Rorate Caeli

“The Primacy of Tradition and Obedience to the Truth” — Full Text of Dr. Kwasniewski’s Charlotte Lecture

The following lecture was given on September 2, 2022, in Charlotte, North Carolina, under the auspices of the Charlotte Latin Mass Community. It may be considered an offering of gratitude for the upcoming fifteenth anniversary of the going-into-effect of Summorum Pontificum, a document whose underlying principle is true and will remain true. Videos of the lecture and the subsequent panel discussion with Gregory DiPippo, Christopher Owens, and Brian Williams are posted on YouTube; these videos are embedded below, after the notes).—PAK

The Primacy of Tradition and Obedience to the Truth

Peter A. Kwasniewski
September 2, 2022

I will begin my comments this evening with several quotations from Joseph Ratzinger, for I truly believe that his clarity of insight on certain key questions is unsurpassed. Whatever limitations there may be in his analysis of the liturgical question, and however much we bitterly deplore his decision to abandon the papal throne, it is the truth he discerned that forms the basis of the traditional movement.

In an address on October 24, 1998 to pilgrims who had come to Rome for the tenth anniversary of Ecclesia Dei, Cardinal Ratzinger said:

It is good to recall here what Cardinal Newman observed, that the Church, throughout her history, has never abolished or forbidden orthodox liturgical forms, which would be quite alien to the spirit of the Church. An orthodox liturgy, that is to say, one which expresses the true faith, is never a compilation made according to the pragmatic criteria of different ceremonies, handled in a positivist and arbitrary way—one way today and another way tomorrow. The orthodox forms of a rite are living realities, born out of the dialogue of love between the Church and her Lord. They are expressions of the life of the Church, in which are distilled the faith, the prayer, and the very life of whole generations, and which make incarnate in specific forms both the action of God and the response of man.[1]

The reference to St. John Henry Newman is likely to his sermon “Ceremonies of the Church,” in which he writes (still as a High Church Anglican but certainly well on his way to the Roman Church, where his opinion remained the same):

The services and ordinances of the Church are the outward form in which religion has been for ages represented to the world, and has ever been known to us.... [T]hese [liturgical] things, viewed as a whole, are sacred relatively to us, even if they were not, as they are, divinely sanctioned. Rites which the Church has appointed, and with reason,—for the Church’s authority is from Christ,—being long used, cannot be disused without harm to our souls.[2]

It seems to me that this double truth—that it would be alien to the spirit of the Church to abolish or prohibit orthodox forms, and that doing so is inherently harmful to souls—led to the famous doctrinal formulation that serves as the central premise of Summorum Pontificum:

What earlier generations held as sacred, remains sacred and great for us too, and it cannot be all of a sudden entirely forbidden or even considered harmful. It behooves all of us to preserve the riches which have developed in the Church’s faith and prayer, and to give them their proper place.

As many have pointed out, Pope Benedict here speaks in a manner that is decidedly not prudential or disciplinary; rather, he is making a universal truth-claim as pastor of the universal Church.[3] He uses absolute, unequivocal language about what must be so and what cannot be so, and he draws moral imperatives from it. He framed the same judgment on a number of occasions. Allow me to share two in particular. In 1996 he said, in the interview published under the title Salt of the Earth:

I am of the opinion, to be sure, that the old rite should be granted much more generously to all those who desire it. It’s impossible to see what could be dangerous or unacceptable about that. A community is calling its very being into question when it suddenly declares that what until now was its holiest and highest possession is strictly forbidden and when it makes the longing for it seem downright indecent. Can it be trusted any more about anything else? Won’t it proscribe again tomorrow what it prescribes today?[4]

In the interview published in the Jubilee Year 2000 under the title God and the World, he said:

For fostering a true consciousness in liturgical matters [what a remarkable phrase!—PK], it is also important that the proscription against the form of liturgy in valid use up to 1970 should be lifted. Anyone who nowadays advocates the continuing existence of this [older] liturgy or takes part in it is treated like a leper; all tolerance ends here. There has never been anything like this in history; in doing this we are despising and proscribing the Church’s whole past. How can one trust her at present if things are that way?[5]

In such statements, which attain a crystalline form in Summorum Pontificum and the accompanying letter to the bishops, we have a judgment at once theological, moral, historical, and canonical. Now, is this just Benedict XVI’s personal opinion or feeling, no more authoritative than a fondness for Bavaria and beer?

