In my last article, I discussed the dangers of traditionalism and finished by promising to address the traditionalist anxiety about change and instability, especially in the liturgy. Many traditionalists make no attempt to appreciate the significance of the Second Vatican Council and its associated reforms. Instead, they treat it as a sort of bogeyman and blame it for every problem in the modern Church—and this despite the fact that an increasing number of them were not even alive when the Council met! In the case of the liturgy, it is unfair to blame the frequently banal celebrations of the Vatican II liturgy on the Missal itself; in fact, such problems in the liturgy are caused by a failure to implement the General Instruction of the Roman Missal and the liturgical directives of the Vatican.
The cloud of ignorance and confusion that tends to surround any reform shouldn’t scandalize anyone. Almost every general council has been followed by a period of unrest – a tussle between reformers and resisters. The First Council of Nicaea, which defined the dogma of the divinity of Christ, was followed by a period in which Arianism rivaled Catholicism as the dominant form of Christianity. The Council of Trent was resisted not only by the Protestants but also by the Catholic princes of Europe; they did not want to surrender their “traditional” influence over the Church. Indeed, the kings of France accepted only its doctrinal decrees, but not its disciplinary rulings. This resistance to the Council of Trent is reminiscent of the way that the members of the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX) and other traditionalists sift through Vatican II, only accepting the statements they happen to agree with.
It can be tempting to cling to old paths and to shy away from the risks and adventure of reform. If such reluctance causes us to part with the College of Bishops, however, we should bear in mind the warning of Hilaire Belloc:
And always keep a-hold of Nurse
For fear of finding something worse.
(‘Jim’, from Cautionary Tales)
Don’t misunderstand me – every Catholic has a right to good liturgy and to the authentic guidance of the Church. Many of us have our places of refuge from the turmoil of the times. For me, it’s a Resurrectionist parish where the sanctuary is lovingly furnished (with perhaps a few too many reliquaries) and the vestments are simple and dignified. The priest observes the rubrics beautifully, and he doesn’t interrupt the liturgy to explain things that are clear enough from the text. For me, the cherry on the top is that he still uses the chalice veil and burse. Yet we need to be careful in our quest for liturgical purity lest we find something worse than unsatisfactory liturgies.
Traditionalists, of course, would have us believe there is nothing worse than an unsatisfactory liturgy. Well, there is something worse, and it’s an obsession with liturgical rectitude that admits of no latitude and gives no quarter. Dialogue with traditionalists is notoriously difficult, for they begin with the premise that their own model of liturgical purity, whether it be the Missal of St. John XXIII or of St. Pius V, is a sine qua non.
This spiritual snobbery not only damages the bond of charity with other Catholics but turns in on itself. The 18th-century writer Jacques Mallet du Pan famously wrote that “the Revolution devours its children,” and this adage can easily be applied to traditionalists. I saw this very clearly during my time with the SSPX. The infighting was all terribly hypocritical, for the Society has long used a bizarre hybridization of different liturgies. The arguments over such things as whether ministers should genuflect during the prayer for the Jews on Good Friday were truly absurd.
Perhaps I can, like Belloc, illustrate my point with a cautionary tale. During a series of meetings concluding in 2012, the SSPX and the Holy See tried to find common ground in a cautiously respectful attitude toward the Second Vatican Council. The talks ultimately came to nothing, but the mere fact that such talks were occurring led to a rift in the Society. Hardline clergy who feared that the SSPX had become infected with “modernism” left the Society or were expelled; most notably among them Bishop Richard Williamson of Holocaust denial fame.
A priest named Joseph Pfeiffer was also among those who left the Society at this time. Pfeiffer and I had both been seminarians at Winona, MN when Williamson was rector. Soon rifts began to appear even in the “Resistance” movement, as the new schism was informally called. Pfeiffer criticized Williamson not only for refusing to ordain candidates in his own cardboard seminary but for suggesting – horror of horrors – that the “Novus Ordo” Mass could in some circumstances nourish faith. Pfeiffer now forbids his people not only from attending Society and indult masses but also those of the “False Resistance.” For him, the seat of the true religion is no longer Rome, nor even the SSPX, but his small backyard chapel and “seminary” just off the Bluegrass Parkway near Boston, Kentucky.
Alas, the insanity does not stop there. Desperate to ordain his seminarians, Pfeiffer had himself consecrated in 2020 by a man by the name of Neal Webster. If that name is not familiar to you, it is because it is not familiar to anyone. It seems Webster belongs to a line of bishops tracing their orders to the unhappy Archbishop Ngô Đình Thục (d. 1984). Thuc was also responsible for “Pope” Gregory XVII, ‘The Very Great’, the seer who transferred the See of Peter to Palmar de Troya, Spain, and proclaimed that the Blessed Virgin Mary is substantially present in the Eucharist. A video exists showing Webster, obviously unwell, being guided through Pfeiffer’s so-called “consecration” and making an unholy botch of it. Indeed Pfeiffer has spent much energy defending the ceremony, initially alleging that he was consecrated again to supply for the first consecration’s defects, then stating there was nothing wrong with the first attempt.
But that’s not all. Webster is a Feeneyite and a sedevacantist. As far as I know, Pfeiffer is neither (though he does teach that the revolution of the sun around the earth is a dogma of faith). Yet from now on he dare not preach on either topic for fear of reproach.
An extreme example, I grant, but the story does show how the quest for purity can take us to strange, insular, and dangerous places. Purists become their own guiding stars. They abandon reason and mercy, drifting almost imperceptibly into hatred and isolation. Pope Francis writes of the fate of this “isolated conscience” in Let Us Dream:
It’s remarkable how quickly the isolated conscience deteriorates, spiritually and psychologically. Having separated them from the body of the People of God, the devil continues to feed such people fallacies and half-truths that close them off ever more in their Tarshishes of self-righteousness.
You can hear this anger, hatred, and condemnation in much of ‘Bishop’ Pfeiffer’s preaching. Traditionalists construct small boxes and try to stuff God into them. When they realize that He won’t fit, they make God small enough to be contained.
We might contrast the Pfeiffer tale with another, involving a priest many of us know and love. He may not wear full clerical dress. He may ad-lib parts of the Mass. He may frequently be in trouble with his bishop (which is not necessarily a badge of shame). But he is always welcoming; he treats us as if our lives have value and are worth living. He’s always there for us, and if we need help we would rather turn to him than to the primmest liturgical purist.
I repeat my statement: good liturgy is important, but at what price? There are ways in which we can work to improve the liturgy without falling into ever-more-isolated radical traditionalism. We can become more liturgically aware by reading Church documents on the topic—the Sacred Constitution on the Liturgy, and the General Instruction on the Roman Missal, among others. We can talk to our pastors. Join the choir. Sit on the liturgy committee of the Parish Council. We can participate by becoming a lector, acolyte, usher, or extraordinary minister of the Eucharist. If we’re not part of the solution we risk becoming part of the problem.
The Pfeiffers and Williamsons among us will choose to remain outside of the tent. As I mentioned, dialogue with them is difficult. Nevertheless, we have the same means of reaching out to them as we have always had: courtesy, kindness, and prayerful love. My own journey back to the Church began with a visit from a local priest, who came to wish me well on the patronal feast day of the SSPX. The tiniest gestures, if done with love, can produce the greatest results. If traditionalists try to restrict the grace of God, the rest of us must show by our lives that his mercy has no limits.
Gary Campbell is a freelance writer living in Australia, writing history and educational literature. He has also worked as a schoolteacher. Gary was a member of the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX) for 12 years, including as an ordained priest for five years. He was reconciled to Rome in 1999 and laicized.