“Traditional Catholicism will either evolve or die a pathetic death as it slips further and further into self-parody and irrelevancy.”
Those were my words at the advent of my return to Catholicism in 2011—words which I implicitly disavowed over the course of several years where I found myself not only sympathizing with, but defending, traditional Catholic culture. At the same time, however, I could never quite shake the feeling that the posture of traditional Catholicism, as it was struck from roughly the 1970s onward, suffered from the usual pathologies that attend any “movement” which becomes intentionally insular. This insularity was, to some degree, foisted upon traditionalism. As years shifted into decades, though, this insularity became almost a badge of honor. There was, to be sure, an “opening” created in 2007 by Pope Benedict XVI, but the “Francis Effect” seems to have closed it up again. Yes, traditional Catholics attached to the classic form of the Roman Rite still retain a significant amount of breathing space. The price for that “breathing space” is silence, and so it comes as little surprise that instead of keeping their mouths closed, traditionalists have instead returned to the ghetto in which they had carved out a fairly healthy spiritual space since the dark days following the Second Vatican Council.
This reality has been back on my mind as of late, not because I have some “reform proposal” for Catholic traditionalism, but because there now appears to be a looming temptation for all orthodox Christians, regardless of confessional commitment or intra-ecclesial orientation, to find solace in the ghetto, that is, to disengage and preserve some semblance of their identity, regardless of what is going on in the larger world. Few advocating for such a move seem to recall the experience of the Russian Old Believers—an experience which allowed them to retain a surprising degree of homogeneity of rite, belief, and lifestyle, albeit at the cost of failing to win souls for Jesus Christ. Any exotic interest in their manner of being should, for a Christian anyway, give way to a depressing acknowledgment that whatever they’ve retained could not possibly be worth the cost of failing to save souls.
But maybe they were able to save their own souls, or at least some of them. And that is, in isolation, a good thing. Still, that is not the totality of Christianity. The Church is not, and cannot, be about erecting a fortress in which those inside work out their salvation while caring not for the pagan horror that surrounds them. This is, to say the least, a tricky situation, particularly in these dark times where the final connections between Church and society have frayed nearly to the point of nonexistence. The world has become too dangerous, or so some opine. The culture is too corrupt, so why save it? Why work for the “restoration of all things in Christ” when that work could—as some, for mixed reasons, fear—have the unintended effect of bringing the rot within the “safe zone,” that is, corrupt what is supposed to be incorruptible?