October 31st marks Reformation Day, which is the anniversary of the day in 1517 when Martin Luther nailed the 95 theses to the door of the Wittenberg Cathedral. It marks the beginning of one of the greatest spiritual disasters against Christian unity and leading to centuries of conflict and cultural upheaval in the West. Easter 2024 will mark my five-year anniversary as a Roman Catholic following a Protestant upbringing. In my last article, “The Rise of Anti-Catholic Catholicism,” I mentioned that after becoming Catholic, I discovered a new variant of anti-Catholicism — one that is found in radical traditionalism. I mentioned that the approaches and attitudes expressed by members of the traditionalist movement towards the pope and hierarchy, as well as their ecclesiology, are similar to that of the Protestant mindset. In this article, I wish to provide some examples that demonstrate how the praxis of traditionalism directly parallels the modus operandi of Protestantism. Many of my fellow Catholic converts from Protestantism will recognize the similarities between the Protestant and traditionalist Catholic mentalities — that is, unless they have fallen into the world of radical traditionalism themselves.
In Catholicism, the visible source of unity is the pope (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church no. 882). In Protestantism, however, the principal source of “unity” for the individuals within its countless denominations is scripture. From an outsider’s perspective, one might imagine that Protestant Christians are unified because they attend church on Sundays, sing hymns of praise and elevation, read the Bible, and share other common practices across these many groups. But once you take a closer look and examine the praxis of Protestantism and its operative systems of theological and moral conduct, you will realize that it is not a perfect reality.
In Protestantism, there are many divisions among individuals and groups caused by disagreements over any of a number of issues. These divisions often lead people to leave their churches — either to join a different church, establish a new one, or leave for another denomination. Some split over differing interpretations of scripture. Others are divided over which translation of the Bible is correct. Some groups split over the pastor’s core beliefs and principles. Others come apart over opinions on what style of music should be used in “authentic worship.”
Within the world of Protestantism we see people immerse themselves in apocalypticism and conspiracy theories — ranging from those who believe that we are in the end times to people who believe that secret societies control the world’s governments and will one day enact laws that will persecute “faithful Christians.” Many think that a one-world government, under the leadership of the Antichrist, will soon place restrictions on public worship and private practice of religion, meaning that the “Remnant” Church of Jesus Christ will suffer.
Some groups and individuals who recognize the divisions in Protestantism will adopt an “agree to disagree” mentality that suggests it ultimately doesn’t matter what denomination you belong to or the particular theological and moral stances you hold. For these Protestants, simply having faith in Jesus is all that matters in the end. The justification for this stance goes back to Protestantism’s modus operandi — the solas of the Reformation, particularly Sola Scriptura — the idea that scripture alone is the rule of faith for a Christian. Under this principle, everyone has the right to read and interpret Scripture according to his or her conscience because God Himself gives each person the inspiration to do so.
Parallels in Traditionalist Catholicism
In the world of traditionalist Catholicism, particularly in its more radical strains, the principal source of unity is “tradition” — or, rather, their interpretation of what tradition is. From an outsider’s perspective, one might believe there is a form of unity among traditionalists, but a closer analysis of this movement reveals a multitude of divisions between them.
Catholic traditionalism, like Protestantism, relies on the individual’s interpretation of what is true. Even though they are presented under the guise of objectivity, universal truths are thrown out the window and relativism and subjectivism are the real norms of expression in this movement. Traditionalists argue among themselves on questions as foundational as whether to accept the authority and legitimacy of the Second Vatican Council, the liceity (and even the sacramental validity) of the liturgical reforms following the council, whether it’s permissible to attend the reformed Roman Rite (even when the Latin Mass is not available), whether the use of Natural Family Planning is a mortal sin, and the legitimacy of the canonizations of saints after Vatican II. Some tell their followers and faithful to reject the Catechism of the Catholic Church in favor of the Roman Catechism or the Baltimore Catechism (or Credo).
