What’s the big deal about traditionalism? Surely it’s harmless enough? If people want their smells and bells, why not? Who knows? Maybe some of that old fashioned Catholicism will rub off on the modernized Church.
Well…. as an ex-priest of the Society of St Pius X, I have a different view. The phenomenon of traditionalism seems here to stay, and we have to deal with it. It is not innocuous. I would argue quite the contrary.
I converted to Catholicism from atheism in the early eighties. I was received into the Church in 1982, and soon after, I came into contact with the traditionalist community in my city, Adelaide, Australia. By now the 1984 Indult – permitting bishops to authorize the use of the 1962 Missal outside of parish churches – was being implemented, and I was invited to go and check out the Tridentine Mass.
I was fascinated – mesmerized – by what I experienced. The Mass was in a language I did not understand, the celebrant had his back turned to us most of the time, and the congregation participated in silence. It was mysterious, contemplative and utterly transfixing. Before long I had stopped going to Mass in my parish, attended a retreat conducted by the Society of St Pius X and applied to join its new seminary in Goulburn, Australia.
Now in the 80s there was a lot of experimentation going on. There were liturgical dances, clowns, house masses, lots of touchy-feely- holding- hands- around –the- altar kind of stuff. And that was unsettling for a neophyte. I had just joined this amazing society founded by God Himself, and straight away I was being invited to explore a multitude of paths, some of which invited me to review the very tenets I had just sworn to adhere to. I think the main attraction of the older liturgy was that in contrast it did not ask me to change. It gave me a sense of security, an assurance of unchanging truth in troubled times.
The appeal to security surely resonates today. The pandemic has turned the world upside down, and the secularism of the age offers no hope to human beings who innately crave meaning and purpose. Often churches do not clearly call out the materialist gospel of despair and even seem to pay homage to it. Traditionalists therefore appeal to a golden age when the true faith supposedly shone with clarity and majesty.
This fascination with the supposedly glorious past puts me in mind of the Trumpist cry, “Make America great again!” In a similar vein traditionalists appeal to some age when the streets were paved with gold and champagne gushed out of fountains. Of course, the truth about golden ages is that they are never golden. And just as Republicans hail a mythical age so traditionalists trumpet the praises of a glorious era of Catholicism before Vatican II.
The supposed security of traditionalism is demonstrably deceptive. As St Paul VI and the then Cardinal Ratzinger pointed out to the founder of the SSPX, Marcel Lefebvre, it is in the very nature of tradition to adapt to its times. So how can one canonize a set of ‘traditional’ practices and use it as a standard by which to judge all others? How can one refuse to recognize the legitimacy of the Missal of St Paul VI and yet accept the Missal of St John XXIII which prepared the way for it? Come to that, why reject the lesser known Missal of 1965, which is essentially the 1962 with a few modifications and large portions in the vernacular?
Indeed, there are traditionalist groups which do reject the ’62 liturgical reforms. Some even reject the 1955 reform of Holy Week and others think St Pius X was too liberal in his 1911 reform of the Divine Office. During my time with the Society of St Pius X I found an eclectic assortment of practices considered ‘traditional’. The three hour Eucharistic fast of Pius XII was fine but not the one hour fast of Paul VI. The solemn baptismal promises on Easter Saturday could be recited in the vernacular, according to the reform of Pius XII, but the vernacular could not be used at any other time. This, despite the fact that Pius had authorized publication of the Rituale Romanum in the vernacular and broadly extended the use of the vernacular ad experimentum in the missal.
I hope you see where I’m going with this. So-called traditionalists are in fact inventing tradition. They pick and choose the traditions that best accord with their own prejudices. As I pointed out to the then Superior-general of the SSPX, Bernard Fellay, when I left the Society, ‘The private interpretation of acts of the Magisterium is no less uncatholic than the private interpretation of Scripture.’ A colleague of mine in the US seminary mocked the Society’s attitude toward tradition with characteristic wit. He created a coat of arms for the Society consisting of two crossed colanders, imitating the keys of St Peter, with the motto ‘Whatsoever thou shall sieve on earth shall be considered sieved in heaven.’ The leadership of the Society picks and chooses what it considers traditional, and then binds its decisions on the faithful. The author of that satirical device was dubiously consecrated a bishop by an episcopus vagans (‘wandering bishop’), and sadly died in 2017. Please remember Terrence Fulham in your prayers. He was one of the more genuine rad trads and was trying to find his way home to Rome when he died.
How can the Society justify the use of the colanders? The Society of St Pius X makes no attempt to disguise the fact that they believe God gave special graces to Archbishop Lefebvre not only to govern the Society (which, bear in mind, remains a suppressed pious union [Canon 215], not a religious order) but also to preserve the Faith. The Society’s own claims about Lefebvre make the dogma of Papal Infallibility seem unremarkable. Just as Sola scriptura was a dogma for Martin Luther so Sola traditio secundum Lefebvrem is for the Society. Both false doctrines rely on the personal infallibility of their founders. Just as Lutherans believe that Luther’s approach to the interpretation of Scripture is the only authentic one and in accord with God’s will, so the SSPX reveres Lefebvre as the divinely-chosen defender of the Faith. Thus Catholics who seek security in traditionalism eventually find themselves, unwittingly or no, in the grip of tyranny. The adage about giving up a little freedom for a little security and losing both seems apt.
I would contend that this belief is not only schismatic but dangerously close to heresy, if not actually heretical. If a single man and the society he founded is the guarantor of Catholic truth then the universal Church can only become ‘whole’ again by reconciling to the Society, not the other way around. What then becomes of Christ’s guarantee of infallibility to Peter and the College of Bishops? It disappears. And if it is gone there is no guarantee the Church will never ‘fail’ again, nor that it has ever failed in the past. And in one fell swoop of logic, the Catholic Church is annihilated.
Traditionalists in union with Rome will no doubt object that this critique of traditionalism as espoused by the SSPX cannot apply to them. They simply prefer the older missal and feel enriched by it. I make no judgment about anyone’s experiences. However they owe their enjoyment of the 1962 Missal to the Society of St Pius X. The missal was conceded to the Society’s supporters to prevent them following Lefebvre into schism. And if they believe, contrary to the conditions of every indult granted, that the older missal is a more authentic expression of the lex orandi lex credendi then they are unwittingly submitting to the power of the colanders (I do not say they are heretics).
But didn’t I praise the ’62 Mass, calling it ‘mysterious, contemplative and utterly transfixing?’ And didn’t I concede the traditionalists’ craving for stability? Aren’t they still valid statements? I would answer yes with a but, or if you prefer, no with a however. And I would like to address that in my next article.
Main image: Adobe Stock. By Lamija.
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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.