“Traditionalists”, “Progressives” and the burden of obedience

Responding to The Revealer‘s profile of St. Blog’s Parish in its blog last week, traditionalist commentator Sulpicius posted the following challenge to members of St. Blog’s Parish in the form of three questions:

  1. Why persist in allowing progressives to lead your churches and parishes? What will you/can you do, other than “blog”?
  2. If you abide by the Vatican II hierarchy, do you have any footing to question from the “St. Blogs”/conservative perspective the progressive changes in your churches? Shouldn’t you follow your pope, bishops, and priests?
  3. If the Vatican II hierarchy, after 40 years, still hasn’t implemented the “changes” as they should be implemented, please tell us, from the “St. Blogs”/conservative perspective, what does Vatican II mean, and what went wrong these last 40 years?

Following Sulpicius’ comments was this, by a concerned reader:

I have some questions for [Sulpicius] and Mr. Blosser. I am in something of a tough spot here, so while I don’t want to encourage controversy, I will ask my questions, because thus far your discussion has been enlightening for me.

I cannot help feeling that an awful lot went wrong in the last 40 years. . . . I became a Catholic at a young age, by myself, after facing tons of attacking questions from friends and family on the Papacy, the Blessed Virgin Mary and the Eucharist. To answer these questions for myself and my friends, I read, asked and prayed. And it did me tremendous good. And so I entered the Church in my home country, a Third World country, and I was happy. Then I moved to North America, and the Church seemed to disappear. The Mass was a disaster, the homilies were a disaster, and most absurd of all, I found people critical of Latin. I was amazed, and I am still amazed. Now, here are my questions:

I read Cardinal Ratzinger’s interview with Mr. Messori, which I think in English is known as the Ratzinger Report, and I had mixed feelings. On the one hand, the Cardinal seemed to see and speak of the abuses which had been going on for decades, and foresaw what was to come. On the other hand, he is the man responsible for the discipline of those who are abusing the Church. And I kept finding myself asking the question: Why don’t you stop it? How are you going to stop it? I honestly respect the man and his authority. But if such men of intelligence, in such a position in the Church are unable to curb the disastrous behaviour of clergy, who can?

Honestly, I think that Severus has posed excellent questions, and I am not what St. Blog’s would consider a traditionalist. I have never and I will never question the authority of our pope. But I would like to hear you both on the solutions. I know a good few Catholics who suffer on Sundays and weekdays in Mass. These people see hope in the popularity of Gibson’s film, and attribute it to many things, among them, the odor of authenticity which is lacking in our parishes and clergy. Now I think it is too easy to be a sedevacantist and do away with Vatican II and start over. So maybe Severus could tell us what he sees as the solution to all this. As for Mr. Blosser, I would like to hear yours as well.

Response to Sulpicius:

[Sulpicius]: 1. Why persist in allowing progressives to lead your churches and parishes? What will you/can you do, other than “blog”?

It’s not hard to detect the implications: 1) that progressives are “leading” every church and parish; 2) that members of “St. Blogs” spend the bulk of their time blogging. I find such assumptions blantantly demeaning, and apart from the second request I would have not dignified it with a reply. However . . .

Let’s make this clear: contrary to Novus Ordo Watch or The Remnant, not every Catholic parish is run by “progressives.” I agree with Sulpicious that there are terrible parishes — in the few years I’ve been a Catholic I’ve endured some pretty horrific masses that made me grit my teeth in frustration. However, it is my experience that the majority of those I’ve attended in the few years are occupied by good priests and laity of all ages with sincere concern for living a life pleasing to Christ and in obedience to his Church. Perhaps this is I daresay this is the experience of most members of St. Blog’s — and if Sulpicious is eager to dismiss them for whatever reason, perhaps he’s setting his expectations too high. 1

With respect to blogging — I’ve met very few members of St. Blog’s face-to-face, and seeing as how they have lives beyond the keyboard about which I know very little about, I’ll refrain from speculation or judgement about the kinds of things they’re doing to combat “progressivism.” Borrowing from Blessed Mother Theresa, there’s definitely something to be said for “doing small things with great love”; for simply being a good Catholic, and setting an example for others.

(And speaking of useful things to do with one’s time, Amy Welborn has some good suggestions).

[Sulpicius]: If you abide by the Vatican II hierarchy, do you have any footing to question from the “St. Blogs”/conservative perspective the progressive changes in your churches? Shouldn’t you follow your pope, bishops, and priests?

