The Minority of the Minority

The Real Live One blog, to my delight, has truly come alive with thought-provoking reflections. The two I most have in mind are the most recent.

Gathering a Sense of the Lay of the Liturgical Land : Traditional Catholicism

From 1981 until off-and-on between 1996 and 1998, I had first-hand experience of the traditionalist Roman Catholic world. I found the Society of St Pius X intolerant and authoritarian. I went from one illusion to another and in the 1990’s went the way of the Ecclesia Dei lot and the sterile aspirations of being the future majority once all the liberal fuddy-duddies had died off.

JV’s analysis is quite germane, and I detect the influence of people like Geoffrey Hull who quickly sensed a difference between “conservative” and “traditional”. The former would uphold the means (authority, infallibility, etc.) and the latter would uphold the end (the Church’s liturgical life as actually lived out). The latter would be ready to adopt a kind of “Gallican” ecclesiology if the Roman authority was of a mind to destroy traditional liturgical forms in favour of a reformation. He makes a further distinction between traditional Catholicism and traditionalism. The former would represent a “natural” and non-reformed state of the Church, and the second a “semi-reformed” state – admitting the principle of reform and modernisation but refusing the later consequences.

I don’t know if there are many priests doing what I do: using old local uses like Sarum and other diocesan and religious order uses in more recent usage. JV refers to the question of western praxis before the Reformation / Counter Reformation cycle. I have often written on this theme, and even in my lifetime have found bits and pieces of this older conception of Catholicism in France. An eccentric parish priest of Scottish-Cornish origins in Normandy, a brave priest who stuck his heels in and held his ground, a few bits and pieces in Normandy and around Paris. There was precious little of it in the 1980’s. Now, those priests are all dead and the parishes concerned are closed down or “reformed”, or occasionally given to the Fraternity of St Peter. The eccentricities were discontinued and replaced by the standard 1962 fare as provided for by the rules. I am lucky enough to have a large-minded bishop in the ACC, and I can do what I want in my own chapel, but I would be expected to conform to the standard Anglican Missal (standard Roman missal of c. 1920) if serving in a parish over in England.

The objection can be made. Why not drop it and put it all in museums and libraries? After all, this is the use the modern world has with “culture”. So-called “culture” is apart from life, from homo technicus, and made to be dosed and contained at will. It is only one step from destroying all the evidence. Even the French revolutionaries and Bolsheviks in Russia preserved cultural artefacts whilst they killed people.

What really alienated me from Roman Catholicism was this insistence on nothing outside the Reformation / Counter-Reformation dialectic, whether in theology or rigid rubricism in liturgical practice. At one time, what JV refers to as traditionalism seemed to me to be a lesser of two evils – between tight and scrupulous rubricism on one hand and the kind of liturgical abuse one would expect to find in parishes trying to be “with-it”. It is not what my experience with Anglicanism brought me to hope for and expect. Indeed, what I have tried to do is an eccentric’s task or the lonely research of a scholar. The kind of theory and praxis to which I aspired depends on a decentralised notion of the Church, something dangerously in common with the “liberals”. I discovered a lot when comparing Modernists like Tyrrell to demytholising, secularising and moralising liberals like Bultmann and Harnack, promoting a kind of “atheist Christianity”. Tyrrell worked to debunk the Germanic secularisers and seek a more mystical vision of Catholicism. Authoritarians like Pope Pius X simply rolled them all together and opposed both tendencies against orthodox scholasticism. Thus came the dialectic between Modernism and Integralism spreading into both religion and secular politics.

What does it all matter? I would ask them the same question about why it matters so much to them to narrow everything to their knife-edge criteria. Diversity and difference don’t enter their formatted categories. I suppose that if I were not a priest and I was living where I am, I would have to make choices between the available options: the traddies in with Rome, the SSPX, the local parish, some community of enthusiasts or a monastery. It is a consumer’s choice between one brand or another on the supermarket shelf! That is what it has come to. There is also a Church of England community in Paris. There are also a few Lutherans and Eglise Réformée communities dotted around…

JV more recently added Gathering a Sense of the Lay of the Liturgical Land : Traditionalism. He traces the history of pre-1962 modernisation, especially through the Pius X reforms in the Breviary. I assume he will comment on the Holy Week rites of Pius XII later together with the reinforcement of the Papal office through treating canonised popes as something other than the confessor and martyr bishops they were. I have no need to go into all the details.

