The Traditionalist Trajectory is a Dead End
Traditionalist Catholicism is a dead end. If you start to question things, the logical end point is to leave the Roman Catholic Church, and that's not an easy move for anyone to take whose persona has been "Roman Catholic" - @tridentines1967
The person writing this does have a stated anti-traditional bias. Their bio lays it out: “Exposing abuse & history of worldwide Traditionalist Catholicism.”
It’s not an account I follow, so I can’t speak to anything else they discuss. But on this point, I agree with them, based on my own experience. Allow me to explain.
The short version is: my own trajectory out of the Church began as a long arc of trying to find more and more reverent liturgy/authentic theology - one that continued until I ran out of road. I grew up in a parish with a folk group doing all the music. I went from that to seeking communion rails, then a stint with the Byzantines in college when there was nothing better, liturgically, available. I never felt like I belonged there, but it was a beautiful respite, especially from Steubenville guitar Masses filled with people who thought they were speaking in tongues at the consecration. After I graduated, I quickly found an ad orientem, Latin, Novus Ordo with well-performed sacred music. From there it took 2-3 years, a bunch of reading, and a push from a priest I knew, to finally land with the TLM. I stayed there for 18 years.
For me, it was a constant process of peeling back layers of modernity like an archeologist unearthing some ancient mosaic beneath a bustling city that had forgotten what came before it. “Uncovering orthodoxy” was a theme in my mind for many years.
But this search for authenticity was ultimately a futile one.
Yes, I found better liturgy and sacraments. Sometimes (though this was often not the case) I got better preaching. When I say “better,” I mean that if one believes in the Real Presence, in the Mass as a sin-oblation to God that re-presents the sacrifice of Calvary, offered by a man participating in the one true priesthood of Christ to God the Father on behalf of the faithful, etc., it was clear to me that the Church’s old liturgy did a far better job of putting a person in that space and in that mindset. Similarly, the deeper, more symbolic presentation of things like the old form of baptism with its ritual movement from outside the Church to inside the holy of holies (with several attendant exorcisms), the old blessing of holy water that really seemed to intend to impart an actual power over sickness and evil, and so on…all of this added up to an anthropology of worship that actually tracked with Catholic belief as I had come to understand it. But the deeper I dug looking for answers, the more questions I seemed to find.
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The longer version of my story follows. And it is fairly long, so consider yourself warned.
Personally, I contrast what I thought I found in traditionalism with a childhood experience I remember very vividly. I was 14 years old, and an altar boy who served most Sundays at my small, rural parish in Northern Pennsylvania. My pastor was a kind, elderly man whom I spent quite a lot of time with, which was only natural for a boy whose mother made such a big deal about how special priests were and who needed some paternal guidance to do. Ours was a plain-Jane liturgy according to the Missal of Paul VI. It was neither egregious nor especially well-done. But I did note the reverential awe with which this old priest spoke the words of the consecration; how carefully and painstakingly he performed the ablutions. It was clear that he really believed he was handling Christ fully present in the Eucharist.
But that was, I think it’s fair to say, the only outward sign I could latch onto. Ours were guitar Masses with glad tambourines. My aunt, who is lovely person, led the folk group. They were good people. But the music, which strayed into cliches like overuse of the so-called Celtic Alleluia, or incorporated songs like Lord of the Dance, while at times emotionally rousing to my adolescent self, did not feel like an appropriate fit in general — and I didn’t know better. I’d never heard Gregorian chant, or Schubert’s Messe in G, or anything from Palestrina or Tomás Luis de Victoria. Those would all come later, and they would change my understanding of sacred music profoundly.
The sanctuary was full of laymen and lay women. Lectoring, distributing Communion, touching everything there was to touch. And the casually-dressed congregation had a tendency to do the same. Most of them came up to receive without any overt sign of reverence like genuflection — a priest assigned to the parish later tried to implement this small gesture, and was run out of town on a rail after the chancery got an earful from the “faithful” — and received on their outstretched hands. I was also taught to receive on the hand, years earlier at a different parish in a different state, but it must have been around this time that I made the switch to reception on the tongue. I recall having an instinctual aversion to allowing my skin to touch the sacred vessels when it was my job to remove them from the altar and place them on the credence table. I would carefully enfold the stem of the chalice with the chalice veil so that my fingers would not touch the metal, as though to physically touch this ark of the new covenant would be some kind of sacrilege. I don’t recall anyone teaching me that. It just made sense to me.
