“Respect must everywhere be shown for the feelings of all those who are attached to the Latin liturgical tradition, by a wide and generous application of the directives already issued”
— Pope St. John Paul II
Ecclesia Dei, #6.b
It is undeniable that much of the resistance to Pope Francis’ magisterium, reforms, and pontificate comes from some Church quarters with a certain traditionalist leaning. In fact, one must also acknowledge that this resistance runs even deeper, into the heart of the Second Vatican Council (even if Francis has led to an increase in this resistance from people who did not completely reject the council previously.)
This sector of the Church is also well known for sacrificing mercy, accompaniment and pastoral guidance in the altar of “truth” (i.e. a mere spewing out of doctrinal statements without concern for the charity with which they are presented.) We see this in their usual criticism against what they have pejoratively dubbed “the Church of Nice.” Furthermore, their presence on social media denotes a strong, public and sometimes outright disrespectful contempt for the hierarchy, going all the way up to the Pope.
In this sense it is not strange that traditionalists have come to be well known for their “bitterness, anger, and lack of evangelical spirit.”
It is not me saying it, but rather Steve Skojec. For those who do not know him, he is one of the people leading this assault against the Holy Father. He has been one of the founders of notorious dissenter site One Peter Five and regularly tweets against Francis in very nasty terms. So, imagine my surprise when I saw that one of the people lamenting the “bitterness, anger, and lack of evangelical spirit” in traditionalist quarters was… Steve Skojec himself! Granted, it’s not current-day Skojec, but it’s Skojec nonetheless.
During my investigations on the topic, I have come across this 2008 article from Steve Skojec, and I can’t say that I was not moved. In it, Skojec makes a very insightful soul-searching in the traditionalist movement’s shortcomings.
“There was a time when I was an “angry trad,” when I lashed out at others as I clawed for a spiritual inheritance I felt was stolen from me. While this is probably a natural reaction, I now know it gained me nothing. There is no value in promoting the beauty of something when one’s conduct in so doing is itself repulsive (…) However justified it may be, traditional angst has always been counterproductive. If we desire to help build a better Church, one that honors its traditions and pays them the reverence they are due, we must conduct ourselves in a constructive fashion (…) I want to argue that position on its merits, and not be dismissed because I’m perceived as a member of a rancorous and unpleasant sub-group of Catholics. Those of us seeking to restore what we believe has been lost have some reputation-building to do if we want to avoid being painted with the broad brush strokes some of our peers have earned for us.”
Unfortunately, it seems like Skojec has already forgotten his own admonition. We can’t separate his article from the fact that it was issued soon after Pope Benedict XVI’s motu proprio Summorum Pontificum, where Benedict established new guidelines for the celebration of the traditional liturgy (the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite). This was seen at the time as a vindication of some traditionalist claims, so it is not strange that it might have appeased some of Skojec’s anger in a way that was reignited when Pope Francis was elected.
Still, we should not dismiss this 2008 confession, for it demonstrates that Skojec has the ability to grasp the problems raised by his conduct and the conduct of those who are swayed by his online presence to imitate him. The grain of mustard lies there, even if dormant, so the potential for it to be reawakened exists, even if it is contingent on the free will of the heart where it lies. Of course, there is a chance that Skojec has asphyxiated this grain of mustard irreversibly. We should not presume either way, for only God knows the heart of Man. However, I believe that this 2008 article may also plant mustard seeds in the hearts of other people who may have their ears more open to Skojec than the Holy Father. These may act as semina Verbi, i.e. seeds of the Gospel. If they are not smothered in their hearts, it is not our job to smother them ourselves, but to care for them so that they may yield abundant fruit.
The chance of conversion exists, even if it never fully materializes. As evangelists we should try to help God’s grace act and achieve fruition.
The Culture War mentality – an obstacle to evangelization and mercy
It is my firm belief that one of the strongest sources of dissent and division today comes from a sectarian view of the Church. This sectarian view is heavily influenced by American politics (Republican vs. Democrat) and ideologies (conservative vs. liberal), but ultimately it also exists at the doctrinal and liturgical level (traditionalist vs. progressive.) This has led to a Culture War mentality, whereby the other camp is demonized and scapegoated as the reason for all the ills of the Church. Popes and bishops are not viewed as authoritative interpreters of our faith to whose teachings we must give assent. On the contrary, the popes and bishops themselves are categorized according to which ideological camp they belong to and conditionally given assent only insofar as they validate one’s own faction. The Church ceases to be viewed as a unified Body of brothers and sisters, tied together by a Head (whose visible Vicar is the Pope,) but as a battlefield between competing worldviews, where victory over The Other is seen as the most important goal. Doctrine is weaponized to serve an ulterior agenda.
