Traditionalists are perhaps best known for their preference for a particular kind of liturgy. Within the traditionalist movement, however, a radical contingent is building a parallel church. The parallel church of radical traditionalism promotes an ideology that rejects the leadership of Pope Francis (and the guidance of the Second Vatican Council) in favor of a counter-magisterium made up of pronouncements by prominent traditionalists. Such traditionalists often accuse WPI of being “ultramontanist,” of exaggerating the role of the papacy in the Church. In reality, however, these traditionalist “protestors” are themselves sliding into Protestant errors. They demonstrate all the traditional external trappings of Catholicism, but have replaced authentic Catholic doctrine with their own private interpretation.

This slide into heresy can be found in the writings of Professor Peter Kwasniewski, a popular author, speaker, composer, and editor in the traditionalist world. A recent article he wrote for OnePeterFive entitled “Desperate Defenders of Novelty and the Eventual Triumph of Tradition” provides an instructive window into this ideology. In part, this article is his response to one I wrote entitled Prayer Cards, Painting Class, and Liturgy Wars. This article was widely misunderstood by its critics, including Kwasniewski. Mike Lewis responded to the critics, and I wrote a follow-up article to deal with some particular points of contention.

The “Peterism” Accusation

In addition to Kwasniewski’s liturgical arguments, his article describes an approach to the Magisterium that exemplifies the traditionalist rejection of the Church’s teaching authority. Kwasniewski coins a term that emphasizes this rejection: peterism. He uses it to attack the position of Where Peter Is, claiming that we are far too attached to the pope. It is notable that he did not use the term “francisism.” He is not merely saying that we are too loyal to Pope Francis; rather, he is claiming that we are exaggerating the centrality of the papacy in the Catholic scheme of things.

Kwasniewski on Ultramontanism

To better understand what Kwasniewski would offer in place of our “peterist” ultramontanism, we can turn to another article he wrote, My Journey from Ultramontanism to Catholicism. In this article, Kwasniewski lays out his views on the papacy. It is notable that this article originated as a speech given at an FSSP parish in Allentown, Pennsylvania. If FSSP parishes routinely host speakers such as Professor Kwasniewski, this casts doubt on their alleged loyalty to Vatican II and Pope Francis. It is also notable that despite his extreme views, Kwasniewski is a well-known and influential figure. His Allentown speech was not a one-off; he is frequently invited to speak at Catholic parishes and other venues. He has written and edited numerous books, and is a contributing editor of the traditionalist website OnePeterFive. He even recently appeared as a guest on EWTN’s The World Over, where he joined host Raymond Arroyo to offer criticism of Pope Francis and Traditionis Custodes.

In his critique of ultramontanism, Kwasniewski begins his argument by explaining its historic origins. He also points out that the papacy has always held an important place in Catholic theology and spirituality, and then goes on to say:

Given these general truths, which have much to be said for them, it is not surprising that Catholics may develop a “hypertrophic” ultramontanism, a sort of excessive adherence to the person and policies of the pope, by which one simplistically takes everything he says as a definitive judgment and everything he does as a praiseworthy example, wrapping the mantle of infallibility around all his teaching and the garment of impeccability around all his behavior.

He cites a journal he kept as a young man to show that he himself was once infected by this “hypertrophic ultramontanism.” He then presents Where Peter Is as a good example of such a mentality in the current Church. Badly caricaturing the position of those associated with WPI, he writes:

Recognizing that Catholicism is inherently a religion of Tradition, Where Peter Is sidesteps the awkwardness of patent contradiction between earlier magisterial teaching and Francis’s “creativity” by arguing that Tradition actually means “whatever the pope says.” Tradition is not something given in the past or cumulative, but something constituted by the pope’s endorsement of it here and now. Therefore, Catholics must assent to Amoris Laetitia, the abolition of the death penalty, human fraternity among a plurality of divinely willed religions, and every other kind of novelty “proposed” by the pope.