Many are consumed — to the point of fanaticism — over liturgical preferences to the point where they reject any obligation to obey liturgical laws and regulations promulgated after the Council. Such traditionalists regard any form of liturgical discipline as an apparent assault against ‘tradition” — or rather, what they interpret tradition to be.
Much of the traditionalist movement is consumed with conspiracy theories. Many traditionalists immerse themselves in various forms of apocalypticism and obsess over notions — often fueled by unapproved private revelations and prophecies — that the Catholic Church is currently in a state of apostasy. They believe that the “true Catholics” are those who will wage war against the “conciliar Church,” which they think has been taken over by forces of spiritual darkness and evil. They believe that they are the “remnant” of the true Church, and that through their faithfulness and fidelity to “tradition,” they and a select handful of clerics (who are all that remain of the hierarchy of the Church) are the last guardians of Catholicism.
Traditionalists have a tendency to church-hop from one parish to another in search of a priest and community that conform to their understanding of tradition, reverence, sacred music, and orthodoxy. They will drive for hours on Sunday mornings in search of a chapel that meets their preferences.
Some traditionalists, however, are willing to set aside theological and aesthetic disagreements, “agreeing to disagree” because at the end of the day their commitment to the pre-Vatican II Mass and the principle of upholding “tradition” ultimately unifies them. Many of these disagreements are serious, but these unifying principles have always existed in the traditionalist movement, at least among non-sedevacantists since Vatican II. This notion most recently rose to prominence under the banner of “Unite the Clans,” a slogan appropriated from the film Braveheart by Michael Matt, editor of the traditionalist newspaper The Remnant, back in 2019.
Is history repeating?
Are we witnessing the genesis of a new Protestant Reformation among those who champion “tradition”? In recent years, there appears to be an increasing number of Catholics who are unashamedly repeating the errors of Luther and the Reformers with regard to the papacy and magisterial authority. We also see in this movement the adoption of the spirit of Americanism and political ideas that are incompatible with the teachings of the Magisterium. Traditionalist media outlets and well-known commentators such as Eric Sammons, Peter Kwasniewski, Taylor Marshall, Kennedy Hall all promote a common sentiment — that they claim to believe in the papacy and the Magisterium of the Catholic Church in theory, but in reality, they reject the authority of the pope and any Church teachings that conflict with their notion of “tradition.”
These traditionalists sit in judgment of the Magisterium. Effectively their proclamations serve to override magisterial teachings in matters of faith and morals. They offer their assent to themselves and their own personal judgements, putting themselves in the driver’s seat. They place their own consciences above the deposit of faith. This is the essence of Protestantism.
Radical traditionalists will agree with the Magisterium insofar as the Magisterium is in agreement with them. If the Magisterium says something they do not like, they will “correct” the Magisterium in accordance with what they interpret “tradition” to be. Some will go as far as accusing the Magisterium of heresy. All the while, they call themselves “true Catholics” and insist that they are guarding the deposit of faith and tradition.
In the footsteps of Luther
This very notion was first championed and enunciated by Martin Luther at the Diet of Worms on April 18, 1521 (emphasis added):
“Since your most serene majesty and your highnesses require of me a simple, clear, and direct answer, I will give one, and it is this: I cannot submit my faith either to the pope or to the council, because it is clear that they have fallen into error and even into inconsistency with themselves. If, then, I am not convinced by proof from Holy Scripture, or by cogent reasons, if I am not satisfied by the very text I have cited, and if my judgment is not in this way brought into subjection to God’s word, I neither can nor will retract anything; for it cannot be either safe or honest for a Christian to speak against his conscience. Here I stand. I cannot do otherwise. God help me. Amen.”
