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Seattle Catholic
A Journal of Catholic News and Views
21 Mar 2003
Conservative and Traditional Catholicism Compared
   by Edward Faber

As a young Catholic cleric who has lived most of his life between conservative and traditionalist groups, I confess that I have become weary of the constant attempts to convert me to one or the other side. My past few years of prayer, study and keen observation of Catholics doing what Catholics do has brought me to meditate on the differences between the conservative and traditionalist camps in the Church and I offer the fruits of my meditation to be devoured by everyone. This does not purport to be a comprehensive apologia or even analysis, but a collection of phenomenological impressions of my own experience in both camps.

The Three Munera

The conservative thinks that the munus docendi of the Church will save the world by sheer volume of documentation from Vatican dicasteries and the Apostolic Palace. John Paul II is lauded foremost as a teacher. The traditionalist is painfully aware however that the munus regendi has been inoperative in the Church for the past forty years and that laws and teachings may be multiplied but if there is no effective force behind them, all is in vain. Both fail to recognize that the Church exists to propagate the ends of the munus sanctificandi and that the point of Christian life is not to absorb new and exciting theological texts or to preserve every facet of Catholic culture, but to be saved.

No one doubts that John Paul II has exerted a massive and impressive effort to go into the whole word and teach, and he is for that reason an inspiration. But the thought behind it is that if we just keep throwing paint up against the wall, some of it will stick. Christian doctrine is reduced to what appear to be its essentials: Jesus Christ, Mary and morality. The faith has to be presented to the world in a new way so that it can embrace it. But this implies that man today is radically different than man in other centuries. Von Hildebrand has spoken very eloquently on the myth of modern man and shows us that Jesus Christ is meant to redeem man in all times and that men always have the same hopes, desires and sins in all ages. Just because the classical Weltanschauung has changed and has been replaced by a new one does not mean therefore that Christianity must change or die, as John Shelby Spong puts it, because the Catholic Church is not a Weltanschauung, but a divine institution with truths that transcend the nature of the man who believes them.

The so-called conciliar project to reformulate the truths of the faith for modern man reduces the mystery of grace and the Church to a system that, as an organic system must necessarily "keep up" if it is to advance or keep a hold on the situation. There is much talk about Tradition as a living thing, as if it were an organic system that changes just as a cell or tissue or body changes, sometimes drastically while remaining the same. But the problem with this conception is that the Church is not like an association of people that change their constitutions and aims so that it can continue to exist and have meaning. When the Church is seen as having to mean something to modern man, that inevitably means that it may not have anything to offer anyone, and living as a Christian is an alternative to living as a Rotarian or as a Rastafarian, because one chooses whatever organism seems to offer meaning to one's own subjective reasoning. The conservative buys into the John Shelby Spong hermeneutic while trying to keep the classical formulations of faith all the while trying to make them more attractive, like advertising. There is a lack of faith behind this because there is the unspoken assumption that if the packaging is not palatable, the gift will be rejected. The traditionalist rejects the Spong hermeneutic because he has faith that the truth can speak for itself, and has the theological humility to see that the packaging is all a part of the gift, and that the person is free to choose the gift or not, and that if he chooses the gift it because of the gift itself and the packaging is relatively immaterial. His is a Christianity that does not change or die.


The traditionalist insistence on "1962 or Die" is an unfortunate holdover from Lefebvrist praxis. It assumes that the last chronologically authentically Roman Rite Missal was the 1962. The conservative rightly points out the fluctuations in liturgical history but cannot accept the critique by the architects of the liturgical reform themselves that even if it called the Roman Rite, the Pauline Missal of 1969 is not the Roman rite. (cf. Jungmann, "The Roman Rite is dead.") They think that since the Pauline Missal is used by the Pope in Rome and because it is referred to as the mass for the Latin Church then it is the Roman Rite, even when it represents a marked departure from the organic and consistent development of the Roman rite throughout the ages. The 1962 crowd waxes glorious on that missal but most uncritically. The most acerbic critic of the Mass of Paul VI fails to realize very often that the Missal of 1962 is not the Mass of St Pius V and indeed was also a creation of the Bugnini Liturgical Wreckavator. The differences between the pre and post 1955 Holy Week are astounding, and the 1962 or Die priest who has a dart board of Bugnini has to worship at the Shrine of Bugnini whenever he celebrates Mass, because the sanctoral cycle, the breviary, many rubric and ceremonial details as well as all of Holy Week are mere preparations for the Novus Ordo.

The amusing thing is that conservatives are intent on upholding the authority of the Pauline Missal against the traditionalists. One well known priest once wrote, "I actually see no real difference between the two missals," which was as great discredit to his reputation as a scholar. The line is that the New Mass is not really New, despite the fact that a careful reading of Bugnini's The Reform of the Roman Liturgy reveals that it is all new and that the so-called restorations are questionable indeed and the work was written in fact as a justification for the unjustifiable.1 The liturgists realize the New Mass is new, the liberals realize the New Mass is new, everyone in the Church realizes the New Mass is new except for the conservatives.