To be sure, this sectarianism has been promoted for many decades by the conservative camp. They tended to view their faithfulness to often-ignored Church teachings (namely Humanae Vitae) as a sort of stamp of approval that made them mouthpieces of Catholicism in their own right. A kind of Eucharistic police was set up, whereby they saw themselves (even if they had no authority to do it) as the ones who should decide who did not get access to communion, and to lobby for the excommunication of those belonging to the other camp. Those who would not perfectly fit in would be decried as CINOs (Catholics In Name Only) or Cafeteria Catholics… meaning, they were viewed as “not true Catholics.“
This, in turn, led them to believe that anyone who didn’t divide the Body of Christ according to their preconceived boundaries was an enemy of the Church, even bishops (or, as we see today, the pope). Any attempt to reach out to the “imperfect” was seen as a watering down of truth, an intolerable compromise. This created in them a repulsion to words such a mercy and love, which ultimately makes Francis’ pontificate unfathomable to them. It is just too foreign to the way of thinking they have become accustomed to.
Pope Francis brings a perfect antidote to this way of thinking. Time and time again, he has warned us against turning Christianity into an ideology. By trying to reach out to the spiritual peripheries, he is indeed urging us to resist this sectarian, combative, and unmerciful view of the Church.
Nevertheless, this needs to be vigorously pointed out, because I see the seeds of sectarianism also being planted in the hearts of those who are faithful to the Holy Father. This malignant seed has not bloomed yet, but it lies in there, side by side with the semina Verbi. The one that thrives is the one our heart more earnestly esteems.
The ferocious (and sometimes Satanic) attacks made by papal critics has led some of his supporters to develop a natural and understandable reaction: push back in a militant fashion. Traditionalists are viewed as “not true Catholics,” they are mocked and insulted in social media, they are viewed as an enemy one needs to defeat, they are often confronted with more wit than substance in ugly debates. Sometimes laments are heard because the Pope and the bishops do not take a stronger stand against them, going all the way up to excommunication. This mirrors the radical traditionalist rhetoric perfectly.
However, I have tried to incorporate Pope Francis’ teachings and pleas into my own spirituality. For years I have been a part of that sectarian mindset that divided Catholics into “orthodox” and “CINOs.” If I desire to be truly faithful to Pope Francis, I must be cautious to not make the same mistakes again, even if I still occasionally fall into them. I’ve grown sensitive to signs of warning that people may be going down that malignant path. We must be wary of not betraying Francis in the hopes of defending him. There is no worse way to betray Francis than to sacrifice his teachings on the altar of expediency in the “battle” for the heart of the Church.
The papal strategy: mercy
This Culture War sectarianism towards traditionalists contrasts profoundly with the strategy employed by successive Popes, including Pope Francis. In this article’s opening quote, Pope St. John Paul II asks for respect for people with attachments to the Latin liturgical tradition. In a letter clarifying his own motu proprio on this topic, Pope Benedict XVI had this to say:
“It is a matter of coming to an interior reconciliation in the heart of the Church. Looking back over the past, to the divisions which in the course of the centuries have rent the Body of Christ, one continually has the impression that, at critical moments when divisions were coming about, not enough was done by the Church’s leaders to maintain or regain reconciliation and unity. One has the impression that omissions on the part of the Church have had their share of blame for the fact that these divisions were able to harden. This glance at the past imposes an obligation on us today: to make every effort to enable for all those who truly desire unity to remain in that unity or to attain it anew.”
I really think that this quote is very “Franciscan” (i.e. consonant with Pope Francis’ pontificate.) In fact, I believe the most striking act of papal outreach (more than liturgical accommodations to satisfy traditionalist demands), came from Pope Francis himself. At the end of the Year of Mercy called on by Francis, he issued the apostolic letter Misericordia et Misera, in which he allows the faithful who attend churches officiated by priests from the quasi-schismatic Society of St. Pius X (SSPX) to receive the sacrament of Penance.
