Is Traditionalist Catholicism a Sect?

Traditionalist Catholicism is much like a sect, sociologically speaking, but the wider Church should learn from that if she wants to survive in the modern world.

You often hear the accusation that Latin-Mass-going Catholics are “schismatic” and that they hold themselves aloof from other Catholics in the belief that they constitute “the true Church” (this from a papal document!). Sometimes this is based on a putative opposition to Vatican II, or the refusal of some to attend the new rite. At other times, it is because Traditionalists are particularly mean or nasty people, as evidenced by the antics of some on the internet. 

I believe most of these accusations are misguided and that the ire directed against self-professed “traditionalists” or Latin Mass attendees is misplaced. However, I have known several very wonderful people who have come away from these communities alienated by the behavior of some of the people in them, so I cannot ignore such admittedly anecdotal evidence. (For the record, I have never experienced such behavior myself from the Traditionalist communities I have known.) 

Is there something especially wrong with these communities? The answer is no, though they do have some problems that I will discuss momentarily (as do many other communities within the Church, to be honest). By this I mean I do not think there is anything wrong with their theology, or that the Latin Mass somehow makes them “schismatic” by osmosis. Nor is it their “backwardism,” whatever that is supposed to mean.

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The problems that Traditionalist communities have are sociological rather than theological. In sociological terms, this means Traditionalist groups amount to a “sect.” Sociologists of religion define a “sect” as “a small, evangelical group which recruits its members by conversion, and which adopts a radical stance towards the state and society.” Whereas a “church” (in sociological terms, not theological ones) is part of the establishment, in whom membership is a given and beliefs are accommodated to the surrounding society, a sect is a group self-selected for its level of commitment—in this case, “converts” to the Latin Mass or other aspects of preconciliar Catholicism.

This much higher level of commitment is probably one reason why Traditionalists are sometimes perceived as uncharitable to outsiders. In a small community where everyone is fully committed to its ideals, this naturally produces greater militancy. In this type of community, everyone is competing for status by trying to be purer and more committed than their already highly-zealous peers. (Martin Mosebach, the novelist and defender of the Latin Mass, once noted that defenders of it tend to have an “anarchistic temperament.”) Purity spirals and a contempt for those who don’t measure up are universal, but they are doubly intense in such types of settings, religious or not.

One might think this is unfair and that a community should welcome its more committed members and not drive them out merely because some of them are obnoxious. But it is more complicated than that. I once mentioned to a deacon friend that I admired the high level of practice and adherence to Church teaching among Traditionalists. His response was that their membership was limited only to those who were highly committed, and the Church should be dedicated to helping along those less zealous for their Faith. 

He has a point, and I would bet this kind of thinking is common among the bishops and leaders of the Church. To them, the Church is the Church of Everybody, and catering primarily to the most zealous Catholics seems, well, sectarian. It probably also seems “Protestant” to many, since many Church leaders grew up in societies where Catholicism was dominant and it was Protestants that were divided into small, sect-like groups. When critics accuse Traditionalists of being “schismatic” or “Protestant,” I think they are probably misnaming their concern. What they are really objecting to is that they are outside the “mainstream” of what most people experience as Catholicism. 

The problem with this is that the Church has not always been the Church of the Establishment, or the Church of Everybody. The early Church in the Roman Empire often acted in a sectarian manner, shunning the dominant society around it (hence the observation of the Roman historian Tacitus that Christians were notorious for their “hatred of mankind”). In some places today, such as Africa and India, the Church is certainly not the “Church of Everybody” and is closer to the early Christians in that regard. 

The place where this thinking predominates still, not surprisingly, is in Europe, and above all in Italy, whose bishops were instrumental in convincing Pope Francis to ban the old rite. It is likely not a coincidence that the most virulent opposition to Traditionalism and the Latin Mass comes from Europe, while Traditionalism seems to flourish in places like England and the United States, where Catholics have long been a minority in a dominant Protestant culture.

