I came across this article while perusing one of my favorite blogs, Jeff Culbreath’s El Camino Real. I read it, and was rather surprised by the opinions of the author, Mr. George Sim Johnson, about "Traditionalists." I’m not what anyone would call a ‘Traditionalist.’ I’ve never been to a Latin Mass and have no particular desire to attend one. Nothing John Paul II does ever worries me or causes me alarm. I have a love-hate relationship with Traditionalists, and I’ve blogged about it before in entries you can find here, here, and here. Parts of Mr. Johnson’s article, especially the implications for his critique of Traditionalists, bothered me more than any thing I’ve read by any Traditionalist, whether of the schismatic branch or the faithful, Culbreathean type.
The article’s kernel, its "take" on the Traditionalist movement as a whole, is the story of the rich young man who told Jesus that he kept the law, but was surprised when our Lord told him that he had to do one more thing to inherit eternal life:
In that moral masterpiece, Veritatis Splendor, Pope John Paul II begins with the Gospel episode of the rich young man before Christ, and it’s not a bad place to start a discussion of the Catholic Church since Vatican II. It is easy to think of this encounter as a parable, but it really happened and that well-to-do young man is somewhere right now. In the Gospel story, he’s a devout Israelite who, as John Paul puts it, has grown up "in the shadow of the Law." He has faithfully followed its precepts. But something is missing, and he asks Christ what it might be. Christ’s answer—"Come, follow me"—is completely unexpected. It goes well beyond the young man’s idea of "religion," and so he walks away sad and perplexed.Mr. Johnson’s mentioning the law’s shadow is a reference to Hebrews 10:1, which we shall discuss in a moment. Mr. Johnson goes on to develop his theme, writing that "The Second Vatican Council was a call to full spiritual maturity. It was time to take off the training wheels to stop living ‘in the shadow of the Law’ -- and take our vocations as Christians seriously." Traditionalists, a term which apparently includes anyone who finds the state of the Church before Vatican II equal or superior to the state of the Church today, prefer "minimalist, rules-oriented Catholicism" to God’s call for " full discipleship" and, like the rebels and dissenters who plagued the Church since the Council, are rejecting the Church’s call to "full spiritual adulthood."
The rich young man is not unlike a pre–Vatican II Catholic in the affluent West. He has spent his life (mostly) following the rules and understands "eternal life" as an extrinsic reward for having done so. And yet despite the double consolation of economic security and religious correctness, it occurs to him that something more is needed. Christ tells him to keep the commandments. The young man replies, "I have kept all these. What do I still lack?" At this point, like a good pre–Vatican II Catholic, he’s probably expecting to be told to perform extra devotion: Go and recite the seven penitential Psalms. Or an extra discipline: Don’t eat meat on Fridays.
Instead, Christ offers him precisely the challenge that Vatican II made to the Catholic world. It is a challenge both personal and deeply supernatural. The council was a call to Catholics to break from their harness of legalism and externalism. To stop compartmentalizing their religion and risk a transformation in grace. To pass from a merely objective faith—something you have —to one fully lived. It suggested that the more fruitful line of questioning is not, What is prohibited? or, What is required? but rather, What sort of person am I to be? And it proposed the Person of Christ as the answer. Only after absorbing this truth can we fully comprehend why it is we follow His commandments, which otherwise can be a joyless burden.