The conservatives who fight very hard to demand observance of the rubrics and adequate translations usually end up being routed. Abuses are routinely made licit, and conservatives who deride others for not obeying the Pope then have to do exactly the disobedient practice they railed against in the first place, to save the authority of the pope at the expense of a more critical analysis of the nature of the liturgy itself. Conservatives consistently find themselves in positions of liturgical inconsistence because their barometer of religious fervor is that of accepting whatever comes out of Rome and not what actually makes sense. This is often seen with the attitude towards extraordinary ministers of various kinds. Many will use eucharistic ministers while hating every minute of it, seeing it as a kind if lesser evil permitted by the church, but at the same time they will defend to blood the Catholic liturgical principle that An extraordinary minister cannot function in the presence of an ordinary one. Then they go to Rome and are scandalized to see this being flouted everywhere, and then when they see the same thing happen at Papal Masses, then say, well the Pope does it so it must be okay and then go back to the US to try to simultaneously hold two mutually exclusive positions. Examples of this abound.

A Cultural Stance

The attitude of the conservative is quintessentially American: open to new ideas, creative, vigorous, but often ingenuous, rigid, and superficial. The conservative Catholic movement is a predominantly American thing: the conservative Catholic is conservative in every aspect of his life from politics to clothing, and is so because his is a way of looking at society. The conservative thinks that he can "solve the problem" and that Eternal Rome is on his side because he obeys the pope and loves the Church just as she is. The American has the know-how to enforce order, which is what he seeks: a way of living that is ordered, disciplined and balanced, the American way of life transported into religion.

The attitude of the traditionalist is classically Roman: suspicious of innovation, cautious to act, slightly cynical about affairs between men, but often pigheaded, lax and uncaring. The traditionalist movement takes as its motto that of Cardinal Ottaviani: Semper idem, because he can separate the unchanging world of dogmatic and moral truths from the faulty men who try to get them across. The traditionalist is not interested in doing anything in the sense that he does not want to effect change for the good, but he wants to be Catholic in all of his being and acting. The traditionalist knows full well that the Rome of the dicasteries in 2003 is distinct from the ideal Rome, and that authority in the church is a mystical Venn diagram where the two sometimes meet and sometimes do not. The traditionalist has the hope to be authentic, which is what he seeks: a way of living that aspires to the fullness of appreciation of the Catholic Thing which is beyond temporal and local considerations, religion made a way of life.

When the two meet there is tension because both proclaim to be the same thing: the Church. The conservative sees that churches that celebrate the Tridentine mass are filled with false mystics, hyperdevoted religious psychotics, critical naysayers and other weird people while their churches are just the normal People of God. The traditionalist sees his churches filled with the sick looking for a Divine Physician, a tattered army of weary soldiers struggling for a lost cause while being ridiculed by people whose self-proclaimed normality only distances them from the real world which sees both sides as equally insane.

The conservative has the complex of wanting to appear just like everyone else. His love for order sees singularity as threatening; if he is a cleric he will be in many ways indistinguishable from his fellow clerics. He says Mass like everyone else, but he believes; he wears the collar proudly when in church and hangs out with the guys in layclothes and is bothered by the bothersome traditionalist who is incapable of not being eccentric. He is the icon of fashionable middle class values grafted onto the priestly identity. He is convinced that in this way he can advance the cause through his career which will save the Church from extremisms.

The traditionalist revels in his rebellious eccentricity and with all of the fervor of a Holden Caulfield against the phonies has no fear to be a radical disciple of Christ. If he is a priest he is not bothered that "no one wears a biretta" anymore because he can say, "No one believes in God anymore either, so what?" The traditionalist knows he is an extremist to the eyes of the world but does not care, because the gift of his faith is more important than what others think of him.

Insinuations and Perversions

The most serious criticism leveled by conservatives at traditionalists is that they live in a dream world of the sixteenth century (or twelfth or fifth) instead of the twenty-first and that they are escapists who use the traditional liturgy for, at best personal fulfillment, or worst, for some kind of autoerotic gratification. This author has consistently heard that traditionalists are usually open or closeted homosexuals, and that the impulse towards "that dodgy rite" is driven more by sexual psychosis than devotion. More lace, more grace becomes a motto attributed to traditionalists who are derided as obsessed with externals and devoid of authentic spirituality.

Anyone who has spent a lot of time behind closed doors with clerics can compare experiences in conservative and traditionalist seminaries to find varying opinions. The disciplinary rigor of the old school seminaries means that any display of effeminacy or self-indulgent behavior is discouraged to the point of either forcing a young man to choose between repression and choosing another vocation or adopting a double lifestyle, which, as anyone who has been to one of these seminaries knows, is difficult indeed.