In the end, it comes down to ecclesiology, because authoritarian papalism leads to a dichotomy between tradition ad authority. If you “convert to the true church”, you then have to accept ecumenism, religious freedom and a whole paradigm that undermines the Counter-Reformation notion of the “true church” designed to trash Protestantism. You then have to create some kind of ecclesiastical Empire of Romantia for yourself, or begin to ask questions. The problems come when we begin to seek intellectual coherence rather than be bludgeoned into being formatted into ideologies (black is white if the Führer says so). After all, has Catholicism not been a load of fairy stories for children? My wife often speaks of her old grandfather who preferred to have la foi du charbonnier (the faith of the coal-man or the ploughman) rather than ask questions whose answers would seriously compromise his innocence and sincerity. I am brought to think of Charles Ryder in Brideshead Revisited saying to Julia – “You do know at heart that it’s all bosh, don’t you?

At one level it is all bosh. At another level, man comes to a new awareness of things and a new understanding of Christ’s mission. It is situated at the level of the spirit.

The traditionalist reaction has served to open up these assumptions to question, and they represent another side of “Modernism” as opposed to obedience to the totalitarian system. The notion of infallibility has at least to be minimised to the exact terms of the Vatican I definition (designed to placate the inopportunists) if not quietly done away with. Benedict XVI and Francis began along this line in a quiet task of deconstruction. Paul VI and John Paul II were the last of the ultramontane pontiffs.

In my own thinking, I could only go a step further and reverse my assimilation of the various papal pronouncements designed to trash Anglicanism (even the kind of Anglicanism trying to continue the medieval kind of ecclesiology based on the Kingdom and the Episcopate). There was no question of returning to the Church of England, so the way was continuing Anglicanism.

Now, is traditionalism a kind of “subtle Gnosticism”, term defined as a minority believing it is right against the majority? This hardly seems to do justice either to the heretical Gnosticism of Valentinus or the more “orthodox” Gnosticism of Origen and Clement of Alexandria. I have taken a great interest in Gnosticism myself (see Aristocracy of the Spirit) to the extent of reading books by C.G. Jung, Berdyaev, Elaine Pagels, Bishop Stefan Höller, the Nag Hammadi scriptures and Pistis Sophia. Too much of it creates a system of thought that becomes too high to assimilate, but the vision is profound and spiritual. It has appeal. I see little evidence of this way of thinking among most conservative and march-in-lock-step traditionalists. Rather to the contrary.

Can aspirations be fulfilled? Can anything be recovered? I begin to have my doubts, and their consequences would be too far-reaching for comfort. I have the impression of disciplining my thought and restraining myself very severely as I wait for dim flames of hope in orthodox (lower case “o”) Christianity. What would be my forecast for the future? The only thing possible is in the light of history. I see increasing polarisation and exhaustion in the extreme tendencies like sedevacantism (like with the Orthodox Безпоповцы and the Petite Eglise) and an increasing movement towards conformity on the part of the “traditionalist” groups. Outside the simultaneous movement of polarisation and exhaustion, people will increasingly seek non-Christian or “godless” Christian spiritual outlooks not depending on churches, communities or clergy. Of course, people might turn to totalitarian authoritarianism as they did in the 1920’s and 30’s in reaction to poverty and incompetence of their political leaders. Would the next Pope be a “reincarnation” of Pius XII, one who would take advantage of the upsurge?

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10 Responses to The Minority of the Minority

  1. David says:

    I am glad people are coming around to realizing there is a difference between traditional/orthodox Catholicism (best represented in the Catholic communion by the Anglican Ordinariates and the Oriental Churches) versus traditionalist Catholicism. The former are realists who want to promote tradition in the modern world, the latter want to take a time machine back to a perfect era that never was.

    Before a few years ago, they were lumped together as the former – except those fortunate enough to know the Eastern liturgies – either endured the latter group or suffered through banal liturgies. One of the unspoken accomplishments of Pope Benedict was the creation of a “conservative mainstream” of sorts that transcended liturgical preference. Having known nothing but the SSPX-style of thought for years, I was surprised how orthodox many Pauline Mass goers were.

    When it comes to Pius X’s Pascendi, I forget the quote but I seem to remember that Fortescue criticized it for the same reasons as Tyrrell (to paraphrase: “Apparently, if you aren’t scholastic you aren’t Catholic”). One can hardly accuse Fortescue of being a “liberal”, which is testament to the problems of the anti-Modernist witch hunt.

    • Xryztofer says:

      It never ceases to amuse me how much Traditionalists sound like Fr. Tyrrell in their criticisms of ultramontanism, despite his being the quintessential Modernist boogeyman.

