There’s something in human nature that motivates us to imagine ways of getting out of impossible binds, solving the unsolvable, or that allow us to go back in time to undo the undesirable situations where we find ourselves. When we have a freak injury or if we cause a car accident, we might play that scenario over and over again in our heads, wishing to have that split second back and avoid all the trouble that followed. At other times, we might daydream about fictional future situations where we win the lottery, become famous or wealthy, or imagine an unrequited crush finally reciprocating our love.

Most of us eventually learn to keep our imaginations in check, although anyone who buys a lottery ticket or pushes the button on a slot machine, likely gives themself a moment to consider what might be. Creatives have channeled these impulses into their art, from the deus ex machina in Ancient Greek drama to superhero comics to romantic comedies. Just think about how many soap operas and serialized television shows have brought characters back from the dead in so many different ways, contrasting that with the real-life experience of losing a loved one.

Certainly some people win the lottery or become famous athletes or movie stars. But maintaining a sense of reality and maturity requires us to remain grounded in the real world and to avoid being daydream believers. Unfortunately, this groundedness seems to be lacking in much of the contemporary Catholic traditionalist movement – not only in the widespread acceptance of conspiracy theories and pseudoscience by its members, but in the way they perceive the possibilities for the future of the Catholic Church.

Such fantasy ideas have been around for a while, but Pope Francis seems to have motivated people who hold such ideas to share them openly. For example, in the past I have mentioned a 2017 speech by Dominican theologian Aidan Nichols in which he suggested that Canon Law should be amended to create “a procedure for calling to order a pope who teaches error.” Nichols did admit that there currently exists no process “for enquiry into the case of a pope believed to have taught doctrinal error,” and also conceded, “much less is there provision for a trial.” Since then, Nichols has gone even further off the deep end, signing a letter accusing Pope Francis of heresy. As of December 2020, he was still teaching seminarians (in Jamaica), despite never having retracted his accusations.

It’s interesting that the full address has never been published, but the idea that a juridical body within the Church would have the capacity to judge the orthodoxy of a pope’s teaching is simply incomprehensible in light of Catholic ecclesiology. First of all, who would have such power and how would they be chosen? If the pope has the power to pick the people in the group, then wouldn’t he likely appoint a group of yes-men? Isn’t the pope himself the court of last appeal in the Church? It seems nonsensical on the surface.

Nichols’s proposal, of course, is reminiscent of Cardinal Raymond Burke’s promised “formal act of correction” against Pope Francis if he didn’t retract the official interpretation of his apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia (one rumor I’ve heard is that he was unable to find a second active cardinal willing to join him in such a brazen act). Undeterred, Burke has been peddling his own novel reinterpretation of papal primacy, going as far as to insert a new section on how to go about correcting a pope into the Marian Catechist’s Manual.

The Marian Catechists are an apostolate started by the late Fr. John Hardon, a prominent conservative Jesuit and sought-after speaker who died in the year 2000. Following his death, Cardinal Burke took on the role of spiritual director of many of his apostolates. Fr. Hardon was a very strong promoter of the primacy and supremacy of the pope. (Click here to watch him spend an hour and a half condemning Gallicanism and Conciliarism while defending the pope’s absolute authority.) If you think the view of the papacy at Where Peter Is amounts to “complete subjectivist irrationalism,” Hardon’s view is unabashed pope worship by comparison. And he’s probably rolling in his grave over what Cardinal Burke has done to his catechist’s manual.

Why are the views of Burke and Nichols flights of fancy? Besides being unworkable and totally irreconcilable to Catholic tradition, the motives behind these proposals are obvious (they are prompted by dissent from Pope Francis’s teachings) and they have absolutely no realistic chance of coming true. It appears in their frantic desire to undo Francis’s pontificate, they have lost their grasp on what is actually feasible and what is consistent with the Magisterium.

I’ve seen many bizarre proposals packaged as “think pieces” in conservative Catholic publications proposing the impossible in recent years. For example, many prominent traditionalists have set an ultimate goal of full “restoration” of the Tridentine Rite and suppression of the Vatican II Liturgy as if it is desirable to the Church or even remotely feasible. Archaic and impossible political philosophies are openly championed by many traditionalists. Some trads are full-fledged monarchists or integralists, others seem to think advancing distributism as an economic system in the real world is a good use of their time. Going to an even further extreme, former Crisis editor Michael Warren Davis wrote a book that promotes feudalism as idyllic and romanticizes the life of a medieval serf.

