Since the promulgation of Summorum Pontificum, the Catholic Traditionalist movement has left the ecclesiastical “skid row” (Prof. Robert Spaemann) and has been gradually entering, tentatively and with setbacks, the Catholic mainstream. Even some of the “crown jewels” of the Church have seen at least one Traditional mass: e.g., St. Mary’s in New Haven, CT , St. Joseph’s in Bronxville, NY, University Church at Fordham, NY, the upper Church of the National Shrine in Washington. And, at least in the greater New York area, solemn high masses are regularly celebrated on major feasts – in one or two locations even every Sunday.
This liturgical renaissance has attracted an ever-growing following of the young and religiously committed and their growing families. At Traditional masses nowadays the average congregation is often substantially younger than that of the “ordinary form” Novus Ordo services! These new adherents to Tradition often wonder: how did this come about? How did the Traditional liturgy disappear, who kept it alive in deed and memory during the intervening years and how was it revived? At a recent conference sponsored by this Society Prof Luc Perrin offered an informative review of French Traditionalism. A reader in the Forum Catholique asked if an equivalent essay existed for the US.
I offer the following sketch as an attempt to give some answers and to point out lines of inquiry for the historians of the future. The reader should take these notes as the personal reflections of an observer. I disclaim any inside knowledge and recognize that this can only be a preliminary undertaking. I have structured the post – Vatican II story of Traditionalism roughly according to decades – although this is no more than a handy convention to impose order on a chaotic flow of events. For example, if I call the period 1975-1985 the era of “Conservative Catholicism,” I am well aware that the first clear manifestations of this school of thought date back to 1968/69 and continue right to the present day.
I ask the reader’s indulgence on an additional matter. In the “era of good feeling” after Summorum Pontificum, we Catholics – Traditionalists , conservatives and the Church establishment – have been enjoined to cultivate mutual respect, which indeed in many cases is happening. Regardless of the current situation, however, one must speak honestly of the past. I cannot avoid setting forth the sins of the Church establishment any I more than I can conceal the limitations of both those who struggled so valiantly in the Traditionalist cause and their “conservative Catholic” contemporaries.
Finally, I limit myself to the broad outlines and the main movements with which I am familiar. Certain “Traditionalist” or quasi-Traditionalist movements and individuals, such as the “sedevacantists,” or the independent priests, are covered briefly or not mentioned at all because (a) they remained tangential to the Traditionalist mainstream and (b) I have very little information to provide on their activities.
- The Era of “Triumph”: 1965-1975
The Second Vatican Council and its reforms hit the American church like a tidal wave. Catholics today cannot realize – or have forgotten – how sudden the changes were: the abandonment of Latin, the reorientation of the altars, the intrusion of protestant hymns and alleged folk music. And all this was years before the adoption of the Novus Ordo in 1969. At the same time a chorus of voices within the Church arose that challenged the basics of Christian morality, the rules of the religious orders, and the hierarchy of the Church. These intellectual movements quickly took on physical form: the fasting rules were softened and then virtually abandoned, churches were gutted and renovated across the country; nuns progressively simplified their habits and then ditched them altogether. The first signs of disintegration in the priesthood, religious orders and schools soon followed.
Certainly, among the mass of the laity in this country there was little understanding of these changes. Yet at the same time there was virtually no resistance. The “renewal” had been ordered by authority; that was the end of the story for most American Catholics. There was no American equivalent of the Don Camillo tale in which the congregation – led by the village communist — rises up to block the introduction of a new saint by a visiting priest. Indeed, the really interesting aspect of the American Traditionalist movement of the first years after the Council was that there wasn’t any. The wave of renewal rolled on without confronting organized opposition. Those isolated souls who expressed disagreement with the one or the other change on whatever grounds – or who just sought an explanation of what was going on – were confronted and quickly suppressed. The implementers of Vatican II were not disposed to justify their actions to anyone.