But let me return to that specific experience that stands as the launching point for my journey into Catholic orthodoxy. As I said, I was 14, and I found myself one day alone in the parish, perhaps it was after Mass, and I went up and knelt before the tabernacle, which was of course hideous, and placed off to the side. Its surface looked like the bronze equivalent of a popcorn ceiling, and there were metal cutouts of two faceless, featureless angels, one on each side. The carpet was blue plush. It wasn’t quite shag, but it just barely escaped that distinction.
As I prayed there, I was reeling from cognitive dissonance. Nearly everything about the space I was in, the liturgies I attended, the way people acted at Mass and their behavior towards the Eucharist, none of it seemed to add up.
“Lord,” I said, “I know I’m supposed to believe you’re fully present here, body, blood, soul and divinity, but nothing about the experience I have here at church seems to back that up. I am having a really hard time accepting that this is true. If it is, why don’t we act like it? If you want me to believe, you need to help me.”
It was my first existential crisis. I felt faith slipping away.
I was just a kid who knew essentially nothing about liturgy or theology, but what I was seeing was creating too much cognitive dissonance. Nothing made sense.
Within a year, I thought my prayer had been answered. My uncle’s cousin was a priest with some religious congregation I had never heard of, and he traveled around with a seminarian and would say Mass sometimes. He was a very kind and fun and charismatic guy. But his Masses were also very reverent. His elevation of the host at the consecration was long and felt pregnant with spiritual meaning. I began going on retreats with him up in New Hampshire at a school filled with boys my age who were also so kind and devout and in love with God that it felt surreal. I was used to the shark tank that was public school. On some of those retreats, I began encountering things I’d never seen: chant, adoration and benediction, and the use of incense. They added up to a sense of mystery and wonder that had been missing from my religious experience until then. As I went deeper into that world, I found it increasingly profound. Trips to the order’s major seminary showed me hundreds of disciplined young men in cassocks, praying, going to Mass, studying, working, playing sports together without rancor or rivalry, just a healthy sense of competition, and so on. It was a vibrant, engaging vision of Catholicism that scratched the authenticity itch I had been looking for. It was, for me, the beginning of a spiritual pilgrimage. I left home at 17 to go live with them, to attend their school, to volunteer in their houses of apostolate, to do missionary work with them, to teach at their academy, to manage their youth group, to lead a young men’s members-only team. I was all in.
All in on a gigantic fraud.
That religious congregation I had never heard of was The Legionaries of Christ. In the mid-90s, when I got involved, it was the fastest-growing order in the Catholic Church. Pope John Paul II loved them. They were teeming with vocations.
And their founder, Marcial Maciel, was one of the most vicious, rapacious, unrepentant sexual predators the Church has ever seen. He not only abused his seminarians and created a culture of deceit and manipulation and spiritual abuse and exploitation of the wealthy, but he fathered children and then raped them too. He was such a wicked, evil man, he refused to repent, even on his deathbed.
The Legionaries used to love to quote Christ, saying, “By their fruits ye shall know them.” They would point their critics to the good fruits of their apostolate as a rhetorical objection to the idea that they could be bad.
They rendered that Gospel passage meaningless in my eyes.
I’ve written about my experiences with the Legion before. I won’t rehash them all here. Suffice to say that I was desperate for father figures and trained from infancy to see priests as men set apart by God who automatically deserved deference and respect. I put all of that earnest yearning into my work with those priests, and I did so because they very much appeared like the real deal to my brainwashed, indoctrinated, adolescent self. Fortunately, I was not sexually abused. Unfortunately, I was spiritually abused and manipulated and lied to in spiritual direction by a priest who is still in good standing with the order. When I left, I was slandered by clerics in a swift, coordinated assault on all the relationships I had formed within the “movement” over several years — literally every friend I had was subjected to this.