      • David says:

        Funny, because he is probably the most orthodox of the modernists of that era (certainly more so than Alfred Loisy). He never tried to reshape, re-imagine, or deconstruct the church, only steer theological thought in a different direction more pliable to the times (If that is a crime, then should not Anselm and Aquinas have been condemned?). The most he can be accused of is possibly holding a couple of beliefs that could be heretical (I have yet to read everything he wrote, but I do need to read it all as Traddies condemn him but don’t elaborate).

        I, for one, entirely agree with his thoughts on infallibility.

        “The Pope is infallible insofar as he gives voice to the consentient Church whose mouthpiece he is. The notion that his particular brain is the notion of the Holy Ghost is an innovation.”

      • Xryztofer says:

        I also think Fr. Tyrrell would have been very much opposed to what the liturgical revolution ushered in. While he did speak in favor of incorporating some vernacular into the liturgy, his mystical, almost anti-intellectual view of divine revelation wouldn’t have sat well at all with today’s thoroughly rationalist approach to liturgy, where everything has to “make sense.”

      • You seem to have a blog, Theologically Modernist, Liturgically Traditionalist, but disappointingly with no postings. The title looks promising, and I hope you will do something with your blog.

        I think I have discovered this way of dealing with things when I looked into Romanticism. As Oscar Wilde said about St Francis of Assisi, Tyrrell had the soul of a poet. He lived at a different level from his and our rationalist world. It is a question of being humans, not machines.

        Read about the Synod of Pistoia and the effect of Jansenism – The Liturgical Stake. I find the Rorate Caeli traditionalists too uncritical about the Pius V reform and the whole Counter Reformation movement but this talk reminds us of much that can be read in Guéranger’s Institutions Liturgiques. It shows the contrast between the rationalist spirit of the 18th century and the unction of the liturgy as Guéranger described it.

      • ed pacht says:

        A rule of thumb I use for both liturgy and theology:
        If it entirely makes sense, there’s something seriously wrong with it.
        If the human brain is finite (which it is, no matter how astounding its complexity), and if God is infinite, the divine simply cannot be entirely comprehensible, and all our logic will ultimately lead to a breakdown point. Paradox and seeming contradiction will always emerge as we approach more closely to truth. Shouldn’t our practice of worship and our theological expression reflect this?

      • Xryztofer says:

        Yes, that’s my (currently sans content) blog. Between teaching and depression I’ve had a hard time getting it off the ground. If it comes to anything, it’ll be mostly to experiment with ideas (as I like to call it); no great discourses, I assure you. The basic idea is there has to be a via media between (a) theology that’s willing to think with a 21st century mind and embraces historical-critical methodology//St Louis Jesuits touchy-feely folksy banal garbage liturgy, (b) theology that’s frozen in a counter-reformation mindset, considers the “24 Thomistic theses” as de fide, and insists that you can’t be a good Catholic unless you believe Moses wrote the Pentateuch and St Paul wrote Hebrews//liturgy that’s thoroughly Catholic in its ethos, has the sap of the ancient Faith flowing through it, bespeaks transcendent Realities, and evokes that Mysterium Tremendum et Fascinans. Why can’t we have (c) theology that’s willing to think with a 21st century mind and embraces historical-critical methodology//liturgy that’s thoroughly Catholic in its ethos, has the sap of the ancient Faith flowing through it, bespeaks transcendent Realities, and evokes that Mysterium Tremendum et Fascinans?

      • Joseph says:

        I have to agree with Fr. Chadwick’s sentiment – your blog has much promise if you pursue it. It could be a well needed contribution to the discussion.

  2. JV says:

    ” Benedict XVI and Francis began along this line in a quiet task of deconstruction. Paul VI and John Paul II were the last of the ultramontane pontiffs.”

    Have you written about this before? If not, would you?

    • This would be a vast subject, and I’m not sure I would make a good job of it. I say this more from general observation between the very Pius IX-like Paul VI, so concerned about his own authority (cf. Humanae Vitae that backfired on him) and the image of the Papacy projected by John Paul II. Benedict XVI came over as the quiet academic with an essentially Romantic outlook on life – and appeared to want to begin to demythologise the Papacy, having accepted it reluctantly. I see his abdication in this light. Then with Francis, I see a deconstructionist tendency, though he may in time return to the Paul VI authoritarian approach. For Pope Francis, we don’t have enough retrospect. That is my “feeling”, but I don’t feel qualified to make an academic subject out of this question and research it as it needs to be.

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