Recently, “Pints with Aquinas” podcast host Matt Fradd posted a quote on his Facebook page by the well-known Companions of Christ priest Fr. Mark Goring, in which the Canadian-born pastor said, “The Lord is anointing the traditionalists. When people go to traditional masses, they’re experiencing God, and they’re staying, and it’s causing them to want to be holy and love Jesus. That’s the work of the Holy Spirit.”
For the sake of charity, I will not infer that Fr. Goring was implicitly suggesting that the Mass of St. Paul VI—the Ordinary Form (OF) of the Mass—is inferior to the Traditional Latin Mass, or the Extraordinary Form (EF). Nevertheless, this opinion is indeed very prevalent in certain circles. While this position is not erroneous in itself, it can lead to a dangerous attitude—one that is quite prevalent on social media and in other communities.
Not long ago, in a Catholic apologetics Facebook group, I saw a post by a Catholic convert asking the other members of the group for ways he could grow in his Catholic faith. A substantial number of the answers advised him to attend the EF Mass. One commenter even said something along the lines of: “Just attend the EF, and sit back while you feel the holiness coursing through you.”
This is ironic because these Catholics are well known for railing against the heresy of Modernism. They will exalt Pope St. Pius X’s encyclical Pascendi Dominici Gregis (PDG) as the greatest example of a defense of Catholic doctrine in the last century and a half, and they regularly quote one of its most startling conclusions: that Modernism is “the synthesis of all heresies” (PDG 39).
Yet for all their praise of the encyclical, I have found that very few have actually read it. In the document, Pius X took great care in defining Modernism before condemning it and proposing solutions to fight against it. Modernism is not a reference to everything modern. Nor is it related to doctrinal development, especially when developments have been validated by the Magisterium. “Modernism” is not a stamp that can be applied to everything one might disagree about in modern-day Church or society. Modernism is a well-defined intellectual movement, which Pius outlined very carefully in the first two-thirds of the encyclical.
This should concern us because the attitude I describe seems to dip its toes into one of the roots of modernism, as defined by Pius X.
In Pascendi, Pius shows how Modernism is born from philosophy and then disseminates to every aspect of Church life. He thus explains the characteristics of the modernist philosopher, and then the modernist believer. He then describes the modernist theologian. Finally, he explains the modernist historian, apologist, and reformer.
Regarding philosophy, Pius teaches that the roots of Modernism have a negative part and a positive part. When he says that there is a “positive” part, he is not saying that it is good, but rather that it illegitimately fills the emptiness left behind by the negative part.
The negative part is agnosticism. The positive part is religious immanentism. Many of today’s traditionalists, sadly, have shown signs of this second part—religious immanentism—in their approach to the faith. This is how Pius described it:
“The first actuation, so to say, of every vital phenomenon, and religion … has its origin, speaking more particularly of life, in a movement of the heart, which movement is called a sentiment. Therefore, since God is the object of religion, we must conclude that faith, which is the basis and the foundation of all religion, consists in a sentiment which originates from a need of the divine” (PDG 7).
What does this mean in practice, and how is it a corruption of Catholic faith and reason? Fr. John Hardon, SJ, the well-known and oft-quoted conservative author and speaker who died in the year 2000 (who we also discussed in this article), defined “immanentist apologetics” as:
“A method of establishing the credibility of the Christian faith by appealing to the subjective satisfaction that the faith gives to a believer. This method tends to ignore, if not deny, the corresponding value of objective criteria for accepting divine revelation, notably miracles and prophecies” (Fr. John Hardon, Modern Catholic Dictionary).
Because the modernist also embraces agnosticism, the principle that religion is all about the subjective experience of the believer leaves Catholicism open to radical deconstructionism. Essentially everything—be it doctrinal or dogmatic, or even pertaining to the hierarchy of the Church—is up for grabs, according to the sentiments of every individual. This is why Pius believed Modernism was so dangerous.
