Traditionalists and Hard Realities


St. Peter statueFor the average layman, much, if not the vast majority of discussions about Catholic traditionalists, Vatican II, and the Reform of the Reform, exists solely online and in the realm of the Catholic zeitgeist. Yet from time to time, we Americans are privy to a real-life disputes amongst the various factions of Catholics.

All politics is local, and that goes for Catholic politics as well.

These kind of disputes follow a common narrative. A traditionalist-leaning clergy member is brought into a parish, and begins instituting various liturgical and sacramental changes. Often it is new policies banning Eucharistic ministers, girl altar servers, and casual apparel at Mass. Are these policies reasonable? Perhaps, perhaps not. It doesn’t really matter. What matters is a toxic mix of undiplomatic clergy and uncatechized laity leaves the parish community in disarray.

Many long-time members leave. And not just the parish, but the Catholic Church entirely. Eventually, a friendship priests and the faithful laity who remain fosters, and wounds heal. But not after very serious financial and spiritual damage.

This is what happened in St. Mary’s Parish in Platteville, Wisconsin. In 2010, Madison Bishop Robert Morlino brought in three priests from the Society of Jesus Christ the Priest to lead the parish. After the priests made several admittedly “abrupt” changes, much of the laity decided to revolt.

A reportedly 469 of the church’s approximately 1,200 members at the time signed a petition asking Bishop Morlino to immediately remove the priests. Parishioners alleged that the they were not following Vatican II. Some decided to attend Mass elsewhere. Donations plunged. By 2012, the necessary fundraising efforts to keep the church’s 77-year-old parochial school open failed.

Bishop Morlino, who handled the situation as best he could, summed up the dispute in his letter thusly:

“I think, however, that at the end of the day, the Catholic faith is being taught according to the proper understanding of the Second Vatican Council, and that what remains are personal likes and dislikes, along with inflated rumors and gossip, some of which may even rise to the level of calumnious inciting of hatred of your priests, the faith, and myself. For these likes and dislikes, gossip, and hurt feelings, the Catholic faith is rejected and a school is closed.”

A somewhat similar situation is currently playing out in the Archdiocese of San Francisco. Archbishop Cordileone isn’t a traditionalist, to my knowledge, but he his leadership style is more conservative. Earlier this year, the Archbishop “caused dismay among teachers, students, parents, and the public earlier this month when it introduced morality clauses into four Catholic high school handbooks as well as teacher labor contracts.”

This lead to 100 San Franciscans self-described as “committed Catholics inspired by Vatican II” to take out a full page ad in the San Francisco Chronicle asking Pope Francis to remove Cordileone’s resignation and replace him with someone committed to “our values and your teachings.” Of course, that’s not going to happen. But that doesn’t stop them from trying.

Now if you ask me who’s side I’m on in these two disputes, I’m going to support the priests and bishops. Many of the protesting laity in these two situations don’t even support significant portions of Catholic teaching. They use a perverted interpretation of Vatican II as the foundation of their dissent.

We will likely see more clergy v. parishioner feuds in the future, especially as the current crop of traditionalist seminarians move into leadership positions. The priest who grew up in the traditionalist ghetto, or even a just a more conservative community, will be in charge of pastoring hundreds, if not thousands of Catholics who know little of the Catholic faith but play vital roles in their local parish.

How should they be lead? Is instituting some sort of Benedict Option from above, driving out all cafeteria Catholics from the parish or diocese, really the answer? I would say that avoiding the situations in Platteville and San Francisco in the future is ideal, and doing so requires much more strategy on the part of conservative and traditionalist priests.

In this day and age, there is no longer an excuse for not anticipating a revolting laity when implementing abrupt liturgical or moral corrections. But it keeps happening.

I think one of the most pressing questions at this point in American Catholic history is this: Can traditionalist and deeply conservative priests (however you might define them) live by, worship with, and lead cafeteria Catholics? I think they have to. But how?


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  • Jude

    The way they do this is by first living lives of holiness. Then they educate the cafeteria Catholics. And if the teaching is hard, and the CINOs walk away, they let them. We all have free will. You don’t water down the faith, and you don’t take excuses. All you can do is present the truth, you can’t force someone to accept it.

