Recently, Mike Lewis indulged a request I made to him by writing an article on Pope Francis’s use of the word “indietrism” (or “backwardsism,” as Mike translated it). He did some excellent research, with interviews of various authors who have studied Francis’s homilies and writings, all of which has helped to clarify the Pope’s outlook on traditionalist ways of thinking.

In his article, Mike also mentioned what I called the “that’s the way it is” mentality that one can still experience in Europe. He shared my example of “boules de Berlin,” the strawberry jam-filled doughnuts with the cinnamon sugar coating. Boules de Berlin have, as far as I know, remained unchanged over the years. They are filled with strawberry jam – never with blueberry or raspberry jam – and they always have the cinnamon sugar coating. That’s the way it is. Here in the United States, we have innumerable types of jellied doughnuts, culminating in the unsurpassable Boston Cream Pie doughnuts – doughnuts filled with vanilla custard and topped with chocolate fudge frosting. The Europeans don’t know what they are missing!

Now before I get involved in a doughnut-throwing culture war, I want to make it quite clear that boules de Berlin are not to be confused with Pączki, the traditional Polish doughnut. Pączki are made with a rich pastry dough and are traditionally stuffed with prune butter, though there are many variations using different fillings, including fruit jams or custard. However, when one hears a Pole defending the original prune butter filling, one is reminded of the gastronomic war waged by supporters of Manhattan Clam Chowder and those who stand by New England Clam Chowder. Emotions run high around dinner tables!

These are amusing examples of cultural differences, but culture in Europe runs much deeper than we Americans realize. I understood this when I was working in a company situated in a French-speaking city in Switzerland. A lady joined us to work part-time over the summer doing clerical work. During the break, the other office workers and I asked her about herself as we tried to welcome her to the business. We had the following conversation:

“Where are you from?”

“I’m from Schwyz.” (One of the three cantons that united to form the Swiss Confederation, the original William Tell country. Schwyz is a German-speaking canton.)

“You speak excellent French!”

“I was born here.”

“Did your parents move here?”

“No, we have been living here for 500 years.”

500 years ago was the time of the Reformation. Schwyz chose to be a Protestant canton. Her ancestors may well have moved to the French-speaking canton to keep their Catholic faith. Whatever their reason was, after 500 hundred years, she still considered herself to be a Schwyzerin.

This gives us some idea of how deep cultural roots go in Europe. Culture and custom are the bedrock of society, the unchanging way that life unrolls throughout the years. This is not a resistance to change. It is rather a mental posture where one takes one’s stand on the past because that endured and brought the land to the present.

This is the result of centuries of the chaotic history of Europe. Culture and custom provided the stability that politics didn’t. A Jesuit from Alsace-Lorraine whom we knew told how, when he was a boy, the street signs would be switched from French to German and back to French, depending on which country ruled that area. Lorraine existed long before France was a nation, and centuries before Germany was united. Its inhabitants identified themselves with the land and its culture, not with the revolving-door governments that ruled over them.

The best example of this cultural identification is Poland. The culture and its customs sustained the identity of the people through the 150 years when the country wasn’t on the map, and then also through German and Russian occupation.

It is normal for Europeans to move forward with one eye glued to their rear-view mirror. It is the past that gives them their identity and stability. The challenge has always been to look forward to the possibility of development. Since the fall of the Roman Empire in the 5th century, there have been continual attempts to unite the various countries and cultures in Europe. There was the Carolingian Empire, which didn’t survive the death of Charlemagne. The Hapsburgs came close to succeeding, beginning when Charles the Fifth was elected Holy Roman Emperor, uniting Germany and Spain with its colonies. Little by little this unified empire was whittled away, finally disappearing in the First World War. Napoleon tried to unite Europe and finally failed at Waterloo. Frederick I, Frederick II and Hitler again tried and failed. The European Union succeeded on paper, but with Brexit and the rise of nationalism it is a good question how long it will exist. Cultural identities run deep in European soil.

Religion has been involved in every turn of history. “Cuius regio, eius religio” (the religion of the ruler is the religion of the realm) was long the rule in various areas of Europe, even before the Reformation made it a political rule of thumb. With the Synods of Aachen,  Charlemagne tried to impose a uniform Benedictinism on the monasteries in his empire. It was also under Charlemagne that the Filioque was added to the Nicene Creed, raising the question of whether a local Church has the right to modify doctrine, a question that is still relevant today with the German Synodal Way.

A long treatise could be written (by someone else!) on the bonds between religion, culture and government in Europe. However, to return to the question of “indietrism,” I want to take a look at the outstanding example of traditionalism in Europe, the Society of St. Pius X, the SSPX. In his book, Challenge to the Church, the Case of Archbishop Lefebvre, Yves Congar, O.P., quotes Archbishop Lefebvre who rejects “three themes of the Council in which he sees an ecclesiastical application of the principles of the French Revolution of 1789: liberty, equality, fraternity.” He explains:

On the subject of the Council’s Declaration on Religious Liberty, he has said:

“Religious liberty corresponds to the term ‘liberty’ in the French Revolution; it is an analogous term which the devil willingly makes use of.”