Of course, the radical traditionalist will say he rejects agnosticism, and therefore Pius X’s warnings do not apply to him. Likewise, radical traditionalism does not reduce Catholicism solely to the religious experience of the believer.
Yet, this objection does not exempt the radical traditionalist from Pius’s warnings—quite the contrary.
After defining the modernist philosopher, Pius goes on to describe the modernist believer. The believer, by definition, is not an agnostic. Unlike the philosopher, the believer will acknowledge that divine reality does indeed exist “in itself and quite independently of the person who believes it” (PDG 14). But this believer will go on to say that the foundation of this assertion rests in the “experience of the individual.”
“In the religious sentiment one must recognize a kind of intuition of the heart which puts man in immediate contact with the very reality of God, and infuses such a persuasion of God’s existence and His action both within and without man as to excel greatly any scientific conviction. They assert, therefore, the existence of a real experience, and one of a kind that surpasses all rational experience” (PDG 14).
Radical traditionalists often say they prefer the EF because it elicits a more authentic religious experience in them. The corollary is that they will harshly criticize the OF for failing to produce that same experience. Online, you can read many testimonies they write about how they felt the first time they attended the EF. It is not uncommon for them to express how they felt “robbed” of this profound way to connect with the divine.
The problem with this kind of reasoning, as Pius X so rightfully asserts, is that it opens the door to religious indifferentism. After all, all religions—Catholic or not—can elicit profound religious experiences in their believers. When the focus of one’s faith becomes the profound religious experience (something not unique to Christianity), this is not a far cry from the point where someone might “infer that all existing religions are equally true, for otherwise they would not live” (PDG 15).
The irony, of course, is that this proposition—that all religions are equally true—is especially abhorrent to radical traditionalists. But when someone bases the foundation of their faith in the religious experience they have when they attend the EF, is this much different from someone who abandons the Catholic faith because they had a profound religious experience in, say, a Protestant service or the rituals of an Eastern religion?
In the encyclical, Pius also condemns the inconsistency of the modernist believer. “Hence in their books you find some things which might well be expressed by a Catholic, but in the next page you find other things which might have been dictated by a rationalist.” (PDG 18). This is remarkably similar to many of the books and websites that provide a mix of incredibly well-written and orthodox articles about Catholic doctrine and articles that undermine the living Magisterium when it contradicts their ideology.
Afterward, Pius discusses the modernist theologian. He shows how this theologian synthesizes the premises of both the philosopher and the believer into a theology full of errors. Particularly important is how this modernist theologian views the Magisterium of the Church:
“This is their conception of the magisterium of the Church: No religious society, they say, can be a real unit unless the religious conscience of its members be one, and one also the formula which they adopt. But his double unity requires a kind of common mind whose office is to find and determine the formula that corresponds best with the common conscience, and it must have moreover an authority sufficient to enable it to impose on the community the formula which has been decided upon. From the combination and, as it were fusion of these two elements … arises, according to the Modernists, the notion of the ecclesiastical magisterium. And as this magisterium springs, in its last analysis, from the individual consciences and possesses its mandate of public utility for their benefit, it follows that the ecclesiastical magisterium must be subordinate to them, and should therefore take democratic forms” (PDG 25).
Even though the parallels are not perfect, I cannot help but notice how much radical traditionalists mimic this attitude at times. For them, the Magisterium seems to take on an abstract form, where offices are respected, but the people holding those offices are not obeyed. Pius’s concludes his analysis of the modernist theologian by describing how they respond to disciplinary measures or criticism, writing,
“With all this in mind, one understands how it is that the Modernists express astonishment when they are reprimanded or punished. What is imputed to them as a fault they regard as a sacred duty. Being in intimate contact with consciences they know better than anybody else, and certainly better than the ecclesiastical authority, what needs exist—nay, they embody them, so to speak, in themselves. Having a voice and a pen they use both publicly, for this is their duty. Let authority rebuke them as much as it pleases—they have their own conscience on their side and an intimate experience which tells them with certainty that what they deserve is not blame but praise” (PDG 27).
