Is the Vatican Resurrecting the Failed “Ruthenian Option” for Traditionalists?

More than a century ago the Vatican cracked down on a small liturgical group within the Church in an effort to establish unity, to disastrous results. Is history repeating itself with today's traditionalists?

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At present, the Vatican has not yet seen fit to close down all of the “Old Rite” Masses in the United States and elsewhere; instead, it has limited itself to shutting them out of parish churches and micromanaging parish bulletins. However, Traditionis Custodes made clear its expectation that those attending these Masses should eventually “return to the one Roman Rite,” i.e., that of the missal promulgated by Paul VI. And in recent weeks, rumors have circulated in Rome that a move to shut these Masses down completely is coming, especially after the death of Joseph Ratzinger.

If this is the case, it will be a grave injustice and an error on the part of the pope, who prides himself on being “pastoral.” Moreover, it is an example of terrible governance. Kicking members out of your organization when it is bleeding them virtually everywhere, for what look like reasons of ecclesiastical politics, is a sign of poor leadership. There is a good chance that many of the people that worship at these Masses will find succor elsewhere, either in chapels of the religious orders that celebrate the old Mass (assuming they are allowed to exist), or in those of the Society of St. Pius X. 

Sadly, this is not the first time that the Catholic Church has, in pursuit of a spurious uniformity, allowed poor leadership to drive people out of the Church. A similar event took place in the late 19th century in the United States (with a later assist from Rome). 

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In the late 1800s, the U.S. experienced a massive immigration boom. Among those coming to the United States were peoples from the Carpathian mountains in Eastern Europe, normally called the Rusyns or the Ruthenians, in what is today parts of Ukraine, Poland, and Slovakia. Most of those who came to America in the 19th century arrived from the Austro-Hungarian Empire. 

These peoples brought their culture with them; most importantly, they brought their religious beliefs and customs. For most, that meant those of the Ruthenian Catholic Church, founded in 1646 when 63 Orthodox priests and their parishes came into communion with Rome. They were allowed to retain their liturgical heritage, including the Slavonic liturgical language and tradition of married priests.

However, when these Ruthenian immigrants arrived in America, they came into a Catholic landscape fraught with tension. The influx of so many immigrants (especially from Eastern and Southern Europe) led to a surge of Protestant nativism over issues such as parochial schools and the role of government funding for them. Many bishops were concerned about Catholics appearing too foreign, a concern exacerbated by the Americanist controversy, pitting bishops who wished to adapt the Church to modern democratic society against those who did not.

It is into this situation that the Ruthenians came and began to set up parishes in the Eastern United States. However, when they did so, they ran afoul of Latin Rite clerics who objected to married priests as undermining clerical celibacy, a practice that Protestant critics attacked with virulence. When Ruthenian Catholics asserted the legitimacy of their discipline, the American bishops appealed to Rome.

Rome gave them the answer they wanted: the Ruthenians were under the jurisdiction of the Latin Rite bishops, who demanded that the Ruthenian priests conform to the rule of celibacy. Alexis Toth, a Ruthenian priest that John Ireland, the bishop of St. Paul Minnesota, refused to recognize because he had been ordained as a married man, took his Minneapolis parish into the Russian Orthodox Church in 1892 and began proselytizing among Ruthenian Catholics. The end result of this was that by 1909 some 20,000 Ruthenian Catholics left the Church. 

Rome aggravated the situation further by appointing a Ukrainian Catholic priest, Soter Ortynsky, as vicar general for all the Byzantine Rite Catholics in America. But Ortynsky, though a dedicated pastor, was a Ukrainian nationalist, which aroused opposition among the Ruthenians, whose feud with the Ukrainians they brought with them from the Austro-Hungarian Empire. As a result, another 100,000 Ruthenians left for the Russian Orthodox Church.

Later, in 1929, Pius XI issued a document, Cum Data Fuerit, confirming that Eastern Catholic priests under Latin jurisdiction must conform to the rule of celibacy. In response, another group of Ruthenian priests left the Catholic Church for Orthodoxy. Though the numbers may appear small to Latin Rite Catholics, were it not for the exodus produced by the American hierarchy’s heavy-handed attempt to enforce uniformity on the Ruthenians, Orthodoxy would scarcely exist in America today.

