In Singapore, where I am from, the festive mood extends all the way from Christmas until the beginning or middle of February, thanks to a festival variably referred to as the Lunar New Year or the Spring Festival. Sadly, for me this year, the mood was less than festive because of a crisis in my family, and I have been pleading hard in prayer.
In the midst of my pleading to God, he somehow led me to an online article on the Book of Hosea, the prophet whom God asked to wed a prostitute who was later unfaithful to him. In reflecting on my situation and that of Hosea in the Old Testament, I found myself reflecting on the relationship between the Church and those Catholics described by Pope Francis as “rigid,” and who often self-describe as traditionalists.
Although the Church has, in the years since Vatican II, repeatedly offered these Catholics olive branches and opportunities for full integration and reconciliation in the Church, many traditionalists have repeatedly chosen to isolate themselves from the rest of the Church—if not in canonically irregular communities like the SSPX, then in refusing to accept the teachings of the Council and the postconciliar popes. This finally led up to the point where Pope Francis felt compelled to issue Traditionis Custodes, restricting the Tridentine Mass. Like Hosea, Pope John Paul II and then Pope Benedict offered mercy and opportunities for reconciliation. Like Hosea’s wife, these Catholics chose to segregate themselves from the rest of the Church and seek refuge in their isolated communities.
In the Bible, God tells Hosea that his failed relationship is intended to be a sign of God’s unrelenting love, mercy, and forgiveness to Israel. Israel betrayed God repeatedly by falling into idolatry, choosing to worship the pagan gods of the surrounding nations. This is the spiritual equivalent of adultery.
In the New Testament, this is shown even more powerfully with Christ pardoning those responsible for his suffering just before he dies on the Cross: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do” (Lk 23:34). The pain of Jesus becomes a sign of the power of God over sin, a sign that forms the basis of the Church’s theology of atonement and redemption.
Two themes stand out to me from all my reflections. The first is the cycle of infidelity that Hosea endured. The second is that this unhappy state of affairs is, in part, due to another cause of breakdown: emotional unavailability.
There have been articles here on Where Peter Is that have directly or indirectly suggested that these rigid Catholics engage in a form of idolatry in their devotion to the Tridentine Mass. In many ways, such Catholics are similar to Hosea’s wife.
I have a different interpretation. I don’t think these Catholics are guilty of idolatry. They are guilty instead of emotional unavailability—to the Church and to God.
Emotional unavailability destroys familial bonds. In a marriage, it is caused when one or both spouses is unwilling or unable to express an intimate connection with the other. Over time, the emotionally unavailable spouse becomes cold and hostile to the other spouse’s advances.
Radical traditionalists can often be described in similar terms. One of their most common complaints – and I have seen it in the periphery here in Singapore – is that the “Novus Ordo,” as they call it, is too touchy-feely and sentimental. They say it lacks the formal logic of the Divine. They assert that emotional engagement with the Mass is akin to Protestant wishy-washiness, and they decry any use of the vernacular, arguing that it lacks the eternal quality of the Latin language. One could say their concept of religion is that of a fine-tuned system allowing one to reach God. This sounds something like the infamous Tower of Babel—but, unlike Babel, the purpose of this system is not to challenge God.
This is why we Catholics who disagree with their approach to the faith, still ought to recognize that they are in a relationship with God, albeit one that has life frozen out of it.
The rigid Catholics’ mistake is with their understanding of Tradition. They have developed an understanding of Tradition as an elaborate system of rituals and regulations held together by a glue of doctrine and dogma. This Tradition, they believe, was handed down in an unchanging form by Christ to the Apostles to their successors.
They hence abhor the concept of doctrinal development, in any real sense, unless the changes are so slight that they can pretend there is no real difference at all. They abhor it because doctrine and dogma to them are a closed system, in which the alteration of any single word will cause its collapse. This creates a peculiar irony, in which they profess to believe that nothing will prevail against the Church, but their conception of the Church turns the entire religion into a fragile house of cards.
While they claim that the Extraordinary Form provokes more reverential awe, the truth is that their awe is not of God, but of the apparent perfection of this System of Tradition.
As a professional programmer, I am well-versed in the distinctions between artificial intelligence and natural intelligence. Natural intelligence possesses the quality of creativity and flexibility. On the other hand, artificial intelligence, no matter how advanced, is in the end limited to following a strict set of rules.
A philosophical question that is very popular today is: what is the dividing line between virtual reality and actual reality that merits the word “virtual”?
It seems that these Catholics Pope Francis calls rigid have created a virtual Tradition that lacks the dynamism of true Sacred Tradition. True Sacred Tradition is the spark that St. John Henry Newman called the “idea of Christianity” in An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, which continues to develop and grow but will “contain much which will be only partially recognized by us as included in it and only held by us unconsciously.” The visible body of doctrine is the afterimage of the idea’s path of travel through society and culture and history.
The more traditionalists are caught up in their system of “Tradition,” the more unavailable they become to the promptings of the Living God. God is a living God, He speaks through the heart. In contrast, these Catholics have – based on what they regard as unassailable logic – closed their hearts to God speaking through other people, including Pope Francis.
As Pope Francis has said many times, those who do this are guilty of Pelagianism, because they are severing carnal emotions from a spiritual body, and they believe that the emotions lack good at all. Against this, the pope consistently reminds us that Christianity is first and foremost a personal encounter with Christ, where one forms an emotional bond with Christ, and not particular doctrines, as important as those doctrines are.
By being emotionally unavailable to the Spirit, these Catholics have ignorantly cut off the source of their spiritual life. The fruits of this are plain to see: frustration, anger, pride against the “Novus Ordo” Catholics, a certain vanity at being the “Remnant” or the “Elect” and a tendency towards irrational conspiracy theories. In the United States, some of their groups have even been co-opted by QAnon!
Is it any wonder why they come off as unloving to everyone around them?
Knowing that their issue is emotional unavailability calls for a change of approach. Attempts to “fraternally correct” them in the way they have tried against Pope Francis and the Catholics who support them may seem to do little other than cause them to retreat further into their shells. This may only aid the devil in his plan to divide the Holy Church of God and scandalize the Sacrament of the Eucharist. What a grand insult to Christ!
Instead, we should lift their hardened hearts to God, bearing in mind His promise in Hosea:
I will heal their apostasy,
I will love them freely;
for my anger is turned away from them.
We cannot overcome this storm through our own efforts alone, but with God we can.
Image: Illustration of Hosea and Gomer from the Bible Historiale, 1372. By Anonymous – http://collecties.meermanno.nl/handschriften/showillu?id=10499, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=99641796
Clement is a passionate Catholic from Singapore who is long-time reader of Where Peter Is. While he was studying in the UK, he helped to found the Northern Universities' Prolife Students' Union. Upon return to Singapore, he was a member of the Catholic Theology Network (Singapore) for a while. Off work-hours as a software developer, Clement pursues interests of video games, theology and philosophy. He is currently trying to resurrect his Facebook Group Catholics in Asia - Truth and Charity.