Catholic Vitalism


This article was written on 02 Apr 2016, and is filled under Uncategorized.

The Future of Catholicism Part 6: Radical Traditional Catholicism

As we have seen, my own experiences have dovetailed rather neatly with each of the major Catholic responses to Modernity in the four previous posts. With Radical Traditional Catholicism, I have only had fleeting experiences. But despite my lack of personal experience with this group, and in spite of the fact that they are a quirky and tiny (and occasionally scary), they are important because they inhabit the extreme Catholic position vis-a-vis Modernity, and that gives them a certain strange appeal.

Before getting into an analysis of this movement, I think it’s important to make a key distinction between two groups which are often unfairly lumped together in this category. Both of these groups share an attachment to the Latin Mass (usually celebrated according to the Missal of 1962, which is the only form authorized for use by Roman Catholic priests). When a typical Catholic first encounters this ‘Extraordinary Form’, the first thing they notice is that it’s like stepping back in time: this is the Mass celebrated, in various forms, since the 1570 liturgical reform which followed followed the Council of Trent until it was replaced by the ‘Novus Ordo’ Mass which followed the Second Vatican Council in 1970: hence the term ‘Traditional’. For many Catholics, their attachment to the Latin Mass is primarily aesthetic or prudential: they prefer the Extraordinary Form because of the reverence with which it is usually celebrated, and the absence of all the ‘junk’ (lousy music, lousy architecture, banners) which are often an (accidental) part of Novus Ordo masses. Though for obvious reasons they tend ‘right’, this group does not comprise a distinct position vis-a-vis Modernity: there are neo-Amish, neo-Con, and even a few Zombie and Liberal Catholics who attend Latin Masses.

I think the term Radical Traditionalist should be reserved for the various groups for whom the Latin Mass is more than an aesthetic preference: Radical Traditionalists take issue with many (or all) of the core teachings of the Second Vatican Council, beginning with its liturgical theology, but often extending to its teachings on ecclesiology, religious liberty and ecumenism, which they interpret as radical departures from orthodoxy. These are the folks who embody the strange position of claiming to be ‘more Catholic than the Pope’.

Antiquarianism as a Response 

At first glance, the antiquarianism of Radical Traditional Catholicism can seem like a strange response to Modernity. But all Western religious traditions contain within themselves this extreme response. Islam has been largely ‘frozen’ intellectually and philosophically since the 13th century: the only major innovation has been the recent explosion of the even more stridently backward-looking movement of Salafic Jihadism, which seeks to restore the glories of the medieval Caliphate through terrorism. Within Judaism, the Orthodox and Ultra-Orthodox have attempted to create pre-modern Jewish cultures in the West, while in Israel some have been trying to restore the Davidic Empire to its former glories. And this response isn’t new in Christianity either: the history of the Church is replete with dissenting countermovements which refused to recognize its ‘innovative’ teachings in favor of the older ways. The most significant of these is the Orthodox Church, after breaking with Rome in 1054, has maintained a strongly conservative bent, often mocking the Roman Church’s ‘innovative’ tendencies. Protestantism, which was an extreme ‘back to the Golden Age’ movement from its inception, further renewed its backward-looking tendencies in the twentieth century with the ascendancy of Fundamentalism, which responded to the challenges of modernity with an impassioned defense of pre-modern Biblical inerrancy.

Traditionalism as a Response to Modernity

While all these movements are psychologically understandable responses to the relentless onslaught of an aggressively secular Liberal culture, they share in the same fundamental error: by refusing to engage in the tortuous challenge of formulating an intellectually coherent and vitalistic response to Modernity, and instead seeking cover in a closed-minded, rigid adherence to pre-modern understandings, they have effectively handed the Enlightenment its greatest gift. What better argument is there for secularism than the harrowing reports of life in the Islamic State, where horrific tales of barbarism seem to embody the very worst exaggerations of the Enlightenment?


Continuing our analogy from previous posts, Radical Traditionalists are the children who fully recognize (and even exaggerate) the viciousness of the attack, but who in some way blame their mother for allowing this invader to enter and have his way with her. They stamp their feet and demand that things go back to the way they were before the attack. They fail to realize that there is a Father in the house as well, who will keep things from getting too crazy and eventually restore things when he sees fit.

The Folly of Traditional Catholicism

For good reason, the spirit of Radical Traditionalism has yet to make significant inroads into Roman Catholicism. The Catholic tradition, from its conception, has engaged, often at great cost, with understanding the Faith in terms which could be understood by the dominant intellectual cultures with which it came into contact. As expressed in the words of the great English Catholic intellectual John Henry Newman wrote: “Growth is the only evidence of life”.