Mr. Johnson’s grudging acknowledgment that the pre-conciliar Church managed to eke out a few full disciples and spiritual adults ("There’s no question that there were good and holy Catholics in the old days -- even some saints . . . .") isn’t nearly capable of lifting the pall of revulsion his essay has thrown over the Church’s history. It is ironic, given Mr. Johnson's glowing review of H.W. Crocker’s Triumph: The Power and the Glory of the Catholic Church which appeared in the same magazine’s May, 2002 issue:
To be immersed in history, Newman tells us, is to cease to be Protestant. There is a corollary: To be ignorant of history is to be vulnerable to evangelical Protestantism. Here in New York City, which is not exactly the heart of the Bible Belt, not a few Catholics find themselves in Protestant Bible study groups. These courses are supposed to be "non-denominational," but it isn’t long before the participants start hearing odd things about the Catholic Church . . . Some throw in the towel and become "Bible Christians."I don’t know how conversant Mr. Johnson actually is with Protestantism, evangelical or otherwise, but most Catholics who join Protestant communities do so because they perceive Catholicism to be a "minimalist, rules-oriented" faith which does not offer "full discipleship" and "spiritual adulthood." In fact, one may sum up the entire Protestant indictment of Catholicism with Mr. Johnson’s pet verse, Hebrews 10:1: "For the law having a shadow of good things to come, and not the very image of the things, can never with those sacrifices which they offered year by year continually make the comers thereunto perfect." The Protestant critic never tires of railing at Catholicism’s dead, "rules-oriented" sacramentalism, which -- it is claimed -- offers men only the shadow of the living Gospel and cannot "make the comers thereunto" full disciples, spiritual adults worthy of the Lamb’s promises. Thus do our separated brethren conclude that the (rule-oriented, minimalist) authority of the Church was not conferred by Christ. Any of them who are wont to take Crisis as a guide to Catholic thought, therefore, shall be happy to find in its pages a suggestion that the Church before the Second Vatican Council -- by which is included the Church of the First Vatican Council and the Church of Trent -- was in precisely that unhappy situation, and that her saints no more mirrored her worldview than St. Paul’s epistles represent the House of Hillel.
* * *
Triumph is a splendid antidote to the sort of post-Vatican II Catholicism that apologizes for almost everything the Church has ever done. . . . Christ is the Lord of history, and he handed the keys to Peter. That authority has resonated for 2,000 years, and its story is indeed one of glory and triumph.
This is a most unfortunate blunder, particularly since Mr. Johnson attempts to give us an interesting and worthwhile account of the Church’s achievements since the council. But his repudiation of "historical" Catholicism keeps getting in the way of his message. Take, for example, this sweeping indictment of that great post-conciliar bugbear, "privatization":
[T]his pontificate is . . . a clarion call to evangelize the culture, which John Paul II insists is what really drives history. Catholics have to stop being preoccupied with intra-Church issues and recover a sense of having a message for the world. For centuries—maybe since the Treaty of Westphalia—the Faith has been privatized, so that many Catholics think it’s mainly something you carry around inside your head. Vatican II proposed evangelization as the deepest identity of the Church, but it’s going to require some digging to recover this lost truth.I’m sure that, had he thought of them, Mr. Johnson wouldn’t have included the Catholics of the Cristeros revolt (1926-29), or the Kulturkampf (1871-1887) -- or for that matter, pre-Vatican II Catholics like Dorothy Day, Mother Theresa, Frank Duff, Bl. Giorgio Frassati, Heinrich Bruning, St. Maximilian Kolbe, or St. Josemaria Escriva -- in this vast swath of interior, non-participatory Catholicism. In fact, one may see (and Johnson should have seen) a direct and full connection between our present Pope’s theology of solidarity, the theology of Quas Primas (1925) and the call of Bl. Miguel Pro (d. 1927), the martyred priest who met the firing squad with the cry, Viva Cristo Rey!. Had he reflected on it, I doubt Mr. Johnson would have characterized a Church whose members included J.R.R. Tolkien, G.K. Chesterton, Graham Greene, Hillaire Belloc, Evelyn Waugh, Sigrid Undstet, Adolphe William Bougereau, Theodor William Achtermann -- and even two he quotes, Jacques Maritain and Christopher Dawson -- as one which had quailed at the task of broadly engaging the main streams of Western culture.