  • Guest

    The good priests should serve as they are serving. Catechesis is only valuable when people are open to receiving it. We are a culture that looks to be offended at every turn. We want we want on our terms. That ain’t Catholic.

    The only reason these types of people are mad is because by accepting the truth they must stop doing what they are doing. That is the real issue.

  • RaymondNicholas

    I disagree in part. They need to lead by teaching. Start new programs for adult learning. Then, if the CCs reject the learning, do what you must to make the local parish whole, and let the chips fall where they may. You gave them the chance and they rejected the cornerstone.

  • Antonja Cermak

    I would think they could square this circle by division. If a parish has 3 masses, make one oriented toward traditionalists-i.e. no EMCs, no altar girls, maybe ad orientem… Make one amenable toward progressives as long as no rubrics are violated, so altar girls, EMCs, make one a blended Mass that takes elements from both traditions. Cycle them in time so that each is on a predictable schedule (i.e. ad orientem worship is at 8 on the first Sunday, at 10 on the next Sunday at the Vigil on the next, etc. In that way no one can complain about getting an unfavorable time.

    Finally have the priests be models of service, humility and holiness. Keep their doors open to the laity, lend an ear to the lonely, never lose their temper or resort to nastiness with the laity and if they do slip up, give a public apology if the offense was in public. The laity won’t care what the priest thinks or expects until they know that he cares about them as individuals.

    • goral

      “never lose their temper”?, “models of holiness”? Sounds to me like heaven. Here on earth One was crucified for being that way. He did lose His temper……hmmm.
      These are all bandages on a gash that was inflicted by V2. It’s now infected and it will not heal without decisive action at the top.
      That’s not going to happen because of climate change.
      Christ’s Church will be healed by his action exclusively. We don’t yet have a clue how it will be brought about. Charitable discussions are always good.

  • Cf. the Credo Chart CCC “We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church/I believe in […] the holy catholic Church” is the Catholic Faith and there aren’t other adjectives to add to the Church like “traditional”, “conservative”, etc.
    The so-called “traditionalists” may think themselves as being faithful to the Church, yet will not submit to the judgment of the Church (e.g. the canonization of Pope St. John Paul II, etc.). Clearly that’s not being Catholic and they make themselves into a church that is not the Catholic Church.

  • Dom_Pedulla

    Good article, and well written. Just a couple of things: first, the utility and clarity of the term “traditionalist” can be questioned. If what is meant is TLM priest, then there are a whole host of issues that can be raised, about the congruity or the lack thereof, pastorally speaking, of matching a TLM pastor with the most poorly catechized Catholics. So I think that might be further clarified. You might have as easily and more aptly just said “traditional”.

    Second, the wisdom of making liturgical and sacramental changes that are perceived as abrupt to the poorest of the poor Catholics (catechetically speaking) can be pastorally questioned. If they are so poorly catechized that they are likely to lose their faith, or be sorely tempted so, it may be that fault of an over-rigourous priest that they end up that way, instead of being led carefully like little children sometimes must be led.

    I wonder, moreover, how well equipped TLM priests typically are to deal with, say, a thoroughly contraceptive parish, where the laity have been allowed to live the way they see fit regardless of what the Church teaches, and the fault of this mostly being with their previous pastor. How many TLM priests have dealt with a flock for whom this is even on the radar screen, pastorally and morally speaking. How many know anything about NFP, just for one example?

    The Church is in a woeful mess right now. There are no easy solutions. Provoking controversies and conflicts before the laity have matured in the faith is the very last thing we now need, and can even be a cop-out, as in, “Oh well, we’ll just let them leave, and then we can have the liturgies we think purest”. A big mistake, and it makes you wonder whether it is love of souls operating there, or simply love of one’s own preferences.

    The supreme law of the Church is the salvation of souls, and we really ought to be willing to put up with an awful lot to save them.

  • Charlie500

    We must stop watering down our faith to please the Catholics whose minds and hearts are integrated with the pagan culture. We must stop apologizing too. Fraternal correction is also necessary and we must not be afraid that some with leave. Some left Christ too when his word offended them.