Not only had I fallen for this lie, but to add insult to injury, the Legionaries were allowed to still exist — almost certainly because of their enormous wealth and the influence it bought them — and many priests who were part of the organization, or who knew or covered up for what happened, are still in positions of leadership.
That isn’t on Maciel. That’s on the Catholic Church.
But I digress.
You see, I didn’t give up on this trajectory of “uncovering orthodoxy.” I kept going. After a year spent working, licking my wounds, struggling to hold onto my faith, trying to fend off my second existential crisis, I managed to carefully, ever so carefully, blow on the embers of belief, and enkindle a new flame.
The Legionaries replaced the Church for me, I thought. They were the Church for me. I don’t need to be part of some non-essential religious congregation. I need to find solace in the Church herself. She is enough for me. I need to cut out the middleman.
And so, I headed off to Franciscan University of Steubenville to keep the flame alive. I studied theology. I kept pursuing liturgical orthodoxy. I started going to the Byzantine parish a few miles from school. I made a pariah of myself by criticizing the irreverent campus Masses in the school newspaper, challenging readers to expect more from their liturgies and to put more into them. I was attacked for my efforts by the university chaplain in an editorial that blindsided me right before I graduated. I was not given a chance to respond. I graduated under a pall, feeling hurt and betrayed once again — after all, I was basing my critique at least partially on theology I was learning as a student there.
I was angry, but I was determined. I continued to look for more reverence, better Eucharistic piety, and orthodox preaching. When I went home, I did not go back to the parish that had prompted my questioning at 14. I drove 25 minutes in another direction to a parish that gave communion by intinction at the altar rail, used incense, and refused altar girls.
I moved to Virginia about a year after that, and found a parish with an ad orientem Latin Novus Ordo. They did sacred music at no small expense almost every Sunday. Meanwhile, my own cousin, now a diocesan priest, was beginning to push me to look at some of the works in the traditionalist canon, and open my mind to the TLM. I was resistant at first, but the more I read, the more I saw it: this was the continuation of the path I’d been looking for. This was my way to have that more meaningful experience of the Church without going off to some religious congregation of dubious provenance. This was how my great grandparents and their great grandparents had worshiped. This was just what it meant to be Catholic!
I’ve already written more than once about how that story ended up turning out. I’m not a believer anymore. I’m not even a Christian. I’m a guy just trying to figure out how to make sense out of any of it. I experienced a couple of minor existential crises during my years as a trad, but I rallied. I put my doubts in a box, locked it up tight, and sat on top of it.
If you’re doing something like that, a word of warning: it’s not a long term solution. In the immortal words of Bono, “In my dream, I was drowning my sorrows, but my sorrows they learned to swim…”
This whole reflection is a bit of a TL;DR, but I’m coming back around to the main point.
Traditionalism strikes me as a dead end for a few reasons:
First, because traditionalism isn’t a destination. It’s a cross-section of an ongoing sequence of historical events re-imagined as a definite place you can somehow return to. But if you were to pick any fixed point in Church history and time travel to it, it wouldn’t look the way traditionalists expect it to. Traditionalism is an imagined, romanticized, idealization of a thing that was never so crystalized as to make things like arguing about the length of maniples or quibbling over which Holy Week prayers to use make any real sense. It’s almost like doing civil war re-enactments but only focusing on the Battle of Gettysburg and then obsessing about being as historically accurate as you can, but assuming that sums up the entire Civil War. You’re getting one snapshot of a much bigger, much more complicated thing, and trying to make it universally applicable.
Second, because while the modern Church is in many respects vapid and diluted and impossible to take seriously, it got that way at least partially in reaction to the unflinching harshness of some of the historical teachings. I’ve had countless arguments with Catholics — theologians included — who want to whitewash or nuance into oblivion how merciless the old Church was in many respects. No fewer than five ecumenical councils — Carthage, Vienne, Lyons II, Florence, & Trent — taught that “original sin alone” was enough to damn a person. That means the unbaptized babies of practicing Catholic parents, who die tragically through miscarriage or as infants, are lost. And not just lost - punished, according to the Church herself. I did some research on this earlier this year, and it’s just devastating stuff:
Denzinger #464 cites Lyons II (1272-1274): “The souls of those who die in mortal sin or with original sin only, however, immediately descend to hell, yet to be punished with different punishments.”
