Saturday, June 5, 2010

Reflections on Radical Traditionalism: Why it is a Danger

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites. You traverse sea and land to make one convert, and when that happens you make him a child of Gehenna twice as much as yourselves.” (Matt 23:15)

Preliminary Disclaimer

As always, one needs to recognize there is a difference between the person who prefers the liturgy and the discipline of the time before Vatican II but respects the authority of the Pope to make changes for the good of the Church and the radical who claims that the Pope who makes such changes is in error. This article deals with the second group, not the first group.


I’ve seen the comments on blogs, heard it from friends. The claim that the Vatican, in “going after” radical Traditionalists and disciplining them are wasting time on groups “too small to matter” and should be going after Modernists instead.

I have two quarrels with this claim. The first is a logical objection. The second is an objection to the claim that the Radical Traditionalists are harmless or less harmful.


The Logical Problem of the Claim: Affirming the Disjunct

Ironically, the claim that the Vatican should be going after Liberals or Modernists is essentially the same fallacy used by Doug Kmiec to propose Obama as a “pro-life” candidate.

    1. We can either do [A] or [B]
    2. People are doing [B]
    3. Therefore they are not doing [A]

The problem is, of course, “Either [A] or [B]” are not the only options, and the fact that the Church does [B] is no proof they are neglecting [A]. This is the fallacy of Affirming the Disjunct. The problem is just because condition [B] exists, does not mean that condition [A] cannot exist as well. Kmiec made this error in arguing we can either seek to end Roe v. Wade or we can help women seeking abortions, and arguing those opposing Obama sought to end abortions therefore those opposing abortion are not in favor of helping women.

This is of course nonsense.

However the defenders of the radical traditionalists make the same error. They assume the sanctions invoked against the radical traditionalists means nothing is being done against the modernists. The enthymeme of this argument is that “it can’t be both [A] and [B]” which needs to be proven, but is usually bypassed by the argument from silence (“I never hear of the Church disciplining liberals, therefore they don’t.”) and when evidence is provided, the fallacy of “moving the goalposts” is used (“The Church never disciplines liberals!” “What about Milingo or others?” “That’s not enough!”)

The only way to avoid the fallacy is by first providing proof that the condition is exclusively [A] or [B]. However, this is never done. Rather it is merely assumed. Examples in favor of the argument are promoted. Examples which show the condition is not exclusively [A] or [B] are ignored.


Are Radical Traditionalists In Fact Harmless?

Let’s make no mistake here. The Liberal dissenters are indeed doing wrong and need to be opposed. However, the liberal dissenters are not a group who are likely to deceive the Catholic who is seeking to do what is right and to follow the Church teaching. The teachings of Hans Küng, Charles Curran, Joan Chittister do not appeal to the person seeking what they must do to be faithful. They appeal to the person who is seeking an excuse to disobey.

However, the Radical Traditionalists are also dangerous because they can mislead the person who is looking for the way to follow the true Church. Consider, for example, the case of Gerry Matatics, who entered the Church in 1986, became a Radical Traditionalist in 1992 and is now proclaiming the Post Vatican II Church is heretical and that Pope Benedict XVI is most likely not the true Pope (the logic of his syllogisms are terrible by the way, assuming what needs to be proven). Matatics is an extreme example of what one seeking to be faithful can become. However, less extreme cases are common indeed.

Becoming what one condemns

The problem I see with the Radical Traditionalist is that while the subject matter of their dissent is different from those of the Liberal Modernist dissenter, the form of their nature is chillingly similar.

  • A position is staked out in opposition to what the Magisterium holds
  • Documents are selectively cited seeking to show a contradiction of the present Magisterium with past popes or councils
  • The conclusion is made that the present Magisterium is in error.

There is a serious problem with this view however, whether the one who makes use of it is modernist or radical traditionalist, and that is the fact that it all centers on the personal interpretation of the selected documents. Whether it is the so-called “Spirit of Vatican II” or whether it is a radical traditionalist focusing on a 19th century condemnation of religious indifferentism to claim that the relations between Catholics and others must be eternally acrimonious, both refuse to recognize the authority of the Magisterium when it comes down on a side contrary to what one holds.

Thus, instead of recognizing the possibility of erring personally, the error is thus automatically assumed to be on the part of the Church. Ironically, both sides will recognize the disobedience of the other side, but not their own disobedience. It’s as if Christ never said in Matthew 7:

1 “Stop judging, that you may not be judged.

2 For as you judge, so will you be judged, and the measure with which you measure will be measured out to you.

3 Why do you notice the splinter in your brother’s eye, but do not perceive the wooden beam in your own eye?

4 How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me remove that splinter from your eye,’ while the wooden beam is in your eye?

5 You hypocrite, remove the wooden beam from your eye first; then you will see clearly to remove the splinter from your brother’s eye.

Quite frankly, when both sides make use of judging the other of refusing to obey the magisterium on a specific topic, but refuse to obey on their own areas of contention, they do behave hypocritically.