Certainly not. We can see throughout the history of the Church the strongest testimonies to the pope’s boundedness to tradition. Let me offer a few choice examples. The early medieval “Papal Oath” contained in the Liber Diurnus Romanorum Pontificum, a handbook of formularies used by the pontifical chancellery, some of which date back as far as St. Gregory the Great, states:

I, (name), by the mercy of God deacon, elect and future bishop, by the grace of God, of this Apostolic See, swear to you, blessed Peter, prince of the Apostles . . . and to your Holy Church, which today I have taken up to rule under your protection, that I shall guard with all my strength, even unto giving up the ghost or shedding my blood, the right and true faith… I shall keep inviolate the discipline and ritual of the Church just as I found and received it handed down by my predecessors…nor shall I admit any novelty, but shall fervently keep and venerate with all my strength all that I find handed down as verily my predecessors’ disciple and follower…[6]

Similarly, the fifteenth-century Council of Constance (1414–1418), in the 39th session, which was ratified by Pope Martin V and Pope Eugene IV, states: “Since the Roman Pontiff exercises such great power among mortals, it is right that he be bound all the more by the incontrovertible bonds of the faith and by the rites that are to be observed regarding the Church’s Sacraments.” According to this thirty-ninth session of Constance, the newly elected pope was to make an oath of faith that included this passage:

I, N., elected pope, with both heart and mouth confess and profess to almighty God, whose Church I undertake with his assistance to govern, and to blessed Peter, prince of the apostles, that as long as I am in this fragile life I will firmly believe and hold the Catholic Faith…and likewise I will follow and observe in every way the handed-down rite of the ecclesiastical sacraments of the Catholic Church.[7]

The Profession of Faith established at the Council of Trent recognizes, as essential to Catholicity, adherence to “received and approved ceremonies of the Catholic Church in the solemn administration of all the sacraments”—“received and approved” here mean obviously nothing other than the traditional rites. In fact, this is simply the Catholic forma mentis or frame of mind—what it means to think and love as a Catholic (and not, say, as a Protestant or a Jew or an atheist).

Given this attitude, we should hardly be surprised to find eminent canonists and theologians maintaining that a pope guilty of injuring either tradition or the Christian people who rely on it deserves to be resisted. Juan de Torquemada states that if a pope fails to observe “the universal rite of ecclesiastical worship,”[8] he is neither to be obeyed nor “put up with.”[9] Cajetan counsels: “You must resist, to his face, a pope who is openly tearing the Church apart.”[10] Francisco Suárez declares:

If the Pope lays down an order contrary to right customs, one does not have to obey him; if he tries to do something manifestly opposed to justice and to the common good, it would be licit to resist him; if he attacks by force, he could be repelled by force, with the moderation characteristic of a good defense.[11]

Suárez moreover claims that the pope could be schismatic “if he wanted to overturn all the ecclesiastical ceremonies resting on apostolic tradition.”[12] (Note he says “resting on,” apostolica traditione firmatas: he’s talking about the whole structure that has been raised upon apostolic origins. That would mean something like the 1570 Missale Romanum.) Sylvester Prierias explains that the pope “does not have the power to destroy; therefore, if there is evidence that he is doing it, it is licit to resist him. The result of all this is that if the Pope destroys the Church by his orders and acts, he can be resisted and the execution of his mandate prevented.”[13] Francisco de Vitoria likewise says: “If the Pope by his orders and his acts destroys the Church, one can resist him and impede the execution of his commands.”

I discuss all these things at greater length in the books From Benedict’s Peace to Francis’s War and True Obedience in the Church, but what we must note here is that all these authorities assume that Catholics are capable of recognizing when the pope is failing to adhere to the received and approved rites of the Church, assaulting souls, undermining the common good, or destroying the Church. In other words, we are not passive blobs who are waiting to be told that the pope is saying something false or doing something wrong that deserves to be rebuked and resisted. There is some role for our informed reason and faith to play in evaluating his words and actions (and those of any other bishop, for that matter).

Popes are subject to a great temptation—perhaps in accord with Acton’s not entirely false axiom “power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely”: a temptation to identify themselves as the source and measure of Catholicism, when they are rather its recipients, stewards, and defenders. The low water mark of this deviation is illustrated by Pius IX’s famous remark to a Franciscan cardinal who dared to disagree with the formulation of papal infallibility at Vatican I. The pope shouted at him: “Io, io sono la tradizione! Io, io sono la chiesa!” [I, I am the tradition! I, I am the Church!].[14] This is the ecclesiastical equivalent of Louis XIV saying: “L’Etat, c’est moi,” as if a pope were to say, “L’Église, c’est moi.” A correct understanding of papal authority—even according to the actual teaching of Vatican I, taken together with all other pertinent teaching—shows it to be not simply absolute and unbounded, but relative and limited in a number of ways, justifying Gregory the Great’s famous description of the pope as “the servant of the servants of God.”