Council of Vienne, (1311-1312) cited in Denzinger #482: “All the faithful must confess only one Baptism which regenerates all the baptized, just as there is one God and one faith. We believe that this Sacrament, celebrated in water and in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, is necessary for children and grown-up people alike for salvation”
Council of Florence, 1439: “The souls of those who depart this life in actual mortal sin, or in original sin alone, go down straight away to hell to be punished, but with unequal pains” (Session 6)
Council of Trent, Session 5 (1546), #4: “If anyone denies that infants, newly born from their mothers' wombs, are to be baptized, even though they be born of baptized parents, or says that they are indeed baptized for the remission of sins, but that they derive nothing of original sin from Adam which must be expiated by the laver of regeneration for the attainment of eternal life, whence it follows that in them the form of baptism for the remission of sins is to be understood not as true but as false, let him be anathema, for what the Apostle has said, by one man sin entered into the world, and by sin death, and so death passed upon all men, in whom all have sinned, is not to be understood otherwise than as the Catholic Church has everywhere and always understood it.
For in virtue of this rule of faith handed down from the apostles, even infants who could not as yet commit any sin of themselves, are for this reason truly baptized for the remission of sins, in order that in them what they contracted by generation may be washed away by regeneration.
For, unless a man be born again of water and the Holy Ghost, he cannot enter into the kingdom of heaven.
5. If anyone denies that by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ which is conferred in baptism, the guilt of original sin is remitted, or says that the whole of that which belongs to the essence of sin is not taken away, but says that it is only canceled or not imputed, let him be anathema.”
Liguori, commenting on Trent:
“Calvin says that infants born of parents who have the faith are saved, even though they should die without Baptism. But this is false: for David was born of parents who had the faith, and he confessed that he was born in sin. This was also taught by the Council of Trent in the Fifth Session, number Four: there the fathers declared that infants dying without Baptism, although born of baptized parents, are not saved, and are lost, not on account of the sin of their parents, but for the sin of Adam in whom all have sinned” (Explanation of Trent , Duffy Co., 1845, p.56)
Augustine’s own claims on the matter:
“Anyone who would say that even infants who pass from this life without participation in the Sacrament of Baptism shall be made alive in Christ goes counter to the preaching of the Apostle and condemns the whole Church, because it is believed without doubt that there is no other way at all in which they can be made alive in Christ’ (St. Augustine, Epistle to Jerome, Journel: 166).
“For it is not written ‘Unless a man be born again by the will of his parents’ or by the faith of those presenting him or ministering to him,’ but of water and the Holy Spirit” (Epistle to Boniface; Rouet de Journel: Enchiridion Patristicum: 98)
St. Ambrose: “No one is excepted: not the infant, nor the one prevented by any necessity’ (Abraham, Patrol. Lat. 14:500).
I’ve had arguments with a particular Dominican priest who just insists that the non-doctrine of Limbo is the answer to all of this, that being deprived of the beatific vision that God is supposed to have made us for is somehow no big deal (because in his view, those in Limbo are spared both the “pain of sense” and the “pain of loss” despite the Church’s own teaching that "The chief punishment of hell is eternal separation from God." (CCC 1035)
The International Theological Commission document on Limbo reiterates that "The necessary reconsideration of the theological issues cannot ignore the tragic consequences of original sin. Original sin implies a state of separation from Christ, and that excludes the possibility of the vision of God for those who die in that state."
This means that those babies in Limbo are, through no personal sin or volitional choice, subjected to the very thing the Church also teaches is the chief punishment of hell. The Church's teaching on the fate of the unbaptized, therefore, is not a depiction of the action of a loving God. It is brutal, unjust, and unmerciful.
The more time I spend with the thought of David Bentley Hart on the utter logical impossibility of infernalism in That All Shall Be Saved, the less willing I am to ever consider a Christianity that does not hold universalism as necessarily true if there is indeed a loving and benevolent God.
