Reactionary traditionalists[1] criticize all sorts of things about the mainstream Church, from architectural styles to papal pronouncements, from ecumenism to the use of the term “Holy Spirit.” Among this storm of criticism, however, one overarching concern stands out; traditionalists feel that the mainstream Church lacks enthusiasm. They point to many symptoms of this lack; the empty pews, the aging congregations and clergy, and the suburban, banal nature of contemporary parish life. In place of this dreary failure, they present themselves as the incoming wave of the future; young, smart, attractive, and enthusiastic.

I find the traditionalist project to be deeply flawed and unworkable, as I’ve detailed in many of my posts for WPI. And while traditionalists may say that one can’t argue with success, I say that one can. Just because something is successful doesn’t mean it is right—and in any case, the success of the traditionalist movement is much less impressive than it may seem. They boast of their crowded parishes and thriving seminaries, but forget that such institutions are drawing from a wide geographic area. The traditionalists may be able to solidly fill a parish or two in a given city, but for every such parish, the mainstream Church is half filling hundreds of parishes. Further, traditionalism is only really popular in the decaying nations of the so-called “developed world”; the post-colonial Catholics of South America, Africa, and Asia show little interest in reactionary rhetoric and restorationist liturgies.

Still, while the traditionalist solution may be lacking, both practically and theoretically, there is something to be said for the traditionalist critique of the mainstream Catholic experience in the USA. Certainly, our suburban parishes leave something to be desired. The only thing keeping many dioceses from total collapse is an influx of migrants and foreign priests; home-grown vocations have all but disappeared in many places. Venerable Catholic institutions are now mere shells of their former selves. As I pointed out in a previous essay, the dominant anti-culture of the USA makes proper enculturation of the liturgy difficult; in turn, this lack of enculturation has hampered the proper implementation of the liturgical reform. Underlying all these problems, there certainly is a perceptible lack of enthusiasm. While many mainstream Catholics do take their faith seriously, there’s still an atmosphere of merely cultural or habitual Catholicism at an average Catholic parish. This kind of Catholicism seems to be dying out; it hasn’t successfully perpetuated itself. But for the time being, it colors the tone of parish life in the USA.

This lack of enthusiasm largely explains the rise of traditionalism. From personal experience, I know that young people tend to join the traditionalist movement because they are dissatisfied with what is on offer elsewhere. Such dissatisfaction doesn’t necessarily revolve around the liturgy; in some cases, what they are looking for is simply some enthusiasm. They want to find a group of Catholics who take the Faith seriously; they correctly sense that there is more to the Faith than is found in the average parish.

That being said, enthusiasm can be a dangerous thing. At times, it might seem like we could get along better without it! Enthusiastic movements have a long and checkered history in the Church. In his book Enthusiasm, Ronald Knox chronicles the many enthusiastic movements that have led to schisms in the Church, from the Montanists to the Cathars to the Jansenists. In every case, enthusiastic Christians have rejected an establishment seen as staid, compromising, and worldly, only to end up building their own parallel structures and institutions. And yet, Knox concludes by reminding the reader that we can’t do without enthusiasm. After all, the saints were extremely enthusiastic, and without saints, there would soon be no Church.

The danger in enthusiastic movements truly lies in the “movement” aspect rather than in the “enthusiastic” aspect. The tragedy of such movements is that they misdirect and squander the enthusiasm that could have served to renew the Church. Instead of renewal, they lead to fragmentation and decay.

Traditionalism follows this typical pattern; they boast of high growth rates, but what such growth often amounts to is “stealing” a few enthusiastic families from each parish in a given diocese and congregating them in one place. Christ called us to be the yeast that would leaven the world; he didn’t want all the yeast to stay isolated in a special packet in the refrigerator! The radicality and enthusiasm of the traditionalist movement are too often self-referential and inward-looking.

Also, while some traditionalists try to let their Faith inform their whole lives, many traditionalists live in a surprisingly ordinary, worldly manner. Devout Christians are always in danger of conflating a particular kind of ritual observance with the fulfillment of the Gospel; this trap is the great danger of traditionalism. In the traditionalist movement, the enthusiasm that could have been truly life-changing is drained away into ritual and devotional life. It isn’t that rituals and devotions are inimical to the spiritual life; rather, it is that such rituals should nourish the spiritual life so that it can bear fruit. Too often the rituals are seen as ends in themselves. It would be as if a gardener measured success by how much seed, water, and fertilizer were being applied, rather than by the fruit of such applications.

Further, there is always the danger that the enthusiasm which does exist among traditionalists will get funneled into dubious directions. Reactionary traditionalists who desire something truly “different” often end up joining cult movements or dragging their families off to isolated homesteads. The Society of St. John with their planned model village in rural Pennsylvania is a great example of this tendency, as is the more recent Veritas Splendor community in Texas. And many radical traditionalists end up becoming frustrated keyboard warriors, trapped in a toxic world of conspiracy theories and hatred.

