Sunday 11 August 2019

My problem with ‘traditional’ Catholicism

I am a young Catholic priest; I have been ordained for just over nine years and have been a parish priest for close to a year. I am child of the Second Vatican Council - in so far as Vatican II Roman Catholicism is my primary experience of what it means to be a Catholic. I am in my mid-thirties which means that I was brought up to experience Mass in an average English suburban parish. It is this Post-Vatican II Catholicism that has nourished me, fostered my relationship with Jesus Christ and his Church, and it is in this context that I felt the Lord call me to serve him as his priest.

At seminary I studied, as did we all, the documents of the Second Vatican Council committing many parts of the constitutions (particularly Lumen Gentium and Sacrosanctum Concilium) to memory. In no way would I consider myself an alien to the Second Vatican Council – it is in my blood. This said, this does not mean that I accept every innovation that has occurred since 1969 in the ‘name of Vatican II’. I have studied the Council too-much to know that nowhere, for example, did the Council envisage the ripping out ornate altars, smashing statues and building bland spaces to worship God in. Nor does being a Vatican II Catholic mean never praying the rosary, never using Latin, poo pooing devotions and treating traditional piety with suspicion. Many of these things, happened immediately after the Council (and often in the name of the Council), but you won’t find them sanctioned in any of the documents. I can understand then, that as a reaction to this kind of reductional expression of the faith, a generation would fight back - trying to restore what was lost. The ‘baby’ was indeed ‘thrown out with the bathwater’ in the post Council period.  Here, however, is the problem – those who are reacting today threaten to throw the same ‘baby out with bath water’ by rejecting many of the authentic developments of Vatican II.  

It seems to me that in recent years there has been a rise in people claiming to call themselves ‘traditional Catholics’. The term normally refers to people who prefer (sometimes exclusively) the extraordinary form of the Roman Rite. (Extraordinary Form (EF) refers to the Latin Mass prior to the Missal of Pope St Paul VI often referred to as ‘The Old Mass’ or ‘The Tridentine Mass’.) It also refers to Catholics who prefer the aesthetics of the Mass and Church prior to the Second Vatican Council. (1962-65). What seems to be even more common is the large number of young priests who are coming out of seminary who seem to enjoy wearing biretta’s, dressing in copious amounts of lace, performing as much liturgy as possible in Latin and having a penchant for vestments designed for the EF Mass.

It would be too simple to write these young priests off as eccentric, mad, stupid or stuck in the past. Many of them are good men who have discerned a genuine call to serve God and his people. In the post-Council period it’s fair to say that the priesthood went through something of an identity crisis. Two of the major themes of Vatican II concerned the whole Church as the ‘Pilgrim People of God’ and the renewal of the Episcopate. Notably, what was left off the agenda was anything definitive about priestly identity.  Combine this with the sea of change that happened both from within and from outside the Church in the 60’s and 70’s and it’s not too hard to imagine how we can find ourselves in a situation where people are unclear about what and who the Catholic Priest is. This whole subject of priestly identity is a thesis in itself, but for our purposes it is sufficient to note that the unrest following the council effected the priesthood profoundly.

Move on a few years and a young man who feels called to the priesthood will understandably want to find out everything he can about priesthood and immerse himself in the life of priest. If he does this what role models does he have? What images can be found? If he is to  be inspired, then much of  the inspiration will be drawn from pre-Vatican II sources - quite frankly because there is nineteen hundred and fifty years of material to draw from prior to Vatican II! Furthermore, if no firm model of priesthood and few inspiring models of priesthood were held up by the Church following the 1970’s then it is unsurprising that a young man could very easily revert to a pre-Conciliar model of priesthood?  

Humans need identity and they need to express that identity. Ultimately our identity should be in Christ, but a person will express multiple facets of identity at any one time. If man is a priest, he will need to express that identity in various ways.  For some men, who are still discovering what priesthood means for them, (and in the absence of a favourable alternative) they seem to express their identity in traditional Catholic dress.

Having said all this, I am becoming more and more concerned at the incongruity of so called ‘traditional Catholics’ and ‘traditional Catholic priests’, whatever the argument, put simply, it’s all just a bit weird! I’m all for wearing clerical dress and visible signs of our faith, but in most cases (and in our own country) a grown man walking down the high street wearing essentially a black dress and large brimmed hat, to me just seems bonkers. It doesn’t mean anything to most people, and it doesn’t proclaim the gospel anymore than walking down the street in a hippo outfit would. If anything, it risks presenting the Church as odd, archaic and out of touch. Don’t get me wrong, its not that I think we should not be counter-cultural.  Nor do I think that wearing a cassock is always wrong (I have three!), but dressing like Fr Brown for daily business is, in my opinion, unlikely to win souls.

My biggest problem, however, with ‘traditional Catholicism’ is the name and underlying philosophy. You see, I have a confession to make: I am a traditional Catholic. I am a traditional Catholic because I am a Catholic. You cannot be a Catholic and not be traditional. The Catholic faith is built on Apostolic tradition. Part of being a Catholic means that you have received the faith and you in turn will play a part in handing that faith on. (Traditio (Latin) means to hand on.) The tradition is a living dynamic reality, handed on by the Church which is guided and animated by the Holy Spirit. The Church’s tradition is not static and dead but always developing under the guidance of her pastors and under the authority of the magisterium and the Vicar of Christ: The Pope. Those who try and portion off Church history and treat certain epochs as ideals or as ‘golden ages’, those who try and drive a wedge between pre-Conciliar and post-Conciliar Catholicism, those who attempt to politicise Papacies and talk about conservatives and liberals are not being truly Catholic and they are certainly not ‘traditional!’

I firmly believe that to be a Catholic is to be part of a beautifully rich living and dynamic tradition. We should not be afraid of development but nor should we be afraid of the past. We certainly should not wed ourselves to an age that no longer exists.  As members of the living Body of Christ we must seek communion and be willing to see the continuity that exists between Councils and Popes. Most of all we should, not allow ourselves to be distracted by nonsense but always have our eyes and our hearts fixed firmly on Jesus Christ who is our way, our truth and our life.


  1. There are some that have said that novus ordoism and Catholicism are not the same religion.
    I’d appreciate your view

  2. I’d be interested in what you would consider conspiracy theories and nonosense