This is why Traditionis Custodes is absolutely null and utterly void from its first letter to its last punctuation mark. It is premised on an impossibility, an incoherence, a contradiction.[15] It attacks the Church’s self-identity in her godly and God-approved worship. It attacks her lex credendi. It attacks the common good of all the faithful—both those that make use of the Roman liturgy and those that make use of other Western rites and Eastern rites, whose position has been radically destabilized. It attacks in a bewildering variety of ways the rights of bishops, priests, deacons, religious, and laity,[16] as many commentators have pointed out. And that is why it is not only not necessary to follow Traditionis Custodes or any further legislation or policy based on it, it is rather necessary not to follow it. We do not have merely a freedom of protest; we have an obligation of non-recognition and non-compliance. While this refusal to follow vacuous legislation can take both more open and more hidden forms, depending on prudential judgment of the circumstances, nevertheless one must be careful to avoid giving the impression that one accepts that legislation. As St. Meletius of Antioch (r. 360–381) wrote in circumstances as harrowing as our own: “Do not show obedience to bishops who exhort you to do and to say and to believe in things which are not to your benefit. What pious man would hold his tongue? Who would remain completely calm? In fact, silence equates to consent.”[17]

The fundamental principle of the traditionalist movement is that the liturgy of the Church, her immemorial, venerable, universal, approved and received rites, are at the core of what it means to be Catholic, to believe as a Catholic, and to live as a Catholic. The lex orandi (the rule of prayer, how and what we pray) is a permanent witness to and embodiment of the lex credendi (the rule of belief, what we believe) and the lex vivendi (the rule of living, how we live). This is not an optional add-on but the daily axis and center of our lives, the heart of our encounter with God. It follows as a corollary that no one, not even the pope, has the authority to deprive Catholics of their traditional liturgy, to suppress the rites with which the Church has prayed for centuries, to radically modify these rites past recognition and thereby introduce an undeniable rupture with the patterns and content of divine worship.

The traditionalist movement is therefore founded in a primordial act of material disobedience for the sake of a higher obedience.[18] From the first moment of the reform that began with the creation of the Consilium in 1964, Paul VI demanded that everyone follow his initiatives and eventually adopt his new books and cease to use the old books, practically without exception.[19] A commission of nine cardinals summoned by John Paul II in the summer of 1986—Cardinals Ratzinger, Mayer, Oddi, Stickler, Casaroli, Gantin, Innocenti, Palazzini, and Tomko—concluded in 1986 that Paul VI had never suppressed the old rite. This was the basis of Benedict XVI’s statement that it had not been abrogated, with the implication that it could not be abrogated, for the reasons already given.[20] So, Paul VI did not abrogate the old rite (this indeed is beyond any pope’s authority), but he made it absolutely clear that he intended for it to be definitively set aside, and ordered that it no longer be used and that the Bugnini Rite be used exclusively instead.

The traditionalists simply refused to do this. Even when papal apologists of that time threw at them (as the descendants of those apologists throw at us today) quotation after quotation from papal documents saying, essentially, “you must obey every jot and tittle of what the pope tells you to do,” the traditionalists did not and would not acknowledge Paul VI’s authority to suppress tradition and to command novelty. Neither did they hold the seemingly respectful but ultimately incoherent position of Karl Rahner that the pope has the hierarchical authority to do such a thing but not the “moral” authority—in other words, that a pope could legitimately abolish a traditional liturgical rite but should not do it, that his will has force of law but he sins in acting this way.

That position could never make sense. As Leo XIII teaches, God gives power only for that to which power can legitimately extend.[21] A president, for example, who supports abortion is not “misusing” his legitimate power, he is abusing citizens by doing violence to them against his legitimate power. Traditionalists hold the same about the papacy and the tradition of the Church—not only in liturgy but also in doctrine and morals. As Cardinal Stickler, one of the nine commission members of 1986, stated: “This attachment to tradition in the case of fundamental things which have conclusively influenced the Church in the course of time certainly belongs to this fixed, unchanging status [the status ecclesiae], over which even the Pope has no right of disposal.”[22]

That is why, again, the first traditionalists refused to “submit” to what neither their minds nor their hearts could accept as compatible with the essence of the Catholic Faith, just as today for the same reason we reject so many of Francis’s errors—for example, that the death penalty is immoral; that adulterers may receive communion; that faith alone (sola fide) is necessary for receiving the Eucharist; that God wills the diversity of religions as he wills the diversity of sexes; and so forth, all of which a well-catechized schoolchild could see are incompatible with the Catholic Faith.

Recently Dom Alcuin Reid, prior of the Monastère Saint-Benoît in France and one of the world’s outstanding liturgical scholars, gave an important interview with Rorate Caeli that I cannot recommend too highly. He notes that he and a deacon have been “suspended”—a claim he rejects on sound canonical grounds—and that his monastery has been “suppressed,” which he also refuses to recognize. He says:

Regardless of the decrees issuing from our Chancery, our daily life with its eight hours of the Divine Office and Mass, its manual and intellectual work, the welcoming of guests, etc., continues unabated—with great joy and peace amidst the thorns. We knew that suspensions and suppressions may be on the horizon, but we are the proprietors of our own property, not the diocese, so we cannot be evicted… That [monastic life] is our vocation and our duty to which we are vowed before Almighty God. We must be faithful to that. We can do nothing else without becoming mere hirelings that flee with the onset of the wolves (cf. Jn 10:23).

