Has Traditionalism Really Been Transformed?

A few days ago I posted an
article on Chant Café entitled Sacra
Liturgia 2013 and the Transformation of Traditionalism
.  It was meant to be more a report on the
conference itself and how what was seen of “traditionalism” there was a very
different variety than that caricatured by detractors from various vantage
points.  I was surprised,
therefore, at how the article has been engaged by authors and Commentariats of
blogs representing a plethora of viewpoints across the Catholic spectrum.  Raising the question of whether the
traditionalist phenomenon is undergoing its own transformation has obviously
touched a nerve.  So perhaps it
might be the time for me to elaborate a little.
We have to remember that the word
“traditionalism” first gets on the radar screen of the Magisterium with the
thought of Bonald and Lammenais. 
It proposed that human reason in and of itself is radically unable to
apprehend truth, and thus it is faith alone which provides the certainty of truth.  It was a reaction against Rationalism,
and Vatican I responded with its thundering declaration in Dei filius preserving the legitmate sphere of reason in
ascertaining knowledge. 
Traditionalism was a kind of fideism, and as such, was condemned.
The word “traditionalism” does
not have the same sense in Catholic discussions today.  In fact, like the word “pastoral”, it
has been used to mean just about anything under the sun.  But most often it is attached to a
certain type of thought that harbors criticism of Vatican II and its
aftermath.  It is by no means a
homogeneous phenomenon, and unfortunate attempts to paint it with the same
dark, ugly brush stroke have served only to obfuscate and anger
critics and criticized.
I would like to contend, though,
that, the second half of the twentieth century has been marked by two main
strands of traditionalist thought: (By the way, this is built upon the analysis of Nicla Buonasorte in the book Tra Roma e Lefebvre, and I do not count it is particularly original)
1. École française.  The Ultramontane
spirit in its Gallican form, affected sometimes with a sympathy for
counterrevolutionary political thought, could perhaps be incarnated in someone
like Mgr Louis Pié, Archbishop of Poitiers (1815-80).  Its attachment to, and its own declension of, the scuola Romana of neo-Scholastic Thomism
in the wake of Leo XIII’s Aeterni Patris,
after the Modernist Controversies during the pontificates of Blessed Pius IX
and St Pius X, developed a remarkable homogeneity of thought as a system by the eve of the
Council.  This theological position
can best be seen in the works of Fr Réginald Garrigou-Lagrange
(1877-1964).  The position was
deeply suspicious of anything outside of the system, as it were, and the advent
of the nouvelle théologie, and
especially its apparent triumph around Vatican II, was deeply worrisome to
those who took this position.  As
French seminarians in Rome around Vatican II saw that theology, and its
practical consequences, in the ascendant, they rallied around Archbishop Marcel
Lefebvre (1905-91) as someone who in his person was emblematic of the best of the
école française.  The Society of St Pius X, and, to a
lesser extent, some quarters of the communities founded from them and returned
into communion with the Apostolic See, to a greater or lesser degree reflect
this position even today.  Wherever
positions are at variance with the thrust of their own neo-Scholastic Thomism,
they tend to be rejected.
2. Scuola Romana.  The
prevailing neo-Scholastic Thomism of the world of the pontifical university
system, at least intellectually, shares much of the same humus as its French counterpart.  Where it differs is in its ecclesiological roots.  Whereas French Ultramontanism was in a
sense a reaction to, and in some sense conditioned by, Gallicanism, the Roman
school was more properly papal. 
For it, the geographical closeness of the Pope was more consistently
formative, and, uncomplicated as it was by parries with Gallicanism, it was
(ironically) much more firmly attached to the Roman See than the French.  Garrigou-Lagrange can be seen as the
type of theologian who bridged both schools.  Where the two schools depart is less a matter of substance
as regards their crititque of theological and pastoral trends outside the
system, but in terms of their deference to Rome. 
The iconic hierarch of the Roman school, and counterpart to Lefebvre,
was Giuseppe Cardinal Siri, the Archbishop of Genoa (1906-89).  His sense of Romanità figured more prominently in his thought than a Gallic version of Ultramontanism.  His book Gethsemane (1980) substantially reflects the criticism of both
schools of the theological and pastoral trends in the Church.  What separates Siri from Lefebvre, is
that Siri was able to continue in visible communion with the Church by
accepting Vatican II in a nuanced fashion that might today be called closer to
a hermeneutic of continuity, and all without breaking visible bonds of communion as a result of his critique. 
While it is perhaps simplistic to
say that contemporary traditionalism tends along this binary path of école française and scuola romana, it does explain some of the differences among
traditionalists, differences which must be grasped if an accurate portrayal of
the movement is to be had.  While
both remain skeptical of much of the theological and pastoral climate of the