I don’t quite understand why traditionalists spend so much time on ideas that they might consider Catholic but that the Catholic Church itself has not embraced since early in the industrial age. Traditionalists might bristle at the notion that their preoccupations are similar to live action roleplaying (LARPing), but how else can one describe the way much of their time is wound up in ideas, not realities.

And sometimes these ideas are as misogynistic (and at times creepy) as they are unrealistic. One particularly strange essay entitled, “Should Women Be Lectors at Mass?” was (wisely) originally published under a pseudonym. Written in the form of a Thomistic disputation, it features what the author apparently believes are rock-solid arguments against women doing the readings at Mass — such as, “for a woman to be proclaiming the Word is self-contradictory: it makes the female who receives the seed the male who issues the seed.” And who can forget the aforementioned Michael Warren Davis’s article condemning women’s suffrage, in which he argued, “Any sober and dispassionate mind must conclude that giving ladies the right to vote was the single greatest catastrophe in the history of our storied republic.”

In these two cases, the authors make proposals so unrealistic and impossible to implement in the real world that it’s hard to imagine what motivated them to advance them publicly, other than perhaps to offend. In the former case, at least the author had the good sense to use a pseudonym, but then a few years later he republished it, revealing himself to be Peter Kwasniewski. Then it all made sense.

On the evening of July 15 last year, I happened to watch a video of a presentation that had been delivered a couple of weeks prior by Dr. Kwasniewski. In the speech, entitled “Beyond Summorum Pontificum: The Work of Retrieving the Tridentine Heritage,” he described what he believed to be the “weak points” of Pope Benedict XVI’s 2007 motu proprio liberalizing use of the older form of the Mass. By the end of this hour-long lecture, Kwasniewski had deconstructed the entire document, blasting every word from Benedict that even implied support for the Second Vatican Council or the liturgical reform, even saying, “it would not be too much to say that there are fictions, even lies, in the document.” He argues that the permissions granted by Benedict were “useful to our movement in the way that an enormous booster rocket is useful for launching a spaceship into orbit: it has a lot of raw power, but it can only do so much, and when it’s empty, it falls away.”

Kwasniewski describes the liturgical reforms as “wicked” and the new rite as “deviant.” He even questions the licety of the reformed liturgical rites. He calls for a return to the 1920 Missal (rather than the 1962 Missal, which is too modernist for his tastes), decrying the changes made by Pope Pius XII in the 1950s as corruptions. In the event that Pope Francis decided to abrogate Summorum Pontificum, Kwasniewski issues a battle cry: “If the pope will not honor tradition and pass it down without meddling and messing with it, we, for our part, are compelled by love of our genealogy, our family inheritance, our dignity as sons of God and heirs to His kingdom, to defend Catholic tradition, uphold it, live it, and hand it on, intact.”

Towards the end of the lecture, the thought that rang loudly in my mind was “Pope Benedict made a terrible mistake!” Then the next morning, I woke up to news of Traditionis Custodes. I must confess to having had a feeling of relief. But what was Kwasniewski thinking when he gave that speech? I was left with a question: with Summorum Pontificum facing its demise in the near future, why would he double down on publicly advocating the views that had led to its impending abrogation?

What did Kwasniewski imagine he was trying to accomplish? In what reality was he helping his cause (assuming his cause is for people to have access to the Latin Mass)? Pope Francis in 2013 described Summorum Pontificum as “prudent and motivated by the desire to help people.” He did express concerns, however, saying, “What is worrying, though, is the risk of the ideologization of the Vetus Ordo, its exploitation.” Francis left the old Mass untouched for eight years while the traditionalist movement, not least of all Kwasniewski, seemed determined to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Francis’s worries were well-founded.

Another traditionalist took a flight of fancy this week, with the publication of the leaked text of an undelivered intervention. It had been prepared by the 93-year-old Cardinal Walter Brandmüller for the two-day meeting of cardinals in the Vatican on August 29 and 30. It’s likely to his benefit that he was not allowed to deliver his intervention, because its offensive and discriminatory message likely would have drawn much well-deserved criticism from the bulk of the cardinal-electors. In the intervention, he noted that “the 120 electors, insofar as they come from the periphery, often meet for the first time in the consistories preceding the conclave and so know little or nothing about the college of cardinals and therefore about the candidates, thus lacking a fundamental prerequisite for responsible voting in the conclave.”