Then he addresses to the traditionalist world a timely reminder worthy of our closest attention:

If we must be canonically independent for a while, so be it. We do not wish this, of course, and shall ensure that we maintain good relations with other monastics and shall invite appropriately experienced monks to make visitations every three years, and so on. If we must be independent, we must not become insular. In time, in God’s Providence, the authorities will come to recognise the integrity of our life and grant us the appropriate authorisation—as has happened in the not-so-distant past.
          The most obvious parallel is that of the first two decades of the history of the Abbey of Le Barroux: its founder, Dom Gerard Calvet, was suspended and expelled from the Benedictine order for having his men ordained without permission (those ordained were suspended also)—only for him to be blessed as an abbot by a cardinal sent by the Vatican some fifteen years later.
          Let us not forget the origins of the Fraternity of St Peter or of the Institute of the Good Shepherd: they would not exist today if it were not for the conscientious disobedience of several decades ago that ensured that the Society of St Pius X continued on when it was canonically suppressed in the 1970s.
          People who benefit from the good work of these Institutes today, or indeed who admire the Abbey of Le Barroux, should not forget the fact that they exist today because historically their founders took conscientious decisions to ignore parts of canon law and decrees of suppression that would have otherwise brought about their death. Our times, unfortunately, seem to be becoming as extraordinary as were theirs and may well necessitate similar actions.

These are strong words coming from Dom Alcuin, who is known for his habit of understatement and for the utmost respectfulness he has always shown and encouraged toward Church authority. I think he simply recognizes the situation for what it is, and so must we.[23] Tragically, the era of liturgical peace and organic growth inaugurated by Benedict XVI has been canceled out; we have gone, to use the title of an anthology of writings on Traditionis Custodes, from “Benedict’s Peace to Francis’s War.” We are not in a situation where our enemies are willing to parley amicably with us and arrive at a compromise. They are seeking our marginalization, ostracization, extinction, and annihilation. If what we have in our Catholic tradition is true, good, right, holy, and beautiful, it is worth living for, fighting for, and dying for, no compromises, no pandering, no bowing and scraping, no pussyfooting, no backtracking, no false obedience. It is a time for heroic commitment, not for hand-wringing, wistful regrets, shrugged shoulders, grudging compliance, or, worst of all, self-accusatory surrender.

It is a simple fact that if our forefathers in the traditional movement had not refused to obey Paul VI on the grounds that he was owed no obedience in this matter since he was acting ultra vires or outside of his authority, we would not have, over fifty years later, the traditional Mass, any of the old sacramental rites, or the Divine Office in our midst. They would have been buried along with everything else that haunted man spent his time consigning to the graveyard of aggiornamento.

I want to emphasize this point: when tradition is under attack, the only right response of the orthodox Catholic is to defend it, to cleave to it, and to resist those who are attacking it. Obedience can never be morally legitimate to those who are disobedient to what is higher than and prior to themselves. Put positively, we are obliged to disobey materially their commands and prohibitions, in order to obey the higher law of divine truth that is contained in and made manifest by our rites, our beliefs, and our way of life.

I’m sure all of us here love the “smells and bells” of the traditional Mass. But our love for it goes deeper, right to its core—to its texts, its ceremonies, its rubrics, its whole presentation of the Faith, its whole approach to adoring the Most Blessed Trinity and the Most Holy Body and Precious Blood of Christ. We do not love the old Mass just for the smells and bells that we could, theoretically, find elsewhere (some of them, sometimes, at any rate). We love it because of what it is in itself, just as we love a best friend not so much for what he can do for us, or how he might please us, or how he may dress, but for who he is and the place he holds in our lives and affections.

The traditionalist movement has grown somewhat flaccid and self-indulgent in this regard, because we have perhaps allowed ourselves to be persuaded that ours is simply a “preference,” rather like chocolate versus vanilla ice cream. If that were the basis for our actions, we would be rightly censured for our stubbornness and rightly demanded to comply with whatever directives are given to us. But if we are committed to the authentic Roman Rite because of the most profound theological, moral, and spiritual reasons—as indeed we are, or should be—then we ourselves may rightly censure churchmen for their abandonment of tradition and their dereliction of duty. We occupy the moral high ground here and we have nothing to be ashamed of or to apologize for.

These considerations apply to priests in a special way. A priest must be prepared to be materially disobedient to the revolutionaries who have occupied seats of power in order to be truly obedient to Christ and to His Church as they exist in eternity and as they straddle twenty centuries of human history. Those who would cancel or abuse the ecclesiastical monuments of tradition, especially the super-monument of the Mass, are not only not worthy of obedience, they are—whether they realize it or not—rivals of Christ, exterminators of the Church, and abusers of the faithful. Insofar as they are such, they must not be allowed to triumph. Nothing could be worse than allowing their false narratives, erroneous claims, progressivist or beige theology, and utter lack of respect for tradition to prevail and to establish itself yet further and deeper, like a cancer that wastes away more and more of the body.

Canon law derives from natural and divine law and ecclesiastical tradition and must remain subordinate to them and interpreted by them. We must not allow hierarchs of the Church to weaponize canon law against the faithful or the clergy by depriving them of powerful spiritual resources or denigrating their legitimate desires or undermining their adherence to what is good, true, beautiful, holy, and right. As Dom Alcuin said and as many others have reiterated, canon law abused in this manner ceases to have any force since it undermines the basic rationale of all law, namely, that it be for the common good of the people governed by it.

