I had undertaken earlier to sketch out the broad outlines of a history of the Catholic Traditionalism in the United States; how it arose and where it stood at the present day. In the press of events I had to set this work aside. Now, when I turn to it again I find a new and radically different context. In February 2012 we were working out the questions regarding the implementation of Summorum Pontificum under Pope Benedict XVI. In March 2014 the Benedictine era has passed and Pope Francis has instituted a systematic recommitment to the polices and rhetoric of the 1960’s. In the United States – as opposed to Italy and Germany – this “Francis Effect” still remains mostly verbal. Nevertheless, this new situation makes all the more important that a younger generation understands better the development of Catholic Traditionalism in this country. For those crises and conflicts we thought in 2012 to have been superseded may well recur!
2. The Era of “Conservative Catholicism”: 1975-1985
We have seen how the forces of Tradition in the Catholic Church of the United States appeared routed by 1975. No support had been found in the Church Establishment. Very few practical alternatives to the tidal wave of conciliar reform ever had been offered; and the mouthpiece of the resistance movement, Triumph, had folded ignominiously. Yet it was at this moment that a new rival to the “orthodox” forces of Establishment took on definite form. It was the start of the era of “Conservative Catholicism.”
Now the movement dates back well before 1975. We could cite the split in the Matt family between the “factions” of The Wanderer and The Remnant in the late 1960’s. The reaction of Brent Bozell and the editors of Triumph to Humanae Vitae could be another point of departure. And, speaking of Bozell, his – pre-conciliar! – breakup with Bill Buckley and National Review already illustrated fundamental differences between “Traditional“ and “Conservative” Catholicism. Similarly, new manifestations of “Conservative Catholicism” continued to appear well after 1985 – for example, First Things, its most representative forum, dates from 1990. Yet it was in the second post-conciliar decade that the conservatives developed into a coherent force and their key institutions and leaders appeared.
In contrast to Traditionalism, conservative Catholics “accepted” unconditionally the Council and the new Mass (at least initially!). Entirely consistently, they also adopted as their own the “modern world” and specifically the “American Experiment.” Yet at the same time they did not have many good things to say about the actual government of the American polity nor (at least at this early stage), the leadership of the Church in the United States as well. How had this unhappy situation come about? It was the fault of “dissident” forces within the Church: liberals and radicals who had rejected that Papal authority which still provided a sure guiding light and to which conservatives always appealed – both in theory and often in actual practice. The crisis of the Church was in essence a crisis of obedience. (Mgr. George Kelly) Regardless of whatever else was being done or said, following blindly the Pope and the Vatican was the only course to take in a time of confusion.
Now in fact the positions of conservative Catholics were very diverse, reflecting the absence of any central doctrine or authority. While some restricted their loyalty to the Papacy and critiqued and even confronted “dissenting” prelates, others (like Catholics United for the Faith) proclaimed a duty of blind obedience to all bishops or even to all priests. Some celebrated what they considered the continuing successes of the Establishment, while others, like The Wanderer, were so severe in their criticism of the “American Catholic Church” to be at times barely distinguishable from the Traditionalist untouchables. Figures like Fr. Bruce Ritter were proclaimed “conservatives” simply for opposing abortion or pornography (a view shared by the secular news media).
The political and economic views of the conservatives were also not at all monolithic. Most, however, forcefully defended American capitalism against “liberal” and socialist critics. Most took a firm anti-communist stance, whether confronting the continuing threat of the Soviet Union (and opposing, for example, the American Church’s flirtation with disarmament) or pro-socialist tendencies in the Catholic Church itself (like liberation theology). Above all, they concentrated on “life issues”: preeminently, opposition to abortion.
As the 70’s and 80’s progressed the religious conservatives started to acquire their own literature (e.g., Mgr. George A. Kelly’s Battle for the American Church) and leaders (George Weigel, Richard Neuhaus among many others). They erected new colleges like Thomas Aquinas or Christendom. New magazines came into being: Human Life Review (1975), Crisis in Catholicism (1982), First Things (1990) – in addition to already existing conservative-friendly publications like National Review, Homiletic and Pastoral Review or The Wanderer. And there was of course a plethora of new organizations, including the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, Catholics United for the Faith, Human Life International and many more – often with Latin names (Regnum Christi). Some of the creations of this era, like Ignatius Press or EWTN, were truly amazing accomplishments – especially when one considers their founders faced the Hierarchy’s indifference and often active opposition.