The heart of the argument is the claim that the pope and bishops are the “interpreters of Tradition,”… And if they merely say that something is Catholic doctrine, or is somehow “part of Tradition”—even if it sounds very different from what other popes and bishops used to teach, or even if it’s never been said before by anyone—that’s okay, because Tradition is, after all, whatever the current pope and bishops tell us it is (or isn’t).

According to this theory, no one could ever have a legitimate disagreement with a pope, because such a one would be pitting his own “private interpretation” against the interpreter set up by God. This brand of ultramontanism, like the harangues of my college days quoted earlier, elevates all papal statements and policies into authoritative utterances that ought to be trusted on faith as God’s will for us today and, accordingly, should never be criticized.

Kwasniewski’s View of the Proper Attitude Toward the Papacy

Contrary to the supposed ultramontanism of his younger self and the “peterism” of Where Peter Is, Kwasniewski now claims that Catholics can (and at times must) resist a pope and condemn his teachings (though not in a definitive way). He argues that the “sensus fidelium” allows individual Catholics to judge when a pope falls into error or makes a disastrous prudential decision, and he spends much of the article building an impressive list of Catholic figures (including John Henry Newman) who seem to support this central claim. He argues that while Peter is indeed a rock, he is only a rock insofar as he holds fast to the teaching of the Church. He writes:

Peter—the original Peter and each of his successors—is called a “rock” by holding and publicly professing the immovable truth of Christ and His Church. This is not a subjective faith to be determined by each generation, or customized by each new pope, but rather the common faith of the Church, which each of us receives as a member of the Mystical Body of Christ. This is the Faith that waxes strong in any Christian who has learned his catechism well and who knows, by a supernatural instinct, what is true and compatible with the truth, and what is heretical or offensive to pious ears. If the Faith was supposed to be changeable and changing, Christ would have named Peter “water” or “mud,” not “rock.”

Kwasniewski, of course, thinks that Pope Francis (and other recent popes) have not held true to the faith. This article not only lays out his theory of the papacy, but is the natural result of his theory. He is claiming that his own “supernatural instinct” (and, presumably, the instinct of other radical traditionalists) has discerned that the pope is a heretic. Kwasniewski realizes that this might sound rather like protestant-style private interpretation, with the only difference being the documents to which such interpretation is applied. He tries to reassure his audience that his position is nothing of the sort, writing:

In a time of confusion, one thing is clear: we must hold fast to the settled and articulate Tradition of the Church: in her doctrine (e.g., what we find thoroughly spelled out in a careful compilation like Ludwig Ott’s Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma); in our moral life, according to the constant teaching and example of the Saints; above all, in her liturgical worship, her authentic age-old rites. This is what we are asked to do: remain faithful to the inheritance we have received, prior to the period of anarchy.

To the objector who says: “this traditionalist position is subjective!,” I reply: No, it is not. The Catholic Tradition includes generally accepted readings of Scripture by the Church Fathers and Doctors as well as copious magisterial determinations, such as the dogmas and anathemas of ecumenical Councils. There are numerous objective and mutually reinforcing indications of Catholic teaching, and these constitute true limits on what the current Magisterium (Pope/bishops) may legitimately teach, or what a Catholic today may accept as rationally consistent.

He goes on to assert that the Church is enduring a “storm” of totally unprecedented magnitude, but concludes with the obligatory call to stick with the Church and to make the best of a bad situation.

Are We Ultramontanists?

To take the last thing first: it is telling that such articles tend to end with something along the lines of “all the above notwithstanding, please don’t join the Orthodox or leave the Faith.” It is telling because radical traditionalism acts as a sort of pipeline or gateway leading out of the Church. Anyone who has been involved with traditionalism for any amount of time knows of people who have moved from being conservative mainstream Catholics, to being Latin Mass only traditionalists at an FSSP parish, to attending mass at an SSPX chapel, eventually ending up in a fringe sedevacantist group or doing “home church” or rejecting Christianity altogether. Traditionalists laud the supposed “fruits” of the movement, but this movement away from the Faith is one of the fruits—and a very rotten one indeed.