Seminaries that are often touted as conservative, however, are often filled with open or barely stifled homoeroticism, and the laity would be most scandalized to know about the secret struggles of some of the most outspoken conservatives in the American Church precisely on these affectivity issues. The conservative has to have a tremendous sense of self-discipline in a clerical environment which is often teeming with sexual tension in a broader cultural horizon that has effectively made licit every taboo and that rails against any idea of moral rectitude. As far as things liturgical are concerned, conservatives can very easily gratify their own thoughts as to how the mass "should be" and we find a dizzying array of celebrations of mass by the conservatives, each of which purport to be the real Novus Ordo and the real Vatican II. The priest who says the Missal of St Pius V is hard-pressed to make the mass a vehicle for personal taste, since the rubrics make that impossible in the essence of the mass, even if the accidentals can depend on the personal taste (or lack thereof) of the celebrant.


There is perhaps no contemporary theological discussion that alienates the traditionalists from everyone else in the Church than ecumenism. The tremendous force of John Paul II in the ecumenical direction has been welcomed by the conservatives, who justly point out that they often have more in common with their evangelical friends than with their fellow Catholics. The traditionalist is very uncomfortable with the whole ecumenical thing as it seems to compromise the unicity of Jesus Christ and the Catholic Church. While many traditionalists often accuse Vatican II of saying what it does not say about ecumenism, they rightly remain perplexed when the Church seems to whisper apologies for being the fullness of truth while then performing actions, be it on the papal or the diocesan or the parochial level which blatantly compromise that fact.

A reasonable person would never disagree with the Church fathers that "seeds of truth" exist outside of the Church. The fact that there exists a natural law and that man can discover some truths of the natural order and that God exists is not in doubt. The traditionalist often, however, has a very impoverished understanding of the sacraments as mere identity cards of being a Catholic and not as the salvific work of Christ. As the Fr. Feeney controversy shows, baptism is often seen only in an ecclesiological context, and not in its soteriological one, losing sight of the latter to overestimate the former. The traditionalist justly points out that justification is not possible without faith, but wants to reduce the mystery of faith to adherence to propositions without which salvation is impossible, which risks losing sight of the fact that grace works in a person in ways we cannot know. These questions aside, when this vision is applied to world religions, the traditionalist cannot comprehend the contemporary craze to affirm non-Catholics in their truths, which to them risks affirming non-Catholic in their error. The disastrous document of the US Bishops' Conference on Jewish-Catholic relations is an example, as are the famous scenes at Assisi and the kissing of the Koran by John Paul II. One is led to question whether or not those forgotten martyrs in Asia Minor as the Muslims wiped out Christianity in the place of the Pauline churches in the sixth and seventh centuries should have hastened to kiss the Koran as well or published documents underlining the universal brotherhood of man which transcends even dogma.

The natural desire for peace and to avoid repeating the horrific scenes of history in which men killed each other in the name of God has led to a false irenicism in which we have replaced the Nicene Creed with the Nice Creed and we no longer believe in the mission of the Church to bring all to Jesus Christ in the fullness of truth. There is a great attempt on the part of conservatives to distinguish between a true and a false ecumenism while trying to uphold the unicity of Christ and Catholicism and reconcile ecumenism and evangelization. Much ink has been spilled on the matter without there being any convincing theological resolution. The traditionalist ignores all of this, as he is sure in his faith and wants to bring it to others who then become confused by a Church that drowns herself in inscrutable verbiage about whether it really is the true Church or not.

Whither then the Future?

After years of this "ecumenical" debate between factions of Catholicism, I have resigned myself to the fact that I am not in control of the Church or the Pope. Political solutions by laity or simple parish priests do not effect change in a divinely instituted church with an all too human hierarchy. The only answer is to be strong in the faith and to teach it to future generations. Both sides need to pray and to become saints, and avoid polemic. There is no need to prove a point, because the Church belongs to Jesus Christ, not to us, and He is still in control, if we believe what He says about her. A mutual respect and charity means that we need not find each other suspicious of heresy at every corner, and we must all search for the truth and further a respectful and honest dialogue (Oh, no, that word!) in which the truth can conquer and further Christ's work of salvation in the world. Only then can the seemingly impossible task of reconciling all men to God truly be accomplished.


Edward Faber is the pseudonym for a young Catholic writer living in Rome.

1 One thinks immediately of the Second Eucharistic Prayer. The importation of such an ancient text into the liturgy was seen as a great restoration, despite the facts that the prayer is of dubious provenance, there is no evidence it was actually used in the liturgy, it is not a eucharistic prayer and it is from Hippolytus, who is a mysterious figure indeed (perhaps an antipope if we assume that it was that particular Hippolytus), and the fact that the actual Second Eucharistic Prayer bears little actual resemblance to the text of Hippolytus.
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