The status of the SSPX in particular, illustrates the papal strategy. To be sure, the Popes had the right to simply declare this society as schismatic. After all, Pope St. John Paul II, in the same motu proprio where he asked for respect for traditionalists, explicitly described the ordination of new bishops by the SSPX (without the approval of the Holy See) a “schismatic act” and excommunicated those bishops. But even though the Popes had the right to declare the group in “schism,” they did not do so. Right now, the SSPX enjoys a more grey-area status, a society in an irregular situation.
I cannot avoid but see the parallels between the Pope’s attitudes towards the irregular situation of SSPX and the irregular situations of the divorced and remarried. In both instances, we see not a blanket condemnation of those who do not follow adequate procedures (and actually, those who do not adhere to the fullness of the Church’s doctrine,) but an almost desperate, maternal attempt to take any vestige of attachment to the Church to try and bring those who have strayed back into the fold. This is what mercy looks like. How ironic that those who are enjoying such mercy, vilify mercy so much!
Avoiding collateral damage
Nowhere is a Culture War mentality more obvious than in the attitude one takes towards “collateral damage.” The acceptability of collateral damage is part and parcel of a warrior outlook, but not of a Christian one.
What do I mean when I say “collateral damage“? I’m talking about those who are traditionalists, but who are unjustly targeted through guilt by association. I mean, those who have traditional-minded liturgical preferences, but who exercise those preferences in full communion with the Vicar of Christ and within the bounds specifically granted by the Church. For me, these are the true traditionalists, for as John Paul II says in his motu proprio Ecclesia Dei, there is no more traditional belief than the need of unity with the Pope.
A Culture War mentality mandates that people are categorized into very well-defined ideological camps. These camps serve a manicheistic function, in that one camp will be assigned the role of “evil” and the other the role of “good.” The end-result is that people get labeled (namely as “evil” or “enemies”) on account of very shallow categories. One of them, is the traditionalist label.
As soon as someone manifests his/her traditional preferences, he/she will be automatically considered as one and the same as all those radical traditionalists at the root of the resistance and division against the Pope and the legitimate bishops. They will be labeled as anti-papal and anti-council extremists, even if they submit to the authority of the Pope and Council. This is unjust and is actually more akin to the mentality of the papal critics than to the mentality of the Popes: an extreme lack of nuance and incapability to discern that people are more complex than simplistic ideologies can ever account for.
There are many virtues in progressivism that I admire, and one of them is the ability to not judge people based on discriminatory labels. This is why progressives can grasp that, just because a large number of terrorist attacks are carried out by Muslims, this does not allow us to discriminate against all Muslims as if they were terrorists. The actions of a few rotten fruits can’t be the source of further hatred, like Islamophobia, for this creates a vicious circle out of which one can only break out of through the power of love.
Using discriminatory labels to lump all people together in order to scapegoat them breeds nothing but contempt. It pushes moderates further down the path of extremism. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy, for by cutting off the chances of dialogue and integration, it generates fundamentalists in the same groups accused of fundamentalism.
Popes, on the other hand, have been very precise in differentiating between legitimate traditionalists and the unlawful ones. Both John Paul II and Benedict XVI call “legitimate aspirations” to their yearning for a traditional liturgy that fulfills them spiritually. In their motus proprios, both pontiffs have urged bishops to be “generous” in attending their calls. And Pope Francis says about traditionalists: “we have to meet with magnanimity those who are tied to a certain way of prayer.” In the end, even if we can’t fulfill their liturgical requests, respecting them is what Popes unequivocally ask us to do.
Another noteworthy target for collateral damage, though not as important as people, is traditional Catholic culture. It has become commonplace among Francis supporters to make fun of the liturgical paraphernalia that characterizes traditional sensitivities. The capa magna, the red shoes, the pomp, all are mocked as anachronistic, over-the-top, incompatible with the Gospel demands for simplicity and poverty.
Though I sympathize with this, I also note that these have been a part of our history and culture. They have been, for the most part, relegated to our chronicles and museums, but still, they should be respected. It is my firm belief that only by knowing who we have been (with the good and the bad, the comprehensible and the incomprehensible,) can we really know who we are right now, what we have forsaken and why, and what we have built upon. And only by knowing who we are right now can we know who we can become while staying true to ourselves.