As for the rest of Kwasniewski’s argument, he doesn’t seem to really understand the position of the writers at WPI. His whole argument, from start to finish, is predicated on the assumption that Pope Francis has taught heresy by contradicting the traditional teachings of the Church. From this, it follows that the WPI writers accept the pope’s heresies. In Kwasniewski’s opinion, we follow a heretical leader because we’re blinded by “hypertrophic ultramontanism.” This all falls apart, however, if in fact Pope Francis is not a heretic. And this is precisely the position of the writers at WPI. We don’t think he is a heretic. We believe that his teaching is in continuity with the rest of the Catholic tradition.

At this point in the argument, we find an odd sort of agreement between Kwasniewski and the true position of WPI. He incorrectly claims that we “elevate all papal statements and policies into authoritative utterances that ought to be trusted on faith as God’s will for us today.” This, of course, is not true. Like Kwasniewski, we realize that there is a clear distinction between the magisterial teachings of a pope and his day-to-day statements or his disciplinary and prudential decisions. We also realize that there is another distinction between a pope’s magisterial teaching (which is, at least in theory, reformable) and infallible pronouncements (which are irreformable).

Since we do understand this, we don’t get worked up when the current pope contradicts the non-magisterial statements of a previous pope or develops the magisterial teaching of a past pope. If applied consistently, Kwasniewski’s papal minimalism makes it easier, not harder, to accept Pope Francis. Of course, there are other, more destructive elements in Kwasniewski’s analysis. Notably, he doesn’t correctly follow this distinction between the different kinds of papal statements. He seems to condemn papal documents such as Amoris Laetitia that clearly fall into the category of magisterial teaching. Lumen Gentium 25 teaches the following on the topic of the papal magisterium:

Bishops, teaching in communion with the Roman Pontiff, are to be respected by all as witnesses to divine and Catholic truth. In matters of faith and morals, the bishops speak in the name of Christ and the faithful are to accept their teaching and adhere to it with a religious assent. This religious submission of mind and will must be shown in a special way to the authentic magisterium of the Roman Pontiff, even when he is not speaking ex cathedra; that is, it must be shown in such a way that his supreme magisterium is acknowledged with reverence, the judgments made by him are sincerely adhered to, according to his manifest mind and will. His mind and will in the matter may be known either from the character of the documents, from his frequent repetition of the same doctrine, or from his manner of speaking.

Unlike Kwasniewski, the authors at WPI do give religious submission of mind and will to the magisterial teaching of the popes. Kwasniewski’s claim that the pope is a rock only when he teaches the truth (but mud otherwise?) is clearly unworkable. What is the good of being given a rock as a sure guide, if that rock might turn to mud at any point? If that can really happen, then Peter is no more “rock-like” than any other Christian with “educated instincts.” At which point, we’ve pretty much lost everything the Church has ever claimed about herself.

Acceptance of the papal magisterium, however, is a far cry from taking everything the pope says as infallible. Why might Kwasniewski have gotten the erroneous impression that the WPI writers take every word that comes from Pope Francis as if it was Gospel truth? Just as his assumption that Francis is a heretic makes him suppose that we are blinded by hypertrophic ultramontanism, his deeply held contempt for Pope Francis blinds him to the possibility that others might quote the pope simply because they appreciate what he says. When I quote one of the pope’s Angelus addresses or Let Us Dream or one of his sermons, I do so just as I might quote another Catholic author or speaker. For instance, Kwasniewski quotes the works of St. John Henry Newman. This does not indicate that Kwasniewski thinks Newman to be infallible, but that he thinks Newman to be correct. Similarly, when I quote Let Us Dream I do so not because I think such works are infallible or even magisterial, but simply because I think it is insightful and inspiring. As Mike Lewis has written, “Believe it or not, it is possible for someone to hold very strong opinions in favor of the pope’s prudential decisions for prudential reasons. It’s allowed.”

