Is Traditionalism an Essence or a Reaction?

Second-wave traditionalists are often less ideologically-driven than first-wave traditionalists, but instead have simply found no allure in the predominant Catholicism of recent decades.

I was watching an interview recently with a very successful divorce lawyer giving advice on marriage (which in some ways was insightful, believe it or not; in other ways, not so much). The interviewer asked him if he thought marriage will change in the next twenty years, to which he responded,

No. [But] I think…the pendulum always swings hard in the other direction. We have a tendency as a culture to overcorrect. 

I think we’re heading into a spiral of, like, “traditional stuff.” Yeah, I think you’re going to see people getting, like, super religious again, people are going to get super dogmatic. We’re going to see the trad-wife thing, the hyper masculinity…we’ve gone so far in the direction of post-modernism where nothing means anything, there’s no definition—we’ve become like Sartre, you know…so postmodern that it’s become almost a form of rugged individualism. I think we’re going to swing in the other direction now, and traditional institutions are going to be popular again.

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This insight also relates to the subset of traditionalism in the Church. From the New York Post to National Geographic, many in the secular world are noticing a similar trend toward traditionalism, with stories starting to surface in popular media about a “new generation of Catholics,” and “devout young Catholics embracing the old ways.” Meanwhile, the old folks over at the National Catholic Reporter are grumbling about the Latin Mass becoming a “cult of toxic tradition.” 

Traditional Catholicism has its quiet draw among the young. Chapel veils and black leatherbound 1962 missals are the new “X,” the marking of a new generation borrowing from their past. Meanwhile, people like me and my family, and many others, find ourselves inadvertently part of a “movement” when, really, we just want to give God the first fruits of worship in the best and most reverent way possible.

The pendulum phenomenon can’t be negated, though. When you think about it, human history has been nothing but a series of swings back and forth. The Israelites were adopted by Yahweh, but eventually they took this adoption for granted and grew obstinate; early Christian monasticism was a reaction to the cultural changes and religious laxity that came with the Constantinian reforms. Protestantism was cooked in the kettle of fermenting abuse and eventual revolt. 

It can be argued that Traditionalism is a movement worthy of cultural and religious note. On the one hand, it is reactionary to the beige liturgical wasteland of the 1990s to early 21st century. The traditional Catholic scene during the indult period before Summorum Pontificum was promulgated was often one of word of mouth “advertising,” rented spaces, and a general nicheness that was peculiar among every-day Catholics (assuming they were even aware it existed). 

The hardcore traditionalists were intense and underground. Archbishop Lefebvre (even if you weren’t SSPX) was regarded as the godfather of the movement. These traditionalists, however, were not reactionary—they simply wanted to maintain continuity with Tradition, a tradition that “always was.” They were hardliners, but they had to be—it was not easy to be a traditionalist Catholic during this period. You had to be dug in, hardcore. These [first] traditionalists were not reactionary—they simply wanted to maintain continuity with Tradition…They were hardliners, but they had to be—it was not easy to be a traditionalist Catholic during this period.Tweet This

The second-wave Traditionalism we find today, especially among the young, is still in its early formation. Postmodernity is not the new age; it is the powdered formula the latest generation of young Catholics have been drinking since they were babies; they know nothing else. The same goes for the digital era—it is simply taken for granted, not the novelty it is to people in their mid-forties and older like myself, because there was never a time in which they did not have instant access to everything.

The way younger people talk about discovering traditional Catholicism and the Latin Mass is not unlike wandering into a record store as a teenager and finding that unknown LP, pressing play, and being blown away. That’s what happened to my friend (who is coming into the Church at Easter) when he first stepped into a TLM as a non-Catholic last year. “This is the real deal, man. This is holy.” For him, it was an essence of the real, the holy, the raw energy of Catholicism at its most restrained liturgically. 

Of course, there are those that find themselves not able to attend a Latin Mass near them or are content with a reverent Novus Ordo. Some who have moved may have been blessed by the TLM where they previously lived but not able or willing to drive an hour and a half or more to assist at one now. And so, they make do as best they can with what is in their area. 

They may not have as much of an issue with the problems inherent in even the most reverent of the Novus Ordo Missae, may not be aware of it or even pay it much mind, or are just accepting of their circumstances. They are not part of a resistance movement—they simply want to attend a reverent Mass. And I think that’s what separates second- and first-wave Traditionalism—you could be a hardcore devotee who loves the liturgy but can take or leave the straight-edge ideology. Or straight-edge is so wrapped up and intertwined with the liturgy for you that it can’t be separated from it. 

For younger traditionalists who have gone all-in on the TLM, I think it’s less ideologically-driven than it may have been for the old guard who preserved it and more that the New Mass simply holds no allure the way it might for their parents and their parents’ generation who are more wedded to it. Yes, they want a reverent Mass, but they also want the faith of their forefathers, not their fathers. If they land in the New Mass for whatever reason, they may, like my own children who know nothing but the TLM, ask, “Is this a Catholic church?” because it is so foreign. Or they may be like me, who can live in both worlds if my hand is forced—I still have the muscle memory of the NOM, just like I remember the days of postcards, word processors, and camera film. 

In any case, it will be interesting to see how the pendulum will swing (and it will) thirty years from now, and how third- and fourth-wave Traditionalism will develop. I’ll be an old geezer by then, probably pointing my cane at my grandkids and talking about the good old days and what we used to have to go through to get to Mass, the way our grandfathers talked about having to walk through five miles of snow to get to school. I’ll talk about the intoxicating smell of incense and the novelty of seeing a priest with his back to us for the first time, of the antics of the pope of the time, and they’ll kind of shrug me off with a laugh. “Oh grandpa,” they’ll say, “you’re so funny.” 

[Photo Credit: Shutterstock]


  • Rob Marco

    Rob Marco is a married father of three. He holds a MA in Theology from Villanova University. He has appeared on EWTN’s “The Journey Home” and his writing has been featured at OnePeterFive, Catholic World Report, Catholic Stand, Catholic Education Resource Center,, and other Catholic publications. Rob’s upcoming book Wisdom and Folly: Collected Essays on Faith, Life, and Everything in Between will be released in January 2024 from Cruachan Hill Press. He blogs at Pater Familias.

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