That is to say: “Vatican II” and by implication the post-Vatican II Church (inc. pope, bishops and priests) are to be condemned, as they promote “progressive changes.”

Well, from the get-go, I disagree with this line of reasoning, and the blanket assumptions and ambiguities contained therein. How could I respond when I disagree with the very premises on which your question is based?

Not every “progressive change” that occurred as a result of Vatican II is to be condemned, and there was much in the pre-Vatican II Church that was remedied by the council. 2 Of those changes that traditionalists and “conservative” Catholics agree are negative, not every priest or bishop is behind them, least of all the Pope, who I think functions as a scapegoat on which traditionalists heap blame for every evil in the church today.

As to whether St. Blogs and/or “conservative” Catholics in the post-VII church “have a footing to question the progressive changes” — I think they do, in that this criticism is grounded in the teachings of the Holy Father and the Magisterium. In an article on the new “Catholic revival”, Joseph Varacalli lists a number of Catholics contributing to a restoration of vibrant Catholic faith in the United States:

During this period of spreading the seeds of renewal, the Catholic Church has been blessed by a core of clergy, religious, and lay leadership that has more than risen to the occasion: Mother Angelica of EWTN, Bill Donohue of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, Fr. Joseph Fessio of Ignatius Press, Patrick Reilly of the Cardinal Newman Society, Msgr. George A. Kelly recently of St. John’s University, Ralph McInerny and Gerard V. Bradley of Notre Dame University, Robert George of Princeton University, Thomas Monaghan of Ave Maria School of Law, and Stephen M. Krason of Franciscan University. The list could continue. Because of these constructive developments and charismatic individuals, it’s just a little more difficult these days to mask the secular ideology and social movement that has been guiding the activities of nominal and dormant Catholics. 3

This brief list could certainly be supplemented by additional individuals, bishops, clergy, publications (First Things, Crisis Magazine, National Catholic Register), organizations and lay movements active in the Church today who are all doing their part to promote Catholic teaching . . . without ever feeling compelled to sequester themselves “in the catacombs” of schismatic, traditionalist sects.

If the Vatican II hierarchy, after 40 years, still hasn’t implemented the “changes” as they should be implemented, please tell us, from the “St. Blogs”/conservative perspective, what does Vatican II mean, and what went wrong these last 40 years?

As a fairly recent convert (1997) I’m still on the road to becoming simply Catholic — that is to say, learning and integrating what it means to be Catholic. I’m also in the process of studying the documents of Vatican II. Under the circumstances, I would hardly consider myself in a position to expound on “the meaning of Vatican II” itself. If it’s a reliable and trustworthy explication of the documents you’re looking for, I would turn to the teachings of the Holy Father and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

What went wrong with Vatican II? — I don’t believe that the council itself is the chief reason for the real mess we’re in today, as much as the historical context: the political and cultural climate in which the council occurred, and which led so many astray. Vatican II did not occur in a vacuum, and it does not suprise me that it would suffer in part the unhealthy effects of its environment. (I have not yet read it, but sociologist David Carlen has written what looks to be an interesting analysis of this subject: The Decline and Fall of the Catholic Church in America Sophia Institute Press, 2003). Note: Amy Welborn is discussing this on her blog.

Also, among those impeding a true explication and execution of the Vatican II’s teachings are the dissident theologians and “Catholic” schools who have dodged the mandatum, misleading the faithful by their failure to promote authentic Catholic teaching. 4 But again, there are are good Catholic organizations, schools, universities, seminaries, bishops and clergy, doing their part to counter the dissenters. You have to be willing to look.

* * *

Response to a concerned reader:

I read [The Ratzinger Report] . . . on the one hand, the Cardinal seemed to see and speak of the abuses which had been going on for decades, and foresaw what was to come. On the other hand, he is the man responsible for the discipline of those who are abusing the Church. And I kept finding myself asking the question: Why don’t you stop it? How are you going to stop it? I honestly respect the man and his authority. But if such men of intelligence, in such a position in the Church are unable to curb the disastrous behaviour of clergy, who can?