Obviously, this means that individual WPI writers may disagree with the pope’s words or actions at times. Speaking for myself, I’ve had occasional disagreements with the pope’s appointments and decisions, and (very occasionally) disagreed with some of his non-magisterial statements. But you won’t find me writing about such disagreements, because I don’t think it is important for the whole world to know that Malcolm Schluenderfritz doesn’t agree with the pope. Nor is that the mission of WPI. Mike Lewis has pointed out that there are already plenty of other media outlets bashing the pope all day long, but few “that consistently present his teachings and decisions accurately and charitably. Even rarer are outlets that regularly provide their audience with content that is aligned with the thoughts and priorities of this pontificate.”

The organized opposition to Pope Francis dwarfs our little website; there is no way we can match their power and influence. We’re one small organization dedicated to providing the best and most accurate interpretation possible of the pope’s teaching and thinking. We strive to accurately reflect his thought and his vision. Yet somehow our very existence outrages the pope’s opponents. Such rage may say more about them than about us. They seem to be unable to rest until they’ve made every Catholic hate the pope as much as they do. It isn’t as if the Church was a democracy in which the pope could lose his office due to a loss of popularity!

In more stable times, voicing some mild criticism of the pope’s actions or statements might be a harmless matter. Still, as a layman without any mandate from the Church, I don’t think this is my place. Correcting a pope is a matter for bishops and others with a place within the Church’s institutional structure. I have not been commissioned for such a job. If I am to speak, I must strictly follow those in authority. Only by doing so can I avoid doing damage to the Church. In any time and place, criticisms about the teachings of the magisterium must avoid “appeals to the mass media” according to the directives of Donum Veritatis.

As far as the Church governance goes, I’m personally in favor of a more decentralized Church. I don’t think the centralization of the past 500 years has been totally successful. Still, such a trend could not be reversed without doing far greater damage, so for the foreseeable future it is likely the Church will remain centralized. Appealing to the decentralized Church of the past will not help Kwasniewski’s case. For one thing, the Tridentine liturgy that he puts so much emphasis on was codified by the newly-centralized Tridentine Church. More fundamentally, the only traditional alternative to a Vatican-centric Church is a bishop-centric Church, a conciliar Church. But Kwasniewski certainly isn’t a fan of Vatican II, nor of Vatican I for that matter. As a group, the bishops of the Catholic Church do not support his positions. A Church in which individual clerics and laymen appoint themselves as judges over the magisterium cannot be described as traditional.

Kwasniewski and other radical traditionalists argue that the Arian crisis was just such a situation, in which the pope and almost all the bishops had fallen into error, but the laity kept the faith. In fact, Kwasniewski appeals to this episode of Catholic history in the article under discussion, along with various quotes from Catholic saints and theologians.

Of course, the same argument made above still applies. Kwasniewski claims that Francis is teaching heresy. If his claim is false, then all his appeals to authority are worthless. No Catholic authority will justify opposing an orthodox pope! Still, it might be worthwhile to look a little more closely at the various figures that he presents to bolster his case.

Church History and Tradition

The stand of St. Athanasius against the Arians is not a good analogy for the current position of the radical traditionalists. In both cases, the Church was going through the turbulent aftermath of an ecumenical council. Athanasius and his allies, however, were the champions of the Council. They were trying to keep the teaching of the Council from being ignored or discarded. Since they had the backing of the Church through the Council, they could be sure they were on the right track. Radical traditionalists, by contrast, are engaged in resisting the most recent Council. I wrote an article on this very topic for WPI. There were other significant differences. Many of the bishops accepted Arianism only under duress; in fact, quite a few of the Arian bishops had been installed after the government drove the orthodox bishops into exile. It is uncertain if Pope Liberius ever signed an Arian document or excommunicated Athanasius; evidence seems to suggest that such documents are forgeries. Certainly, as long as he was able to speak freely he supported the orthodox cause. It is extremely hard to see how traditionalists can make this narrative fit with their current position.