On the liturgical front, the conservatives accepted the Novus Ordo as an article of faith. They could not, however, ignore the massive liturgical abuses – which showed no sign of abating. In this early period the conservatives’ response was strict construction of the liturgical texts. Careful examination of the liturgical legislation would reveal that many abuses had no foundation, while other practices that had been proscribed (like use of the Latin language, chant or celebration ad orientem) were specifically allowed. It was on this basis that organizations like the Latin Mass Society (in the United States, dedicated to the use of Latin in the Novus Ordo) started promoting the return of Latin to the liturgy.
So at least the Latin language had returned – even if generally in out-of-the-way locations (like the former parish of Our Lady of Vilna in New York City) or only at irregular intervals. In these services Catholics struggled to restore the church’s liturgical and artistic heritage to the Novus Ordo and to purge it of abuses. In at least one or two locations even regular parishes were established. But experience soon showed the difficulty of the endeavor. The Establishment was indifferent to the would-be restorers of the liturgy. The inherent flexibility of the Novus Ordo meant that a significant degree of unpredictability remained an ineradicable feature of all these celebrations. Eccentricity prevailed among the celebrants, congregations and sponsoring organizations. There was no universally accepted point of reference – like the Oratory in the UK.
What was the result of these conservative efforts? Many important social and ecclesiastical initiatives were supported and many moral causes promoted. For example, it was increasingly to the credit of the conservatives that the Catholic Church remained a critical player in the prolife cause – after the Hierarchy had gotten cold feet, having realized that this issue was driving a wedge between them and American civil society. The conservatives had put the spotlight on certain issues – like child abuse and the “lavender mafia” – decades before the secular press – let alone progressive Catholic publications – had perceived anything was amiss. The conservatives and their new institutions preserved for a whole new generation of Catholics something of the theological, liturgical and moral teachings of the Church.
Yet the failings and missed opportunities were at least as great. First, the leadership of conservative organizations and associations showed from the beginning an alarming tendency to self-destruct either morally, theologically or both. This became an increasingly serious liability, given that the usual organizational form of these groups was absolute rule of a charismatic authoritarian individual. Second, except for a minority of individual priests, bishops and small orders, conservatives acquired no following in the institutional Church. Indeed, they aroused berserk rage to the extent they publicly criticized prelates, attempted to go over the heads of certain bishops to nuncios or the Vatican, or just declined to join in the official Catholic press’s hosannas to the Establishment. Archbishop Weakland’s memoirs offer eloquent testimony of this. The only commentary acceptable to the Hierarchy was from a Catholic left having political and social connections the bishops both feared and secretly envied.
Third, the conservatives’ notion that the Vatican was on their side was delusional. Would the Vatican discipline the very prelates it had appointed – usually with the advice or at the instigation of the existing team? At most a limited outward conformity was imposed. While isolated elements of the conservatives’ rhetoric might be welcome now and then in Rome, in no way did the Vatican support any kind of systematic renewal or restoration in the conservative sense. Usually for the gentlemen in the Vatican it was more matter of navigating between various individuals, forces and trends without any attempt (or ability?) to impose reform. At all times the Vatican set greater store on Notre Dame University than Thomas Aquinas – and Harvard was more important to them than either! And the conservatives‘ economic and political program had even less resonance in Rome. It was tragic then, that the Catholic conservatives, the would-be “party of the establishment” were in fact themselves the “dissenters!”