Another admirable virtue in the progressive camp is the ability to not judge bizarre cultural expressions in light of our own cultural preconceptions. A progressive would rightfully criticize someone mocking a Sikh turban or an African tunic. Likewise, most Catholics would frown upon someone making fun of the attire worn by some Eastern Catholic priests, or their liturgical traditions. Why would we have a double-standard towards traditionalists? We should be consistent in how we apply our principles and tolerate first and foremost the strangeness of the Other whose strangeness we feel more compelled not to tolerate.
Listening and understanding
When asked about why so many people prefer the traditional liturgies, Pope Francis answered:
“I always try to understand what’s behind the people who are too young to have lived the pre-conciliar liturgy but who want it. Sometimes I’ve found myself in front of people who are too strict, who have a rigid attitude. And I wonder: How come such rigidity? Dig, dig, this rigidity always hides something: insecurity, sometimes even more… Rigidity is defensive.”
One may disagree with the Pope’s diagnosis (I, for one, think he is spot on,) but one must also see in this answer one thing: the Pope “always tries to understand.” When faced with such a person, we have to “dig, dig.” Why is this person behaving like this? What are his/her concerns? How can I help him/her get back to full communion with the Church’s teachings, namely the post-conciliar ones?
Reading Skojec’s piece has given me some insights into the concerns of traditionalists and radical traditionalists alike. Of course, “understanding” in no way means “legitimizing.” Radical traditionalists are wrong for behaving the way they do towards the Pope. However, it is only by understanding their arguments and concerns that we may be able to more effectively establish dialogue. And only through dialogue may we be able to persuade them. As I said in a previous piece, only by extending love, even to sinners, are we able to open up their ears to what we have to say.
For me, in all honesty, the liturgy wars brouhaha is extremely trivial, focusing too much in externalities and not on the core of Christianity. For me, these divisions are too unimportant to exist. But I have to understand that for many people, it is not like that. And I should try to understand their concerns even if (or especially if) I don’t partake of them.
Or, as Benedict says in his clarification of Summorum Pontificum:
“It is true that there have been exaggerations and at times social aspects unduly linked to the attitude of the faithful attached to the ancient Latin liturgical tradition. Your charity and pastoral prudence will be an incentive and guide for improving these.”
Balancing orthodoxy and mercy
Of course, one of the papal critics’ many problems is their inability to balance orthodoxy with mercy. For them, mercy can only come about through a watering-down of orthodoxy. We should not fall into this error.
The mercy we extend to them is not to be made at the expense of post-conciliar doctrine. In his Ecclesia Dei, John Paul II clearly defined and condemned the errors of Lefebvrites as “an incomplete and contradictory notion of Tradition.” Benedict XVI, on his end, specifically stated that he did not want the application of his motu proprio to be a source of divisions or to detract from the authority of the bishops, so using the Extraordinary Form to foment this is obviously illegitimate. And Francis has also stated that, in spite of our magnanimity towards those who prefer this kind of prayer, “the Second Vatican Council and Sacrosanctum Concilium should carry on as they are.”
In Amoris Laetitia (AL) #243, Pope Francis states, regarding the divorced and remarried: “The Christian community’s care of such persons is not to be considered a weakening of its faith and testimony to the indissolubility of marriage; rather, such care is a particular expression of its charity.“
Likewise, the mercy extended to radical traditionalists cannot be considered a weakening of the liturgical reforms from the Second Vatican Council, but be a particular expression of it. In the end, what’s at stake is an ecumenical council and Pope Francis’ ordinary magisterium. On those, we can never compromise.
The problem of the unrepentant ones
Unfortunately, many radical traditionalists will remain unmoved even if we show them all the mercy and love in the world. In this case, what should we do?
It is noteworthy that even in Francis’ mercy-oriented pontificate, mercy is not seen as unlimited. Pope Francis has said many times that we should not presume on God’s mercy, for God’s justice eventually comes.
Regarding the accompaniment of the divorced and remarried, Francis has this to say in AL #300 (emphasis mine):
“For this discernment to happen, the following conditions must necessarily be present: humility, discretion and love for the Church and her teaching, in a sincere search for God’s will and a desire to make a more perfect response to it.”
“Love for the Church and her teaching” — this includes the teachings from Pope Francis and the Second Vatican Council. A person with no humility and love for the Church and her teachings cannot be a part of this process of accompaniment, as defined by Pope Francis’ mercy.