When one adds in the other “Outside the Church There is No Salvation,” implications (how many loved ones do you have who were good people who died outside the Church? I have a bunch…) and the consensus position that the majority of human beings are damned to eternal conscious torment, that it’s just fine with God to burn heretics at the stake (Ex Surge Domine; Pope Leo X), and on and on, and what you wind up with is a horrible, sadistic picture of a faith that seems dead set on making everyone terrified of this allegedly all-loving, omnibenevolent God who, the adherents of apparitionism keep telling us, is only not unleashing his considerable wrath on us because the Virgin Mary is holding him back like some rage-drunk father who wants to beat his children were it not for the loving ministrations of his spouse/mother. Throw in the sheer absurdity of the dogma of Papal Infallibility and the alleged imperviousness of the Roman Church to error under the auspices of indefectibility and…it’s all too much to believe.
The old liturgy and sacraments are beautiful. But much of the old theology is so hideous, unloving, and unmerciful, that it’s better off dead and buried. (Which presents its own problems, what with the supposed irreformability of doctrine and dogma.)
Which brings me to my third an final reason why traditionalism is a dead end: it extols the authority of an institutional hierarchy that is actively engaged in trying to kill traditionalism. You cannot both “repent and submit to the pope” but also “resist him to the face” indefinitely, with no end in sight. You cannot continue to hope for the restoration of a liturgy that has been actively suppressed for half a century as the normative worship of the Church and consider yourself a reasonable, realistic person. You cannot put faith in the idea that the TLM is the liturgy God wills for his faithful when God clearly is doing absolutely nothing to ensure that they receive it; despite their fervent requests that their father give them bread, fish, and eggs, he hands them nothing but scorpions, serpents, and stones. Sorry, LARPers, there is no “R E T V R N.”
If one uses the metaphor of the archeological dig in uncovering orthodoxy, unearthing that beautiful Roman mosaic beneath the city street, one must admit the risk that comes with digging too deep. What if you find out that beneath it all, there’s really nothing? What if you accidentally collapse the mosaic, and find yourself falling into the darkness of an empty abyss beneath? What if the whole thing is just too incoherent, too unstable, too unbelievable to be real, and the only reason anyone buys it anymore is because it stretches back into antiquity so far that they think, like Belloc, that its own survival of self-imposed imbecilities must mean it is divine?
Or, conversely, what if some of it is true, but a lot of it isn’t, and the fact that the Church demands that you believe all of it is true under pain of damnation means you can never get to the bottom of knowing which bits to trust and which can (and should!) be safely discarded?
It seems to me that those who adhere most strongly to the traditionalist thing — and by that I do not mean those devout folks who just go to Mass, receive the sacraments, say their prayers, and steer clear of diving too deep into the murky waters that flow beneath — do so only by way of a cultivated blindness. The more honest among them will admit, if only partially and even then only reluctantly, that they can’t reconcile rather important bits of it either. They like to make noises about “mysteries” and “trusting in God’s mercy” and go on about things that “can’t be resolved this side of heaven” and just avoid looking at as much of the uncomfortable stuff as they can.
They drive in circles in a cul-de-sac, pretending that they’re on a road trip to a brighter future where “all is well, and all manner of thing shall be well” because after all, “God is in charge.”
Some of them, if they look up long enough to realize where they are and that they are not, in fact, going anywhere, end up turning to sedevacantism, which is quasi-logical progression, I suppose, for people who treat papal documents — at least, the ones they like to consider more authoritative than the ones that contradict them — like the transcripts of some divine oracle. But a gnostic pseudo-Catholicism that excommunicates pope and bishops and denies that there are valid sacraments almost anywhere as it preaches fire and brimstone from strip mall chapels in the forgotten hinterlands doesn’t actually make sense, and shouldn’t be taken seriously. There’s no way back from it, making it an even worse dead end than the ecclesial cul-de-sac.
There’s a reason I always said I’d be an atheist before becoming a sede. Occam’s razor demands it.
Maybe it would be better to be like my Dominican interlocutor, just closing my eyes and ardently wishcasting myself into the belief that the Church is a better, kinder, more credible thing than it actually is. It’d certainly be simpler, and make my life a lot easier.
Unfortunately, my eyes are very much open.