There were exceptions to the general conformity. Scurrilous poems circulated in the pews lampooning the new order. On a more serious note, even while the Council was coming to an end Father Gommar dePauw ( from Belgium himself) announced his opposition to the new order – and maintained his loyalty to the Old Mass and its public practice throughout the years to come. In so doing he founded a chapel and launched an energetic publicity campaign in defense of Tradition. Other independent priests did likewise. But the most significant manifestation of American resistance to the innovations was intellectual, rather than practical.
L. Brent Bozell launched Triumph magazine in 1966. Its origins dated back to a 1962 split of Bozell with William F. Buckley and National Review – thus, even before the Council. Bozell and his allies were concerned at the drift of American conservatism to uncritical support of capitalism and the “American Way”. They revolted against American conservatism’s abandonment of the struggle against the social and intellectual pathologies of modernity in order to form a common front against communism and to support liberal (in the original sense) democracy and economics. Prof. Perrin has pointed out the critical role of existing “networks” in France growing out of pre-conciliar struggles as providing the foundation for Traditionalist resistance. In this one instance, a similar grouping also existed in the US.
To undertake the struggle against modernity, Bozell assembled for Triumph a rare group of writers: Thomas Molnar, Frederick Wilhelmsen, Dietrich von Hildebrand, Warren Carroll, Gary Potter and many others. Triumph embarked upon a searching critique of developments within the Church while always remaining aware of the interweaving of the ecclesiastical with politics, society, culture and the economy. Uncompromisingly (and at that time, thanklessly) orthodox, its very name challenged Catholic progressivism, with its hatred of the “triumphalistic” Church of yore.
The insights this magazine offered were endless. Triumph rightly predicted that the conservatism of National Review would end in a variant of the “liberalism” it had been created to oppose. Triumph was the first – 40 years before Alcuin Read – to expose the doings of the “liturgy club” in demolishing Catholic worship. And years before Roe v. Wade the editors not only wrote against abortion but conducted the first direct actions against the abortion industry. Needless to say, Triumph offered the first detailed critique of the Novus Ordo upon its appearance. Before the terms “neoconservative” and ”paleoconservative” existed Bozell and company dared suggest that the so-called American experiment could be deeply, inherently flawed.
But the most obvious observation we can make regarding the Triumph generation – as basic as it may seem to the readers of this blog – was that they were right. At a time when the entire official Catholic publishing world was either celebrating the achievements of the Council or pushing for further radical change, Triumph revealed the dark aspects, warned of the developing catastrophe. It is the analysis of the contributors to Triumph – not that of the clerical establishment and its in-house press – that has subsequently proven to accord with reality.
Not all of their judgments, however, were equally sound. Triumph celebrated the publication of Humanae Vitae as a glorious turning point for the Church, as the vindication of papal authority after the post- Conciliar chaos. Now, said the editors, it was time to rally around Pope Paul and join the counterattack that he had commenced. In this they were grievously mistaken. They had declared the war over when the struggle had just begun – as the liturgical revolution took off, as the transformation of the “American Catholic Church” from passive conformism to active progressivism gained momentum with the knowledge and at the direction of the Vatican. Triumph’s newfound uncritical enthusiasm for the Vatican stood in all too obvious conflict with the facts recorded in its own pages. I have always believed that this inherent contradiction – just as much as the health problems of its editor-in-chief – led to the publication’s untimely demise in 1974.
So Triumph disappeared. To this day no Traditionalist successor publication has surpassed it in depth, sophistication and intellectual courage. And none has enjoyed the same universal recognition in American Traditionalism Yet, Bozell and his team had not labored in vain. The seeds of an eventual revival were planted in the minds of both the surviving contributors and their current and future readers. And the magazine remained as a fond memory. For example, one afternoon, years later, my studies in the library of a certain secular law school were interrupted by a crash. A distinguished professor of law, getting on in years and at the point of retirement, had fallen at his desk. As I helped him to his feet, I noted that the professor – whom I had not even suspected of being a Catholic at all – had been engaged in carefully cataloguing his precious back issues of Triumph. We looked at each other and smiled….