Traditional Catholicism, a magical land that appears to be home to a growing number of the faithful, has once again come under attack from no less a prelate than the Ordinary of Rome, Francis the Merciful. The outrage is palpable. As those who have bothered to pay even a smidgen of attention to Francis’s oftentimes reckless reign knows, he harbors little-to-no love for the Traditional Latin Mass (TLM) and finds traditional Catholics to be, well, weird—or, according to his most recent interview on the subject, rigid. To some extent, he’s right. Compared to the Modernist-inspired contemporary Catholic that Francis extols, any member of the Body of Christ who upholds the Church’s indefectible teachings has to come across as not only rigid, but extreme and fundamentalist. Francis, interestingly enough, has far less to say about conservative Catholics (or, as some prefer, neo-Catholics). Perhaps it’s because he knows that they are willing enough to play fast-and-loose with certain teachings to still be tolerable. Also, it doesn’t hurt that two of the central features of conservative Catholicism for the past 50+ years are defending the Novus Ordo Missae and the integrity of the Second Vatican Council. Sure, neo-Catholic fealty to the legacy of Pope John Paul II, specifically his teachings on family issues, might be a bit of annoyance, but it’s a small price to pay for winning the allegiance of quasi-universalists intoxicated with neo-ultramontanism.
I imagine the reason traditional Catholicism has been on my mind today is because I opted to skip the Divine Liturgy this week in favor of attending traditional sung Mass at St. Mary’s in Kalamazoo, MI (a parish I am wholly unfamiliar with). It occurred to me that it may have been only the second TLM I have been to this year that wasn’t low. Regardless, on the long, gorgeous drive home through rural Michigan under an unseasonably cloudless, sunny sky, I was bothered by small but noticeable sense that despite the advances made in expanding access to the TLM since 2007, it could all be taken away in an instant—and most Catholics would go along with it. That is to say, if Ecclesia Dei was abolished tomorrow, Summorum Pontificum repealed, and all talks with the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX) halted, traditional Catholicism would largely disappear. Those who claim to love the old Mass and only the old Mass would seek out the least-worst new Mass available in their diocese. Some might poke their heads into an Eastern Catholic parish or two (assuming there are any near by), but really that would be that. Traditional Catholicism outside of the confines of the SSPX and a few pockets of (clandestine) diocesan resistance, would be effectively dead.
Some might object here and say that traditional Catholicism is more than the TLM and they’re right. It is. The problem, however, is that many attached to the TLM aren’t deeply invested in messy doctrinal matters. Dignitatis Humanae, for example, may not be consonant with tradition, but who cares? The Catholic state is never coming back and besides, if it wasn’t for religious liberty, wouldn’t Catholics living in an increasingly secular West be the ones to suffer? Similarly, while the Novus Ordo Missae may be abused, banal, and lacking the same doctrinal depth as the TLM, it’s valid. Why get worked up over “licety? I could go on, but I think you get the picture.
Speaking personally, I feel quite divorced from this potential disaster and yet quite concerned. I believe Greek Catholics—indeed all Eastern Catholics—should hope and pray for the Latin Church to uphold her tradition in toto, even if it may not seem to be in our immediate best interest. Because while traditional Latin Catholicism is a mansion with many rooms and innumerable treasures, it also tends to store more than a fair amount of junk in the attic. Latin chauvinism has had a deleterious effect on the life, integrity, and mission of the Eastern Catholic churches for centuries, and it is largely thanks to certain mid-20th Century historical, theological, and doctrinal trends that Eastern Catholics have found sufficient room to be themselves in a Latin-dominated ecclesiastical environment. (To be fair, many of these trends have thoroughly traditional roots; they just took on a certain intensity after Vatican II.) Add to this a fairly nauseating tendency for certain traditional Latin Catholics to absolutize their tradition over all others and what you have is a certain, but resolvable, tension between Latins and Easterners.
I say “resolvable” because in the end there are more convergences than divergences between traditional Latin Catholics and faithful Eastern Catholics. There is also a lot of room open for mutual understanding and enrichment, not to the extent of blindly (mis)appropriating one tradition and trying to fuse it with another, but rather gaining a fuller understanding of what it means to be Catholic. To say that most of us have lost this understanding would be a gross understatement.