In this, Pius was prophetic. How often, in our own time, have we seen radical traditionalists or those who openly defy the pope and the bishops protest angrily when they are rebuked or disciplined?
Another parallel to our current situation is described early in the encyclical as a “very clever artifice.” Just as Pope Francis’s teaching today is met with claims of confustion and demand for clarification, Pius laments the dubia of modernist theologian, saying they “appear to be in doubt and uncertainty, while they are in reality firm and steadfast” (PDG 4).
And like today’s radical traditionalist, the modernist theologian was concerned about the long game. They understand that their goals will not be achieved all at once, but they realize the importance of gaining and maintaining a foothold in the Church, hoping to win converts and gradually transform the Church according to their vision:
“They have no bitterness in their hearts against the authority which uses them roughly (…) Their sole grief is that it remains deaf to their warnings, because delay multiplies the obstacles which impede the progress of souls … While they make a show of bowing their heads, their hands and minds are more intent than ever on carrying out their purposes. And this policy they follow willingly and wittingly, both because it is part of their system that authority is to be stimulated but not dethroned, and because it is necessary for them to remain within the ranks of the Church in order that they may gradually transform the collective conscience—thus unconsciously avowing that the common conscience is not with them, and that they have no right to claim to be its interpreters” (PDG 27).
Finally, I would like to address Pius’s description of the modernist apologist. He explains, “The aim he sets before himself is to make the non-believer attain that experience of the Catholic religion which, according to the system, is the basis of faith” (PDG 35).
This brings us back to that Facebook group, and the attitude of those welcoming the Catholic convert by simply directing him to the EF and other traditional devotions and practices. However, once the convert has been convinced, they will probably cast doubt on the legitimacy of the Second Vatican Council or Pope Francis’ teachings.
“But while they endeavor by this line of reasoning to secure access for the Catholic religion into souls, these new apologists are quite ready to admit that there are many distasteful things in it. Nay, they admit openly, and with ill-concealed satisfaction, that they have found that even its dogma is not exempt from errors and contradictions” (PDG 36).
I would like to make clear that I am not accusing everyone who engages in traditional forms of piety of being immanentists. I fully support Catholics who attend the EF—as long as they do so in full communion with Church and Council.
Nor do I wish to contradict the notion, attested by experience, that people can savor the divine by experiencing beauty. Certainly, we can lift our minds in contemplation of God by gazing upon Michelangelo’s Pietá, admiring the architecture of a gothic cathedral, listening to Mozart’s Requiem—or attending a Mass in the Extraordinary Form. Who can deny this? There is nothing wrong with attending the EF because it is the Mass you prefer or because you feel a closer connection with God when you attend it.
The problem emerges when this subjective experience of the individual is extrapolated into a kind of esthetical absolutism, as if the traditionalist’s feelings have any bearing on the legitimacy of the OF, let alone the authority of an Ecumenical Council or the Vicar of Christ.
The radical traditionalist who does this is falling into the pit of religious immanentism. This in itself does not make one a modernist, but this is one of Modernism’s roots, as Pius so aptly defined it. There are all sorts of interesting parallels between radical traditionalism and the modernist movement, and legitimate traditionalists should be on guard against them.
If we agree with Pius’s assertion that Modernism is the synthesis of all heresies, then it should not surprise us that every heterodoxy (even radical traditionalist heterodoxies) mirrors Modernism in some way. While engaging our senses in search of the divine is a worthy endeavor, we cannot allow subjectivism or sentimentalism to take control of our religious experience. To do so is to begin uprooting our faith from the objective standards of Catholicism, including the ecclesiastical Magisterium. We would do well to heed Pope St. Pius X’s excellent analysis of the errors of his age and ours.