Appeal to an Ideal(ism)

Fundamentalism is often used as a slur, and is used so broadly that it is almost worthless as a descriptor. Generally speaking it associates “fundamentalist” with “right wing politics.” However, in the most general sense, Fundamentalism can be understood as holding there was once a time when religion was practiced perfectly (or at least better), and to be perfect, one must go back to the practices of this time. Now of course the appeal to the practices to be followed can be real (such as the traditionalistic “Pre-conciliar” view) or to a fictional (such as the claims of some liberals that the early Church was “pre-hierarchical”).

The Problem is the issue of conditions which were different. If the Church in the 13th century was the pinnacle of Christendom, we certainly need to recognize that the circumstances at this time were certainly different than they are in the 21st century and practices of the Church in the sense of discipline could not even remotely be handled the same way. Similarly, the appeal of some radical traditionalists who misuse the axiom lex orendi lex credenda (The Law of prayer is the law of belief) of St. Prosper of Aquitane to say that the changing of the liturgy led to a collapse of beliefs and heretical priests. This can be demonstrated as a post hoc fallacy by pointing out a few facts. Dissenting priests were present before Vatican II and the 1970 missal. Humanae Vitae which was widely dissented from was written before the 1970 missal (in 1968 to be precise).

If the change of the liturgy caused the change of belief, then it is not demonstrated by the evidence. Indeed, the appeal to “go back” to before Vatican II or before the current form of the Mass is based on an idealism which forgets the growing disillusionment with authority in the 1950s. It overlooks the assimilation of Catholics into mainstream society in the 1950s and 1960s, and it overlooks the general rejection of authority in Catholic, Protestant and entirely non-Christian nations in the mid to late 1960s. Instead they submit an idealistic sequence:

  1. Before Vatican II, the Church was strong
  2. After Vatican II, the Church was weak
  3. Therefore Vatican II caused the Church to weaken

Of course if there is any other reason besides Vatican II which caused this, the alleged cause-effect is wrong.

The Authority to Bind and Loose

It has been a doctrine of the Catholic Church that the authority to bind and to loose. It is de fide (a matter of faith which is not to be contradicted by one who claims to be a faithful Catholic) that Peter had primacy of jurisdiction over the entire Church and that this primacy extends to his successors. This primacy is not just over matters of faith and morals but also over the matters of discipline and government of the Church (See Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma pages 279, 282, 285). Pope Pius XII made clear in the encyclical Humani Generis that the idea that the Pope must only be obeyed on matters of ex cathedra is an error. He says:

20. Nor must it be thought that what is expounded in Encyclical Letters does not of itself demand consent, since in writing such Letters the Popes do not exercise the supreme power of their Teaching Authority. For these matters are taught with the ordinary teaching authority, of which it is true to say: "He who heareth you, heareth me"; and generally what is expounded and inculcated in Encyclical Letters already for other reasons appertains to Catholic doctrine. But if the Supreme Pontiffs in their official documents purposely pass judgment on a matter up to that time under dispute, it is obvious that that matter, according to the mind and will of the Pontiffs, cannot be any longer considered a question open to discussion among theologians.

In other words, when the Pope teaches in a binding manner using the ordinary magisterium, he must be heeded.

The Pope has authority to interpret Scripture and Tradition, and we do believe that when he teaches authoritatively as Pope and not as a private theologian, we are to obey.

Here then is the irony of the Radical Traditionalist who claims to be the followers of true Catholic teaching. To defend their rebellion against Vatican II, they must violate the de fide teaching of the Catholic Church on exactly who has the final right of interpretation. The radical traditionalist who accuses the Church of today of being riddled with “the errors of Protestantism” is actually performing the same act they find so offensive when done by Luther and others in rejecting the Catholic teaching due to their own interpretation and their own decision of what is to be given credibility.

Thus the dissenter (Traditionalist or Modernist) does not evaluate his or her belief based on the Magisterium teaching, but evaluates the Magisterium teaching based on his or her belief. This makes the Teaching authority of the Church superfluous. When it agrees with the dissenter it is unnecessary. When it disagrees with the dissenter, the teaching authority is wrong.

Why the Radical Traditionalist IS a Danger to the Church

The Catholic who is seeking to follow the Catholic faith and knows the authority of the Popes and the long line of consistent teaching is rather unlikely to consider a dissenter like Küng to be a voice of authority. One looking for an excuse to dissent might use his sophistry to justify disobedience, but one seeking to obey the Church would not.

What makes the radical traditionalist dangerous is the fact that he claims to be following the true teaching of the Church. Like an anti-Catholic seeking to “rescue” a person from the Catholic Church and takes Scripture out of context to do so, the radical traditionalist has often cited old Church documents and compared them with new Church documents. He plays upon the faithful individual’s recognizing that there is indeed rebellion and disobedience in the Church, and leads them to think that it is the fault of “modernists” and “freemasons” within the Church [Prior to the end of the Cold War, Communism was also invoked] who have infiltrated the Church to teach error. Much literature of slanderous character has been published accusing Blessed John XXIII and Paul VI of being freemasons. Such literature is seldom repudiated by the officials of the SSPX.