Let us be clear: either we accept that the pope is not the lord and master of the liturgical rites of Christendom, that he is in some definite sense bound to receive and respect them, even if he may gently modify them in small ways, and that he has a solemn obligation before God, rooted in his very office, to “pass on that which he has received” (cf. 1 Cor 11:23; 1 Cor 15:3); or we must grant that the pope has complete and unlimited authority over liturgical rites in every respect except the bare minimum of words necessary to produce a sacramental effect, and, accordingly, that he could legitimately—if stupidly—abolish all the Eastern rites and replace them with the Novus Ordo, or abolish all Western rites and replace them with the Syro-Malabar rite; or could decree that Mass should be celebrated in clown costumes, with plastic tableware, dancing girls, and constant whistling and clapping. (Actually, this already happens in Chicago, but that’s another matter.) These are your only two logical possibilities. Tertium non datur. To repeat it more simply: either the pope is bound by tradition in a very real sense, such that acting notoriously against it would invalidate his actions and any subsequent acts based on those invalid actions, or he is not bound by tradition and can say with Pius IX: “I am the tradition; I am the church.”

Some might think that I’m making up a straw man with this latter viewpoint. I assure you, I am not, although I wish it were so. There are energetic apologists online who, based on a tendentious reading of Pastor Aeternus and related documents, which they read in a manner totally devoid of the nuances and qualifications afforded by Dei Filius and other authoritative teachings as well as historical context and plain common sense[24]—argue that the pope’s universal jurisdictional authority contains absolute power over all liturgical rites.

It is clear that the sensus fidei fidelium of the Church manifestly cannot allow this to be true. It cannot be true without making our religion laughable, absurd. The thought that tradition is nothing more than “the pope’s toy,”[25] a plaything he can smash at will like a spoiled child if he so wishes, would be the acid, the solvent, of all piety and devotion. Religion is constituted by rites of worship, and these rites are necessarily ancient, venerable, inherited, and, as time passes, increasingly treated as untouchable. Until recently, this attitude has characterized every Catholic who has ever lived. It requires no special faculty of perception to see the massive damage that has been caused when popes suddenly make numerous large-scale changes to the rites of religion. By the light of reason, by the truths of psychology, anthropology, and sociology, we can know that such changes will always cause a damage disproportionate to any possible gains (this, indeed, is the reason Aquinas gives for why it is foolish to change laws too much or too often).[26] It would be philosophically incoherent and culturally self-destructive to embrace this legacy of damage, or better, self-harm, as if it were somehow a “new tradition” or a “part” of tradition. Such aggression leaves lasting wounds that must be healed by the restoration of the original healthy condition. That is what traditional Catholics believe and fight for.

Fr. Zuhlsdorf recently said: “Hardship, deprivation, suffering, challenges are not always only mere evils to be endured. Sometimes they are needed corrections, cures, even coercions allowed or provided by God to help us get to the truth of who we are.” I agree with him. I believe that God permitted the evil of Traditionis Custodes and all subsequent implementations as a wake-up call addressed to all traditionalists, a kind of shock-therapy to bring us back to our roots, to reorient us to the first principles of our movement, to reanimate the zealous commitment required to get beyond the final and worst flare-up of postconciliar progressivism. I say “final” because the people in power now are the last Vatican II nostalgics and for them, everything is on the line; their entire life’s commitment and project—to create a new Church for modern times—is on the line. When they are gone, there will be almost no one who cares about the Council with the same golden-calf devotion they have.

I especially want to highlight the courage of the originalist traditionalists. At a time in the Church, the tempestuous 1960s, when ultramontanism was still riding high—when it had not yet been battered and bruised by decade after decade of disastrous episcopal and cardinalatial appointments, by Assisi interreligious gatherings and Koran kissings, by a failure to discipline all but the most outrageous heretics, and by a dismal record of failing to correct ubiquitous liturgical abuses and clerical sex abuse—I say, at a time when ultramontanism was still a plausible mental attitude, the traditionalists refused to consent to the denigration and dismantling of centuries of liturgical tradition, the banishment of Latin and Gregorian chant, the turning around of the priest to face the people, the placing of the Body of Christ into the hands of standing communicants, the feminist preferment of women into ministerial roles, and so forth (the catalogue of pseudo-antiquarian innovations is long and tedious). These things they refused as a matter of principle—both because they rightly loved the tradition and had supernatural conviction and natural confidence in its goodness, and because they quite reasonably inferred and expected many evils to come from its eviction; indeed they were already starting to witness, even while the Council was in session and certainly in the years immediately after it, a growing rash of experiments and sacrileges that would have been unimaginable in the years before the Council.[27]

Why did the first traditionalists offer this unprecedented degree of resistance to decrees being handed down from Rome, from the Vatican, from the desk of the pope himself? They offered it on the dual basis of reason and faith.