The obvious question presents itself when surveying this lugubrious episode: was it necessary? Did Protestant nativists suddenly cease their attacks on Catholics because their “benighted” Eastern European brethren were now properly “Americanized”? Did the Church in America flourish because they prohibited married men from becoming priests in the Eastern Churches?

One could make the claim the presence of married clergy would undermine morale among Latin Rite priests and that it is better to force a small minority to conform rather than risk fracturing the unity of the Church in the face of a hostile society. That, at least, is the calculus that seems to have guided Rome and the American bishops in that case.

Major differences exist, of course, between the situation of the Ruthenians and the Latin Traditionalists. The issues in the former case had to do with disciplinary customs and ethnic tensions, while the latter touches more closely on doctrinal questions. Progressive theologians most eager for the pope to suppress the old Roman Rite have theological and not merely disciplinary reasons for doing so, insisting that the old rite “represents a state of doctrine prior to Vatican II while the new Mass represents the doctrine of Vatican II.”

But in a crucial sense they are the same: the concern for unity in the face of a hostile society. In Traditionis Custodes, Pope Francis claimed his concern was for the unity of the Church, based upon a supposed “opposition to Vatican II” among Latin Mass goers sowing divisions because of it. The understanding of “unity” to which that document appeals is motivated as much by sociological as theological concerns.  

Cardinal Müller noted several years ago that the agenda of progressive Catholicism is motivated by a fear of secular society, whose abandonment of faith they see as permanent. As a result, they believe the Church must seek “a niche where it can survive in peace.” For them, this means that “all the doctrines of the faith that are opposed to the ‘mainstream,’ the societal consensus, must be reformed” according to secular standards. This is why Traditionalists seem like such a threat to Church unity in the eyes of progressives, since, as Joseph Shaw has pointed out, traditional Catholicism “draws attention to and makes attractive those aspect of the Faith which the liberal thinks should be jettisoned for the good of the Church.” 

This is why the open heresy of the German “Synodal Way” goes unpunished while Rome cracks down on Traditionalists. Enforcing dogmas of the Church in the former case will bring down the wrath of the secular world and could cause a massive schism (or perhaps worse in the Vatican’s mind, widespread disobedience that it is powerless to stop). In the latter, few will care, since Traditionalists are an unpopular minority who have little or no institutional power within the Church, and only a “small” schism would result from Rome’s enforcement of what purports to be disciplinary measures. In the Church, as in secular politics, punching down is always easier than punching up, and it is the rare leader who will act otherwise. 

Throughout much of its history, Rome has insisted on uniformity in the face of external threats, even in disciplinary matters that have little direct connection to dogma or revelation. In certain circumstances, such as in the wake of emergencies like the Reformation or the many revolutions of the nineteenth century, this might have been a defensible course of action. But in the case of both the Ruthenians in nineteenth-century America and Traditionalists today, this attempt to purchase a specious unity at the expense of a tiny part of the Body of Christ—call it the “Ruthenian Option”—is simply an act of cowardice. Shepherds should protect their sheep from the hostility of the world, not sacrifice them to it.

However, if their shepherds have abandoned them in these situations, God has not. Faith, hope, and charity alone endure. If Traditionalists can maintain these, and not give into rage or despair, they will outlast the present governors of the Church. The Ruthenians, and the Eastern Catholics in general, are proof of this. The Ruthenian Catholic Church is still very much alive and well in the United States, despite their ill treatment at the hands of the hierarchy; and they are still in communion with the pope. 

More to the point, what looks like a grave threat to the unity of the Church to one generation of Churchmen may look very different to another: in 2014, Rome lifted the requirement of Eastern Catholic priests in North America and Australia to adhere to the rule of celibacy. All those of good will should pray that a new generation of leaders arises within the Church, one that will reject the “Ruthenian Option” and govern it according to God’s Word and the ancient faith of the Church. 

[Image: Alexis Toth]


  • Darrick Taylor

    Darrick Taylor earned his PhD in History from the University of Kansas. He lives in Central Florida and teaches at Santa Fe College in Gainesville, FL. He also produces a podcast, Controversies in Church History, dealing with controversial episodes in the history of the Catholic Church.

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