Thursday, September 25, 2014

Gathering a Sense of the Lay of the Liturgical Land : Traditional Catholicism

Increasingly, I am of the opinion that there is a distinct difference between Traditional Catholicism and Traditionalism. Traditional Catholicism concerns itself with reviving defunct practices and liturgies spanning the history of the Western/Latin Christian tradition. Traditionalism, by comparison, seeks to preserve the practices and liturgy of the earlier part of Catholicism's modernization, reconstituting early attempts at modernization as the perennial religion.

This needs to be fleshed out. Lets start with the first of the two, Traditional Catholicism.

Traditional Catholicism has the benefit of historical perspective. Its vision spans a wide swath of Latin Christian history. There is a deep appreciation for the many pre-Tridentine local variants, and typically a considerable knowledge of Western Christian praxis and liturgy before the cycle of Reformation-Counter Reformation. If there is a weakness to it, it is that it is largely academic. Most of the positioning occurs in academic publications, flexing considerable scholarly muscle. It is rarely if ever applied in a real setting, mostly due to the overwhelming indifference of the major denominations. This is despite the fine analysis of many of its proponents.

Laszlo Dobszay was a good example of this. Coming at it from a purely Roman Catholic perspective, Dobszay targeted Pius X's considerable reform of the Roman breviary, often positing that the pre-Pian breviary ought to be given a renewed examination. He reflected an emerging trend in liturgical scholarship, at least the scholarship concerned with daily prayer, that Pius X had effectively suppressed one of the oldest psalter schemas in continuous use. The problem that Dobszay and other scholars have is that their work seems to have little chance of making a practical impact. The Roman Church, for instance, has no intention of revisiting the Roman Breviary as it existed before Pius X. Consequently, Traditional Catholicism is often a private venture (among Roman Catholics) or belongs to smaller religious communities (in the Anglican Church) or monasteries away from the public eye.

Speaking from a scholars background, Traditional Catholicism has a lot to love. In so far as it makes the case to restore long since forgotten liturgies of various local flavors of the Latin tradition, it exemplifies the very best idea of liturgical plurality. But it is this fact that makes it so unappealing to the larger currents in the Latin West. Recovering the obscurities of Latin Christianity has failed to influence the larger liturgical stream; it is an eccentric's task or the lonely research of a scholar. It simply does not press any weight upon the broader Church or the liturgical imagination. Set side-by-side with mainline Catholicism or the Traditionalists, this group cannot help but to be the odd one out. Its work produces intelligent conversation, but the implicit ecclesiology leaves many religious observers slightly uncomfortable.

The liturgical theory behind Traditional Catholicism requires a substantial amount of decentralized authority, the local parish being entrusted with the care and maintenance of its liturgy. Such trust requires the adherence to a common matrix of faith that is equally understood and accepted in the larger confederation of the religion. Conservative leaning persons would be uncomfortable with the prospect of the most tasteless liberal excess running wild. Liberals, on the other hand, would fret at the possibility of pre-modern liturgical forms displacing contemporary theories and patterns of worship.

There is also the simple fact that this position may well be too academic to be viable. Betwixt the rediscovery of ancient forms, there is often a fair amount of reconstruction going on. Fine at the academic level, but hardly a sure basis upon which to rest religious observance.

Yet, the whole discussion is, up to this point, so highly hypothetical so as to be essentially irrelevant. Those who would rediscover the liturgy as it was prior to the Reformation and Counter Reformation are the smallest of minorities. In variably, many of them, for convenience sake, fall in line with the early modern liturgies of the Roman or Anglican pedigree, the acceptable parameters for Traditionalist Catholics or Anglicans.


  1. Nicely drawn distinction, Sir, you have articulated a difference that I have felt inchoately when frequenting traditionalist circles and reading their periodicals. Is there a marked difference in the theology, too, patristic vs. neo-scholastic?

    If just one well-placed city parish, somewhere in Britain or the US, could do Sarum properly for a decade, with a pre-Pius X breviary, and preach the Fathers, I am convinced that a steady revolution would begin...

    1. Thank you.

      Unfortunately, my exposure to Sarum was only passing and only via text. I really have very little knowledge of it.

      I can speak with a little more surety on the pre-Pius X breviary. I would love to see a real push to get those volumes back into mainline use, if only because there is a small chance it would confound the current Liberal-Conservative-Traditionalist set up...and because I do have tremendous respect for the ancient Roman office...although something still needs to be done with Urban VIII's hymns.

  2. From a practical point of view, I have very little interest left for either one. Any attempt at reconstructing the past is doomed to produce something artificial and lifeless. I've been to traditional Latin Masses with the SSPX, FSSP, independent chapels, you name it: I always come away from them with an undeniable feeling both of sterility and self-consciousness. No matter how exact your reproduction of the pre-conciliar liturgical forms, they can never again be celebrated with the pre-conciliar naivete, with the mindset of "just doing what Catholics do." Traditionalist Catholics are only too aware of the fact that they're doing something special and extraordinary in going to their TLM. That, oddly enough, is a most un-traditional mindset. However ugly a homunculus Paul VI's missal is, it's alive (even if barely so) with the kind of "here comes everybody" Catholicism that has always gotten itself mixed up in the muck and mess of the real world, and it's "just what Catholics do" on a Sunday. In that sense, it might even be more traditional than the Traditional Mass.

    Before I quit my rambling, let me just say that I think more effort would be well spent in trying to make whatever life there is in the Paul VI missal more vigorous and conducive to orienting people toward transcendence. The Lumen Christi project is one such effort I really applaud. More of that would do more for enriching the current liturgical wasteland than either Traditionalism or Traditional Catholicism, as you've defined them.

    1. I will, I hope, get to some of this in a future post.

      As far as enriching the liturgical wasteland goes, I am at the point where I would like to see just about all options on the table....although this wouldn't be particularly practical.

    2. This is a theme I comment on in my blog, but my experience of much of the French Novus Ordo scene is not "natural" Catholicism, but a self-conscious "We have restored pristine purity". Perhaps your experience is different. I have often asked myself the question as to whether the ordo of Paul VI could be celebrated in a "medieval" spirit, like French Benedictine monks, but such a "spirit" is very rare. I have myself celebrated 2 or 3 masses following the Novus Ordo in Latin in the "conservative" way and it left me quite empty feeling. As a Romantic, I don't discount feeling and intuition from our way of evaluating things. I'm not saying you are wrong, but any future of sacramental Christianity seems to lie elsewhere - or nowhere.

  3. Thank you for this! It underlines exactly why I gave up on the FSSP.

    I am cautiously optimistic, though. There does seem to be a growing interest in Traditional Catholicism, however small.

    1. What leads you to cautious optimism?

      Nice name, by the way. Is there a Bollocks Manor in your dominion?....poor attempt at highbrow humor, I know.

    2. There is a castle Bollocks where on can enjoy the most exquisite... decadences.

      I am optimistic because there are people actually discussing this sort of thing, but cautious because the numbers are still small and the discussion still theoretical. Back in my $$PX days, this sort of thing wasn't even on the radar.

      From what I've seen, the most alive parishes are the Byzantine/Oriental ones and the Ordinariates. The latter have an opportunity to reintroduce Sarum to the public consciousness.