On the side of reason, they looked at what was being proposed, what was being enforced, what was being allowed, and they saw that it was irrational, that it made no sense—it was nonsense. A man could not swallow it and still respect himself as a thinking and thoughtful being, as one who wished to be consistent, logical, and coherent. This is the same thing we saw in Ratzinger when he said that the Church would be utterly inconsistent to prohibit today what it venerated yesterday, or to declare harmful that which was its highest and most precious possession. One who knows with the certainty of immediate and long-repeated experience the supreme beauty and spiritual power of the chanted Latin High Mass cannot then turn around and say this is no longer “relevant” to modern man, that it will no longer attract souls to Christ and lead them to the heights of contemplation. To make such a denial would be to betray oneself, one’s innermost certainties, and the wisdom of ages, in the name of a blind obedience that requires the sacrifice of intellect, the faculty that makes man human and capable of divinization.

On the side of faith—or more precisely, the sensus fidei fidelium, the “sense possessed by the faithful of that which belongs to and is in harmony with the faith, and that which is not”[28]—the original traditionalists asked how that which council after council, pope after pope, and century after century of believers had practiced, defended, praised, and promoted could now suddenly be wrong or useless or outmoded. To say to a man who believes in the Real Presence and has a well-developed Eucharistic piety: “Okay, get up from your knees, dust off your trousers, stick out your hands, and take the host,” is to invite a reaction of utter incomprehension and scorn. He would never do that, not if you threatened and tortured him. Or at least, he ought not. It is a sign of a lack of faith and a lack of piety—indeed, it’s worse: a sign of total personal immaturity and human imbecility—to be willing to throw over perennial customs of reverence practiced all of one’s life and by centuries of one’s predecessors only because “Father knows best” and “the bishop said so” and “the pope decreed it.” Can we not see how the entire clerical abuse crisis was facilitated by this infantile mentality of uncritical trust and spineless conformism? The traditionalists, however, knew and felt that the Church had been right in what she was already doing and therefore her spokesmen could not but be wrong in trying to cancel it all out, in trying to fundamentally reorient and reconfigure and even refound the Church for modern times.[29]

The liturgical reform was “sold,” so to speak, on a mighty promise of the countless wonderful blessings it could not fail to bring to the Church. The Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, begins with a statement of what the Council hoped to achieve, with the liturgical reform as its poster-child:

This sacred Council…desires to impart an ever increasing vigor to the Christian life of the faithful; to adapt more suitably to the needs of our own times those institutions which are subject to change; to foster whatever can promote union among all who believe in Christ; to strengthen whatever can help to call the whole of mankind into the household of the Church.

As my colleague Gregory DiPippo, esteeemed editor of New Liturgical Movement, has pointed out on more than one occasion: “None of this has happened. The Christian life of the faithful has not become more vigorous; its institutions have not become more suitably adapted to the needs of our times; union has not been fostered among all who believe in Christ; the call of the whole of mankind into the household of the Church has not been strengthened.”[30]

As I have said, the traditionalists objected to a massive reform as a matter of principle, on the twin basis of reason and faith, because they could not see how it would be right to sacrifice the tradition already certainly known and loved for a future possibility uncertainly known and impossible to love because it had yet no existence. As Joseph Shaw says, in 1971, at the time of the first (so-called Agatha Christie) indult, no one had the freedom to base an argument for keeping the old liturgy on the grounds that it would be “pastoral” to do so, or because of its venerable theology, since “the whole point of the reform was the [promised] pastoral effectiveness, as yet of course untried, of the Novus Ordo Missae, and [the hoped-for assimilation of] the theological insights of Vatican II.”[31] The only defense that might work with the authorities back in 1971 was an artistic and cultural defense.

The "new Pentecost" effect on the Church

Today, we are in a vastly different position. We have not only the same principles of faith and reason as our forefathers, we also have behind us a half-century of desolation, desecration, and dramatic decline in church life as a monumental witness of unarguable fact against the prophesied success of the liturgical reform. We know now that the prophets of renewal—even if they wore the mitre of a bishop or the fisherman’s ring—were false prophets who said “peace, peace, when there was no peace” (Jer 6:14, 8:11), who promised plenty but brought down famine. To defend the superiority of Catholic tradition today, we don’t need to have even half the insightfulness of the original traditionalists, because we can see that every one of their predictions has been proved true to the last degree. They predicted that sudden and massive change would have catastrophic effects, and that the particular changes pushed through would undermine Catholic faith and practice. They predicted that where tradition was treasured, the Church would weather the storm and produce good fruits. They have been abundantly vindicated in the event, for it is the very success of the traditionalist renewal against all possible odds that has roused the dragon’s ire.