On the surface, Kwasniewski’s appeal to Newman seems more plausible. He cites the following quote, which refers to Newman’s doubts about the prudence of defining the infallibility of the pope:

“I have various things to say about the Definition … [T]o me the serious thing is this, that, whereas it has not been usual to pass definition except in case of urgent and definite necessity, this definition, while it gives the pope power, creates for him, in the very act of doing so, a precedent and a suggestion to use his power without necessity, when ever he will, when not called on to do so. I am telling people who write to me to have confidence—but I don’t know what I shall say to them, if the pope did so act. And I am afraid moreover, that the tyrant majority is still aiming at enlarging the province of Infallibility. I can only say if all this takes place, we shall in matter of fact be under a new dispensation. But we must hope, for one is obliged to hope it, that the pope will be driven from Rome, and will not continue the Council, or that there will be another Pope. It is sad he should force us to such wishes.”

This might seem like a good analogy to the traditionalist rejection of Vatican II, but Kwasniewski misuses this quote. Dave Armstrong has already covered the subject in great detail, referring to another of Kwasniewski’s essays in which the same quote appears. I won’t go over all the ground again. The most important points are: that the quote came from a private letter to a friend; that it concerned hypotheticals; and that it is certainly possible that Newman erred in writing the letter. In fact, Newman accepted the Council’s teaching on infallibility, even though he thought its definition was inopportune. At the same time, he resisted those who distorted the authentic teaching of the Council. Newman is a great example of what the radical traditionalists should have done: stayed loyal to the Council and the pope, while resisting those who would distort the Magisterium.

Kwasniewski also attempts to justify resisting a pope by using this quote from Cardinal Cajetan:

“You must resist, to his face, a pope who is openly tearing the Church apart—for example, by refusing to confer ecclesiastical benefices except for money, or in exchange for services… A case of simony, even committed by a pope, must be denounced.”

Cajetan is referring here to how we must respond in the case of a pope who engages in simony.. Kwasniewski tries to stretch the point and argue that this applies even more to the pope’s teaching; but the distinction between the actions of a pope and the teaching of a pope is an important one and can’t be so easily glossed over. The argument gets even weaker when Kwasniewski says that the imposition of a “valid but inadequate and inauthentic liturgy” (presumably the Missal of Paul VI) is worse than simony. Kwasniewski may think that the liturgy celebrated by the vast majority of Roman Catholics is “inadequate and inauthentic,” but he has not been appointed the judge of this matter.

He cites other Catholic theologians: Francisco Suárez, St. Thomas Aquinas, Juan de Torquemada, Sylvester Prieras, and St. Robert Bellarmine. Most of the quotes he presents refer to the possibly sinful or harmful actions of a pope, and not to his authoritative teaching. The quotes were also discussing hypotheticals. None of them say that one can disrespect the pope, as Kwasniewski often does. He also ignores the fact that Bellarmine (and many other Catholic theologians) thought that it was impossible for a pope to become a heretic.

If Pope Francis is not in error and is not harming the Church, all these authorities fail to advance Kwasniewski’s argument. He writes “If a pope’s failure to submit himself to Sacred Tradition and to defend it strenuously is notorious enough, it merits condemnation and resistance.” The real question is how such a weighty question would be decided. Kwasniewski appeals to the instincts of his fellow traditionalists, but the instincts of many other Catholics seem to give a different answer about the current situation. Obviously, this is no way to decide a question of such magnitude. Liberal Catholics erred when they rejected Humanae Vitae in the name of “conscience,” and traditionalist Catholics are committing the same mistake when they reject Amoris Laetitia in the name of “educated instincts.” The only organization that could even hypothetically declare a pope to be in error would be the world-wide council of bishops, and the bishops of the world are solidly against Kwasniewski in this. I doubt any of the authorities he lists would approve of an individual Catholic taking it upon himself to oppose not only the pope but the college of bishops in union with him, not to mention the documents of an Ecumenical Council.