On the subject of the collegiality of bishops:

“Collegiality is the destruction of personal authority. Democracy is the destruction of God’s authority, the Pope’s authority, Bishops’ authority. Collegiality corresponds to the equality of the 1789 Revolution.”

On the subject of the Decree on Ecumenism and the Declaration on Non-Christian Religions:

“If you pay attention, you will see that this corresponds to ‘fraternity.’ Heretics have been described as brothers, Protestants have been called ‘separated brothers.’ There’s your fraternity. Yes, we’re well off with ecumenism; it’s fraternity with the communists.”[i]

I quote this to show an essential difference between European and American traditionalists. As I said, it is natural for Europeans to go through life with one eye fixed on the past. This gives them their stability. They have survived centuries of turmoil, and the past gives them their hope for the future. The danger comes when they fail to notice that changes have taken place over the centuries. Development has occurred like the growth of a plant. An imposed Benedictinism is no longer the rule for religious life. When the French Revolution outlawed the practice of religion and caused priests to hide underground or flee the country, the laity rose to the challenge and carried on the practice of religion. “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how.”[ii]

We Americans do not have these deep, cultural roots. Compared to Europe, we have a very short history, and our culture is a boiling pot of the various customs and mindsets that our ancestors brought with them. We do not go through life looking at our rear-view mirror. We are far more prone to look to the future and fix our gaze on a culture that never really existed but that we hope to bring into being. We have a nostalgia for “the perfect society.” We long for a culture that corresponds to our dreams.  In the meantime, we adopt the customs of whatever culture attracts us. That is how we have Middle Age Societies, where people dress up and act like people in the Middle Ages. and we have Hobbit Clubs, where people try to live like the Hobbits in the Shire. We also are drawn to historical re-enactment societies. On a deeper level, there is the Benedict Option.

The European “that’s the way it is” mindset is based on a reality that no longer exists, but which did exist at some time. It risks becoming stuck in a soil that solidifies into concrete. The American dream risks being too much the fruit of some individual’s imagination. It can even lead to a cult mentality, and often to tragic ends as in Jonestown and Waco. Both the American and the European mindset have their strengths and their weaknesses, and each needs to be balanced by its opposite: The European mindset needs to be balanced by openness to the future, and the American mindset needs to be balanced by a true knowledge of the past.

This may be difficult because, from what I have read, most American traditionalists are too young to have any memory of the Church before the Second Vatican Council. I doubt very much if their mistrust of the changes is based on any fear of the influence of the French Revolution. Liberty, Equality, Fraternity was never a rallying cry on this side of the Atlantic. Neither does the Catholic Church have a bond with the government similar to that which existed in France, Spain, and Austria. Quite the contrary: Catholicism has always been a minority religion and has historically been marginalized here – going back to colonial times – when it wasn’t actually penalized.

There are different sources of traditionalism, and when we keep those sources clear in our minds, we  can avoid unnecessary confusion.

As we have seen in other articles, Catholicism is a religion of harmony between apparent opposites: a God who is Three and One, Jesus who is both God and Man, Mary who is both Virgin and Mother. This innate tension exists in the matter of culture. People of every culture can incarnate the Kingdom of God, but no culture adequately expresses it. Various customs can express various aspects of it, but Catholicism transcends all customs. We see an example of this in the life of St. Turibius of Mongrovejo. The Spanish authorities of Peru objected to some of his initiatives when he was Bishop of Lima. St. Turibius’s retort was, “Our Lord said, ‘I am the truth,’ not ‘I am custom.’” The truth is infinitely greater than any of its expressions.

We need to learn to live the tensioned harmony of the faith and to express it in our cultures and our customs. This is an ongoing challenge, but it is a beautiful challenge, for each time we succeed, we are establishing an outpost, however tiny, of the Kingdom of God here on our earth.

Coffee and doughnuts, anyone?


[i] Challenge to the Church, the Case of Archbishop Lefebvre, by Yves Congar, O.P., Our Sunday Visitor, Huntingdon, IN, transl. 1976. The quotes from Archbishop Lefebvre are taken from meetings of Msgr. Lefebvre and published by him in U eveque parle (A bishop speaks), pp. 196, 186, and 197 respectively.

[ii] Mk 4, 26-27

Image: Adobe Stock. By ngaga35.

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Sr. Gabriela of the Incarnation, O.C.D. (Sr. Gabriela Hicks) was born in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, in the Gold Rush country of California, which she remembers as heaven on earth for a child! She lived a number of years in Europe, and then entered the Discalced Carmelite Monastery in Flemington, New Jersey, where she has been a member for forty years. www.flemingtoncarmel.org.

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