For us to be traditionalists today requires no great wisdom, for the good and bad fruits have reached full maturity. We still have the same power of reason and the same sensus fidei fidelium that tells us when something is irrational or when it refuses to harmonize with what a sound catechism teaches us. The one thing we need more of, much more of, is courage, fortitude, boldness. The traditionalist movement both benefited from and suffered from the fifteen-year “pax Benedictina,” the peaceful space of coexistence put into place by Benedict XVI. We benefited because many more priests learned the old rite and many more faithful grew to love it. So our movement has grown tremendously in numbers. But we suffered, too, because in a lot of places things became easier for us, and perhaps we grew soft, as soldiers may do in peace time; suddenly we had friendly (or at least not openly hostile) bishops, we had parishes springing up here and there; it seemed like a gently rising and irresistible tide.

And then came the unexpected Traditionis Custodes—whose title can be translated “prison-guards of treachery”—which threw us suddenly back into a state of open conflict that many of us, especially, I would say, the “baby traditionalists,” were quite unprepared for. This is where we really need to step up our game. Everyone who has drifted to the TLM because they love the Eucharistic reverence, the silence, the music, the community of young families, the orthodox preaching, whatever it might be, or even just because they hated masks and hand sanitizer and the branch covidian religion—all of them need to pick up some good books and educate themselves![32] They need to find out what happened in the 60s and why traditionalism as a movement began.[33] They need, in short, to move from being tourists of tradition to apostles of it, from nomads to homesteaders, from admirers to defenders. We were sold a kind of half-truth, that we could have the tradition if we “preferred” it; and that was a false compromise, because tradition is not something we “prefer,” it is something we know and understand, believe and live—it is a treasure without which we cannot live and without which the Church cannot thrive. It is not a preference but a vital necessity, a fundamental identity.

When we recover this awareness, this conviction of the truth of how things really stand, and act accordingly, then we will inherit the name and the success of the first traditionalists who fought and suffered so much in the 60s and 70s. A generation of nostalgic Vatican II hippies now in positions of power have thrust us back into that chthonic world from which we had begun to emerge. Let us strive, by God’s grace, to be worthy of standing side by side with those who first led the people of God out of the Egypt of the 60s and 70s into a land flowing with the milk and honey of Catholic tradition. We can do it. God has given us reason, He has given us faith, He has given us models to look to, He has given us intimate personal experience, He has given us the collective wisdom of twenty centuries of Catholicism. The victory is ours if we will hold fast and never lost heart.

The original Pentecost continues to bear fruit


[1] Translated by Fr. Ignatius Harrison, O.Cong., If the Church has always treasured its tradition as a rule, then we know with certainty that an attack on tradition cannot be from the Church. Those who speak on behalf of the Church are not mechanically and automatically to be taken as her mouthpieces or the Lord’s.

[2] Newman on Worship, Reverence, and Ritual (N.p.: Os Justi Press, 2019), 79.

[3] I do not claim infallibility for his statement, but neither does it require a special status, as it enunciates a principle that can be false only if Vatican II introduced a rupture in Catholicism so profound that it necessites the abolition of orthodox forms and their total substitution by new forms.

[4] Salt of the Earth, trans. Adrian Walker (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1997), 176–77.

[5] God and the World, trans. Henry Taylor (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2002), 416.

[6] Translated by Gerhard Eger and Zachary Thomas, from the Vatican MS text as edited by Hans Foerster (1958, pp. 145–48). For the full Latin text and additional notes, see “‘I Shall Keep Inviolate the Discipline and Ritual of the Church’: The Early Mediæval Papal Oath,” Canticum Salomonis, July 31, 2021.

[7] This and the preceding text are, with the implicit or explicit caveat (to quote the words of the latter) “absque tamen præjudicio juris dignitatis et præeminentiæ Sedis Apostolicæ.”

[8] He has in mind just such “received and approved ceremonies” as Trent later did.

[9] Summa de ecclesia, lib. IV, pars Ia, cap. xi, § Secundo sic (fol. 196v of the 1489 Roman edition, p. 552 of the 1560 Salamanca edition, and p. 369v of the 1561 Venice edition). For the full text, see my lecture “Beyond Summorum Pontificum: The Work of Retrieving the Tridentine Heritage,” Rorate Caeli, July 14, 2021, note 13.

[10] Cajetan, De Comparatione Auctoritatis Papae et Concilii.

[11] Suárez, De Fide, disp. X, sect. VI, n. 16; De Fide, disp. X, sec VI, no. 16.

[12] De Caritate, disp. XII, sect. 1.

[13] Prierias, Dialogus de Potestate Papae, cited by Francisco de Vitoria, Obras, pp. 486–87.

[14] See John O’Malley, Vatican I: The Council and the Making of the Ultramontane Church (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2018), 212, and my article on the book, “The ‘Spirit of Vatican I’ as a Post-Revolutionary Political Problem,” OnePeterFive, July 6, 2022.

[15] Put more simply: either Benedict XVI is right in his universal statement, or Francis is right to (implicitly) deny it—they cannot both be right. A sign that the enemies of the traditional liturgy are aware of this Achilles’ heel in their position is their tireless propaganda effort to reinterpret Summorum Pontificum as an olive branch to the SSPX or as a temporary concession for disgruntled nostalgics.