I realize that any generalization may be met with counter-examples. But set within the context of Mr. Johnson’s proto-Evangelical view of Vatican II, wherein the Catholics who came before us were rule-bound minimalists living out listless, spiritually-infantile lives under the culturally-barren domination of a clerical elite ("[O]ne change demanded by the council . . . has yet to happen: the retirement of the old clericalism, the idea that priests and nuns constitute the "real" Church. Most laity still have the odd notion that they must wait for a signal from the bishop or local pastor to do anything . . . "), his generalizations leave the strong impression that Mr. Johnson thinks the Second Vatican Council was convened to produce an aggiornamento -- not with the challenges of the modern world, but with Jesus Christ and His Gospel. Had Mr. Johnson some lingering antipathy to the Church of Vatican I, and been so poorly catechized in the Church’s nature and history that he felt able to engage in this revisionary discarding of the Catholic past in order to love the Church, one might understand his essay better. But he has read -- and praised -- Mr. Crocker’s book:
Triumph is a splendid antidote to the sort of post-Vatican II Catholicism that apologizes for almost everything the Church has ever done. . . . Christ is the Lord of history, and he handed the keys to Peter. That authority has resonated for 2,000 years, and its story is indeed one of glory and triumph.We must, therefore, be content with our present state of confusion about Mr. Johnson’s apologetic description of the dull, frustrated Catholicism blighting the past one or two (or three? or six?) hundred years. I think, however, that a basic presupposition in Mr. Johnson’s essay may be addressed without speculating too rashly on the motive for its presence.
The modern world has been foxed by the idea that creation is a destructive act. I’ve had occasion to write about the influence of Marxism on modern Christian thought with respect to Fr. Rohnheimer’s criticisms of the pre-Vatican II Church and her response to the Nazis. In this case, my complaint doesn’t focus on a fallacious commitment to the predictable inevitability of history, but to the imaginary phenomenon of the life-from-destruction dialectic:
Butterflies, for example, spring from the egg by a negation of the egg, pass through certain transformations until they reach sexual maturity, pair and are in turn negated, dying as soon as the pairing process has been completed and the female has laid its numerous eggs. We are not concerned at the moment with the fact that with other plants and animals the process does not take such a simple form, that before they die they produce seeds, eggs or offspring not once but many times; our purpose here is only to show that the negation of the negation really does take place . . . And so, what is the negation of the negation? An extremely general — and for this reason extremely far-reaching and important — law of development of nature, history, and thought; a law which, as we have seen, holds good in the animal and plant kingdoms, in geology, in mathematics, in history and in philosophy — a law which even Herr Dühring, in spite of all his stubborn resistance, has unwittingly and in his own way to follow. It is obvious that I do not say anything concerning the particular process of development of, for example, a grain of barley from germination to the death of the fruit-bearing plant, if I say it is a negation of the negation. . . . When I say that all these processes are a negation of the negation, I bring them all together under this one law of motion, and for this very reason I leave out of account the specific peculiarities of each individual process. Dialectics, however, is nothing more than the science of the general laws of motion and development of nature, human society and thought. . . . .Every kind of thing therefore has a peculiar way of being negated in such manner that it gives rise to a development, and it is just the same with every kind of conception or idea. . . .So, perhaps, with Mr. Johnson. Unable to hold the process of development in mind, he turns to the dialectic in which a Conciliar "Anti-Thesis Church" negates a pre-Conciliar "Thesis Church," just as the butterfly negates the cocoon from which it hatches or, one assumes, the bicycle of adulthood negates the training-wheels of childhood. The most important thing in this process, its hinge, is a conflict between the prior mode of being and the newer mode engendered by the internal conflicts within the old order. Hence Mr. Johnson’s intimation of an internal conflict between the Catholicism of St. Pius X and the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and his insistence on spurning the former as a precondition to creating the new "springtime" of the latter.-- Freidrich Engels, Anti-Duhring, Chapter 13
No doubt unintentionally, Mr. Johnson’s rhetorical framework gives "Traditionalists" genuine cause to wonder what he, and like-minded Catholics, mean by phrases such as "We need a great relearning guided by the true ‘spirit’ of Vatican II," "The Church is going to have to rebuild itself from the bottom up," and by insisting on the need to "recover" some "lost truths." If the paradigm of change-repudiation adopted by Mr. Johnson is the ‘spirit’ of Vatican II, does he not necessarily imply that we must "re-learn" a theology that is not merely "different," but antithetical to the theology of Trent and Vatican I? If they say the Church must be "re-built from the bottom up" by the laity, acting independently of ecclesiastical authority, are they not implying that the Gospel must be achieved by standing the hierarchical constitution of the Church on its head? And if we say that the truths on behalf of which all this activity is to occur are "lost," then surely we imply that they cannot be found in the teaching documents of the same pre-conciliar Church whose negation is required to usher in the Novus Ordo’s age of butterflies? Mr. Johnson himself recognizes that the aggiornamento sought by the Council Fathers at Vatican II produced teaching whose "philosophical richness and originality" stunned "most of the bishops who attended the council," who had "little idea how to implement" its decisions, or adequately express its weltschaung. That task, he notes, has consumed almost the entire pontificate of John Paul II, which has in turn added more "philosophical richness and originality" to the Council’s legacy. I submit that Mr. Johnson’s metaphor, of "Traditionalists" refusing to put aside childish things, clinging to the "training-wheel Catholicism" of St. Therese of Lisieux or St. Padre Pio, is unjust to say the least. We might find a better metaphor in the image of drinking from a fire-hose -- however pure the water, its speed and quantity can overwhelm even the thirstiest soul.