Later on, AL #297 reads:
“Naturally, if someone flaunts an objective sin as if it were part of the Christian ideal, or wants to impose something other than what the Church teaches, he or she can in no way presume to teach or preach to others; this is a case of something which separates from the community.”
“Something other than the Church teaches,” I remind you, includes inventing excuses and cop-outs to justify not granting assent to the Second Vatican Council or to Pope Francis’ magisterium.
What to do about those who behave like that? If their hearts are closed to any call of conversion, at least in the meantime, we should not force them, but also remain vigilant in order not to stoop down to their level, lest by doing so, we blemish our own testimony. For these cases, Jesus Himself tells us to shake the dust from our sandals (Mt 10:4) and to not cast pearls before swine (Mt 7:6). In this sense, I think Pope Francis’ silence regarding his critics is imbued with a great deal of wisdom.
In the end, we should not be as concerned with how we should handle traditionalists and papal critics as we should be with how we handle ourselves. We should take this opportunity to reflect on the mistakes that led so many once orthodox people down the path of dissent and rejection of papal authority. We must try to convert ourselves before we try to convert others. Once we do, then the correct way to handle the papal detractors will just flow naturally from there. On that regard I confess I am still a little green, but I’m working to get better.
I think that one of the mistakes we are more prone to, along with the Culture War mentality, is the Chosen People mentality. This mindset has been at the root of much of the rejection of God’s will since Old Testament times. We spend so much time defending the Church, that we start to think that the Church owes us something, that the Church can’t act without our blessing, that the Church is some kind of shared property.
Our defense of the Church is a noble effort to be sure, but not necessary. God does not need us to defend Him. He does not owe us when we defend Him. On the contrary, we are just being “useless servants,” doing nothing more than what we ought to do (Lk 17:10).
In my previous article, I explained how I think those who follow Pope Francis and all the rest of Church doctrine are the true remnant. People might think these words of mine are presumptuous and proud. Not so. As I explained there, being a remnant is not an honor, but a responsibility. It is not something we earned, but something bestowed upon us. The remnant does not exist for its own sake, but to perform a function. What function? To show God’s mercy to sinners, including papal detractors. In fact, it is even more important to show mercy to those, in order to overwhelm them and “shame” them with that mercy they so constantly denigrate. If a person boasts of being a part of the remnant, that person has already shown not to be a part of the remnant. I sincerely think that this has been one of the crucial errors done by radical traditionalists.
Another part of being humble means that we should accept diversity within the Church, even (or especially) the diversity we do not understand or do not agree with. The Catholic Church has a variety of legitimate liturgies, and this includes the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite. To accept (and even celebrate) this diversity and not to impose on others our own liturgical preferences is also extremely Catholic (meaning “universal“). Only the Pope and bishops in communion with him have the authority to set the limits of what is liturgically acceptable or not. And they have stated that the Extraordinary Form remains legitimate. In fact, according to Benedict, it “was never abrogated.“
In the end, how should we behave when we encounter a radical traditionalist? Humility must force us to admit we do not have an all-encompassing answer for that. In the beginning of this article I decried the labeling of people, and I stand by that assertion. Each person is an individual and therefore, our evangelization should be tailored accordingly. This is the logic of AL, and it should permeate our ministry.
I think it would be worth it to finalize with C.S. Lewis’ “Apologist’s Prayer“:
” From all my lame defeats and oh! much more
From all the victories that I seemed to score;
From cleverness shot forth on Thy behalf
At which, while angels weep, the audience laugh;
From all my proofs of Thy divinity,
Thou, who wouldst give no sign, deliver me.
Thoughts are but coins. Let me not trust, instead
[of Thee, their thin-worn image of Thy head.
From all my thoughts, even from my thoughts of Thee,
O thou fair Silence, fall, and set me free.
Lord of the narrow gate and the needle’s eye,
Take from me all my trumpery lest I die”
[Photo: Pope Francis celebrating Mass ad orientem at the Sistine Chapel; credits: AFP]
Pedro Gabriel, MD, is a Catholic layman and physician, born and residing in Portugal. He is a medical oncologist, currently employed in a Portuguese public hospital. A published writer of Catholic novels with a Tolkienite flavor, he is also a parish reader and a former catechist. He seeks to better understand the relationship of God and Man by putting the lens on the frailty of the human condition, be it physical and spiritual. He also wishes to provide a fresh perspective of current Church and World affairs from the point of view of a small western European country, highly secularized but also highly Catholic by tradition.