— Martin Luther’s Speech at the Diet of Worms, 1521
Luther is, in essence, saying that he will submit to his own conscience and his personal interpretation of what constitutes and biblically sound doctrine, tradition, and revelation because he determined that the ecclesiastical powers of his time and the past have contradicted what councils and other popes have taught. He is asserting that unless someone can convince him that what the Catholic Church teaches is both biblical and in harmony with the deposit of faith, he will submit to his conscience and his interpretations. This pattern of thought is the framework of the thesis of traditionalism and is found in statements that traditionalists repeat ad infinitum such as the following:
“Pope Francis’s teaching on the death penalty is in contradiction with Scripture and Sacred Tradition.”
“Amoris Laetitia is not in continuity with divinely revealed truths.”
“The Second Vatican Council’s teaching on religious liberty is in direct violation of the Church’s previous teachings on the matter.”
“I will not obey Traditionis Custodes because it is a violation of justice and outside the scope of the pope’s authority.”
“I don’t follow the pope, I follow Jesus.”
Do you see the thought process at work? This mentality ultimately places the individual member of the laity or the average cleric as the authentic interpreter of divine law and tradition, over and above the authority of the pope and the official teachings and laws of the Church. Traditionalists assume that their preferred interpretations of the Magisterium are correct, and they are free to disregard what the living Magisterium teaches. This is similar to the Protestant notion of the individual’s freedom to interpret of Sacred Scripture. With this mindset, one is free to disregard what their own pastor or bishop says and instead abide by whatever seems most traditional to them. Likewise, Protestants are typically free to disagree with their pastors in order to follow their own personal understandings of Scripture.
A Protestant is not only free to go to a different church, but also to completely ignore a teacher that they personally disagree with. Many Protestant denominations allow congregations to fire their pastors based on doctrinal differences. In the end, the individual Protestant pastor has no power to bind consciences, even if some will try to say they do. Catholicism does not allow for this understanding of authority or doctrinal diversity. In fact, the Church teaches that adopting such approaches is an endangerment to one’s salvation, leading down the path of heresy, apostasy and schism. Our will and intellect are required to grant assent to what the authentic and living Magisterium teaches.
You will often hear people say something along the lines of, “tradition is the future,” or “the future of Catholicism is traditional.” While those phrases may sound innocent and theologically accurate, what they are really describing is the ideology of traditionalism — not tradition. Implicit in these statements is the belief that Rome is not following tradition, and that traditionalists are the “true Catholics.” According to this ideology, Rome is not upholding tradition, and Rome has ipso facto ceased preserving doctrinal and moral truths. For all practical purposes, traditionalists believe that Rome has defected.
But the tradition of the Church makes it abundantly clear that the See of Rome cannot defect from the faith and cannot bind the universal Church to error. For Catholics, this system is based on a unified structure in which the divine promises of Our Lord to the Church cannot be broken, nullified, or called into question. The papacy is the unifying principle by which it cannot lead souls astray.
If Rome is not upholding tradition, then who is?
Ultimately, this is the key question.
If the center of the Church is not upholding tradition, then the Catholic Church cannot be traditional. Catholics are part of a unified structure, and without its source of unity Catholicism has no valid claim to be the Church Christ founded. By definition, the See of Rome — the papacy — has, will, and must always be “traditional” until the end of time. Traditionalists might argue that the pope doesn’t always has to do the right thing all the time. This is certainly true. But the traditionalist idea that the pope consistently makes dogmatic and authoritative decisions and doctrinal decrees that oppose their idea of “tradition,” the logical implication is that “tradition” exists outside the hierarchical structure of the Church. The papacy becomes irrelevant and unnecessary.
This is, at its heart, crypto-Protestantism. Note that one of the major objections that Protestants make against the Catholic Church is that the Church, at some point in history, ceased to uphold the truth and that true Christians are those who preserved the truth outside the institutional Church, which had fallen into a form of apostasy.