Unlike Judaism, Islam, or Protestantism, the Catholic Church has a living Magisterium with the authority to guide the Church through dark times without giving in to the temptation to rigidify itself. While it is true that some Popes have felt the need to slow the process down (e.g. Pius IX’s ‘Syllabus of Errors’), the history of the Church shows a unique confidence that the challenges posed by foreign cultures and intellectual movements can be overcome through renewed self-understanding and openness, rather than giving in to the temptation to a withdrawal born of frustration. And despite its challenges, the challenge of Modernity is no different.

Radical Traditionalism and Thomas Aquinas

Thomism: when I was doing my Master’s degree at Weston, I concentrated in Church History. To me, Catholicism is a ‘story’, a narrative, more than a ‘system’. I understand the need for Systematic Theology, but I think there can be a tendency to ‘de-historicize’ the Faith and try to create some kind of an ahistorical ‘system’, some kind of a beautiful chandelier, with all the crystals neatly hanging from each other, and balancing each other out perfectly. It seems to me that the Scholastic ‘project’ was a beautiful attempt to synthesize the Faith with Reason and see how far it could go. The danger in this project is that it can lose touch with the ‘aliveness’ of the the historical relationship of the Church with God, and seek instead to create a closed system that can weather historical changes and threats, but in doing so maybe loses touch with our contingency, our deep and profound reliance on the Holy Spirit’s movements in history. I don’t know if you got a chance to look at some of my posts (, but in my post about Radical Traditionalism I tried to get into the mindset of that group, and I compared them to a tendency that I see in alot of conservative religious movement to react to the immense threats of Modernity by trying to ‘stop the clock’, to shut down openness to change, to new questions, and retreat to a ‘safer’ place somewhere in the past. To me, this tendency, though entirely understandable, is exactly the OPPOSITE of the genuine religious spirit, which should always be one of openness, of confidence. I think Aquinas had that spirit when he encountered Aristotelianism- and I think it’s one of the great ironies of history that his project has been taken as an attempt to do the very opposite. i think the ‘Ressourcemente’ theologians like deLubac, von Balthasar, JPII, and B16 were trying to re-open the intellectual and theological conversation in the same spirit that Aquinas engaged in his project, but from a different, more historical perspective. And I think Francis is taking an even more radical approach along the same lines, which is making everybody very nervous, but I think is absolutely the right spirit for where we’re at.
When we were revising the curriculum at the Zombie Catholic school where I was teaching, I was sad to see that the USCCB’s ‘Framework’ seemed to be rejecting the historical approach in favor of a sort of modified Scholasticism- to me, the story of God’s relationship with his people is best presented as a narrative, starting with the Israelites and continuing forward to our own day.

Radical Traditionalism and Ugliness

Anti-Semitism. Fascism. National Front. ethnic cleansing.

Despite its fringe status in American society, Radical Traditionalism did have a go of things with the disastrous experiment of Francoist Spain.

Radical Traditionalism as Intellectual Suicide

For the ‘rad-trads’, there are two huge problems:

  • once you make the leap of saying ‘something went definitively wrong here’, you are forced to define exactly where it went wrong if you want to restore things to the ‘Golden Age’. For most rad-trads who retain (if often tenuously) allegiance to the current Roman Pontiff, they would point to the Second Vatican Council, which in 1969 introduced the Satanic Novus Ordo Mass and simultaneously suppressed the ‘Latin Mass’ which preceded it. The problem is, the Second Vatican Council was called by Pope John XXIII, so couldn’t it be the election of that Pontiff that marked the point of rupture? Further complicating things, the bishops at Vatican II were largely appointed by the preceding Popes, and they intellectually prepared the way for Vatican II. For example, the 1891 encyclical ‘Rerum Novarum’ of Pope Leo XIII marked a shift away from the ‘siege mentality’ which had characterized Catholic teaching since the French Revolution and proposed instead a new stance of engagement with the modern world, which could be seen as a direct precedent for many of the documents of Vatican II.

And, of course, once you start down this road, it’s hard to stop, all the way down to the Great Schism of 1054, which is where the huge Orthodox church sees the breakdown occurring.

  • On a more fundamental theological level, all of the rad-trads (as well as all schismatics throughout time) have the problem of dealing with the historical reality of the Catholic Church: if the Church failed (at whatever date), doesn’t this imply that Christ failed also in his promise that ‘the gates of Hell shall not prevail against’ His Church? To put it another way, what kind of savior would make it so incredibly difficult to find the ‘true Church’ that only a select group of paranoid conspiracy-nuts were finally given access to the fullness of truth?

Sociological Analysis:

Less than 1%

They look different, they even tend to live in enclaves, such as the community which has sprung up around Clear Creek Abbey in Kansas.

An admission: they seem to have a strong track record (Feenyism, etc.)


Surprisingly successful (esp. w young people)


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