Faced with such “enthusiasm,” it is understandable that some Catholics reject enthusiasm altogether. If enthusiasm produces such results, they say, we’re better off without it. Better lukewarm cultural Catholics than neo-crusader reactionaries! But we do need enthusiasm. Human beings can’t get along without some kind of enthusiasm. The important question is: enthusiasm for what? Lukewarm cultural Catholics might not be enthusiastic about the Faith—but they are enthusiastic about something. And those enthusiasms might be quite as ugly as those of the crusading reactionary. We only need to think of our society’s increasingly vicious politics, its increasing violence and addiction, and its soft indifference to the plight of the poor to realize this. If we don’t worship Christ, we’ll worship idols of one sort or another—and all idols demand human sacrifice in the end.[2]

In a very deep sense, the cultural, unreflective, habitual Catholicism of the “Sunday go to meeting” Catholic and the reactionary dreams of the traditionalist are deeply allied. The semantic connection between “culture” and “tradition” points toward this relationship, as does the reactionary traditionalist’s desire for power. Traditionalism not only misdirects and suppresses enthusiasm in the here and now; it would do so on a society-wide scale if it ever became ascendant. Subconsciously, reactionary traditionalists want to replace the risky and dangerous necessity of choosing for or against Christ with a culture and a society that would direct people toward him automatically. They may not realize this, but everything in the movement tends in this direction. Parents join the movement hoping that it will keep their children from leaving the Faith. Integralists desire the ability to protect the Gospel by the use of force. Depending on whether they are old cold warriors or medievalist romantics, traditionalists look with fondness on either the American Catholic experience of the 1950s or the Christian culture of the High Middle Ages. In both cases, these were societies that destroyed themselves from within. The cultural and political dominance of medieval Catholicism obscured the Gospel, setting the stage for the Reformation and for the modern rejection of the Faith. And the US Catholic Church of the 40s and 50s produced…the US Catholic Church of the 60s and 70s. In other words, it produced the post-Vatican II era that traditionalists loathe, and whose remnants are fading as we speak. In a certain way, it could be said that the pre-Vatican II “traditional” Church, with its cultural Catholicism, formalism, and minimalism, produced the moral and institutional breakdown that became apparent in the 60s. In turn, this era of chaos produced the traditionalist movement. Traditionalists have confused cause and effect; in a stunningly ironic misreading of the times, they are replanting the very seeds that led to their own worst nightmare.

Facing the ongoing decline of the mainstream Church in the “developed world” and the parallel spread of reactionary extremism, it is time to try something truly different. Vatican II pointed the way. What is needed today is what the world has always needed: saints. In a critically important passage, the Council Fathers declared:

Therefore, all the faithful of Christ are invited to strive for the holiness and perfection of their own proper state. Indeed they have an obligation to so strive. Let all then have care that they guide aright their own deepest sentiments of soul. Let neither the use of the things of this world nor attachment to riches, which is against the spirit of evangelical poverty, hinder them in their quest for perfect love. Let them heed the admonition of the Apostle to those who use this world; let them not come to terms with this world; for this world, as we see it, is passing away. (Lumen Gentium 42)

As Lumen Gentium took care to stress, there is no two-track program in the Church. Before the Council, sanctity had come to be seen as something exceptional, something generally reserved for priests and vowed religious. This is a fatal misunderstanding of the Gospel. While it is true that the sanctity of vowed religious and the sanctity of the laity will look different, it is nevertheless true that we are all called to the heights of sanctity.

Pope Francis has frequently reiterated the Council’s call to sanctity. During his homily for the beatification Mass of Blessed Pope John Paul I, Pope Francis explained that Jesus presented a challenging message to the crowds. Many people followed Jesus in hopes of fame or power or worldly gain, just as many still follow him for selfish reasons; but Jesus calls all of us to self-denial and sacrificial love. We can become true disciples only by imitating Jesus. Such imitation requires surrendering everything that stands in the way of total commitment. This teaching seems hard; but as Pope Francis rightly noted, it is the only way to true fulfillment and peace in life. The temptation is to refuse the risk of love and live our lives “halfway”; instead, we must live the Gospel without any compromises.

For some people, the Pope’s emphasis on mercy can obscure his radical message. Mercy, however, is the most radical thing of all. In the modern world, mercy tends to be seen as a lowering of the bar, a watering down of the Gospel message. In reality, mercy is precisely the Christian response to failure. Without a standard, there is no failure, and so no need for mercy. Given the extraordinarily high standard that Christ sets for us, we will all fall from time to time; we are all sinners before God. In his mercy, God, who “knows what we are made of” tenderly helps us to our feet after each fall so that we can renew our struggle for sanctity. Pope Francis calls us to the deepest radicality, the greatest enthusiasm of all: the enthusiasm of love. And this loving enthusiasm allows us to imitate the merciful love of God.

The Church in the United States has not heeded the call of Pope Francis, just as it largely ignored the call of the Second Vatican Council. In God’s mercy, however, it is never too late. Today, we can allow the Gospel to transform us, and through us, it can transform our families, our parishes, our communities, and our world.


[1] As always, I’m using the terms “traditionalist” and “traditionalism” to refer to individuals and groups who claim that the Tridentine Liturgy is objectively, not subjectively, superior to the Liturgy promulgated by Pope Paul VI, and that the Pope Paul VI’s liturgy is inherently problematic or inferior. Such individuals and groups tend to oppose Pope Francis and ignore or reject the Second Vatican Council. I’m not talking about those who have a subjective preference for older or more ornate forms of liturgy. That is why I added the term “reactionary” to the first use of the term in this essay.

[2] But what about Vatican II’s more open and tolerant approach to other religions? Can’t hints of the truth be found in other religious traditions? I think it is important to keep in mind that the Church still teaches that salvation can only be found in and through Jesus Christ. It is simply that the modern Church has come to realize God’s grace can reach those outside the formal structures of the Catholic Church. An atheist who devotes himself to serving the poor IS serving Christ—even though he doesn’t realize it. A Muslim who feeds the poor for the sake of Allah is serving Christ—even though he doesn’t realize it. A Catholic who devotes himself to serving his own selfish desires is serving an idol—even though he doesn’t realize it. And such an idol will eventually demand human sacrifice. The one who could have fed the poor, and did not do so, is a murderer. This is the point of the parable of the sheep and the goats; both the sheep and the goats were surprised.

Image: Adobe Stock. By Valmedia.

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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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