Cardinal Brandmüller went on to suggest that the cardinals eligible to vote in a conclave should be limited to those who “shall have spent at least five years in a senior position in the curia of Rome.” He explains his reasoning:

“Indeed, it is all too evident that the current number of 120 cardinal electors, many if not the majority of whom have no experience of Rome, poses various problems. For a college in which the preference is to make cardinals of the heads of peripheral dioceses, it is practically impossible to carry out the aforementioned tasks adequately, even under the conditions allowed by modern communication technologies.”

Not only is his proposal an astonishing repudiation of the election of Pope Francis, who never worked in Rome (“let’s make sure this doesn’t happen again”), and not simply because Brandmüller is essentially condemning the popes of the last century who have very intentionally sought to make the college better reflect the global Church, but that he’s turned “periphery” into a pejorative. But that’s not all. He’s also saying that it’s better to have a bureaucrat as pope than a pastor. Note also that he’s not suggesting limiting the electors to current curial cardinals, but also to those who have spent five years there in the past, which leaves open the door for a number of cardinals Francis has sent packing but are still taking up space in Rome: Muller, Sarah, and Burke.

Speaking of Cardinal Burke, one of the most absurd and fantastical editorials I’ve read in years was recently published in the Catholic Herald with the headline, “Cardinal Burke: the dark horse in the running to succeed Pope Francis.” The article is pure traditionalist fantasy, with astute observations such as “Meanwhile, as Michael Warren Davis argued in the Catholic Herald, there have been rumours of tensions between the Francis-led Vatican and Burke,” curious theories such as, “Burke is often considered the de facto leader of the Church in the US,” and Davis’s claim that “Burke undoubtedly ranks among the top 10 most influential prelates in the Church today.”

In case it’s unclear to you, Cardinal Burke has no chance of being elected pope. None. According to all accounts he didn’t receive any votes in 2013, despite predictions from the likes of Taylor Marshall that he would be elected. Furthermore, the article suggests that the 78-year-old Cardinal Marc Ouellet is the conservative frontrunner. The Herald’s editorial staff is apparently unaware that by remaining loyal to the pope on issues like Amoris Laetitia and the false accusations of Carlo Maria Vigano, the conservative Canadian is viewed as a leftist by US traditionalists, and has made him persona non grata among dubia-backing conservative Catholics. I could go down the list of absurdities in the article, but that’s not the point.

One frequently hears that today we live in a post-truth world. Unfortunately, it seems that many of our traditionalist brothers and sisters have wholeheartedly succumbed to it. It is impossible to reach common ground until we can agree upon reality. I don’t draw attention to these examples to make fun of them, but so that traditionalists and their supporters might take a second look at these sorts of things and try to assess them rationally and critically. Each of these cases, in its own way, is a form of self-sabotage. It’s long past time that Catholics of all stripes came together to work through the issues that divide us. But it will never happen without a dose of realism.

Note [3 Sept 2022 7:41 EDT]

Nathan Turowsky took the trouble of doing the counting according to a strict interpretation of Brandmüller’s guidelines — “without exception … the candidate shall have spent at least five years in a senior position in the curia of Rome.” Eliminating cardinals over 80, by Nathan’s count, a conclave held today would be an approximately 23-man affair consisting of Cardinals Bertello, Bráz de Aviz, Burke, Calcagno, Cañizares, Farrell, Filoni, Koch, Krajewski, Ladaria, Mamberti, Müller, Ouellet, Parolin, Piacenza, Ravasi, Roche, Ryłko, Sandri, Sarah, Sepe, Turkson, and Versaldi.

There are many notable edge cases that don’t make the cut, such as Filipino Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, the Pro-Prefect of the Dicastery for Evangelization. Tagle has been a Cardinal for nearly 10 years and voted in the 2013 conclave, but he has been in Rome for less than 3 years. Likewise, Sri Lankan Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, who served as Secretary of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments for three-and-a-half years and as a lower-level official in the Curia, would be excluded. Cardinal Michael Czerny would also be left out, as he has been in Rome for many years, but has only been a bishop and cardinal for three. He was an undersecretary until he was made Prefect of the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development earlier this year.


Image: Adobe Stock. By victorhabbick.


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Mike Lewis is the founding managing editor of Where Peter Is. He and Jeannie Gaffigan co-host Field Hospital, a U.S. Catholic podcast.

Traditionalist flights of fancy
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