It may be that the injustice in Mr. Johnson’s metaphor results from his having thought too little about Veritatis Splendor’s application to Traditionalists in particular, or to the Church in general. The rich man in the Gospel story did not go away sad because he had to abandon a rule-oriented religion:
"[T]he young man's commitment to respect all the moral demands of the commandments represents the absolutely essential ground in which the desire for perfection can take root and mature, the desire, that is, for the meaning of the commandments to be completely fulfilled in following Christ. Jesus' conversation with the young man helps us to grasp the conditions for the moral growth of man, who has been called to perfection."The conditions of man’s moral growth are as eternal and consistent as the God who established them; there can be no point, ever, at which they become a dead and useless "harness of legalism and externalism," to be cast off as unsuited to the (imaginary) perfection of man. The perfect freedom Christ offered was not a freedom from order, but a freedom flowing from grace in which charity allows us to live easily the life God has ordained for us. Or, to put it in the words of an infantile, pre-conciliar Catholic who did not eat meat on Fridays and found great use for the seven penitential psalms:-- Veritatis Splendor, ¶ 17 (1993).
In this respect the precepts of the New Law are more burdensome than those of the Old; because the New Law prohibits certain interior movements of the soul, which were not expressly forbidden in the Old Law in all cases, although they were forbidden in some, without, however, any punishment being attached to the prohibition. Now this is very difficult to a man without virtue: thus even the Philosopher states . . . that it is easy to do what a righteous man does; but that to do it in the same way, viz. with pleasure and promptitude, is difficult to a man who is not righteous. Accordingly we read also . . . that "His commandments are not heavy": which words Augustine expounds by saying that "they are not heavy to the man that loveth; whereas they are a burden to him that loveth not."St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa, II(I), a. 107, q.4. Christ’s message to the young man did not involve the "negation of the negation" so dear to the modern mind. He did not present the young man with a Gospel Anti-Thesis of "Freedom from Law" in order to negate a Mosaic Thesis of "Legalistic Externalism." That is the Protestant paradigm, and it is false. Jesus Christ came to fulfill the Law, not obliterate its crucial role in man’s personal relationship to the God who created him and gave him a lawful place and purpose in the universe:
"Jesus brings God's commandments to fulfilment, particularly the commandment of love of neighbour, by interiorizing their demands and by bringing out their fullest meaning. Love of neighbour springs from a loving heart which, precisely because it loves, is ready to live out the loftiest challenges. Jesus shows that the commandments must not be understood as a minimum limit not to be gone beyond, but rather as a path involving a moral and spiritual journey towards perfection, at the heart of which is love."Thus, as Newman would say, the doctrine first given to Moses developed. In further illustration of the point, Mr. Johnson might try thinking of the Decalogue as a prophetic statement about the Son of Man and all who are united to Him by the loving bonds of baptism, rather than a "mere legalism" which impedes humanity’s destiny.-- Veritatis Splendor, ¶ 15 (1993).