Traditionalists who refuse to accept or follow the teachings of the living Magisterium are forced to decide the point at which the Church deviated from the true faith. The problem is that they must overlook the numerous magisterial condemnations of this type of private judgment, such as that of Pope Pius XI in Casti Connubii:
“Wherefore, let the faithful also be on their guard against the overrated independence of private judgment and that false autonomy of human reason. For it is quite foreign to everyone bearing the name of a Christian to trust his own mental powers with such pride as to agree only with those things which he can examine from their inner nature, and to imagine that the Church, sent by God to teach and guide all nations, is not conversant with present affairs and circumstances; or even that they must obey only in those matters which she has decreed by solemn definition as though her other decisions might be presumed to be false or putting forward insufficient motive for truth and honesty. Quite to the contrary, a characteristic of all true followers of Christ, lettered or unlettered, is to suffer themselves to be guided and led in all things that touch upon faith or morals by the Holy Church of God through its Supreme Pastor the Roman Pontiff, who is himself guided by Jesus Christ Our Lord…”
— Pope Pius XI, Casti Connubii, 1930
Traditionalists often try to re-frame the issue in terms of papal infallibility. When they do this, they ignore the key issue — the indefectibility of the Roman See. The unavoidable implication of traditionalist arguments is that they are only plausible if one accepts that Rome has defected in some form. Traditionalists will try to say otherwise, but there’s no escaping that they believe the papacy must be resisted and has taught errors and heresies for over 60 years. If that is not defection, then what is?
Just as Protestants decide what “true Christianity” is for themselves, based on private interpretation of the Bible, every traditionalist decides what “real Catholicism” is for themselves, based on their own interpretation of tradition. Just as Protestants have decided that Sacred Scripture is their highest teaching authority, traditionalists have elevated “tradition” above every living authority. Both Protestants and traditionalists, having rejected the pope — the authentic interpreter of scripture and tradition — are left with nothing but their own judgement as an interpretive key.
It is becoming increasingly clear to me that a traditionalist schism will come. It will be a new reformation, and it will see its task is protecting “true Catholicism.” It is evident, not just on social media but in parishes and communities, that more and more Catholics have succumbed to the dangerous ideology of radical traditionalism. Many evangelicals and politically conservative Protestants are beginning to follow and endorse anti-papal resistance groups such as the SSPX. They are united with traditionalists under the pretense that Pope Francis is harming the world through his supposedly evil agenda. Many popular Catholic figures, both lay and clerical, champion traditionalism and have made statements opposing Pope Francis. I believe many of these Catholics will be the new “reformers.” In 21st-century North America, we are repeating what happened over 500 years ago in Europe. There is an open rebellion against the Catholic hierarchy under the guise of guarding God’s Word and unchangeable truths. This is not true Catholicism, this is rebellion. And what it promises is not the Catholic faith. The Church has traveled through turbulent waters many times. When the winds and the waves get more dangerous, the solution is not to jump out of the Ark of Salvation.
The Church is the Pearl of Great Price, the Mystical Body of Christ. The Pope is God’s Vicar on Earth. Every human creature must be subject to him in all things pertaining to matters of faith and morals. The thesis of traditionalism is in direct conflict with the Catholic faith. I cannot endorse such a position, because doing so is to deny the very articles of Catholic doctrine that I received, accepted, and defended so strongly prior my conversion. Let this be a warning: traditionalism is the new Protestantism. I do not wish to relive it again, nor do I wish for anyone else to accept it.
“To be Christian one must be Roman; one must recognize the oneness of Christ’s Church, that is governed by one successor of the Prince of the Apostles, who is the Bishop of Rome, Christ’s Vicar on earth.”
-Pope Pius XII
Image: Ferdinand Pauwels, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Clyde Guzman is a Catholic social media apologist on a varity of platforms. A former Seventh-day Adventist, he converted to Catholicism and was formally received into the Church on Easter 2019.
In the past, Clyde has been active in political and pro-life organizations, but stepped away from active involvement in both areas in 2021 to focus on his education and Catholic Spirituality.
Mr. Guzman is currently a university student studying Architecture, Civil Engineering, and Computer Science. He is an avid supporter of the “Fifth Marian Dogma” and is currently in the beginning stages of writing his first book, about his life in the Adventist Church and his conversion to Catholicism.