It is noteworthy that this characteristic—the sociological sectarianism of the Trads—is obviously not unique to them, even in the Church. There are other groups who fit that description whom the hierarchy not only tolerates but encourages. One such community is that of Charismatic Catholics. Personally, some of the most wonderful Catholics I have ever met are from Charismatic communities, but there is no doubt they have, in the past, exhibited some of the same “sectarian” tendencies as Traditionalists. And yet, the Charismatics have been favored by every pope since Paul VI, whereas Traditionalists are now targeted for removal. What gives?

One answer is doctrinal. Francis and his backers think Traditionalists are “opposed to Vatican II,” whereas the Charismatics represent one of its fruits. Leaving that dubious assertion aside, I suspect it also has to do with the fact that Traditionalism seems to represent the Church of Everybody in the past, and the whole upshot of the “pastoral” program of the past half century has been geared toward making the Church into the Church of Everybody in the present. 

This is ironic, since many of the Fathers of Vatican II wanted the Church to reject a close alliance with the state and society, to shed its privileges and trappings, to embrace the poor, the downtrodden—to disentangle itself from “the establishment.” Its leaders have done nothing of the sort. They have only made more increasingly desperate attempts to cozy up to the powers that be, in the wan hopes of remaining at the center of a society that largely rejects it.

The reason why I linger on this subject is not to excuse any actual malfeasance on the part of any Catholic Traditionalists but to point out that the Church cannot go on pretending that it is part of the fabric of society as it has been in the past. It cannot survive when seventy percent or more of its members reject basic doctrines like the Real Presence or its teaching on marriage, or when large numbers of its theologians teach the same. Elites in Western societies grow more hostile to the Catholic Church and to Christianity more generally every day, and this will only grow worse as the years pass. In other words, the Church is going to have to become more like a “sect,” in sociological terms, in order to survive.  Elites in Western societies grow more hostile to the Catholic Church every day, and this will only grow worse as the years pass. The Church is going to have to become more like a “sect,” in sociological terms, in order to survive. Tweet This

Observing declining numbers of baptisms, confirmations, weddings, and Mass attendance over the years, some Catholics like to invoke Joseph Ratzinger’s 1969 interview, when he predicted the Church would become smaller and poorer but also purer as a consequence of this decline. I’m not sure they or even Ratzinger thought through the implications of this. He predicted that once the Church lost its standing it would become “the Church of the meek.” I loved the former pontiff, but I think this is way off the mark. 

A smaller, purer Church will be more narrow-minded in its horizons and more obnoxious to the surrounding society than it is now—and much more likely to conflict with it. It will not be a Church of cultured men and nuanced intellectuals like Ratzinger but of those “anarchic” types who can withstand the wider society’s corrosive effects on the Faith and its attempts to undermine it. 

I am an adult convert to the Faith, and I admit, this is not what I wanted when I received baptism from the Church. My decision was influenced by its history, by the impressive nature of its contributions to Western and human civilization, many of which were made when it was firmly identical with “the establishment.” I did not relish the idea of being part of a small sect, hated for my beliefs, or being made to suffer for them, though I knew that might be required of me at some point. That time has come; the Church’s only other option is to make preparations for its “path to completion,” as so many Church leaders seem intent upon.

I am not saying this is optimal, or should become the permanent state of the Church in the world. Far from it. That is where our hope lies, in that this state of affairs is not permanent and that the Church has not only survived but thrived both as the Church of Everybody and as a militant minority throughout her long history. Neither is it our ultimate destiny, which lies beyond this world. It is only that at this moment in history, she has a choice to make, one that seems clear to me: “this day I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse; therefore choose life, that you and your descendants may live.”

To answer my own question: yes, the Trads are a sect, and the Church should imitate them, at least in their radical stance toward state and society. Trusting in her divine Spouse, let her choose life and not death.


  • 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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