Can Catholics Oppose Traditionalism?

Employing “traditionalism” as a pejorative term while retaining a respect for tradition and even some traditionalists is at best confusing.

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Naturally the piece I recently wrote for Crisis, “Modern Catholic Recovery Conference,” provoked wildly different responses. Some who fully endorsed my expressions of distress at so many lamentable elements in the modern church were almost giddy with delight at my humorous proposals. Others misconstrued my purpose and thought I was mocking the TradRecovery conference in spite of the fact that I mentioned it only in the opening paragraph and there gave my support for attempts to heal those who have been harmed by traditionalist communities. 

The thought of a conference directed towards Catholics who have left the Church because of “traditionalism” led me to ponder the need for a conference for those who have been harmed by the modernistic Church of the last 60 years or so—which spans my adult years in the Church. I alluded to a lot of horror stories from these years, and unfortunately the horror stories are not abating (although some things, like the Novus Ordo liturgy, have improved in many places). 

My proposal for a healing conference was largely playful (yet based on serious matters), but some have genuinely argued that healing for those of us who have lived through the hey days of liturgical abuse, theological dissent, sexual abuse and cover-up, and (to put it mildly) the myriad of curiosities that currently come out of Rome on a regular basis is very much needed. 

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For my part, I have found much healing in returning to the stability, beauty, transcendence, reverence, coherence and yes, fidelity to tradition of the Traditional Latin Mass. It heartened me to learn that some of those involved in TradRecovery still attend the TLM. But that some have antipathy to the TLM is evidenced by their recommending the outrageously poorly reasoned, historically flawed, and soundly refuted critique of the TLM by John Cavadini, Mary Healy and Thomas Weinandy. (See Illusions of Reform for a thorough dismantling of their critique.)

Those who misread the purpose of my piece chastised me for not having made an effort to understand the hurts experienced by those organizing the conference and the hurts experienced by the prospective attendees. Since my focus was not on the conference I did not spend much time perusing the TradRecovery website—I simply accepted the premise that there have been serious abuses and that those harmed by them need healing. 

But since writing the column, I have reviewed the website and listened to charges some have made against TradRecovery and the defenses of TradRecovery made by those involved with the “movement.” I have no intent to do a full critique of the “movement” here, but I have to say, the mish-mash of a website, the kind of evidence the organizers give regarding “traditionalism,” the lack of clarity of concepts, the idiosyncratic set of resources offered and the broad brush that they use to speak against widely disparate manifestations of “traditionalism” suggest that the movement may not be ready for prime time. This does not discredit worthy efforts to provide healing for those in need, but the organizers would have avoided a lot of negative feedback with a more refined approach.

As many have noted, even some of those involved in the conference, the choice of the term “traditionalism” is very unfortunate and is a source of a lot of the resistance to the project. Clearly the Church is wedded to tradition and thus in some way all Catholics are “traditionalists.” 

Unwisely, TradRecovery uses “traditionalism” as an umbrella term that includes terribly misguided parents who imposed too rigorous prayer regimens on their children; sedevacantists; people who argue that the TLM is superior to the Novus Order; sex abusers in some traditional communities; people who find Pope Francis’ ambiguous deliverances unsettling; those who have some problems with some of the teachings in Vatican II, and more. Getting all those folks into one “family” definition, indeed, into one Venn diagram, would be a very difficult task. 

Employing “traditionalism” as a pejorative term while retaining a respect for tradition and even some traditionalists is at best confusing. Consider various parallel associated terms: those who advance communism are communists; those who promote relativism are relativists; the “isms” and the “ists” are properly connected. If “traditionalism” is toxic and harmful, no one should be a “traditionalist,” but, as mentioned, all Catholics inherently are such. Perhaps those who are guilty of an injurious “traditionalism” are “traditionlismists?” A different label is needed.

There seem to be affiliations between TradRecovery and the contributors to the “Where Peter Is” website; both give the impression of being unwilling to allow that anything (with some few exceptions) said or done by a pope, in this case, Pope Francis, could be in serious conflict with the deposit of the faith. Both go to great—and to my mind often unreasonable—lengths to justify what he says and does. 

I understand that tendency. Catholics, especially those of us who have lived in the pontificates of Saint Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI became accustomed to being able to trust the pope, at a time when 1960s and 1970s Jesuits and their ilk were bent on “liberalizing” the Church’s teaching with such notions as approving contraception, masturbation, homosexuality, fornication and divorce; ordaining women to the priesthood; diminishing veneration of Mary; embracing an ecumenism that equalized nearly all religions; making nice with Communism, etc. We saw two brilliant and holy popes put their phenomenal intellects and indomitable faith toward squelching all these evils. 

It has been devastating to see that assaults on the faith (and pretty much the same ones) have received a new lease on life. Throw into the mix, for instance, the kid-glove treatment of Rupnik, who abused more than 20 nuns; the inexplicably harsh treatment of Cardinals Müller, Burke, and Pell and Bishop Strickland; the “redirecting” of the Pope John Paull II’s Institutes for Marriage and the Family; and the appointment of Cardinal Fernandez; and one begins to think “traditionalism” is not our foremost problem (though, again, harm done by traditionalist communities, priests, and laity, does need to be identified and redressed.) It has been devastating to see that assaults on the faith (and pretty much the same ones) have received a new lease on life.Tweet This

All believing Catholics simply have to be confused by what is happening in the Church. Those of us who will never leave the Church, who want to invite back to the Church those who have left, and who rejoice at conversions to Catholicism, are divided on the right way to deal with this confusion. 

Some have decided to accept whatever Rome promotes, to insist that it does not conflict with dogma and doctrine and that any mistakes made are on the practical plane, not the doctrinal plane. They maintain their inner peace by knowing they are being obedient to the Vicar of Christ (even one who doesn’t wish to use the title!), believing that failure to do so promotes schism and heresy.

Others, against all their good Catholic tendencies to believe and defend what Rome promotes, have decided to trust what they have received from the deposit of the faith and to reject all that manifestly is at odds with the teachings of the Church fathers, with the Catechism, with the magisterium of brilliant encyclicals of previous popes. They believe that when the “smoke of Satan” spoken of by Pope Paul VI finds its way into the corridors of the Church they must do what they can to warn people not to inhale it.

What is ultimately important is that we ever grow in love for Jesus and his Church, that we be charitable to those who disagree with us, and that we ask God to purify our motives in our defense of or our critique of the Church. We must pray that what we do and say will be of benefit not only to our fellow Catholics but to all seekers of Truth.


  • Janet E. Smith

    Janet E. Smith, Ph.D., is a retired professor of moral theology.

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