Finally, an even more significant, if more subtle, problem was inherent in Catholic conservatism. Compared to the isolated fantasy world that prevailed in the Church Establishment, it might seem the conservatives were hardheaded realists. Yet despite all the criticism of the state of the Church and the relentless activity in so many apostolates, at the end of the day conservatism fostered the conviction that, at least at the very top level, all was well with the Church. At least the Pope has a plan and we can wait for him and his bishops to implement it – so they assumed – assisting when needed. A pervasive sense of complacency was the inevitable result. Problems continued to be ignored and arbitrary assumptions and wishful thinking substituted for facts. Meanwhile the destruction of the Church at every level proceeded – we have seen the fruits in the last 25 years.
We may ask ourselves how the conservatives differed from the phenomenon of what were later called the “movements:” organizations, often led by the laity, which departed from the traditional Catholic paradigm of the religious order. Indeed there arose at this time in the US at least one home-grown “movement” – Miles Jesu – that might be assigned to the conservative camp. Yet the differences remained great. First, while the conservatives were, on the whole, economic and social conservatives as well, that could only be said of a minority of the movements. Second, while the conservatives, certainly in this period, pursued a policy of open criticism of the American church, the movements had from the beginning made cultivating the favor of the Hierarchy a key element of their plans. Third, there seems to be some instinctive lack of resonance of the movement concept in American conservatism. In the early 80’s Opus Dei organized at least one conference featuring conservative greats but as far as I am aware never repeated this initiative. The Legion stood aloof – it was only much later that it tried through Regnum Christi to organize some of the conservative forces for its own benefit. The other movements didn’t have a meaningful presence In the US. The result was that no one organization was able to give overall direction and focus to the conservative efforts.
Now what of the “Traditionalists?”
It was at this time that a branch of the FSSPSX was set up in the United States just a few years after the start of Archbishop Lefebvre’s seminary in Switzerland. It was a revolutionary step – a group of Traditional Catholics acknowledged that the crisis of the church has assumed such a magnitude that action even independent of the Hierarchy was justified. This meant seminaries, schools, chapels, and monasteries both purely Traditional and independent of the Institutional Church. It was, in retrospect, an amazing step. Perhaps, in the American context, its greatest significance lies in the concept of a state of emergency: it seemed that among all the Catholic factions – liberal, conservative or progressive – only the FSSPX had a sense of urgency, the instinct that catastrophe loomed unless action were taken.
This was perhaps the right course – yet in practical terms the impact of the FSSPX in the United States was limited. In a way it was absurd to expect such an ecclesiastical “civil disobedience” movement to flourish in a country that was the very homeland of blind obedience to the clergy. But there were also early crises of the Society that couldn’t just be ascribed to the uniquely inhospitable environment of the United States. For example, the departure of 9 priests in 1983 to form the sedevacantist Society of Pius V – and later other sedevacantist groups- revealed significant internal policy tensions within the FSSPX. So the FSSPX – after these early struggles – continued to steadily grow, adding new chapels and schools over the years. What it could not do, however, was act as any kind of general rallying point for Traditionalists in the United States – just as the none of the “movements” could do the same for the conservatives. While the European parent almost immediately created a critical challenge for both the French church and the Vatican, the American branch of the FSSPX could be safely ignored.
And the other Traditionalists – the “Uniate” ones?
These years were indeed the “winter of (their) discontent.” Aside from a few individual priests, no other Traditional masses were being celebrated. Publications like The Remnant helped publicize contributions mainly from Europe (Michael Davies). A variety of groups like the “Roman Forum” in the New York helped keep the cause alive. In addition to European visitors, contributors included Triumph veterans and a few new faces (John Rao). It was at this time that Una Voce organized on these shores – its initial contribution was more talk and little else. Yet all these activities helped maintain awareness of what was happening elsewhere in the world and kept the seemingly absurd hope alive that the Traditional cause one day would be restored. It was a struggle for survival.
It was in this closed, asphyxiating environment that the letter Quattor Abhinc Annos (3 October 1984) and even more so the motu proprio Ecclesia Dei (2 July 1988) hit like bombshells. The “indult” regime, authorizing the celebration of the Traditional mass, was born. It was an extraordinary change – something both Catholic progressives and the conservative Catholics had said was impossible. Yet American traditionalists had had precious little to do in bringing it about. It was a victory attributable to the efforts of other men in other countries.