To my way of thinking, John Paul’s estimation of the purpose of Vatican II, of the aggiornamento desired by the Council Fathers, is here:
Jesus' conversation with the rich young man continues, in a sense, in every period of history, including our own. The question: "Teacher, what good must I do to have eternal life?" arises in the heart of every individual, and it is Christ alone who is capable of giving the full and definitive answer. The Teacher who expounds God's commandments, who invites others to follow him and gives the grace for a new life, is always present and at work in our midst, as he himself promised: "Lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age" (Mt 28:20). Christ's relevance for people of all times is shown forth in his body, which is the Church. For this reason the Lord promised his disciples the Holy Spirit, who would "bring to their remembrance" and teach them to understand his commandments (cf. Jn 14:26), and who would be the principle and constant source of a new life in the world (cf. Jn 3:5-8; Rom 8:1-13).Our Lord’s conversation with the young man is not a conversation with "Traditionalists," and even less well regarded as a rebuke of the Church led by Pius XII. It is, rather, a conversation He has, has had, and shall have with everyone. It is a conversation in which the Church participates, for the Church is His guide, His mystical Body. The Church carries on this conversation by faithfully keeping and continually putting into practice the New and Eternal Covenant in the various different cultures throughout the course of history.
The moral prescriptions which God imparted in the Old Covenant, and which attained their perfection in the New and Eternal Covenant in the very person of the Son of God made man, must be faithfully kept and continually put into practicein the various different cultures throughout the course of history. The task of interpreting these prescriptions was entrusted by Jesus to the Apostles and to their successors, with the special assistance of the Spirit of truth: "He who hears you hears me" (Lk 10:16). By the light and the strength of this Spirit the Apostles carried out their mission of preaching the Gospel and of pointing out the "way" of the Lord (cf. Acts 18:25), teaching above all how to follow and imitate Christ: "For to me to live is Christ" (Phil 1:21).Veritatis Splendor, ¶ 25 (1993)
The Church of Vatican I was no less a part of this conversation than the Church which Mr. Johnson finds so inspiring. What would have become of John Paul II’s "theology of the body," had the Church of Pius IX and St. Pius X not successfully rejected the tenets of naturalism and modernism while at the same time endeavoring to answer their central questions about meaning and dignity of the human person? Or, for that matter, if the Thomists had not successfully fought for the integration of faith and reason, of anthropology and spirituality, which ensured Christianity’s place in that later debate? Three of Mr. Johnson’s "training-wheel" popes, Pius IX, Leo XIII, and St. Pius X, remained "prisoners of the Vatican," stubbornly refusing to recognize the seizure of the papal states and the denial of the papacy’s existence as an international entity whose status was at least equal to that of secular states. (Episcopal and papal coats of arms, which Mr. Johnson might find triumphal and evidence of a focus on external legalities, made the same claim). As a direct result of their insistence on "legalisms" and "externals," the international community recognizes the Vatican City as just such an entity, which in turn allowed the Catholic Church to represent John Paul II’s theology of the body at international meetings such as the U.N.'s 1994 International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo. Would Mr. Johnson care to explain from where the Militia Immaculata would have come without the supposed "externalism" of St. Catherine Laboure’s Catholic Church? Or from what soil the Legionaries of Christ would have sprung if not from the "legalisms" of Fr. Marcial Maciel’s Church? These are only a few examples, but I trust they are sufficient to demonstrate that the Roman butterfly has not come into existence by negating some kind of historical, theological, or devotional cocoon.
The dialogue, the aggiornamento, sought by the Second Vatican Council is not a radical turning away from the Catholic past. It is a continuation of the aggiornamento sought by every Council and every Pope since the fathers at Nicea began the Church’s doctrinal and pastoral dialogue with classical culture. Mr. Johnson may wish to establish a paradigm that describes the old christological controversialists as striving for "dogmatic truths about the divine order" rather than "focus[ing] on the human person . . . God wants us to be" but, should he succeed, he will only harm both endeavors; we cannot know what kind of human person God wants us to be until we know the kind of human person God became.
