Reactionary Catholics often boast about the youthfulness of their movement. In many ways, the rise of reactionary traditionalism is playing out as an intergenerational struggle. While there are certainly many elderly traditionalists, and while the majority of young Catholics around the world have no interest in traditionalism, the movement is perceived, presented, and framed as a “new thing,” a reaction of younger generations against the influence of “boomer Catholics.” The reactionaries are not blind to the irony of this framing; in fact, they revel in it.
I agree that the situation is ironic, but I want to highlight some aspects of this ironic situation that are often missed due to the absence of a wider historical perspective. It is rooted, not in the authentic tradition of the Catholic Church, but in some distinctively modern social dynamics.
When this intergenerational conflict plays out at the parish level, the results can be extremely ugly. Parishioners who have dedicated their whole lives to a certain community suddenly find themselves being marginalized by reactionary newcomers who see the parish merely as a blank slate for their own ideas. Rather than embracing a truly “conservative” ethos of understanding and valuing a particular place, the young reactionaries are driven by placeless ideology; they have to hurry to leave their mark and claim their territory. Rather than the slow process of authentic renewal, they generally produce a destination parish, artificially inflating attendance by attracting liturgical tourists from a wide geographic area while ignoring the pre-existing community. These projects can show impressive “growth,” only to collapse just as rapidly when a reactionary pastor is reassigned, leaving the parish in shambles.
Quite apart from violating the respect due to one’s elders, such behavior is incompatible with a true appreciation of tradition. In Desiderio Desideravi, Pope Francis wrote about how tradition flows from parents to children, from the elderly to the young. A dismissal of the elderly is one of the many features that identify reactionary traditionalism as a “manufactured tradition,” a modern ideology rather than an authentic example of cultural inheritance. Instead of dealing with the painful complexities of real life, traditionalists are retreating into an imagined past, a past that does not contain their own parents and grandparents. Like time travelers in a horror story, they’ve returned to the past and in doing so have undercut the roots of their own existence.
I was a traditionalist before it was “cool,” and my traditionalist formation made me deeply suspicious of youth culture in general. I was never up on the latest fads or technology, which made me an outsider in my own age group. While I now realize that many elements of my traditionalist worldview were harmful or erroneous, I’ve retained a healthy suspicion of cultural fads—including traditionalism, which has now become the latest fad, driven by social media influencers and political realignments. The general phenomenon of youth culture is unique to the modern world; in any other era, the wisdom of the elderly counted for more than the whims of the young. In appealing to their movement’s supposed youthfulness, traditionalists demonstrate in yet another way that they are a thoroughly modern movement.
And yet, as I mentioned in an earlier essay, the young Catholics of today are not wrong in being discontented with the current state of affairs. The Boomer generation in the United States has not bequeathed us a healthy, vital Church; rather, they’ve left a legacy of decline.
This becomes even more interesting when one realizes the Boomer generation were themselves rebels against their parents. The Second Vatican Council called for renewal and reform, not violent rupture. In the USA and Europe, however, rebellion was the order of the day. Mirroring the wider upheavals of the sixties and seventies, Catholics destroyed religious art, rejected longstanding customs, and boldly set off to build a new Church on the wreckage of the old.
Traditionalists condemn this rebellion. Many of them say that they feel “cheated,” and that they’ve been robbed of their rightful inheritance. They condemn the past generations—even as they repeat their mistakes by creating yet another rupture in the continuity of the Church. If they wonder how the Catholics of the sixties could have been so quick to reject their heritage, they should look in the mirror. The young traditionalists of today are understandably discontented with the Church they have inherited; but the impatience of the young progressives of the sixties was even more understandable. Their parents and grandparents had plunged the world into war and destruction, and the ongoing Cold War threatened global destruction at any moment. The curtain had been pulled aside and the oppressive foundations of the world order were plainly visible. In Germany and Italy, this destruction had been undertaken in the name of national and ethnic “tradition.” In the United States, the smug self-satisfaction of the ’50s was an easy target for the moral indignation of the ’60s. Was it any wonder that the young men and women of the ’60s concluded that their parents were fools, and that it was their duty to build a new and better world? Was it any wonder that they rejected the very idea of tradition in favor of the new and novel?
However understandable their impatience was, their attitude of rebellion and their dismissal of their parents was wrong—and what was wrong then is wrong now. We can’t keep repeating this destructive, reactionary pattern of generational revolt. What was needed in the ‘60s is still needed today: not revolution but reform. And reform involves a recovery of roots. A reform implies that something is out of shape, but also that there is a certain shape to which it should return.
The Church is supposed to be shaped by the Gospel, and so authentic reform always means returning to the Gospel message. The Faith isn’t something static that can be inherited without effort. Rather, it is something that must always be chosen and lived out anew. It is notable that the rebels of the modern age, progressives and reactionaries alike, focus on the easy stuff. It is easy to smash old statues, and almost as easy to replace them. Such easy, aesthetic changes are a distraction from something that is not so easy: following Christ. To rebuild the Church, we must renew our discipleship rather than update our sanctuaries.
And we can only follow Christ as a community. Walking after Christ means walking with the motley crowd of his disciples. Such “walking with” can’t be merely a matter of formal membership or nominal association; Jesus prayed that we would be one as he and the Father are one. This does not mean that arguments about doctrine or liturgy or morals are unimportant; rather, such discussions can only be fruitful if they are motivated by love and are grounded in a shared commitment to Christ and to one another. We need to come together as a Church that is at once old and new, in which the young and the old can learn from one another. By entering into a loving dialogue with one another, we can “build up the body of Christ” and avoid being “tossed by waves and swept along by every wind of teaching arising from human trickery. … Rather, living the truth in love, we should grow in every way into him who is the head, Christ” (cf Ephesians 4:12-15).
Image: Adobe Stock. By sepy.