The Limitations of “Trad” Catholicism

To be Roman Catholic these days is an unenviable business, especially if you’re aware of what’s going on in the Catholic Church (and many Catholics, sad to say, are not.)  It’s easy to comment on what’s happening, but what really matters is how one plans to fix the problems that face the Church.

DDVEnqXXUAAwiviLet’s start with what won’t work: the idea of the Pope and the “reappraisers,” to use Kendall Harmon’s expressive term.  As one who was raised in the Episcopal Church, one gets a “déjà vu all over again” feel about this.  As I’ve pointed out before, the idea of Francis and other “reverends pères jesuites” using their “morale accommodante” to advance the Church has a long history.  Progressive Protestants have done the same thing and the empty churches speak for themselves; Roman Catholicism can’t expect a different result.

So what is to be done?  One group of people with “the answer” to these problems are the “trads,” those whose idea is to return to some kind of traditional Roman Catholicism.  They’ve been around since their church was turned upside down with Vatican II, although many have had to operate in the shadows.  Now, as was the case with the Anglican-Episcopal world, the combination of the internet, social media and wider broadcast choices have made networking easier to do.  (A sympathetic former Pope didn’t hurt, either.)  So do they really have the answer?

I think the best reply to that question is…sort of.

Stating the obvious is the quickest way to get Americans angry, but let’s start there anyway.  “Trad” Catholicism is not, to use a good Scholastic term, univocal.  We have the #straightouttairondale types and we have the TLM (Traditional Latin Mass) types, and they don’t always get along.  That’s a typical problem with groups which focus on liturgical precision, and Trad Catholics certainly do that.  The first thing that Trad Catholics need to do is to promote unity amongst themselves, even if they don’t agree on every point.

That leads to the next problem: Trad Catholics are too focused on the sacramentals and not enough on the sacraments.  What Trad Catholics of all types are trying to do is to reconstruct the Catholicism of the pre-Vatican II years, down to the last devotion and spiritual discipline.  Their idea is that Vatican II wrecked the church by throwing the doors open, which led to the exodus of people and religious that has led to the current crisis.  This ignores something that Europeans should understand but Americans don’t: that the decline in Catholic numbers in Europe long antedated Vatican II, Tridentine Mass and all.  Vatican II was called in part to address this issue; for the American church, booming (like their Episcopal counterparts) in the post-World War II environment, such a reform was almost unnecessary.

The biggest challenge the Trads face, however, is the structure of the Catholic Church itself.

The church the Trads find themselves in is the result of the greatest triumph of long-term Trad Catholicism of all: ultramontanism.  The term means “beyond the mountain,” and refers to the centralisation of power and authority in the Pope.  Largely facilitated by the French Revolution and the Napoleonic upheaval, it eliminated practices such as the regale and curtailed the national autonomy churches had guarded for centuries.  The proclamation of the Pope’s infallibility at Vatican I (the same time the Italians trashed the Papal States) sealed the deal.  It eliminated meaningful national autonomy and certainly any lay input into the life of the church, something Vatican II tried to address without much practical effect.  Both autonomy and lay involvement would have been handy for American bishops to deal with the sex abuse crisis; instead, the Vatican ran interference and the American church will suffer the consequences.

What this means for the Trads is that, should the Vatican continue to move leftward, they will leave the Trads in the lurch.  That’s because it is difficult in the Catholic parish system, which have no voice in their selection of priests, to have a distinctive identity.  That’s what messed up the Catholic Charismatics forty years ago; they found it next to impossible to have Charismatic parishes.  Their solution was the covenant community system, but that had problems tooAnd ultimately those communities which remained found themselves being made offers they could not refuse.  The Trads, which are more dependent upon the sacerdotal and sacramental systems, are even more vulnerable to this kind of pressure.

None of this should obscure the fact that the Trads have some strong points: they have a definite idea of what Christian life should be all about, they’re good at attracting people to vocations (something that may be a life saver in a priest-starved church,) and their people, like Bossuet’s characterisation of God, tend to be fertile.

I’m not sure that the Trads Latinate, legalistic and overly sacramental view of Christian life will have the broad appeal they think it will, although they will attract some in this way.  I would like to see the Trads, to borrow more Scholastic terms, differentiate more meaningfully between the essentials and the accidentals.  But I’m afraid, as was the case with the Charismatics a generation plus ago, that the Church itself will be the worst enemy of those trying to renew it, and that’s the saddest part of the whole business.

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