post-Vatican II Church, the latter reflects a hermeneutic of continuity much
more than the former, which stressed, sometimes almost exclusively,
It is perhaps also simplistic to
say that both strands could continue on as they were throughout the pontificate
of Blessed John Paul II.  Both were
synonymous for those who accused them all equally of being traitors to the
Council, and both also substantially continued in the same vein of
critique.  Ecclesia Dei of 1988 may have granted more access to people to the
classical Roman liturgy, which became the most potent symbol of traditionalist
resistance.  But it did little to
change the perspectives of either school of traditionalists or their
Pope Benedict XVI changed all
that.  On the surface, the Bavarian
theologian belonged to the same nouvelle
that both schools found suspect.  His dealings with the affaire
had gained him some modicum of respect, albeit it at a distance,
with the école française, which grew
in numbers as the scuola romana became
the preserve of some very few circles in Italy.  French traditionalism was imported as a missionary endeavor
along with the Mass of the Ages all over the world. 
But Benedict was also to challenge that école française as well.  His overtures to the Society of St Pius X and his increasing
questioning of the implementation of Vatican II became a pietra d’inciampo for the traditionalist world (and a scandal for those who hated it).  Were they a ruse to lure the faithful
into Modernism, or were they a sincere gesture of a loving pastor concerned for
unity in the Church?  In all of
this, Benedict XVI emerged, not as a liturgical traditionalist, but as a
liturgical pluralist.  While he
remained committed to the Council and to the initial motives for the nouvelle théologie’s departure from
Scholasticism, he also gained the confidence of many traditionalists, who
migrated from a more polemical anti-Roman attitude of the postconciliar école française to a nuanced hermeneutic
of continuity which was a kind of rebirth of the scuola romana. 
After Summorum pontificum of 2007 effectively ended the exile of
traditionalists within the Church, as the Extraordinary Form of the Mass was
introduced to more people, especially the younger with no historical memory of
the affaire Lefebvre, a new
Ratzingerian strand of traditionalism seems to be emerging.
It is it possible that there is
now a new Ratzingerkreis emerging in
the traditionalist world?  The école française in many ways risks
disintegration as the Society of St Pius X experiences its own internal
divisions and spinoffs, such as sedevacantism and strict observances.  The classical scuola romana approximates many of the traditionalist communities
who have followed the path from Ecône back to Rome.  But now there are many people, who are perhaps a bit more
open to certain insights outside of the pre-conciliar manualist theological
tradition, such as those of Ratzinger, who now find themselves engaging the
same critiques of the traditionalists, but from within the desire of a
hermeneutic of continuity.  Such a
school of tradition is no mere reincarnation of Ultramontanism in its
neoconservative Amerophilic form. 
It is embued with the classical liturgical movement, with an eye to the
Patristic age, the East, as well as certain insights of the nouvelle théologie.  One thinks of a Ratzinger scholar
like Tracey Rowland as perhaps more of an example of this type of thought. 
In its own way, contemporary
traditionalism, like Catholic liberalisms of the 19th century and
the post-Vatican II era, is a critical resistance movement.  Both shy away from a facile “everything
is alright in the state of Denmark” false piety that is lamentably very much
alive in self- identifying “conservative” Catholic circles, which carry forward Ultramontanism
after a series of popes and a council have disavowed the possibility of any
such attitude being authentically Catholic.  Both also caution against a one-sided fundamentalist reading
of Vatican II, a reading which arguably is hardly tenable given Blessed John
XXIII’s inspiration for the Council to break with anathematizing people and invite them to dialogue in charity.
Yet it is hard to maintain an
essentially critical spirit for long without descending into bitterness, a lack
of communion, decreasing charity, and the rise of ideologism.  If traditionalism (or for that matter,
antiquarian strands of liberalism) remains fixed in a position according to
which the true nature of the Church is such that, to be who she really is, the
Church must return to a status quo ante,
regardless of whether that ante is 313, 1054, 1570, 1962 or 1968, it cuts
itself off from a dynamism which makes the Tradition living and present to every
It is clear to me that, many of
the participants in Sacra Liturgia 2013 have moved beyond traditionalism as a
particular school of thought tied into a certain time period and critique,
towards a desire for profound immersion into the Traditio which is the glory of the Catholic religion.  And that transformation, whether it be
caused by or only chronologically successive to the Benedictine papacy, is, for
me at least, a sign of hope for the Church, the real Gaudium et spes of the 21st century.      


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Revd Fr Christopher Smith (26 Posts)

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