Private Interpretation

Ultimately, Kwasniewski’s appeals to theological tradition and “informed instincts” boil down to advocating private interpretation. He denies this, but the analogy to Protestantism is obvious. He claims that there are “generally accepted readings of Scripture” and “numerous objective and mutually reinforcing indications of Catholic teaching”; but as any traditionalist knows, this isn’t enough to settle difficult questions. After all, Luther himself was surprised at the chaos unleashed by his principle of private interpretation of the Scriptures. The traditionalist private interpreter may have more authoritative books to draw on, but more books simply seems to mean more debates. “Instinct” is a very poor guide in these matters. The instincts of most Catholics contradict those of Kwasniewski. I imagine that he would claim that these “Novus Ordo Catholics” don’t count and that his intuitions are superior, but that is the way of every schismatic.

In a recent essay, Paul Fahey describes the way in which traditionalists try to judge the Magisterium by appealing to their own understanding of the Tradition. He calls this dynamic the “hermeneutic of traditionalism.” This hermeneutic inevitably leads to subjective relativism. Paul Fahey also points out that the hermeneutic of traditionalism is very similar to the hermeneutic of rupture favored by those on the left. They are united by a common rejection of the authoritative magisterium in favor of personal judgments.

Traditionalism is rent with disagreements because of this dependence on private judgment and interpretation. With no authority to make a final decision, competing factions make contradictory claims based on different ideas about what traditionalists should believe and how they should behave. We need only think about last year’s falling out between Taylor Marshall and his former podcast co-host Timothy Gordon over the SSPX, or the debate among various traditionalists over which missal (the 1962 missal or an earlier edition) best represents the true tradition of the liturgy, or the debate about sedevacantism. The sedevacantist debate is particularly illuminating. Kwasniewski opposes the sedevacantist position, yet the traditionalists who hold it do so because of their own reading of the tradition. Nor can the tradition answer current questions, such as the morality of being vaccinated against COVID-19. Just as with the Bible, texts cannot explain themselves or answer new questions.

It isn’t necessary to like the pope or agree with his non-magisterial teachings; but there is no way to reject the pope’s magisterium and resist the pope’s decisions and still remain “committed orthodox Catholics,” as Kwasniewski suggests in his article. Kwasniewski calls WPI’s loyalty to the pope “peterism”; but in doing so he draws yet another parallel between his position and Protestantism. “Peterist” and “papist” are very similar terms. As the Protestants have discovered (and as traditionalists are discovering), unity is irretrievably lost when the authority of the Church is rejected.

Nobody can get along without some authority. Appeals to a tradition or to infallible documents are merely disguised appeals to authority: the authority of a particular interpreter of the text. In fact, there are many different ways of being a “peterist.” One can be a peterist who follows Francis, the bishop of Rome; or one can be a peterist who follows Professor Peter Kwasniewski’s educated intuitions about what the tradition really means. In either case one is choosing to follow an authority, an interpreter. Personally, I consider that the claims of Pope Francis are superior to the claims of Professor Peter Kwasniewski.

Traditionalists are not at all traditional, but merely old; they are “Old Catholics.” Like the Old Catholics who broke away from Catholic unity after Vatican I, the “New Old Catholics” are breaking away from the Church after Vatican II. They are pitting their own interpretation, their own authority, their own instincts, their own reading of the tradition against the authority of the pope and the Council. By doing so, they reject the Church. For as St. Ambrose said, “Where Peter is, there is the Church.”


Image: SIBIU, ROMANIA – July 17, 2018: Saint Peter painting on Church of Ascension and St. Nicholas in Sibiu, Romania. By Ungureanu.


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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.

Peterism, Ultramontanism, and Protestantism
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