[16] One may note that even Redemptionis Sacramentum—rather incongruously in the context of the Novus Ordo—recognizes a right to tradition: “arbitrary actions are not conducive to true renewal, but are detrimental to the right of Christ’s faithful to a liturgical celebration that is an expression of the Church’s life in accordance with her tradition and discipline” (n. 11). This is not just made up by positive law but is the expression of what is perennially true.

[17] Andrei Psarev, The Limits of Non-conformity in the Byzantine Church (861–1300): A Study of Canon 15 of the First and Second Council in Constantinople (861), 13.

[18] “Material disobedience” in the sense that they did not do what they were told to do, and did what they were told not to do—disobedience as to the matter at hand—but this did not constitute formal disobedience because they were actually in the right, and so were obedient to a higher law.

[19] There was a tiny exception made for the old and infirm clergy who could not read the new books. That, and the Heenan (or “Agatha Christie”) indult in 1971, were the only official openings until 1984.

[20] See;

[21] British philosopher Stephen R.L. Clark says: “Whenever a clear innocent is condemned, especially to death, by the powers and principalities of this world, it is those powers and principalities which are themselves condemned, and lose the moral authority they abused. We owe, or feel we owe, a primary obedience to authority—but that authority is borrowed from a higher source, and can be lost. Those who observe the event can feel themselves released, if not from reasonable fear of what the abusers can do, at least from any sense that the abusers have a right to do it” (Can We Believe in People?: Human Significance in an Interconnected Cosmos [Brooklyn: Angelico Press, 2020], 113).

[22] See “Recollections of a Vatican II Peritus,” New Liturgical Movement, June 29, 2022. A helpful point from Brian Tierney, Foundations of the Conciliar Theory: The Contribution of the Medieval Canonists from Gratian to the Great Schism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1955), 51–52: “The Decretists had a clearly formulated idea that the maintenance of the status ecclesiae was an overriding consideration in all matters of ecclesiastical policy... In the Decretist writings (as in the Conciliarist works of two centuries later) the necessity to preserve the status ecclesiae was always presented as imposing a limit on papal authority rather than as a ground for extending it.... For them the * state of the Church’ was not a vague indefinable concept which might be used to justify any extraordinary action of the Church’s ruler, but was rather a living reality, closely identified with the rules of ecclesiastical life laid down in the laws of General Councils and confirmed ‘by universal consent’.” Phillip Stump points out: “When status ecclesiae is used as a criterion for limiting papal power, for example in the teaching that the pope could not grant dispensations against the decrees of the first four Ecumenical Councils, it has the meaning of ‘constitution’ or ‘fundamental structure or nature’ of the Church” (The Reforms of the Council of Constance (1414–1418) [Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1994], 254).

[23] As Shawn Tribe has written: “Ultimately the problem [of rupture] wasn’t rooted out by the Summorum years; what the Summorum years did accomplish however was that…many people saw into…the richness and beauty of the Roman liturgical tradition. The SP years were the ‘live and let live’ years. So here we are, but fortunately the Church has always thrived in response to persecutions and the present persecution of the usus antiquior may well be what is finally needed to put the rupturist school to bed permanently in the end. The more obvious the disdain and open the attack upon this patrimony, the more transparent it is that there is a significant ideological problem and it has invited open criticism [of the liturgical revolutionaries] of a sort that we didn’t see in the SP years” (comment on Facebook).

[24] For some of this context, see my article “The ‘Spirit of Vatican I’ as a Post-Revolutionary Political Problem.”

[25] To use an expression of Bishop Mutsaerts’.

[26] See St. Thomas, Summa theologiae, I-II, Q. 97, art. 2.

[27] I am not saying that there were no egregious abuses prior to the council—Guardini’s and Parsch’s versus populum Masses come to mind as examples. But there was not the same feverish atmosphere, and these men were not heretics who wanted to overthrow the whole liturgical tradition, just woefully misguided on certain points.

[28] See my book True Obedience in the Church: A Guide to Discernment in Challenging Times (Manchester, NH: Sophia Institute Press, 2021), 43–51.

[29] I say “refound” because the irresponsible rhetoric of “a new Pentecost” suggests as much. See The Once and Future Roman Rite: Returning to the Latin Liturgical Tradition after Seventy Years of Exile (Gastonia, NC: TAN Books, 2022), 173–77.

[30] Gregory DiPippo, “The Revolution Is Over,” New Liturgical Movement, August 1, 2022.

[31] “The 1971 Petition,” Mass of the Ages 210 (Winter 2021), 8.

[32] Start with these two: my Reclaiming Our Roman Catholic Birthright (Brooklyn: Angelico Press, 2020) and Michael Fiedrowicz’s The Traditional Mass: History, Form, and Theology of the Classical Roman Rite (Brooklyn: Angelico Press, 2020).

[33] For this, Stuart Chessman’s book Faith of Our Fathers: A Brief History of Catholic Traditionalism in the United States, from Triumph to Traditionis Custodes (Brooklyn: Angelico Press, 2022) will be indispensable.

Panel discussion: