Following the publication of Traditionis Custodes, and now even more with the publication of the new guidelines for its implementation, Pope Francis has been accused of attacking “tradition.” For instance, Eric Sammons concluded a recent article in Crisis with the following line: “All Catholics of good will must pray and fast that our Holy Father stops being an abusive father, works for our spiritual good, and ends his war against tradition.” This is a serious charge, since as Catholics we love and revere the tradition of the Church. Is the Pope really attacking tradition?

The Pope’s Answer

In the letter which accompanied Traditionis Custodes, Pope Francis gave an indirect response to this charge. He wrote:

The path of the Church must be seen within the dynamic of Tradition “which originates from the Apostles and progresses in the Church with the assistance of the Holy Spirit” ( DV 8). A recent stage of this dynamic was constituted by Vatican Council II where the Catholic episcopate came together to listen and to discern the path for the Church indicated by the Holy Spirit. To doubt the Council is to doubt the intentions of those very Fathers who exercised their collegial power in a solemn manner cum Petro et sub Petro in an ecumenical council, and, in the final analysis, to doubt the Holy Spirit himself who guides the Church.…

It must therefore be maintained that the Roman Rite, adapted many times over the course of the centuries according to the needs of the day, not only be preserved but renewed “in faithful observance of the Tradition.” Whoever wishes to celebrate with devotion according to earlier forms of the liturgy can find in the reformed Roman Missal according to Vatican Council II all the elements of the Roman Rite.

At the end of the letter, addressing the bishops, he adds:

Upon you I invoke the Spirit of the risen Lord, that he may make you strong and firm in your service to the People of God entrusted to you by the Lord, so that your care and vigilance express communion even in the unity of one, single Rite, in which is preserved the great richness of the Roman liturgical tradition.

It can be seen that Francis is claiming that Vatican II, (and the liturgy that flows from it), is the tradition in its current form. Tradition isn’t a static thing like a photo, but is rather something that grows and develops with the life of a community.

The Bronze Serpent

In an earlier essay, I explained that even legitimate traditions can become hazardous to the spiritual life. I cited the example of the bronze serpent in the Old Testament, which was instituted by God himself but was misused by the people and was then destroyed by the reformer King Hezekiah. Traditionis Custodes is addressing a similar problem; Catholic traditions have been weaponized to divide the Church. In the recent clarification, Archbishop Arthur Roche writes:

It is sad to see how the deepest bond of unity, the sharing in the one Bread broken which is His Body offered so that all may be one (cf. Jn 17:21), becomes a cause for division. It is the duty of the Bishops, cum Petro et sub Petro, to safeguard communion, which, as the Apostle Paul reminds us (cf. 1 Cor 11:17-34), is a necessary condition for being able to participate at the Eucharistic table.

Traditionalism is not Traditional

The quotes discussed above highlight an important fact: that traditionalism[1] is not “traditional” but rather ideological, and so the recent actions by Pope Francis should not be seen as an attack on tradition. Rather, they should be seen as necessary interventions intended to curb an ideology that has come to be called “traditionalism”—an “ism” which is opposed to authentic tradition.

Traditionalists frequently decry the creativity and individualism of modernity and argue that we should submit to the guidance of tradition. The kind of restorationism they are engaged in, however, presents the individual with a whole host of choices, choices for which there is no guidance other than ideology. Most fundamentally, there is the choice of which Missal to use. Most traditionalists use the 1962 Missal, but there are prominent figures in traditionalism calling for the use of earlier editions on the grounds that they are more “pure.” Traditionalism is full of these kinds of questions and arguments: Is having an Advent wreath in the sanctuary traditional? Lighting the Paschal Candle during baptisms? Is the dialogue Mass a deformation or a legitimate development? Should the servers kiss the priest’s hands during Mass? Should new saints be celebrated, and if so which ones? Is the use of a “straw subdeacon” legitimate? Should the second confiteor be said before Communion? Should the breviary of Pius X be rejected? And most ominously of all: Is Vatican II merely flawed or actually heretical?

Traditionalism does not grow from the life of local communities. In fact, it does not grow at all, but is rather focused on preservation, which is always a sign of death. In a fascinating article written for Church Life Journal, Gunnar Gundersen explains what happens to a culture or tradition that is not open to new experiences and to development:

As Ratzinger shows in Truth and Tolerance, culture is a way that a people live out truth. It is a reference point and school for its members to help them express the truth of the meaning and purpose of life—as experienced and learned by the community and individuals forming that culture … Implicit in this definition of culture is that cultures will change over time … Since they are based on “experiences and evaluations” of an active community, which continue to happen through the course of history. Indeed, because advancing men and women in their knowledge and experience of truth is the purpose of culture, the greater its openness to truth—the more advanced the culture. Cardinal Ratzinger then takes the next step in analyzing this meaning of culture. If culture must contain an element of openness to truth, then a way of life that has the form of culture, but is closed off to the truth, is not a culture. Instead, it is an anti-culture.

Although traditionalism contains the “form” of culture and of tradition, it is closed to developments and to new experiences of reality. For this reason, it cannot truly be a culture or a tradition. While the modern traditionalist movement shows this problem in an acute form, this was a flaw of the Latin liturgy that long preceded Vatican II. It was overly standardized and centralized, and so it was not informed by the experience of local communities. Particularly, it was imposed on non-European communities around the world as something foreign to them.

The traditionalist movement is also disconnected from the life of the community in another way: it is “intentional.” Those attending the Tridentine liturgy today realize that they are attending “The Traditional Latin Mass” and have frequently taken significant pains to do so, whereas in the past those attending the same liturgy were simply attending “Mass” along with everyone else. It wasn’t a status symbol or ideological label. In the same way, most of those attending the Vatican II liturgy today are just attending “Mass” along with everyone else. It is not “chosen” as is the traditional “option.”

Such choosing is contrary to the basis of authentic community. The family is the fundamental, primal community, and none of us gets to choose our families. Similarly, when one joins a parish, one is brought into communion with a diverse range of individuals. In the Screwtape Letters, C. S. Lewis portrays the demons working to undermine the unchosen, “uncongenial” community of the geographic parish in favor of ideological “destination parishes.” The demon Screwtape says:

Surely you know that if a man can’t be cured of churchgoing, the next best thing is to send him all over the neighbourhood looking for the church that ‘suits’ him until he becomes a taster or connoisseur of churches. The reasons are obvious. In the first place the parochial organization should always be attacked, because, being a unity of place and not of likings, it brings people of different classes and psychology together in the kind of unity [God] desires. The congregational principle, on the other hand, makes each church into a kind of club, and finally, if all goes well, into a coterie or faction.

Since community is the principle and basis of tradition, something that works against authentic community will destroy tradition. In this case, ideological choice breaks down both communities and tradition.

A Foundation for Inculturation

As I pointed out in a previous article, traditionalists do have a point about the celebration of the liturgy, at least in North America and parts of Europe. Although traditionalism may not represent a true culture or tradition, they are correct that the average liturgical celebration in the United States is somewhat lacking. This is precisely because the US, in contrast to many poorer countries, lacks the kind of communities that can transmit culture and can truly inculturate the liturgy. The Missal of Vatican II is a good foundation, but it is designed to be built upon by local cultures and communities. If we want better liturgy, we need to stop working on the liturgy. We must instead heed the call of Pope Francis to build a more fraternal, communal society.

Rogation Day Processions

An example from my own life may help to bring this all into focus. During my time as a traditionalist, I helped to organize a Rogation Day land blessing procession for a community garden. (For those who don’t know, in the old liturgical calendar the Rogation days were the Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday before Ascension Thursday and the Feast of St. Mark on the 25th of April. Rogation Day processions were instituted to pray for protection from disasters and blessing on the planted crops.) We marched around the garden with candles, chanted the litany of the saints, and had a potluck meal.

The next day, however, I reflected on various fundamental shortcomings of the event. By dint of much advertising, we’d managed to collect a pretty good turnout but most of the participants were from our FSSP destination parish. Quite a few of them had driven in from a considerable distance. The local community was not engaged in a meaningful way. The very fact that we had to advertise demonstrated the non-traditional nature of the event. Worst of all, few of those involved were engaged in the community garden, or in agriculture of any sort. There was no shared interest to bind us together as the shared interest in the crops had bound together those of earlier times. Now I see even more deficiencies in this event. I had to print out booklets for everyone, since most participants didn’t know the Latin prayers and chants. Our use of Latin wasn’t calculated to make non-traditionalist Catholics feel welcome. In numerous ways, our procession wasn’t “traditional”; it was more along the lines of reenactment. Even if we had kept doing it year after year, it still wouldn’t have been “rooted” in the soil of the community, because there wasn’t a community to speak of. Such rootedness would have had to grow up from the soil, from deep connection to the local place and from shared work and geographic proximity.

The Rogation days were not completely removed from the revised Missal. In the Universal Norms on the Liturgical Year and the New General Roman Calendar promulgated by Pope Paul VI in 1969, there is the following directive:

45 On rogation and ember days the practice of the Church is to offer prayers to the Lord for the needs of all people, especially for the productivity of the earth and for human labour, and to make public thanksgiving.

46 In order to adapt the rogation and ember days to various regions and the different needs of the faithful, the conferences of bishops should arrange the time and plan of their celebration.

Consequently, the competent authority should lay down norms, in view of local conditions, on extending such celebrations over one or several days and on repeating them during the year.

47 On each day of these celebrations the Mass should be one of the votive Masses for various needs and occasions that is best suited to the intentions of the Petitioners.

Considering that the Rogation days were traditionally tied to spring planting, giving local Churches control over when and how such celebrations occur makes perfect sense. Dates that work for England might be entirely irrelevant in Papua New Guinea! Similarly, the rituals that take place should differ depending on how the local community gains its livelihood.

Most parishes in the USA don’t mention the Rogation Days, however. Without the kind of shared communal interest of the sort that marked traditional cultures and communities, such traditions are incoherent. We could all bring our personal computers to church for a blessing at the beginning of the fiscal year or bring our lawnmowers for a blessing at the start of lawn mowing season, but this would obviously be absurd.

A Deeper Problem

Our modern way of life makes Rogation Day processions irrelevant. In itself, that isn’t a huge problem. But it is an indicator of a deeper issue. By making true community almost impossible, our modern way of life has struck at the very basis of liturgy. While “parish” denotes a geographic division, even mainstream parishes are no longer primarily geographic. More and more, parish attendance is based on personal liking or on shared ideology, and churches function like “Mass Stops,” with people coming to get their sacraments and sermon, then quickly dispersing until next week. In such a setting, authentically inculturated liturgy is impossible. In fact, in such a setting the Christian life itself—oriented as it is to communion and community—becomes increasingly difficult.

True Solutions

If the status quo is undesirable, what should be done? Contrary to the traditionalist narrative, the true enemy of tradition, culture, and the faith is not the pope or the revised Missal. It is our technocratic, individualized, affluent society—the “throwaway” society condemned by Laudato Si and the individualistic culture condemned by Fratelli Tutti. We must replace our economy of division, competition, and destruction. Pope Francis is calling us to build an economy of communion with one another and with God’s creation. If we heed this call, if we “dream” of the better world that God wishes to build through our work, we will bring about a revival of the Christian life in every dimension.


[1] In general, I use the terms “traditionalist” and “traditionalism” to refer to individuals and groups who claim that the Tridentine Liturgy is objectively, not subjectively, superior to the Vatican II Liturgy, and that the Vatican II Liturgy itself, apart from any distortions, is problematic or inferior. I’m not talking about those who have a subjective preference for older or more ornate forms of liturgy.

Image: Blessing of the Wheat at Artois Painted by Jules Breton (1827 – 1906) – Le Second Empire à Orsay, Public Domain. Wikimedia Commons.

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Malcolm Schluenderfritz hosts Happy Are You Poor, a blog and podcast dedicated to discussing radical Christian community as a means of evangelization. He works as a graphic design assistant and a horticulturalist in Littleton, CO.

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