Rorate Caeli

The Legitimacy of Calling Oneself a “Traditional Catholic”

In honor of the 100th anniversary of the death of Saint Pius X
for whom Traditionalists “are the true friends of the People”

Bishop Aillet ordaining a priest
of the FSSP this past July
One often hears objections against the use of the term “traditional” or “traditionalist” as a way of defining oneself as a Catholic. Although I’ve written about this before here at Rorate, it is a topic that merits further attention.

Someone might object as follows. Although tradition is obviously a major component of Catholic life, and the handing on and receiving that tradition a major task of the Church, nevertheless it’s only one of a number of such components. Why it should be singled out as the primary one, as is inescapably the case when one uses that term to self-identify? Tradition is not so much a criterion of truth in itself as it is a means of knowing truth and, to some extent, a guarantee of truths. We receive and preserve what has been handed down from Christ because we know that they are true—true because they come from the Incarnate Word, not true because they are handed down as such. It is certainly the case that the necessity and value of tradition are especially denied today. But that doesn’t seem to be a sufficient reason to choose the term to identify ourselves. If what I said above is correct and tradition as such is not the fundamental criterion of the Faith, then it’s a mistake to identify ourselves by it simply because it’s denied so often today. We shouldn’t over emphasize a truth that someone else denies; rather, we should give it its proper place in our thinking.

And (continues our objector), are you not familiar with Pope Benedict XV’s criticism of putting a qualifier in front of Catholic that he made in his first encyclical Ad Beatissimi Apostolorum in 1914? This was shortly after the modernist crisis had been contained by the firm action of Pope Saint Pius X, and so, just as today, people back then were anxious to distinguish their Catholicism from that of others. Benedict XV wrote:

It is Our will that Catholics should abstain from certain appellations which have recently been brought into use to distinguish one group of Catholics from another. They are to be avoided not only as “profane novelties of words,” out of harmony with both truth and justice, but also because they give rise to great trouble and confusion among Catholics. Such is the nature of Catholicism that it does not admit of more or less, but must be held as a whole or as a whole rejected: “This is the Catholic faith, which unless a man believe faithfully and firmly; he cannot be saved” (Athanasian Creed). There is no need of adding any qualifying terms to the profession of Catholicism: it is quite enough for each one to proclaim “Christian is my name and Catholic my surname,” only let him endeavor to be in reality what he calls himself.

What might be said to such a line of argument?

Pope Benedict XV
First, Benedict XV is surely right that confusing or impertinent qualifiers should be avoided—subjective categorizations such as progressive, modern, contemporary, liberal, or conservative, that tend to mix up secular politics, sociology, and religion. For example, one cannot be a “liberal Catholic”; this is a contradiction in terms. “Contemporary Catholic” is either a tautology (since everyone now alive is ipso facto contemporary) or a defining of oneself against the Catholicism of the past, which would simply amount to excluding oneself from the great communion of the Church of all ages. Nor does the term “conservative Catholic” have much of a meaning, because it leaves entirely vague what is being conserved and why. (In any case, as I have argued, conservatism is nothing but liberalism in slow motion.) There might be a whole host of such qualifiers that either involve conceptual contradiction or convey nothing substantive and relevant.

There is, however, a quite definite and defensible way in which one may call oneself a traditional Catholic or even a traditionalist, and wear this name as a badge of honor.

Contrary to the trend of the objector’s argument, the Catholic Faith is not just bound up with Tradition, it actually exists in the mode of tradition—that is, in the mode of something handed down; and this is the only way in which it lives and moves and has its being. Just as Almighty God saved us not by means of an abstract metaphysical system but through a messy and lengthy history, so too, he established the Catholic Church and its doctrine and life as a reality entrusted to the apostles and transmitted, by them, to succeeding generations. While one can have a catechism that reads as if it fell from the heavens with an objective and timeless content (a style highly appropriate for a catechism, no doubt), the faith is a living reality put into certain chosen peoples’ hands and handed over by them to us who now believe. In a broad sense, the entirety of revelation—including Scripture—is part of Tradition. Scripture, too, has been delivered to the Church and handed down by her to us.

This transmission is integral, complete, undistorted, and essentially unchanging, as Saint Vincent of Lerins sees it, and Blessed John Henry Newman shows with rigorous reasoning how the legitimate developments that have occurred historically affected not the body of the truth but, as it were, its clothing, or put differently, not the truth of the word but the fullness of its verbal expression. While the crisis of modernism can be understood in many ways, it seems to me that the crux of the matter is an adoption of an Hegelian (although one might just as easily say Darwinian or Marxist) understanding of development of doctrine: what we believe now and how we practice and pray are different from what they used to be, simply because our age is different—our experiences, feelings, mentality, science, are different. The traditional Catholic decisively rejects this Hegelian deception and affirms the Vincentian/Newmanian unity of revelation as handed down over time, with the guidance of the Holy Spirit leading the Church into the fullness of truth.

Once one grants that there is an integral truth handed down over the centuries and developed organically, then it must be possible for deviation and corruption to set in because of the sins of Christians, and particularly wayward shepherds. Heresy is always possible; misunderstanding, distortion, overemphasis, underemphasis, secularization, all of these things can happen, and when they happen, they begin to undermine “the faith once delivered to the saints” in the souls of individuals who are not strong in the knowledge and practice of the faith—including members of the Church hierarchy. This, of course, was seen most famously in England at the time of the Reformation, when all the bishops except St. John Fisher went along with King Henry VIII’s machinations. We see it today in the clear split between the bishops who accept and teach authentic Catholic doctrine on marriage and family and those who do not, or (to take a random example) between bishops who know and clearly state that the Catholic Church is the one true Church of Christ to which all Protestants are called by God to return, and those who counsel people to remain in their objectively heretical or schismatic positions either temporarily or permanently.

At this point there arises a point that distinguishes traditionalists from other Catholics. The traditionalist would say that it is possible—and indeed it has really happened—that a Pope or a Council could introduce language or liturgy that departs from the constancy, integrity, and purity of the apostolic tradition in its organic development, not in such a way that dogma is contradicted or sin prescribed, but in such a way that dogmas are confused, errors invited, and deviations disseminated. If such a thing has taken place, the solution is not to throw overboard that which is ancient, venerable, and constant, but to judge as inadequate and dangerous that which departs from it, and to hold fast to the tried and true.

Let us return to Pope Benedict XV’s point. The qualifier “traditional” attached to “Catholic” is as coherent and meaningful as the familiar qualifier “Roman”—nay, far more so, since “Roman” might be interpreted by the less educated as a claim that all Catholics belong to the Latin Rite, which is quite untrue, whereas “traditional” emphasizes that our faith comes to us in the singular mode of a depositum fidei communicated by Christ the Lord to His apostles, and by them to their successors, with the essential content of faith and morals never changing, and their immediate echoes, such as liturgy, monasticism, and Catholic social doctrine, being carefully preserved, guarded, enriched, and passed on.

In short, if all were well in the state of Denmark, “traditional Catholic” would be a redundancy, as there would be no other kind to speak of; but in a world where one finds non-traditional or anti-traditional people counting themselves as Catholics, a clarifying moniker separates the (formal or material) modernist from the anti-modernist. In an age of increasing darkness, such clarity is much needed and much appreciated by those who are seeking fundamental, not superficial, solutions.

We rejoice, then, to call ourselves traditional Catholics (or traditionalists), which does not distract from, but rather articulates and resolutely defends the glory of our Christian name and Catholic surname. And it is no less true that the exhortation of Benedict XV can also be addressed to each of us: “Only let him endeavor to be in reality what he calls himself.”