When you consider that the SSPX has seminaries which teaches formally that one can disobey the Magisterium when it goes against their judgment on the grounds that if they disagree they are tainted with heresy, you can see the danger of such a system for the would-be faithful Catholic and see why the Magisterium must oppose them and not leave them be.

Radical Traditionalists are Not Misunderstood when they are Opposed

I have no doubt that a good percentage of the Catholics who prefer the Mass of the 1962 missal (See The Reform of the Reform? for a balanced view of the issue) are indeed faithful Catholics. They may not like the current form of the Mass and attend the legitimate Extraordinary Form when they can, but they accept the authority of the Magisterium and oppose rebellion.

Radical Traditionalists on the other hand are in disobedience to the Magisterium. There obedience only follows as long as the Magisterium does as they think right. When they say “Do not listen to Rome, listen to me” they are indeed a danger to the Church. It is wrong to think of the issue as “All they want is the Latin Mass. Why not go after the Liberals who support abortion?” As I pointed out in the beginning of this article, this is the fallacy of Affirming the Disjunct. The Church is indeed going after them with some strong actions indeed even if it is not always handled as we would personally like. However, the existence of the liberal dissent does not justify traditionalist dissent.


The dissenter, whether modernist or traditionalist, might be quite sincere in their disobedience. They might actually believe the Church is wrong. So here is the rub: If the Catholic Church believes it must teach as it does, and the dissenter disagrees with the Church then there are two options:

  1. They are wrong and the Church is right. In this case, they must reevaluate their position and cease to be in error.
  2. They are right and the Church is wrong. In this case, the dissenter must reevaluate their relationship with the Church they believe to be teaching error

If the obedience to the Pope as the successor of Peter is a de fide position and the Church teaches something the dissenter believes is wrong, then either the dissenter is in error or the Church is not protected from error… which would mean the Catholic Church is not the Church Christ promised to protect.

If the Radical Traditionalist decides to remain within the Church while refusing to accept the authoritative teaching of the Magisterium, it is really a case of Cafeteria Catholicism.

1 comment:

  1. This writing is very exact. It is very insightful. Radical Traditionalism is not something that most Catholics are aware of. And this makes it all the more deceptive, sneaky and nasty.

    The dangers of traditionalism are outlined here with remarkable precision. For many years, my own faith was poisoned by my reading of traditionalist books. They can be unbelievably strict. I was exactly the sort of Catholic mentioned in the above post - I simply wanted to take my faith more seriously. Traditionalist beliefs took my sincerity and twisted it out of all recognizable shape.

    Everything is a sin, as far as traditionalists are concerned. Even breathing is some sort of sin. Traditionalists live in constant terror that their massive amounts of (imagined) sin are going to send them to Hell. And so they have an infinity of insane rules and regulations integrated into every facet of their lives to stop that from happening. One traditionalist book I own, from TAN publishers, is a particularly bad offender. (TAN publishers is a dreadful publisher anyway, being a purely traditionalist company.)

    The book is called HELL - HOW TO AVOID HELL.
    There is no finer introduction to the nightmare world of terrifying strictness that traditionalists live in.

    Imaginary mortal sins mentioned in the book run the gamut from washing your car on Sunday to holding hands with your girlfriend/boyfriend. Pretty much everything, apparently, can send you to Hell. As a result, traditionalists believe that almost nobody goes to Heaven. Virtually everyone goes to Hell.

    Pope John Paul II called these people "prophets of doom," if I recall correctly.
    Calling things mortal sins when they are not mortal sins is itself a sin. Also, the Code of Canon Law states that any person who bases their life on avoiding Hell rather than living in the hope of God and Heaven should be anathema. Traditionalists are therefore the worst form of heretics - those who try to appear devout when in fact they are driven by a false humility.

    I simply could not bring myself to believe the ridiculous things I was reading. Not entirely, anyway. There was always that lingering doubt. After two years of speaking to a very understanding priest, I have finally managed to remove the poison of traditionalist beliefs from my life. It is the hardest thing I have ever done.

    I hate traditionalists. With all my heart, I hate them for holding the beliefs that almost ruined my Catholic faith. They are the most evil, deceitful people I have ever, ever met. Anyone who believes the cruel, rigid things that traditionalists believe has to be fundamentally evil on a very profound level. I do not have words for the intense moral suffering that their beliefs created in me. Instead of listening to my conscience, I sincerely thought that the Catholic Church wanted me to give away all my money to the poor, join every charity in town, do massive amounts of so-called "good works," spend all my spare time praying and fasting, avoid all sports, refrain from watching movies, never have a girlfriend, have no spare time to think, all so that I could literally work my way - by the skin of my teeth - into Heaven. As TAN Books editor Thomas A. Nelson says, saving your soul will be the massive undertaking that you will ever do in your life - and not everyone will make it. "For if the just man is just barely saved, how so will be the sinner?"

    Every traditionalist I have ever known has been a heavy drinker. Just like Mel Gibson. And I'm not surprised. Trying to live up to all those rules and regulations is humanly impossible. It must put an enormous strain on people. If I believed what traditionalists believe, I'd probably be a heavy drinker too.