one-off discussion he probably doesn’t remember in addition to even knowing who I am) and you find someone quite different. Certainly passionate, but not what listeners of those two horrible radio episodes would expect.

      Heck even I get a little too focused on the polemics online, and nobody would see me in that when they know the Kevin who is at their church socials.

      Really, the internet is a horrible judge of character, and has a corrosive influence that must be battled even amongst good people.

      I really wouldn’t consider myself a “moderate” traditionalist. On some issues, I’m probably more “traditional” than the internet crowd (I find the view of biblical studies amongst internet trads flagrantly violating tradition), and on some issues less. (I still think I’m the only traditionalist publicly who has a column dedicated to the Theology of the Body.) I can also understand a lot of why those individuals are bitter, because I experienced a bishop persecuting loyal trads just for teh lulz before Summorum Pontificum. Time and penance heals those wounds.

      I also think I am a pretty typical traditionalist in most of your Latin Mass centers. A lot of people on all sides profit off the idea that traditionalists are different and have different problems than the average Catholic parish. The only way to find that out? Don’t look to the internet, and don’t look to what others tell you what traditionalists believe or are. Read the bloggers themselves, not their comboxes. And most importantly, come visit us. If not for Mass, then for our socials or a lot of our events. Depending on your area, I could probably give you quite a few references.



      • Kevin Symonds

        Can you clarify: Do you think Shea is an arrogant man both on the Internet and person, or one/the other?

        • The few interactions I’ve had with Shea in private have been mostly positive, even when it got heated once. On blogs I think things get a bit nastier, but that’s the rancour of internet discourse. Especially when you got people hurling every kind of insult towards you. So it becomes easy to fight back.