There is, however, one aspect of Mr. Johnson’s chosen metaphor which may serve to illuminate the tensions which exist between the Church of John Paul II and "Traditionalists." Contrary to Mr. Johnson’s version of the Gospel story, the young man did not go away because he could no longer live a graceless, rule-bound life. "He went away sorrowful," the Gospel tells us, because "he had great possessions." Matthew 19:22. At dawn on October 11, 1962, the Roman Catholic Church possessed a theological, cultural, liturgical, and devotional patrimony which should astound, even awe, anyone who is remotely familiar with its contents. She stood like a giant tree, grown from a mustard seed by the blood of a million martyrs and the prayers of innumerable saints, towering above the post-modern desolation which the rejection of her truths and her life had wreaked on Europe and the world. Within a few short years, as Mr. Johnson himself is compelled to admit, nobody had a very clear idea about what the Church was for. The adolescents, as Mr. Johnson calls them, had taken over. They created a church littered with mundane, mediocre, stupid, secular, and ugly things. And they did it with a vengeance and spite quite well displayed by Mr. Johnson’s dismissing St. Therese of Lisieux’s "Little Way" and Gerard Manley-Hopkins’ poetry as symptoms of an infantile refusal to enter into "spiritual adulthood."
I know a man who, by 1970, had a beautiful voice, fluency in Latin, and a fiery, innocent love of the Church. He loved the Latin Mass, and delighted in serving the Lord elegantly in what, according to Mr. Johnson, are the training-wheel, externalistic legalisms of its mysteries. Almost overnight, his services were no longer required, and the Church’s bishops and priests made that quite clear in the most brutal terms imaginable. He ought to have been a catechist, the leader of a schola, owning a celebrated life that was both use and ornament to his Church. But he lacked the skills needed in the post-Vatican II Church; he could not say, "that went out with Vatican II," he could not play an acoustic guitar, and he couldn’t open his mind to zen meditation techniques and alternative sexual theologies. He is now a bitter man, still clinging to the Holy See despite decades of spiritual, devotional and liturgical abuse from a Church ubiquitously characterized by sneaker-clad altar girls, carpeted sanctuaries, sloppy preaching, stunted catechesis, pop-music liturgy, and bishops who refuse to understand that any theology, let alone John Paul II’s theology of the body, demands practical, decisive, and consequential applications to their flocks. Yes, we might find some cause to censor my friend’s reluctance to immolate his devotionalism on the Cross of ecclesiastical obedience. But we should not do it as Mr. Johnson has; to follow him, we must be ready to say we have nothing in common with the "young man" in the Gospel according to St. Matthew and, thereby, make ourselves ready to pray with the Pharisee in the Gospel according to St. Luke.
Mr. Johnson claims that the "adolescence" of post-Vatican II clerics and laymen resulted from the oppressiveness of their pre-Vatican II upbringing. He calls the rebellious barbarity following the Council a "discharge of decades of narrow, rules-based formation and institutional frustration." I found that interesting, since it’s the same argument the "adolescents" themselves like to make whenever they’re explaining how pedophiles and sexual adventurers are created by the evils of narrow, rules-based celibacy. I think the cause of the adolescent rebellion lies elsewhere.
I think it lies in the false and juvenile belief that the creation of a happy present requires the repudiation of a miserable past, in the delinquent’s narcissistic castigation of his parents as being enervated, insufficient, out of touch with reality. If the Catholic restoration desired by Mr. Johnson occurs, it will not be achieved by an army of childish, shiny-eyed bigots who believe that they are the first generation to have discovered the true meaning of Catholicism. It will be achieved by men and women who realize that they’re bigger than the modern world because they’re standing on the shoulders of giants, who are conversant with the theology of the body and the theology of Trent, and who know that "Christ is the Lord of history, and he handed the keys to Peter. That authority has resonated for 2,000 years, and its story is indeed one of glory and triumph." To that end, Mr. Johnson has actually contributed. He has shown us how very far we have to go.