Traditionalism, Humility, and the Prophetic Voice


francis-benedict-iconHello William,

I thank you for your questions.  They are going to be tough to give a comprehensive answer to given current limitations, but I’ll try to cover what I can.

We must begin with the usual caveat that I am only speaking for Kevin Tierney.  John Allen is known for saying that the number one rule for covering “The Vatican” is that “The Vatican” doesn’t exist.  Instead, we have numerous Curial departments headed by people with their own agenda and vision for things, and these can and do lead to wildly different conclusions.  I do not know what the “goal” of every traditionalist is; only what my own goals are.  What I do think I can do is speak from a shared experience that many traditionalists have gone through, and that shared experience can give us some idea of where we need to go.

For that reason, when asked what the “goal” of traditionalism is, I can’t really give an answer.  A goal assumes an end game, where the struggle would end.  While some in the past have said there would be some theoretical time everyone “returns to tradition” and we would no longer be trads, just everyone is Catholic, I think people have dropped that sophomoric understanding for the most part.  There will always be a need in the Church for the prophetic voice that traditionalism provides.  Like the Old Testament, in times of crisis and renewal, prophets came to remind the people to, in the present, return to the God of their past (their tradition), so that the future may be different.  Such a call is always valid and needed.  If you really look at it, that’s what traditionalists are advocating in a nutshell.  We might not be ordained prophets (there are no more) but by our baptism we are anointed prophet.

In regards to what else I think we traditionalists should demand, I could list a sweeping chronicle of reforms the Church needs to embrace, but I doubt they would do much good.  While I’m generally known for my optimism as a traditionalist, in truth I’m a pessimist here.  Reverting to the Latin Mass entirely would do little, because there is something deeper than the Latin Mass.  Likewise, force a bunch of traditionalist priests to say only the Ordinary Form (a policy the Church once used and admitted was a bad idea),  and their parishes would look a lot like what they do today.

If I have to give a starting point of reform, it would be for people to embrace humility.  In today’s Church, it is accepted as an article of faith that there is the substance of the faith which cannot change, and everything else about the faith which can and must change.  It is a true statement, and there is much to sympathize with it.

Yet I think we should also sympathize that this claim is a lot harder to execute in reality than it is to dream up in a meeting of ivory tower bishops.  For the overwhelming majority of Catholics, the faith is not some intellectual abstraction, and rightly so.  The faith and that which transmits the faith share an intimate connection you cannot easily change, nor should you.  Embracing this humility probably would have saved us from the majority of the 1970’s and the disaster that was October’s Synod on the Family.

To give just one example, the Pope has expressed displeasure at the current prohibition of civilly remarried Catholics from being godparents.  He finds the regulation cruel and excluding of people from parish life.  Why is this important?  The role of godparent is not a gold star or a participation sticker we give to anyone.  You become a godparent because you are supposed to be the individual who plays a special role in forming that child in the Gospel, including the doctrines of the Church.  Can you really do that while openly dissenting from a major staple of not just Catholic moral teaching, but Catholic social teaching as well?  (Remove the indissoluble bond of marriage from Catholic social teaching and it makes no sense.)  I’m sure in a certain intellectual abstraction you could.  How often does this translate into reality?  Given the difficulties it is to be a faithful godparent while being a faithful Catholic, what about those who live in situations objectively opposed to the moral teaching of the Church?

If fidelity no longer matters, why go to a dissenting Catholic?  Why not go to a moral Protestant, or even a moral atheist?  Or since a civilly remarried Catholic is in an adulterous relationship, why not someone guilty of far greater public sins?  While in the end people will choose who they will choose, should the Church really be encouraging this?  Furthermore, if fidelity to moral teaching isn’t much of a barrier towards godparents, why should it be a barrier towards anything else?  Should we drop all standards of requirements for Catholic teachers and catechists?  What else should we drop?  Why should fidelity matter here but not there?

I’m not saying change should never happen, or that these questions cannot be answered.  I am however saying the relationship between orthopraxy and orthodoxy has a far more nuanced link than many Catholics today are willing to admit.  Nor am I saying the Pope or anyone who disagrees with me dissents from Church teaching.  It’s clear the Pope believes and assents to Church teaching.  The question is:  what should we put in place of that custom/discipline he wants to set aside?  How do we communicate the faith to make up for what we lost by striking the former custom/discipline down?  Vague platitudes to holiness and better catechesis aren’t a solution, they are a gimmick, and we have enough gimmicks in Catholicism already today.

I’m hoping to return to some of the questions you asked before when it is my turn to ask questions, so for now this will have to suffice.  I’d say the point I outlined is where traditionalism is at its strongest, and offers something the Church badly needs in this troubled time:  a keen understanding of our limits.  Only when you understand your own limitations can you embark on a truly successful reform.

[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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  • goral

    If a picture paints a thousand words than this one paints a thousand questions. This is what the modernists want us to accept. Heather has two mommies and the Bride of Christ has two daddies. Which one do we call Papa and which of them is the “bishop in white”. A bishop doesn’t wear a white cassock, the pope does. In this scenario, one pope speaks, the other remains silent. It’s only working in a convoluted way with a convoluted and corrupt Curia.
    For one, the traditionalists don’t want to be the children of two daddies.