I had a similar reaction to The Ratzinger Report myself, and even asked this very same question on my blog last year. One of the best essays I came across at that time was by Catholic apologist and fellow blogger Dave Armstrong, appropriately titled: “Why Doesn’t Pope John Paul II DO Something About the Modernist Dissenters in the Catholic Church?” — and I would place Ratzinger alongside the Holy Father with regards to this matter:

The role of the pope is much different, ecclesiologically and strategically, from the role of a local bishop. Pope John Paul II is most definitely effecting positive long-term change by forcefully teaching truth, promulgating the Catechism and various reforms, of schools, of architecture, of moral teaching, etc. The damage of liberalism has been so profound that one must look at cures in terms of decades and generations, not “right now” (as in a certain perfectionist and utopian mindset). A major reason (if not the sole one) for this strategy, I firmly believe, is to avoid schism, because schism is generally longer-lasting (and arguably, even more damaging) than even heresy.

I think John Paul II’s and the Church’s primary concern is for souls. There is no easy choice. If one acts with principle but excludes a corresponding prudence or foresight as to result (as Luther and Calvin did), then one barges ahead and slashes away at all the heretics and de facto schismatics. The pope wants the same result that people who ask this question do: how to have an orthodox Church and how to retain as many souls in the Church (and for ultimate salvation) as possible. He thinks it will take a long time. His critics (or those who are simply bewildered) often think the solution is instant and simple: slash and burn!

I don’t think it that simple at all, given the situation in the Catholic Church in America that we have today. De jure schism is even worse than de facto schism. If the former is the almost-certain result, then it will be even worse than it is now. Time is on the side of orthodoxy. That’s what we learn from history. In the meantime, people are still individuals. If they truly want to learn about orthodoxy and Tradition, there are plenty of means to do that. Each person still stands alone before God, accountable for their actions. They can crack the door of a library; dust off their Bible from the attic, hit the Internet and find Catholic sites, watch EWTN, go to a Mass, talk about the faith with an educated, committed Catholic friend or relative, or take their life savings and invest $10 for a Catechism. Is the pope at fault for all these people who don’t do these things, too?

I believe Armstrong answers this question much better than I — so read it in full. Harsh discipline and mass-excommmunication really may not be the best or most appropriate means of dealing with dissenters. Neither, I think, is self-imposed separation and seclusion from fellow Catholics, in societies which foster an attitude of utter cynicism and blatant disobedience to the Pope and the Magisterium.

I expect that I have not answered Sulpicious’ questions to his satisfaction, and fear that I will disappoint this reader in turn. Honestly, I have no grand solutions, no strategies for a restoration of Christendom. No better response than to try and follow Christ and be a good Catholic. Find a good parish if you can, and if you have a preference for Latin, a parish that celebrates an episcopally approved Traditional Latin Mass.

But if you’re unsuccessfull in doing so, in my humble opinion I think it better to endure even a poorly-celebrated Novus Ordo mass in the company of the “progressive”/”conservative” Catholics Sulpicius holds in disdain than jeopordize communion with the Church.

Thomas Howard put it best in Lead Kindly Light: My Journey to Rome:

Like Augustine with the Donatists of his day, Catholics may have profound sympathy with any number of the “protests” that have been mounted against corruption, falsehood, worldliness, or sin in the Catholic Church. As Augustine would teach us to say, “Alas: your criticism is too true. There may be wounds and bruises and putrefying sores, from the crown of the head to the soles of the feet; but we cannot dismember and hack to pieces the Body of Christ.” This has been done in the last five hundred years. We have no warrant to set ourselves over against this ancient Church. There may be among us wolves in sheeps clothing, even; yet the answer to that is not to leave the Fold, but to cleanse and protect and restore it. God bless the earnestness and fidelity and zeal with which many have striven for righteousness and truth and purity in the Church. But insofar as their striving has separated them from that old Church, then the measures have been too draconian. To pray with the Lord in his prayer recorded in John 17 may be to do more than voice a petition. It may, in this latter day, mean a difficult obedience. 5

Further reading:


  1. I suspect the reason Sulpicious lumps all Catholic parishes in the U.S. under the term “progressive” is simply on grounds that they celebrate the Novus Ordo and are part of the post-Vatican II Church — in which case, he leaves no room for distinctions, and there’s really not much point in discussing the matter.
  2. The March 22, 2004 issue of Crisis features an article by George Sim Johnson on why, all controversy aside, the Church needed Vatican II. Unfortunately it’s not online at this point in time.
  3. “Putting The Catholic House Back Together”, by Joseph Varacalli. Lay Witness April 2001.
  4. Ralph McInerney has addressed the crisis of authority and dissenting theologians in What Went Wrong With Vatican II: The Catholic Crisis Explained (Sophia Institute Press, 1998).
  5. Lead Kindly Light: My Journey Towards Rome, by Thomas Howard. (Franciscan U.P. July 1994).

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